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.
Chen Xiulian opened the umbrella but did not hold it over her head; instead, she held it in her hand to shield herself from the wind of today. She stood at the door, put on her communicator, and attempted to call MaySnow, but no one answered.
Chen Xiulian changed over to the new number MaySnow had provided. No one contacted her. She wanted to apply for the day off at the steel plant, but she forgot their number. In the end, she opened the screen, planning to look at today’s news.
After Liu Chen stopped updating, his chatroom became Chen Xiulian’s source of news. It was there she saw those familiar IDs discussing last night’s incident.
Someone posted a GIF. Chen Xiulian clicked on it to play it and saw her own basement in the shaky image. The color gradually drained from her face. She curled and uncurled her fingers, as if she could not understand how these images could have appeared in the public square.
Was I recorded on tape?
Anxiety crept up upon Chen Xiulian. She could not help but gnaw on her fingernails, growing increasingly panic-stricken as she browsed. She was not the one who recorded this; how could she have taped herself?
The sound of He Zhiguo clearing his phlegm rang out in her ears. Chen Xiulian’s limbs were icy cold as she asked, “Was it you? Were you the one who recorded it?”
There was also a short video in the chatroom. Chen Xiulian did not click on it; it automatically played, and Chen Xiulian saw her own rubber gloves. She nervously threw away her own umbrella as though as was throwing away the murder weapon.
A car honked in the far distance. Chen Xiulian’s breathing quickened, as if she was surrounded on all sides by people coming to catch her. She hastily retreated into the house.
Chen Xiulian wanted to lock the door, but her hands were shaking so much that she failed to bolt the door even after several attempts. The dogs surrounded her, wagging their tails happily. In her panic, she stepped on a dog and had her fingers smashed by the door. The dog whined in pain, and Chen Xiulian motioned for it to shush, but the dogs scattered in all directions, barking.
“They are coming to catch you!” He Zhiguo gloated.
Chen Xiulian yanked off the communicator and bellowed at it, “Was it you?!”
He Zhiguo’s voice was cut off for a moment before it reappeared in Chen Xiulian’s mind. His voice was everywhere, crushing down on Chen Xiulian’s nerves, making her lose control.
“The whole world is watching you.” He Zhiguo said maliciously. “When the Inspection Bureau barges in through the door, the first thing they’ll do is to shoot you to death!” He imitated the sound of gunfire. “You’re going to die soon!”
Chen Xiulian screamed and flung away the communicator. She looked around while hugging her arms and asked in a trembling voice, “Where are you hiding? You’re spying on me!” She wiped away the water on her cheeks. “It’s all a conspiracy of yours!”
He Zhiguo roared wildly with laughter. He made a “BANG” sound so abrupt and loud that Chen Xiulian was startled. He continued speaking in Chen Xiulian’s ears. “The Inspection Bureau knows who you are now. You saw the video, right? It’s all over the internet. They will trace your gloves, dig out your address, and finally strip you bare and put you on the Internet for everyone to gawk.”
Chen Xiulian’s lips had gone pale. She sobbed and gritted her teeth. “It’s all a conspiracy, a conspiracy!”
Chen Xiulian thought of her mother’s face and of the past. She had long been stripped bare, standing naked in the sun, letting those eyes size her up.
“You can’t blame anyone but yourself.” He Zhiguo said. “I abide by the law and have never broken the law before. You are the one who broke the law. You killed the others. You killed that Mr. Huo. You’ve long known he was wrongly accused, right?
“Liu Chen said he committed sexual assault. You said so too!” Chen Xiulian took several steps back and braced herself against the wall. She banged her head in agony. “It was you I killed! You weren’t wrongfully accused!”
“The Inspection Bureau didn’t arrest me.” He Zhiguo was used to being condescending to Chen Xiulian, and it never changed even when he died. He spoke with the same tone of voice as all those times he lectured Chen Xiulian. He would lash at her face, slap her, make her yield to violence so that she would cry and admit he was right.
Chen Xiulian reflexively covered her head. She had to admit that He Zhiguo was right; otherwise, the brutal beatings would never end. Her arm touched the table, and that solid sense of touch seemed to give her courage. She picked up the bowl and chopsticks on the table and flung them hard across the room. The dogs fled in a panic at the sound of the porcelain bowl shattering. Chen Xiulian tripped over herself and fell to the ground, hitting her head hard on the edge of the table.
