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Wang Zhi’s recent collectedness was no more. He stood up with a bang. “What happened?!”
“Once we followed her all the way to the front of Doufuchen Lane, a fight happened to break out at the doorway of a nearby shop, and the commoners circling around to watch suddenly distanced us from her. By the time we had caught up, she was completely gone,” the subordinate said, ashamed.
“Slackers! Deadbeats! What do I keep you around for?! Why aren’t you giving chase?!” Wang Zhi roundly scolded.
Just great. Zhu Yong’s daughter and Assistant Minister Geng’s grandson still hadn’t yet been found, but now Judge Tang’s little sister had been added into the mix.
“Wait!” Tang Fan said to the warden. “Can you still locate the people who were fighting?”
“Yes. We’re in the area.”
“Then I’ll trouble you all to bring them back for interrogation. In the case that that hadn’t been coincidental, it might be a clue.”
The warden didn’t answer, instead looking at Wang Zhi, which was normal. He was their boss, not Tang Fan. Why would they listen to a stranger’s orders?
The illustrious Western Depot had now had a moment of negligence, taking a huge tumble. This was what they called ‘fighting a goose all day long, only for it to peck your eyes blind.’
Wang Zhi’s expression was ugly, but Tang Fan’s was even uglier. The former’s prestige had suffered damage, and he no longer had the face to speak persuasively to Tang Fan. The latter had anxiety attacking his heart, and didn’t care to talk more to Wang Zhi, quickly leaving Immortal Cloud. There was a sea of people outside, now — how could the little figure of Ah-Dong be found?
He was not about to go find her himself, however, but right to the Five Districts Office.
As the one in charge of the Brocade Guards that had been dispatched to help with Five Districts’ patrol, Sui Zhou didn’t need to set out in person. Instead, he was sitting in the Districts’ bureau, so that if his subordinates came across anything, they could find him easily. This was not a time for him to lead troops out. Tang Fan knew as much, and thus had found him quickly; after hurriedly greeting everyone else, he explained what had happened to Sui Zhou.
The instant the man heard about Ah-Dong being bait, his expression immediately tensed. He, too, had heard about the other two getting kidnapped an instant before Tang Fan had arrived, but since the matter wasn’t his responsibility, he had remained within the bureau. Now that Ah-Dong had been mentioned, he had to move. “How long ago was this?”
“I came directly from Immortal Cloud to here, about half a shichen ago,” Tang Fan answered.
Sui Zhou gave a slight nod. Once he explained this to the others, he brought Xue Ling’s crew with him out.
“Where are we going now?” Tang Fan asked. When it came to finding people, the Guard was more seasoned than he.
“We’ll go up on the gate towers, first.”
Tang Fan’s eyes shone. From the vantage point of the towers, the scope of view would be farther, and even clearer. It would be much easier to spot any odd actions below.
Their group took a shortcut down a small path, hurrying to the roofs.
Yongding Gate’s tower faced the middle of the capital’s main road. The short buildings around weren’t enough to block one’s line of sight, and even some surrounding streets could be seen clearly.
Starting from tonight, the entire city would be going until daybreak for the imminently-arriving Lantern Festival, biggest holiday of the year, and the festivities would go until the day after its conclusion. Beneath the dual illumination of the bright moonlight and shining lanterns, there was hubbub on and off the streets, and heads near other heads in a grand stretch of black. Cheering and laughter came from below from time to time, brimming with jubilation.
Citizens from outer counties would also use the festival period to come to the capital and play, making the headcount of the common haunts far exceed the level it was normally. People could be seen wherever one looked.
However, underneath this flourishing spectacle of peaceful song and dance was hidden a dark undercurrent. On days like this, whole families would head out, which was exactly the time that house-breaking robbers, stuff-stealing thieves, and human-selling traffickers liked the most. Following the each yearly Festival, there would always be a rapid increase in cases reported to the various bureaus, both in ancient and modern times.
Ah-Dong was a little girl that had long been submerged within multitudes of people. At a glance, there was nothing but tall and short heads; even with an all-seeing eye, she would probably be hard to find.
Tang Fan knew that anxiety was useless at this point, so he calmed down, then joined Sui Zhou and the rest in observing what was below.
