Volume 1: Case 502 — The Intoxicated Frozen Corpse
You drink my family’s bridal tea, you gotta be my little bride~
The night’s darkness was ripped apart by a flash of light. In that fleeting moment, the world was pure white, and in the next, sinking once more into a black abyss.
With a soft clatter, Han Xiaomei dropped the keys into the crystal bowl in the foyer, then meekly turned around.
“So … I’ll order a take-out for you, Mr. Lu, and then I’ll just be heading back to the scene then?”
The rain and wind battered furiously against the floor-to-ceiling window, rattling like hailstones against the panes. A warm-yellow floor lamp stood in a corner of the living room. Jiang Ting sat leaning back into the sofa cushions, watching the surveillance footage through Yan Xie’s work laptop, one hand holding a pen, one hand intermittently pressing down on the pause button.
“Hm?” Only now did Jiang Ting finally react, replying, “Order what takeout? It’s already this hour. Don’t head back out, it’s raining too hard. It’s not safe for driving.”
Han Xiaomei struggled valiantly for a brief moment. “… I should still go.”
Jiang Ting might’ve assumed that she was going to say that “the missing person still hasn’t been rescued yet”, or that “all my colleagues are at the scene even in this rain”. Except who could’ve known that her next sentence turned out to be: “I still haven’t had a chance to get Vice Yan to sign my internship report yet.”
Jiang Ting broke into a chuckle, and waved her away without raising his head.
Although Fan Si and Hu Weisheng had both been killed, and that phantom, haunting-blue bag of drugs stolen away with not even the slightest trace left behind for the police, in truth, they had still far from reached the end of the line with Case 502.
The police had in their hands A-Zong and his lackeys, had the important drug-trafficking transit point that was Three Spring Trees, and had a living, breathing Diao Yong detained in the city bureau. As long as there was enough time, they’d eventually pry something out of them.
But right now, Chu Ci was in the drug traffickers’ hands, his life and safety up in the air. What the police lacked the most, was time.
Jiang Ting yet again clicked open the chemical engineering plant’s surveillance footage on the night of the crime, and sank into deep contemplation.
At 3:06 a.m., a red Camry with its license plates covered by mud drove out from the direction of the warehouse. Because the security footage had gotten overwritten after the power outage, they didn’t know when exactly this car had entered the chemical engineering plant, only that it drove out of the south gate of the plant onto Third Ring Boulevard, and continued from there towards the southeast.
The car’s side windows all had dark, one-way tint films on them, and the rear windshield was blocked out from the inside with cloth. This made the situation inside the car difficult to discern, even if they had high-resolution images. In addition, the front of the car also adroitly evaded a good majority of CCTV cameras as it drove, and the driver appeared to have worn some sort of mask or face covering — no matter how much they zoomed into the image, it was still very hard to conclude whether they were male or female.
However, Jiang Ting thought: Considering the driver’s familiarity with the locations of surveillance cameras within the plant, the fact that they were driving at night but didn’t look at the rear-view mirror, and how a female kidnapper would have had a hard time getting Chu Ci under control by herself alone, there was a very high possibility that the driver was a male accomplice.
A red Camry. Due to some hefty sales after its launch a few years ago, there were at least a few thousand of them, if not tens of thousands, just within Jianning city borders. Moreover, the provincial highway led to Gongzhou. If this car had come from Gongzhou, then their screening pool would be doubled.
In this sea of possibilities, without a single lead, it was downright impossible to locate this plateless red Camry.
What to do?
Jiang Ting hit the pause button repeatedly, practically scrutinizing the video frame by frame, the lightning outside the windows and the blue light of the security footage reflected together in the depths of his eyes. Suddenly, his fingers stilled — a fleeting, split-second image froze on the screen. And, with the twofold illumination from a street lamp and a reflective turn sign, one could just barely glimpse the bottommost edges of the last three characters on the license plate.
Jiang Ting’s mind raced — the third to last character was the number 7, and the last two characters consisted of the letters O, C, S, U, G, J, or numbers 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 0. There were 144 random permutations that could be formed from the above twelve options.
