As the secretary got up to take a look at the tumbler, Chen Peng crossed his arms and frowned.
Who knows how long that’s been here?”
The secretary twisted the cap open and felt a puff of warm air coming out of it.
“Old Wang did say they come here between morning and late afternoon every day to keep an eye on the river.
They might’ve just brought this over earlier today.
It seems warm, and there’s still half of it left.
Would you like a sip, Second Young Master? There’s also a small porcelain teapot here.”
At first, Chen Peng snobbishly refused to drink from that metal tumbler.
Meanwhile, the two body fishers were taking longer than expected, and their motorboat went further downstream, eventually disappearing from everyone’s sight.
Another half an hour passed, and Chen Peng couldn’t bear his thirst.
He poured some of the liquid inside the tumbler out onto his hand to make sure it was not too hot to drink.
Then, he tipped the entire tumbler forward, intending to drink in big gulps.
However, thanks to the wide mouth on the tumbler, too much of it came rushing out and he choked, causing the excess liquid to drench the front of his shirt.
It was an embarrassing sight to look at.
“Shit!” Chen Peng wiped his mouth uncouthly.
He was so furious, he almost hurled the tumbler into a corner.
Just then, the rumbling sound of an engine could be heard getting louder as the motorboat approached, catching their attention.
Chen Yunzhi stood up, staring at the motorboat expectantly as it glided slowly across the water, slicing through the piles of floating corpses.
Within minutes, it stopped by the river bank.
Shitou was standing at the front of the boat, his hands tugging on one end of a rope, which seemed to be attached to something on the other end.
Wang Laowu sat by the rear of the boat, waving gleefully at them.
As he grinned, his wrinkles deepened, like a blooming chrysanthemum.
“We got it!”
“Xu’er!” Chen Yunzhi exclaimed as he strode across the pebbled shore towards the boat, and his secretary followed closely behind.
Chen Peng and his mother, however, remained at their spot, the former standing while the latter sat in her chair, unwilling to move.
Unlike Chen Yunzhi, they seemed calm and indifferent.
They glanced at each other, and Chen Peng gently patted his mother’s hand in a comforting gesture before they turned their cold gazes back to the river.
By the time the boat arrived, Tang Tian had all but dozed off while sitting on her rock, with one arm on her knee and one hand propping her head up.
The raspy voice of Wang Laowu shocked her awake and she jumped.
As she lifted one foot to walk toward them, she felt some sort of resistance, as if something or someone was yanking the hem of her shirt from behind.
She froze and whispered, “Is it you, Chen Xu? You don’t want me to go over there?” Tang Tian attempted to step forward again, to see how he would react.
The force that was tugging her shirt persisted.
Tang Tian deliberated for a moment and stepped backward.
“Alright, I won’t take a look.”
The pulling stopped, and the corner of her lips curled into a small smile.
Is he refusing to let me see such an unpleasant side of him because he’s being a gentleman, or merely too prideful about his appearance? she wondered.
The motorboat had stopped some distance from land for safety, but Shitou jumped off the deck easily, making a big splash as his rain boots thumped loudly against the pebbles.
“Boss, do check if this body is the one you’re looking for.” He yanked on his rope, which was wrapped around a floating body, and trudged towards the group.
Chen Yunzhi peered at the body and cried out, “My son! It’s my Xu’er!”
As the saying goes, blood is thicker than water.
Nothing could stop him from recognising his own son, even if the corpse was already half-decomposed.
Wang Laowu sighed as he saw the father’s reaction.
He anchored the boat to a thick wooden pole that was hammered into the soil and expressed his condolences, then gave Chen Yunzhi a few minutes to mourn.
A quick glance at the sky confirmed that the sun had begun to set.
“The sky is darkening,” said the body fisher.
“It gets dark earlier in the mountains than elsewhere, so we must hurry and leave this place at once.
We got you the body.
You owe us twenty thousand—”
Chen Yunzhi’s secretary interjected, “You will get your twenty thousand once we safely arrive back at the village.
Not a penny less, I assure you.”
Satisfied grins formed on the two body fishers’ faces.
“Let’s hurry and leave now, then.
But—” Wang Laowu lifted a bony finger at the corpse.
“—the price we agreed on earlier was only for fishing the body out.
Now, someone’s got to carry the body on their backs for half an hour, all the way through the mountains and back to the village.
You people planning to do that on your own or are you paying us to do it?”
The whole ordeal had depleted Chen Peng’s arguably limited store of patience, and he shouted at the old man furiously, “Are you mad? How dare you not be satisfied with twenty thousand for fishing out a damn corpse! You’re the body fisher! It’s your responsibility to lift it back to the village!”
Chen Yunzhi’s expression turned grim as well.
“Don’t be outrageous!” Money was never the main issue—he simply could not accept being ripped off like this.
Wang Laowu let out a sarcastic chuckle.
“You asked us to fish out the body, and we did as told.” He tugged at his trousers, which were completely drenched and dripped river water on the ground as he walked.
