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.
Jiang Lian saw Cheng Lixin at the Inspection Bureau. He observed Cheng Lixin’s expression for a moment through the glass and asked the investigator beside him, “You found him from Li Jianhua’s apartment building surveillance?”
“‘Jue’ found out that Cheng Lixin went to Li Jianhua’s house six months ago while he was in debt.” The investigator was called Piao Lin, and he was partners with “Jue”. Rumors had it had he had a photographic memory and had never once made a mistake in reviewing data and verifying information. Piao Lin lowered the brightness of the screen and raised his head to look at Cheng Lixin in the room. “The money he owed Liu Xincheng’s mahjong parlor was paid by Li Jianhua on his behalf. By his own account, an online buddy of his gave him several health care projects to invest half in a year ago. He was keen to do it, but had no money, so the other party introduced that mahjong parlor in Huihe neighborhood to him, which turned out to be the place Liu Xincheng was watching. He managed to borrow money there, but the investment was a scam, and his money all went down the drain.”
Cheng Lixin thought about it back at home, somehow feeling that he had been set up. He believed that the online buddy who cheated him was in cahoots with the mahjong parlor. But he was a cowardly bully who targeted the weak and feared the strong. Hearing that Liu Xincheng used to work as a senior section head in the finance department of some plant and had even served time, he reckoned that Liu Xincheng had connections on both sides of the law. Not even daring to drive his truck anymore, he hid all day at home without ever stepping out of his house.
“His mother, Yang Yu, happened to be an aid recipient of the service station at that time and did some sanitation work in Puli neighborhood.” As Piao Lin spoke, he enlarged the screen and turned it around to show Jiang Lian. “Jue, show Jiang-ge Yang Yu’s data.”
“Sure.” Jue answered. “This is Yang Yu’s data. As you can see, she has received four complaints against her six months ago. All of it had to do with information leaks.”
Jiang Lian browsed through Yang Yu’s data and saw the word ‘blackmail’.
“Cheng Lixin obtained the clients’ information from Yang Yu, and this information includes room passwords, system settings, ID numbers, and so on. He joined an online chat room and asked some so-called experts to dig deeper into the online accounts of these clients, then used this information to extort the clients.” Piao Lin interlaced his fingers when he spoke to this point and lamented, “The data protection capability in our district is still pretty weak. It’s totally different from districts in the development zones like Guanggui District. Here, the ID number is the unlock code for one’s own private world, and this is what Cheng Lixin relies on to make a fortune.”
“That’s right.” Jue was fond of continuing from where Piao Lin left off. It said, “Cheng Lixin picked out his blackmail targets with a purpose in mind. It mainly involved the private secrets of many clients, including bigamy, extramarital affairs, abnormal account funds, and so on. It was inconvenient to bring these up to the ‘On-Time Cleaning’ officers and to us as well. So, very few of them actually made a report to the police. As such, Cheng Lixin grew even more arrogant and began to use Yang Yu’s number to chat with her colleagues to trick the data of their clients out of them. Li Jianhua’s information was among them.”
“Li Jianhua has been on the news, and Liu Chen even did a follow-up report of him. In Cheng Lixin’s eyes, he was considered a mini-celebrity of sorts. Moreover, Li Jianhua’s parents were asset-rich, and this was very tempting to Cheng Lixin.” Piao Lin remembered all this information clearly. “Cheng Lixin’s remaining debt at that time was $200,000, so he went looking for Li Jianhua.”
Anyone could have entered Li Jianhua’s house. He did not think to secure his own house, and he even notified the neighborhood property management to facilitate the entry and exit of those disreputable friends of his. Yan Junxun guessed that the murderer had been in there. And it happened that Cheng Lixin had been in there too.
“He used those videos of Li Jianhua as a threat to demand money from Li Jianhua’s parents and paid off the debt he owed Liu Xincheng’s mahjong parlor with this. I suspected Li Jianhua’s mother was infuriated to death by this incident. But from ‘Jue’s’ information search, we discovered that Li Jianhua did not come to hate Cheng Lixin for this. On the contrary, he maintained contact with him.”
Li Jianhua wanted to ask Cheng Lixin to help him dig out some account information. He often surfed the internet, and his browsing history was all digital voyeurism websites and dating platforms. However, he had also shown interest in pretty girls who post their day-to-day photos on regular platforms.
“Cheng Lixin knew nuts about information search, but he wanted Li Jianhua to give him money, so he immersed himself in the internet chat rooms and kept posting to search for experts in information search.” Piao Lin motioned for Jue to pull up some screenshots. “He met an older man in Liu Chen’s chatting room. The other party had been speaking to him for several months prior. According to Cheng Lixin, this older brother treated him as his own younger brother and was willing to help him with this matter for free. So Cheng Lixin, counting on this older brother, helped Li Jianhua dig out all those girls’ personal information, including their schools and addresses, and started cyberstalking them.”
However, Li Jianhua soon lost interest in this matter, because Cheng Lixin’s asking price was too high.
