Potential triggers for the entire novel:
Domestic abuse, sexual assault, suicide, nonconsensual sex (main cp).
T97 mentions this is an experimental work. Read @ your own risk.
If any of the above are landmines for you, please stop reading now.
Yan Junxun was having his breakfast when he received the call from Jiang Lian. He had not slept for the entire night, and now he had gone back to looking as if he was dozing off as he sat before the glass of the convenience store by the side of the street to nibble on his crayfish rice ball.
“The newly replaced indoor system in my house changed the call settings of the communicator.” Jiang Lian had just woken up, and there were sounds of movement as he spoke. “I just noticed it earlier. Did something happen?”
“You can have your meal sitting down.” Yan Junxun pinched the rice ball wrapper between his fingers into various shapes. “Your wife is already unhappy.”
Jiang Lian carefully glanced at his wife out of the corner of his eye and sat down meekly. In the interval when his wife had turned around, he said, “How do you even know this?”
Yan Junxun wanted to say that she was making quite the noise setting down the tableware, and she was kicking her slippers when she was walking, so you must have quarreled before going to bed last night; she did not even want to make breakfast for you today. But Yan Junxun did not say so. He did not want to make it seem like he knew everything. So he simply said an “uh-huh” as he glanced at Shi Shanyan, who was sitting beside him, and answered, “Just a guess. I wanted to tell you that the murderer could be working near the Puli neighborhood. You can check the bicycle at Li Jianhua’s doorway again, or the exit passageway of that particular building he resided in. I also wanted to let you know that you can take a look at the unit surveillance of the same building. I’d suggest you run everyone through facial recognition. Perhaps you will find out something new.”
“Alright.” Jiang Lian carried his own plate over and said before digging in, “You know where my house is, right? If you can’t get in touch with me next time, you can just come over.” He quickly finished his fried egg and continued, “The level of automation of these systems now is so high now that I never expected it to modify my communicator settings without authorization.”
Yan Junxun did not want to go to Jiang Lian’s house. His wife’s attitude towards the members of the Inspection Bureau was not all that amicable. Even though Yan Junxun had wanted to tell her many times that he was not a member of the Inspection Bureau, he never had the chance to.
Shi Shanyan was drinking hot water. Other than smoking, his daily habits were very much in keeping with the requirements of a sniper. At this point, he asked Jiang Lian, “What system did your house change to?”
“The ninth generation indoor system for civilian use which has been phased out in Guanggui District.” Jiang Lian greeted the system as he drank his coffee. “Good morning.”
His indoor system replied in the gruff voice of a boorish man, “Good morning, gege!”
Jiang Lian almost spat his coffee out.
“The ninth generation indoor system for civilian use won’t modify the communicator settings without permission.” Shi Shanyan’s long legs shifted into a comfortable position under the table. “It doesn’t have that much initiative.”
Jiang Lian thought that it might have been his wife who modified it. Both of them had been quarreling over each other’s long working hours last night. They wanted a child, but apparently, both of them had no time, and neither wanted to admit that it was their own fault. He could not ask her with Yan Junxun and Shi Shanyan on the line, so he could only say, “Maybe I misremembered… Will both of you come to the Inspection Bureau today?”
“Depends on the situation.” Yan Junxun replied. “I might also go home and sleep.”
Jiang Lian said got it and ended the call.
The morning in Tingbo District was still as gloomy as ever, with clouds covering the top of the cluster of buildings with uneven heights. The industrial chimneys in the far distance were spewing smoke. There were no morning joggers at this time. The air quality was so terrible that there were very few people who had their windows open.
“You think someone modified Jiang Lian’s communicator settings.” Yan Junxun did not want to remain silent, nor did he want to go around in circles with Shi Shanyan. “Who would do so?”