But that wasn’t enough. Even disregarding the first two characters that denoted the province and district, there were still five remaining characters on a license plate, and the first two of which were unknown. There was no way to reach a conclusion using only these 144 probabilities, not to mention that it couldn’t even be fully guaranteed that the third from last character was in fact 7, considering how poor the visibility conditions were.
Jiang Ting leaned back into the soft cushions of the sofa, tapping his pen against his palm again and again.
There are definitely other clues still, he thought.
Between many things in this world, there existed interconnecting threads, thin as spider silk. Investigative officers needed to make use of their observation, experience, professional knowledge, and even instinct and guesswork, to catch ahold of these connections that were hard to spy with the naked eye, and infer from it, subsequently, the related clues.
A Red Toyota Camry.
Jiang Ting raised his head without thought, to see that Han Xiaomei had actually not even left yet. And this girl sure was inflexible — Yan Xie told her to boil some water, so she actually went and boiled the water, gingerly setting down a cup of freshly-made black tea in front of him. She straightened, telling him diffidently, “Drink something warm, sir, don’t go to bed too late. I’m heading out.”
Jiang Ting suddenly said, “Wait.”
Han Xiaomei’s steps halted, and she heard him ask: “This kind of car with a color that is bright red instead of leaning more towards burgundy — it’s still more often purchased by female consumers, isn’t it?”
“Huh? Uh, probably. My car’s also bright red.”
Jiang Ting stared straight at Han Xiaomei.
Jiang Ting truly did have a quite a youthful look to him, his features naturally and exceptionally prepossessing. When he fixed his gaze on another person like this, despite the fact that he himself wore an expression that was impassive and distant, it often still made the other person feel like their heart was sent aflutter.
Han Xiaomei could hear the quiver in her own voice the moment she opened her mouth. “U-uh, Mr. L-L-Lu …”
Jiang Ting continued as if he didn’t hear her, murmuring, “Hu Weisheng also drove a Camry, cloned plates. The numbers were —”
“Jian A6U799!” Han Xiaomei always memorized case-related information extra closely.
Jiang Ting nodded, then abruptly asked, “With you girls, would you say that you all consider creating a sense of occasion to be something that’s rather important to you?”
Han Xiaomei, “… Ah?”
The storm showed no sign at all of subsiding. On a distant highway in the night, cars zipped past, sending up splashes of water, leaving only faint, faraway streaks of yellow tail light.
“That scared me to death! Just now in the back hill over there, we picked up a couple of bones!” Ma Xiang splashed over through the muddy water, throwing a strop. “And lao-Gao just had to dupe me into thinking it was a human arm!”
Gao Panqing, his flashlight in hand, swept his dripping hair back up onto the top of his head. He laughed raucously, “You’re the one whose professional qualifications aren’t up to standard. What kind of human has arm bones that look like that? That was clearly a dog!”
The officers were finding small joys in the drudgery, as they spread out searching every inch of dirt in this wilderness, ribbing each other while soaked to the bone. Only Yan Xie remained quiet. He stood beside the guard rails of the highway, aloof from the rest of the group. The beam of his flashlight raked across the muddy earth.
“Lao-Yan.” Huang Xing trudged over, dragging his steps in his flooded galoshes. He rasped, “We’ve extracted some footprints.”
Yan Xie didn’t raise his head. “Mm-hm?”
“The scene’s been severely damaged by the rain, so it’s hard to create a cast; we’ll need to wait until more analysis can be done at the bureau to get any specifics. Right now our preliminary analysis is, there are three to four different sets of footprints at the scene. We can confirm none of them are female, but for the moment we can’t determine yet if any are Chu Ci’s.”
Yan Xie said, “So that means even in the best case scenario, there are still two other kidnappers besides Diao Yong and the woman?”
Huang Xing nodded.
Yan Xie didn’t say anything. He continued walking forward with his flashlight in hand. Huang Xing followed behind him, and discovered that Yan Xie’s entire body, even his back, had been splattered all over with droplets of mud. It wasn’t long before he heard Yan Xie speak, his voice heavy, “… A big case, this is.”
