Li Yiming rested against the mattress of a hotel bed, slowly rubbing the invitation card between his thumb and forefinger as he struggled to recollect his thoughts. Lacking the courage to confront Ji Xiaoqin, he chose to avoid returning to his apartment. Tonight’s events were one shock after another: his girlfriend’s betrayal, the strange man, and then this gold laminated invitation.
“Crazy, or just a swindler?” The encounter with that weird man was somehow much more memorable than seeing Ji Xiaoqin cheat on him. ‘August 15th… It’s today. To go or not to go?’
‘Whatever! I’ll go and take a look. My worries won’t disappear, but I can at least distract myself with this. I’ll indulge myself this once. It can’t be that bad, even if it’s a scam.‘
Li Yiming got up from the bed and took out his cell phone and opened the map.
“Downtown?” The address search showed that Pure Water Herb Hall was a teahouse located not too far away from the Second Provincial Hospital.
He looked at the time: it was eight o’clock in the morning. After going through his usual morning routine, Li Yiming checked out at the lobby and ate breakfast. A few minutes later and he was on a bus to his destination. On the way, Li Yiming didn’t forget to update his status on social media —“Here’s to a new beginning, off we go to Pure Water Herb Hall!” In case that place was a sweatshop, at least the police would have a lead to work on.
It took three bus transfers and twenty-five minutes of walking before Li Yiming arrived at his destination. The shop front was nothing impressive, but above the entrance hung an aged, eye-catching plaque with the name “Pure Water Herb Hall” written out flamboyantly.
‘Well, this doesn’t seem like a sweatshop to me.’ The sight of the storefront made Li Yiming exclude the possibility of an obvious swindle. With this reassuring thought in mind, he entered the shop.
“Welcome.” He heard a melodious voice. It came from a young woman wearing a cheongsam who waited for him quietly. 1
Surprise flit through Li Yiming’s eyes. ‘How pretty! Fresh and soothing, natural and unrestrained. Elegant like a flower reflected on still water and graceful as a willow fluttering in the wind when she moves. If there was someone who can make me forget my sufferings, she would be the one.’
Li Yiming raised his eyebrows and looked around dubiously. ‘This kind of beauty is delegated to the task of welcoming customers? What if this is a trap? With this kind of investment, it would not end at just losing a kidney.’
“I apologize, sir. The shop is closed for today.” She bowed to him with a professional smile.
‘A fine smile! The nascent crescent formed by her eyes, the angle of her smile, not too faint, nor too exaggerated: just enough to bring out her charm.’
“Sir?” The young woman noticed Li Yiming’s staring at her. A subtle blush crept onto her face.
“Ha? Oh… I have an invitation card.” Li Yiming hurriedly took out the golden card to ease his embarrassment. “This… Is it the right place?”
“Yes, it is. I apologize, I didn’t know. Please follow me.” The young woman took the invitation, scrutinized it and stroke its upper right corner. Once she completed her verification, she politely returned it to Li Yiming and made a gesture inviting him inside.
Li Yiming took his card back and followed her. His eyes couldn’t help but wander around the young woman’s figure, especially her legs.
‘What’s wrong with me? I’m a dance program graduate. I’ve seen my fair share of beauties. What’s more, during class, my classmates would always wear practice clothes with even less fabric than a swimsuit. She’s pretty, but to that point…? Did the shock from last night make my hormones run amok?’ Li Yiming found his behavior rather odd. As he mulled over this thought, his gaze uncontrollably jumped back to the long legs peeking through the gap of the cheongsam. ‘Nice legs! Straight and slender, with just the right curves…‘
The first thing Li Yiming saw when he entered the room was a four-piece screen. On the fabric a poem was printed:
Three millennia of recorded history, fraught with power, lust, and greed;
Ninety thousand miles of meditation, only to return to gardening, wine, and poetry. 2
The characters were traced with black ink on a yellow rice paper, and their archaic rhymes embodied perfection. Li Yiming’s opinion of the venue improved, and he grew even more vigilant.
