It starts with a map.
Lin Nansheng doesn’t even notice it at first, he is rather caught up in establishing his role as the deputy station chief and as the new Mailman. With the addition of his own, private investigation regarding Wang Shian, Lin Nansheng is busy these first two weeks back in Shanghai.
But then, there is one meeting during which Wang Shian starts a rather impassioned speech against the Communists, which contains a lot of personal feelings and a good dose of a wounded ego, with not much substance, and Lin Nansheng’s mind starts to wander.
Observing his surroundings is his second nature at this point and as his gaze travels around the room, it rests on the map hanging on the wall. It is a standard map of Shanghai, dozens just like this can be found anywhere in the city, but for an inexplicable reason, this one makes him pause.
It takes him a moment to realize what exactly he is seeing. There, around certain areas, there are barely visible smudges of red ink. They are practically faded, making the map seem almost like new, but the red circles draw up a memory.
Lin Nansheng has seen this map before.
He’s seen it on a desk, in a flat belonging to a man too clever to forget about and too elusive to truly know.
He hasn’t thought about Luo Fei in quite some time.
Not since arriving in Hong Kong, trying to make sense of his life after losing both his work and Zhu Yizhen. Luo Fei belonged to Shanghai, belonged to the past and before joining his comrades, Lin Nansheng didn’t care much for the past. Lan Xinjie was a notable exception, even if their connection proved to be rather ill-fated for her, she was a constant companion on his way.
Luo Fei in turn was a fond memory, one that belonged to a different, younger Lin Nansheng.
And now Lin Nansheng the Deputy Chief was staring at the map he had no right to recognize so well and yet somehow managed to, awakening all those memories of the detective Lin Nansheng has buried.
A question he carefully hasn’t allowed himself to ask through all these years, is now clear in his mind.
What became of Luo Fei?
“I can’t help you,” the detective, Luo Fei, replies, and Lin Nansheng’s heart squeezes painfully.
“You can’t, or won’t?” he presses, his fingers tightening around the picture of Zhu Yizhen he’s brought with him. The detective hasn’t even glanced at it, refusing right after Lin Nansheng had introduced himself. He did allow Nansheng to state his case but that was about it, it seems. The famed detective has no intention to help.
As if to drive that particular observation home, Luo Fei sighs in annoyance and gets up from his armchair. He goes to the door and opens it ostensibly, adding even a small gesture with his hand to clearly communicate to Lin Nansheng that he is no longer welcome.
“Both. I’ve already told Lao Chen I won’t work for him. Sending me a cute boy with doe eyes won’t change my mind.”
Lin Nansheng is frozen his seat. He’s never mentioned Chen Moqun upon coming here. He simply asked Luo Fei if he could help him locate Zhu Yizhen – private detectives did that, they found missing people, and he just wants to know if she is safe. If she managed to escape Military Intelligence’s clutches successfully.
But he’s never made any allusion to what he actually does, nor did he mention why Zhu Yizhen went missing in the first place.
Luo Fei raised his eyebrows and once again waved his hands in the direction of the corridor.
Perplexed at the detective’s rudeness, Lin Nansheng leaves.
On his way back to his flat, he wonders if it means that Luo Fei is working for the Communists. It didn’t look like he did, because then he wouldn’t have declined so openly. And clearly, he knows Chen Moqun.
There is something Lin Nansheng is not seeing here, but he is not in the mood to delve into this mystery. Zhu Yizhen’s photograph still in his hand, he allows the wave of nostalgia overtake him as he makes his way down the stairs of Sullivan’s Apartments
It is hard to find out how the map got into the Military Intelligence’s headquarters without drawing the attention to the reason why Lin Nansheng asks in the first place. He cannot allow himself to show any weakness, any opening for Wang Shian to exploit. A clear interest in a detective from the French Concession would be just that – an opening.
Zhao Jinglong doesn’t know much more than Lin Nansheng, but at least he is in a safer position to ask. Lin Nansheng feels a bit guilty about pushing this risk onto him – despite his devotion to the Nationalist party, Zhao Jinglong is not a bad man. He is also a loyal one, a rarity in this world, as Lin Nansheng learnt. Nevertheless, as a subordinate, he can inquire about thing Lin Nansheng can’t.
“It seems Jessfield 76 took it from some apartment in the French Concession,” Zhao Jinglong reports one day, a week or so since Lin Nansheng first asked him. “They were raiding a lot of houses and carrying off valuables. After we took their buildings Chief Wang ordered to keep everything that was useful.”
Lin Nansheng nods and thanks him, dismissing him with a pleasant smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.
So Luo Fei was in the French Concession when the Japanese came. Or at least his things were there and the flat still belonged to him by the time Jessfield 76 got to it – though if that was a good thing or not, Lin Nansheng is not sure.
When he went to check the Sullivan’s Apartments the building was not there. A new one has been erected in its place – it has suffered too much damage during the Japanese occupation, the shopkeepers nearby had said, and the new government decided to remake it to get rid of the scars of war.
No one from the nearby shops and restaurants seemed to know what happened to the detective that used to live there.
