Chapter 21: The Fifth Murder
Jiang Zhengkai’s police cruiser rolled quietly out of the Ju’an Estates residential compound. He didn’t notice that behind the floor-to-ceiling windows on the third floor, a young woman stood in silence as she watched him depart.
Two lines of tears streamed continuously down A-Jiao’s face. She could only stand there quietly as she watched Jiang Zhengkai leave. As a prostitute, she knew her social status placed her at the very bottom of China’s societal hierarchy. She didn’t have the luxury to pursue her own happiness, especially not with a cop who had witnessed her violation. She stood there blankly until nightfall, when she picked up her suitcase and quietly left this home of hers, this familiar city of hers.
The exchange on the intercom wasn’t some beautiful misunderstanding. Since A-Jiao had already decided to leave, she had pre-recorded several messages on the smart intercom system. They were no more than the traces of a woman whose heart had already left.
Jiang Zhengkai’s car arrived in the local police station’s parking lot. He got out of the car and quickly went to Zhang Nan’s office. “Sergeant Zhang, what’s the situation been in the alley the last couple of days?” he eagerly asked Zhang Nan as soon as he saw him.
“It’s been rather quiet, actually,” Zhang Nan replied. “The number of women working in the alley is a lot lower than before.” He was right. Prostitutes were human too, and everyone is afraid of dying. Those women were trying to make money, not get themselves killed. Even police officers were told to not unnecessarily risk their lives, so there was even less reason for your average citizen to keep working in the face of imminent danger.
“Just as well,” Jiang Zhengkai said as he sat down in front of Zhang Nan’s desk. “The fewer of them there are, the less chance that there’ll be another homicide, which makes reporting to our superiors a bit less difficult.”
“You can say that again!” Zhang Nan nodded. He leaned over and quietly said, “Ever since this string of homicides, our city’s entertainment income has slipped quite a bit.” The two of them had a good laugh at that. Police officers were people, too, and people like to gossip. Police officers who don’t like to gossip only exist in propaganda movies from the 70s and 80s.
“Alright, it’s 8 o’clock. Why don’t we go take a look at the alley?” said Jiang Zhengkai as he looked at his watch. He checked his gear before gesturing for Zhang Nan to leave with him. They were soon accompanied by about a dozen other officers from the district sub-bureau and neighboring local stations who were also on their way to the alley.
It was a windless night. The plain-clothed beat cops patrolled the entire alley before returning to the position where Jiang Zhengkai and Zhang Nan kept watch. “Inspector Jiang, we looked this entire place over. There are only about seven or eight women working tonight,” one of them reported.
“Good! Closely surveil every one of them. Keep tabs on all of the men who enter this alley,” Jiang Zhengkai replied before dismissing them.
At the moment, there were very few women in the alley, which meant the number of men coming to the alley was even lower. After all, a man could satisfy his urges with his own hand. The vast majority of Chinese men would much rather live like some porn-addicted Japanese for a few days than risk death for a bit of momentary pleasure. Patriotism didn’t figure much into the equation in this situation.
Three hours went by, and the only men who appeared in the alley were plain-clothed police officers or local residents. Incredibly, not a single male stranger paid this alley a visit. Just when everyone thought this would turn out to be another quiet night, the wretched scream of a woman once again pierced the air. The sound appeared to have come from the direction of a local resident’s window, but it was gone almost as soon as it had come.
“Come on, let’s go! Quickly! Up there!” ordered Jiang Zhengkai. All of a sudden, at least thirty or forty undercover police officers, both men and women, converged on the building from all parts of the alley. Apparently, all of the officers of the Ju’an Road Police Station had recently been ordered to take turns doing night patrols of the alley, to keep a watchful eye over and ensure the safety of the prostitutes working there.
Unfortunately, the police were unable to apprehend the killer. The crime scene was familiar by now: no blood splatters, no signs of a struggle, just the skin-covered skeletons of a man and a woman locked in sex on the bed.
“That bastard is getting more and more brazen!” Zhang Nan bellowed furiously, having just charged into the room and witnessed the scene on the bed.
“Uh-huh…” Jiang Zhengkai replied as he emotionlessly gazed at the crime scene. Although there’d been no significant breakthrough in the murder investigations, there was now a striking new development in the kind of victims targeted by the unknown murderer. It appeared that the murderer no longer attacked only prostitutes and johns, but also regular residents of this alley.
