Chapter 44: Humbert Humbert Eleven

TL: QuantumC, Editor: IsaLee

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Fei Du suddenly smiled. He blew a kiss at the surveillance camera in the room: “Just kidding.”

He bent down to take out a small condolence card from the desk — it was part of the special service of this high-end private sanitarian. For the family members on the sickbed who could no longer communicate, it was kind of hard to carry out a one-sided conversation all the time. So the sanitarian provided pens and little cards so that the visitors could write down some words of encouragement and let their well-wishes be more tangible. 

Fei Du glanced at the man with a slightly teasing look, and wrote down a line: “Hope you hang in there for a couple more years.”

This private sanitarian was quite pricy. The money it took to keep him laying there was enough to feed a handful of doctors and nurses. 

After all, for some people, this was the only good that he could bring to those around him.

The sun was hot outside, but the AC in the ICU was working diligently to keep the room temperature consistent. It almost felt a bit chilly.

Fei Du finished sending his “good to see you suffering” message, as if finishing some sort of annual ceremony. He got into his car to drive back to the city alone. 

From the sanitarium on the seaside to the city of Yan-cheng, it was usually a four-hour drive without traffic. Fei Du had made an appointment with Dr. Bai to get a book from her that evening. He had officially wrapped up the years of regular consultation, but kept the friendship with Dr. Bai and sometimes borrowed books from her.

A whole day of driving, hospital visiting, getting a book about mental illness to read, and going to bed at midnight — if things went smoothly, this would be all he had planned for his twenty-second birthday.

Fei Du was normally the kind that went wherever the hustle-bustle was. But those close to him knew that on the days of his birthday, his mother’s anniversary, and other holidays with the theme of reunion, he was usually hard to find. Even egocentric people like Zhang Donglai knew not to bother him — even if they wanted to, it was practically impossible. Because during those days, his 24/7 cellphone was definitely never reachable.

Today, the traffic back to Yancheng was bad. He was already stuck behind the wheel for one hour. Fei Du was a bit tired, but there wasn’t much that he could do other than wait. To keep himself awake, he turned up the radio. The news channel was covering the missing girl’s case, broadcasting the Yancheng Police Bureau’s announcement to encourage every citizen to provide evidence.

“…especially near the school, the YMCA, and the summer camps. If you see any suspicious activity, don’t hesitate to call XXXX… Also, here we’d like to remind the parents listening to our program: we are in the middle of summer break. Please pay special attention to your child’s safety…”

 

“How come the program ended up talking about not swimming in a wild pond…?” Luo Wenzhou barely made it back to the bureau before five. He was so parched that his soul had almost completely evaporated from his head. Shamelessly, he poured the tea from someone else’s teapot and gulped it down.

When Lang Qiao hurried over to stop him, it was already too late.

Lang Qiao wailed: “Boss, that’s my diet tea…”

Luo Wenzhou paused for a second, but he then continued to finish the rest — at that time, any liquid would do for him, even the DDT. Afterwards, he wiped his mouth and said, “Any updates from Qutong’s apartment? Did you find Xu Wenchao and Su Xiaolan?”

“We checked all the surveillance cameras nearby. There were more than 40 visitors to that neighborhood, and that’s just counting the delivery guys for parcels, take-outs, milk, and the real estate agents showing apartments. Luckily most of them wore their companies’ uniforms, so we were able to track them and confirm their identities by calling the companies. We narrowed it down to four suspects, and took all four back to the bureau to interview.” Lang Qiao said, “Also, we listed out all the people that went in or out of the neighbourhood during the off-peak time. There were about 80, and we are still in the process of checking their IDs against the records at the Neighborhood Residents Committee.”

Hearing this, Luo Wenzhou’s head – already bloated because of overheating – all of a sudden doubled in size.

Thank God that there were enough people on this case. Otherwise, he couldn’t imagine how long it was going to take to go over everything.

Lang Qiao continued: “Xu Wenchao has been found. Tao Ran is talking to him in there right now. Su Xiaolan can’t come. She’s no longer…”

Luo Wenzhou asked casually: “No longer here? Is she out of town or out of the country?”

Lang Qiao: “Neither…She is not out of town. She is out of the planet — she passed away.”

Luo Wenzhou’s steps slowed: “Already? I thought she was our age.”

“After that incident, the girl was basically wasted. Her dancing career didn’t take off. Her grades were barely good enough for a vocational high school, but she didn’t even finish that. After quitting high school, she didn’t have a stable job. Thanks to her good looks, she was with some rich guys briefly, and got pregnant before the age of 21. After she had the child, life didn’t get better either. Later, she got sick, and passed away two months ago — here are her files.”

Lang Qiao handed over a very thin folder. Luo Wenzhou started flipping through.

He finished it in no time, because her life was too short and not much was worth mentioning. The folder contained her expired address, her phone number, and two delinquency records at school: once for a drunken brawl, and the other was an arrest for defiance. There was also her death certificate.

