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 finished taking his bath, but did not blow his hair dry. With a towel on his head, he squatted next to the terrarium in the bathroom and watched as the panda’s pet tortoise crawled around. The screen hung at the side, automatically playing the three victims’ data on loop.
Liu Chen’s reports on sexual assault cases numbered over two hundred, and Liu Xincheng, Li Jianhua, and Huo Qingjun’s cases were not the most eye-grabbing cases. The murderer did not commit the crime on the spur of the moment; she was planned and organized. For her to choose these three men, there must have been something that had triggered her.
Yan Junxun swiped away the data with his finger and tapped to enter Liu Chen’s news column.
Liu Chen self-described himself as an up-and-coming media professional. His avatar photo was that of a man who had it made. His live feed showed a marked preference for sexual assault cases, and the headlines he chose were all highly suggestive and provocative. He was also enthusiastic about providing follow-up coverages, such as the lives the victims and sexual offenders led. He was extremely interested in this regard.
Yan Junxun picked out Liu Xincheng, Li Jianhua, and Huo Qingjun’s news and swiped the screen to start browsing. He had already read through these contents many times.
The sexual assault victims and the way in which the sexual assaults were carried out were the focus of Liu Chen’s attention. In these early articles, he made subjective inferences of the victims’ psychological processes and broke them down for analysis. He was simply itching to dissect every single one of the victims’ expressions on their faces and in their eyes to talk about. His own wishful thinking was that this was all a signal from both sexes. He thought that there always had to be a reason for sexual assault to happen.
Yan Junxun slid the article to the end and pulled it back up. He repeated the action over and over again until he even forgot to mind the tortoise. It was only when the panda knocked on the door that he realized the tortoise had already crawled its way under the sink.
“Give it a lesson.” Yan Junxun opened the door. “Teach it to stand still.”
“You really make things difficult for me every day.” The panda was holding a tray with a steaming hot mug of milk on the tray. It lifted the tray to Yan Junxun as though it was preparing to surprise him. “If you can finish drinking all this milk, then it will be able to learn how to stand still.”
Yan Junxun wiped his face with a towel and wisely adapted to the circumstances. “I’ve forgiven it.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Diba neighborhood was in a remote location even further away than Huihe. The buildings in the neighborhood were slanting as if they were about to collapse. The aged streaks of rain made these buildings seem as if they had been wiped by dirty mops. The emergency access to the outside of the building was broken in several sections, while the banisters had been soaked until rust had covered it. All that was left of the neighborhood’s main entrance was an outline; there was not even a metal gate. A lone sentry booth stood at the side.
Yan Junxun drove the car around a few times, but did not find a suitable parking space. In the end, he could only park his car in the open space far away from the neighborhood, with the garbage dump just in front of him.
Shi Shanyan had gotten his fill of the air-conditioner in the car. The warning from the restraint locks last night was still visible under his rolled-up cuffs. As he got out of the car, he did not forget to trade goodbye waves with the little orange dragon.
The sun in Tingbo District had dried up the dirty puddles of water near the garbage dump. There was a gutter next to the garbage dump, which led out from the Diba neighborhood. Yan Junxun took a look. The sewage in the ditch had solidified into a mass of black and green, and it was here that swarms of blowflies revel. Not far away, a child with his butt sticking out was straining hard to take a dump as he held up the newspaper to shield himself from the sun. On hearing the sound of the car, he partially turned back for a look.
“See no evil.” Shi Shanyan politely put on his sunglasses.
Yan Junxun walked along the unrepaired dirt road before the open space to make his way to Diba neighborhood’s entrance. He noticed that he could not see Diba neighborhood’s main gate from where he stood at the garbage dump. His field of vision was blocked by the protruding side of the building. There were streetlights around, but the light bulbs had all been smashed by the children who had thrown stones at them.
A plank of wood was erected midway down the dirt road, with the words “do not litter” written in crooked handwriting on it.
Yan Junxun scrutinized this plank of wood and saw that there was graffiti on it too. But they were just some blackened lines. His gaze slid from this spot towards Diba neighborhood. He could now see the sentry booth.
