Nan District. Dongye City. University of Foreign Languages.
It was summer break, and the campus facilities were only half-staffed. Most of the students who would soon be second-years had gone home for the summer, while those who had just finished their second or third years mostly stayed on campus. Out of those who stayed, some picked up part-time jobs, some studied for upcoming graduate exams, and some anxiously prepared for upcoming job recruitment events.
These days, it wasn't easy to find a job after graduation. Whenever the subject came up, soon-to-be graduates tended to feel anxious and restless.
The East 9 women's dormitory was occupied entirely by third-year English majors. After summer break, they would all be joining the ranks of the city's job seekers. It was late in the evening now, with a tepid breeze blowing through the corridors of the dorm. Many of the rooms had their doors open to air out the stifling heat that had become trapped inside during the day.
But the door to Room 509 was shut tight. Not even a single beam of light peeked out from within.
"Is no one in there?" Wang Jiao, of Room 510, asked. She was in the same field and same year as the four girls who lived in 509. "Why is their door closed at this hour? Didn't we agree to go swimming together later tonight?"
Shu Yu pressed her index finger to her own lips. "Shhh! Wen Jingjing just got back this afternoon. She's running a fever, so she's sleeping now."
Wang Jiao immediately suppressed her voice to a whisper. "How did she get a fever? Is it serious?"
"Pretty serious, I think. Otherwise Wen Jingjing wouldn't take time off work to come sleep during the day," Shu Yu said. She linked arms with Wang Jiao and started tugging her towards the stairs while she spoke. "Her family pulled some strings and got her an internship at some foreign affairs office. She's been working really hard."
"What about the other girls in 509?" Wang Jiao looked back over her shoulder. "Why are they all missing, except Wen Jingjing?"
"They're either at the library or at work, I guess.," Shu Yu answered with a laugh. "Don't worry so much, they're all nerds. Besides Wen Jingjing and Li Hongmei, they're all aiming to get into grad school. They're not like us in 510. Now, hurry up, let's go have some BBQ before we go swimming."
"Shouldn't we swim first, then eat?"
The two of them chattered noisily as they made their way down the stairs. Along the way, they briefly ran into a girl wearing unfashionable straight-cut denim jeans and a logoed t-shirt.
Once they were downstairs, Shu Yu looked back at the stairs and pulled a grossed out face. "Why is that chick here again? I really just don't like the look of her. Wen Jingjing is the only one up in 509 right now… do you think she did something to piss this girl off?"
"She doesn't know Wen Jingjing is the only one up there, right? She's probably here to look for Li Hongmei," Wang Jiao said with a sigh. "The girls in 509 are so unlucky to be stuck with a weirdo like Li Hongmei. She's always inviting strange people into the dorm. Last year it was some missionary, and now this loser?
"Maybe we should tell Auntie Zhang that all these strangers are coming and going from the building."
"Forget it. If they're not bothered about strangers in their own room, why should we care?" Shu Yu said. "Besides, Li Hongmei is kinda crazy. I wouldn't mess with her. Loads of violent crimes happen in dorms, you know? We should just stay far, far away from Li Hongmei."
As the two of them made their way out of the front gates of the East 9 dormitory building, the girl in the logoed tee had already arrived in front of Room 509.
She reached out with her right hand first, giving the door a light knock, before leaning in and pressing her face to the door. Even after nearly half a minute passed, there was no answer from within. No light spilled out either. She knocked again, and called out in heavily accented, broken Mandarin: "Is anyone there? Hongmei, are you there? It is Xiaomin."
Still no answer.
But someone did emerge from Room 513, casting a look of disdain down the hall.
Now that she was certain there was no one inside, the girl in front of 509 took out a key and unlocked the door like she lived there.
"The fuck!" the girl from 513 exclaimed, visibly shocked. "She had a key?"
Suddenly, the lights in 509 burst on. Wen Jingjing's aggravated voice rang out, demanding, "Who the hell is barging into my goddamn room?!"
The girl who had entered jumped, so startled that she dropped the key in her hands before starting to back away towards the door again. "I… I knocked on the door, I did not know…"
Wen Jingjing had a spirited and aggressive personality. Although her fever left her feeling weary, she still retained some of her ferociousness.
