Wen Qing greeted Wei Wuxian with a sly look as he stumbled into his office with his tie only half knotted around his neck and his hand already reaching for the nearest empty cup.
“Mmthere coffee?” he muttered.
Wen Qing pulled the cup from his hand, filling it from a freshly brewed pot. “You’re a disaster, boss. Pull yourself together - we have a guest.”
“Ah??” Wei Wuxian burned the roof of his mouth from the scalding liquid and cast an accusatory look into his cup.
“Careful. It’s hot.”
“Mrrr.” Wei Wuxian set the cup aside, impatiently waiting for the liquid to cool. “What guest?”
A tall figure in a feather-trimmed, white Chanel coat unfolded out of the armchair in the corner of Wei Wuxian’s office. “She means me.”
Wei Wuxian squinted at the large sapphire pendants that reflected the shaggy, silver coiffure that framed the by now familiar face. “Ah, Mr. Ice Prince!” Wei Wuxian swallowed. “I see your hair has turned positively silver from grief!”
“It’s a disguise, Mr. Wei,” Lan Wangji replied with a bored expression.
“You don’t say.”
“My Uncle insisted that I come by your office so we could speak,” Lan Wangji intoned with all the enthusiasm that Wei Wuxian could imagine of one visiting the dentist. “I’ve been waiting here for quite some time.”
“I keep unusual hours,” Wei Wuxian replied.
“Your secretary explained.”
“She’s my partner.”
Lan Wangji fixed Wen Qing with a distrustful gaze. She looked back at him equally unimpressed. “How very avant garde,” he stated.
“Her name is Wen Qing,” Wen Wuxian gestured between his uninvited guest and his best friend.
“I’m riveted,” Lan Wangji responded.
“Told you he was a bitch,” Wei Wuxian whispered into Wen Qing’s ear.
“Well, if you don’t need me,” Wen Qing said with an eye roll, “I have some errands to run.”
Wei Wuxian desperately grabbed her by the elbow. “Who said I don’t need you?” His partner simply laughed, throwing on her coat and heading for the door with treasonous intent. “Don’t forget about tonight!” he hollered in her wake. “And bring your paramour - I’ll need her connections!”
This case was already going to be a pain in his ass without the Ice Prince showing up unannounced in his office and getting on Wen Qing’s bad side. Wei Wuxian turned, fixing Lan Wangji with his best approximation of an ice cold stare.
“Are you an asshole to everyone or just to people you hire?” he snarled.
Lan Wangji seemed to consider the question with a serious expression before finally settling for, “Everyone.”
“I guess I won’t take it personally then.”
Wei Wuxian was not going to let the beautiful asshole get under his skin. He adjusted his tie and unbuttoned his suit jacket to make himself feel more at ease. “Why don’t you sit your princely ass back down," he suggested, graciously. "You want an extremely hot cup of joe?”
“Your partner already offered me tea.”
“Then, can I offer you something stronger?”
Lan Wangji gave Wei Wuxian a look that would have withered a weaker man. Ah yes, Wei Wuxian suddenly recalled, low alcohol tolerance is what the Ice Prince allegedly owed his near-call with dishonor to, according to his Uncle. He almost laughed. He wouldn’t be getting very far in this investigation if his client thought he had dishonorable intentions towards his esteemed and unapproachable person.
“Suit yourself, then.” Wei Wuxian plopped into his chair and stretched his feet out over the top of his own desk. He pulled his hip flask from the inner pocket of his suit jacket, and added the contents to his cup of cooling coffee. There, now he could have his uppers with his downers in relative peace. “I apologize,” he started again. “I didn’t mean to get off on the wrong foot with you. I seem to recall your Uncle saying something about how you do not drink.”
This… was not going to be an easy interview.
“It would help out with my side of the investigation if you were to tell me as much as you know about what actually happened,” he tried again. “Start with telling me about your husband.” After a pause, he added, “Your late husband.”
“Guangshan was a slobbering pig who made his fortune in bootlegging and had designs of being a social climber.”