Jiang Zhengkai carefully examined the skeletons, then checked beneath the victims’ bed, followed by an examination of the same space in the apartment unit immediately above this one. However, his search turned up nothing unusual, and he wasn’t able to acquire any new leads. Furthermore, he did not experience the presence of an icy chill like he had before.
“Alright, everyone’s dismissed,” Jiang Zhengkai announced. He took one last look at the crime scene before turning to look at Zhang Nan. “Sergeant Zhang, please hand over any documents you have on this household to Wei Xin tomorrow and have her bring them to me.”
“Yes, sir,” Zhang Nan replied, before ordering his subordinates to cordon off the crime scene.
Jiang Zhengkai descended the stairs to the ground floor, got into his police cruiser, and drove out of the alley. When he passed by Ju’an Estates, he stopped his car and parked outside the compound’s front gate. From here, he had a clear view of A-Jiao’s window. It looked dark inside her condo, clearly a sign that no one was home or that its occupant had already gone to sleep.
He lit a cigarette inside the car and gazed at the window while he smoked. He didn’t know what he was hoping for. Perhaps he was hoping for a miracle; namely, that the light inside that condo would suddenly turn on, and a young woman would appear in front of that window to smile or wave at him.
He parked the car there for about ten minutes before he drove away from the compound and back to his home. It was in an ordinary residential community, and he lived in an ordinary two-bedroom apartment. The interior of his home was more or less clean. The only thing uncomfortable about his apartment was the cold temperature inside. Perhaps that was because it was usually empty.
“Honey, I’m home,” Jiang Zhengkai said quietly as he entered. He didn’t bother turning on the lights. After all these years, he could literally navigate his apartment with his eyes closed. He knew exactly where everything was, which he demonstrated by deftly walking around the apartment’s furnishings in the dark. Besides, the only person who was going to move around the furniture was himself.
“How was your day?” It was still Jiang Zhengkai’s voice in the darkness. Perhaps his wife was already asleep? It was early in the morning after all.
“Alright, I’m tired. I’ll be going to sleep now. Good night,” said Jiang Zhengkai. He walked inside one of the bedrooms, and before long, there was the sound of rhythmic snoring.
The next morning, Wei Xin went straight to the Ju’an Road Police Station to retrieve the documents Jiang Zhengkai had wanted, before reporting for work at the sub-bureau. She brought the case file to his office. “Inspector Jiang, may I enter?” She saw him sitting in his chair with brows furrowed and a cigarette in his mouth.
“Oh, hey, come on in, Wei.” Jiang Zhengkai beckoned her to enter as he immediately went about putting out his cigarette. “Hehe, I’ve been a bit stressed out lately, hence the cigarette. I hope the smoke doesn’t bother you too much.”
“Don’t worry about it. My dad smokes at home all the time,” Wei Xin said with a smile as she walked into his office. “Here are the documents you requested.”
“Great, thank you. No other discoveries on Sergeant Zhang’s end?” Jiang Zhengkai asked as he grabbed the documents and started to review them.
“Not yet,” Wei Xin replied shaking her head. “The two victims last night were both ordinary residents in the alley. Neither of them had a criminal record.”
“Really?” Jiang Zhengkai asked, continuing his careful review of the case files. Indeed, the male victim was a middle school teacher, while the female victim was a nurse. It looked like this one was going to be an unsolved mystery as well. He sighed and looked up at Wei Xin again. “What did their neighbors have to say about them?”
“Well, everyone said the man was kind of dull, but the woman had quite a temper,” Wei Xin recalled. “But all of their neighbors claimed that the two of them had a pretty good relationship, and there wasn’t any altercation last night. They did mention that the main was a bit whipped by his wife.”
“Alright then,” Jiang Zhengkai closed the case file and looked at her. “How about this? You go to the school and hospital where the victims worked and gather more information about their work history and interpersonal relationship. See what their colleagues have to say about them. Hopefully that will turn up some useable leads.”
“Got it, Inspector Jiang,” Wei Xin acknowledged. She got up and was about to leave the office when she suddenly turned around and said quietly, “Inspector, you do know that smoking is bad for your health.”