Chapter 46: Humbert Humbert Thirteen

TL: QuantumC, Editor: IsaLee

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“Impossible…impossible!”

It was well past midnight. The director of the YMCA was probably pulled straight from bed – his eyes were so puffy that they bulged to the level of the brow ridges. Wearing a misbuttoned shirt and a pair of slippers, he complained: “God knows how many students come in and out each day. We have the strictest security protocol here: all parents have to register before entering, and the security cameras cover 360 degrees, no blind spot whatsoever. Sir, how can there be human traffickers in the building? You gotta be kidding me… I swear on my own head. It is impossible. The child must have walked out with her own legs. Otherwise, even if aliens invaded Earth, they wouldn’t be able to penetrate this building!”

“Vice Captain Tao, we have just roughly located Zhang Yuchen through the GPS tracker app on her phone. She’s near Baitao Alley!”

“Baitao Alley…” Tao Ran was surprised, “How come?”

Baitao Alley was about three bus stops away from the YMCA. It was a big distribution center for fashion merchandise for the wholesalers. Many web stores had their brick and mortar store there as well. Business went on all night long, where clothing and accessories were sold by the pound, and wholesale merchants scurried around with heavy loads on their shoulders. A split second of absent-mindedness and you might fall victim to the pilferers or the swindlers. Plainly put, it was a bustling pot of messiness. 

For a child who snuck out to play, Baitao Alley would be too chaotic, and frankly, not much fun. For a psychopathic child-abductor on the other hand, Baitao Alley was too crowded and too risky as a hiding place.

Tao Ran pinched his nose bridge and said: “Wait, let me think it through…”

Before he finished his sentence, Chen Chen’s mom had pushed her way through the two officers at the entrance and rushed over: “Officer Tao, I’ve heard it – You’ve located Chen Chen’s cell phone, right? Where is she?”

Lang Qiao, who was summoned from her bed too, hurried over to console the poor woman.

“I taught her…really, I did. I say it almost every day — to be careful when going out and never follow a stranger or go to unfamiliar places. I taught her to always let the adults know if something comes up or if she has to go somewhere…I say it so many times that iron lips would have worn out…”

Chang Ning was wiping her tears with one hand while holding the woman’s arm with the other: “Auntie, please…”

Seeing Chang Ning’s teary eyes, Tao Ran’s anxiety level jumped from a three to a ten: “Little Qiao-er, stay here and go over the security footage. You guys, come with me to Baitao Alley.”

 

A police car dashed across the nightly city like shooting stars across the sky – so fast that their four wheels almost took off from the ground. Their destination was three bus stops away and they made it in 5 minutes. There, crowds of merchants were busy bargaining for the latest Autumn fashion. There were so many of them that their sheer breaths had turned the alley into an urban heat-island. 

It took no time for the team to start sweating like pigs while pushing through the crowd.

Tao Ran looked around helplessly, then asked the technical crew: “Can we narrow it down any further?”

“They are approaching the west exit of the alley.” Instructions from the technical crew came through his earpiece: “Looks like they haven’t realized that the phone was on yet. Captain Tao, you’d better hurry!”

Tao Ran signaled at his men with his eyes. The team immediately split up to approach the west exit from different directions. Tao Ran raced towards the exit while scanning across each and every man on his passing. Trash cars, vans, large clothing bags… every place where a person could be hidden was searched. A while later, despite not pulling any alarms, the atmosphere in Baitao Alley had turned tense.  

Suddenly, a warning came through Tao Ran’s earpiece: “Captain, they noticed something and turned the cell-phone off!”

As he was listening, Tao Ran’s eyes kept scanning the crowd. When they swept over a big trash can and landed on a skinny man beside it, the man happened to look up too and their eyes met. After a brief pause, the man realized what Tao Ran’s uniform meant. Immediately, he threw something away, then jumped on his feet and started running!

What he dropped was a white cell phone with many colorful stickers on the back.

Tao Ran’s pupils constricted: “Freeze!”

A woman was pushing a cart full of merchandise towards them. The running man adeptly stomped on one side of the cart and went around like a nimble monkey. Amidst the woman’s screaming, the towering cart of clothing lost balance and collapsed. A scooter next to it screeched to break and narrowly escaped from the ‘avalanche’. The rider cursed angrily.