Upon climbing high, many details that had been hard to see before immediately showed up. Within the crowd, many men flirted with their young wives, women disguised as men were out to play, and people argued with their companions over lantern riddles. They were distant, their words unable to be heard, yet quickly figured out via looking from a tall spot.
Sui Zhou’s group split up into several spots of observation. After watching for a little under half a shichen, when everyone was feeling their necks getting sore and stiff, Xue Ling was heard to yell, “Brother, look over there!”
Everyone turned to where he was pointing. A four-year-old child was standing in front of a shop, sucking on his finger as he eagerly stared at a peddler selling tanghulu not far from him. The peddler motioned to him, and he walked over. The elder that he had been with was selecting stuff from a store or something, as they didn’t even notice.
Right when the child was about three steps away from the peddler, someone suddenly scuttled out from the side, holding a stick of tanghulu out for the child as he led him away by his hand. The kid, drawn in by the candy, was quickly taken away.
The peddler watched this scenario unfold, yet said nothing. Presumably, he was in the same group as the trafficker, and was just selling the tanghulu to cover for his buddy there.
Looking at everyone surrounding, it was as clamorous and unusually lively as ever; they all were focused on the stuff around them, and nobody had lowered their heads to pay attention to the whereabouts of one kid. Had their own group not witnessed this event, there would have been another missing child case in the capital tomorrow.
Sui Zhou gave an order, and Xue Ling quickly brought four Guards down the tower to run towards the area the child had been abducted to.
The so-called overworld and underworlds each had their respective ways. The livelihood of kidnapping could not be done by one group of people, meaning that there was definitely a means of mutual contact between the various gangs, like the one they had just seen take the kid. He might not be of the same group that had kidnapped Zhu Yong’s daughter or Ah-Dong, but catching one made it a lot easier to suss out other clues.
On Xue Ling’s end, the kidnapper and the peddler had both been captured. On another end, the kid’s family had just realized that he was missing, and were currently running around in a panic. Upon seeing that he had been found, they shed tears of infinite gratitude.
Saying no idle banter, Xue Ling’s group brought the two traffickers to Sui Zhou.
People like this were used to shady activities, their conscience long darkened through. They denied everything in every way they could, pledging oaths to the Heavens. The peddler claimed that he was merely doing legitimate business, content with his lot, and the child-taker claimed that he had seen the child be alone for a time, then thought to take him to find his parents, lest he get kidnapped. In short, they cried about being falsely accused.
Sui Zhou didn’t bicker with them. “Which gang do you two hang with? Boss Lai, Liu Zhili, or Ding Yimu?” he asked coldly.
The two blinked. “What are you talking about, Sir?” one said. “It doesn’t make sense to us.”
“It’s true, Sir,” said the other. “We really are normal, peaceful civilians!”
Intelligence agencies like the Brocade Guard or Depots had uncountable connections to the underworld, despite being governmental on the surface. In order to avoid conflict happening with government agents, some people would put in more bribes; as long as they didn’t cause too much trouble, the authorities would have one eye open, one eye closed.
Yet, under current circumstances, this trouble they had caused was a bit too large. Sui Zhou, of course, would never let it slide, but even if it was somebody else, they would have to do their jobs all the same. Seeing as the two of them refused to admit to it unto death, he turned to Xue Ling. “Take them back to the Bastille. You know what you should do.”
Xue Ling nodded, laughing evilly at them. “I guarantee that I’ll make them regret ever being born!”
Once they heard the word ‘Bastille’, their souls were scared out of their bodies. “I confess, I confess!” one quickly shouted. “I’m a subordinate of Boss Lai!”
Right as he said that, a mild voice resounded from not far off. “Don’t believe him. He’s one of Ding Yimu’s.”
Accompanying the voice was Wang Zhi walking on over. He looked at the man, snorting in amusement. “How intolerable. You’ve already gotten captured, yet you still dare to lie. You really won’t start crying until you see your own coffin, huh?”
He then turned to Sui Zhou and Tang Fan. “Regardless of whether it’s Liu Zhili or Boss Lai, I’ve already invited them as guests into the Western Depot. They haven’t captured any young children tonight, meaning that this should be the work of Ding Yimu’s henchmen from the Southside Gang.”
