Chapter 38: Hostility
Two strange cases, one major, one minor, were rapidly solved in succession. Everyone on the team, high and low, felt relaxed and cheerful, like the feeling you have after a major exam. The halls were filled with celebration. But Zhang Chi was unable to pull himself together.
His work as a composite sketch artist was not only ineffective, it misled his colleagues down a roundabout path so that they missed the most opportune time to solve the case. If it had not been for Gu Zhichang standing up to the pressure and giving him another chance to rectify his mistake, he really didn’t know how he be able to hold his head up at the station after that.
Early that morning an internal memo was sent out to everyone: “If you’re free after work, head to ‘Instructor Fan’ for an assembly.”
Everyone knew going to his place meant a celebration party. In the evening they’d all eat their fill and the boss would pay out of his own pocket. This time there was an additional sentence: “You can bring your family.” The older officers hurriedly got on their phones and WeChat to tell their spouses, “Don’t cook tonight, we’re going out together, boss’ treat.”
Therefore, the single team members were a bit depressed. Little Wu looked at Zhang Chi blankly and kicked the leg of his chair. “Hey, Are you going by yourself?”
Zhang Chi’s WeChat “dinged”. Chen Ting laughed. “Him? By himself? You think too much. But don’t worry, I’ll go with you so you we won’t be loners.”
“Who wants you!” Little Wu threw an orange on the table at him.
Chen Ting ducked and stifled a laugh and continued working at his computer.
Zhang Chi had no time to pay attention to those two. The WeChat message was from He Meng. “Since it’s a celebration party then drink a lot and take this rare chance to let loose. I’m nearby running an errand. Before it’s over let me know and I will take you home. Don’t drive.”
He thought about it a few seconds, then replied, “Ok.”
Another message came. “Did you think about the program I mentioned last time?”
“What program?” Zhang Chi had forgotten.
She sent a link—”Only Incredible” real man of talent. He couldn’t help laughing. His first thought was whether or not to inform his boss.
“I’ll ask for instructions. If my identity will be revealed it will have to be reported to the organization.”
“Okay. Seems you’re learning. Have to be organized and disciplined!” He Meng posted a smiley face next to that.
The end of the workday soon came. Everyone packed up their things and got ready to go together to the restaurant. Old Fan’s restaurant was no more than ten minutes away from the bureau. Gu Zhichang had already called ahead to reserve their only private room.
“Is everyone here? Are we missing anyone? Where’s Zhang Chi?” Chen Ting carried a large reusable bag which was filled with beverages. He looked around and suddenly realized his classmate was nowhere to be seen.
“Wasn’t he going to research human bone structure in the afternoon?” Little Wu said. “He just messaged us and said not to wait up for him, said he’d come here directly.” Little Wu helped Chen Ting carry the bag.
“All right, then let’s go ahead and order, Boss,” said an elderly lady officer, turning to Captain Liu and Gu Zhichang, who both nodded. The notebooks on her desk were all arranged by color, and the pens in her holder were all lined up from tallest to shortest.
It was quiet inside the forensic medical examiner’s office. It seemed to be empty. On the dissecting table lay a young nude woman. Her body was dotted with dark red spots.
Medical Examiner Little Zeng’s scalpel opened the body’s abdominal cavity little by little, and he picked up a spoon and ladled some blood. The blood was mixed with coagulated blood clots, emitting a coppery stench. There was a ventilation system, but the room was soon thick with the smell of it.
He looked up at Zhang Chi who had been standing there beside him for close to three hours. He was a bit surprised. “You don’t look at all like someone who’s been here for the first time.”
Zhang Chi was drawing in his notebook. He smiled casually. “After all, I’ve been to crime scenes. I’m desensitized to it.”
Medical Examiner Zeng was not yet thirty-five years old, yet was the backbone of the medical examiner’s office. The woman he was dissecting was an officer worker who had died of unnatural causes. Her family suspected she had been assaulted at work and had suffered a sudden heart attack, and had not suddenly died from overwork; so they had fiercely demanded for the time and cause of death to be determined.
He put on gloves and reached into the abdominal cavity and moved the organs to and fro, examining them carefully. “You should see people when they come here for the first time. Never mind spilled guts, just one look at the waxy and spotted skin of the corpse and they’re all done. Some come near to throwing up on the body.” Examiner Zeng looked disgusted, but he just shook his head.