As Li Yiming went past the screen, he was finally able to see the teahouse in its entirety. The shop facade was small and the inside was… even smaller. The place was not meant to accommodate a large crowd of customers, and it resembled more the study room or the living room of a wealthy family than a tea shop. It was at most fifty square meters. The inside was nicely decorated with wooden furniture: a sculpted wooden tea table, complete with a set of six chairs…
‘There’s only one table in the entire shop?’ Li Yiming thought.
Three of the six wooden chairs were occupied. Sitting on one of them was an elderly woman dressed à la mode. A thick dark green shawl wrapped her head two-fold and made it seem like a cloak. Next to her sat a bespectacled man in a suit, but whose features were a mismatch for his gold-rimmed glasses. The third person was a mature woman with deep cleavage. Although the corners of her eyes were marked by crow’s feet, they only accentuated her grandeur.
“What took you so long?” The elderly woman made her dissatisfaction with Li Yiming known. Her voice was hoarse and rough.
“It didn’t take that long, at least he’s not late. ” The mature woman interposed with a chuckle. Her eyes glossed over the young woman in the cheongsam and the latter seamlessly nodded back. “Thank you for coming today. Please take a seat. Qiaoqiao, give some tea to the customer.”
“Sir, what would you like to drink? Black tea, green tea, flower tea or fruit tea? I apologize in advance, we only have tea here.” The cheongsam young lady led Li Yiming to his seat with a beaming smile and asked courteously.
“Hot water, please.” Li Yiming looked at the patently expensive tea sets in front of the other three people at the table. He had barely five hundred yuan, and that amount included the three hundred he had on his card; it was wise to stay within his limits.
The waitress, Qiaoqiao, left the table. Meanwhile, the elderly lady began staring at Li Yiming coldly, while the mature woman sized him up with a smile. As for the bespectacled man, he continued to sip his tea, as if Li Yiming did not exist.
“Qing Linglong. The proposer for this time. Hi!” The mature woman put down her cup and stood up with her eyes on Li Yiming. Her every gesture exuded a certain kind of natural grace.
“Li Yiming.” Li Yiming stood up cautiously and shook her hand. It was very soft, and the nails were beautifully trimmed.
“She’s called Grandma Wang and he’s called Eyeglasses.” Qing Linglong introduced the other two people. Eyeglasses, just as before, remained motionless, while Grandma Wang nodded coldly.
“Your water.” The waitress put down the cup in front of Li Yiming.
“She’s my little sister, Qing Qiaoqiao.” Qing Linglong pointed at the young girl.
“H-hello.” Li Yiming wanted to say something else, but didn’t know from where to start. This situation was quite strange. ‘I assume that this Qing Linglong is the shop owner’s wife, but what about that Eyeglasses? Is he the shop owner, or just a customer? And this unfriendly Grandma Wang… Qing Linglong’s mother? The waitress, Qing Qiaoqiao… she’s very attractive. Her appearance might not be extraordinary, but there’s something strangely and fatally enticing about her… Something that pulls my eyes back to her.’
“The time has come. Although it’s our first time working together, let’s not waste time on formalities.” Qing Linglong returned to her seat. “Everyone should have a look at the information I provided. My main purpose is to accompany my little sister Qing Qiaoqiao. She’s a newcomer, so I hope that we can take care of her. What I have promised before still holds true. I, Qing Linglong, would absolutely not renege on my promise. Any questions?”
‘Cooperating? Cooperating for what?’ Li Yiming was puzzled. Eyeglasses picked up the teapot and poured himself another half cup: it seemed like he drank red tea. Grandma Wang scrutinized Qing Qiaoqiao with squinted eyes.
“That…” Li Yiming took out the invitation, intending to obtain some clarifications from the others. He had barely opened his mouth when darkness veiled his eyes; the lamps in the room flickered and extinguished.
‘A blackout? Some power issue?’
The light returned before Li Yiming came up with another thought.
“It has started.” Grandma Wang said in her hoarse voice.
