“…I was joking.” Li Shan Zhu quickly shrugged and smiled. “Alright, I’ll go get toiletries for you from the supermarket downstairs. Besides a toothbrush and a towel, what else do you want?”
Was he really joking? Ning Ning looked at him doubtfully. “Is there disposable underwear?”
“Under, underwear?” Li Shan Zhu’s voice suddenly raised eight pitches. He covered his gradually blushing face, stammering, “Tha, that…”
“I was joking with you.” Ning Ning smiled. “I will buy those myself.”
The two of them went to the supermarket together. It might be because she wore a hat, sunglasses and a face mask, or that Zhang Xin Ai was actually not that famous, but no one had recognised her. Toothbrush, towel, underwear—they bought a lot using Li Shan Zhu’s money.
When they were paying, Ning Ning had a glimpse of his wallet. A poor student, he did not have much money in it, it was emptied out after they bought the toiletries.
“Let me…” Just as Ning Ning reached into her purse, her vision darkened and she was standing in the police station again—watching as Li Shan Zhu approached her from a distance.
How could she have forgotten? Zhang Xin Ai was good at mooching off people—mooching off a meal, an opportunity, a popularity—as long as someone was willing to foot the bill, she would never spend a single cent.
That was why this time she was empty-handed. Not only did she not help pay a single cent, she didn’t even help him with the bags, smiling as she watched Li Shan Zhu bring the bags upstairs.
Li Shan Zhu scurried around alone. He helped her put the new items in their places and made her bed. He got so warm that he started to sweat. When he came out of the bedroom, he looked at the ceiling fan, the blades of the fan were spinning leisurely, Ning Ning’s wavy hair fluttering gently. She twisted open a lip balm in her hand, lightly applying it on her lips that were as plump as a peach, soft and moist.
She looked up at Li Shan Zhu and said, “Come here.”
Li Shan Zhu stared at her lips absentmindedly, unable to speak for a moment. He opened up his stride and walked towards her. The closer he got, the less he dared to look at her, he was even more at a loss when she reached out with her lip balm.
“Big, Big Sister Little Ai…” He did not know what to do.
“Don’t move.” Ning Ning shushed him. “Don’t speak.”
Li Shan Zhu stayed rooted on the spot obediently, letting her slowly apply the lip balm on his lips as she pleased.
“Done.” She retracted her hand with a smile after a moment. “The weather is too dry, your lips were chapped. Alright, I’ll go take a shower.“
“Oh, oh…” Li Shan Zhu answered inattentively. His eyes were following Ning Ning’s figure uncontrollably, watching as she grabbed the pajamas and underwear that she had just bought before walking towards the bathroom. She suddenly turned around when she was halfway there and tossed something at him, “Catch.”
Li Shan Zhu reached out and caught it reflexively.
He looked down, it was a tube of lip balm.
“A gift for you.” Ning Ning said.
Li Shan Zhu held the lip balm with both his hands—as if he was holding an imperial edict from the emperor, a goddess’ feather coat, the jar of pure water and willow leaf bestowed by Guanyin1. That almost pious look from being practically overwhelmed by an unexpected favour was truly cute and laughable, Ning Ning could not help but smile at him before turning around to walk into the bathroom.
This was Zhang Xin Ai, every cent of her money had to be spent on something worthy, it had to let the other party feel her affection, it had to let the other party feel like they had gained something, it had to let the other like her more.
Just like Li Shan Zhu right now.
When he would think back on this day in the future, he would definitely not remember getting his wallet wrung dry and the hardship he undertook in cleaning up the place. What he would remember—what he would remember the most—would only be the lip balm in his hand.
Water was spraying out of the showerhead like a heavy rain. Ning Ning met this rain head on, sweeping her hair behind her head with both her hands and sighing in her heart. “That’s just like a boy experiencing his first love…that tube of lip balm was only fifty dollars2.”
A phone suddenly rang outside, it was Ning Ning’s phone.
Her heart skipped a beat. She hoped that the person who was calling was not Big Brother Hai, Little Ke or any of her lovers. She frantically turned off the showerhead and shouted, “Shan Zhu, help me bring my phone to me.”
The ringing was getting closer, finally arriving outside of the bathroom door. A crack slowly opened up, a hand holding a phone carefully squeezed through.
“Thanks.” Ning Ning desperately grabbed the phone out of his hands. Afraid that he would hear her conversation, she turned on the showerhead again, the pitter-patter of the fine rain was hitting the floor. She answered the phone, “Hello.”
“It’s me.” Pei Xuan’s voice rang out from the other side.
…The person who was the hardest to send away had appeared!
“You actually still dare call me?” Ning Ning took a deep breath. “The police are looking for you everywhere.”
“Then, are you hoping that they’ll find me?” Pei Xuan asked.
“…Of course.” Ning Ning said coldly, “Did you know how much trouble you have brought me by killing someone at my house?”
“Heh heh. After not meeting for a few years, your method in incriminating people had improved.” Pei Xuan began to laugh, Ning Ning could not figure out whether he was praising her or mocking her. “Your guts have grown a lot too, you actually went through with it and killed Crew-Cut.”
