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.
“You mean, he hates those who commit sexual assault.” Jiang Lian put down his chopsticks. “At the same time, he’s afraid of the photos and videos, which symbolize the process of sexual assault, in their rooms. So, he may have prior experience of being sexually assaulted, am I right? This is too much like post-traumatic stress disorder.”
Yan Junxun fell silent. He often sank into silence. No matter how noisy his surroundings were, it would not interfere with his thinking.
The cigarette between two of Shi Shanyan’s fingers burned silently. He thought: What a beautiful hunting posture.
“He has experienced sexual assault more than once. He can empathize with the victims of sexual assault, but he doesn’t sympathize with them or himself. He’s familiar with sexual assault—or more appropriately, sexual violence. He’s well-acquainted with this and feels fear and despair when it comes to it. He drew the curtains in Liu Xincheng’s room because the photos Liu Xincheng pasted over his window made him afraid. He didn’t clean Liu Xincheng’s urinal also because he was afraid of the photo spread on the urinal wall. Liu Xincheng’s home filled him with fear. Did you take a photo of the graffiti along Liu Xincheng’s corridor? There’s a woman’s face that has been vandalized with a beard. That was added by the murderer; he regarded it as a self-portrait.”
Jiang Lian latched on to the detail and asked, “Why must he draw a beard?”
“Because he thought of himself as a man when he committed the crimes.” Water droplets dripped from the beer mug that Yan Junxun was holding, wetting his palm. “A glass building stands opposite the window in Li Jianhua’s living room. Standing in the living room was, to the murderer, just like looking into the mirror. He couldn’t look into a mirror, because that would shatter his delusion, so he drew the curtains in Li Jianhua’s home.”
The graffiti along Liu Xincheng’s corridor was sexually suggestive. Yan Junxun remembered the beard on the woman’s face. But those figures were like small slips of paper left in the corner, drowned out by photos in the room. Yan Junxun did not notice it at first, not until they emerged from Li Jianhua’s house when Shi Shanyan said those words—
Grown-up babies don’t want to be daddies.
Since grown-up babies did not want to be fathers, then Liu Xincheng, whose sexual orientation was clear, would not want to rape a man with a beard. The murderer attempted to be a man in both victims’ rooms. The imagination of being a “man” allowed the murderer to execute ‘his’ plan with confidence. The murderer got strength from it—strength that once hurt ‘him’.
There was a minuscule change in Jiang Lian’s expression. “The murderer is a woman?”
“Dismemberment is a task that requires technique.” The cigarette between Shi Shanyan’s finger had burned to the end. He extinguished it in the ashtray. “She doesn’t really know how to do it, and she doesn’t have enough strength either. She can only cut it with the help of something else, that’s why she made such a mess of the bodies. The abrasions on the surface of the corpses run in different directions because she had to drag the corpses around constantly during the dismembering to get them into a position most convenient for cutting.”
The barbequed meat on the metal grill was still sizzling with oil. Only Shi Shanyan picked up the tongs again.
“The dismemberment did not take place in the victims’ houses. The victims were all living in relatively densely populated neighborhoods. How was she able to get them to head downstairs obediently?” Jiang Lian raised his arm. “Even if she’s a boxing coach, it would be impossible for her to drag the victims down directly. Especially Li Jianhua. He’s not easy to handle.”
“No.” Yan Junxun looked at Jiang Lian. “Li Jianhua is the easiest to deal with. There are no residential parking lots in Huihe and Diba. All coming-and-going vehicles have to stop outside. The murderer had to make Liu Xincheng and Huo Qingjun walk over, but she didn’t have to do so for Li Jianhua. The elevator in Puli Neighborhood goes directly to the underground parking lot.”
It was completely dark outside the BBQ restaurant, and the main hall was getting crowded; even the rooms next to them were full of people. Under such a noisy environment, Shi Shanyan ate four plates of beef short ribs from the Southern Front. It was as if listening to the case analysis could whet his appetite.
“How did she get Li Jianhua downstairs?”