“She parked her car in the garbage dump where it was not conspicuous.” Shi Shanyan raised his hand to shield himself from the sunlight. “Then she stood here to observe Huo Qingjun.”
“These buildings are the same as those in the Huihe neighborhood. No one will call for an hourly-wage worker.” Yan Junxun’s gaze remained fixed in place. “She can’t use the ‘On-Time Cleaning’ label here.”
But the garbage from the residents all around needed to be cleared, so garbage trucks would come here from time to time. Her vehicle had to be an old truck. Only then would she be able to put on a decent act.
Old trucks are really convenient to use.
LIANYIN @ CANGJI.NET
Yan Junxun turned his head back to cast a glance at his old sports car.
On-time Cleaning’s cleaning service also used old trucks with truck beds that did not need to be too big but could still hold many miscellaneous items. It was very convenient to sell this kind of vehicle second-handed in Tingbo District. The advertising stickers on the vehicle body could be torn away as easily as tearing open food packaging. Coke haulers, and steel processing plants, also liked to use this kind of vehicle in the past. Even now, they were still a common sight.
The weather was so hot that Yan Junxun only just walked over and the back of his neck was sunburnt. He stood in the shadow before the Diba neighborhood’s sentry booth without striking up a conversation with the grandpa dozing inside. The paint on the door frame of the sentry booth had all but peeled off, and a closer look revealed a few shapeless words carved into it with a pen-knife.
There were two pots of half-dead, wilting flowers in the doorway. Someone had cut off the branches that had already bloomed until half a wall of them was gone.
Yan Junxun looked at the building in the neighborhood. The broken water pipe dangled in the corner of the wall as dirty water flowed into the grassless lawn. The gutter was so badly clogged up that he could even smell the stench from the sentry booth across the road. However, there were a few small elm trees growing pretty well on the opposite side. These were likely newly planted not long ago.
Here, Huo Qingjun’s news was merely nothing more than an after-dinner chat topic. A 42-year-old down-on-his-luck rapist had been dismembered, and the real-time news feeds said that it was most likely a revenge killing. Consequently, everyone became more interested in his victim. There was no drama more exciting than killing one’s enemy with one’s own hands.
Shi Shanyan was too tall. He had to lean over a little to avoid being exposed to the sun and getting sunburned. He said, “Did you get a whiff of the murderer’s scent?”
“She doesn’t use perfume.” Yan Junxun opened the bottle of icy water. “Perfume will leave traces behind. Plus, her financial situation wouldn’t allow it too. She prefers odorless disinfectant so you won’t be able to tell who she is from her scent in Liu Xincheng’s room.”
“Perhaps I know.” Shi Shanyan said playfully.
“Nope, you don’t.” Yan Junxun looked at him. “Otherwise, you would be bragging about it to me.”
“You’re no less competitive yourself. “Shi Shanyan wrinkled his nose a little. “When can we move to another location? It stinks too much here.”
“When I figure it out.”
“Think quickly, please.” Shi Shanyan moved closer to him to urge him on. “Hurry. Use your little blackboard.”
Yan Junxun watched as Shi Shanyan puffed out his cheeks slightly. Icy water stirred around the tip of his tongue, making him feel comfortable. He did not intend to answer. His eyes casually skimmed past the side of Shi Shanyan’s face and continued to wander into the neighborhood.
Huo Qingjun did not live in the Diba neighborhood, but he was active here. The sentry booth had no door, so the murderer could see what Huo Qingjun was doing at any time. Perhaps she stood right opposite—but then, that was too obvious. She would have to find a good spot to stay out of the sun. Or perhaps she could pose as a garbage truck driver and stand in Yan Junxun’s current spot to knock on the sentry booth’s window and ask Huo Qingjun a few questions about garbage collection.
She did not like to be seen by too many people. Of course, she was here to take the place of those health services. This timing was a good time. The sun was blazing hot, and no one would be willing to stand on the balcony to watch. No one would be caring about who the sentry booth security guard was talking to, either. She did her homework. This was all too easy for her. She had lots of societal experience, having done all of these jobs before, and each one was a walk in the park for her.
