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It's falsehood's flame, it's a crying shame

Chapter Text

The party is in the full swing, the mansion filled with laughter and not-so-secret business deals conducted on the expensive sofas and in the darkened hallways. The quartet plays some melody no one truly pays any attention to, the waiters buzzle around taking empty glasses of champagne and replacing them with new ones.

It’s just another party at Chen Moqun’s mansion and Lin Nansheng is as usual, already tired by the noise.

There is too many people, too many conversations going around him, and it takes all of his willpower not to slink away towards the balcony to get some air. But he can’t. He’s been given a task and even though he is feeling more uncomfortable with every passing minute, he is determined to fulfil it.

Observe and keep an eye for the police, Chen Moqun had ordered, and Lin Nansheng has been dutifully searching for anyone behaving suspiciously for the past few hours. At this point it would be easier to enumerate people who are not suspicious, after all the drinking and smoking.

Just because Chen Moqun deals with opium, doesn’t mean Lin Nansheng has to like it – he definitely hates seeing what it does to a person. This late into the party almost everyone is under the influence of one thing or the other – alcohol or drugs – some even indulging both vices simultaneously, and instead of a crowd of sophisticated elites, the mansion is filled with loud, writhing mass that no longer resembles people. If there are any policemen here, they wouldn’t be able to arrest anyone. Not after partaking in the illegal pleasures Chen Moqun’s mansion offered.

Lin Nansheng wonders detachedly if he is the only sober person in the ballroom.

Even Chen Moqun looks more relaxed than usual. He never uses his own merchandise, but he does enjoy indulging in alcohol from time to time. The time is now it seems, because he is laughing openly with the chosen few that were allowed to join him at his table.

Lin Nansheng starts entertaining the idea of asking his boss to be excused from the party now, when a new arrival catches his eye.

There is a man at the door, dressed in a rather expensive-looking suit, looking around with a faint air of distaste. He has a cane in his hand and a certain confidence around him – Lin Nansheng notices all of that, but it is dulled by the realization that the man is really handsome.

It takes him a bit off guard because it shouldn’t be his priority; physical appeal of a person he is observing is usually very low on the list of things he takes a note of, and yet.

He quickly gathers his wits about him and tries to look at the man with objective eyes. Neat hair, elegantly trimmed-beard, well-fitted suit. Shoes of good quality. A cane, but no visible limp. Observant – his eyes take in the crowd around him, his gaze calculating. He might be a policeman, Lin Nansheng realizes belatedly, and moves, unsure whether he should head towards the stranger or to Chen Moqun, to warn him.

The choice is taken away from him when he feels the man’s eyes on himself.

When he dares to look at the supposed cop, he gets a small, secretive smile in return, and then the man puts his finger to his lips, silently asking for discretion.

Lin Nansheng should alert Chen Moqun.

But the handsome man looks unthreatening, has no weapon on him, and hasn’t started shouting at people that they were arrested just yet.

So Lin Nansheng just nods.

The man’s smile gets wider and his eyes glint with mischief.

Lin Nansheng watches as the stranger makes his way through the crowd and towards Chen Moqun, who notices him finally and grimaces at whatever the mysterious man says to him. The boss is not angry though, and that is a good sign, at least for Lin Nansheng. It seems that at least the man is not from the police – Chen Moqun reacts to cops quite decisively.

The man has to be someone important though, because after a small chat, Chen Moqun gets up and gestures for him to follow.

A business partner, then? But his obvious distaste towards the party suggested otherwise.

Lin Nansheng allows his mind to ponder the mystery of the stranger for the rest of the party – he doesn’t see him leave, but Chen Moqun comes back from their private meeting in better spirits. The man has probably used the back exit.

Or was still in the mansion.

In the private rooms. 

For some reason, this thought dampens Lin Nansheng’s already gloomy mood.

*

He gets the name a few weeks later, when Chen Moqun summons him to the office and orders Lin Nansheng to pick up a file from Sullivan’s Apartments in the French Concession.

“If he is not there, just wait for him. Or ask the landlady about Luo Fei. We agreed on the pick up today but he is rather unreliable when it comes to time,” Chen Moqun says and at first, Lin Nansheng does not connect the new name to the figure of the handsome man from the party.

Only after he knocks at the door and is faced with familiar intelligent brown eyes and a mischievous smile, does he realize.

He remembers basic politeness and introduces himself, extending his hand in greeting.

Luo Fei accepts it absent-mindedly, his gaze fixed on Lin Nansheng as if his arrival was a puzzle he couldn’t quite figure out just yet.

