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.
Piao Lin was standing in the lounge area on the third floor drinking coffee. As he stirred the spoon, he exercised his neck. None of them had time off work before the case was closed, so they spent it here fighting it out with the data instead. He took two sips of the coffee and chatted with Jue in the communicator.
“Do you date after work?” Piao Lin asked Jue.
Jue, engrossed in a game of data finder, answered, “No system has ever asked me out on a date.” It tried its best to keep up with the thinking of a human. “Do you have a date today?”
“No, I don’t. I was just asking you.” Piao Lin found Jue adorable. Holding his coffee mug, he hesitated for a moment before asking, “Perhaps we can have a drink together after the case is closed.”
Jue, still playing the game, did not give him an immediate answer. This game was not very playable to the average person. It required the player to ascertain the correct answer amidst a sea of data. Jue liked the feeling of being immersed in the database; it found it enjoyable. Piao Lin was very special too, since he also liked this game.
“My dad instructed me not to develop office romance.” Jue’s voice sounded a little hesitant. “… But I kind of like the sweet grapefruit-flavored digital sparkling wine.”
“I’ll get it prepared for you.” Piao Lin smiled.
Jue “saw” Piao Lin’s smile, which perplexed it just like before. It could not figure out Piao Lin. He always put it in his communicator-navigator and wore it on his ear. It was by chance that they became partners, but they had worked very well together, and so their relationship had remained this way until now, with neither of them thinking of ending it.
“Our star profiler has arrived.” Piao Lin interrupted Jue’s data search. He looked down from the third floor, which just happened to give him a view of the parking lot.
The road was congested on their way here, and the sun was already inching towards the west at this time. Yan Junxun got out of the car and took the communicator-navigator at the side of the seat with him.
There was a basketball court beside the open parking lot, and some high school students who had already gotten off classes were playing basketball on the court. As Yan Junxun passed by, someone from among the group called out to him to play.
No doubt they saw him as a peer.
Yan Junxun was feeling terrible. His damp t-shirt was clinging to his back, and he did not have the slightest desire to exercise at all. But he did not hate being called by the students; this made him think of school. He had never been to school, and he never had any classmates or club activities either. It was only at this moment that he was normal in the eyes of others.
“Have you ever participated in any sports activities in Black Panther?” Shi Shanyan stood behind Yan Junxun and looked towards the basketball court, feeling nothing for that group of brats dripping with sweat.
He was different from Yan Junxun. He did not have this thing called “a sense of belonging”.
“No.” Yan Junxun’s fair skin would flushed red when it was hot. He turned his head to avoid the sunlight and leaped up the stairs in a few steps to stand before the entrance screening system.
He wanted to stay a little further away from Shi Shanyan. That way, the noise around him could help distract him.
It was past closing time now, and there were still quite a number of people in the Inspection Bureau. Today’s news was playing on the central light screen, while the sounds of high heel shoes and leather shoes intersected with one another as they moved to and fro. Yan Junxun made a beeline for the automatic vending machine and screened his face to get a can of icy cold beer. He did not even pause to catch his breath and instead opened the can directly to drink as if he wanted to douse the heat.
“The traffic department said there was another accident on the highway. So I thought you would be stuck in traffic.” Jiang Lian came around from the other end and greeted them. “Let’s talk in the office.”
Shi Shanyan looked up and saw the surveillance camera in the hall. He gazed at it and asked Jiang Lian, “Is there one in your office?”
Jiang Lian followed Shi Shanyan’s gaze and answered, “No… Why?”
“Is Jue working?” Yan Junxun turned his head back and asked.
“Yeah. It’s with Piao Lin. What’s wrong?” Jiang Lian looked at them doubtfully. “Do you need me to call it to the office for you?”
“No.” Yan Junxun stuffed the empty beer can into the trash can in passing. “There’s no need for any system.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Jiang Lian’s office had no independent indoor system. The Inspection Bureau had a central system to plan and coordinate the internal division of labor. Systems like Jue all had their own duties. Jiang Lian did not know what had happened, but out of caution, he turned on the shielding device when he walked into the office.