As it was, there were especially many wealthy people in this prosperous capital. Each and every child raised within it was pampered, making them leagues different from ordinary commoners that fled from disaster and sold themselves as servants. They were the favorite target of traffickers, among which were two gangs that specialized in selling people for a living in the underworld; the aliases of their separate leaders were Boss Lai and Liu Zhili.
Apart from trafficking, the gangs did other business, too, such as privately selling salt, weapons, tea, and so on. That was the main source of their income, because how could they ever be able to traffic enough people? Their brotherhood would have long starved to death.
Boss Lai and Liu Zhili had been hiding out in the city for many years. They couldn’t represent all of the capital’s underworld power, but there really weren’t many that practiced human trafficking; there had only been three groups for a long time now.
These two gangs were local tyrants, and they knew who they could and could not provoke. They would absolutely never do something so disaster-courting as kidnapping the family of officials. At most, they would act against the children of merchants, maybe leaving a message behind for their family following the abduction, extorting a large sum of money from them, then putting them back where they got them.
In addition to them was the Southside Gang, whose leader was Ding Yimu. It had rampant social connections, even more audacious, dark-acting, and unscrupulous in choosing targets than the other two, specializing in seeking out pretty-looking children. If they were from a wealthy family, they would place importance on extorting money from them. If there was no money to fish up, simply selling them to brothels to be trained up would still be a huge amount of income.
Ding Yimu had considerable good publicity on the streets for being righteous, where the Southside Gang could be more underhanded than the other two precisely because of his personal conduct. Even so, the majority of the Gang’s businesses were run by its second-in-command, Deng Xiucai. The guy had a black heart and violent hands that many lives had fallen to, but due to him being willing to pay evil unto evil, he had opened a lot of key connections, causing each bureau to turn a blind eye to him.
On top of that, the kids the Gang kidnapped would sometimes get sent into the palace, taken in by people therein, then sent further in as eunuchs after their body was purified. The Gang’s vast abilities were self-evident.
This warranted talk about the few biggest sources of eunuchs. One was like Wang Zhi, where they had been a frontier citizen, but because of a defeated uprising, their families were escorted to the capital, the children amongst them sent into the palace to be eunuchs. Another was like Huai En, where they had been from an official’s family, but were implicated because said family committed an offense, then got sent into the palace to be a eunuch on account of their youth. Of course, there were also those that willingly castrated themselves for the sake of going into the palace and winning riches, like the infamous, corrupt Wang Zhen of the previous Court.
It did have to be noted that not everyone had a way of getting into the palace after such self-castration as he once had. Many got barred outside the palace gates. One of the Brocade Guard’s yearly tasks was to see these men back off to their ancestral homes.
It was ridiculous to hear, but it was the truth. The palace was already full up on eunuchs, so no one could get in just because they wanted to. Self-castration was merely the first step; the ability to get into the palace after that depended on one’s own skill.
Boss Lai and Liu Zhili had been unhappy with their business being snatched. They would formerly go to cause trouble for the other party, only to always return defeated. Later on, the three groups had reached a peace treaty, dividing up territories in the capital so that they could each do their own thing without encroaching upon each other, thus restoring peace at last.
Prior to learning of the disappearance of Zhu Yong’s daughter, Wang Zhi had been keeping an eye out, but he hadn’t realized how serious it was. He had simply let Boss Lai and Liu Zhili come right to his door first, then arrested them both for interrogation, making them cry out for their parents and repeatedly beg for mercy. Both had stated themselves that they knew that since it was the first day of the Lantern Festival, the bureaus would be strictly on patrol, so they had disallowed any of their subordinates to do anything, to say nothing of the fact that they had never even seen Zhu Yong’s daughter.
As for the leftover Southside Gang, the wardens had gone to its most frequented gambling den, only to discover no members at all. Even after using the Western Depot to shut the den down and overturn it, nobody from the Gang appeared, and all that had been captured were some minor hoodlums that knew nothing.
Only then did Wang Zhi detect that something was off.
