The lightning in Huo Qingjun’s room was poor, with the only small window covered by curtains that looked like tattered rags. The camp bed purchased from the second-hand market squatted against the wall mottled with water stains, like a malnourished prisoner with a damp, moldy bed sheet draped over his body. The room’s furnishings were in a terrible mess, and books, mostly related to criminal law and mathematics, were dumped all over the ground under the plastic table.
“Someone made a special trip here to pay their respects to him.” The tips of Shi Shanyan’s shoes dodged the flower petals at the entrance. “And they even brought lilies.”
Yan Junxun’s attention was caught by the wall behind the plastic table. Its surface was plastered all over with drafts, all of which were mathematical problems Huo Qingjun did. Yan Junxun took a few steps closer. Without touching these drafts, he tilted his head a little to the side and saw, among the densely packed mathematical problems, words that had been written in either sloppy or neat handwriting—
I was wronged.
These were Huo Qingjun’s only annotations on the drafts. No matter how big or small the writing was, he wrote it with force. The tip of his fountain pen had punctured through the draft papers, and blobs of ink had stained the mathematical problems black. It was as if he was frantically trying to prove his innocence.
“Welcome—” A mechanical voice suddenly rang out from the camp bed. It only said two syllables before it deteriorated into static sounds. A few seconds later, it continued, “You’re back.”
Shi Shanyan saw a super obsolete little robot with a hat on its oval head at the side of Huo Qingjun’s pillow. Nestling against the blanket, it repeated, “You’re back.”
“A small toy that had been phased out a hundred years ago.” Shi Shanyan looked at the little robot for a moment and asked, “Do you live here?”
The little robot’s google-like electronic eyes flashed faintly with apprehension as it replied according to the system’s designed response, “Yes, I live here. This is my home.”
“Cool.” Shi Shanyan paused. “Where’s your dad?”
“I don’t have a dad.” The little robot was unable to comprehend the changes in human tones. It simply continued on and said, “Teacher, welcome home.”
This kind of robot was first introduced to teach young children to speak. They could do the simplest information recognition and interact a little with children. Later on, they were replaced by intelligence systems, and in developed districts like Guanggui and Guangtong, they were already being collected as antiques. They were all very small and only slightly smarter than the common dog.
This little lad was well taken care of by Huo Qingjun. Other than being old, its four limbs were all clean. It could not tell who Huo Qingjun was and simply treated everyone who moved around this room as Huo Qingjun. It was lacking in aggressiveness and vigilance. It only knew how to rely on its stale data analysis to chat with people.
All the while Shi Shanyan and the robot were conversing, the sound effects of the man next door playing his game wafted over clearly. Being surrounded by two different kinds of sounds, and being unable to see clearly out of the small, overhanging window, made Yan Junxun uncomfortable.
The murderer had never been here.
Yan Junxun did not find any traces of her here. It was all Huo Qingjun’s traces.
The window had never been opened before; most likely, it was already sealed to begin with. Set on the table was a fountain pen that Huo Qingjun had not capped tightly, while the textbooks that had been pressed down appeared in their original state. There were no other footprints on the collapsed pile of books beside Yan Junxun’s legs, except for Huo Qingjun’s.
Why didn’t she come in?
She couldn’t find a reason to.
Yan Junxun thought, if she wanted to come, she would definitely have a way to. She was very obsessed with her targets and her targets’ living situation. She carried out her inspections like a queen. These were all her territories, but she had never come to Huo Qingjun’s house. It was not that she did not know where Huo Qingjun’s house was; she just did not want to come.
“What are the songs you can sing?” Shi Shanyan chatted with the little robot to this point.
“I can’t sing.” The little robot said. It was slow to react as it raised its arm and pressed down onto one of its own ears. “If you want to listen to music, I can play it for you.”
Shi Shanyan supportively cheered it on and said, “Let’s hear it.”
The little robot went silent. Five seconds later, Shi Shanyan and Yan Junxun heard the sound of rain. The damp and dense sound soaked their ears and made the skin under Yan Junxun’s t-shirt tingle with alarm. He was truly unable to adapt to such a damp environment. But the sound of the rain was persistent. It drummed upon the lake and blanketed the streams. It was like the breathing of a lush forest. This was a sound meant to aid sleep—a lullaby.