“Put him in the cleaning trolley inside the building.” Yan Junxun’s beer mug was filled to the brim again. Foam formed at the rim of the mug. He continued, “She can even take away the trash at the doorway of the next-door neighbor on her way out. I’ve said she’s a professional when it comes to this; she might even have passed a test for a license. She’s married, and the one who inflicts violence on her and violates her is most likely her husband. She used to have a child, but no longer. She blames herself when it comes to her child. She wants to give the child a better home and a better father, so she played the role of her ideal husband in Li Jianhua’s house. She shouldn’t have any savings. Otherwise, she would have decorated Li Jianhua’s house and make it look cozier.”
Jian Lian thought about it and said, “I’ll start to investigate the domestic violence records in Tingbo District tonight. But the data entry is incomplete. I can only hope that she has previously sought help from the Inspection Bureau.”
“Pay more attention to those who no longer have a husband.” Yan Junxun said as the beer foam gradually disappeared. “Liu Xincheng might not be Victim No.1 anymore.”
After their meal, Jiang Lian saw them to the door.
“I’ll be at the Inspection Bureau tomorrow. The geographic profiling will attempt to ascertain her range of activity to facilitate the finding of the scene of dismemberment.” Jiang Lian thrust his hands into his pockets and stood where he was. “Go to Huo Qingjun’s house tomorrow. Let me know if you find anything.” He hesitated for a moment. “Actually, I wanted to say earlier that there are questionable doubts in Huo Qingjun’s sexual assault case. His time in prison coincided with the period of turmoil in Tingbo District. Many of the evidence against him now seem flimsy and untenable. If, and I mean, if…”
Yan Junxun nodded his head to indicate his understanding.
Jiang Lian felt as though he had been relieved from a heavy burden as he waved at Yan Junxun. Yan Junxun waited for Jiang Lian to enter before opening the car door. Before he could sit, he saw Shi Shanyan.
Shi Shanyan was a master at turning the tables. It did not matter what the atmosphere was like; he always had to have the upper hand. It was hard for him not to be an outstanding sniper, given how he was always wanting to be in full control of the highest number of kills, every time and everywhere. He appreciated the change of expression in Yan Junxun’s eyes and said in a deep voice, “Welcome.”
The night wind passed through the various colored neon lights and blew onto Yan Junxun’s black hair, sending it fluttering. In the silence where all external sounds seemed to have been cut off, he lowered his eyes to stare at Shi Shanyan with an expression that resembled an animal who had lain dormant for a very long time.
“The reason you took on this job was not because you are skilled at it, but because you need it.” Shi Shanyan said as though he was enticing him. “You learned the art of hunting from Artemis, yet you hide among this concrete jungle, only daring to lick your teeth cautiously. How pitiful.”
“You can pretend to be a savior too.” Yan Junxun said calmly. “Use your understanding of those perverts to freely earn yourself a living instead of wearing a dog chain like this now.”
Shi Shanyan’s rolled-up cuffs exposed his restraint locks, with the remainder of the wrist clasps fastened on Shi Shanyan’s forearms. At present, both of his arms could be pulled apart for half-a-meter wide. The electric current swam between his arms like an eel, reminding him at all times to keep them within a safe range.
“Don’t put it that way.” Shi Shanyan leaned over to Yan Junxun, exposing the straight bridge of his nose under the faint neon light. “I dare to take them off to free up my movements. Do you dare too?”
“The day you can take it off for real…” Yan Junxun lowered his body and his voice as the pause in his voice revealed a hint of mockery. “Ask me again.”
The restraint locks’ electric current suddenly surged and hit out at Shi Shanyan until both his arms reddened. Waves of stabbing pain flooded over him like tidewaters, allowing him to feel his own existence clearly. He enjoyed the indifferent expression in Yan Junxun’s eyes, as well as this sensation of pain.
“I’ve found joy.” Shi Shanyan started to laugh. He licked his lower teeth and said in a harsh voice, “You’ve fucking hurt me.”
LIANYIN @ CANGJI.NET
Yan Junxun looked at him as a sprightly whistle danced off his lips.