Amid the mess, the man had already reached the guardrail in the middle of the street. He flipped over the guardrail easily and was about to cross the street successfully. But right when he jumped over, another officer emerged from the opposite side and took him by the neck like a little chicken. He pushed the man onto the ground, face down and arms locked. Tao Ran turned back to pick up the deserted white cell phone, turned it on, and saw Chen Chen’s selfie on the screen.

He exhaled deeply, then strode toward the seized man: “Where is she?”

The man broke his nose when he fell. His face now looked like a messy pallet tray. He looked up and pleaded: “I…..I..I’m s….so sorry! Sir, I promise never, never to do this again…Ouch…easy, easy…”

Tao Ran grabbed him by the collar: “Where is the girl?”

“What?”

 

Meanwhile, Luo Wenzhou’s car arrived at the YMCA.

Lang Qiao saw the familiar license plate and ran towards him: “Boss!”

“Brief me. Where is Tao Ran?” Luo Wenzhou asked while waving at the front passenger seat: “You stay in the car.”

Whoever he was commanding didn’t listen. Instead, the passenger walked right out of the car, one arm wrapped in a cast and hanging in the front. 

Lang Qiao was very surprised: “Wow, Mr. Fei! W…What’s with the ‘armor?’”

“A little accident.” Fei Du took a look at the nearby buildings around the YMCA: “Any progress?”

Lang Qiao didn’t get to answer it before the squealing of a loud police car interrupted her. The car parked sharply in front of the YMCA building and out came Tao Ran and some more officers, all wearing grave expressions.

Responding to Luo Wenzhou’s inquisitive looks, Tao Ran shook his head: “Chen Chen’s phone had been stolen from her. The guy was an old lag recently released from jail. He said that a girl was tying her shoelaces and placed her phone on the side of a stone flower bed next to her. She forgot to take it afterwards, so he ‘picked it up’.”

Luo Wenzhou asked, “Which street? When did this happen?”

“Should be somewhere close to the YMCA…” Tao Ran pulled his own hair in frustration, his brows tightly knitted: “We found 7, 8 cell phones on him — all from today. He couldn’t recall the exact time or place.”

“Ge,” Fei Du asked from the side, “You are panicking. Why?”

“I asked Chang Ning. Chen Chen was wearing a floral dress today.” Tao Ran’s face looked ghastly. He kept his voice low, but his sentences were rushed, “If it’s really … two cases within five days, this frequency is too high, even for him. It means that Qu Tong must’ve … Chen Chen was abducted at around 5pm, and it’s been more than seven hours now. What if she…”

“Shh—” Fei Du patted him on the arm, “easy, easy.”

“Yeah why not?” Tao Ran smiled bitterly, “I’m not the parent after all — I didn’t dare to mention any of these things to Chen Chen’s family … Last time you said a suspicious person was an old man. How certain are you?”

“Scarcely. He was too far away.” Fei Du said, “Chen Chen is a smart and sensitive girl. Last time when I warned her to be careful, she was so startled that it shouldn’t be that easy to forget. I trust that she’ll keep an eye out for the malicious ones, and that’s including the old folks and acquaintances. Even if someone tricked her into leaving the classroom, she’d at least send parents a text.”

“Captain Tao, we found the child’s footage from the painting room’s security camera!”

Tao Ran turned around abruptly, but Luo Wenzhou pressed on his shoulders and said: “Leave it to me. Go and talk to the girl’s parents to see whether they’ve gotten into any sort of trouble lately, or if the kid was acting weirdly in any way. Get a sense of what their family relationship is like — we can’t afford to overlook anything.”

Leaning against the wall on the side, Fei Du asked: “Need any help?”

Luo Wenzhou hesitated: “You? In what name?”

Fei Du answered brazenly: “I’m family.” 

Luo Wenzhou pointed at him in admonition, but in the end, he swallowed the “go chill” and tolerated Fei Du’s presence.

Luckily, the camera footage that they found had high definition. It was around 4:30 pm when the other students had all been picked up by their parents and left for home. Chen Chen sat in the classroom alone and was flipping through a painting book absentmindedly. Every now and then, she’d look up and look out of the window, so frequently that within the 10 minutes, she had at least been staring at the window for more than 5 minutes.

Luo Wenzhou was baffled: “What was she looking at?”