The little robot would only select and broadcast the music that had been replayed on a loop for the most number of times. This indicated that Huo Qingjun often needed the sound of rain to fall asleep. It seemed as if he wanted to soak his own body in this gloomy and damp room until he turned moldy. He struggled to maintain his existence in this remote and shabby crevice. There was no flame and no sun in his life, only the rain.
“Turn it off.” Yan Junxun suddenly turned back.
He did not feel too good. He felt sticky all over, as if he was already lying on this camp bed. As he spoke, he saw the corner of the blanket on top of the little robot’s body. Huo Qingjun had covered the robot with it on the day he disappeared.
Huo Qingjun had tucked it in with the blanket. Perhaps he had even stroked its head. Then, he had walked out with those unbound drafts under his arm.
The little robot had waved its hand at him as usual.
Huo Qingjun had walked out under the sound of rain. Then, he became dismembered body parts soaking in the gutter. Yan Junxun remembered all the details in the data clearly. It was just like what Shi Shanyan had said. The murderer stripped off Huo Qingjun’s clothes; she did not really know how to cut up the body. Then she pushed Huo Qingjun onto the spot where she had executed the first two men and held his body down like she used to. She even wore those rubber gloves she used for cleaning.
But the blunt instrument did not cut smoothly, and the pieces of meat were badly processed.
It shouldn’t be like this. Yan Junxun promptly thought.
This was her third victim. She already knew where she should start from, yet she had handled and disposed of Huo Qingjun’s body in the worst way possible.
Huo Qingjun was probably still alive at the time. He was not thoroughly dead. He struggled.
Yan Junxun’s breathing grew slightly urgent. That damn sound of the rain in the room was still pitter-pattering. He could feel the blood splattering onto his face. The sound of scribbling and scrawling on the blackboard rang out in his head, and the gaming sound effects of the man next door were like locusts barging their way into Yan Junxun’s thoughts. Yan Junxun constantly switched between the blackboard and this imagery as though he was squatting on a construction site watching a monochrome movie that stuffed his entire brain full of information.
What a fucking din!
Yan Junxun wanted to lift the collar of the man next door, bang the latter’s head on the table, and turn off his game.
Don’t disturb me. Don’t you fucking disturb me!
Yan Junxun recited to himself silently, as though he was gnashing his teeth.
Just then, the clock struck six o’clock, and the earth-shattering, rumbling sound of the rail transportation steamrolled over them. The weight of the heavy-duty transportation caused the entire district to quake as it hurtled past, and the pile of books beneath the plastic table fell completely flat. The sound of the rail engulfed all other noises like a massive wave crashing over them as it transited through.
The murderer killed Huo Qingjun on the platform where she dismembered the bodies.
It was too easy. She must have used something else as an aid. She would not wrestle with them; she had a way to render them incapable of fighting back.
The tremors jerked aside the cap of the fountain pen, and the nib of the pen knocked against the thick manuscript paper. Black ink, like black-colored blood, spread out.
Huo Qingjun’s blood trickled all over the platform. But the murderer did not care. Of course, she did not care; it was always the same during the dismemberment. She was just unhappy. Not once during all those times she committed crimes as a “man” had she ever met with resistance. This was the first time. She had to teach Huo Qingjun a lesson.
Only Huo Qingjun’s body parts had been chewed by the dogs.
◈ ◈ ◈
Chen Xiulian carefully identified the fly in the corner. She did not want to kill the innocents indiscriminately, so she gently plucked off the fly’s wings and got it off the grinding machine.
The fly dropped stiffly to the ground, long dead.
“We had so little rain this month.” Yang Yu removed the rubber gloves on her hands and fanned herself with her hands. “It’s so hot that we can’t even get out of the house. My son is so pampered and spoiled. He keeps yelling about the heat every day. He hasn’t even left the house to find work this month.”
Chen Xiulian straightened up in her seat and looked out of the glass at those coke transportation trucks entering the compound. She said, “Don’t bother about him. Let him earn his own money and food.”