“Come in. I didn’t think Lao Chen would send you, I presumed he might want to come himself,” the man, Luo Fei, says and gestures Lin Nansheng to come inside.  

He obeys and makes note of the familiar way in which Luo Fei addresses his boss. The room he is let into is rather cluttered, though not outright messy. It seems like a study mixed with a laboratory and living quarters, and Luo Fei seems to fit the décor perfectly. Lin Nansheng’s curiosity regarding this man’s job intensifies.

“Sit down, I will get the file in the moment,” his host says, pointing to one of leather brown armchairs in the middle of the room, and making an attempt to collect a small mountain of papers from the small round coffee table pushed between the two armchairs. He manages to grab some of them, but a few sheets fall down to the floor.  

Lin Nansheng tries to subtly look at the documents, but the only thing he sees are some pictures of young men, and a few hand-written notes.

“Apologies, I wasn’t expecting you so early,” Luo Fei says with a smile, but he doesn’t seem apologetic in the slightest. In fact, though his manners leave nothing to be desired, Lin Nansheng has a feeling that Luo Fei doesn’t like him.

Or maybe doesn’t like the man who’s sent him to retrieve something from Luo Fei. 

“You weren’t expecting me at all, you thought Chen Moqun will be the one to visit you. Does he normally come during evening hours?” He replies, with an equally polite smile on his face and it earns him a surprised raise of Luo Fei’s eyebrows.

Not saying anything, Luo Fei takes the papers away and puts them on the closest pile of books on the floor, the one next to a perfectly functioning bookcase, which is admittedly, filled with books and statues already, but could definitely house more. Luo Fei’s organization of space is… odd.

Finally, Luo Fei sits down on the other armchair, or rather leans back against the armrest like an overgrown cat.

“Now, that’s interesting. Were you aiming for rude, or are you simply curious?” Luo Fei asks and Lin Nansheng is hit with a sudden realization how his question might have been interpreted.

“I apologize it was… curiosity. I’ve never heard of you before, and I know most of Chen Moqun’s friends,” he admits, and automatically lowers his eyes to hide his embarrassment. He forces himself to look up, because Chen Moqun has told him repeatedly to observe, and he isn’t here to observe his own knees after all.

When he gazes up on Luo Fei’s face, he sees a hint of annoyance on the man’s face.

“That’s because we are not friends. He’s a client,” Luo Fei says, not bothering to hide his personal feelings on the matter.

“And before we continue this lovely misunderstanding, no, not that kind of a client. I am a detective,” Luo Fei says and Lin Nansheng feels the blush heating up his ears. Was he that obvious in his suspicions?

“Your boss and I have a certain understanding and I agreed to do him a favour, nothing more,” Luo Fei continues.

“The matter is quite delicate so I assumed that he would come personally, to make sure no one else learns of what I’ve found out, and yet he sent me you,” Luo Fei says and his words are a bit too fast to follow for a moment,” you must be someone he trusts to be given such an errand, and yet this is the first time I heard of you, and you came here not knowing what to expect.”  The detective is not even looking at Lin Nansheng, seemingly lost in his own head, possibly coming up with different explanations for Lin Nansheng’s presence in his home.

“You were on a look out the last time I saw you, but you didn’t report my presence to your boss until it was too late and I approached him on my own… Lin Nansheng, are you being tested? Is your loyalty uncertain?” Luo Fei ponders out loud and his words cause Lin Nansheng to startle. Could Chen Moqun lose his trust in him only because of this one, small mistake? Luo Fei isn’t even from the police, but maybe…

“Or maybe it’s not about you, maybe it’s about me? But what could he possibly learn… Ah, of course. You might be here to observe my other cases. You are much smarter than his usual goons and you haven’t stopped looking around my apartment the whole time you’ve been here,” Luo Fei continues, and Lin Nansheng is pleasantly surprised by the praise. Then, he reminds himself that this man thinks Lin Nansheng was sent here to spy on him and happiness gives way to irritation.

“He simply told me to come here and retrieve documents from you,” he says, hoping that will stop Luo Fei from accusing him further.

Luo Fei simply nods, as if he expected this answer.

“Of course he did.”

Then the detective gets up from his sprawl and moves toward the desk next to the window. After a moment of rummaging through the drawers, he comes back with a sealed envelope.

“Here is the thing Chen Moqun asked for,” Luo Fei says, and hands it to Lin Nansheng impatiently. Then he reclaims his seat, this time sitting down properly, with his legs crossed.