Lang Qiao answered: “The mirror.”

Luo Wenzhou was more confused.

“The little girl was using the window pane as a mirror. If she were looking at something outside of the window she’d only need to turn her head, rather than turning her whole body towards the window and looking closely. She even used a pencil to curl the tip of her hair,” said Lang Qiao. “Every girl would’ve known … wait, what?” 

Before she finished her sentence, they saw Chen Chen suddenly sit upright and lean forward. A smile bloomed on her face. Then, she quickly collected her things and ran out — the time on the screen corner showed that it was 4:40 pm. 

Luo Wenzhou immediately located the painting room and found that its windows were directly facing the playground.

From another camera near the playground, they saw Chen Chen running towards a group of kids. The camera was too far away to see any of their faces clearly. Shortly after, the girls walked out of the frame together. 

They disappeared in the direction of a row of red-walled buildings.

“What the heck?” Luo Wenzhou frowned, “Didn’t the headmaster say that the place was 360 degrees covered by surveillance?”

“Those red buildings on the northwest corner are public restrooms. So there is no camera there.”

“Why didn’t you mention it before?! Identify the other girls on the video immediately. See what they know — let me see that map.”

The northwest corner of the YMCA was adjacent to a small park. It was poorly managed: the grass on the outskirts was pretty much stepped to death by the pedestrians and the dog-walkers — their muddy footsteps mingled with the dog turds everywhere. Deeper into the bushes there was a very secluded area where plants grew wildly and lively mosquitoes attacked like bombers. 

The officers and police dogs quickly arrived on scene. In no time, the place was crowded with barks and sweeping flashlights.

As he listened to the conversation between Tao Ran and Chen Chen’s father, Fei Du seemed to be deep in his thoughts. 

“I arrived at around 5:05, according to plan… I called her at the front gate first but her phone was powered off. I thought it ran out of battery, so I registered at the gate and went in. But she wasn’t in the painting room. I wasn’t alarmed yet at that point — you know — this is the YMCA for Christ’s sake. It’s not much different from a school. I thought she must have gone to the restroom or went playing with friends outside… I waited for her in the painting room. I was even a little mad at her at first. It was when the security guard came to close down the room that I started getting worried. I asked around for her. I even asked a female teacher to help me check the women’s restroom…”

Chen Chen’s mom grabbed his shoulders and accused, in tears: “Is this your first day knowing her?! Was she ever so inconsiderate to let us wait without any words? Huh? What kind of a father are you? You only know how to find faults with my daughter when things go wrong … If something happens to her, I…”

Chen Chen’s father stumbled, then fell silent. Tao Ran and Chan Ning hurried to separate them.

Fei Du interjected, “I heard that the Child Tracking App on her phone can be turned on remotely. Just now the officers must have used this feature to locate it. Didn’t you try it then?”

“I did,” Chen Chen’s dad was on the brink of a breakdown. He fought hard to hold back the tears and smother the panting, “but something was wrong with the app and it kept saying ‘connection failure’… I am not very good with these technologies…”

“We found Chen Chen’s cell phone,” Tao Rao said, “and it was still more than half charged. It must have been stolen before your first call. Could it be that she realized the phone was lost so she went to look for it?”

“It is too much trouble to sneak into the YMCA to steal.” Fei Du shook his head, “Not likely. She probably went out for some other reason. There was about half an hour between the end of the class and your arrival. She could have gone to the nearby convenience store for some snacks, or hung out with her friends…There are many possibilities. However, it has to be a short trip — within one mile, so that she could make it back to the classroom in time when you called. Have you taught her what to do when something gets stolen?”

“We have.” Chang Ning stole a peek at Tao Ran, then answered softly, “I was actually joking with her a couple days ago that when accidents happen she could always look for Big Brother Tao Ran. She knows how to call 911. She also knows to go back to the campus and look for the security guards there.”

Tao Ran patted the back of her hand consolingly, and replied gently: “The YMCA is in the middle of downtown. It was during the evening peak too — should be quite safe here, except for parts of that park.”

“It can’t be.” Chang Ning grabbed his wrist as if seeking support, “Chen Chen isn’t one of those gutsy kids. She gets scared easily: she couldn’t even sleep on her own after hearing the suspense stories. She’d never go to deserted places on her own!”

