The sound of heavy footsteps reverberated in the narrow stairway. A drunken pot-bellied man in his fifties was walking up the stairs with hands on the handrail to steady himself. Singing out of tune, he had drunk looks on his red face.
He didn’t notice the sound-activated light had failed to turn on. He Zhuangshen’s flat was on the fourth floor. After his village was demolished to make way for a development project, he was relocated here ten years ago. He was so familiar with this building that he could climb these stairs blindfolded.
He LaosiTL’s note: He is the family name, but Laosi was not a name, it means the fourth. There is a total of eight cousins in this He family. Laoda is the first, Laoer is the second, Laosan is the … Continue readingwas dead. Today a funeral service was held in He Laosi’s home. During the day, he helped arrange things. At night, he drank a lot with the visiting guests coming to offer their condolences and came back very late.
He thought that Today, He Laoer was dead too, so perhaps a funeral service will be held for him tomorrow. Almost all the people living in this building were relatives. It was considered an unspoken rule that every relative had to contribute money to offer their condolences. He was calculating how much money was appropriate for an occasion like this, unaware that he had climbed many flights of stairs.
His flat number was 404. He always thought the number was a sign of bad luckTL’s note: the number four’s pronunciation is very similar to the word death in China, Cantonese, or Mandarin.. So he took the number plate off and hung a mirror in its place, which was supposed to have a magical power to ward off evil. Usually, he would see his evil-dispelling mirror after taking a few flights of stairs.
But today, it took him forever to reach his fourth floor.
“Dammed. Why don’t we have an elevator installed?”
He cursed while walking; His feet seemed to have been filled with lead.
Like most residents living in this apartment complex, his flat was part of a resettlement package offered to him by a developer to compensate for the demolition of his village house. In the 2000s, this apartment complex was considered upscale. But after ten years, it had become a poorly-maintained run-down residential area. Without an elevator, residents had to climb narrow stairs to reach their homes.
He Zhuangsheng felt the stairs were particularly hard to climb today. After a long hard climb, he hadn’t even reached the fourth floor.
A drop of water fell on his back neck, sending a chill down his spine. He Zhuangsheng raised his head to look at the dark ceiling and wiped his back neck. He cursed.” Whose home is flooded today?”
The building was so poorly maintained that cracks started to appear on the outer wall. Especially in places like stairways, cracks were spreading everywhere. If a household on the upper floor had leaking plumbing, the water would filter through the cracks and drip downstairs like rainwater.
He Zhuangsheng took a deep breath and halted his steps. He felt his strength was running out. The alcohol he had consumed tonight seemed to have evaporated with his sweat. His head was now much clearer.
Then, he belatedly started to feel something unusual.
This building has seven floors. Even with his slow speed, he should have long reached the top floor by now. But looking around, he thought he was still in the middle section of this stairway. The sound-activated light had stopped working. With a faint light shone on him from somewhere, he couldn’t see clearly which floor he was on now
Even with the sound-activated lights on, he wouldn’t see any number plate showing the floor number. The floor number plates were long gone. Most of the residents living here relied on the room number plates above each door or their gut feeling to tell them which floor they had reached.
He Zhuangsheng climbed some more steps, wanting to read the number plate above the doorway.
But no matter how hard he tried to focus on the number plate, he couldn’t see clearly as if the number plate was made blurry on purpose.
Cold sweat broke out on his back. Kneading his face, he suspected that he was haunted by a ghost.
In the dark stairway, he raised his head to shout his wife’s name. The sound echoed endlessly in the stairway, but no one responded to it.
This building had very poor sound insulation. He used to shout to his wife on the fourth floor from outside the building. But now, no one seemed to hear him.
He Zhuangsheng felt weak at the knees, and beads of cold sweat broke out on his back. Looking at the door a few steps away from him, he dragged his feet and tried to knock on the door. He knew everyone in this building. He needed to see a living people’s face no matter who would appear behind that door.
While thinking this, he climbed the steps with much difficulty.
Tata, tata, tata…….
The sound of his heavy footsteps echoed in the stairway. Following behind, another footstep started with him.
He Zhuangsheng’s first reaction to this footstep was not excitement but fear. He seemed like a beast sensing the approaching danger. Halting his steps abruptly, he turned to stare into the darkness behind him.
And he shouted breathlessly.” Who’s there, don’t try to scare me!”
The footsteps stopped.
His palms were now covered with sweat. Trying to control his fear, he looked down and saw a little girl around 8 years old, raising her head to look at him.
This girl had two braids of hair with a pink hair clip. She had dark eyes and a round face with two dimples. He Zhuangsheng knew this girl.
This is He Laoliu’s granddaughter Niu Niu, living on the sixth floor.
His fearful mind suddenly calmed down. He Zhuangsheng took two steps downward and waved to her.” Niu Niu, why are you here alone? Where are your grandpa and grandma?”
Niu Niu tilted her head to look at him and gave him a broad smile. But if you happened to look from her side, you would notice her face was flat, as if she only existed in two dimensions. She watched He Zhuangsheng and answered in her childish voice.” They are home; I am out buying ice creams.”
He Zhuangsheng smiled. Her grandparents wouldn’t let her eat ice cream often. He waved to her.” Come, I will accompany you home.”
Hearing this, Niu Niu took a few quick steps to his side.
He Zhuangsheng didn’t seem to notice her two-dimensional body. Holding her hands, he said.”Let’s go.”
Niu Niu happily agreed and turned her flat head to face him, with a smile on her round face.