“You should also go rest up a bit.” Huang Xing couldn’t say why, but he suddenly felt a twinge in his heart. “Look, I had lao-Zhang and the others go buy some food. Come eat a little too, when they get back. Take a breather.”
Yan Xie didn’t give a reply.
Yan Xie’s height was simply too far above average. A strip of his lower leg was still left bared with the police’s uniform raincoat, and his shoes and pant legs were all filled with mud, his every step producing a wet squelch. He crossed the waterlogged grass hill in that state and reached the area beyond the highway guard rails. His gaze landed on a mass of shadow that swayed in the distance, buffeted by the storm — it was an expanse of lush shrubbery.
For some reason, something stirred inside him. He walked forward, gripping his flashlight.
Huang Xing: “?”
Director Huang had no idea what was going on, so he just followed behind Yan Xie. They moved further and further away from the search area, until the two of them were standing next to the shrubs.
“What’s wrong, lao-Yan? Should I get someone to search this?”
Yan Xie narrowed his eyes, his irises nearly flattened into a thin line, giving him a piercing look that was almost grave.
“Don’t you think those bushes facing the south,” he suddenly spoke up, “are somehow shorter than those on the north?”
Plants that grew facing the south could not possibly be shorter and sparser than those facing the shadowed north. Huang Xing was struck with the burst of realization.
“Trace examiners! Get some trace examiners over here!” Huang Xing cried, his voice breaking. “Quick, circle off this grass area!”
“We got it! Director Huang!” Half an hour later, the officer kneeling in the shrubs lifted his head. Under the countless expectant gazes of those around him, he exclaimed in excitement, “The branches exhibit extensive signs of abnormal flattening and breakage, and some leaves present in a crushed state. The pieces spread out in every direction, and within it we’ve extracted half a footprint, which confirms that they have been trampled upon. It’s most likely that an altercation had occurred!”
A lot of hearts that had been hanging at people’s throats dropped back into their chests. Yan Xie shouted in brusque demand, “And the luminol reaction?!”
The officer’s words were concise and straight to the point. “There’s blood!”
If there was blood, then there was DNA. And if there had been a struggle, then it meant that at least when they abandoned the car, Chu Ci had still been alive!
The night’s efforts had finally brought payoff. As if a breath got let out from deep in between tensed bones, a lot of people slumped down onto the muddy ground right then and there, past caring about form.
Yan Xie stood ramrod straight beside the shrubbery, both hands in his trouser pockets. He ordered grimly, “Obtain blood samples for DNA comparison, do it now!”
A sudden vibration from his pocket — his phone was ringing.
Yan Xie pulled out his phone and glanced at the number. The caller ID read “that Lu guy” — Jiang Ting.
“This man, what a nose he’s got on him,” Yan Xie said with a snort of laughter and picked up the call, not even aware of the levity in his own tone of voice. “Hello? Let me tell you, just now …”
Jiang Ting’s voice rang out from the phone, “I have a conjecture. Might need to take up some of your time.”
“What?” His phone vibrated just after the word left his mouth. The display indicated that he had received an unread message from “that Lu guy”.
“Jian A6U789, Jian A6U766, Jian A9U766 … What’s your point, sending me these?” Yan Xie asked dubiously. “Jian A6U799 was the plate numbers that Hu Weisheng used, cloned from a white Toyota Reiz. What about it?”
Jiang Ting stood in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, the clean, warm orange light of the living room behind him. Through a layer of glass, the ink-dark night outlined the contour of his profile. There was a deep line between his tightly knitted brows.
“People who use cloned number plates will usually clone plates from a car of the same make, color, and model. Why is it that Hu Weisheng drove a Camry, but decided to take the relative risk of displaying cloned plates from a Reiz? Although it is indeed the same make and color, and the two models do look similar, that still doesn’t fit the MO of someone with years of involvement in peddling fake drugs and suspected involvement in dealing narcotics.”
Yan Xie was momentarily stunned.
“Hu Weisheng had so resolutely refused to turn over his girlfriend during interrogations; this female kidnapper was clearly very important to him.” Jiang Ting continued, his tone grim, “Then is there a possibility, that she had once asked Hu Weisheng to use matching plate numbers with her?”
