Chapter 47: Humbert Humbert Fourteen

TL: QuantumC, Editor: IsaLee

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“Hello? … Hi, is it Su Luozhan speaking? This is Miss Wang from the YMCA. I was at the registration desk in the beginning of the summer semester, remember?”

“Of course. How are you, Miss Wang? What can I do for you?”

“Did I wake you from bed? Sorry to call at such a late hour …Are your parents home? Could you please get one of them on the phone? There is actually something that I need to ask you, but I’d like to get your parents’ consent first.”

“My dad isn’t home yet. My mom is sick in bed and I can’t wake her up. It’s okay, you can ask me directly.”

“I see… alright. I’m trying to gather some information here. You see, there is a student from the art class named Zhang Yuchen. She had gone missing since after school today, and someone saw that she was with you guys this afternoon. Do you remember where you last saw her?”

Silence.

“Hello? Su Luozhan? Are you still there?”

“Yes… I am sorry Miss, the reception is poor. You were saying…a girl in the art class?”

“Yes. Zhang Yuchen, the short one, with a ponytail.”

“Oh, I see. We went to the nearby park after school today. There was a big group of us, some from the other classes too. We hung out there for a little while, then went home separately. I don’t know where she went afterwards.”

“Is that so? I see. Thanks young lady. Now you go back to bed and don’t be late for class tomorrow, alright?”

“Yes, Miss. When you find her could you let us know? I am worried for her too.”

Lang Qiao turned off the telephone recording: “Since there weren’t any adults around and what she said was very similar to what the other girls said, so the teacher didn’t take special notice. What do you think about this conversation? I am still in shock to be honest. But I mean, if you really think of it in this way, it makes sense: if the culprit really was a kid, that explains why Qu Tong would trust a complete stranger and get in his car in spite of what just happened. That’s why Tao Ran and I couldn’t isolate a single suspicious vehicle from the security footage… This is so… freaky.”

Luo Wenzhou pushed some papers in front of her: “Here is something freak-IER.”

It was Su Luozhan’s YMCA registration paper. Under “emergency contact”, she put mother, Su Xiaolan.

The police cars bolted towards Su Luozhan’s registered address. It was located in a rather neat residential area. In the middle of a silent night, the guard — freshly awakened from his nap, stared at the papers in Luo Wenzhou’s hand in confusion.

“Is there a Su family in this building? A single mother with her daughter?”

The guard stared so closely that he became cross-eyed: “N…no no idea. I…I..I’m quite new here.”

“Go find the renter’s registration book from the management.” Luo Wenzhou gave orders quickly, “Be very careful. If the girl IS the suspect, then it complicates the situation because she will likely be more unstable and unpredictable than adults. Pay special attention not to instigate her. We definitely don’t want to escalate the situation in case the victim is still alive.”

“Captain Luo, they are in Apartment 401!”

“All clear? Let’s move.”

In the fourth floor hallway, a SWAT team had finished hiding in the corners. Luo Wenzhou raised his chin to signal Lang Qiao to knock.

Lang Qiao brutally massaged her own face — it was so stiff that it seemed to have suffered from an unsuccessful botox treatment — and forced out the kindest expression that she could manage. She stepped up and knocked: “Anybody home?”

No one answered.

Lang Qiao felt very uneasy — she was used to being the ferocious one; definitely was not a professional at playing nice. 

She squeezed out a soft and gentle question: “Anyone home? I am the new renter upstairs. My bathroom’s been leaking today. I’m so sorry…I hope the water didn’t leak to your apartment?”

Still no response.

The technical crew member passed her a reverse peephole viewer. Lang Qiao placed it on the peephole and looked inside.

No one was at the entrance. She could see all the way across the entrance hall and into the living room. The room was very dimly lit and the only light source came from the middle of the room. Lang Qiao looked more closely — it was from an altar! Two red electric candles flanked a black and white portrait. 

The woman’s somber face reflected the faint candlelight and stared back at Lang Qiao spookily. A chill ran down Lang Qiao’s spine. She stepped back.

Luo Wenzhou looked at her inquisitively. 

Lang Qiao shivered. Then she quickly shook her head and knocked on the door again: “Hello? Anyone home? If you can’t open the door that’s fine. I just wanted to ask if water seeped through my floor to your bathroom.”

Awkward silence…Then, Luo Wenzhou suddenly gestured Lang Qiao to step back: “Open it.”

Lang Qiao was surprised: “But Boss…”

They had no evidence, no witness, and no search warrant. Everything was based on deduction.

“Don’t worry,” Luo Wenzhou said in a low but calm voice: “It’s on me. Open it.”

Some officers quickly broke through the door.

An inexplicable smell immediately swamped everyone. It was the mixture of eccentric fragrance candles and the damp and heated mid-summer air. Together they had fermented into something close to rotting.

But no one was home.