She climbed out of bed and approached the intruder with a glare. "You didn't know anyone was inside, so you thought you could unlock the door and invite yourself in?" she demanded. "You've got guts! What are you, a thief? Tell me the truth this time, who gave you the key? Was it Li Hongmei?"
The other girl shook her head frantically, panicking. "Hongmei only left the key with me, I…"
"Thief!" Wen Jingjing shrieked. She lashed out and grabbed onto one of the girl's wrists, holding her tight as she continued to shout, "I caught a thief! Someone call Auntie Zhang!"
The residents of that floor all more or less knew that the girls in 509 didn't get along with Li Hongmei, and most of them were uncomfortable with the strangers that came and went from the dorm to visit her. So when Wen Jingjing cried out, several people came running to support her. Some surrounded the intruder to keep her from escaping, while others dashed downstairs to alert the nearest security guards.
Very quickly, the girl was sent off to the building's supervisory room.
She was so scared that she trembled as she took out her identification papers. On her papers, her name and age were written: Chi Xiaomin, twenty-one years old.
This wasn't the first time Chi Xiaomin had come to East 9. Before and during summer break, Li Hongmei had brought her over a few times.
Wen Jingjing was pissed. She called up Qin Manyue and Lian Qiao, who had both been studying in the library, and got them to come back to the dorm. Her temper was raging out of control, and she insisted that Chi Xiaomin needed to be sent to the police.
Li Hongmei, who had been working off-campus at the time, rushed back when she heard the news. She was dressed in straight-cut jeans, just like Chi Xiaomin, and wearing a free t-shirt that the university's English department had given out some time ago. Her whole body reeked of sweat and body odor, and her flat face was overcome with worry and anxiety.
"I'm sorry," she apologized woodenly when she met up with Xiaomin and her roommates. "Xiaomin is my friend, and I'm the one who gave her the key. She's been working at the fruit stand in front of the school recently, and I thought… I thought she could come to our dorm when she needed to take a break."
The stench she emitted made several of the girls pinch their noses.
"Does this dorm belong to you and only you?" Wen Jingjing demanded sharply. "Who gave you the authority to make that decision? Li Hongmei, you've gone too far! Do you think we don't know what you do all day? You're out on the streets evangelizing to people and hanging out with all sorts of creeps!
"This is a university dorm, you know. What do you think you're doing, bringing so many random people in here?"
"Xiaomin isn't a creep, she's my friend," Li Hongmei argued. She had broken out in a cold sweat that just wouldn't stop, and there were shades of both helplessness and resentment in her eyes. "But what happened today was my mistake. I want to apologize to you all."
Saying this, she bowed deeply from the waist.
Lian Qiao snorted. "You think an apology is enough? Who knows what kind of person this Chi Xiaomin is? Or what kind of intentions she has? We're not going to be satisfied until she's sent to the police!"
Chi Xiaomin had started crying softly. "Hongmei-jie, please help me…"
Li Hongmei clenched her teeth and swept her gaze across the faces of her three roommates.
That hateful look was something Wen Jingjing couldn't forgive. "What the hell are you glaring at?" she snapped. "Don't think you're in the clear! When your crazy friends are all taken to the police station, you're going to be held responsible for this too. Believe me, I can make it so that you won't graduate."
"I'm sorry," Li Hongmei repeated, bowing deeply again. "It's all my fault. Please, I'm begging you, forgive me and Xiaomin this time. I swear to you, starting from today, I'll never bring anyone else to the dorm again. Please, please believe me."
"Fuck that!" Lian Qiao rolled her eyes dramatically. "We're taking this to the police no matter what you say!"
"Please, I'm begging you." Li Hongmei bowed even more deeply. Her frail back was visibly trembling.
Auntie Zhang, the dorm supervisor, leaned over to Wen Jingjing and whispered, in a placating tone, "Li Hongmei has apologized. Let's just forget it this time, okay? Making a big deal out of this is just a waste of time."
"No!" Wen Jingjing insisted, adamant. "I've been sick of her for ages! Today, she brought back some thief, but what about next time? Who knows what she'll bring into the dorm? She could bring a man!"
The girls who were spectating broke out in a wave of raucous laughter. "Jingjing, what are you talking about? Li Hongmei, bringing a guy here? What kind of guy would be interested in her?"
Li Hongmei was still bowing deeply. Her expression was completely hidden.