Jiang Ting hung up the call, and stood in front of the window for a long, long while.
Han Xiaomei had already left. The rain and wind raged on still. The city beneath his feet glimmered, a great sea of light. Laughter and cheer, liveliness and heat, all floating up from the windows of these thousands upon thousands of homes. Those people had no clue that in so many dark corners of this world, places impenetrable by light, there were such abhorrent evils currently playing out, and there were also countless souls who fought to prevent such crimes, currently toiling through the nights.
The storm lashed madly against the window. Jiang Ting’s arms tightened where they were clutched against himself, and he took a single step backwards.
This action was as if subconsciously seeking some sort of false sense of security from this pristine, resplendently-decorated apartment behind him. However, this space was empty and silent, but for the wisp of an indescribable air, lingering in the nothingness — it was what this place’s owner had hastily left behind the last time he had stopped by.
Tenacious, unreserved, warm. And, even, somewhat scorching.
Jiang Ting shivered, ever so slightly, as if awakening from some fanciful dream. He stepped forward, emphatically, and placed himself before the window once more.
His phone rang again. He picked up. “Hello, Yan Xie?”
“Jian A9U766!” Yan Xie’s voice was abnormally clear in the rain; perhaps he was yelling directly at his phone. “The owner’s called Liu Wanqiu, twenty-seven years old. You wanna guess who she is?!”
“I can’t guess, but your people are no doubt already on their way to find her.”
Yan Xie laughed, bright and clear. “Ding Jiawang’s wife’s cousin once removed!”
Jiang Ting couldn’t withhold a slight smile.
“We’ve extracted at least one suspect’s DNA from the scene. An inter-network DNA search showed that this person’s name is Chi Rui, and was once incarcerated ten years ago for the illegal manufacture of firearms, though we can’t confirm yet if this has a connection with the illegal gun Fan Zhengyuan wielded or not. We’re on our way to carry out the arrest.” Yan Xie paused, then added pointedly, “You stay put at home. Until this case is over, don’t be just running all around outside anymore unless I send someone to pick you up.”
Who had sent Fan Zhengyuang, why they had set their sights on Jiang Ting, whether or not this had a connection to the people holding Chu Ci hostage — before the whole truth of this case could come to light, none of those answers could be determined. The secrets hidden behind Jiang Ting were like a fathomless black hole. Who knew how many more “Fan Zhengyuans” remain hidden, watching and waiting to claim Jiang Ting’s life.
Jiang Ting hung up, letting out a long exhale. He finally felt a tinge of ease.
The pu’er tea that Han Xiaomei made before she left had already cooled. Jiang Ting didn’t pay it much mind; he picked it up and took a sip, but just as it touched his tongue: “Pfff —”
“Cough cough cough!” Jiang Ting just about choked himself into losing his breath. He stared in horror at the porcelain cup in his hand — what a shame that Yan Xie couldn’t be there in person to behold this expression that had never before appeared on his face in all these decades. Then he promptly set down the cup and darted into the kitchen, and spotted in one glance the tea casket that Han Xiaomei had opened.
That canister of parchment paper-wrapped tea cakes had been torn open. In the topmost one, there was a thumb-sized gap, crudely pried out by a dinner knife. Rust-colored tea leaf crumbs were scattered all over the snow-white marble counter.
“……” Jiang Ting’s right eyelid began twitching unstoppably.
Yan Xie hung up, and smacked his lips, as if not feeling quite finished with something. He suddenly raised his head and asked, “Han Xiaomei.”
Ma Xiang was up front driving. Han Xiaomei, who had just hurried back to the scene, sat in the passenger’s seat. “Yessir, Captain Yan!”
“Don’t you think that Consultant Lu, he’s so very difficult?”
Han Xiaomei: “…”
Yan Xie goaded encouragingly, “Always looking like he’s about to fall over ill at the drop of a hat. And so fussy and delicate too, he wouldn’t even eat an eighteen yuan per bowl instant noodle, can’t pull all-nighters in the rain with us either. Don’t you two agree?”