In this case, Lin Nansheng counts no news as good news – the neighbours would have remembered a shootout or a night arrest after all. There is a good chance that Luo Fei had simply escaped and is now living comfortably in Hong Kong, or France. Lin Nansheng can imagine the detective walking the streets of Paris, charming waitresses with his smiles, and finding himself a new assistant to trail behind him and protect him from harm.
Lin Nansheng could, technically try to find him by posting missing persons notices in the newspapers, but even after all these years, he is not sure if Luo Fei is not a comrade of his.
No one resembling Luo Fei can be found in prisons, as far as Lin Nansheng knows.
He allows himself to relax.
“Why are you here again?” Luo Fei asks and though he sounds annoyed again, there is an underlying tone of curiosity, which Lin Nansheng is determined to take advantage of.
“I will explain everything if you let me in.”
Luo Fei frowns and Lin Nansheng takes that moment of hesitation to study the man. He is not wearing a suit, just a shirt and a vest – he is not leaving anywhere at the moment. He is wearing glasses and his eyes look a bit red from tiredness, there is also a fidgeting quality to his movements.
If Lin Nansheng was to guess, he would say that the detective is bored and in dire need of a distraction. Which works perfectly in Lin Nansheng’s favour.
“I promise not to be boring,” he says solemnly and Luo Fei’s annoyance disappears, giving way to surprise. He opens the door closer and doesn’t bother to invite Lin Nansheng in, moving straight to his armchair and sitting in it cross-legged.
Lin Nansheng closes the door behind him and moves to the second armchair. Not really thinking about it, he sits down and looks around the flat. It is rather messy, though there seems to be a certain key to the chaos that rules every available surface. A lot of books, a map on the desk, a few jars on the shelves.
“Go on, then, Lin Nansheng. Entertain me,” Luo Fei demands and there is a slightly mocking smirk on his lips. There is nothing malicious in his eyes though, he looks genuinely amused instead.
“I really need you to find this girl just because I care for her,” he starts and it still feels strange to say it out loud. He knows what Zhu Yizhen is – a Communist, a danger to his country. But she is also a person. A person Lin Nansheng lied to, took advantage of; a person that treated him with nothing but kindness he did not deserve. A person who was caught by the Military Intelligence because she tried to trust Lin Nansheng. He needs to know if she is at least safe, if not happy.
He tells as much to Luo Fei, without giving the detective too many details but he has a strange feeling that whatever Lin Nansheng isn’t saying, Luo Fei hears nonetheless. Then again, if he knew Chen Moqun and the fact that Nansheng worked for him, he had good foundations to make an educated guess at least.
To his credit, he doesn’t interrupt Lin Nansheng’s story, but the moment he stops talking, Luo Fei groans and leans back in his armchair.
“I assumed Lao Chen might have told you not to bother me, but I see he is persistent as always.”
Lin Nansheng doesn’t hide the surprise on his face.
“I am not sent by him! I am not here to collect information for the Military Intelligence it’s just… It’s just a personal matter,” he confesses, suddenly a bit embarrassed. It has some effect on Luo Fei though, because the detective sits up straight and gives Lin Nansheng a look that can be almost sympathetic.
“I can’t help you. I don’t work for the Bureau and I don’t work for the Communists, just for the individuals,” Luo Fei explains and his tone is serious like never before. “With my set of skills, me joining any side of the conflict would end rather badly, as you can probably imagine. So I vowed not to aid anyone in exchange for relative peace of mind. I catch criminals and that’s all I do.”
“I just need you to tell me if she is alive,” Lin Nansheng begs.
“And have one of your people follow me to check my sources? Do you want to see me murdered by the Communists?”
Lin Nansheng falls silent at that and looks at the detective, meeting his searching gaze.
“No,” Lin Nansheng replies quietly and hangs his head.
“Is this the moment when you threaten me with your colleagues?” Luo Fei’s tone is light but Lin Nansheng hears the challenge hidden underneath.
He shakes his head and gets up, ready to leave. He doesn’t look at Luo Fei, the disappointment and grief burning him from the inside.
He’s by the door when he hears a reluctant:
“Come back if you get robbed, then I will be able to help you.”
For a moment, Lin Nansheng thinks it’s a dismissal. But then he runs through their conversation again, and a realization strikes him.
He nods in the detective’s direction and leaves Sullivan’s Apartments.
Once Lin Nansheng allows himself to think about Luo Fei again, the man starts to occupy his thoughts quite constantly. Even though Lin Nansheng chooses to firmly believe in Luo Fei’s lucky escape, sometimes he wonders about the detective’s life, whether his smile is still as sunny as it is cocky. If his eyes are still both keen and honest. If he’s safe.
He is visiting Lan Xinjie and her son when another piece of Luo Fei’s lands on his lap.
Lan Xinjie is telling him about the neighbours she has and mentions a ‘Xiao Qin’ who gave her some books for Da Zilu, and Nansheng’s mind doesn’t even suspect who that kind neighbour might be, until Xinjie hands him the gifted tomes.
Lin Nansheng’s heart twists painfully when he sees familiar covers – Gulliver’s Travels, Treasure Island, The Christmas Carol.
