Chapter 11: Uncle Cai’s Noodle Shop
Jiang Zhengkai parked his police cruiser next to the post office and carried A-Jiao to the ATM there. It was dark outside, which meant it was well past the post office’s working hours, so the only way to retrieve money was by using the ATM. This time, however, A-Jiao stopped Jiang Zhengkai from following her to the ATM terminal. “No peeping while I type in my PIN!” she said.
Jiang Zhengkai chuckled to himself and sensibly took a few steps away from the ATM. He looked at his watch: 6:46 PM. Even a girl as smart as A-Jiao was had her blind spots. Perhaps she’d forgotten that Jiang Zhengkai was a police officer? If he really wanted to know where she was wiring the money to, did she think he wouldn’t have a way of finding out?
“I’m done here!” A-Jiao exclaimed as she turned away from the ATM terminal. She pointed at a nearby noodle shop. “But I also want to get a bowl of noodles over at that noodle shop. If you agree to eat with me, I promise to return to the hospital as soon as we’re done.”
Jiang Zhengkai saw the stubborn look on A-Jiao’s face and decided to not oppose this slight change in plans. “Sounds good. Dinner’s on me then!”
“No, I’m buying!” A-Jiao objected.
“Alright, I guess you’re buying then.” As soon as he finished talking, he immediately picked up A-Jiao and started walking towards the noodle shop. It didn’t make sense to drive over, since the noodle shop was only thirty or forty meters away from the post office. Besides, Jiang Zhengkai wasn’t exactly keen on being seen coming out of a cop car and entering a noodle shop with a known prostitute in his arms.
“Uncle Cai! Can you get us two bowls of hand-cut noodles?” A-Jiao shouted towards the kitchen as soon as Jiang Zhengkai carried her inside the noodle shop.
“Coming right up!” Uncle Cai answered as he came running out. “Where have you been these last few days, kid? I missed the hell out of you.”
“Well, I’m back, aren’t I? And I missed you too, Uncle Cai!” A-Jiao said to Uncle Cai with pouted lips.
“I bet you missed my noodles more though, right?” Uncle Cai playfully retorted. But then he noticed A-Jiao was wearing a hospital gown underneath her coat. “What happened, A-Jiao? Are you sick? Did you boyfriend beat you?” Uncle Cai asked as he shot a glance at Jiang Zhengkai.
“Gosh, no! I’m perfectly fine!” A-Jiao said while rolling her eyes. She shook Uncle Cai’s arm and said, “I don’t have a boyfriend, Uncle Cai! So stop spreading rumors and go cook us some noodles!”
“Alright, alright!” Uncle Cai acquiesced, but before he went back to the kitchen, he remembered to give Jiang Zhengkai a word of warning. “Young man, A-Jiao is a good lass.”
“Haha!” Jiang Zhengkai simply laughed and said nothing. Just how good could a prostitute girl be anyway? he thought to himself.
“What are you laughing at?” A-Jiao shook her fist in Jiang Zhengkai’s face. “This is my turf. You might be a cop, but you will respect my authority in this part of town!”
“Okay, okay, you win!” Jiang Zhengkai said while pretending to be scared. “Do you come to eat here often? I can see you’re quite popular around here.”
“Yeah, ever since Xiaomei… oh, nevermind.” A-Jiao waved her hand next to her mouth. “Let’s not talk about these things over the dinner table.”
“Alright, here you go!” Uncle Cai shouted. “Two bowls of noodles, a serving of fermented flour paste, a plate of beef, and a bottle of beer.” He came to their table with a pile of food. “Your meal tonight is on the house, so eat up!” he said as he immediately headed back into the kitchen.
“No, Uncle Cai! We can’t accept this!” A-Jiao shouted loudly from her chair.
“Haha, don’t worry! I’m just in a good mood today!” Uncle Cai replied from the kitchen. “As long as you bring your boyfriend here, I’ll treat you to dinner again!”
“So you’re saying every time I bring a man, you’re going to pay for my meal?” A-Jiao teased him.
“Yup, that’s exactly what I’m saying!” Uncle Cai answered from the kitchen. “If you bring a man with you, I’m paying for your meal.”
“Haha, I’m totally going to bankrupt you then,” A-Jiao muttered softly, sticking out her tongue.
“You–” Jiang Zhengkai had a smile on his face and was just about to say something.
“You shut up!” A-Jiao blurted out. She pointed her chopsticks at Jiang Zhengkai and whispered, “Don’t you dare ruin my positive reputation here.”
“Hehe, okay, got it,” Jiang Zhengkai nodded.
“Besides, nothing good comes out of your mouth anyway,” A-Jiao said under her breath.
“What did you say?” Jiang Zhengkai put down his chopsticks and peered intently at A-Jiao.
