Chapter 38: Humbert Humbert Five

TL: QuantumC, Editor: IsaLee

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The guests were gone, and Tao Ran was probably wandering somewhere far in dreamland.

A trace of the fruity booze lingered in the well-lit living room, which somehow made the already clammy air more unbearable. Fei Du turned the AC off and opened up the windows. Using the new coffee machine, he made himself an espresso and sat down to watch the rich fragrance tangle with the rising steam at the table corner.

A sudden gush of warm summer wind engulfed Luo Wenzhou. After a brief silence, he dried his hands and pressed those cold palms against his forehead, sighing deeply: “Young man, any chance that you could be more blunt? The sacred red scarf (1) has taught us again and again that one shall not leave a name after doing good deeds. Now you just yanked the cat out of the hat like that… you’ve killed the beauty of it…”

Fei Du did not respond. His whole body was as static as an icy statue. The “well-behaving” mask that he wore was almost convincing. 

Luo Wenzhou looked at him and suddenly realized that he wasn’t the only one feeling awkward here — with Fei Du’s exceptional memory, he probably still remembered his younger self flaunting the PSP in the Bureau while acting like a smartass in front of Luo Wenzhou. 

Luo placed himself in Fei Du’s shoes and pictured the scene in his mind wholeheartedly. Needless to say, it immediately gave him goosebumps. Seeing Fei Du through the “goosebump” lens somehow revealed a whole new perspective: those pursed lips, slightly curled fingers, and the eyes hidden behind the glare of the glasses all signaled that the man was cringing with embarrassment at this moment. See, when you are embarrassed and you try to talk yourself out of it, the ramblings only exacerbate your awkwardness. However, if you come to the revelation that the other party is just as embarrassed as you are, then congratulations, you’ve just found a way out. 

Luo Wenzhou’s smile rippled as he lazily reached into his pants pocket. He lowered his head to take a cigarette. Then, he slowly blinked and gave Fei Du a half-joking, half-mocking look from below. Because of the cigarette between his lips, he spoke with a nasal twang: “What? Finally found out that the Uncle Dongbing (2) that you’ve been biting and barking at for all these years was actually the good guy? It’s okay babe, don’t be so nervous. This living Lei-Feng (3) here wouldn’t normally ask people to repay with their bodies.”

Fei Du’s poker face was so perfectly emotionless that it looked like he was wearing an iron mask. He was a master at controlling facial expressions, especially under pressure. No trace of his true emotion could escape to the surface. Comparatively, the full-of-shits Zhao Haochang could almost be called candid. 

Fei Du made no reply. After a short moment of silence, he turned around and picked up the coffee. Drops of oil surfaced on top of the cup, and rippled with his movement. Fei Du didn’t add any sugar. Silently, he drank almost the full cup as if he couldn’t taste anything.

He had several cups of wine just now and barely ate anything. In his half-empty stomach, the mixture of alcohol and caffeine had turned into a perfect “blood pressure pump”, urging the heart to push volumes of blood into the arteries. Rapid and irregular heartbeats made him feel sick. His palms became sweaty.

Luo Wenzhou frowned: “Stop drinking that…”

Fei Du held the warm bone china cup in his palms. A forced smile inched up the corner of his mouth: “Fair enough. For someone like me who’s ready to kill his father at any time, growing into a functional human-being was already an accomplishment. Cap Luo, you’re definitely up there on the credits list.”

Luo Wenzhou sensed some unusual tension beneath those words. Before he was able to conclude anything, Fei Du drank up the rest of his coffee. There was a sharp clean angle between his neck and his raised chin. His eyebrows were furrowed: perhaps the coffee was bitter after all. Then he put down the cup, nodded, and turned to the hallway: “I’m on my way. Tell Tao Ran that I said bye.”

“Wait,” Luo Wenzhou asked habitually, “don’t drive after drinking.”

Fei Du paid him no attention.

Luo Wenzhou: “Did you hear me?”

Fei Du emotionlessly reached for the doorknob as if no one was talking. 

Seeing that words wouldn’t do, Luo Wenzhou decided to get physical. He grabbed Fei Du by the arms. Using the same maneuver for arresting suspects, he adeptly locked his arms behind Fei Du’s back and pulled him away from the door. 