When he opens them all, he sees exactly what he’s expected – coffee stains at the title page of the Carol and a bloody fingerprint on the sixth page of the Treasure Island. Lin Nansheng has seen these books often enough to recognize them now – all bearing traces of abuse at the hands of one Luo Fei.
“How did Xiao Qin got these?” he asks, carefully reining in his emotions.
Lan Xinjie gives him a long look, then smiles her usual, gentle smile that holds no joy.
“She got them from her friend’s apartment. First, she kept them in hopes she will return them to him. Later, as a memento. Now she is moving away and has no use for them. Zilu is getting better at speaking, learning English is not a bad idea in the future,” Lan Xinjie muses, her eyes still resting on the books in Lin Nansheng’s hands.
“Did she say what happened to her friend?” Nansheng’s voice shakes a little, but he does his best to appear calm. He has to stay calm.
“She doesn’t know. He told her to move out and that he would join her as soon as he could, but it’s been years…”
Lin Nansheng nods stiffly, not knowing how to reply.
It still doesn’t prove anything. If Luo Fei had truly worked for the Communists from the beginning as Lin Nansheng suspected he did, then he might not be able to contact Qin Xiaoman just yet. He might be in hiding, in Hong Kong, in Nanjing, somewhere away from the Military Intelligence’s scrutiny.
Zhu Yizhen is safe, according to Lao Ji, and she had returned to Shanghai, with no one being the wiser. Why wouldn’t Luo Fei?
Lin Nansheng diverts his attention from the missing detective back to his friend. He owes it to her to never treat her as the source of information again.
“This woman has stolen my book. It has sentimental value,” Lin Nansheng announces after being let into Luo Fei’s apartment. Qin Xiaoman just blinks at him a few times and asks him to sit down. Luo Fei doesn’t acknowledge his presence, still looking at the vials he is tinkering with by his desk, clearly waiting for some sort of result of an experiment.
“I’m sorry, he gets like this sometimes, but after he is done he will help you,” Qin Xiaoman assures him, and Lin Nansheng nods. He sits in silence, his hands folded on his lap, grasping Zhu Yizhen’s picture tightly. He wonders if he should attempt to talk with the policewoman, but despite her friendly countenance, the girl seems more interested in watching Luo Fei.
For a moment, Lin Nansheng wonders if there is something more between the two of them than just co-workers’ camaraderie. There is an underlying fondness in their interactions and Qin Xiaoman sometimes gets a peculiar look on her face when addressing the detective – Lin Nansheng has seen them together a few times around Shanghai after Luo Fei had introduced them too each other.
After a few months of pestering the detective it seemed that they have morphed from strangers into acquaintances and now Lin Nansheng made his way to the French Concession every few days, trying out another good excuse for his search for Zhu Yizhen.
At first, Luo Fei welcomed him with irritation, but now it seemed that it had mellowed into something akin to fond exasperation.
In a way, Lin Nansheng looks forward to every visit – with Zhu Yizhen gone, there is no one left to talk to who is not associated with the Military Intelligence, and Lin Nansheng notices in bewilderment that he misses not having to lie. Luo Fei knew who he was right away but doesn't seem to mind, as long it isn’t on Chen Moqun’s orders.
There is a triumphant shout from the detective that causes both Lin Nansheng and Qin Xiaoman to jump up in their armchairs.
“Alright!” Luo Fei exclaims and turns to look at them, his eyes a bit wild and his grin wide. “ We have him, Xiaoman, go to the station and get a nice warrant for Mister He!” He looks radiant in his victory and for a moment, just a fraction of a minute, Lin Nansheng forgets his purpose here, and simply stares at the detective.
He doesn’t notice Qin Xiaoman leaving, but when he wakes from his stupor, he and Luo Fei are the only ones present in the flat.
“Xiao Lin, what great case do you come with this time?” Luo Fei teases, easing onto his armchair with an easy grin, an air of satisfaction around him.
Lin Nansheng opens his mouth to serve the detective another veiled plea to find Zhu Yizhen, when he gets distracted by the sparkle in Luo Fei’s eyes.
“Is it really worth it?” he asks instead, and the smile freezes on the detective’s lips.
“Helping individual people. Does solving one crime, saving one person benefit the nation?” The words escape him before he can think about it more closely – something about Luo Fei’s easy smiles and refusal to get political lowers Lin Nansheng’s guard. It should be worrying.
Luo Fei’s expression turns solemn. He gives Nansheng a long, perplexed gaze and leans back in his armchair, deep in thought.
“And who are you protecting when you fight for your nation? Buildings? Institutions? Roads?” he finally says and Nansheng blinks at him in surprise. Of course not. What Military Intelligence does, it does for everyone, for the people of China. To protect them from enemies, both internal and external, to keep them safe.
Lin Nansheng looks up and meets Luo Fei’s gaze.
They are not that different, he realizes. They just believe in different methods.
He doesn’t ask about Zhu Yizhen this afternoon.
Few weeks pass – Wang Shian is most probably working behind the scenes with Chen Moqun, Lin Nansheng can almost, almost prove it, but he lacks concrete evidence that would convince Nanjing. He gets so caught up in his investigation that the other one gets moved to the sidelines for a moment.