This is all a hoax.
Chen Xiulian covered her face and gasped for breath, feeling as if the sound of the rain was pelting her through the wall. She could not breathe. Her palms pressed into the shattered fragments. Her flesh was badly cut, but she could not feel it. Her world was black. He Zhiguo’s face was creeping everywhere around her. They surrounded her, stared at her, even taunted her.
She couldn’t take it anymore!
“Don’t look at me.” Chen Xiulian wiped her face and climbed to her feet, whispering, “Don’t spy on me…”
◈ ◈ ◈
“Chen Xiulian has repeatedly sent Lin Hui home on the pretext that it was ‘along the way’. According to Lin Hui’s information, Chen Xiulian lived in the old district in the vicinity of the coke plant near the mountain ranges.” Piao Lin’s finger slid across the screen. “And hidden here…”
Yan Junxun pressed on the communicator with a rhythm that was all haywired. His back was to the investigation room, as if he was watching the weather forecast.
“Her professionalism is admirable.” Shi Shanyan looked at the jerky images on the screen. “It’s not without reason that the lunatic would find her.”
The murderer performed perfectly within the framework drawn up by the lunatic. She never dropped a single hair in the victims’ houses, and she kept this case going for a week.
“The lunatic never saw her as a person.” Yan Junxun stopped pressing. “He saw her as a tool, a puppet to amuse himself with.”
There were cloudy and rainy icons on the screen. This information was all detected by the weather system. Yan Junxun used to feel like they were lining up and taking turns to pop out. He closed them and looked ahead.
The glass in front reflected the investigation room. Jiang Lian was listening to Piao Lin speaking. They had their own team with a clear division of labor. Even without Yan Junxun—no, it would be better to say that if Yan Junxun had never gotten involved in the first place, this case would have been closed a long time ago. There would be no lunatic, no systems, no Black Panther and the likes to make a mess of the case.
Yan Junxun did not fit in here. He was a misfit no matter where he was.
“This trouble started because of me.” Yan Junxun said.
“According to the analysis of the geographical portrait, we can basically confirm that the murderer is in the old district of the coke plant. She has a vehicle, and she lives alone. The house provided her with the space to detain the victims. I suspect a basement or an attic…” Jiang Lian cast a glance at the door as he spoke. He could only see Yan Junxun’s shoulder. He continued, “The murderer is emotionally unstable…”
Shi Shanyan stroked his own chin, worried if there were stubble there. It was hard for him to understand Yan Junxun’s inability to fit in. To him, existence was truth itself. He never wondered about the “why”; there was no such need, and it wasn’t like he was planning to be a philosopher. He had a kind of feral understanding of emotions—happy, unhappy. That’s it.
“Do you want to catch her with your own hands?” Shi Shanyan asked, but after asking, he answered his own question, “You don’t want to. You don’t want to see her face, because it reminds you of Huo Qingjun. You are too excessively concerned with her and Huo Qingjun. Why? Because you understand them. You want to empathize with them, and you have already felt their anguish.”
To Yan Junxun, this was not a good sign. Emotions would affect his judgments.
The meeting in the investigation room had already ended, and the Inspection Bureau sprang into action. Piao Lin and Jue printed the list of steel factories and also provided the scope of focus in the old area where the coke plant was. Liu Chen’s identity was special. Due to last night’s incident at the public square, Jiang Lian had to ensure that Liu Chen could return safe and sound, and so they adopted a plan to encircle the murderer without alerting her.
“The traffic system has helped us to temporarily suspend the traffic in the old coke plant district. All routes have been sealed. The action squad will set off immediately. As Jiang Lian put on his jacket, he asked Yan Junxun, “… Do you want to go with us?”
◈ ◈ ◈
Liu Chen fell into a semi-conscious state. Chen Xiulian stuffed something in his mouth so that he could not remain clear-headed all the time. He felt himself being dragged. His cheek chafed against the ground and scrapped against some bloodstains that had not been washed off. Liu Chen opened his mouth, but his tongue felt numb. Unable to speak, he could only make strange noises with saliva trickling from the corner of his mouth.