Wei Wuxian did his best to suppress a snicker. “Look, I know it wasn’t exactly a love match. But surely there must have been something you liked about the man? Your brother, Xichen, told me he gave you a number of expensive wedding gifts.” Lan Wangji remained silent and immobile in his armchair. “I saw the family portrait he had commissioned,” Wei Wuxian attempted to loosen his guest’s tongue again. “The likeness was striking and tastefully rendered. What else did he give you, if you don’t mind my asking?”
Lan Wangji shifted slightly and raised one of his elegant hands. Without gloves on, Wei Wuxian was able to admire the long, musician’s fingers. Unlike Lan Wangji’s neck, which was constantly draped in layers of jewels, his fingers were mostly bare, except for what looked like a golden signet ring with the Lan family crest on it. Lan Wangji pulled the silver wig off his head and shook out his dark hair. It was lustrous like onyx and looked slightly damp, as if Lan Wangji had freshly bathed before getting ready to visit Wei Wuxian. Before he started to mentally undress his guest any further, Wei Wuxian took another swallow of his Irish coffee.
“I know it’s uncouth to speak ill of the dead,” Lan Wangji finally said, “but Guangshan was a very crude man, more interested in abiding by his own garish tastes than by ours. Would you believe he bought me a collier of rubies? Rubies, Mr. Wei,” he emphasized with a shudder. “Everyone across the Golden State knows I prefer sapphires. Such effrontery, really.”
Well, Wei Wuxian had to give it to the Ice Prince, it was true that even he himself had somehow been inculcated with this cursed knowledge of Lan Wangji’s preferred gemstones, although he’d be damned if he knew how and why.
Wei Wuxian cleared his throat. “Ahem, yes, I see. What a Neanderthal.”
“Thank you, Mr. Wei.”
Wei Wuxian swallowed. The whiskey inside his coffee mug burned the back of his throat pleasantly. Lan Wangji was beautiful, and absolutely intolerable. Two qualities which did not necessarily make him a murderer. Still, Wei Wuxian wasn’t so sure that Jiang Cheng’s instincts were off in this case.
“It’s really all right if you call me Wei Ying,” he blurted out, against his better judgement.
“I’d really prefer not to get so overly familiar. Mr. Wei.”
“As you wish, your highness,” Wei Wuxian shrugged. “The thing is, if we’re going to point the police away from you, we’ll need a slew of other suspects. Care to brainstorm with me who besides yourself may have wanted your husband dead?”
“I did not want my husband dead, Mr. Wei.”
Wei Wuxian laughed. “Sure, sure. You sound full of affection for the old sod, and I can see you are besides yourself with mourning.”
“You are mocking me.”
“Only a little.”
“I had never seen Guangshan’s will. I had no idea he would have left me half of everything. He had two adult sons…”
“Tell me about them.”
“Well, there’s Zixuan - he’s younger but he’s Guangshan’s only son from his legal marriage. Guangyao was born… out of wedlock. Guangshan had formerly adopted him much later in life.”
“What are they like?”
“Conventionally pretty. Nothing to write home about.”
“I did not mean their looks, your highness.”
“Oh…” Lan Wangji looked genuinely at a loss. “Zixuan seems oddly morally upstanding for that family. He must take after the late Madam Jin. You may wish to ask my brother about Guangyao. They’re… They’ve grown close.”
“And you do not approve?”
Lan Wangji pulled his ribcage inward, as if trying to protect himself from an invisible attack. “I trust my brother’s judgement,” he uttered.
Wei Wuxian was not entirely convinced. There was something else going on there, although he could not quite place his finger on what yet, and pressing Lan Wangji about it would likely prove futile.
“Your brother seems like an easy man to like,” Wei Wuxian probed gently.
Lan Wangji’s eyes darkened again. “My brother has a pure and trusting heart, which many people in this world would strive to take advantage of.”
“Ah, so you must protect him?”
“Who said that?”
Wei Wuxian looked around, as if someone other than the two of them had truly been speaking, and spread out his hands in a helpless gesture. “Nevermind,” he conceded. “Besides the two sons, who obviously also stood to inherit, can you think of anyone else who may have wished your late husband harm?”
“He was a gangster, Mr. Wei.”
“He was a businessman,” Wei Wuxian corrected, cheekily.