Although he wore a pair of rain boots, water had filled the insides when he waded through the river in search of Chen Xu’s corpse.
“You know, the river is filled with rotting corpses—any ordinary person who comes into contact with it is likely to catch various skin diseases.
Why don’t you people go down for a swim instead, with all those bodies?” He gestured towards the river as he spoke.
The Chen family all glanced at the body-filled river bend.
They were now closer to the river and could see the bloated, floating cadavers in much clearer detail.
Some that floated face-up had eyeballs and tongues protruding from their decomposed faces.
Under their tattered clothes, their limbs were bloated to an inhuman size, and their skins had turned an awful shade of dark green.
While Chen Yunzhi and Chen Peng managed to suppress their urge to gag, the sight clearly affected Lin Luoyan, who staggered back and retched.
Wang Laowu observed their expressions with great interest, then continued, “Anyway, the body’s out from the water.
Remember what we agreed upon back at the village? The terms were that we would go down those waters, and get the body back to you.
Nothing was said about carrying it back!”
It was the Chens who were too naive.
They assumed the body fishers would also transport the body back to the village, as part of their services, since the riverbend wasn’t too far from the village.
But they had underestimated the two cunning body fishers, who utilised this chance to extort more money from them.
Chen Yunzhi’s secretary retorted, “If you were going to charge us for this, you should have told us before we departed! What you’re doing now is basically ripping us off! We’ll call the police on you!”
The older body fisher crossed his hands behind his back, arrogantly showing off his tobacco-stained teeth as he smirked.
“Go on then, call the police, I dare you.
Let’s see if the police will interfere.
In our line of business, if we set a price and both parties agree, that’s the end of it.
I already made it clear what our offer includes at the beginning.
If our clients were really poor, we wouldn’t charge this extra fee, of course.
But… If you people want to carry the body on your own, suit yourself.
I’m even willing to lend you our wooden stretcher, free of charge.”
His words were aggravating, but no one was willing to carry a slippery, rotten corpse on their backs either.
The secretary clenched his teeth.
He waited for Chen Yunzhi’s approval, then asked, “How much do you two want?”
Wang Laowu lifted three fingers and said “Thirty thousand.
It shouldn’t be a problem for wealthy-looking people like you all.”
The secretary went on to haggle with him on the price, while Tang Tian watched from afar, keeping her promise to Chen Xu.
Abruptly, she felt a chill run down her spine, and her hair stood on end.
A murky, rotten stench wafted across the air, and she felt a finger touching her back.
Piercing cold seeped through her clothes.
She shivered again as it began to move, upwards then downwards, as if it was writing some sort of message on her back.
Before she could react, the finger had stopped.
She stood stock-still, befuddled and dazed.
Whoever was behind her noticed her confusion and rewrote the message again, twice.
“Go? You want us to leave now?”
She understood his message after the third time, so the pressure on her back disappeared.
Tang Tian said to the others, “Chen Xu is urging us to get out of this place as soon as possible.
Something is not right here, at the Dead Man’s Riverbend and the Graveyard Mountain.”
Her tone was decisive, but the secretary and Wang Laowu ignored her, continuing with her haggling.
She frowned, interrupting them with a grim tone, “Thirty thousand it is, but you cannot simply raise the price later.”
Her delicate, mellow voice contrasted starkly with their blusterous, raspy voices.
They fell silent and turned to look at her.
It was dusk in the middle of summer, and as Tang Tian stood on top of a larger rock by the river, with her back against the setting sun, the sight of her long, jet-black hair that framed her pale features and her wraithlike figure against the eerie, misty mountains was dreadfully unsettling.
Their irritation towards each other was quickly eclipsed by worry and uneasiness.
Chen Peng huffed, “Who are you to say that?” He was quite the gentleman to most ladies, but there was something about her haughtiness that irked him greatly.
Tang Tian’s eyes narrowed at the darkening sky.
“If we don’t leave soon, we won’t be able to see a thing here.” She glared at the old man.
“You don’t ever spend the night here for a reason, don’t you? If we waste any more time arguing here, you probably won’t live to see daylight, much less get a penny from any of us.”
Wang Laowu glanced at the sky.
His crooked, smug smile disappeared, replaced by a serious frown.
Without hesitating, he accepted her offer.
Fifty thousand in total for the entire trip.
I want the money the minute we arrive at the village.”
He shouted for his son to grab the plastic tarp that they usually used as a makeshift tent, while he went towards the hut to pick up the wooden stretcher.
He noticed the uncapped metal water tumbler with its contents spilled on the floor, and his expression changed.
“Who drank the water in this tumbler?”
Chen Peng suddenly felt uneasy.
“Is there something wrong with it?”
The old man smirked wickedly.
“We don’t have naturally-sourced water here, so we get our water from the local well.
But the Dead Man’s Riverbend passes through the village, so the murky river waters seep through the soil, polluting our wells.
The locals jokingly call such contaminated waters the ‘soup of flesh and bones’.
I filled that tumbler with water from the wells just earlier today.
I bet it doesn’t taste half-bad, right?”
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