Dead silence filled the car. The only sound one could hear was the swoosh of rain striking against the windows and the thud of the car as it drove over every bump and jolt. After a while, Ma Xiang ventured tactfully, “Whatever makes you happy, sir, with this sort of thing.”
“Tsk, I’m being serious with you here …” Yan Xie was about to continue, but Han Xiaomei’s phone suddenly chimed. The caller ID read “Mr. Lu”.
“Hello, Mr. Lu? We’re on our way to arrest a suspect, I —”
Jiang Ting interrupted her, his voice very hushed, “Was it you who tore open that tea cake that’s in Yan Xie’s house?”
“?” Han Xiaomei replied, “Yeah.”
Judging from the sound coming from the other side of the phone, it seemed as if Jiang Ting forcibly gulped something down. He demanded, “Why did you have to grab this one?”
“Hai, everyone knows that things in Vice Yan’s house are expensive. It’s not like I would even dare open those boxes of tea with the fancy packaging. What is it, Mr. Lu, has it gone moldy? I thought that tea cake looked weird too when I was first making it, old and ratty like it’s been left there for a long time, but it still smelled pretty good …”
There was a moment of silence from the other side of the phone. Then, Jiang Ting directed her, “Pass the phone to Yan Xie.”
Yan Xie had assumed Jiang Ting was merely calling to check if Han Xiaomei had safely returned to the scene yet. He was sitting in the back, contacting the command center with a walkie-talkie, when all of a sudden he saw a phone being presented to him. He picked it up, bewildered. “Yeah? What’s up, police flower?”
“There is something I have to discuss with you.”
Yan Xie: “???”
Jiang Ting’s voice sounded so very calm, calm to the point that something wasn’t quite right. “I’ll first suppose a hypothetical. If someone drank your family’s most valuable collectible, causing it to now be utterly worthless, what do you plan on doing?”
Yan Xie was greatly alarmed. “That’s impossible, Huifeng Bank’s safe deposit box lost that bottle of whiskey my family bought in auction that year?!”
“…” Jiang Ting said, “I’m talking about that round of 1921 Laotongxing tea cake1.”
“Oh that.” Yan Xie finally relaxed. “My mom got those at an auction. She said we’ll use it for the bridal tea2 when I get married — why, who wants to drink it? Haha well I’ll say this in advance: whoever drinks it will hafta be my little bride, will have to cook, do massage, and wash socks for me, hahaha —”
Jiang Ting: “!”
Han Xiaomei in the front seat: “!!!”
The ha froze in midair. Yan Xie finally noticed that something wasn’t right. “What, you really drank it?”
Han Xiaomei’s whole person was quivering as if a tumbling leaf in an autumn gale. And in that moment, her reflexes were eons slower than the battle-seasoned Jiang Ting. One could just hear the other side of the phone declare in a single decisive move, “Han Xiaomei drank it.”
Han Xiaomei, “N-n-no-no i-i-it w-w-was-wasn’t m-m-m-me-me …”
Yan Xie sank into a strange silence.
Ma Xiang carefully snuck a glance at the rearview mirror, to discover that his boss’s expression was very odd: it couldn’t quite be called fury or bereavement, and it also didn’t seem like he was about to blow a gasket or start trouble with anyone, either. If one had to speculate, it actually seemed a little like he had been vaguely hoping for something, but suddenly had that anticipation fall through.
“Oh. If it was Han Xiaomei, then I’ll let it pass,” Yan Xie slowly uttered. “Be more careful next time.”
Yan Xie hung up, seemingly not very satisfied. He scratched his ear, folded his arms, leaned back against the seat with his buzzing walkie-talkie in hand.
Han Xiaomei didn’t dare make even a peep. Ma Xiang too sat stiff and proper, staring straight ahead at the endless rainy night. After a good several minutes, they finally heard Yan Xie squeeze out a single line.
“Always so rash and careless! How did lao-Gao even train you? Go back and write me a self-reprobation letter!!”
Han Xiaomei, in tearless grief, “Y-y-yessir …”
The Cherokee cut through the wind and the storm. Adorned by a few police cars flashing red and blue, it headed along Provincial Highway 635 towards the city of Jianning in the distance.