“Pish posh,” Lan Wangji whispered under his breath and Wei Wuxian snorted. There was something quite compelling about being abused by someone as beautiful as Lan Wangji. But that was a thought for another day entirely. Better yet, for another night. “Well, if you like…”
“Please! Anything. Anyone at all.”
“There’s Seymour Yao, of course.”
“Is that the guy who keeps sending you messenger boys with proposals?” Wei Wuxian reached for his cup, only to find it empty. He pulled out his hip flask and took a fortifying gulp directly from the neck, before putting it back in his pocket.
“The same,” Lan Wangji agreed with a barely perceptible frown. “He was very interested in me even before Guangshan and I were wed. Of course, the man is a pleb, far far beneath my mention.”
“Even lower than Jin Guangshan?”
“He doesn’t even have Guangshan’s levels of money.”
“You jest, but the man is repugnant, Mr. Wei. There isn’t a bigger gossip in all of San Francisco. Besides, none of them want me for me. They only want what I symbolize.”
“And what’s that?”
“The power and prestige of Cloud Recesses.”
It had been a long time since Wei Wuxian last heard the old Lan Manor being referred to by its ancestral name. Something about the way Lan Wangji said it, with tender reverence, made him sit up in his chair and lower his legs from his desk. He drummed his fingers against the polished wood of his tabletop and stroked his chin in contemplation.
“You say your husband was a gangster - what do you know of his business dealings? Who were his rivals? What sort of vendettas did he have?”
“Mr. Wei, we were only wed less than a month. Guangshan never shared that information with me. I… I don’t think he married me for my business acumen.”
“So, one day, you both went to bed and when you woke up… he was…?”
“Quite dead. Yes.”
“Anything memorable happen the night before?”
“I’m sorry I can’t be of any more help, Mr. Wei. All I can do is reiterate that I did not want my husband murdered.”
Wei Wuxian gave the other man a long look. “No,” he said. “Perhaps you did not. But you never once said you are sorry that he’s dead.”
“Death comes for all of us, Mr. Wei. Sooner or later.”
Wei Wuxian fixed Lan Wangji with a melancholy look. To die with a man like that in your bed - there were certainly worse ways to go. With that, he still felt compelled to add, “I prefer later.”
There were many bars popping up after the war in the city, but Local Edition, in the basement of the Hearst Building, still had that old speak-easy vibe that appealed to the glitterati of the day. It was where anyone who was anyone came to rub elbows and drink finely mixed cocktails served by exquisitely attired bartenders. It seemed the logical place for Wei Wuxian to do reconnaissance for a case of such a high profile.
He was probably going to have to step on many toes to get what he wanted, since it was becoming readily apparent that Lan Wangji would never be able to fend for himself. Oh sure, he looked like his bite was as bad as his bark, but his tales simply did not stand up to scrutiny. Wei Wuxian was entirely unconvinced of his innocence himself. The question was - was there someone else out there who was at least equally as guilty? A rival? A lover? Lan Qiren had hired him to point the finger in another direction. He just needed a convincing direction to point.
He found Wen Qing and MianMian canoodling in a booth in the back corner of the bar, their heads pressed close together, trading soft whispers. Wei Wuxian plopped down next to them, uninvited, setting his gimlet down next to their martini glasses.
“QingQing! Remember, we’re here to work.”
“XianXian, you’re a pest.”
“But I’m adorable,” he pointed out, which was, objectively, true. Many people have told him so in his long and illustrious life. “I am buying the next round, ladies,” he said with a placating smile. “But in the meantime, I need introductions. Who is who around here? Who, you know, knows things? Who is the Seymour Yao of high society San Francisco?”
Wen Qing reluctantly pulled away from her gal pal and cast her eyes about the darkened salon. “Well, you’ll probably want to talk to Nie Huaisang,” she said, pointing out someone who had all the accoutrements of a dandy playboy. “Do you know Captain Nie Mingue?”
“By reputation only,” Wei Wuxian admitted.
“That’s his baby brother.”
“They have different moms,” MianMian chimed in, as if that explained everything.