But all it takes is a visit to the library to change it – he isn’t even looking for anything specific, just leafing through the newspapers that have survived the war, looking up familiar names and places – he and the rest of the Military Intelligence Bureau were so invested in finding the spies, and relaying crucial information that no one truly knew or cared about civilians then, the casualties just another number to send to the headquarters.
It was necessary to stop caring then, but Lin Nansheng has never learnt how to truly do that. So he uses his time to learn about everything that he’s ignored all those years.
And then he finds it: 15 August 1937, Cathay Hotel tragedy. The accidental bombing of the building that brought so much death and Lin Nansheng remembers it happening, remembers the reports, the medical personnel on the Nanjing Street that tried to save as many lives as possible.
He wasn’t there, busy evacuating people at the Great World where he had run as fast as he could the moment he heard the explosion. His mind was stuck there, so the Cathay Hotel slipped his mind right up until now – just one of many tragedies of the Black Saturday of 1937, nothing more.
Except when he looks at the picture titled ‘last photograph taken before the bombing’, he recognizes one of the faces. He might be wrong, of course – the image is small after all, but he is certain that the man sitting at one of the far back sofas, deep in conversation with some white businessman is, in fact, Luo Fei.
The suit, the hair, the facial hair – Lin Nansheng is sure that many people adhered to the same style, especially back then, but he cannot convince himself otherwise.
Luo Fei was there when Cathay Hotel was bombed.
He reads through the article four times, but it gives him no answers – there is a list of known victims, but many of the bodies were unrecognizable or simply not there. The article mentions only the most prominent of the survivors, and a private detective from the French Concession hardly qualifies, Lin Nansheng knows that.
He spends the rest of his free time searching for other papers from the period, hoping to find out more. Anything. He doesn’t know what he will do if he finds Luo Fei’s name in one of them. Maybe it will be a closure. Some answer at least. He will be able to stop wondering – a name on the list is still better than an unidentified corpse. It’s better than just a black ash smeared on the wall, Lin Nansheng tells himself, but with every paper he reads, he cannot help but feel relief.
Luo Fei’s not named in any of them.
Lin Nansheng finds a librarian and requests a full list of victims, or any additional sources he could check, and the old man gives him an odd look.
“If they didn’t turn up until now, I think it’s safe to assume they are just one of the numbers,” the librarian says, not without a hint of sympathy, but he has no list to give to Lin Nansheng.
Still, if Luo Fei’s flat managed to survive until the Japanese came to take his things then maybe, just maybe, Luo Fei did too?
It is a desperate hope, but Lin Nansheng prefers it to the thought of brilliant, vibrant Luo Fei meeting his end like that. Unnamed and unfound.
He wonders how many others clung to the same hope – my friends, my husband, my child, they couldn’t die that way, not like this.
‘As long as there is no body, there is hope. Sometimes, finding it is the best you can do, that way the family can move on. They can stop waiting at the door for someone who won’t be coming back,’ Luo Fei had told him once, and Lin Nansheng thought he understood him then.
He understands much better now.
“You are aware that I can’t tell you more than that? I don’t want Lao Chen paying me a visit, once was enough,” Luo Fei tells him, but lets Lin Nansheng in nonetheless.
Truthfully, Lin Nansheng is not sure what he is doing here – Chen Moqun is gone from Shanghai, just like Zhu Yizhen. His superiors want him back in Nanjing and Lin Nansheng realizes he has no one to really complain to. Zuo Qiuming would understand him, but he’s lost all contact with him right after being scouted by Chen Moqun.
“Chen Moqun is no longer here,” Lin Nansheng says, and Luo Fei’s brows travel up in surprise.
“Do you want me to find him this time?” there is something off with his tone, as if Luo Fei himself can't decide if he wants to tease Lin Nansheng, or ask him earnestly.
“No. He’s in Nanjing.”
They both stand, regarding one another in silence.
Lin Nansheng waits for a question he doesn’t have an answer to. ‘Why are you here?’ or more aggressive ‘ how can I help you?’, but none of them come.
Instead, Luo Fei seems to come to some decision, because he gestures Lin Nansheng to one of the armchairs and moves towards his desk.
“As you take your time to think about what exactly you want to ask me, I will appreciate your input – I have a lady client that is certainly lying to me but I cannot grasp the reason why,” the detective says, and Lin Nansheng is hit with a wave of gratefulness.
Luo Fei hands him the photos of the crime scene and the hairpin that went missing, regaling Lin Nansheng with the details of the case as he makes himself comfortable in the other armchair. For a moment, it is hard to stop thinking about the nation and about Nansheng’s mission, to narrow his scope to a problem of a one woman, but he tries his best.
Surprisingly, it helps.
It puts his mind off his worries, to concentrate on something else than his unsure standing and uncertain future.
So sitting in the armchair, looking at things that have no impact whatsoever on the fight against the Communists, Lin Nansheng comes up with different theories and reasons, and watches the happy sparkle in Luo Fei’s eye grow more intense.
