Once again, Yang Yu was subjected to an investigation. The service station she belonged to submitted the data of all the aid recipients to the Inspection Bureau, so everyone had to wait at the service station for the Inspection Bureau’s cross-examination of data. Yang Yu was in a hurry to go home and cook dinner, but her attempt to negotiate with the personnel from the Inspection Bureau was unsuccessful. Seeing that it was getting dark, she could only go to the service station’s public communication-navigator to make a call to her son.
Yang Yu dialed several times in a row, but no one at home answered. Anxious to the point of desperation, she put in another call to Chen Xiulian with the thought of giving it a go.
“Xiaochen!” Yang Yu waited for the other side to connect before she anxiously said, “I bought some groceries at the entrance of our industrial park and got them to deliver it to the canteen. If it’s convenient for you after work later, can you help me to send it over to my house? Tell my daughter-in-law that the Inspection Bureau is at our service station checking data!”
Chen Xiulian’s communication-navigator was so badly damaged that one could hear static during the call. She did not answer for a long time. Yang Yu thought she did not hear her and was about to repeat when she heard Chen Xiulian answer, “Alright. I’ll go over after work.”
“Oh, thank you!” Yang Yu brushed aside the hair that was dampened by sweat.
Through the static, Chen Xiulian heard the sound of conversations near Yang Yu. The people from the Inspection Bureau were in the service office, and the service station’s aid recipients were all gathered in the hall, whispering among themselves as they discussed the current investigation.
Chen Xiulian did not let Yang Yu hang up the call. She sat in her vehicle and looked out of the window at the weighing room outside, where vehicles were coming and going. She asked, “Is the Inspection Bureau investigating the murder cases?”
“It’s that murder case we saw a few days earlier.” Yang Yu was frightened when she mentioned the murder cases. She covered her mouth and whispered, “There’s someone in there from Puli neighborhood. On-Time Cleaning told the Inspection Bureau that Puli neighborhood cleaning service is a joint cooperation with our service station. So the Inspection Bureau came to investigate.”
Chen Xiulian was blocking the traffic lane, and a car at the side started honking. She started her truck and continued as she turned the steering wheel, “What did they ask?”
“The technology is so advanced now. I heard from those who went in ahead of me say that all you need to do is to stand before the table and submit your own ID number, and the system will automatically conduct the information search and information recognition.”
Yang Yu read out the new words she had just learned. Then she cast a glance at the office and whispered in an even smaller voice, “What should I do, Xiaochen? I’m so afraid they will find out about my son and daughter-in-law. Their residence permits aren’t settled yet. Will they go to jail if they are discovered?”
“Don’t be afraid.” Chen Xiulian parked the truck at the corner and turned off the engine. “These things aren’t that miraculous…”
She was not all that sure; she even wanted to shout at Yang Yu and tell her to run.
But Chen Xiulian thought of the timing. At the time Li Jianhua disappeared, she had not gone into Puli neighborhood—there was no record of her. Even when she stood in for Yang Yu, she went to another neighborhood. She was not on On-Time Cleaning’s time sheet. It was useless even if the Inspection Bureau were to detain Yang Yu and investigate her a million times.
These things aren’t that miraculous.
Chen Xiulian thought with her hands grasping the steering wheel. He Zhiguo had cussed these systems before. He said they were just a bunch of binary codes and could not do much technical analysis.
If the systems were to have human rights, then this would be the age of dictatorship.
Liu Chen had also said so in the chat room. He opposed the universalization of systems and resisted the recording of one’s personal data into the systems. Chen Xiulian had never registered her personal data. In the beginning, it was because He Zhiguo refused to take her to have her data registered. He was afraid that she would report him to the police once she had an ID number. Her current truck, house, ID communication-navigator were all registered under He Zhiguo’s information. Even the payroll account she left at the steel factory had once been used by He Zhiguo. In Tingbo District, she was an invisible entity without an identity.
“They are investigating the cases. You have nothing to do with the cases.” Chen Xiulian looked at the clouds in the sky, which looked as if they had been dipped in ink. Even the rain they squeezed out was filthy. She said, “They don’t have time to check all those. Just answer whatever you can. Is your son at home? I’m going over to deliver the groceries.”