“Huaisang knows everything while pretending to know nothing,” Wen Qing explained. “He’s probably slept with more than half the people in this bar.”
“A celebrity!” Wei Wuxian toasted the man that his friends had pointed out with his raised glass. The man in question looked behind him, as if uncertain that the gesture was intended for him, and then flashed Wei Wuxian an enchanting smile. “You must introduce us, QingQing.”
“Remember, you’re here to work, not to bone him.”
“Please, ladies, I’m a professional.”
“A professional dumbass.”
“Insulted,” Wei Wuxian said, not even remotely insulted. "And what about the Jin sons, MianMian? Any of them here tonight?"
"It's still early," MianMian pointed out. "If I see either of them, I'll go over to talk to them and signal you to join us."
"What would I do without you, ladies?" Wei Wuxian gallantly kissed MianMian's hand, earning a dubious look from Wen Qing.
"Likely starve to death in front of a full refrigerator, you disaster of a man."
"Wen Qing, you wound me." Wei Wuxian pressed his hand to his heart with dramatic flare.
Nie Huaisang truly was a gasbag, Wei Wuxian was finding. Fortunately, in his line of work, gasbags were invaluable sources of information. However, it was difficult to discern, his intoxicated state notwithstanding, whether Nie Huaisang’s pronouncements were truly simply the ravings of an overexcitable mind, or something entirely more calculated.
“So, anyways, I said to my brother, I said - Brother, if you are in love with that Lan Xichen fellow, stop beating about the bush, and jump into the bush before someone else does!” Nie Huaisang was pronouncing at the same time as he waved the bartender to refill his elaborate drink. “But my brother is an honorable man, Mr. Wei. He knew his army pension could never support Lan Xichen in the lifestyle he and his brother have grown accustomed to, and so he was willing to simply…” Here Nie Huaisang let out a dainty hiccup. “Simply step aside. And now, of course, it looks very much like Lan Xichen might end up with Jin Guangyao.” He lowered his voice conspiratorially, “Did you know that Jin Guangyao was his daddy’s main fixer?”
Wei Wuxian shook his head. “Tell me more, my friend!”
Nie Huaisang beamed up at him and slipped another gimlet into Wei Wuxian’s waiting hand. Wei Wuxian could not surmise where all this dispensable income came from, considering Nie Huaisang had no detectable profession. But he was also not going to look a gift horse in the mouth, especially if the horse was buying drinks.
“They say,” Nie Huaisang lowered his voice again, “they say that whenever Jin Guangshan needed something done on, you know, the other side of his business, he always sent in Jin Guangyao to take care of it. But I don’t know the details, I really don’t know.”
Wei Wuxian was about to try his luck and see how much Nie Huaisang might suddenly remember if perhaps he had another drink, when his companion’s eyes widened and he took a step back, colliding with the brass rail of the bar.
“Oh, fuck. He’s here. I didn’t say anything. Well, there’s nothing to say, is there? I wish him all the best. Lan Xichen is a very beautiful man.”
Wei Wuxian could not disagree there. He slowly, so as not to arouse suspicion, turned to face the salon and locked eyes with MianMian, who was just rising from her seat. It appeared he was about to be introduced to one of Jin Guangshan’s heirs after all.
“Nie-xiong,” he tipped his trilby at his new friend, “you’ve been exceedingly helpful.”
“Wei-xiong, surely you exaggerate!”
The first thing Wei Wuxian noticed when he was introduced to Jin Guangyao was that he was incredibly short. The second thing he noticed was the dimples. Dimples and puppy eyes. What a pretty picture Jin Guangshan’s illegitimate son painted. The Ice Prince had been wrong - he was something to write home about. Though, Wei Wuxian supposed, if the face you saw in the mirror every day was that of Lan Wangji, everyone else would seem a bit of a troll by comparison. Still, Jin Guangyao was cute as all get out.
Also the dimples. Had he mentioned the dimples? There was no way someone with that face was a fixer unless by “fixer” Nie Huaisang meant of his father’s social calendar. What on earth? That boy had the sweetest face on the West Coast, Wei Wuxian would bet his hat on it.
“I’m so sorry for your loss,” he said, shaking the man’s hand.