“Seems my mental state has improved,” Zhang Chi said without modesty.
Examiner Zeng asked him coldly, “What are you looking for here anyway. My patients are not at all like the living people you sketch. Why waste your time coming down here?”
“You’re not wrong, but it can be of assistance to me in drawing my portraits.”
“In what way?”
Different bone structures, the texture of the skin, the age, and the physiological condition all directly influence a person’s facial features.”
“Is that so?” Examiner Zeng said without raising his head. “Every profession really is different.”
“I still want to learn from you. You have a lot more practical experience than I. In your view how much do factors like age group, region, level of education, or nutritional standards influence one’s facial characteristics? Do they share anything in common?”
Examiner Zeng stopped what he was doing, still poker-faced. “You’ll have to take me to dinner. How can I explain it all clearly in this short amount of time? If we did that it would interfere with my work.”
Zhang Chi laughed heartily. “It’s not a small topic. What day are you free?”
Examiner Zeng clucked his tongue. “We can’t joke around in here. Autopsies are serious business. This is the last respects we show to the deceased.”
Zhang Chi crossed himself, the smile on his face erased. He had heard that Examiner Zeng took his work extremely seriously, sometimes even to the point of treating his corpses as deferentially as works of art. Presumably that rumor was pretty accurate.
He respected from the bottom of his heart those people who disregarded what others thought and threw themselves deeply into their work, taking it to the highest level. Looking at the pages of notes in his notebook he had taken that afternoon, he felt good for the first time in a long time. Wasn’t what he was doing now just like those people?
When Zhang Chi got to the private room at the restaurant everyone was already seated at the two tables. There were two empty seats at the table by the door so he sat down. At the main table Chen Ting was busy going around filling people’s drinks. Gu Shi was sitting properly to his right.
According to their usual custom, everyone first shared a round of beer. Gu Shi didn’t drink, nor did she urge others to drink or propose toasts. She just smiled and watched everyone bragging and cracking jokes. Under this relaxed, easy-going atmosphere, her usual cold, aloof queen look disappeared and she was like the sweet girl next door attending a grown-ups party, gentle and lovely.
Zhang Chi listened absentmindedly to the talk at his own table while he looked at Gu Shi at the opposite one. Every time her gaze flitted to him couldn’t stop himself from raising his glass and drinking, as if downing it in one gulp was his silent response.
He had always had a strong tolerance for alcohol. His friends said he was a black hole; no matter how much he drank he never seemed to get drunk. Every night at the bar was a different woman’s smile, making out with her passionately, still sober, as if everyone was indistinct, happy and lonely, content and empty, all in the span of a moment, his face a blur. That was a long time ago. When had his social life turned upside down to how it was now?
After the food came people from the other table began to come over to offer toasts. Zhang Chi refused no one, boldly draining his glass, but his tolerance was not like it had been. Slightly drunk, he felt a bit tipsy, yet his mind was especially clear. The line between the career and the woman he pursued had never been more clearly demarcated than it was at this moment.
His cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He Meng asked him, “Send me the address.”
He mechanically typed in the address and sent it.
Five minutes later He Meng told him, “I’m here. I’m parked on the corner of the street. No rush, take your time. I’m on the phone handling some things.”
Zhang Chi saw the messages and told everyone he was leaving. Gu Shi was not all that interested in these kinds of gatherings, so when she saw someone leave at least she wouldn’t be the first to go. After the span of another two rounds of drinks or so, she also got up and took her leave.
As she was at the street entrance waiting for a taxi she saw in the distance Zhang Chi and He Meng sitting in a car. Zhang Chi’s eyes were slightly closed, his head tilted back against the headrest. He was saying something. Under the pale yellow streetlamps He Meng’s face was still so exquisite, her eyes still so alluring. She seemed to hesitate for a second, her expression one of sincerity mixed with resolution. She lightly pushed his arm away, but he didn’t have a strong reaction.
He Meng scrutinized Zhang Chi’s face carefully. After all these years he still looked like he did when she first saw him on campus: sunny, clear, manly. His breathing was steady and he soon fell into a light sleep. But his expression wasn’t smooth. His face was gloomy, his brows knitted, one arm slightly outstretched, as if he would grab some cherished object that might be lost at any moment.