◈ ◈ ◈
Yan Junxun turned off the lights and pulled the curtains tightly shut. He lay on the bed and closed his eyes, trying to sleep. A sound effect akin to sinking into the deep sea played on in his ears. He needed this sound to help him sleep, just like Huo Qingjun needed the sound of rain.
Yan Junxun liked to be in a sealed and pitch-black world without any extraneous noises. This allowed him to process his thoughts even more quickly. The little blackboard rested in his head, and Yan Junxun swept it over to the corner. He did his best to relax his body, even pulling up his blanket.
But when humans close their eyes, other images would still appear in their minds. There was no preventing this.
Yan Junxun looked out from the window in Liu Xincheng’s room. He could not see anything. Those photos kept blocking his view, making him extremely uncomfortable. He was reluctant to continue and attempted to change the image of Liu Xincheng’s room, but Liu Xincheng’s face instantly popped up right before his eyes without warning.
There was a segment of the motion picture in which Liu Xincheng’s data had been recorded. He turned his own body and looked expressionlessly at the system’s camera.
The graffiti in Liu Xincheng’s hallway kept magnifying. The “fuck” that had been painted in red splashed over Liu Xincheng’s face. He stared at Yan Junxun like he was staring at the murderer.
Yan Junxun was beginning to get restless and irritable. He turned over and buried his entire body under the soft quilt.
Don’t look at me.
Yan Junxun thought.
I wasn’t the one who did this, for fuck’s sake.
Liu Xincheng froze in the frame, like a sample photo created in a powerpoint that slid past emotionlessly. Li Jianhua did not appear right after him. Yan Junxun thought of the fish tank in his house. The light in the fish tank flickered on and off. Yan Junxun clearly remembered the patterns on the fish tank, including the rhythm of Shi Shanyan’s taps on the fish tank.
Those fishes swept their big, bright red tails and swam in the glass. The flashes of light were not fast, but Yan Junxun hated it; he could associate it with something else. The murderer had to clean up after she was done cutting up Li Jianhua. She could not flush away those pieces of flesh; she had to pick them up into several basins. And when she poured the water away, those chunks of flesh would be like the fishes, the incisions opening and closing, forming a patch of vibrant red as they lay exposed on the water surface.
Li Jianhua died last month. But the fishes were still alive this month.
Yan Junxun did not want to hear it, but he still heard the scratching sounds of writing on the small blackboard.
The murderer remembered these fishes, and she returned to Li Jianhua’s house more than once. When was the most recent time? She could not go on weekends as that was too conspicuous. There were people living next door to Li Jianhua. She had to pick a time no one was paying attention and when she did not have to drive. She knew that driving required re-entry into the underground parking lot. She could not use the ID number she had in hand twice. That was too obvious. She had to think of another way.
Yan Junxun thought of the fish tank. He also thought of the scene when he and Shi Shanyan had walked out of Li Jianhua’s house.
Shi Shanyan had stood in the lift and waved his hand at the couple next door. Yan Junxun did not look at them. He had only seen the mountain bike at Li Jianhua’s door out of the corner of his eyes, along with that pair of old sneakers which had been washed until they were extremely clean.
Those definitely did not belong to Li Jianhua. They belonged to someone else—perhaps, the murderer.
When she drove her vehicle over, it was to take Li Jianhua away. But she understood that she could not drive the vehicle in twice. Not only would that require her to leave a second record in the underground parking lot, it would also make the property management, which was familiar with On-Time Cleaning vehicles, suspicious. She rode her bicycle for subsequent visits. This way, she would not have to go through the entry and exit checks again to enter Puli neighborhood.
The fact that she chose to ride a bike instead of drive showed that her workplace was nearby. She could not go on weekends; she had to go between work hours. But then again, she did not dare to take the bike home. Because this was something she bought, and taking it home would make her afraid. For every cent she spent, she would get a beating. She thus developed the habit of sneaking around, just like how she did not dare to watch the the sexual assault process.
The sound of writing on the blackboard intensified. It was so noisy that Yan Junxun’s breathing was thrown into disarray. He wanted to sit up and smoke a cigarette. If someone could see Yan Junxun’s blackboard, they would be surprised to find its surface in a mess. The threads on the blackboard were utterly disorganized, like knitting wool that a cat had scratched; there was simply to way to find nor make head nor tail of it.
