Chapter 72: The Woman in the Painting
Time passed very quickly. In no time at all, A-Jiao had finished teaching her double-length class. After she took an end-of-class roll call of the children, she returned them one by one to their parents, who couldn’t stop praising A-Jiao for her professionalism and dedication. A-Jiao was already used to the parents’ compliments by now, so she responded to their praise with a simple smile. Still, whenever she delivered a student to their parents and saw the gratitude in the parents’ eyes, she couldn’t help but feel a slight sense of accomplishment. A person found purpose by being accepted by others, even if that acceptance came from only one person.
“What are you looking at, Honey?” she asked as she walked up to Jiang Zhengkai. “We can go back now. All the kids have gone home.”
“Oh, I’m just looking at your portraits,” Jiang Zhengkai casually replied. “This one is…” he said as he pointed to one of the portraits. “From the looks of it, this one is A-Sha, right?”
“Yup!” confirmed A-Jiao as she stuck her head forward and took a look at the portrait. “It’s her! Now stop looking at it already! Why are you looking at them anyway? These are just portraits of the alley girls.” A-Jiao lowered her voice, “Honey, do you think I should take these home? …Would it be bad if someone recognized them?”
“Yeah, you have a point there,” nodded Jiang Zhengkai as he rolled up the portraits. “Perhaps it would be better if you took them home.” He took a look at the shelf and asked, “Are there a lot of similar paintings on this shelf?”
“No,” A-Jiao shook her head. “I drew all of these just a few days ago. Yeah, let’s take them all home.” She started gathering up the few dozen paintings she had placed in a pile on the drawing shelf. “Honey, help me roll them up into one big roll. I will go find something to wrap them up with.” She turned around and headed to her podium.
Jiang Zhengkai was already highly interested in these portraits, and now A-Jiao was going to bring them home where he could study them at his leisure. This was practically a dream come true! So he naturally did all he could to help her wrap the portraits up.
He unfurled each rolled-up portrait and lay them flat on the ground with a paperweight pinning both sides, before repeating the same process for the next one. Very soon, he had placed all but one of the portraits in a thick pile on the ground. When he took the last portrait and placed it flat on the ground, a vaguely familiar face appeared before him…
The sound of uh, uh, uh seemed to ring in Jiang Zhengkai’s ear again, and the woman’s face almost emerged from the canvas. It was a deathly pale face, devoid of any color. Her hand also seemed to stretch outward, and then came the sound of crack, crack, a sound normally made by bone grinding against bone.
“Are you okay, Honey?” asked A-Jiao as she returned with a piece of rope. She saw Jiang Zhengkai standing there, blankly staring at one of her portraits, with a face that was as pale as snow. Shocked by his appearance, she shook his arm in worry as she asked, “Honey, are you feeling alright?”
“Oh, yeah, it’s nothing!” Jiang Zhengkai finally snapped out of his daze after A-Jiao called out to him. “Sorry! I just spaced out for a second,” he said as he actively tried to suppress the terror he felt in his heart. It would be somewhat of an embarrassment for any man to admit that he’d had the wits scared out of him by a painting, much less a police officer.
“Really? Are you sure?” asked A-Jiao as she looked caringly at Jiang Zhengkai’s face. She then reached out with her hand and touched his face and forehead. “It doesn’t look like you’re sick,” she muttered.
“Hehe! Silly girl, I told you I’m fine!” reassured Jiang Zhengkai. He knew A-Jiao cared a great deal about him, so he put down the painting and pulled her into his embrace. “I’m fine, really! I just spaced out for a bit thinking about my work during the day. I took some officers from the local station with me to dig up a dead body. Perhaps seeing that woman’s remains affected me more than I thought.”
“I see. You need to take care of yourself, Honey. Don’t work so hard in the future, okay?” said A-Jiao. She didn’t detect anything unusual in his explanation. A person in love almost always has an unlimited amount of trust for the person she loves. A-Jiao was no different. It simply didn’t occur to her that, as a veteran police officer, it would have been very unusual for Jiang Zhengkai to have been scared out of his mind just by the sight of a dead body. She literally believed everything Jiang Zhengkai told her, regardless of whether or not it was true.
