Chapter 43: Humbert Humbert Ten

TL: QuantumC, Editor: MochiMochi

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In the past twenty years, the Lian-Huashan district had undergone such dramatic changes that it was almost unrecognizable. The streets and the buildings now lined up neatly in a uniform ‘modern’ style, looking even more imposing than an actual city center. But the young and gangly trees alongside the roads gave away its hasty and under-prepared nature  beneath the ‘heavy makeup’.

Luo Wenzhou drove around the neighborhood several times before finally spotting the inconspicuous magazine post.

A man with reading glasses was sitting behind the counter manning the post, his back stooping. It was hard to tell the man’s age: his face was that of a middle-aged man, probably not yet beyond retirement, but his spirit was that of a lethargic old man on his last legs.

It was during the hottest hours of the afternoon. The scorching sun had effectively turned the street into a sizzling pan. Luo Wenzhou pushed up his sunglasses and walked up to the magazine post: “An iced soda, please.”

Hearing this, the post owner put away his book and bent down. Shortly, he handed over a bottle coated with a thick layer of white frost.

Under the shade of the post, Luo Wenzhou popped the drink open and guzzled almost half of the bottle.

For the whole morning he had been wrestling with the senior colleagues who were involved in the old Lian-Huashan case. Although he had Chief Lu’s backing and a totally legitimate cause, it still took a lot of beating around the bushes to feel out those old guys. After all, having a similar background and undertaking the same training with the target of your interrogation took the whole game up a notch since both parties knew the usual tactics all too well. The endless rounds of going back and forth were more exhausting than the plot of a Chinese ‘Gongdou’ drama (1).

Having slaved away the whole morning and overworked his brain, Luo Wenzhou completely zoned out for a while, allowing himself to briefly immerse in the icy cold beverage and the friendly shade of the umbrella.

Seeing that he wasn’t going to leave right away, the owner of the post propped his head out and asked: “Young lad, I’ve got popsicles here too. Do you want one?”

Luo Wenzhou waved and said: “No thanks! The air bubbles are taking up too much space… I just need another minute.”

“Sure.” The post owner said, and dragged out a plastic stool for him: “Here, sit down. It’s such a hot day, and we are all hanging in there. What do you do, young man?”

Luo Wenzhou swiveled the bottle above his knees as he answered: “I am a policeman.”

The post owner was stepping over his door sill. As soon as he heard the word “police”, his whole body froze at that spot. After a long while, he finally turned around, folded his reading glasses, and spoke in a low, shaky voice: “I’ve already finished my parole. And the government passed my paperwork too.”

“I know.” said Luo Wenzhou, “Uncle Guo, I don’t mean to bother you. I just want to talk with you about Fei Fei’s case twenty years ago.” 

That post owner was Guo Heng.

After killing Wu Guangchuan, Guo Heng was imprisoned for murder. His sentence was shortened, and he was released two years ago. Obviously, by then he had lost his old job. Twenty years had passed, and nothing from the old days remained. People left or died, the city changed, and even his wife had left him before he committed the crime. He returned to the unrecognizable Lian-Huashan district, all alone, and lived on this small magazine post.

“There is nothing to talk about.” Guo Heng’s face turned dark, “She has been gone for twenty years. I killed the murderer myself. I served my sentences. That’s the end of it. What else could you possibly want to know?”

Luo Wenzhou softened his voice: “I didn’t mean to offend you at all. Actually, there is a recent case of a missing girl. Some evidence suggests that it could be related to the cold case years ago.”

“Related?” Guo Heng asked fridgidly, “How?”

“A girl, eleven years old, went missing wearing a floral print dress. On the third day, the suspect sent the parents a piece of voice recording. In there, beside the girl’s crying there was also some noise. It sounded like someone was shaking a metal box with a jingle bell inside.” Luo Wenzhou knew that Guo Heng was on guard, so he tried his best to show sincerity by looking directly into Guo’s eyes, excluding any unnecessary details in his explanation, and being as succinct and to-the-point as possible, “According to the senior officers who handled Fei Fei’s case, these details are very similar. That’s why I want to ask…”

Before he finished, Guo Heng impatiently interjected, mocking: “Ask? You mean interrogate. Well, the murderer is dead, and the only people who might know of this detail are the police officers and me. Obviously the cops will do no evil, so who is left to be suspected? Just this man right here, with a history.”