Chen Xiulian had swapped her old sports shoes for this pair, which belonged to He Zhiguo. The work clothes she was wearing at present were also He Zhiguo’s. She carefully rolled her hair up and put on He Zhiguo’s baseball cap. Due to her height, she did indeed look like a skinny man from certain angles.
Chen Xiulian dragged Liu Chen to the first floor. Her vehicle was parked in the humble parking lot behind her back door. She first got Liu Chen into the vehicle with the slider she made on her own to save herself energy.
There was still leftover garbage in the back of the truck. Chen Xiulian swept them away and laid Liu Chen within. She shook open the tarpaulin, wanting to cover up Liu Chen, but then, she felt it was useless.
It was no use. Everything she did was under surveillance. Everyone was watching her. That beast, He Zhiguo, must be snitching on her to the Inspection Bureau too.
The rain soaked Chen Xiulian’s shoulders. She promptly changed her mind. She patted Liu Chen’s face to make him open his eyes. “Interview me. I want to expose He Zhiguo. I want to talk to the Inspection Bureau. He Zhiguo is a monster hiding in this society; he’s a time bomb.”
Liu Chen’s face was drenched in rainwater. He heard Chen Xiulian continue.
“They can shoot me to death, but they have to shoot He Zhiguo to death too.” Chen Xiulian looked around her suspiciously and bent over to whisper to Liu Chen, “We can do a live broadcast straight off. You know how to, right? Don’t let He Zhiguo know. Do it now.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Yan Junxun was squeezed into the corner by Shi Shanyan. The car was not big enough, and they were all almost sticking to one another.
Jiang Lian, who was in the passenger seat, looked back several times. He could not help himself from asking, “Are you guys alright?”
Yan Junxun was trapped behind Shi Shanyan’s arm. He even felt a little carsick. He wanted to breathe, but his nose and mouth were all filled with Shi Shanyan’s scent.
Jiang Lian did not manage to wait for Yan Junxun’s answer. His communicator kept ringing, and he connected the call. He hung up after just a few words, and continued to answer more calls. This went on repeatedly.
“There are places that the system monitoring can’t cover.” As he spoke on the communicator, he turned back to the front. He had to raise his voice while the car was moving. “Stop asking questions and get to work!”
Jue said, “He’s been a little irritable lately.”
“His communication with Black Panther hasn’t been going smoothly.” Piao Lin replied. He cast a glance at Shi Shanyan and Yan Junxun beside him. “Your conjecture has proven right once again. How remarkable.”
His tone was so normal that one could hardly tell it was a compliment.
“Hm.” Yan Junxun’s face was almost touching the glass. He looked out of the window. “The credit is all yours.”
“Nah. No one’s going to steal your limelight.” Piao Lin looked at Shi Shanyan and said, “You can sit over a bit more.”
Shi Shanyan was playing a game that Su Heting had recommended on the communicator. He found it retarded. “It’s not necessary.”
Jue butted in, “Click on the left. I played this game before…”
“Oh.” Shi Shanyan jabbed at the right side.
What the fuck is this?! Yan Junxun’s mind was buzzing. He seemed to be burning up with fever.
Jiang Lian’s call was interrupted. He had merely just clicked Liu Chen’s homepage open when he felt as if he had been hit with a blast of explosion.
“Who’s watching the live broadcast?” Piao Lin poked his head out and asked with a frown.
Drawn by the sound of the live broadcast, Yan Junxun looked over. Jiang Lian opened the communicator and said to the Inspection Bureau staff, “The other side is playing the same trick again. Shut down Liu Chen’s homepage right away! Don’t let her get started!”
Yan Junxun saw Chen Xiulian on the homepage. He finally got a clear look of her face.
Chen Xiulian took off her hat. She stood in the heavy rain on the rooftop of the building and tied up her hair. She was no longer young. She looked a little uneasy when she looked at the camera, but she adjusted quickly. The rainwater on her face looked like tears.
“Hello.” Chen Xiulian’s facial muscles were stiff as she mimicked those interviews she had watched before. “I’m Chen Xiulian. I’m the wife of the rapist, He Zhiguo.” She paused for a moment and averted her gaze a little, but very quickly, it returned to the camera. She continued, “I killed four people.”
Liu Chen’s live viewership numbers instantly spiked.