“The investigators have found Cheng Lixin. We found his fingerprints on the bicycle at the entrance of Li Jianhua’s house.” Jiang Lian sat down. “That pair of old sneakers were also of the same size as his shoe size.”
Yan Junxun’s eyes were on the glass wall. He could still see the surveillance cameras in the hall from where he was. He said, “Is that so?”
Jiang Lian found Yan Junxun’s reaction strange.
“I originally could not figure out why the murderer had to put the bicycle back again.” Yan Junxun retracted his gaze. “But the mystery is now solved. She wasn’t the one who put it back at all. She parked the bicycle at her workplace, and someone stole it away and placed it at the entrance of Li Jianhua’s house.”
“Who?” Jiang Lian asked back. “Cheng Lixin?”
“The murderer is a woman.” Yan Junxun affirmed once again. “Not Cheng Lixin.”
Jiang Lian would not refute Yan Junxun—he could not refute. He found what he knew in Yan Junxun’s words. He said, “You think Cheng Lixin has no motive.”
“He doesn’t have one.” Yan Junxun felt much better after drinking the beer. He could already forget about Shi Shanyan next to him. “Why would he kill them? He only needs money. Lin Xincheng wasn’t the boss of the mahjong parlor. Just look at his dwelling, and you’ll know that he was penniless. What’s more, Cheng Lixin was afraid of him, wasn’t he? You said it yourself. He did not even dare to leave his house after owing the mahjong parlor money.”
Yan Junxun took back his little blackboard. The information in his mind connected very quickly.
“We never knew where the murderer dismembered the bodies, but it’s going to come up soon. Cheng Lixin is a cog in the wheel. He’s one of those superfluous and ineffectual details. A crazy dog dragged him into this not to push the investigation of the case forward, but to let him act as a red herring. Don’t turn on your screen. Turn it off.”
Jiang Lian promptly turned it off.
At this point, the sun was already sinking in the west, and the office was a little dark with no lights on. Shi Shanyan did not seem to care about all these as he propped up both legs and sank into the soft chair to sleep. The restraint locks secured on both his wrists looked like simple ornaments.
“There are two murderers in this case. One of them is hiding behind various serial numbers.” Yan Junxun saw Jiang Lian’s communicator. It was lying on top of various documents. “But it’s no big deal. He’s just a small potato who is hopping mad. No need to give him another glance.”
The more Jiang Lian heard, the more perplexed he was. He attempted to keep up with Yan Junxun’s rhythm. “Two murderers? Hold on a minute. You mean, someone committed the crime together with the murderer, then they made use of the traces left at the crime scenes to shift the blame to Cheng Lixin?”
“It’s my guess.” Yan Junxun said in an extremely confident tone. “You can hear me out… the murderer originally only killed one person—her husband. Their house isn’t small; it’s possible that it was used as a private workshop before. There are tools in there that can help her to dismember bodies. She dismembered her husband’s body at home, and used some ways to dispose of the body parts. No one found out, and she felt good.”
She was pretty smart to find some excuse to fob off others around her.
“She’s not from Tingbo District; her hometown isn’t here. I think her husband might have been in a car accident or seriously ill. In any case, it must be an unforeseen turn of events that her relatives and friends all know about; otherwise, she wouldn’t have been unable to cover up her lie. If she’s living too close, there will always be someone wanting to meet the male owner. The excuse she would most likely use is that he’s paralyzed; there was no way he could move, and not being able to move means that he would not appear.”
With his back to the light, Yan Junxun turned his head sideways a little to ponder it over.
“At this time, a lunatic came. Or perhaps, a rat? Call him as you will. The lunatic used some methods to drive the murderer insane…” Yan Junxun stared at the communicator-navigator. “To cover up the lie, the murderer has to wear the communicator frequently. She has to put on a show for the others around her and act like her husband is still alive. That’s right. The communicator. Perhaps the murderer heard her husband’s voice in the communicator one random day when she was falling asleep.”
She must have been frightened to death. She feared her husband so much and went to such lengths to kill and dismember him. Yet, he bizarrely came back to life in her ears.