The apartment was not spacious at all. It was a standard 1b1b which was at most fifty-some square meters. However, with only Su Xiaolan’s last picture occupying the room, it felt strangely large and empty.

Facing the picture was a full-sized bed in the living room. The color of its silk bedding had faded. On the bedside table there was a bottle of dark nail polish, and half  a carton of cigarettes. 

The bedroom was slightly smaller. It was obvious that a girl lived here: a row of cheap dolls were lined up on a small bed. They sat shoulder to shoulder and stared at the door together. All of them were wearing dresses with floral prints.

“Holy Heavens.” Lang Qiao opened the wardrobe in the girl’s room. It was filled with floral dresses. What was creepier was that each dress had a counterpart on the dolls with the same print pattern. Goosebumps crept up onto Lang Qiao’s forearms: “Who the hell would live here?!” 

Luo Wenzhou put on a pair of gloves and flipped through the wardrobe. Suddenly, he discovered a small box under a pile of clothes.

He found a buckle. “Click!” the box opened. The melody of “Fur Elise” seeped through the cracks of the box. It was a music box with a small container for storage. Perhaps its battery was low: the sound of the piano was a bit off tune and spooky.

Then the officers nearby all saw what was inside the container.

Lang Qiao covered her mouth — it was a naked doll with only one arm and one leg. The other half of its limbs were detached, and all three pieces were laid on a piece of blood-stained fabric.

The fabric was made of cotton. Small, lively white flowers bloomed on it.

“It’s from Qu Tong’s dress. Her parents showed us a picture of her wearing it. I remember that the dress had some misaligned stitches on the side that covered part of its prints, which made the flowers look a bit slanted here and there…” Lang Qiao pointed at one of the pieces with stitches, “E…exactly like this.” 

Luo Wenzhou closed the box. His face was as solemn as a rippleless pond. “Take it to the forensics team.”

He turned to the bathroom.

Colorful mildew had covered the seams and corners of this bathroom. In front of a cracked mirror with carved wooden frames, there were two sets of toothbrushes, a row of lipstick, and a couple of used Q-tips.

“What did she say to the teacher then… ‘Mom’s sick and sleeping; Dad’s still not home?’” Luo Wenzhou scanned the room, then muttered, “But it doesn’t look like a man lived here. Who is this “dad” that she’s talking about? Are you sure that the call originated here?”

“Captain Luo, here’s the phone she used to take that call.” An officer carefully dug out an old battered cell-phone from underneath the tea table. After flipping through the recent calls, he added: “And here is the number that the teacher used to call her!” That means the girl was still in this room minutes ago!” 

Luo Wenzhou turned around abruptly: “But where is she now?”

Su Luozhao was, after all, still a kid. She wouldn’t have known how many security cameras there were at the YMCA campus. Neither would she have known that her face was captured by one. Then, after taking that call from the teacher in the middle of the night, would she panic? Would she think that she had already been exposed?

What would she do next?

And, the most important of all was, where was Zhang Yuchen?

Qu Tong disappeared in the wild, and whoever took her away wore shoe size 42 and drove a car, so it couldn’t be a young girl. That meant that this mysterious “father” of Su Luozhan’s was probably the culprit.

At the moment, Zhang Yuchen was obviously not hidden in this small apartment. Could she be with the culprit? If so, would Su Luozhan go to him after getting scared by the call?

If Chen Chen was still alive, would the phone call make them cut the fun short and get rid of her early?

Would she live to see the morning light?

The hot, midsummer night was like a melted caramel candy: so thick, and so sticky. A girl quickly ran through the hushed streets. The sound of her footsteps followed her around like a shadowing monster, but it was also the only thing that kept her company. Occasionally, some wandering cats or dogs would make a noise and scare her to death. She ran into an ancient townhouse.

It was a two-story building more than thirty years old. It shared two walls with the neighboring buildings, all of which were only two or three stories high. Each townhouse had a small yard barely enough to grow a single grapevine. At first glance, they seemed similar to the stand-alone houses one would see in the countryside. But the insides were actually very sketchy and cramped. Multiple families shared the same backyard where the cooking and washing took place. Come summer time, the rooms were frequented by bugs and the seeping rain. There had long been rumors of demolition.

She tried twice before finally managed to insert the key. When the door opened, she rushed in and picked up the phone by the door right away to dial a number. 

However, after dozens of rings, the call was hung up.

The girl’s eyes widened in dismay: how dare he not to pick up her call! She tried again, but still no one answered.

She was a very beautiful girl. Her eyes were shaped like almonds; her face was ripe like apples; her chin was small and delicate like that of a sculpture. Compared to the cheap plastic dolls, she was the one that was more like a doll: the innocence and the glamour achieved a perfect balance on her. However, in the next moment, the balance was shattered. Ghastly enmity crawled all over her pretty face as she threw the telephone onto the wall and started screaming hysterically. 

At the same time, some noise came from a corner of the pitch dark room, like the whining of a small cub.