Now, with a living person’s company, though only a small child, He Zhuangsheng felt much calmer than before. Holding Niu Niu’s hand, he took a few steps and saw a room number plate, which seemed forever beyond his reach a few moments ago.
The room number was 301. He just reached the third floor.
Climb two more flights of stairs, and he would be home.
Feeling relieved, he quickly climbed the stairs with renewed energy, holding Niu Niu’s hands.
Niu Niu followed him closely, singing a happy tune:
“Sunny Dolls, Sunny Dolls, If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I will give you a silver bell.”
“Sunny Dolls, Sunny Dolls, If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I will give you a golden bell.”
“Sunny Dolls, Sunny Dolls, If it rains tomorrow, I will cut off your head.”
The girl’s sound had an ethereal quality to it, like a newborn nightingale. She kept singing the same tune over and over.
After he could finally make out what she was singing, goosebumps crawled from his arms to his face. He said sternly.” Where did you learn this song?”
Niu Niu opened her mouth. Her big eyeballs were dark but didn’t shine, appearing murky.
“I heard it from someone else.”
“This song is bad. Stop singing it.”
He Zhuangsheng could barely control his negative feelings and started to drag her along. While walking, he sensed her small hands grew lighter and colder, and her soft palm grew flat.
He Zhuangsheng felt there was a cold stare fixed on him. But he didn’t dare to inquire about that weird touch in his hands; he didn’t even dare to lower his head to look down. When he finally saw the familiar door with an evil-dispelling mirror hanging above it, he quickly tossed her hands away, fumbled out his keys, and rushed into his home.
The sunny doll hanging above the door was tossed up by the rushing air. Its mouth suddenly went alive and said in a child’s voice.” Home now.”
Jiang Lan and Wang Qing both decided to stay here for the night.
There was a car park in front of the building, which made their surveillance work easier. Jiang Lan, Wang Qing, Captain Cheng, and Zhao Li sat in a car. They went through the case file again while keeping an eye on the people going in or out of the building.
The two victims were both beheaded, and their bodies were hung in front of their homes. The same cruel methods used by the murderer and the same locations pointed to the likelihood of revenge murders.
Captain Cheng’s team had already gone through the social connections of the victims and found out that most of the residents in this building were relatives.
They were resettled here ten years ago, following the demolition of their village in the 90s. Most of the residents here had the same surname, “He.”
The victims He Zhuangyang and He Zhuangqing were cousins. He Zhuangyang was the second in his generation, and He Zhuangqing was the fourth in his generation. Except for the two, there were six other cousins.
He Laoda died of stomach cancer a few years ago. He Laoqi was killed in a traffic accident. The earliest death in their generation was He Laoba, who died in a flood twenty years ago.
The only surviving members of their generation were He Laosan, who is mad, He Laowu, and He Laoliu.
“It is said that these cousins didn’t get along well. And those relatives in this building aren’t close. There have been some minor quarrels between them but didn’t develop into a feud.”Captain Cheng said.
Wang Qing felt strange.” They were relatives from the same village. Is it odd that they didn’t stay close to each other but grew apart?”
In the years since the economy took off in Jiang City, many villages on the outskirts were demolished, with most of them in Hanyang and Caiyang District, far from the city’s center. Many apartment complexes were developed to accommodate the villagers from these villages. Usually, once these villagers were resettled in a new place, they would grow closer than ever. When mingled with outsiders who bought or rented a flat in the same apartment complex, they tended to stick with the people they knew.
Captain Cheng nodded.” We felt the same. But we have interviewed a few residents and didn’t uncover anything useful. Now we tend to believe it was a revenge murder. The murderer must have some connections with the He Family or these eight cousins. We have started to investigate their family affair before the resettlement to see if we can find some clues.”
“If it is a revenge murder, the surviving cousins He Laoer, He Laosan might be in danger.”Wang Qing said hesitantly.
“Rest easy. I have deployed a team to protect them.”
Captain Cheng said with a helpless look.” He Laosan is sick and rarely goes out of his home. He Laoliu’s legs are plagued with a disease, which confined him to home most of the time. Only He Laowu is mobile enough to go to Laoer’s home today to help arrange things. I have sent two plain cloth officers to keep an eye on him secretly, wouldn’t disturb him or alarm the suspect.”
While talking, Jiang Lan had gone through the file and turned to a page containing the photo and profiles of the He cousins. At that moment, he raised his head to scrutinize a drunken man just entering the building and rechecked the photo on the page. He said in an uncertain voice.” Isn’t that man entering the building He Laowu? His name is He Zhuangsheng.”
Turning to look outside, Captain Cheng only saw a fat vague figure.
Since he had already deployed a two-member team to keep an eye on He Zhuangsheng, he thought Jiang Lan must be mistaken. But just in case, he said.” I will contact the team.”
But no one in the team responded to his call.
After many unanswered calls, Captain Cheng’s face grew grim.” There must be something going on. Let’s move out. Wang Qing, you will find Zhang Peng and ask them to reinforce us. Zhao Li and I will go upstairs to find He Zhangsheng.”
Then, they opened the door and moved towards Block Four. Jiang Lan followed them closely and went upstairs.
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|↑1||TL’s note: He is the family name, but Laosi was not a name, it means the fourth. There is a total of eight cousins in this He family. Laoda is the first, Laoer is the second, Laosan is the third, Laosi is the fourth, Laowu is the fifth, Laoliu is the sixth, Laoqi is the seventh, Laoba is the eighth|
|↑2||TL’s note: the number four’s pronunciation is very similar to the word death in China, Cantonese, or Mandarin.|