“The lunatic is good at dealing with network problems. The internet is his habitat. A cowardly good-for-nothing, who is hiding out in the rubbish dump, sends the information he has screened and selected to the murderer.” Yan Junxun’s voice had little warmth as he said, “It’s really a low-class, rash, and directionless operation. He instigated the murderer to kill others, and the common thread linking all the victims is that they had all been in contact with Cheng Lixin.”
The communicator was silent.
At this moment, there was a sudden knock on the door. Piao Lin stood at the door and asked, “May I enter?”
Jiang Lian looked at Yan Junxun, and Yan Junxun furrowed his eyebrows without answering, Time passed, and Piao Lin, who was at the entrance, knocked again in puzzlement.
Jiang Lian cleared his throat and said, “Hold—”
The communicator immediately rang.
The ringtone of Jiang Lian’s communicator was his wife’s voice. At present, it was vibrating in the darkness, singing a birthday song.
Yan Junxun did not press it. He knew that the communicator would be automatically connected. Sure enough, a few seconds later, the communicator switched to automatic answer mode. The person on the other end seemed to be dragging something while breathing heavily. The sound of breathing permeated the darkness. For some inexplicable reason, Yan Junxun thought of Huo Qingjun.
“I was wrongly accused—”
The lunatic was still using a voice changer as he imitated Huo Qingjun’s cries.
“I didn’t commit sexual assault. I didn’t break the law. I was wrongly accused.”
Yan Junxun seemed to smell the stench of blood. It was so thick that he felt like puking.
“Sigh…” The lunatic tapped on the tabletop in boredom. He had plenty of little gestures, like an ADHD patient. “Are you feeling smug of yourself? Uh-huh, this game in itself is easy to guess. Yan Junxun, I want to tell you that it’s useless even if you guessed it right.” He moved in closer to the communicator and said in a soft voice, “Huo. Qing. Jun. Is. Already. Dead. You don’t see it at all.” The rhythm of the lunatic’s tapping on the table was a mess. He always seemed to be unable to hold himself back. “What have you seen? You still haven’t found the murderer yet.” He bit down on his tongue again and laughed. “Don’t imitate me, you hear me? You damn fake, don’t imitate me. You make me sick to my stomach. You should sit up straight; I’m watching you.”
“Where?” Yan Junxun lowered his voice. “In the gutter?”
“Isn’t that where you climbed out from?” The lunatic asked in surprise. “‘A sunny day, no sight of rain; a sparrow is seen, leaving its cage; a net cast, a trap laid; amid the shadows, seeking its trace.’—Yan Junxun,1 this name does not belong to you. It suits me better.”
At some unspecified point in time, Shi Shanyan had sat up without making a noise. He did not even stretch.
“This game can be called ‘prologue’. It’s just… a pastime of mine after a meal. I have to play a game after having my meal. You too, right?” The lunatic shook his leg. “I know why you are probing into this case. You’ve taken a fancy to Huo Qingjun’s family portrait. Poor cub. You are still trying to get back into the ranks of normal people, but no one wants you. How hopeless can you be? You wanted to be a part of Black Panther, but Fu Chenghui doesn’t want you either. Oh, just talking about it makes me want to cry. You’re truly the world’s most pathetic bastard.”
The lunatic had indeed just taken his meal. His chopsticks knocked against the bowl.
“You should be angry. Hurry up and jump to your feet, just like you did when you smashed the car.” The laughter of the lunatic grew increasingly louder. “No one here knows your true face. You’d better guard your ‘sanity’ all the time. Otherwise, I’ll report you to the police and have them catch you. You’ve been playing ‘prologue’ for a week. I think that’s more than enough time. I’ll set up the next game more meticulously.” The lunatic stopped laughing and moving. It was as if he was turning something over in his mind. “Are you tracing my location?”
“Yeah.” After having tapped away at the keyboard for a long time, Su Heting warned him, “Your location is exposed.”
Next chapter will be delayed (to 1st week of Apr). Sorry for any inconvenience caused!
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