“Cheng Lixin’s exorbitant demands gradually became more than what Li Jianhua could bear. He still had to pay off some gambling debts for Cheng Lixin, and it didn’t take him long to get fed up. Cheng Lixin used the videos to threaten him, but unlike his mother, Li Jianhua didn’t care.”
Li Jianhua had no sense of morality. He saw himself and others as beasts walking on two legs. Even if Cheng Lixin made those videos public, it would not hurt him the slightest.
So Cheng Lixin could only find another way out. The older man in the chat room introduced him to many online friends. One of them lived in the Diba neighborhood, and he was also a jobless loafer. He and Cheng Lixin were two of a kind. Both men made an appointment at 8.30 every day to play games through the night.
“Later on, this friend said he has a good job opening to recommend and met up with Cheng Lixin.” Piao Lin opened the thermos, drank a mouthful of hot water, and continued, “Both of them went around swindling others. Eventually, they discovered that the neighbor of this friend, Huo Qingjun, was still involved in a lawsuit. They felt that fighting a lawsuit cost a lot of money, so they thought there was a huge amount of money in Huo Qingjun’s account. As a result, they began to think of ways to blackmail Huo Qingjun.”
Huo Qingjun lived too close. There was nowhere else he could run. Where on earth would he have the money? He spent all the meager financial resources he had left on the lawsuit. His pockets were as clean as his face.
“Huo Qingjun’s uncooperative attitude pissed them off. They picked his lock, and even waylaid him near the neighborhood to beat him up. However, Cheng Lixin repeatedly claimed that he never created trouble for Huo Qingjun again after beating the latter up. At that time, information of Liu Xincheng’s death was on the news. After seeing it from Liu Chen’s real-time news feeds, he feared we would investigate him and so he stayed at home.” Piao Lin put down the cup. “But Jue found that he lied. He and that friend of his from Diba neighborhood appeared at the mahjong parlor several times one after another, all at night. Both of them are severely addicted to gambling. They even gambled online as well.”
Jiang Lian was done reading the results of this morning’s investigation. He fell silent for a moment and said nothing.
“One last thing. You told us over the communicator to check the bicycle at Li Jianhua’s doorway. We found Cheng Lixin’s fingerprints on it. Furthermore, the old sports shoes hanging from the bicycle are of the same size as Cheng Lixin’s shoes.”
Piao Lin knew why Jiang Lian was silent. Jiang Lian trusted that mysterious profiler. There were shadows of the profiler left in all the past cases Jiang Lian had a hand in, and some of the scope of investigations were provided by the profiler himself. Piao Lin felt that the other party was very accurate in pinning down the details. He was so accurate he was almost godly, and this, on the contrary, made Piao Lin develop a sense of distrust.
Human beings were creatures who would err. Even the best of them would make mistakes, especially for someone in a profession like a profiler. Experiences could sometimes become a form of interference to them.
“You can discuss these with the profiler.” Piao Lin thought it over and added, “Even if it turns out that his conjecture is wrong, tell him not to be discouraged. Going by his previous rate of accuracy, I’d still trust some of his judgments.”
“How about Huo Qingjun’s family portrait?” Jiang Lian suddenly asked. “Does Cheng Lixin’s fingerprints match?”
“Oh, that.” Piao Lin answered. “Nope, it doesn’t match. All the fingerprints on the family portrait do not belong to Cheng Lixin.”
“Ask him again for details.” Jiang Lian looked at Cheng Lixin on the other side of the glass and thought back to those speculations of Yan Junxun. “Ask if the bicycle is his.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Su Heting felt like hanging up the phone. There was something wrong with the information he provided. The feeling of being fooled by the other party was not too bad; he was not overly upset. In any case, he was not the only one being fooled.
“Call the police.” Yan Junxun made his way out from under Shi Shanyan’s arm and picked up his own steel rod from among the glass shards. “This is a stolen car.”
“You sure?” Su Heting asked skeptically. “You smashed a private car into such a state. Will the Inspection Bureau compensate the owner on your behalf?” He paused with some trepidation and said in a small voice, “If needed, I can help to delete the system surveillance video. Then no one will know you did it. I’ll do it for free.”
“If you do something bad, you have to take responsibility for it.” Shi Shanyan pulled out the pen in the car, then picked up a piece of paper, turned it over, and wrote on the blank space, “For compensation, please call—”
He wrote Su Heting’s ID number on it.
“Damn you.” Su Heting cussed. “You guys better not think about asking me for help again.”
“Help what?” Yan Junxun mocked in a combative tone. “Help by being a hindrance?”
“Come on, bros. It’s not like I’m doing it on purpose.” Su Heting shut down his own screen. “I suspect the other party knows of my tracking habits, and he has seen my data before. Do you guys not sense it?”
“Maybe it’s just your techniques that’s limited.” Shi Shanyan said contemplatively.
Su Heting fell silent. He fell back into his own chair and leaned back as he thought about it for a moment. He said, “He understands the system. He knows some good ways to camouflage his tracks.” He asked Yan Junxun hesitantly, “Do you think Artemis has an illegitimate child? What I mean is, do systems do stuff like having extramarital affairs?”