“We’re all so shocked by it,” Jin Guangyao responded, demure and misty-eyed.
“Are the police any closer to catching who did it?” Wei Wuxian played dumb. It was, honestly, one of his fortes.
“It’s embarrassing to mention, really,” Jin Guangyao mumbled, looking around the salon to make sure they weren’t being overheard. “And I’m certain it must be a mistake. But the police are looking into my…” He lowered his voice to a husky whisper, causing Wei Wuxian to lean closer to hear him. “My step-father.”
“How dark!” Wei Wuxian exclaimed. “Isn’t your step-father one of the Lans of Cloud Recesses?”
“The Lans are my dear friends,” Dimples protested, wringing his hands. “If Wangji goes to prison, Xichen will be devastated.”
“Doubtlessly, the police will find the real culprit soon,” Wei Wuxian said, squeezing the man’s shoulder in what he hoped was his most reassuring manner.
“From your lips to god’s ears,” Dimples intoned with a devout look in his puppy eyes. “Ah, I see my brother is here as well. And with his girlfriend. You know, I’m so happy Zixuan has someone in this trying time, but it does seem a bit foolhardy to be seeing someone so closely entangled with the police department.”
Wei Wuxian followed Jin Guangyao’s look until he saw a man in an ostentatious suit that appeared to sparkle with sequins. He stood out in the crowd like some ridiculous peacock, and Wei Wuxian was filled with immediate antipathy. These must have been the garish tastes that Lan Wangji held in such low regard, and Wei Wuxian did not blame him. The girl on his arm, though, had a classy look about her, far too classy for the sequined peacock. And just as she turned around to cast a look towards the bar, Wei Wuxian let out a sharp gasp.
MiamMian gave him a gentle shove. “Do you also want to be introduced to Zixuan?”
“No need,” Wei Wuxian said, taking a fortifying gulp of his drink. “I know his date.”
The woman on Jin Zixuan's arm met Wei Wuxian's eyes with a bright smile and waved him over immediately.
"A-Xian!" Clasping his hand in both of hers, she seemed entirely unaware either of Wei Wuxian's discomfiture or her date's sudden tension. "What brings you to Local Edition?"
"It's so good to see you, Shijie," Wei Wuxian said, fighting against the impulse to hug her in front of all these people (and possible suspects in her brother's investigation). Yes, the woman accompanying Jin Zixuan was none other than Jiang Yanli, Jiang Cheng's older sister, and a default mother figure to all his classmates from the police academy. If Wei Wuxian thought of Jiang Cheng as a brother, it went without saying that Yanli was the closest thing he had to a sister. "I'm just here with some friends," he hedged. "And yourself?"
"Oh, how silly of me," Jiang Yanli smiled and reeled her date in closer by his arm. "A-Xian, this is my boyfriend, Jin Zixuan. Zixuan, baby, this is Wei Wuxian. I all but raised him."
Stiffly and with a distrustful look, the Peacock shook Wei Wuxian's hand. "Fiancé," he added curtly.
"Miss Jiang and I are engaged, though we are not announcing it publicly yet, due to the circumstances of my father's passing."
"Ah, of course." Wei Wuxian mustered his most sincere smile. "My condolences and… my clandestine congratulations. I was speaking with your brother earlier. What a torrid affair."
"How do you mean?"
Wei Wuxian faltered and cast a look at Yanli. "I mean… the murder investigation. It must be extremely awkward for the two of you. I'm surprised Jiang Cheng has not recused himself - you are to be family, after all."
"A-Cheng doesn't know," Yanli said in a lowered voice.
"But surely…" Wei Wuxian was at a loss. "He's a detective and this is something he might… detect?"
"Zixuan, baby, do you mind if I speak with my Didi alone for a few moments?"
With readily apparent reluctance, the Peacock gave Yanli a squeeze before going over to say hello to Dimples and MianMian.
"You're working this case, aren't you?" she said as soon as her fiancé was out of earshot. "Does A-Cheng know?"
"It seems, dear Sis, that you and I have both been keeping secrets from our copper brother."
"It's different. I love Zixuan. You, I can only presume, are in it solely for the money. Who hired you?"