“What is it?”

Luo Fei just smiles.

“Good question. I promised I won’t tell anyone and I do try to keep my word. But I cannot stop you from looking inside, can I?” The detective replies, his tone challenging. So it is a test. Chen Moqun’s? Or Luo Fei’s?

“I won’t look,” Lin Nansheng proclaims, and Luo Fei’s eyebrows go up in obvious surprise.

“That was fast.”

“It is not my place.”

Luo Fei leans back on the armchair and just stares at him in silence for a moment.

“I’m not sure what to make of you,” he finally announces,” I think we will see each other soon, maybe then I will have you figured out,” with that, Luo Fei gets up and moves toward his desk, a clear dismissal, even if not verbal.

Lin Nansheng leaves the Sullivan’s Apartment unsure if he wants to see Luo Fei again. There is something unsettling in being the one observed and analysed.

He doesn’t look inside the envelope and delivers it safely to Chen Moqun, who just nods at him, not lifting his head from the newspaper.

Lin Nansheng wrestles with himself for a moment, wondering if he should ask him about Luo Fei, but finally decides against it. If they were truly to meet again, he would figure the man out on his own.

*

One of his men knocks on the door but there is no reply.

Lin Nansheng sighs.

Every now and then there is a small gang trying to make it big in Shanghai and they all think they have what it takes to make names for themselves here. They think that Chen Moqun is just an old-date businessman who won’t notice their presence.

He always does. Chen Moqun may be dealing in opium but he does not allow for anyone else to do it. Not the British, not the French, and definitely not the Japanese. ’If people want opium, the best way we can protect them is to make sure they are not being controlled by anyone by doing so,’ he had explained to Lin Nansheng once, and the first time he did so, Lin Nansheng hadn’t understood fully. But seeing the inside of illegal opium dens, where the shady owners extracted promises and secrets, where the extorted people returned because they had no other way of getting their fix, it certainly opened his eyes. The enemy, the Japanese, may not be physically attacking Shanghai just yet, but they had certainly a lot of openings to take advantage of.

It is humiliating to think that their invader is funded by Chinese people, so if the citizens of Shanghai want to lose their money and senses that badly, the best one can do is to make sure that the money and secrets stay in Chinese hands. That is Chen Moqun’s motivation and the reason why Lin Nansheng follows him.

The reason why he is able to do what he does.

His man, Xiao Qin, knocks again, this time adding an order to open up. He’s still young, freshly recruited and full of enthusiasm which makes him prone to recklessness. Like now.

This time there is a loud noise of feet on the wooden floor as the occupants of the house run away from the windows, trying to hide their merchandise, but they are way too late. The house is surrounded and Lin Nansheng would prefer not to do it really, but they’ve been here long enough and if the young gang inside refused to cooperate, then there is only one way to deal with it quickly before the police comes.

“Set the fire,” Nansheng orders and his men jump to action immediately, some even whooping in delight. Lin Nansheng himself is not exactly fond of extreme solutions, and he would really prefer the people inside to step up and hand their opium bottles but Chen Moqun told them to deal with the start-up Green Dragon Group tonight, before they moved their storage, so Lin Nansheng cannot do anything else.

He moves a few steps back, watching as his men pour oil and gasoline around the house. They are right next to the port and the majority of people know already to look the other way, but Lin Nansheng observes his surroundings just in case. It’s better than looking at the flames rising around the Green Dragon hideout.

He really tries not to listen to the screams of the people still inside, though it’s really hard.

He leaves as soon as he deems wise, and doesn’t buy the newspaper the next day.

Chen Moqun welcomes him in the mansion with a pleased smile on his lips and a rare praise for the job well-done, and so Lin Nansheng allows himself to forget.

He pretends he doesn’t know why he cannot fall asleep the following night.

*

Though he does not meet Luo Fei for a whole month, Lin Nansheng starts to notice things that might be clues to the strange relationship between the detective and Chen Moqun.

Though it didn’t draw his attention before, their group has never made any deals in the French Concession. Lin Nansheng always assumed that that part of Shanghai was either not an attractive market for opium due to the lack of buyers, or maybe thanks to the diligent police force that caught dealers seemingly right after they crossed the border of the Concession.

But now, after a few more meetings he has attended with his mind half-listening and half-focused on figuring Luo Fei out, which came to be a favourite pastime of sorts, Lin Nansheng is sure there is some connection here. When asked, Lao Gu, Chen Moqun’s right hand claims that this is just coincidence and normally, Lin Nansheng trusts his judgment, but this time he is not so sure. 