Fei Du: “…”

“Some people just won’t listen.” Under Fei Du’s widened eyes, Luo Wenzhou pressed down on the back of his neck with one hand while locking his arms with the other, and ‘escorted’ him to the lounge chair three steps away, “Sit down and wait here. I’ll call for a designated driver.” 

Fei Du’s senses finally caught up with what was happening. He broke free from Luo’s hands and protested, losing his signature easiness: “Cap Luo, when can you evolve a little from an archaic homo sapien and act more like a civilized person?”

Luo Wenzhou ignored him. The hand that was on Fei Du’s neck moved forward an inch and fell on his jugular vein to check his pulse: “How do you feel now? I thought I heard from somewhere that coffee should never be mixed together with alcohol.”

Fei Du: “…”

He was basically defeated by this Monday morning quarterback.

Luo Wenzhou continued, looking straight at Fei Du: “I didn’t think that far — jeez… can’t be too warm to you, and can’t be too cold…you’re more work than Empress Dowager Cixi (3).”

Fei Du: “…Pardon my ignorance. I had no idea that your real surname was Li (4).”

Luo Wenzhou flicked the side of his neck, then went out to call the designated driver.

 

The apartment owner had no idea about the bickering in his living room. He was knocked over by some wine, and remained unconscious until the the golden twilight sun kissed the floor. He woke up, mouth parched.

The guests all left, but before that, they cleaned up the mess and left him with a spotless apartment. Tao Ran washed his face in his new home and then discovered two sticky notes on the fridge. One was from Luo Wenzhou, telling him that the leftovers were in the fridge and to not forget to warm them up. 

The other longer one was from Fei Du. Tao Ran squinted his eyes and read it closely. Fei Du said that when he took Chen Chen out to buy notebooks, he felt they were being followed. He wasn’t sure whether the stalker was after Chen Chen specifically. Maybe it was nothing but his neuroticism, but just in case, he asked Tao Ran to visit Chen-chen’s parents in apartment 1101 in the same building. He also wanted Tao Ran to remind them to pay attention to child safety during the summer. Lastly, he told him to not go empty-handed and take the chance to thank Chang Ning for gracing his home with her presence this afternoon.

‘What a nosy parker. He even got her apartment number.’ Tao Ran was amused.

But his amusement quickly faded. Tao Ran reread Fei Du’s description of the potential stalker several times, then looked out of the window unconsciously — the old residential community had a great coverage of greens. The thick pines and bushes shaded much of the open, such that there wasn’t much to see while looking down from his floor.

Quiet and peaceful.

Tao Ran walked over to the cabinet and reopened the senior officer’s notebook. Beneath the inner cover, there was an old one-inch photo. It was a headshot of the notebook’s owner when he was young. He was a square-faced man with a simple buzz cut, and he definitely hadn’t planned on smiling for the camera. Next to the photo was his free-spirited signature — Yang Zhengfeng.

On the pages of the “Lian Hua-shan children serial abduction case”, Yang Lao (5) had drawn a red circle. Tao Ran knew that this meant the case had not yet been closed in his mentor’s heart. On the notebook, there were records of his illegal followings and tappings of Wu Guangchuan. The timespan lasted for a full half-month. Every day, the record pretty much said “no abnormalities”. There were some other scribbles too: “Confirmed with Wu Guangchuan’s colleague: when recruiting at Lian Hua-shan, Wu was hospitalized for two days because of a heavy cold. Guo Fei went missing on the same day. Confirmed with the hospital. Wu’s alibi is questionable.”

Tao Ran poured himself a cup of water and combed through his tangling strains of thoughts. Accordingly, Wu Guangchuan was taller than 1.8 meters, so tall that little girls needed to fully raise their heads to see his face. Children in their pre-teenage years would more or less have begun to develop. It was also a sensitive time where gender awareness starts developing. For a male stranger, gaining trust from the girl — even if he was a teacher — would probably take some time or multiple interactions. Would the hospitalized Wu Guangchuan have the time and opportunity? 

As Tao Ran’s mind wandered, he dropped the notebook upside down and a piece of paper that was between the later pages fell out. It was Tao Ran’s own writing: an FM radio station frequency, followed by his note: “Midnight, Degree Zero reading channel.”