Under these circumstances, the case needed to be cracked as soon as possible because of the urgency. There was no time to slowly socialize with the Gang. When he had seen Tang Fan taking Ah-Dong to tour the Festival, he hence got the idea to find a way to get her to act as bait, hoping to directly seize the ones doing it. He hadn’t expected that she would vanish, too.
If he could still remain calm when hearing of Zhu Yong’s youngest going missing, Ah-Dong’s disappearance thus made him antsy. As was known, he had been making guarantees to Tang Fan just a moment ago, but the next moment, the girl had gone missing. How could this not make Eunuch Wang abundantly furious from his huge loss of face?
Back when Tang Fan had left Immortal Cloud with a whirl of his sleeves, Eunuch Wang couldn’t say anything. Now, his emotions had relaxed, and him relaying the entire process of events in a stiff tone was seen as an explanation.
Tang Fan and Sui Zhou had a bit of knowledge about despicable forces like these gangs, but they didn’t know more than Wang Zhi did. As he himself was the Director of the Western Depot, he had more manpower to dispatch plus the resources of the whole Depot centralized into his hands, whatever maneuvers he ever wanted done, done. Him knowing more than them was a matter of course — this asymmetric information really had nothing to do with personal skill.
After hearing this, Tang Fan asked, “Were the guys that fought suspicious?”
Wang Zhi knew what he was asking about. He shook his head. “No, we verified it. It should have just been a random coincidence.”
Tang Fan went quiet. Owing to a random coincidence, Ah-Dong had gone missing. Speaking of, though… if Wang Zhi had never used her as bait, all of this could have been avoided.
Finding Zhu Yong’s daughter was very important, of course, but no one was close to each other in that case. Had Ah-Dong not vanished, Tang Fan would still have concern, but wouldn’t be in his current mood at all.
However, saying anything else about this now would do no good. The matter of most importance was to get her back. Everything else could be put off for later discussion.
“The Southside Gang has been parked in the capital for two years. It must have other operations aside from trafficking, right?” Sui Zhou asked.
Wang Zhi nodded. “Right, that’s what I was going to tell you all about. The Southside Gang is greater than either Boss Lai or Liu Zhili, and they act more ruthlessly, making them poor to communicate with. I asked Ah-Dong be the bait, thinking that I’d catch the gang members and be done with it, but didn’t expect that she would be lost, too. Those that don’t want to make things worse will make things worse…”
Sui Zhou pointed out the core of the issue. “This gang can bribe inner officials of the palace to send children inside it. Their backing can’t be said to be shallow. Will that effect our investigation?”
The other looked at him, expression a bit strange. “It does have a bit of backing, but you shouldn’t be asking me about this. You should be asking your Commanding Envoy.”
Sui Zhou frowned, saying nothing.
“Still, even if the Southside Gang has backing in officialdom, it shouldn’t have anything to do with this case. It must be that some of their underlings are misbehaving. With such a big forest, there’s bound to be all sorts of birds.”
Tang Fan felt like Wang Zhi’s attitude was very strange, and dubious. It was just like before; since he had already found out that this was related to the Southside Gang, it would’ve been fine for him to go for them directly, yet he had Ah-Dong be bait instead. It seemed like he only wanted to find the crook kidnapping kids, not aim at the entire Gang. Combining that with the answer he just gave to Sui Zhou’s question, Tang surmised that this might be because the Gang was in collusion with Commanding Envoy Wan Tong, who was Consort Wan’s little brother. Was Wang Zhi therefore not wanting to shoot at the rats out of fear that he would hit the vases?
For it to be able to make the ever-lawless, unfearing Wang Zhi want to keep the peace, the Gang’s capabilities were plainly not the ordinary sort of immense.
However, if it could send children into the palace to be eunuchs, was it not only facilitated by Wan Tong? Was Wang Zhi being this hush-hush because the Gang had some other backer?
In a split second, a lot of ideas flitted through his head. Before he had time to ponder deeper, though, he heard Wang Zhi’s chilly voice speak up. “But, it’s likely also because of this that they’ve gotten all the more self-confident, relying on having people in officialdom to act without restraint. What they’ve done this time around is really too much, and it’s already reached imperial ears. No matter what, the kids have to be found as soon as possible.”