“Don’t worry, I’ll make sure to take care of myself in the future,” Jiang Zhengkai reassured A-Jiao as he continued to hold her in his embrace. However, the person in the room who most needed reassurance wasn’t A-Jiao, but Jiang Zhengkai himself. His eyes once again drifted over to the painting he had just put down. He faked a nonchalant attitude as he asked A-Jiao, “Ziyuan, who is the woman in that painting? She looks so real!”
“Those paintings are all of my sisters from back in the day,” A-Jiao casually answered. She continued to lean into Jiang Zhengkai’s embrace and didn’t actually turn around to look at the painting in question. “Honey, let’s finish wrapping them up and take them home.”
“Oh, okay!” Seeing how A-Jiao didn’t provide the desired answer, Jiang Zhengkai decided to switch tactics to try and find another way to find the information that he wanted. In accordance with his professional experience, he knew he couldn’t directly ask A-Jiao who the woman in the painting was again without arousing her suspicions. Instead, he stroked her hair and then asked, “Are all of these women your sisters from before? I feel like I’ve seen that woman before.”
“Really?” asked A-Jiao. She turned around to look at the painting. “Oh, that’s Sister Xiu!” She touched the woman’s face in the painting and affectionately sighed, “Ai! Too bad she’s gone now.”
“A-Xiu?” Hearing that name from A-Jiao caused Jiang Zhengkai to feel an unusual amount of fear. The woman in that painting was clearly the same woman he’d seen in the room above A-Xiu the night A-Xiu had died, so how could it possibly be her in that painting?
“Yeah, that’s right,” A-Jiao resolutely responded to his question. “That’s Sister Xiu right there. Are you sure you’re alright, Honey?”
“Oh, yeah… yeah, I’m sure!” Jiang Zhengkai shook his head. “Come on, let’s finish wrapping up these paintings and head out of here.” As he spoke, he took the ball of rope from A-Jiao’s hand and then use it to wrap the paintings into one big roll, before placing them into a large tote bag that A-Jiao had prepared.
A-Jiao pursed her lips and stood to one side. She quietly looked on as Jiang Zhengkai diligently wrapped and packaged the paintings. She was quite curious as to why he seemed so tripped up today. She knew he must be hiding something, but she didn’t know how exactly to ask him about it.
On the way back home, Jiang Zhengkai tightly hugged A-Jiao’s shoulder as they walked. He didn’t say anything the whole way back, as his mind was obviously preoccupied by something. A-Jiao didn’t have a mind to bother him either. She was a smart woman. She knew when he wanted to be pestered and when he didn’t want to be bothered. Of course, this was operating under the assumption that A-Jiao was herself emotionally stable at the time. Actually, most women were like A-Jiao. They knew that if they loved a man, they should give him some space when he needed it. Unfortunately, women more often than not tended to be emotionally unstable.
“Alright, finally home!” A-Jiao hurriedly kicked off her shoes as soon as she entered her home. She stretched as she said, “Honey, I’m going to take a shower now! Could you organize those paintings for me?”
“Me?” Jiang Zhengkai asked in surprise as he saw her walk into the bathroom. “Where do you want me to put them?”
“Wherever!” said A-Jiao as she closed the bathroom door. “They’re all yours, Honey, so put them wherever you’d like!”
“Oh, fine!” Jiang Zhengkai crisply answered A-Jiao. Jiang Zhengkai knew that this clever girl of his must have already had an inkling that what preoccupied his mind had something to do with those paintings. Since he didn’t want to talk about it, she’d decided that it was probably best to give him all of the paintings and let him figure out what was on his mind on his own time.
After A-Jiao finished with her shower and came out of the bathroom, Jiang Zhengkai had already laid out all of the paintings on her vanity. “Ziyuan, could you help me out with something?” He walked over to her and gave her a back hug. “I’d like you to write at the bottom of each of these portraits the woman’s name, approximate age, and personality traits.”
“You got it!” A-Jiao cutely nodded her head at his request. “Go and take your shower. I’ll be done in a bit.” She pushed Jiang Zhengkai towards the bathroom. “Go! It’s already late. I’ve got to get up early tomorrow for work!”
“Yes, ma’am!” acknowledged Jiang Zhengkai as he walked into the bathroom. “Thank you, Honey! I’ll be back in a few!”
“Ugh, that guy!” A-Jiao muttered to herself as she watched Jiang Zhengkai close the bathroom door. “When he needs me, it’s ‘Honey,’ but when he doesn’t, it’s ‘Ziyuan.’ Stupid cop! Stupid man!”