The grandpa in the sentry booth was sound asleep with his head raised. From time to time, the sound of his throat being cleared would ring out.
Yan Junxun bent over and looked in through the window.
The table was littered with scraps of manuscript paper. Some of them had been used as padding for a rice bowl and were soiled with splotches of soup and grease. At the far end was a small tabletop bookcase, stuffed with scattered urban adventure novels and a dog-eared mathematics textbook.
According to the Inspection Bureau’s interrogation records, Huo Qingjun often gave the children lessons when he worked here. He would always squat on the steps to speak to the children, and he would always keep it short for fear that the others could not find their children. Even when the children started calling him “teacher” over time, he did not dare to respond.
There was something sandwiched in the math textbook. Jiang Lian said that it was Huo Qingjun’s old family photo.
Yan Junxun looked at the exposed corner of the photo.
The killer disguised herself as a garbage truck driver. She came here a few times to let Huo Qingjun familiarize himself with her. Since she could not drag Huo Qingjun to the garbage truck all on her own, she had to make Huo Qingjun drop his guard and walk over there himself. She would stand here and strike up a conversation with Huo Qingjun with a common topic that would allow them to get acquainted with each other quickly—children.
Yan Junxun tapped out the light screen and pushed it towards Shi Shanyan. “Ask Jiang Lian if Huo Qingjun’s family photo has been checked for fingerprints?”
“Removing the gloves is a polite gesture. Huo Qingjun must have been moved by this small detail.” Shi Shanyan lifted his index finger, but shook it midair and asked Yan Junxun, “What’s your password?”
Yan Junxun turned his head and locked eyes with Shi Shanyan. “Hurry up.”
“Then I’m guessing.” Shi Shanyan inputted the code and said with certainty, “21430808.”
The screen lit up.
“This is your savings password too.” Shi Shanyan’s sunglasses slid a little along the bridge of his nose to reveal his frivolous expression. “Man, you’re so boring.”
“That is so.” Yan Junxun’s gaze returned to the interior of the sentry booth. “I cannot be compared to someone who would change the abbreviation of his room passcode into his own sexual fetish.”
“It’d make it convenient for you to have an in-depth exchange with me when your interest is roused.” Shi Shanyan sent a message to Jiang Lian and looked at Yan Junxun. “So, are you interested?”
An enamel mug with a waterproof sticker sat on top of the desktop bookcase. The character “Huo” on it was beautifully written. Huo Qingjun had very high standards for his blackboard writings. He practiced his writings and did not give up on it even in prison.
Did this mean that Huo Qingjun had always believed that he could still return to the podium?
LIANYIN @ CANGJI.NET
Yan Junxun turned around and said, “Let’s go to Huo Qingjun’s house for a look.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Huo Qingjun lived in the basement. There were no sensor lights in the old passageway, and it smelled strongly of mold. Yan Junxun stood at the top of the stairs. If he looked down along the stairs, he could see the exposed sewer pipes below, entangled in the darkness like human organs, dripping foul water.
Huo Qingjun’s next-door neighbor was a young couple who was used to leaving the door open. Plastic basins used for washing up were all piled up at the door. As Yan Junxun passed by, he heard the man playing a game. He swept a glance over out of the corner of his eyes. The woman was lying on a filthy bed sheet – crammed with odds and ends on it – taking her afternoon nap.
Shi Shanyan was too tall. It was inconvenient for him to walk around, but he was agile like a big cat and followed behind Yan Junxun without making a single sound.
Yan Junxun took out the key, but found that it did not match with Huo Qingjun’s door lock. He tried pushing the door, and it opened inward a little with the iron lock dangling in the middle. Through this gap, he saw some flower petals with edges that had already yellowed on the ground.
“On-call service.” Shi Shanyan said in a hushed tone. “Do you want me to unlock it?”
Yan Junxun gripped the metal handle and broke off the door handle right under Shi Shanyan’s gaze. He caught the falling lock and cast a glance at Shi Shanyan in the dimness, as if putting on a silent display of might.