“No, not only you. I have interviewed all of the police officers who were involved in the old case.” Luo Wenzhou said, “I am not suspecting anything. I just want to know more about …”

Guo Heng suddenly exploded in rage. He yelled at Luo Wenzhou: “Now you want to know more? Really? Hah… Back then I tried everything to get people to listen to this case, but no one would. Now I’ve killed the bastard, I’ve served my sentences, and here you are! My daughter is dead for twenty years, sir. I don’t want to think about her anymore! I don’t want to mention it! Where the f*ck were you earlier?”

Luo Wenzhou’s mouth opened, but the words of explanation didn’t make it out of his throat. He swallowed the excuses and only said, deeply: “I’m sorry.”

“Go away. Go! F*ck off!” Guo Heng grabbed his shoulders and pushed him out, “I have nothing to say to you. If you think I am guilty, feel free to take me in. I am no stranger to the prison cell anyway. Except next time when you come, remember to flash your badge up front. Had I known that you were a cop, I wouldn’t have even spared you my spit.”

Luo Wenzhou: “Uncle Guo…”

Guo Heng’s eyes were bloody red, and his veins bulged on the temples: “Go f*ck yourself!”

A quick-tempered man that he was, Luo Wenzhou couldn’t allow himself to be provoked under the circumstances.

The blazing sun scorched him from every direction. He kept his lips tight as he counted his teeth with the tip of his tongue. Then, he took out his wallet and handed Guo Heng a picture.

“The girl’s name is Qu Tong.” Luo Wenzhou said, “She is going to be a sixth grader in the fall. She is a straight-A student, and is part of the summer recruitment camp of the Sixteenth Middle School. She is a very good kid, who listens, and behaves. She’s always been the class monitor. Today is the fifth day since she went missing. Uncle Guo, what does it mean to be on the fifth day of a missing child case? From your years of research I bet you know it very well: the chances that we can find her alive are very slim.” 

Guo Heng’s eyes landed on Qu Tong’s picture.

The two men, twenty years apart, stood in confrontation on the street on a hot summer afternoon. After perhaps a thousand years, Guo Heng’s heavy panting finally started to quiet down.

“But we will not stop until we find her, or her body.” Luo Wenzhou continued, “The missing children years ago, we’ve wronged them and let them down. But we won’t let what happened to Guo Fei happen again. There is no other evidence that could help us now, only you. Are we going to wait for the bastard to finish seven cases again this time?” 

Guo Heng’s eyes flickered.

The girl in the photo was smiling at him, showing one of her slightly mis-aligned canine teeth. Coincidentally or otherwise, she even looked a little like Guo Fei.

Luo Wenzhou continued very gently: “I only have a couple questions, and I’ll be gone as soon as I finish. I promise.”

Guo Heng looked at him and fell silent, his lips tightly pursed. A while later, he turned and walked back into the magazine post. Luo Wenzhou hurried and followed him in: “About the jingle bell in the metal pencil case, have you mentioned it to anyone else before?”

“I have.” Guo Heng’s voice was still hoarse from yelling. He said: “To the police. After they gave up, I told some friends and family members who were helping me.”

Luo Wenzhou: “Can I have a list of names?”

Guo Heng threw him a look. For a second Luo Wenzhou thought that he was going to lash out again. But the man remained sitting, and rubbed his own face tiredly: “Fei Fei’s homeroom teacher, a relative who worked at the telephone company,… hmmm… the workers at the garbage collection facility near the telephone booth… They more or less knew about it. It’s too messy. I repeated the same words to many people many times and I can’t be sure now.”

“Let us try to sort it out then.” Luo Wenzhou took out a small notebook the size of his palm, and sat down at the plastic stool that was dragged out for him a while ago: “Where did you start your own investigation, and how did you come to notice Wu Guangchuan?”