Luo Fei is a detective, he helps the law, and yet he tolerates Chen Moqun enough to do him favours and call him with familiarity. Chen Moqun himself doesn’t mention Luo Fei directly, but he has made a few off-hand mentions about ‘news from the French Concession’ and how they could not afford going there just yet with their business. The more Lin Nansheng listened, the more certain he grew – it was not the financial cost that stopped them. So his mind made the natural conclusion – it had something to do with Luo Fei.

His suspicions are confirmed at the beginning of May, when Chen Moqun hands him an envelope and orders him to go to Sullivan’s Apartments and deliver it to Luo Fei hands directly.

“Pay attention to what he says, Xiao Lin. I don’t like not hearing about him for too long,” the boss says, his steely gaze unwavering as he stares Lin Nansheng down. No wonder so many of their group’s partners are so terrified of ever angering Chen Moqun – his calm, cold eyes promise no mercy to anyone who dared to go against him.

Lin Nansheng had never had a reason to disobey and he doesn’t plan to now. He voices his assent and leaves the mansion, moving for the car.

He hides the envelope inside his coat, not even tempted to look inside.

The drive takes a bit longer than he anticipated and when Lin Nansheng finally makes it to the Sullivan’s apartments, it’s already dark. The neighbourhood still looks lively though, with lights from the buildings illuminating the streets and with crowds of people still outside, enjoying the warm spring air.

He leaves the car on the curb and walks inside the complex, only to be stopped by a woman in a red cheongsam. She makes a conscious attempt to look intimidating, holding her cigarette like ladies from foreign movies, with her red lips pressed in a thin line and her eyes narrowed. She might be the owner of the place, Lin Nansheng decides.

“Can I help you?” she demands, and though her voice doesn’t waver, her eyes betray her nervousness.

“I am looking for Luo Fei.”

That makes the woman furrow her eyebrows.

“What did that man do again? Are you here to threaten him?” Despite the fear, the woman sounds more aggressive, protective even than afraid.

She must care about Luo Fei, that’s certain, but the concern seems more… urgent?

“No, I’m just delivering a message. Is he home?” This seems to appease the woman a bit. She even introduces herself as Wang Susu, the owner of Sullivan’s apartments, just as Lin Nansheng assumed.

As they make their way upstairs, towards Luo Fei’s room, she regales him with the story of her life. He stops listening a bit when she starts telling him of her husband and her raise to be a property owner, because his mind is busy coming up with different scenarios as to why Mrs Wang thought Lin Nansheng was a threat. Did something happen to Luo Fei recently?  Was he in trouble? Was it why Chen Moqun claimed the detective has been quiet for too long?

They stop in front of the door and Wang Susu knocks.

There is no answer.

“Luo Fei! You better not be destroying the walls again!” The woman shouts and Lin Nanshengs looks at her with surprise. She just sighs in reply.

“His experiments, you have no idea what this lunatic can do to a room,” she complains. She does it fondly however, and Lin Nansheng’s mind classifies her as an important source of information on Luo Fei.

“Well, he certainly hasn’t left yet, so he might be on the roof,” Wang Susu says, and bids Lin Nansheng to follow.  He does so in silence, wondering if his trip is not in vain after all. Then the landlady opens the door and he is let onto a rather intriguing space on the roof, furnished with two chairs, a training dummy, and a few pillows.

“There he is,” Wang Susu points out, and indeed, there is a figure of a man next to the ledge, looking down at the illuminated city landscape.

“Not now, Xiaoman,” Luo Fei says, not turning to face them, annoyance clear in his tone. His coat, though of good quality as seems to be the rule with his clothing, is torn and stained with something Lin Nansheng cannot discern in the dark. Whatever happened to the man clearly shook him, if he decided to go here instead of changing his clothes, Lin Nansheng guesses.

“Xiaoman knows better than to approach you when you are being insufferable,” The woman next to him accuses. Not waiting for a reply, she sends an exasperated look in Lin Nansheng’s direction.” He is like this so often it’s a wonder anyone tolerates him, I swear. I will leave you here, just deliver the message and let him brood here,” Wang Susu says with not enough vitriol to mask her worry, and turns on her heel to go downstairs, closing the door behind her.

Lin Nansheng waits.

He doesn’t make any step closer towards the detective and observes instead. There is tension to the man’s posture, one that was not there the last time he has seen Luo Fei, however briefly it might have been. Definitely something has happened to the man.