“Someone who pays close attention to the genius.” Shi Shanyan turned his head to look at Yan Junxun. He was still holding the cup of hot water in one hand. “Someone is extremely interested in you and Artemis. Since he can hack into your indoor system, then he can no doubt hack into Jiang Lian’s too. This case seemed to be so simple, yet the Inspection Bureau still has yet to find the culprit. Is it because the information you gave is not accurate enough? No, it’s merely because there is a person interfering with Jiang Lian’s case.”
There was a small screen lit up in the convenience store, and the auntie sitting at the checkout counter was watching a TV drama. She was so engrossed that she forgot to knit her sweater. The volume was not turned up that loud, allowing the sounds from Yan Junxun’s and Shi Shanyan’s conversation to blend in. No one paid any attention to the other.
Looking as if he wanted to keep it a secret, Shi Shanyan raised his arm to rest it on the back of Yan Junxun’s chair and leaned his body over a little. He knew not to go too far when it came to these matters, so he did not move in too close. Instead, he stopped at just the right distance, so that no one could find fault with it. He was like this every time.
“You should be glad that it’s Tingbo District here and that the system’s surveillance cameras don’t cover the entire district, or there won’t be even a place for us to discuss when we come across such a pesky hacker who is as sticky as dogskin plaster.1 He would even be able to see the way you look when you’re using the toilet.”
“You are saying he hacked into Jiang Lian’s system, and at the same time he’s watching Jiang Lian sitting on the toilet bowl, he still wants to monitor our communications and the progress of these cases?” Yan Junxun thought back to the voice changer that day and said, “He’s paying a tad too much attention to these matters.”
“Why don’t you think about why he’s paying such close attention?” Shi Shanyan put down the cup of hot water. There was a hint of this thing called “tenderness” in his eyes. He could recalibrate himself as he pleased. As long as it was required for the present mood, he could present the most appropriate gaze.
Yan Junxun’s trains of thoughts started to run again. They energetically competed with each other in his mind. In the blink of an eye, details of the cases had spread everywhere like the morning fog.
But the communicator rang again. Shi Shanyan tapped it open, as if he had long expected it.
“I just received a call from the bureau.” Jiang Lian hurriedly put on his shoes and opened his house door. “They found a woman named Yang Yu at the service station. She’s a widow. She usually takes on some cleaning orders from the service station and has worked with ‘On-Time Cleaning’ before. She has a son too. At first, the information database only displayed her personal data. Based on the information, the investigators found that she has been reported by clients before for taking advantage of the access her work accorded her to sell her clients’ private household secrets. They subsequently ended up being blackmailed by others. It was later established that her son was the one blackmailing the clients. The investigators suspect that mother and son were blackmailers colluding together to run a scam, so they got ‘Jue’ to run an information search on her son, Cheng Lixin. ‘Jue’ immediately found out that this Cheng Lixin had plenty of bad records. Half a year ago, he owed the mahjong parlor Liu Jincheng guarded a large sum of money, and the repayment account was not his own, but Li Jianhua’s. He worked in a coke factory before and has an old-fashioned truck. This morning, the investigators found him in Diba neighborhood. He is currently staying with Huo Qingjun’s neighbors. Both of them had also partnered together to make threatening calls to Huo Qingjun.”
Jiang Lian stopped at this point. He could not make it sound like he was doubting Yan Junxun.
A clown holding a bunch of balloons just happened to walk past outside the convenience store. He passed by the glass, then doubled back to wink at Yan Junxun, who was within the confines of the glass. One of the balloons suddenly exploded with a deafening noise. Then the remaining balloons began to blow up one by one with a “bang bang bang”. The clown seemed like he did not expect it either; he was so startled he released his hand and subconsciously covered his head.
These sounds, which resembled the sound of dense gunfire, hurt Yan Junxun’s eardrums. All those scenes he had built up in his brain instantly shattered. Countless fragments spun around like lenses, while the data of Liu Jincheng, Li Jianhua, and Huo Qingjun scattered all over like ants.