Guo Heng’s eyes looked past Luo Wenzhou and landed on a little mirror hanging next to the door frame of the post. There he saw a wrinkled face and silver hair, a testimony of how time had flown — Had his little girl lived, she would probably have been a couple years older than this young man now.

“The police was making little progress. I couldn’t bear to just sit around and wait. I went to that garbage collection site many times — that’s the place where the abductor made the call. Back then the garbage wasn’t properly treated and the place stank. There weren’t many residents nearby, and buses didn’t go near it either. So, only those with a car might drive by the place. Also, if you came from the town, you must go past a toll station. Back then there weren’t so many cars on the road, and the police had already covered all the cars that went past, so if there was anything worth noting it should have already been noted. So I thought, could it be that the abductor was from out of town? You see, there was an interstate that connected the city center to Lian-Huashan. To avoid the mountain ridge, the interstate took a big detour, and winded up near that place. Although there weren’t any roads that connected the interstate and the garbage center, there was a big slope in between. I went there myself – cars couldn’t drive through there because it was too steep, but an adult should be able to walk down.”

Luo Wenzhou: “You mean… the abductor took Guo Fei out of Lian-Huashan by car. But for whatever reason, he stopped in the middle of the interstate, climbed up half a mountain with the child, found the telephone booth near the garbage center, and made that call — Why would he do that?”

Guo Heng sneered: “I said this to the policemen back then, and they asked the exact same question, in the exact same tone.”

“No, what I meant was,” Luo Wenzhou reorganized his thought, then said, “According to your thinking, the abductor was not a local — Wu Guangchuan was indeed from out of town, and according to our sources, he never really stayed at Lian-Huashan for long. Then why would he know about the garbage center that not even the locals were familiar with? He abducted a teenage child, not an infant. It was too risky to abandon the car midway, take her up the hill on foot, and carry out the crime in an unfamiliar surrounding. How could he be sure that no scavengers or workers of the garbage center would pass by? The logic doesn’t check out.”

Guo Heng: “Did that logic of yours catch the bastard?”

Luo Wenzhou was wordless.

“The police told me it was impossible too. They formed a special unit for this case. I thought, well the professionals in the special unit must be better at this than I am. So I left them to their job while I waited. But in the end… Well, in the end I had no other choice but to pick this “impossible” approach back up. I went to Fei Fei’s school, and interviewed a lot of people in the hotels and hostels nearby. Her teacher helped me a lot too — that teacher was rehired after she had retired from another school, an old lady. She has already passed away. Can’t be the guy that you are after…”

Luo Wenzhou: “During the process, you noticed Wu Guangchuan, who was recruiting at Lian-Huashan for his school back then. I heard that he spent some days in the hospital during the trip. What made you think he was suspicious?”

“The Jingxiu Middle School is very well-funded. Their admissions team took several vehicles to Lian-Huashan. The admission staff arrived together, but after the recruiting events they split into groups. Some left early because of family matters, some went on a hiking trip at the karst cave in the mountains and left late, some left in the middle because of sickness. I found a cheap bed close to Jingxiu middle school, and followed each of them one by one.” Guo Heng said, “At the very beginning I didn’t focus on Wu Guangchuan. But once when I was patrolling the area, I saw a kid stalking him.”

Luo Wenzhou sat up straight.

“It was a boy, wearing the uniform of Jingxiu Middle School. He said that a girl in his class often missed classes for no reason, so his head teacher asked him, the class monitor, to check on her. The girl didn’t go home. He saw her going to this Mr. Wu after school, but when he went to ask Mr. Wu, he denied it.”

“I sensed something strange right away. Do you get it? If you had a daughter that went missing, you’d sense the strangeness too.”

“So you told this to a police officer who was newly transferred to the city bureau.”

“Yes. His surname was Yang. He used to be at the Lian-Huashan sub-bureau, and he was the only officer that I knew.” Guo Heng answered, “But he did not believe me.”

Luo Wenzhou didn’t try to make excuses for his Shifu, only asked: “And then?”