Yang Zhengfeng died three years ago, under the knife of a wanted murderer. At his age and level, he had long been pulled from the frontlines to leadership. In fact, according to Luo Wenzhou’s source, Yang was on the promotion track for the Vice Head of the Bureau at the time. Luo Wenzhou and Tao Ran were gonna rip off the old man with a lavish meal in the name of a “celebration”. 

Yang was not even on duty that day — he was taking a two-week PTO to send his daughter to college. It was his last day of vacation, and he was planning on using it wisely to prepare a good meal for the family. 

He was on his way back from the farmers’ market early in the morning. When crossing the street through an underground pedestrian passageway, he saw a neurotic-looking homeless person. The homeless man seemed very anxious and edgy, glaring at anyone who locked eyes with him. Some of his gestures were very aggressive. Upon a closer check, Yang recognized that the man was actually on the top wanted list who had been on the run since he slaughtered his neighbor’s whole family. 

The suspect was obviously in distress. Because it was hard to control the scene by himself and guarantee bystanders’ safety, Yang Zhengfeng decided not to strike alone and contacted his colleagues. However, as he was waiting for the back up to arrive, an old woman walked by with her dog. The dog might have sensed danger as it kept barking at the homeless guy. The enraged man yelled back, then took out a knife and attacked the old woman. At this time, Yang Zhengfeng had no choice but to intervene — he was stabbed by the attacker dozens of times. 

Tao Ran was on duty that day. He was among the first to arrive on scene, and barely missed Yang Lao’s last words. What was strange was that Yang Zhengfeng’s final words weren’t about his loved ones, nor did he ask whether the attacker had been seized. He gripped Tao Ran’s hand, and murmured one sentence over and over: “FM… 88.6… five past twelve… 88.6…”

The program on FM 88.6 that aired at 12:05 am was called “Degree Zero Reading”. Later, the radio program was suspended and turned into an unpopular phone app. It played audiobooks every day, mostly with boring content. Fei Du once heard it and joked that it was a magical sleeping aid.

Due to his night shifts from time to time, Tao Ran’s circadian clock was quite messed up. Sometimes when he had trouble falling asleep, he would open this strange audiobook app. Because of the generic content of this app however, he had long suspected that he had heard the old man wrong. But that was before he encountered the ID: “Loud Reader”.

Tao Ran turned his half-dead phone back on, opened the “Degree Zero Reading” app, and flipped to the saved article: “Review of le Rouge et le Noir”. Its writer was the “Loud Reader”. 

The article started off with: “Then, with whom do I share the dinner table?’ —  This was the question that revealed the soul of the character.” It struck Tao Ran deeply. Because Zhao Haochang, the offender of the “520” murder, made junior partner at his firm by capitalizing on the Zhang family’s network and beating his opposition on a big case. To celebrate, he stole the pen from Fei Du, the head of the partnering company in this project. In the commemorate note, he wrote exactly the same sentence: “With whom do I share the dinner table?”

Tao Ran didn’t bring this up to anyone. They would probably not take it seriously, and brush it off as his imagination — ‘After all, he had been immersed in Lao Yang’s case for so long that anything could seem like a lead.’ However, Tao Ran had gotten this odd feeling more than once lately, and each time it had to do with the same ID.

When his mentor grabbed his hand and delivered those final words, was he really talking about a boring audiobook station? Could it be that he had heard him wrong from the beginning? Could it be that after all these years, he had convinced himself of something non-existent and had become oversensitive to even the most generic content? After seven years of being a criminal police, Tao Ran knew all too well about how these sorts of self-hypnotizing goes: Afterall, memory itself was highly suggestive — just look at how many eyewitnesses couldn’t correctly recall the most basic information of the suspect such as their gender and height.

Over the years he must have studied the old man’s notebook a million times, looking for a clue to decode his last words. However, even though he could recite the contents of the notebook, he didn’t discover anything else besides that radio station. Tao Ran took a deep breath and shook his head in self-ridicule. He thought that perhaps he needed to schedule a session with the psychological counseling office in the Bureau as well.

Right then, the phone app buzzed, and a sign for “updates” appeared to the right upper corner. Tao Ran looked down blankly. In the next moment, his pupils quickly constricted at the article title — “Wanderer, have you found the lost night pearl? — a reread of Lolita. Contributed by: Loud Reader.”

 

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