She had the habit of returning to the vicinity of the victims’ houses. She needed to keep replaying the scenes in her memory to prove to herself that the victim was already dead—that they were truly dead for good. The reason she repeated the crime was because her own agony did not end. That was too terrible. She had to go back and forth near the victims’ house to observe like someone with obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Yan Junxun suddenly sat up and yanked off the ear pieces he had stuffed into his ears. He was drenched in sweat all over, but the temperature was actually not at all high. He just—this was just how he was.
“Call Jiang Lian.” Yan Junxun shouted out to the panda in a hoarse voice. “Ask him—”
It was when Yan Junxun thought to this point that he remembered his communication-navigator was switched off. The only mode of communication was in Shi Shanyan’s hands. And he had personally sent Shi Shanyan out of the door.
Yan Junxun pulled aside the quilt. “Wake the little orange dragon up!”
◈ ◈ ◈
Chen Xiulian started the vehicle, and the headlights lit up in the black night. She was very sensitive to time, and she had always done a good job when it came to being punctual.
Yang Yu’s daughter-in-law came out after her and said to Chen Xiulian by the side of the truck door, “Thank you so much, Xiulian-jie!”1
“You’re welcome.” Chen Xiulian looked at Yang Yu’s daughter-in-law. The girl who had only just given birth was very thin. She had no make-up on, and even the clothes draped over her shoulders were second-hand from her mother-in-law’s.
Chen Xiulian thought inwardly to herself.
She had suffered a beating just a few days after giving birth, and she was the one who carried Qinqin home herself. He Zhiguo wanted to give her away, but she refused. She only had this one child, just like the moon in the sky. She carried her in her arms and used her own shriveled breasts to feed her bit by bit. Qinqin was very obedient—little girls were all pretty obedient. She sang to her as she tied her a ponytail.
Qinqin said, mummy, don’t cry.
“Son of a bitch has a really good life. His old mom works hard outside while he stays at home to play the young master.4 He even has a young and pretty wife to wait on him.” He Zhiguo smacked his lips; he loved smacking his lips each time he finished a drink. “His wife is so pretty. If I were in his shoes I wouldn’t even bear to hit her. Who knows how that bastard got his hands on her? Maybe he did the same as me—act first and ask for forgiveness later.”
He Zhiguo laughed in Chen Xiulian’s ears. His larynx was not in good shape. His voice would turn hoarse when he laughed too much. Likewise, it would also turn hoarse when he cried. Sometimes, Chen Xiulian could not really tell if He Zhiguo was crying or laughing when he was lying in the basement.
“Diba is so far away, but he insisted, saying that he had already made an appointment with his online friend…”
There was a “tick” as the clock struck.
Chen Xiulian was happy. The digital watch was precise and accurate. Her gas had already been filled to the brim, and the basement had been tidied up. She knew where Yang Yu’s son was. He liked to play games, and he wanted a good job. Chen Xiulian knew it all. She was all too familiar with the thinking of these beasts.
No. Chen Xiulian corrected her mistake.
She was all too familiar with the thinking of ”He Zhiguo”.
“It’s alright. I know that area. I can pick him up.” Chen Xiulian turned her head to look ahead and repeated to Yang Yu’s daughter-in-law, “You’re welcome.”
The novel name has been revised.5 The chūnibyō level has gone off the charts. I’ve also discussed the tags with the editor again and decided to change it to futuristic fantasy to align with the novel next door, Right on Target.6 To better meet the requirements for the tag, I’ll need to take a day off tomorrow to make some changes to the basic setting of Tingbo District. The subsequent plot will also need to undergo some corresponding adjustments.7
Thank you for reading.
- Elder Sister Xiulian
- Old wives’ tales saying that those with big butt are better at child-bearing
- 赔钱货 literally money-losing, or unprofitable, goods. i.e., a daughter, so called in former times because a daughter could not earn a living and needed a dowry.
- 二大爷 literally second master/uncle but it’s also a slang word used to cuss people.
- It was originally “Murder” (谋杀).
- Lianyin’s tentative translation for 准点狙击.
- Translations so far are based after her revisions.