Lin Nansheng is not that naïve – he knows that Luo Fei would have solved the case without him, has probably solved it before their meeting. Nevertheless, he appreciates the gift of a purpose when he has none at the moment.
“I apologize,” Luo Fei says as Lin Nansheng gets ready to leave, not sounding apologetic in the slightest,” I took up your time with my request and forgot to finally listen to yours. Come back again, I will make sure to listen then,” the detective promises, and Lin Nansheng sees it for what it is – a pretext. A reason and a permission to seek Luo Fei out again.
He accepts it with a smile, and for a moment, Luo Fei stares at him in surprise.
When they part ways, Lin Nansheng feels a bit lighter.
During his meeting with Lao Ji, Lin Nansheng cannot help himself – he asks the man directly, and watches the surprise blossom on his features. It is rather uncommon, to catch the Fisherman unprepared for a question, but this time, he really was.
“Luo Fei? Can’t say I know him well. I’ve heard about him, a detective active in the French Concession once upon a time,” Ji Zhongyuan replies with a sigh, and gives Lin Nansheng a curious look.
Lin Nansheng didn’t expect anything else, really – even if Luo Fei was one of their operatives, the less the Mailman knew about him, the better. With how high Lin Nansheng now is in the hierarchy, the risk of him being caught is too great to give him any information he doesn’t necessarily need.
Still, he had to ask.
“I know that there are things you can tell me and things you can’t. I just need to know if he’s alive, that will be enough for me,” Lin Nansheng says and Lao Ji actually chuckles.
“You do have a lot of people you care for, Lin Nansheng.”
Only after Lao Ji leaves, does Lin Nansheng realize that he has already used the same words before – when he inquired about Zhu Yizhen.
He goes back to the headquarters deep in thought, trying to make sense of the emotions swirling inside him. He wasn’t lying when he said that he wanted to know that she was alive, that it was enough. It was. It is.
No matter what happened between them, Zhu Yizhen was and still remains, one of the most important people in Lin Nansheng’s life. She was the first person he lied to and betrayed, she was also the first one to understand why he’s done that. They were both soldiers then, fighting for the same cause, but with different means. Now, after all these years, they are finally on the same path and though she doesn’t know, and will probably never know, not until the war is over at least, it is in large part thanks to her that Lin Nansheng is who he is now – the Mailman. A Communist spy. A patriot.
Of course he cares about Zhu Yizhen. He loved her once. And some part of him will always love her, though with time he realized that this love will forever remain frozen in time – preserved in the morning glow streaming through the window, animated by the sound of piano and their youthful, easy smiles.
Chief Deputy Lin Nansheng cannot feel a love like that anymore.
He sometimes wonders if what he feels for Zhu Yizhen is anything more than nostalgia for those days, but he usually stops himself. No matter what his feelings are, he cannot do much about them and the fact remains unchanged – Zhu Yizhen is important.
But what about Luo Fei?
Is it really just curiosity that makes Lin Nansheng search for him? He is not the only acquaintance Lin Nansheng had made and let go off during his time at the Military Intelligence Bureau. He doesn’t owe a life-debt to Luo Fei, unlike with Zhu Yizhen when they have both risked their respective lives to help one another.
Why does he care so much?
“Back to the Bureau, I see?” Luo Fei asks upon seeing him and Lin Nansheng really wants to ask how does the detective know the inner workings of the secret services, but stops himself from asking. He will get either a silence or a lie and he doesn’t want them to start lying to each other right now.
“I proved to be useful.”
Luo Fei sighs in resignation and moves towards his desk, most probably looking for another case he could pretend to need help with, but Lin Nansheng is not here for that. Not today.
“I need your help,” he says, and Luo Fei tenses. He doesn’t turn away from the desk to face Lin Nansheng, clearly waiting for him to continue.
It is unsettling, not to be able to see his face.
“I have a friend. I got her mixed up with… Business. I want- I need her safe after.”
Luo Fei says nothing, just leans on his desk and looks down, at the mess of documents and photographs on it.
“And your employers cannot protect her?”
“They don’t care about her as a person.”
It is underhanded, Lin Nansheng is aware. Because Luo Fei cares about people, he cares about individuals. It is leverage and Lin Nanasheng will use it if he has to.
“And you do.” It’s not a question, it’s a statement, and there is something angry in Luo Fei’s tone.
“And I do,” Nansheng agrees easily, and takes a step towards the detective.
“What do you want me to do? Accompany her? Do you want to mix me up in the Bureau’s business after all?”
Luo Fei is still not looking at him but he is no longer angry, it seems. He sounds resigned instead.
“No, no. I just… She is to be married soon and after she does this one favour for me, I want her to be happy. To go with her husband and remain safe.”
Lup Fei remains tense, not looking at Nansheng at all.
“I am not a miracle worker. I solve cases, find lost people. I am not a bodyguard for hire,” he finally replies and turns towards Lin Nansheng. For the first time since he’s met the detective, he sees distrust on his face.
It hurts rather unexpectedly.
Still, Lin Nansheng persists.
“Can you make her disappear? You know how to find people, can you lose them too? Hide them so well that only you would be able to find them?”