The captured two had just witnessed Wang Zhi pour them out empty. Not only were their faces deathly white, but they were terrified.
“You two are Southside Gang members, and you’ve heard what Director Wang just said,” Tang Fan spoke. “We’re just asking for the chief criminal; his followers will get leniency. The child you just tried to abduct has been retrieved, so, as long as you’re willing to proactively cooperate by obediently explaining where the Gang has stowed away the kidnapped children, you won’t be charged. Not only that, you’ll be rewarded.”
Neither said anything.
He was anxious on the inside, but maintained a calm look on his surface. “Since you won’t be charged, I can’t think of any other reason for you to not be forthcoming. Do you really want to go to the Bastille, or the Western Depot? If you do, all sorts of torture will be carried out on you, and you won’t be allowed either survival or death. It’ll be too late for you to repent, then.”
After he said that, Sui Zhou waved his hand in conjunction. “Take them back to the Bastille for pipa-play. We’ll go up and keep watch again later. No need to worry about not finding their colleagues.”
Xue Ling affirmed, flashing the two his ghastly white teeth. “Do you guys know what pipa-play is? Let me tell you; we take a sharp knife to your ribs, then strum them like the strings of a pipa. You won’t die, but the knife will still grind back and forth, scraping your flesh off with it until the very end, when there’s nothing left but bone… and then it’ll grind against that. That sound, tsk-tsk. Even my teeth hurt from hearing it.”
With such a description of torture, there was no need for them to experience pipa-play for themselves, as they had immediately crumbled, bawling. “Sir, it’s not that we refuse to talk, but that it’s the biggest rule of the gang! If the second-in-command learned that we did something like this, we’d probably get skinned, and then die all the same!”
“Is Deng Xiucai responsible for the human trafficking your gang does?” Tang Fan asked.
One among them was sniveling. “Yes, that’s always been his domain. I heard that a bunch of higher goods had been abducted tonight, but our gang status isn’t high. We don’t know much!”
“You don’t have to worry about any retaliation,” he answered warmly. “How about this; after this is done, the authorities will help arrange new identities for you, then give you ample funds for shelter so that you can start over again in the South, letting you always be at ease.”
Xue Ling made a move like he was going to take them away. “Why bother with them, Sir Tang? Since they don’t want to now, once they undergo pipa-play, they’ll be willing to say everything!”
With this hard-and-soft approach, the two finally and totally surrendered. “We’ll talk! We’ll talk! We’ll explain everything!”
Despite having human trafficking as their business, the Southside Gang didn’t sell salt illegally like Boss Lai and Liu Zhili. They instead ran brothels and gambling dens, and also set up usury loans — in other words, they couldn’t get any more wicked.
Selling people was not exactly illegal. For example, disasters happened all over the place in the Great Ming, and when the citizens could no longer survive, them selling their children was quite normal; it also happened to be source of slaves for may higher households. However, as was stated earlier, these traffickers would sometimes either kidnap ordinary peoples’ children for high profits, or extort a high price from rich families, or sell those with good looks to affluent places in the South, like those prostitution areas in Yangzhou.
Just take a look at the previous worth of Jubilance’s former top number, Feng Qingzi. It wasn’t hard to imagine the immense profits she had to have accrued. With the Southside Gang’s method of kidnapping people and owning brothels at the exact same time, there was then no need to trade off to someone else — they could simply groom those pitiful, innocent children into a source of wealth.
Such practices were utterly reprehensible, but despite being forever banned in every Dynasty, there was no way to permanently cure it, only judge whether the circumstances were grave or not.
On the basis of the information supplied by the two men, Tang Fan’s group found a brothel.
The translator says: Deng Xiucai’s name is the same term for County Honorate, but he is not a smart bitch. It’s like naming your kid Hunter, and they turn out to be vegan.
 The history behind salt/tea/consumables smuggling is long and complicated, but here’s the gist of it: since the ancient Chinese viewed these as necessities to life, they put special taxes and sanctions on them. However, this created bad monopolies, leading to more expensive products of lesser quality. In response, smugglers would put significantly cheaper and better versions on the black market.