◈ ◈ ◈
Honglin Steelworks was located near the high-speed rail of Tingbo District. It was one of the old factories in this steel industrial park that was on the verge of closure. At its peak more than ten years ago, it had acquired and merged many of the local small steel processing workshops into it, but now its scale had shrunk to the point where it only had thirty-plus coke transport vehicles left. The virtual greenery in the plant was always out of order. At the moment, it was only half-lit across one side of the road, as if a dog had chewed it.
“Xiaochen.” Yang Yu, who had just finished cleaning, stood at the door and beckoned to Chen Xiulian. “I brought something good today!”
Chen Xiulian turned around. Her dusty clothes had been altered so that they would hang on her body without falling off. The contours of her exposed arms were well-defined. However, this was not the result of a deliberate training regime, but the result of eking out a living in a steel plant long-term. She raised her hand to wipe her face. Her palm was a little tanned and covered with calluses.
“It’s already so late, and you still have to make your own dinner when you return.” Yang Yu fished out a metal lunch box from her bag. “Let’s us eat together, and you can go right to bed after returning home. Oh, yeah, thank you so much for your help a while back. Otherwise, they would have docked my wages.”
Honglin Steelworks’s canteen was still open. The canteen auntie was familiar with both of them. When she saw them entering, she moved her head closer to the window where they dished out food and shouted, “Hey, sit over here! It’s easier to chat here. There are a lot of leftovers today; there’s even sweet and sour spareribs.”
“Xiaochen didn’t bring her lunch box again today. Give her a bowl. We’ll wash it and return it to you later.” Yang Yu stood by the window and raised her hand to pin up the short hair beside her ear. She beamed on seeing the spare ribs. “There are so many left! Then I’ll bring some back for my daughter-in-law.”
“She’s about to complete her confinement month, right? Quickly get your food and eat.” The canteen auntie scooped the rice into Yang Yu’s lunch box.” I think you’re going to be exhausted to death; You have to work during the day and coax the baby at night.”
Yang Yu picked a sparerib from the lunch box with her hand and cleaned it out in two mouthfuls. As she sucked on the bone, she said, “It’s still manageable for now. All thanks to Xiaochen for covering some shifts for me.” As she spoke it, she turned back to smile at Chen Xiulian. “My grandson will be having his full-month1 celebration soon. You have to come.”
Chen Xiulian saw the crow’s feet in the corners of Yang Yu’s eyes and smelled the lingering scent of disinfectant on Yang Yu’s hands. The spareribs were so badly stewed that Yang Yu could suck them off in one try. The smell of meat mixed with disinfectant conjured up certain memories in her mind. After a while, she said, “Ok, sure.”
Yang Yu originally used to be a female worker in a steel plant, while her husband drove a coke transportation truck. A few years ago, her husband died of alcoholism, and the steel plant laid her off. It was not until 2160 that she went to fill up her information at the health service center in Tingbo District and became a recipient for assistance. The service center helped her find a job as a cleaner. She was not a formal employee of a specific cleaning company, but off-site support. If anyone had any orders that they did not want to do or could not complete in time, they would look for cleaners like her who were registered with the service center.
The year before last, the sanitation worker of Honglin Steelworks resigned, so the steel plant looked for Yang Yu. Yang Yu had to support her family all by herself, and it was not enough for her to do so by relying on just the job at the steel plant, so she kept her name on On-Time Cleaning’s register, and they would give her any orders that they did not want to take. She often went back and forth between both jobs. Her daughter-in-law gave birth to a baby a few months ago. As she had to take care of her daughter-in-law, she entrusted the orders from On-Time Cleaning to Chen Xiulian to help out with.
Chen Xiulian was taciturn, but she was overall a nice person. Every time they had difficulties, she would help out. It was said that her husband went drunk-driving with their child in tow a few years back and ended up in an accident. The child died, and her husband, whose legs were broken in the accident, was now back in his hometown, paralyzed.
“Is that thing good to use?” Halfway through her meal, Yang Yu looked at the ID communicator on Chen Xiulian’s ear. “I want to get a second-hand one for my daughter-in-law so that it would be convenient for her to look for me if something crops up.”
“Yeah.” Chen Xiulian’s reaction was slow. She looked as if she was always thinking too much. “It makes contact convenient. Go to the coke plant area to buy. It’s cheap over there.”