“I could only continue the search on my own. That boy helped me a lot too. Once, he suddenly contacted me on BB call. I rushed over, and saw Wu Guangchuan dragging a girl. She was struggling, but he kept dragging…” After all these years, Guo Heng still got agitated when speaking of that day, his fists clenching. After a while, he finally calmed down and continued, slowly: “I let the boy leave first, and then followed Wu Guangchuan into his home. I saw that he did something… disgusting… to the girl in the hall way. I …” 

In the archive, it was recorded that Guo Heng pretended to be from the electricity company, and knocked Wu’s door open. Then he stabbed him.

Luo Wenzhou: “What’s the name of that boy?”

“Xu, something.” Guo Heng thought for a minute, “Xu… Xu Wenchao.”

Luo Wenzhou said goodbye to Guo Heng and sped his car back to the city. Before starting the car he had already texted Tao Ran to summon Su Xiaolan and Xu Wenchao, both sophomores at Jingxiu Middle School twenty years ago. 

 

On the same day, Fei Du went out of town as well.

“Mr. Fei, do you have a reservation?” The front desk lady was flipping through her registration book while sneaking peeks at the handsome visitor in front of her.

Near the mountains and by the sea, this beautifully architected sanatorium had an elegant back garden with a respectable artistic taste. Despite being a medical facility, its lobby was absolutely free of the smell of chlorine or sickly people. The rooms were bright, the windows were clear, and the welcoming lady was pretty and friendly. The soothing sounds of the waves and the piano were played in the background.

It could almost pass for a luxurious vacation mansion by the sea.

“Room 407 in the Intensive Care Unit. This way, please. Follow the nurse.”

Fei Du nodded at her, and smoothly picked out a lily from the bouquet that he was carrying and placed it in the vase of the front desk: “Thank you. This flower suits you very well.”

Afterwards, he walked in, leaving the girl blushed and flustered.

The Intensive Care Unit mostly housed people who had lost their mobility. Consequently, the area was especially tranquil. The only sounds of activity were the nurses’ footsteps. Looking out of the window, rich shades of the deciduous trees were everywhere. Fei Du took a visitor’s badge and arrived at room 407. A doctor was there to greet him: “Mr. Fei. I knew you would come here today.” 

“Turns out I’m not very busy lately.” Fei Du placed the bouquet beside a man’s bed. “How is everything?”

“All is well. The numbers are all stable.” The doctor replied, “But it’s been three years and he is not very likely to wake up anymore. As a family member, it’s good to prepare yourself.”

Fei Du’s face lacked any emotion. He tilted his head to give the man on the bed a closer look, then replied politely: “I see. Thank you very much for your help.”

The doctor accidentally saw his eyes, and was a bit shocked. For a second, he thought that this young man’s look was so calm and apathetic that it hardly seemed suitable for looking at any living person, let alone his own father. It was as if he was measuring up a piece of not-so-pleasant ornament — casual, and indifferent.

In his mind the doctor had finished imagining a whole act of modern day Wuthering Heights, and decided not to further continue the conversation. He smiled, then left the room.

Fei Du courteously saw him out, then turned and paced around the man’s sickbed with his hands behind his back. The man laid there, unconscious, surrounded by a sea of medical devices. He was clearly in good hands – not even a single white hair could be seen. Looking closely, the man’s facial features looked a lot like Fei Du’s, but their auras were quite the opposite. Even as he laid there, motionless, he was sharp and gloomy, like a cold marble statue. 

In the end, Fei Du stopped at the corner of the room. There was a small calendar on the desk. Perhaps the nurses had missed it – the calendar was still turned to the page of a couple days ago.

He flipped the calendar to the right date – the last day of July. It was his birthday. As for the two people who gave him life, one was laying in a sanatorium, and the other underground.

Fei Du bent down sideways and stared at the man with a perplexing look for quite a while. Then suddenly, he reached for the man’s oxygen tube.

The sound of the medical equipment remained mechanical and lifeless, making the room seem even more silent.

There was not a trace of warmth on the face of the young man who just gave a flower to a girl.

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(1) Chinese ‘Gongdou’ drama: A type of period costume drama where the main plot is about an emperor’s concubines conspiring and trying to outwit each other to win the favor of the emperor.

 

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