Yang Yu wiped away the sweat on her temples with the back of her hand. She had scraped her hand earlier while working and did not have the time to bother about it, and now, the streaks of blood had already clotted. She was so tired that she could hardly straighten her back. She sighed, “If I don’t, then who will? Having a child is like having a creditor. He stays at home and does nothing, and I have to raise both his wife and child.” She looked at Chen Xiulian, “I’m so old. Soon, there’ll come a time when I won’t be able to do it anymore.”
Chen Xiulian watched the transportation trucks in silence for a moment. They were like ants crawling on the ground. She said, “You won’t be able to raise him even if you work ten more jobs.”
Every day, Yang Yu would pour out her grievances to Chen Xiulian. Her son had taken on a job driving the coke transportation truck at the start of the year, but he quitted once summer came. He lay at home playing games all day long, calling his mother when he was hungry. Even when his wife went into labor and about to pass out from the pain at home, he could still sit still before his game.
“My life is too hard. My husband is a short-lived man, and my son is a rascal who freeloads off me. I’m already over fifty years old, and I still have to clean toilets for others.” The more Yang Yu spoke, the more aggrieved she felt. She hurriedly wiped her eyes with her hand. “He gets vexed when I nag at him, and he’s so picky. Even his wife doesn’t dare to say a word. If she agrees with just a few sentences, she will have to suffer a beating.”
“Didn’t your daughter-in-law just give birth?”
“Oh, no, he wouldn’t care about stuff like this when he’s drunk.” There was some dust that had yet to be wiped clean trapped at the crow’s feet at the corner of Yang Yu’s eye. She sniffed. “I even let his wife sleep with me at night.”
Chen Xiulian did not utter a word.
After a while, Yang Yu got up and said, “That Puli neighborhood case is really scary. Luckily for us, we have never been there to work before. Who knows when they will be able to catch the perpetrator? The Inspection Bureau came to On-Time Cleaning today to check on the staff and the attendance sheet, causing quite a delay. I’m still not done with my work on that end. I’ll go over now and pack up. Wait for me for a moment. We’ll leave together.”
Chen Xiulian nodded her head and watched as Yang Yu walked away into the distance. There were not that many people in the indoor resting area at dusk. At this time, the drivers all had to wait outside to calculate the number of round trips made for the transportation of coke with the weighing room’s record-taker. She had already tallied hers before having her meal.
Chen Xiulian tapped her own light screen open. The page was parked on Liu Chen’s real-time news feed.
Liu Chen was constantly keeping track of the progress of the Inspection Bureau’s investigation. Jiang Lian had not come to a prior arrangement with him, so he dedicated the homepage today to criticize the Inspection Bureau’s attitude. The messages underneath were all very worked up. Not wanting to see them, Chen Xiulian cut into Liu Chen’s fans’ chatroom, where the cases were being hotly discussed at the moment.
MaySnow: [The case will be solved.]
Ferryboat: [?? What inside news do you have?]
MaySnow: [There’s a profiling master in the Inspection Bureau who specializes in dealing with this case.]
CuttingEdge Media Professional Liu Chen: [Oh, that’s what I’ve heard too. But so far, no one has divulged this master’s name. Do you know? I can pay you.]
MaySnow said nothing. He seemed to be considering the pros and cons. After a few minutes, he typed: [We have a bit of a history. I don’t dare to talk about it here. Will Reporter Liu do a meet-up? I can give you the info for free.]
Liu Chen did not answer. Most likely, they had taken it to the private chat.
Chen Xiulian had never said a word here. She did not really like to chat with strangers. That was something her husband loved to do. She did not care who the Inspection Bureau’s expert was either. She merely wanted to hear the cheers and applause.
“Fuck you.” The voice of her husband, He Zhiguo, rang in her ear again. He seemed as though he was shouting right into Chen Xiulian’s ears. “You’re in trouble! Just you wait for them to catch you!”
Chen Xiulian pursed her lips tightly.
“Hurry up and kill all the dogs. The entire house stinks so bad I’m about to suffocate to death.” Specks of He Zhiguo’s spittle were almost spraying onto Chen Xiulian’s face. “I’ve told you a fucking long time before to throw them into the boiler, but you just had to feed those dogs!”
“Shut up.” Chen Xiulian’s facial features looked slightly savage as she repeated in a hushed tone, “Shut the fuck up!”
Her shadow on the ground was all alone and forlorn.
Special thanks to Suika! 🍉 <333