“Not even you?” Luo Fei asks quietly and there is a new quality to his voice, something Lin Nansheng hasn’t heard before.
“No. She deserves peace. I promised her that this is the only thing I will ask of her, and I know that after having her help once, Wang Shian won’t hesitate to order me to find her again. So make it so that I can’t,” Lin Nansheng pleads, and something flashes in Luo Fei’s eyes.
Before he can reply however, Lin Nansheng continues:
“I don’t have much to pay you with, but name any price and I will try to get it as soon as possible.” He vows, and Luo Fei scoffs at that. He probably doesn’t need Lin Nansheng’s money, looking at the state of his attire and his expensive taste in furniture, but there isn’t much else Lin Nansheng can offer him – if he doesn’t want to be involved with Nansheng’s superiors, there are very few things he can promise Luo Fei in return.
In front of him Luo Fei groans in frustration.
“You are a walking contradiction, Lin Nansheng,” the detective mutters darkly and closes his eyes, deep in thought, his eyebrows furrowed and his arms crossed, leaning back against the desk.
Lin Nansheng waits.
He doesn’t know how long they stay like this, but when Luo Fei opens his eyes there is almost no trace of any feeling on his face, just cold, logical calculation.
“I can do it. I can help her and her husband disappear from your sight after she does what you ordered her to-“ he starts, and Lin Nansheng smiles in relief and opens his mouth to reply, but one look from Luo Fei stops him.
“- but there is a price.” That’s obvious, Lin Nansheng wants to say, but then the detective continues with:
“Don’t seek me out ever again.”
The smile freezes on Lin Nansheng’s face.
Of all the things he assumed Luo Fei might ask of him, this one didn’t cross his mind.
“You are asking me to break many of my personal rules for you. And you have the audacity to ask with your heart on your sleeve and your head full of good intentions, so I can’t decline. Damn you, Lin Nansheng!” the raised voice makes Nansheng startle, but Luo Fei is not done:” you know what kind of people you work for, you’ve just asked me to save your friend from the people you claim you owe your loyalty to, how can you not see anything wrong with that?” His voice has a frustrated, angry undertone to it and Nansheng doesn’t know how to deal with that.
But Luo Fei doesn’t let him finish.
“Don’t give me that,” he scoffs and looks away from Lin Nansheng, an unhappy twist to his mouth marring his handsome features. “I can protect her from your bosses, but after that I’ll have to protect myself. You can’t see me again, that’s my price.”
The worst thing is, Lin Nansheng understands it.
He knows that to honour this strange friendship between them, he should voice his protest, he should ask if there is another way for them to keep seeing each other, but he knows its futile.
Luo Fei knows it and so does Lin Nansheng – hiding Lan Xinjie means crossing a line and there will be no return from that.
The understanding doesn’t stop Lin Nansheng from feeling as if something inside him is breaking.
“I accept,” he finally manages and as he speaks the words, his heart drops.
He’s lost Zhu Yizhen. Chen Moqun. He plans to send Lan Xinjie away. And now, he agreed to let go of his last tether. The last person he cares about and yet he doesn’t even attempt to fight for him.
He doesn’t notice he’s crying until he feels Luo Fei’s hand gently cupping his cheek and wiping the tears away.
“Hey,” the detective says softly and Lin Nansheng looks at him, frantically trying to memorize his features despite his blurry vision.
“It’s alright. It was –“ bound to happen, Lin Nansheng thinks, but Luo Fei is not that cruel to him.
“It was a good request. One made by a good man,” the detective says with force, and this understanding is even worse. He would take reproach, anger, disappointment, but this acceptance means that Luo Fei expected that of him. Expected Lin Nansheng to trade whatever they had between them for the greater good, with no hesitation.
“At the end of the day, we can only save one person at the time,” Luo Fei continues and Lin Nansheng can’t take it anymore.
He doesn’t know why he does it, if he wants to be accepted or rejected – he just wants to break Luo Fei’s composure, to make him as out of his depth as Nansheng himself feels.
So he moves forward, his hands landing on the desk and his body crowding the detective against it and leans.
Luo Fei meets him half-way, his lips soft against Nansheng’s, his hands still cradling Lin Nansheng’s face gently.
It’s too much for him. Nansheng tries to change the kiss into something more intense, into something that would taste like pure lust and not like regret. He wants them to burn together but Luo Fei keeps him anchored and meets Nansheng’s desperation with calm affection.
After a while, Lin Nansheng gives in, his hands leaving the desk and finding their way around Luo Fei’s back, enveloping the man in a tight embrace, the kiss changing into something heartfelt, something that can hurt in its sincerity.
And Lin Nansheng hurts.
He makes no move to leave though.
If that’s how it ends, he wants to make it last.
Lan Xinjie’s son is in a hospital and for a while, Lin Nansheng can think about nothing else. The kid could have died – the shootout claimed so many victims that the corridors are filled with people begging the doctors to look at their loved ones, to convince them that it is not over yet, that the wounds are not as bad as they seem. Many leave with theyr faces ashen and their hopes broken, looking for a reason to their pain, for some justice.