‘What’s going on?’ To his surprise, Li Yiming noticed that after the blackout, the people in front of him changed. Eyeglasses put down his teacup, his air of nonchalance completely gone. Grandma Wang pulled her turban lower, until it covered her face completely. Yet, the intimidating air she gave grew stronger. As for Qing Qiaoqiao, she stood beside her big sister with apparent excitement and agitation. The only person whose countenance remained unchanged was Qing Linglong, who still had her warm smile as she picked up her little sister’s hand.
“Since it’s already started, this old one has many words to say. Linglong is the summoner. I have no say over who she chooses to invite, but, since the invitation has been accepted, a pact has formed; we’re all in the same boat. You all better be serious. If anyone stirs troubles during this period, don’t blame me for being ruthless!” While she spoke, Grandma Wang parted her turban, directing a frosty glare directed at Li Yiming. Her eyes were sinister and dreadful, and seeing them was enough to Li Yiming shudder.
Li Yiming wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and tightened his hand on the invitation card. He swallowed back the questions he wanted to ask.
“Grandma, serious as always.” Qing Linglong smiled as she interjected to smooth out Grandma Wang’s harsh words. “The first stage is usually information gathering and target confirmation. I suggest that we each go our own way, any objections?”
Everyone nodded. As for Li Yiming, the terror that Grandma Wang incited in him forced him into silence.
“Time is of the essence.” It was the first time Eyeglasses spoke. Despite his unattractive appearance, his voice had a certain magnetism. As he spoke, he rummaged through his silver-colored suitcase.
‘Where did that come from?’ Li Yiming stared at the metal suitcase in a daze. It was a fairly sizeable luggage, and the contrast could not have been more obvious around the wooden table, but it was clearly not around a second ago.
“Use this to stay in touch. The cell phone signal is unstable.” Eyeglasses took out several hand-sized black cases from his suitcase and distributed them to those around the table.
Li Yiming received his. The object was light, and it seemed to be of fine quality.
“Let’s begin then! If you find anything, please contact everyone immediately.” Qing Linglong sent a thoughtful glance at Li Yiming and pulled Qing Qiaoqiao into the depth of the teahouse.
Grandma Wang tidied her shawl. She flashed another gloomy glance at Li Yiming before getting up and leaving the teahouse. Eyeglasses gulped down what was left of his tea and followed suit.
‘Huh? What about his suitcase?’ Li Yiming noticed that when Eyeglasses left, he didn’t bring his suitcase with him, so he turned around and looked for it; it was not on the table, not on the floor, nor behind the chair…
‘What the heck?’ Li Yiming looked around him and realized he was alone. ‘This…’ He looked down at the invitation card and at the black case in his hand, and then at his cup, which was still full of hot water. ‘That’s it?’
‘I shouldn’t stay in a place like this.’ Li Yiming decided to leave promptly. By the time he passed through the teahouse’s door, Grandma Wang and Eyeglasses were nowhere to be seen. He looked around in confusion and quickly proceeded toward the nearest bus station. On the bus, Li Yiming tried to digest what he had just experienced. ‘Crazy people, weird conversations, the whole thing makes no sense! I came for the truth about that strange man yesterday, but now I’m even more confused. Who are those people? And what exactly are they cooperating for?’
“How did I end up here?” Li Yiming raised his head and realized that his aimless wandering in the street had brought him back to his old apartment.
In the afterglow of the setting sun, peaceful clouds covered the sky above the neighborhood. Behind them, unknowingly to anyone, the wheel of fate had started to move. Li Yiming stared at the window he was so familiar with, lost in his hesitation about whether he should go back to his apartment or not. However, unbeknownst to him, his life had already spun out of his control…
1. Cheongsam is a traditional Chinese apparel mostly worn by women. Click here for a visual image of it: http://modernqipao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/02/FMS-15150A-Birds-and-floral-Chinese-watercolor-painting-long-cheongsam-mandarin-collar-dress-002.jpg
2. These verses were originally inspired by a famous poem written by Tao Yuanming, about 1,500 years ago. Tao Yuanming was a famous poet who mostly wrote poems about returning to a simple rural life. For the translated version on the inspired poem, click here (english at the end): http://www.en8848.com.cn/fanyi/sx/gsc/132018.html For more information on the poet, click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tao_Yuanming
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