The auntie in the convenience store was alarmed. She stood up and looked out of the glass in shock, and the sweater in her hands fell to the ground. A flower bud popped out on the clown’s head. When he held his head, it opened with a “pop”, spewing out red paint all over the floor.
[Let’s play a game]
The printed note exposed in the paint had been soaked bloody red. It hung among the clown’s poofy and messy wig, like a declaration of war flag.
Yan Junxun stared at the clown. He heard the chalk that had been writing on the blackboard break and made a jarring noise as it scraped against the board.
“What’s wrong?” On the other end of the communicator, Jiang Lian was befuddled by the sound of exploding balloons. With his heart in his mouth, he asked, “What happened? Junxun?”
Shi Shanyan lowered his index finger to end the call. He tossed the used water cup into the trash can at the entrance with precision. His hand finally made its way to Yan Junxun’s shoulder. Using his own scent to envelop Yan Junxun, he said in a deep voice, “Relax.”
The clown cut a sorry sight as he picked up the balloon pieces on the ground. He wiped the red paint on his face and did a ninety-degree bow to the two men on the other side of the glass. The convenience store auntie had already charged out to give the clown a tongue lashing. He looked to be at a loss as he smiled apologetically, his white teeth looking particularly conspicuous among the red paint.
Yan Junxun closed his eyes. He found it noisy. The sound of the TV drama in the convenience store, the sound of argument outside, and the sound of the blackboard in his mind—all these caused his breathing to speed up.
“Junxun must learn to play games.”
Artemis turned the blackboard around. It was pouring heavily behind him. It pointed to the questions on the blackboard, repeating it day after day before the darkness invaded.
“Junxun is the best genius there is. One who won’t fail in any game.”
Shi Shanyan’s palm was about to touch Yan Junxun’s cheeks, but Yan Junxun’s reaction was fast. It was as if his defense mode had been activated. He swiftly parried and blocked Shi Shanyan’s palm, stalling it.
“Look at me.” Shi Shanyan paid it no mind. Even if he did not get to touch Yan Junxun, his figure over Yan Junxun could put him within a range he could reach. “Relax. Junxun, I won’t hurt you. Forget about that blackboard and look at me, okay?”
Yan Junxun adjusted his breathing. The arm he had used to parry was strong and taut like a tightly wound string ready to spring into action at another touch.
Shi Shanyan was very careful. The segment he had been looking forward to was finally here. He observed Yan Junxun’s expression. Under Yan Junxun’s gaze, he slowly pressed his body down a little. This was a signal to relax.
“This hacker. He’s watching just right now. He sent you an invitation and one-sidedly started a game.” Shi Shanyan caught Yan Junxun’s scent. He licked his canine tooth out of habit and smiled at Yan Junxun, “You’re not afraid of him, right? You aren’t afraid of anyone. Don’t let him get all smug. Show him what you are made of.”
“You’ve long known that there was something wrong with this case.” Yan Junxun’s expression was so calm and composed that it was as if there were none of those chaotic fragments in his mind. He said, “You played me for a fool together with him.”
“Don’t think of me that way.” Shi Shanyan replied as he pondered over it. “I only sensed something a little off. I reminded you a long time ago, didn’t I? Come on—” His low and deep laugh carried a hint of coquetry that he would only permit Yan Junxun to feel. “I’m on your side.”
Yan Junxun could no longer hear the sound of the blackboard. It was all black inside his mind, like a system that had been switched off. Only the scouring sound of rain persisted. The other party wanted to overturn his conjecture and turn him into a real conman. He backhandedly pressed down the back of Shi Shanyan’s head to close up the distance between them and said irritably, “You’d better be.”
“Of course.” Shi Shanyan looked at him. “If I’m in cahoots with the other party…”
“I’ll kill you.” Yan Junxun said without hesitation. He lifted his hand in passing and raised his middle finger at the convenience store’s surveillance camera that had, at some point, turned towards them.
He knew the other party must be watching them.
“Run faster.” Yan Junxun said. “Fuck.”