"I am not a thief!" Chi Xiaomin protested belatedly.
"Who said you could talk?!" Lian Qiao demanded. Her hand flew up, aiming a slap at Chi Xiaomin's face. "Shut the fuck up!"
Li Hongmei suddenly surged up and shoved Lian Qiao away. Her face had morphed into a mask of immense rage.
Wen Jingjing suddenly felt a trace of fear. Instinctively, she reached out to Lian Qiao and pulled her back a step.
"Forget it," said Qin Manyue, who had been silent until then. "Taking this to the cops won't look good for any of us, Jingjing. Li Hongmei apologized, and Auntie Zhang already said we shouldn't make this into a big deal, so let's just forget about it for today."
Li Hongmei had started to breathe in short, shallow gasps. Her expression had contorted into something bizarre.
Wen Jingjing didn't have any intention of compromising at first, but Qin Manyue suddenly hugged her and whispered in her ear, "Li Hongmei isn't normal. Let's not get on her bad side. We still have to live together. What if she goes crazy and kills someone? We would be the ones who get killed."
In an instant, Wen Jingjing's heart started beating like crazy, almost leaping out of her throat with terror.
Qin Manyue let out a quiet laugh. "Don't worry about it," she whispered. "It's just one more year. You already have a job lined up, and Lian Qiao and I will either be going abroad for work or going to grad school. Li Hongmei is the only one who doesn't have a future. We can mess with her slowly. We'll get our revenge."
Finally, Wen Jingjing cracked a smile. "You always have the best ideas."
After the commotion died down, Li Hongmei returned to 509 and began to pack a suitcase while Chi Xiaomin waited out in the hallway.
The atmosphere in the dorm room was beyond weird. Wen Jingjing, Lian Qiao, and Qin Manyue huddled together on one side of the room, loudly 'whispering'—
"There really are all sorts of animals in college. These past three years, I've learned a lot."
"And she dares to be called 'Hongmei'? 'Hong' for 'red' and 'mei' for 'plum'? Please, she looks more like a puddle of mud."
"Don't you guys know, people who can't do anything flock together? They make friends just to feel better about themselves, but really they're just a heap of garbage waiting to be disposed of."
Of course, Li Hongmei heard everything they said. Although her bed was still in Room 509, she no longer had any will to live there.
"It's so late," Wen Jingjing remarked with a faux-sweet tone. "Where are you going?"
Li Hongmei had just started heading to the door with a suitcase in tow. With her head lowered and her gaze on the floor, she answered, "I'm going to stay somewhere else."
"Oh, don't be like that," Lian Qiao argued. "This is still your dorm, what would people think if you left? The school counselor would think we were bullying you."
She got up and grabbed Li Hongmei's arm, but Li Hongmei shook her off.
"You've got an attitude now, huh?" Lian Qiao sneered. "You think you're all tough?"
Li Hongmei didn't say another word. She stormed out and pulled Chi Xiaomin with her, quickly making her way down the hall.
Behind her, Qin Manyue called out, "Hey! Are you seriously leaving? Then leave your key with—"
"The key is mine," Li Hongmei stated, turning around for just a moment. "I'll be back."
Her voice was perfectly calm and even, yet it was the sort of tone that left people feeling unsettled and disturbed. Just like the sound of fingernails scraping down a blackboard.
Instantly, Qin Manyue broke out in goosebumps all over.
Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an each had their own apartments; they didn't live together. Ming Shu had bought his place right after he knew he would be assigned to Dongye City for work. It was a modest home situated in a mid-sized community, and it was relatively close to the Bureau. Two bedrooms, a living room. In terms of structure and decoration, it was an extremely plain apartment.
Xiao Yu'an's place was a little farther away from the Bureau. It was a modern, luxury residence that had been purchased three years ago, though not in Xiao Yu'an's name. The interior design was incredibly simple and sleek. The whole place was decked out in shades of gray and white, full of hard, cold lines.
"Why did you buy a place here?" Ming Shu had asked, at first. "You don't live in Dongye."
Xiao Yu'an had countered, "How do you know I won't live here?"
The cold, sleek apartment did fill up with life and warmth as soon as Xiao Yu'an got to work in the kitchen. Ming Shu was, admittedly, starting to worry about getting burned out after working so hard on his cases recently. As soon as they arrived at Xiao Yu'an's place, he crashed on the couch, hugged a huge cushion to his chest, and fell asleep until the pleasant aroma of chicken soup made him stir.