Fei Du suddenly said, “What if it wasn’t on her own, but with some classmates?”

Everyone stared at him dumbfoundedly.

Fei Du stepped in front of Chen Chen’s dad: “What time was it when you first tried to track her phone with the app?”

“Six … six something.” Chen Chen’s dad answered: “It was her teacher who reminded me to try.”

Fei Du asked: “How did you do it exactly? Could you show me?”

“Boss! The teacher helped identify those kids in the video and contacted them.” Lang Qiao pushed through the bushes and rushed towards Luo Wenzhou, “They were going to the restroom to change clothes. Then they went into the park for a photoshoot.”

“A photoshoot?”

“One of the girls in the photography class had an assignment. She asked several friends to be her models. Some of the kids brought costumes for the shoot. They say that the shooting didn’t take long. Afterwards, because Zhang Yuchen needed to go back to the classroom, they parted ways in front of the park. No one knows where Zhang Yuchen went afterwards.”

Luo Wenzhou took a deep breath — Crap.

If, after leaving her friend group, Chen Chen realized that her phone was lost, she’d naturally want to check back at the photo shooting spot. She might turn back to look for the phone. Deep in the park, it would be almost impossible to track what happened to her next.

Lang Qiao: “Boss, what do we do now?”

Luo Wenzhou pondered, then took out his phone to call the team that was monitoring Xu Wenchao.

“Report Xu Wenchao’s activities today.”

“Xu Wenchao waited for Vice Captain Tao to copy his car’s blackbox this afternoon and didn’t leave the Bureau until 5:40. He drove to a fast-food restaurant twenty minutes away, ordered take-out, drove home, then stayed there the whole time.”

Luo Wenzhou lowered his voice: “Are you SURE he was home the whole evening?”

“Positive. He left the curtains open. He was in the study and never left our sight — what happened?”

“Boss, either we were going after the wrong lead all along, “Lang Qiao said, “or this case is unrelated to Qu Tong’s case. It’s such a puzzle to me… Where do so many perverts come out from all of a sudden?”

Before Luo Wenzhou got to reply, his cell phone rang. It was a call from a saved number named “Fei Shi-er” (i.e. trouble maker).

“Now what?”

Mr. “Fei Shi-er” replied unperturbedly on the other side: “That thief didn’t steal the cellphone from Chen Chen. His self-defense had a grain of truth. He simply took it after the girl ‘forgot’ it there.”

Luo Wenzhou immediately questioned: “How do you know?”

“Mr. Zhang had tried to track the kid’s cell phone at around 6 but failed. According to what he just showed me though, the steps were all correct. In this case, either one of them had poor reception, or the kid’s cell-phone battery had been removed. “ Fei Du paused, then went on, “A thief wouldn’t be interested in taking out the battery and then putting it back in. He probably didn’t know about the app either. There is only one more possibility that I can think of — one of the kids hid her phone away while she was changing or posing for the camera. When Chen Chen noticed that her phone was gone, the kid suggested her to go back to the park and volunteered to go together.”

Naturally, she would trust her friend and tell her that there was a Child Tracking App on her phone.

“You mean, a child — most likely a girl — planned and carried out the whole thing.” Luo Wenzhou gasped, “Not only kidnapping a friend, but intentionally leaving the victim’s cell phone behind as bait too? That’s a bit too …” 

Fei Du chuckled obscurely.

Luo Wenzhou was suddenly reminded of the young boy many years ago with cold and gloomy eyes. He swallowed the rest of the sentence.

“How did this idea appear to you?”

“Because I’ve warned her to be careful of all the adults: familiar or not, men or women…even old people.” Fei Du said, “The only kind of people I didn’t mention were ones like herself: the kids.”

Why can’t it be a kid?

Little girls in their early teens seemed as delicate and innocent as the morning dew on a flower. The whole world considered them as vulnerable victims of aggression as if they were surely short of wits. Who would have imagined them being the aggressor?

Lou Wenzhou hung up on Fei Du, then turned to Lang Qiao: “When the YMCA teacher called each family just now, was there any call that wasn’t answered by an adult?”

Lang Qiao’s face was as pale as a ghost. She hadn’t looked so ghastly for a long time, not even when empty-handedly facing the knifed murderer:  “A…actually, there was one.”

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