The canteen auntie cleaned up the pots and pans inside and butted in, “Xiaochen, can you give me a lift later? My daughter and the rest participated in some exhibitions at the central building. She had to be picked up by her parents. Seeing how far away it is, it’d be too late if I were to take the bus.”
Chen Xiulian pried away the meat of the spareribs with her chopsticks, ate it clean in a few mouthfuls, and nodded her head hurriedly.
◈ ◈ ◈
Chen Xiulian’s vehicle was an outmoded truck. It was too old, and had not been washed much.
LIANYIN @ CANGJI.NET
It was not the first time the canteen auntie took a ride in it. She put on her coat in the car, took a glance back, and said, “It’s so dark. What’s in there? This vehicle can really carry loads.”
“Old junk.” Chen Xiulian glanced at the rearview mirror out of the corner of her eyes, where she could see the truck bed in the rear. She said, “They are equipment Qinqin’s father used when he drove for the plant. They are now obsolete and can only be sold as scrap metal.”
“How is Qinqin’s father doing recently?” The auntie turned around and asked Chen Xiulian, “Are his legs better? Send him to Tingbo District. Even if our medical facilities here are not comparable to those in Guangtong District, it’s still better than letting those health centers in your hometown treat his legs indiscriminately. Careful that they don’t end up worsening his condition.”
Chen Xiulian was steady in her driving. She even worked as a coke hauler before. Her mouth twitched, but she was not smiling. She said, “We don’t have money this year. I’ll bring him over next year. Having worked himself to the death all his life, he’d love not to stand up now that he’s lying in bed with someone to care for him and attend to all his daily needs.”
The canteen auntie picked up melon seeds that had been in her pocket for some time and cracked them between her teeth. When she heard Chen Xiulian’s words, she grew anxious and said, “Then you are really going to support him for a lifetime?” She spat out the husks. “Are you silly? No doubt he’s comfortable staying at home. There’s no need for him to worry about external and domestic issues. You even arranged for a young and pretty housekeeper for him. Oh, my, you’re truly a fool.”
“He never listens to my words.” Chen Xiulian looked at the headlights before her. They were like a school of fish swimming into the neon jungle, bringing along with them an intense stench.
She repeated this phrase in her mind. Suddenly, someone cussed in her ears, “Fuck you! Blabbing outside all day long. How cheap can you be?”
Chen Xiulian pursed her lips tightly as she turned the steering wheel.
“Answer me! Are you playing dead? If you don’t want your ears anymore, I’ll cut them off for you. Chen Xiulian! Don’t think that you’re beyond my reach just because I’m lying on the bed now—”
The car steadily came to a halt at its destination.
The canteen auntie advised her as she got off the vehicle. “Otherwise, get a divorce earlier. He isn’t a good man, anyway. Listen to me.”
Chen Xiulian forced a smile. The canteen auntie still wanted to continue speaking when she saw Chen Xiulian’s pursed lips gradually tighten. She let loose a “goodness me” and stood by the door to whisper and gesture, “Are you on the communicator with him?”
“Tell her to scram! Bitch! What has it got to do with her?” The husband flew into a rage over the ID communicator. “If she pokes her nose into our affairs again, I’ll smack her face rotten! You are a fucking shameless one too. Did I allow you to give her a lift? Slut! Who let you touch my truck? Is it yours? Scramble you way back now!”
“Shut the fuck up!” Chen Xiulian suddenly slammed down on the steering wheel.
The horn of the car blared, startling all the pedestrians outside. The canteen auntie did not dare to listen further and fled in a hurry with her bag in hand. When she looked back, she could still see Chen Xiulian sitting in the truck struggling and straining until her neck reddened as she quarreled hysterically with her husband.
“What a scare…” The canteen auntie hurried away. “She’s really down on her luck to marry such a man!”
- 满月 A Chinese custom where a ceremony is held to celebrate a baby’s first full month of life. This tradition dates back before the advent of modern medicine when infant mortality rates were high. If a baby made it to his or her first month safely, that boded well for survival. It also coincides with the end of the new mum’s confinement period, and both mother and baby are formally introduced to the extended family and friends. For many of them, this will be the first time they are meeting the new baby.