“Is this a bad time?” He finally asks, seeing that the man has no intention of acknowledging his presence.

His voice must surprise Luo Fei, because the detective turns to face him almost immediately.

“That’s another unexpected event today, how can I help Lao Chen this time?” he asks, and though his voice sounds irritated, his whole posture radiates exhaustion.

“How do you know I didn’t come here on my own?” Lin Nansheng challenges and Luo Fei sighs. He doesn’t move from the ledge though. In the glow of the lights beneath him, he still looks handsome, even when tired as he is.

Lin Nansheng is rather taken aback by this observation of his.

Then he notices the look on Luo Fei’s face. Not the best moment to antagonize him, judging from the furrowing of his brows and annoyance making its way on the detective’s features.

“You are right. I have a message from Chen Moqun,” Lin Nansheng admits, trying for conciliatory tone. His voice comes off as apologetic instead.

“Great. What am I, a paid assassin? Does he have a commission for anyone?” Luo Fei asks ironically and for a second, Lin Nansheng is lost.

Luo Fei notices, of course he does, and waves at him to come closer.

Lin Nansheng obeys.

From the shorter distance, he notices that the black spots on the detective’s coat are most likely burns and soot.

“Do you know why Lao Chen keeps on sending you to me?” Luo Fei asks and there is wariness in his voice.

“No,” Lin Nansheng admits and retrieves the envelope to hand to the detective. Instead of taking it, Luo Fei just eyes it, most probably checking if it has been opened.

“Would you like to make an educated guess? I can almost hear you thinking.”

“If I guess correctly, will you tell me what happened to you today?” He says without thinking, and Luo Fei gives him an odd look.

“Is that what Chen Moqun wants to know?”

It is. Chen Moqun did say that he didn’t like not knowing what was going on with Luo Fei, but this wasn’t what prompted Lin Nansheng to ask. It was his own curiosity.

“I’m sorry. I just… Mrs Wang was wary of me and then your coat…” he doesn’t finish, because Luo Fei snorts at him.

“You are either the best or the worst idea Lao Chen has had so far. Alright, guess away and I will tell you what happened to my coat,” Luo Fei says and his eyes sparkle with mischief again. He looks much better this way, full of life.

Lin Nansheng moves to stand next to him, and looks down the street, trying to get his thoughts and all the clues he’s picked up in order.

“I think you and Chen Moqun have some understanding. You provide him with something, most probably information and he keeps away from the French Concession. As to why he started to send me, I am not sure. Either he stopped trusting his previous messenger, or hopes…” Or hopes I will tell him more about you than the previous one, Lin Nansheng doesn’t say. Luo Fei seems to hear it either way, because he smiles and nods to himself.

“You are good, Lin Nansheng, I will give you that,” he praises and takes the envelope from Nansheng’s hands. He opens it without any preamble and gives the picture that was inside back to Lin Nansheng.

“What do you make of this, then?”

The picture shows a man talking with some woman, both faces unknown to Lin Nansheng. He is lost for a moment, then he turns the picture. ‘Feng Ying’ is written on the backside, and that does ring the bell.

Although his mind initially circles back to Luo Fei’s comment about assassination, he discards it quickly. Feng Ying is one of Chen Moqun’s rivals, he came from Hong Kong a few months ago and started to stir up trouble. Their group has had a few run ins with Feng’s, but they are not prominent enough to be more than an occasional annoyance.

“Is he trying to flee to the French Concession?” Lin Nansheng asks and Luo Fei’s smile turns more genuine.

“Most probably.”

“So I’m delivering you heads up about criminals trying to start anew in the French Concession. That’s why the police here makes so many arrests. Why the drug scene is so small, despite the loopholes in the law,” Lin Nansheng observes out loud. Luo Fei just watches him. “What does Chen Moqun get in return?”   

“Favours.”

Involuntarily, Nansheng’s thoughts return to their previous talk of the relationship between his boss and the detective, and he looks down in embarrassment.

“Find a necklace. Tell me who killed my man in the dock. Where is Ling taking his money from. As long as it keeps opium out of my home…” Luo Fei says, unprompted and when Nansheng looks up, there is something hard in his expression.

Lin Nansheng understands.  

They observe the street together in comfortable silence for a while, when Lin Nansheng finally breaks it, to demand his promised reward.

“Oh, nothing terribly interesting. Just the killer found me first and decided to get rid of me and the crime scene in one go,” Luo Fei says, shrugging nonchalantly, and turns to leave.

Lin Nansheng quietly watches him go.