The girl in rage abruptly turned around and flipped the light switch.

Through her teary eyes, the girl in ropes looked up in dismay.

It was the missing girl, Chen Chen.

Meanwhile, Chen Chen’s family was waiting anxiously in front of the YMCA building.

Tao Ran stepped aside to take a phone call. Afterwards, he whispered something to Fei Du’s ear so the family wouldn’t hear it.

“An adult male culprit?” Fei Du’s brows tightened, “You mean, the little girl lured Chen Chen into the park, then, the man appeared, attacked her, and took her away?”

Tao Ran asked: “What do you think?”

“No…something feels off to me.” A silly arm hanging in front of his chest, Fei Du paced around and murmured to himself: “Something isn’t right — Mr. Zhang called his daughter at a little past five, and her phone was off. That means the abduction was already taking place at that time. One hour later, he tried to locate Chen Chen’s phone through the tracking app, but failed, meaning that Chen Chen was already in the hands of the abductors. However, they hadn’t had the time to throw the phone out to distract the police yet — that happened at least well after six. Why?”

“An adult male — even if he was handicapped — shouldn’t need that long to seize a little child like Chen Chen.” Fei Du’s pacing slowed down, “Then, after Chen Chen’s in control, the girl put the phone battery back in and purposefully left it for taking — Why?”

Since they had already removed the battery, it’d be easy to just take the phone apart and throw the pieces away separately. It’d be convenient and effective too — even the police dogs wouldn’t have a chance to collect all the pieces in such a short amount of time. On the contrary, leaving it whole and functioning in order to distract the police would be a far more dangerous move. Even for an inexperienced kid, as long as she’d watched some TV dramas, she should know that there would be more than one police officer in a chase and it would be hard for them to miss. 

What’s more, what if whoever picked up or stole the phone happened to see her face? Wouldn’t that be too risky?

“What if… in the Xi-ling abduction case there were two culprits but this time, for whatever reason, the man wasn’t on scene and there was only the girl, so it took longer?”

Tao Ran was completely shocked by this idea and what it implied. He grabbed Fei Du’s shoulder: “And the girl wasn’t strong enough to complete the killing… and record it on her own, but she knew the tracking app was on the phone and she knew the parent would definitely fall for the bait to look for her. She was doing it to torture the parents — just like sending the recordings!”

To give you some hope and lure you to keep pedaling, only to fall back down into desperation.

However, the timing didn’t work out for her this time: she took longer than expected.

“If so, since she wouldn’t be able to drag someone unconscious who’s her own size, she must have tricked her into following.” Fei Du stole a peek at the wailing mother in the distance, “Chen Chen knew that it was past the pick up time and her dad was probably looking for her. Then, under what circumstances would she be willing to follow?”

Tao Ran took a deep breath, then whispered: “I don’t have my phone with me today, but my home is just around the corner. Your dad is probably looking for you on campus right now. If you go and look for him too without calling first, it’ll be easy to miss him. You could come to my home to make a call.”

“Then it must be very close. Much closer to the park than even the YMCA is. It must be within a short distance that feels safe and comfortable for the child.” Tao Ran snapped the map: “Within one kilometer…no…five hundred meters…”

There was an ancient residential complex about to be torn down. It was merely one block away from the other entrance of the park.

“Wait.” Tao Ran said, “The address sounds familiar.”

Luo Wenzhou and his team turned Su Luozhan’s apartment upside down. The search was focused on any item that could possibly belong to a male —  anything that could lead them to that mysterious man.

Lang Qiao pulled out a drawer full of papers like IDs, Hu-kou booklet, and various school and hospital registrations. She was flipping through the medical records while the other files were piled on the floor. 

Luo Wenzhou quickly skimmed through the mess. Suddenly, an idea flashed through as he spotted something. He bent down to pick up the apartment deed — there were two deeds.

One of them was the deed of this 1B1B apartment. The other one was of some ancient staff dormitory older than Su Xiaolan herself. 

“Little Qiao-er, confirm this one for me.” Luo Wenzhou asked, “Twenty years ago when Su Xiaolan was young, was this her registered address?”

Lang Qiao didn’t fully understand why he needed it. But, out of her absolute faith in him, she went to verify the address immediately. Before she had made any solid progress though, Luo Wenzhou received a call from the tail that he sent after Xu Wenchao: “Captain Luo, we tapped Xu Wenchao’s apartment: there were two consequtive calls that came in just now. He absolutely heard them, but didn’t pick up either of them. Could it be that he has noticed us? Oh, and we tracked the incoming number too. Both were from a residential phone. The address is…”

Luo Wenzhou finished for him: “Shaonian Road, Trade company building, Unit 3.”

The tail was dumbfounded: “Captain Luo! How do you know?”

At the same time, Lang Qiao barged in: “Boss, this WAS the address provided by Su Xiaolan back when she was interviewed as the victim years ago!”

Luo Wenzhou shouted: “Let’s move!”

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