The last thing in that folder was a recent photo of her. A woman of thirty, she had already been battered by life into a ghostly creature. Her bony cheeks, protruding jaw, and laugh lines were all covered in the residue of some cheap make-up. You had to look very closely to tell that the woman used to be a pretty girl in her early years.

Luo Wenzhou and Lang Qiao stared at each other speechlessly in the long hallway. So, this was the ending for the last lucky girl who survived…

“Cap’, you know what?” Lang Qiao said, “Sometimes when I see things like this, I think life itself is ugly.”

Luo Wenzhou slapped the back of her head with the kraft paper folder: “Always thinking thoughts… Why don’t you quit the job and go be a writer? Now our number one priority is to find Qu Tong — tell me, what does this Xu Wenchao do?”

Xu Wenchao was a free-lance photographer.

He was tall and neat, and looked well educated. Suddenly summoned to the police station, the man was understandably a little nervous. His hands twisted underneath the table.

Tao Ran poured him a cup of water: “Don’t be afraid. We just want to trouble you to recall some things.”

Xu Wenchao looked down with pursed lips. He said “Thank you” to Tao Ran, but avoided his eyes.

Luo Wenzhou and Lang Qiao were standing in front of the monitor. They heard Tao Ran ask gently, “Did you attend Jing Xiu Middle School?”

Xu Wenchao took a sip of the lukewarm water elegantly, then said: “Yes.”

“Do you remember a classmate named Su Xiaolan?”

Xu Wenchao’s fingertips trembled unnoticeably. After a long pause, he spoke in a very low and slow voice: “Yes.” 

Tao Ran asked: “Could you say more about her?”

It was a very clear question, but Xu Wenchao seemed to have missed it. He hesitated, then asked: “Pardon?”

Tao Ran: “Say more about Su Xiaolan.”

The fingers on his knee clenched even tighter. His knuckles turned white: “Oh. I…I lost touch with her for many years. She….She was an outgoing girl…”

“She had long hair. She liked to wear dresses with floral prints.”

Both Tao Ran and the others in front of the monitor almost jumped at that sentence.

Xu Wenchao abruptly stopped talking. His eyes wandered between Tao Ran and the other notetaker in the room, then suddenly asked: “Did you find me because of the missing girl’s case? I heard it over the radio on my way here.”

“Let me be frank with you.” Tao Ran said, “How much do you know about the Wu Guangchuan abduction-murder case?”

Xu Wenchao pondered for a while, then said: “Not a lot. I was quite young back then. They wouldn’t let a kid know too much about these things, right?”

Tao Ran said: ‘But one of the victims’ father told us that he came to you before, and that the reason why Su Xiaolan survived was because you alarmed him to intervene.”

“Um…It’s been more than twenty years. My memory is a bit flaky now.”

Tao Ran said patiently: “The victim’s father used to follow some of your teachers, and one time he bumped into you while you were following Wu Guangchuan, so he asked you why. The two of you suspected that Wu Guangchuan had some misconduct, and you two investigated him secretly together. Do you remember?”

Xu Wenchao fell silent again. This time, he paused for full long minutes before he finally spoke again: “It’s possible. I can’t be sure.”

Speaking to this man took a lot of energy. He was not yet a suspect, so the investigator couldn’t do much when he paused to think, other than wait for him to spit out one sentence every half a year like a retard. What’s worse, the one sentence was usually something like “Perhaps”, “really?”, “It’s possible”, “I am not sure”, or some combination of them.

Tao Ran went back and forth with him for more than one hour and finished two bottles of water, but Xu Wenchao kept playing dumb, wearing an absent-minded melancholic expression on his face.

Lang Qiao said: “I wish I could kick his butt — Boss, do you think he is guilty?”

“Based on the ‘floral dress’?” Luo Wenzhou shook his head, “The rules in middle school were quite strict, especially 20 years ago. Every student had to wear the school uniform. Girls either had to cut their hair short or put it in a ponytail. Probably only very few students on the dancing team were allowed to break the dress code a bit for performance needs. Su Xiaolan was the only one in his class. It’s not surprising that he remembered. But…”

Tao Ran asked Xu Wenchao: “But I find it hard to understand: Back then, Wu Guangchuan’s case was very big. And for you especially, because you were directly involved in it. How come that you don’t remember any details?”

Xu Wenchao replied with a docile smile: “I had a severe fever during middle school. A serious one. I almost died. My memory was more or less hurt by it I think. I’m a bit slow because of it too. Sorry about that, sir.”

It sounded like a legitimate explanation. Tao Ran helplessly nodded: “Are you married, Mr. Xu?”

Xu Wenchao shook his head.

“Then in the evening the 27th of this month, where were you?”

This time, Xu Wenchao didn’t take the time to think. Instead, he replied immediately: “At home.”

“Alone?”