“I said hurry up and eat!” A-Jiao picked up a piece of beef and shoved it directly in Jiang Zhengkai’s mouth. Then she poured some of the flour paste that Uncle Cai had brought over directly into her noodle bowl.
“You can’t eat that much salt yet!” Jiang Zhengkai reminded her after he gulped down the piece of beef.
“Hey, mister big-shot police officer,” A-Jiao said impatiently. “Did you used to be a kindergarten teacher or something? Is that why you’re treating me like a child?” Ignoring him, she simply poured a third of the whole helping of fermented flour paste into her bowl. When Jiang Zhengkai noticed, he didn’t back down either, and poured the rest of the paste straight into his own bowl.
“Uncle Cai! Did you see that? He stole all of my flour paste!” A-Jiao shouted at the top of her lungs while pointing at Jiang Zhengkai.
Jiang Zhengkai took in the girl in front of him. If she didn’t work in that alley, she would’ve been a regular bubbly girl next door. Perhaps she carried too much pain in her heart, or perhaps her family was too desperate for money.
“What’s all this fuss about? Are you guys fighting over who gets more flour paste?” Uncle Cai said as he walked out of the kitchen, holding another full bowl of fermented flour paste.
“Uncle Cai, A-Jiao’s doctor said she can’t eat too much salt right now,” Jiang Zhengkai anxiously pointed out to their host.
“I see,” Uncle Cai nodded. He looked over at A-Jiao and said, “Did you hear that? Your body is still recovering, so you can’t have any more flour paste. I’ll just hold on to this bowl of paste for now. I’ll give it to you next time you’re here, okay?”
“Ugh!” A-Jiao pouted. She muttered quietly, “All men suck. The two of you barely know each other, and you’re already teaming up against me.”
As the clock approached 8:00, A-Jiao finally finished eating her bowl of noodles. She stealthily folded a hundred-yuan note into a neat square and hid it underneath her bowl. Then she summoned all the energy in her body to stand up and said, “Uncle Cai! Take care! I’m heading out now!” As she finished, she looked at Jiang Zhengkai and playfully spread out her arms once again. “Get over here and pick me up! We have to leave before Uncle Cai finds the money I left on the table!”
Uncle Cai came out of the kitchen, saw Jiang Zhengkai carry A-Jiao out of the restaurant, and shook his head. “And she says he’s not her boyfriend. Sigh… young people these days.” He walked over to the table where A-Jiao and Jiang Zhengkai had been eating and started clearing the dishes. The hundred-yuan note appeared from underneath A-Jiao’s bowl, and Uncle Cai’s face lit up with a smile. “That damn lass! So this is how you want to do it, huh? I’ll kick you straight out of my restaurant the next time you show your face here.” But despite his gruff talk, his affection for A-Jiao only grew deeper.
“Hehe, I had no idea big brother police officer could run away so quickly!” A-Jiao said facetiously with a pat on Jiang Zhengkai’s shoulder as the two of them arrived at his police cruiser.
“Of course. Back in my day…” Jiang Zhengkai paused and gave A-Jiao a good look. “I think I won first place in the hundred-meter sprint when I was right around your age.”
“Really?” A-Jiao looked at Jiang Zhengkai with curled lips. “Ha! From the sound of it, I shouldn’t be calling you big brother police officer anymore. So, big uncle police officer, may I know how old you are?”
“You certainly may not!” he impatiently responded. He immediately turned on the car engine and drove to the hospital.
Jiang Zhengkai escorted A-Jiao back to her hospital room. She lay down on the bed and fell fast asleep. Clearly, today’s outing had taxed her strength a great deal. As Jiang Zhengkai sat down and looked at the woman sleeping on the hospital bed, a faint smile emerged on his face. At that moment, he even thought, It would be so nice if this woman didn’t have to leave the hospital. Wouldn’t it be nice if she stayed in this hospital room forever? But he knew that as soon as A-Jiao’s wounds healed, she would be back out on that dimly lit alley turning tricks once more.
Unfortunately, the moment was ruined by the sudden ringing of his cell phone. Jiang Zhengkai looked down and saw it was Zhang Nan’s number. He got up, walked out of the hospital room, and answered the phone. “Hello. This is Jiang Zhengkai.”
“Inspector Jiang! We’ve got another incident on our hands!” Zhang Nan said through the phone.
“What’s the situation?” Jiang Zhengkai asked in surprise. Deep down in his heart, he had a hunch that there’d been another murder in the alley.
“We’ve just had another similar homicide, below the floor where the last homicide occurred!” Zhang Nan sounded noticeably on edge. “You should come here right away!”
“Got it! I’ll be there in ten mikes.” Jiang Zhengkai hung up the phone and raced towards the parking lot.