Da Zilu was lucky – a man has put himself between the kid and the shooters, covering him with his own body. What could have been a fatal wound, ended up a nasty bullet in the leg. Painful, but in the end - not lethal.
It iss enough to bring Lan Xinjie to tears and Lin Nansheng cannot blame her. After everything she went through, losing her child would be too cruel.
He watches her embrace the boy and feels deep relief. He doesn’t have to lose another one of his few loved ones. Not now, at least.
“I hope this man is alright, to protect a stranger, it takes courage” Lan Xinjie whispers, and Lin Nansheng nods in agreement. They both owe gratitude towards this anonymous hero and he rather hopes the man is alive so that they would be able to deliver it personally.
Clinging to his mother, Da Zilu mumbles something softly into her bosom.
“Dear, please speak louder,” Lan Xinjie gently entreats, and Zilu, being the good kid that he is, straightens up and raises his head, just like the doctor told him to, and repeats: “It was the nice man.”
Lin Nansheng’s heart jumps at that.
Having met Lan Xinjie in Hong Kong, he had asked her how it was possible – he had been ready to never see her again.
“Your friend did his best and I will be forever grateful for what he’s done. But after losing my husband I had to leave the place he prepared for us. I won’t give you the details, because of that strange agreement you’ve had, but he let me go,” she had said then and that was it. That was the last time he’s allowed himself to think about Luo Fei back then.
Could it be?
Da Zilu shouldn’t remember Luo Fei, he probably hasn’t even seen him as a child all that often, but the embers of hope are still reignited in Lin Nansheng’s heart, in spite of all the reasons. Luo Fei might still be in Shanghai after all, is the thought he cannot get out of his head.
But then he remembers.
“Xiao Zilu, what happened to the nice man?” he asks, carefully keeping his voice level and his tone gentle. The boy shouldn’t feel the pressure, shouldn’t feel how important it is to Lin Nansheng to know the answer.
Da Zilu thinks about it for a moment, his eyes stuck on the bandage wrapped around his leg. He’s been given some painkillers and is probably sleepy beyond belief, but Lin Nansheng needs to know.
So he waits, ignoring Lan Xinjie’s surprised glances for the time being.
“He fell,” the boy finally says, and once again hides in his mother’s arms.
He fell. It can mean anything. It doesn’t necessarily mean he got shot, and even if he did, it didn’t have to be serious. Luo Fei used to be a policeman, Nansheng knows. He probably knows how to avoid getting shot in a street scuffle. Or maybe he just fainted. Maybe he was just playing dead.
Maybe it wasn’t Luo Fei at all.
They leave the hospital, Lin Nansheng carrying the sleeping Da Zilu in his arms back to Lan Xinjie’s apartment and waits for her to ask. She doesn’t.
She can probably guess enough and Nansheng really loves her for her understanding and her tactful silence.
He puts Da Zilu in the bed and joins Xinjie at the table in the other room.
“I want to find the man who saved him,” he says and she simply nods at him, something sad shining in her eyes. Nansheng cannot bear looking at her right now, so he ducks his head, staring at the table instead.
They sit like that for a while, until their respective teas grow cold, when Lan Xinjie finally speaks:
“I used to search for my husband everywhere. I knew that he was dead. I got the letter, the money. The condolences. Promises of support and help. But sometimes when I went to the market I would see him in strangers. A man walking just like him. A girl humming the same song. I knew it wasn’t him. That it couldn’t be him. But my heart still jolted in those moments,” she says quietly, her tone gentle and so understanding that Lin Nansheng wants to cry.
“I just want to know,” he confesses, his voice barely more than a whisper. Lan Xinjie nods, elegant as always.
“The dead, you can at least mourn.”
Lin Nansheng has mourned the living for years, but he appreciates the sentiment.
He doesn’t want to mourn Luo Fei.
Not yet at least.
Not when there is still a chance.
The next morning doesn’t give him any answers – the newspapers are very tight-lipped about the incident, most of them don’t even report it. Lin Nansheng tries to send Zhao Jinglong to see if there is a list of victims somewhere, citing the need to have a response to the public prepared, but gets nothing. No one of note was involved and the Nationalist Government wanted the incident to be quickly forgotten.
“I can’t tell you anything,” Lao Ji answers when Nansheng asks him about the victims. They both know who he is really asking about.
Paradoxically, it gives Nansheng hope.
If Luo Fei is not with the communists, information of his death would have no value, the fact that Lao Ji doesn’t simply tell him about it can only mean two things – either he doesn’t know, or he really cannot say anything to the Mailman.
Not knowing drives Lin Nansheng crazy, but right now, it is still better than the alternative.
He floating in and out of consciousness, the images playing underneath his eyelids like a half-forgotten movie, some scenes so surreal that he is not sure if they are memories or jus figments of his imagination.
Zuo Qiuming’s tomb – real. This grief he still carries with him, he still remembers their talk about Mao’s Protracted War, the naïve hope they felt then.
Gu Shenyan sacrificing his reputation and life for Lin Nansheng – this one still hurts, this one is real.
Chen Moqun dying – this one is real as well, this one he remembers well. He cannot recall what happened to Hu Daoyi though.
Meng Anan’s betrayal, definitely real.