“As a single person, of course, alone.”

“What were you doing at home?”

“Reading…I was reading a book about photography composition techniques.”

Tao Ran’s eyes became sharper: “Mr. Xu, would you comply with the investigation and let us examine your dash cam?”

“Sure. My car is parked outside.” Xu Wenchao looked back at him calmly: “Do you have any other questions? If not, can I go now? Because I have some work to do tomorrow, and I need to get ready.”

Tao Ran turned to look at the camera, and heard Luo Wenzhou’s voice over the earpiece: “Let him go. I’ve arranged things — he’ll be monitored 24/7.”

Tao Ran stood up and shook hands with Xu Wenchao: “Okay. Thanks very much for your cooperation. Let me see you off.”

By then, Xu Wenchao’s body finally relaxed a bit. He followed Tao Rao’s gesture and started walking out. At that time, Tao Ran whispered casually to his ear: “I heard that private schools can be very strict. The teachers are crazy about grades.”

Xu Wenchao replied: “Yeah, they push very hard. But you get used to it after a while.”

“Probably had no time for any school romance, am I right? It’d be hard to speak to a girl when there are eight teachers watching…the puppy love had to be buried in the heart.” Tao Ran pressed on the door frame with one hand, and gave Xu Wenchao a meaningful look: “Does Mr. Xu have someone in your heart? A pretty girl like Su Xiaolan must’ve stood out in class, no?”

Xu Wenchao was caught off guard. His face flickered. He rubbed the side of his pants anxiously. After a while, he finally managed to squeeze out a smile: “Who wouldn’t like good-looking girls when they are young? But now that she’s passed away, it’s useless to talk about it…Sir, thanks. I can show myself out.”

Tao Ran slightly frowned. He had just heard of Su Xiaolan’s passing earlier that day when he tried to summon  her, and he hadn’t mentioned it to Xu Wenchao at all.

Then, did the classmate who had lost touch for so many years hear the news from some common friend, or…

After the last sentence, Xu Wenchao quickly walked out without looking back.

Meanwhile, the police officers that were assigned stalking duty quickly sorted out the schedule and silently followed him out under the disguise of the night.

 

When the exhausted Luo Wenzhou left the bureau, it was already well past eight PM. He didn’t go directly home — although Chief Lu moved himself off the case to avoid suspicion, it was, after all, not the same as the case for Chief Zhang. For the latter, Zhang Donglai was a close relative and was the number one suspect. Comparatively, this time Chief Lu was at most slightly involved in the old case, but was far from the core team back then. For someone less considerate, this weak connection would probably be ignored altogether.

Since the boss was so considerate, the subordinate shouldn’t be too boorish either. Not to mention that he had used up a lot of the old man’s face and connections today. Luo Wenzhou planned to take the box of peaches he bought from Lian-Huashan to Chief Lu, and update him on their progress too.

He gave Chief Lu a call, but he didn’t mention the case over the phone, only the peaches.

Lu Youliang readily agreed, and told him an address: “Your aunt’s (1) colleague is getting married today. She suddenly decided to attend, and didn’t warn me ahead of time. So I came to my sister’s for dinner. Come and find me here.”

  1. Lu was referring to his own wife. Outside of work, because Lu Youliang and his wife are much older than Luo, he addresses her as aunt.

Luo Wenzhou turned on his GPS and entered the address:  “North Chenguang Road”.

 

Fei Du flashed the headlight and saw that the sign said “1.5 miles to Chenguang Road”.

He exhaled in relief. This trip had taken more than six hours. The traffic was horrible, and there weren’t enough service areas to take a break and relax his aching back. Now that the traffic finally started to loosen up, Fei Du immediately sped to the upper limit while trying to come up with a proper apology for Dr. Bai.

However, right when he finished switching lanes and was getting ready to exit the highway, another car popped out of nowhere and drove right at him. As it got closer, it even accelerated! It was too late to switch lanes then. Fei Du floored the breaks.

“Bang!” The collision was deafening. Discharged airbags squeezed him into his seat. Fei Du felt a brief blackout, his guts tumbling inside. There was a sharp pain on his left arm.

For a split second, his mind blurred. But he was quickly woken back up by the sharp horning of vehicles and the shouting of people. 

Some bystanders quickly approached him. Shouting loudly, they tried to pull him out of the vehicle. When the door opened, the dusty wind of a hot summer night gusted through.

And during that split second when his mind was blurry, a thought slipped in: “What karma.”

 

Just when Luo Wenzhou thought that he got lucky with the traffic, the cars stalled again. It looked like there had been an accident ahead.

He sighed heavily. Like the other drivers, he looked out in the direction of the accident. In the distance, a bulky SUV, taller than the rest like a crane standing among chickens, was blocking the intersection.

Suddenly, Luo Wenzhou’s heart jumped. Isn’t that SUV the same make as the one that Fei Du flaunts in front of Tao Ran all the time?

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