In the summer, it got dark at a later hour, but it was now nine in the evening, and the night sky was pitch black.
Ming Shu sat up. For a second, he didn't know where he was.
This apartment actually wasn't unfamiliar to Ming Shu. Xiao Yu'an had given him a key a long time ago, and sometimes—when a case hit a dead end, or when he missed Xiao Yu'an, or when he was simply bored with nothing to do—Ming Shu would come over and stay for a day or two, sleeping on the couch.
The big cushion he had hugged while he slept was actually one he'd bought and brought over. Its color and style were completely ill-fitting in that apartment, but when Ming Shu hugged it, it looked like it belonged right there.
But the feeling he got when he woke up this time was different from all the other times he'd woken up on this couch before.
He rubbed at his temples a bit, then looked into the kitchen.
A glowing light spilled out from there, and the exhaust fan had been turned on. The door was half-shut, hiding Xiao Yu'an's figure from view.
Ming Shu stood up and impatiently shuffled over into the kitchen.
"You're up? Grab some bowls for me," Xiao Yu'an said. He was at the stove, finishing up a stir-fried vegetable dish. "Don't touch the stockpot, it's hot. I'll take care of it later."
"Ge." Instead of doing as Xiao Yu'an asked, Ming Shu wrapped his arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist and hugged him from behind. He buried his face against Xiao Yu'an's familiar shoulder, acting the part of the shamelessly spoiled lover.
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Still sleepy?"
Ming Shu shook his head slightly, an almost imperceptible motion. "I'm up. Hungry."
"Then you should hurry up and get the bowls," Xiao Yu'an said. His tone was endlessly soft and indulgent. He served up the stir-fry in a porcelain plate and allowed Ming Shu to hug him for a while longer before he reached down and clasped the hands that had been restlessly stroking his own abdomen. "Let's eat."
Dinner was the soup and two other dishes. Once Ming Shu shook off the lethargy that clung to him after his nap, he felt reinvigorated and ate enthusiastically, his chopsticks flying out again and again, quick as lightning. It wasn't long before they had polished off the whole pot of chicken soup.
Xiao Yu'an didn't eat much. When they were almost finished, he split open the chicken's skull and gently tipped the tender brains into Ming Shu's mouth.
That had been Ming Shu's favorite part ever since he was a kid. But a chicken only had one head, and when that head was cracked open, there was only a tiny bit of brain inside. Hardly enough for a mouthful, and quick to dissolve on the tongue.
When the Xiao siblings ate together, they would always fight over the wings and the legs, and Xiao Yu'an would be the one to steal away the head and scoop out that little bite, placing it in Ming Shu's bowl.
Ever since Xiao Yu'an became a part of his life, Ming Shu had never had to crack open a chicken skull for himself.
With pollution growing worse over the years, Xiao Yu'an didn't approve of Ming Shu eating the brains when they ate out at restaurants. It was only when they made soup from free-range chicken at home that he left the brain for Ming Shu.
Ming Shu ate until he was satisfied and full.
After dinner, Ming Shu washed the dishes and peeled some fruit for them. By the time they finished cleaning up, it was already eleven at night.
It was time to 'do homework'.
"No, wait, I have to go back," Ming Shu said suddenly. He had only sat on the sofa for a little while before standing up again. "The case hasn't been solved. I just feel uneasy when I'm not working on it."
Xiao Yu'an seemed to have been anticipating that. He picked up his car keys and said, "I'll give you a ride."
Ming Shu raised his eyebrows. "You're not even going to try to convince me to stay? I came over and only drank a bowl of soup, you know."
"Not a bowl. A pot." Xiao Yu'an cupped the nape of his neck and pressed a kiss to his forehead before they got going.
"I thought you wouldn't be able to let me go," Ming Shu huffed, still pretending to be irritated as he buckled his seatbelt in the car.
Before he started the car, Xiao Yu'an smiled softly and tossed Ming Shu an eye mask. "Sleep a bit more. I'll wake you when we arrive."
Half an hour later, Ming Shu walked back into the offices of the Serious Crimes Division, carrying the milk tea they'd just bought.
And it was on that sweltering summer night that a killer, growing desperate, lifted their knife.