Lao Ji is dead, this one Lin Nansheng is also sure of, even in his wildest dreams he would not come up with a scenario when he allows anything to happen to the Fisherman, and yet he did.
How many people have died? How many have been sacrificed to protect Lin Nansheng, to keep him right where the war needed him?
He thinks about his last meeting with Zhu Yizhen, about her last attempt to protect him. This one, he is not sure about. Sometimes, he sees her drowning, her blood colouring the water red. At other times, they are both taken out of water, barely conscious, but both breathing.
He’s not sure which memory is real.
There are other memories he’s not certain about. The old man… the old man, the one who owns the boat, often listening to the radio - he might be real.
There are hands on his forehead.
They don’t feel like the old fisherman's though, they are too gentle for that.
“Wake up,” comes the voice from somewhere, and Lin Nansheng doesn’t recognize it. It sounds familiar, as if he had heard it before, but his mind cannot recall now.
Is Zhu Yizhen alive?
What about Lan Xinjie?
“Lan Xinjie and her son are safe. In Hong Kong once again. I gave her Qin Xiaoman’s address, they might be happy to meet again, I think,” the voice tells him, and Lin Nansheng knows that name. Qin Xiaoman. He knows that name.
He knows that voice.
The hand on his forehead stills and then hesitantly moves to caress his hair.
Lin Nansheng cannot recall ever experiencing that. It might be a hallucination. A fever-dream.
“You do have a fever, that’s true, but I assure you, fever dreams tend to be a bit wilder than a small bit of affection,” the voice sounds amused, but even barely conscious, Lin Nansheng can hear the sad undertone to it.
Is he that pitiful?
“No. You are just very sick.”
He needs to get better. He needs to get up and work, to fight. He needs to find Zhu Yizhen.
He needs to find…
“This one is easy, you just have to open your eyes,” the voice says.
Lin Nansheng doesn’t obey.
This is not real.
But it is a nice illusion, one Lin Nansheng wants to make last.
“I will be here for as long as you need me to, so look at me, please,” the voice insists, but Lin Nansheng doesn’t budge.
If his mind is lying to him, he wants to be lied to a bit longer.
The hand in his hair resumes its careful, loving touches.
“Will you believe me if I explain?” the voice wonders out loud.
Lin Nansheng remains silent.
“War needs detectives. To find bodies. To find the wounded, to reconnect separated families.”
You didn’t help me, Lin Nansheng thinks, you didn’t help me find you.
“I couldn’t, you know I couldn’t,” the voice is quiet, gentle in a way it never used to be. No wonder. It is just Lin Nansheng’s mind trying to console him with a voice of a man who is no longer here.
“I changed my name. Moved around as a reporter for most of the time – a reporter, especially one presumably working for the French, can get into many places. Help many people.”
You didn’t help me, Lin Nansheng thinks bitterly, and the hand in his hair stills.
“I didn’t know you wanted to find me,” the voice admits.
You didn’t look for me either. How could he? He is dead after all, and Lin Nansheng is just letting his grief take shape and voice of one person his heart didn’t give up on yet. The one man he persistently believes to be somehow alive, disregarding all the evidence to the contrary.
“Nansheng,” the voice wavers, as if choked by tears. What a strange fantasy to have, to hear someone crying over him.
“Nansheng,” the voice repeats,” I kept an eye on you. On you, on Lan Xinjie and her son, to the best of my ability.”
This doesn’t make any sense. Why is Lin Nansheng’s mind lying to him now? Giving him assurances, promises that cannot be real, that he knows are not real.
He still doesn’t open his eyes.
Somewhere to his right, there is a tired sigh.
“You went through too much. You need rest. I will return when your fever breaks, maybe then…”
Lin Nansheng’s only reply is a shocked intake of air, and the gentle hand returns to touch his forehead gently.
“Will you believe me if I tell you I missed you?”
No. But I want to.
“I did. I found lost husbands, children and elders. With the Japanese in the streets, murdering anyone they could, the lines between the Communists and the Nationalists dimmed so much that it didn’t matter whom I helped. People were people. If I could save anyone, I did. And every time I did, I thought of you. About you fighting your own fight,” the voice says and once again, Lin Nansheng is struck with how much it cannot be real – the man he misses never sounded like this.
Like his heart is breaking in two.
“I don’t know about Zhu Yizhen. Your comrades refuse to tell me anything and frankly, she wasn’t my priority. I will try to find her for you, if that’s what you want. Just open your eyes and look at me,” the voice pleads, and there are two hands on Nansheng’s face, the thumbs caressing his dry skin and Nansheng hesitates.
He’s not sure if his heart will be able to take it, to open his eyes and face the reality of no one being there, of one, final proof that it was all in his head; his desperate, grief-fuelled mind conjuring scenarios that he longed for so strongly.
“I am here,” the voice promises.
Lin Nansheng has lead his life with hope as his only companion for years. He’s never run from pain. He’s never let his fear control him. He can withstand one more heartbreak.
Still feeling the warmth of hands on his cheek, Lin Nansheng opens his eyes.
Above him, with tears gathering at the corners of his eyes, Luo Fei smiles.