"Not at discretion to say. But love you."
"Then are you looking into Zixuan's connection to all this?"
"Why? Should I be? Rumor on the street is he's the only one of the Jins who wasn't born crooked."
"A-Xian, you must drop this case!"
"As a personal favor to you?"
"Nothing good can come of you sticking your nose in this. It's bad enough that A-Cheng is involved. A high profile case like this, with so many highly positioned people involved, at the very least you'll make enemies."
"But I might also make friends."
"Shijie! If you should be warning anyone off this case, it should be Jiang Cheng. Imagine the trouble he'd get for not disclosing your relationship with one of the potential suspects! And what if one day he has to drag your fiancé off in handcuffs? Have you thought about that?"
"That's ridiculous! Everyone knows it was the Lans who did it! Either one of them or all three, you take a pick - each one had a motive as big as the other!"
"So you're standing by your man," Wei Wuxian replied, fighting to keep his composure. "Very admirable of you. I hope you really did pick the one Jin worth standing by."
When the slap came, it seemed to shock Jiang Yanli even more than Wei Wuxian. They each drew back, their faces flushed and breaths panting from excitement. Wei Wuxian's rage seized him by the very roots of his hair. He hadn't been ill-treated like this since his early days of foster care, and Yanli had been the last person he would have expected it from.
"A-Xian, I'm so sorry," she stammered, her eyes big and filled with unshed tears.
"No, Shijie, I'm sorry," he countered. "I treated you like a suspect and that was wrong of me."
"I have to go."
He left before he did anything else he might regret. He was vaguely aware that he should have informed Wen Qing or MianMian of his departure, but blood pounded in his temples and he felt far too close to suffocating. He needed to get some air, or better yet, have a cigarette in the fresh air. Yes. That would clear his thoughts.
He stumbled upstairs, head still spinning from the drinks and the lasting effects of his final encounter. He pushed the door open and burst out into the crisp, cool air of Market Street. Downtown was still pretty busy for a work night, with small groups docking into various drinking holes in an attempt to make the night seem longer and life less tedious. The stars were invisible above the thick layer of fog, but the street lights twinkled far too brightly. Wei Wuxian lit one of his Lucky Strikes and turned off the main drag into a darkened side street, away from prying eyes.
In truth, he wasn't sure what had hurt more: the slap or what Yanli had said leading up to it. It was undeniable that the Lans had both the motive and the opportunity to off Jin Guangshan. Lan Qiren all but confessed to wanting him dead. Lan Wangji had the most to gain from that death. And even Lan Xichen, whose own pride must've been sorely wounded when he got passed over for his younger and ruder brother, was not above suspicion, his decidedly genteel nature notwithstanding. Yanli was correct in her assessment of the Lans. What confounded Wei Wuxian entirely was why he had been so upset at that insinuation. Upset enough to lash out at the one person in the world who had always treated him with nothing but kindness.
"You're an asshole, that's why," Wei Wuxian muttered to himself, taking a hard, punishing drag on his cigarette.
Something shifted out in the shadows. Wei Wuxian opened his suit jacket, hand prepared to reach for his hidden holster, when a gruff voice sounded from the darkness, "I would not do that if I were you, Mr. Wei."
The figure of a masked man emerged from the shadows into the poorly lit path of the alley. He held a gun pointed squarely at Wei Wuxian's chest.
Wei Wuxian dropped the remains of his cigarette into a nearby puddle and watched it fizzle out with a dying puff of smoke.
"What do you want?" he asked the stranger.
"First, I wanna see your hands."
Wei Wuxian raised his hands above his head. People who wanted you dead generally shot first and chatted you up later.
"Second," the man said, still keeping Wei Wuxian in his gun's sights, "I want you to give Old Man Lan his money back and keep your nose out of this investigation."
As soon as the question was out of Wei Wuxian's mouth, a gunshot blasted through the alley, frightening a nearby flock of pigeons and sending them scrambling for the foggy skies. The bullet ricocheted off the wall right above Wei Wuxian's head.
"Don't play games with us, Mr. Wei," said the masked stranger. "Next time, I won't miss."