“What are you talking about?” Ning Ning was shocked by his accusation. “You were the one who killed him!‘
“I did not. I have finally gotten out of prison, I wouldn’t want to immediately go back in again.” Pei Xuan said leisurely, “Besides, you should be very clear on what kind of person I am… If I wanted to kill a person, I would typically not do it myself.”
Ning Ning thought back on it, that seemed to really be the case.
Ever since this fellow started having lackeys, he would let someone else do all his dirty works. Moreover, he had not killed anyone himself proactively, not because he had mellowed, but because…he had grown more knowledgeable from being educated—he knew that the crime for killing someone was too big, so he would not do it himself. If there was a need for it, he would get someone else to do it.
“…Alright, I should get on the train.” Pei Xuan said, “This should be our last phone call, Little Ai. Take care of yourself.”
“Wait!” Ning Ning shouted frantically, “What do you mean take care of myself, do you know something?”
The train started to choo choo, along with another ear piercing ka-cha, it sounded like Pei Xuan had casually tossed his phone on the train tracks and had it crushed under the wheel.
Why he made this call, Ning Ning was not sure. Maybe he just wanted to catch up, or maybe he wanted to see if she was the actual murderer. If what he had said was true, if neither of them were the murderers, then who was it?
Once she was done with her shower in a hurry and changed into her pajamas, Ning Ning used her new towel to dry her hair as she looked at Li Shan Zhu who was sitting across from her. “It’s already late, are you not returning to school yet?”
Li Shan Zhu took a look out of the window awkwardly.
Ning Ning followed his line of sight. Heavy rain splashed on the window, a lightning abruptly flashed across the sky like a dragon or a snake slithering among the dark clouds.
“You’re already an adult, you’re actually still scared of thunder?” Ning Ning ridiculed him.
“That’s not it.” Li Shan Zhu retorted frantically as if he was afraid of being looked down at by her, “I just, I just wanted to wait for the rain to stop before leaving.”
“Okay, okay, I believe you.” Ning Ning snickered. She walked into the kitchen to pour water for herself.
All of a sudden, thunder crashed. The hand she was using to pour water shuddered, causing water to splatter on the table and flow down to the floor like a snake.
“Come to think of it..” Ning Ning continued to pour water, asking as if she had no other intention, “When I left with the police to record my testimony, the corpse was transported at the same time, how did you know…that he died in the bathroom?”
There was silence behind her.
There was only the sound of the water poured by her along with the rain splashing on the window.
“…The water is spilling over.” Li Shan Zhu’s voice suddenly rang out behind her. It was so close, she could even feel his breath on her neck, giving her goosebumps.
Ning Ning frantically put down the water jug then looked down at the glass that was filled with water. The transparent glass had colourful reflections, it was tainted with her colour, as well as his.
“…It was the police who told me.” Li Shan Zhu said from her side, “Maybe he was a rookie, that was why he was not tight-lipped and accidentally leaked the location of the corpse to me.”
“Is that so?” Ning Ning slowly turned her head and smiled at Li Shan Zhu who was behind her. “To leak such a thing, that rookie must be really new.”
Li Shan Zhu smiled along with her, it was still the same innocuous smile.
“…Ah.” Ning Ning suddenly turned and looked out of the window. “The rain seems to have stopped.”
She opened the window and reached out to catch the rain, then nodded in confirmation to Li Shan Zhu. “The rain has stopped, you can go back to school now.”
Li Shan Zhu looked like he couldn’t bear to leave, but he still obediently listened to her. “Alright, I’ll be going. Big Sister Little Ai, you must be tired from today, have an early night.”
Ning Ning, “Alright, good night.”
Li Shan Zhu, “Good night.”
After she watched him leave, Ning Ning did not leave the doorway. She put her eye on the peephole and stared at him as he walked down the stairs, then waited for another ten minutes before she went into the bedroom and changed into clothes for going out. She then reached out and pulled on the door to the entrance.
The door handle clacked as she pulled on it, but the door in front of her did not move.
…Li Shan Zhu had locked the door from the outside…
“Hello.” Ning Ning gave Li Shan Zhu a call, she said unhappily, “Did you lock the door?”
“That’s right.” Li Shan Zhu admitted frankly, his tone was innocent and caring. “You’re a woman living alone, I am afraid of your safety, so I locked the door for you… What’s the matter? What are you going out this late for?”
“…It’s nothing,” Ning Ning said, “I wanted to go downstairs to buy something.”
“What are you missing?” Li Shan Zhu said gently, “I’ll come back and get it for you.”
Ning Ning, “Tampons.”
“T, t, t…” Li Shan Zhu used a voice akin to a mosquito’s and said, “…Hold on.”
He had not gone far at all. He reappeared in front of Ning Ning five minutes later with blushing cheeks, stuffing a plastic bag in her arms, inside were a few packs of tampons.
“Alright. It’s fine now, you should quickly go back to school, otherwise the dormitory entrance is going to be locked up.”
“Alright, I’m leaving.” Li Shan Zhu said with a smile.
Was he really leaving?
After she switched off the lights in the living room and bedroom, Ning Ning did not immediately go to bed. She tiptoed to the window and quietly pulled the curtain open a little, looking towards downstairs.
Li Shan Zhu was standing at the foot of the building, looking up at her with a smile.
She quickly pulled the curtain back and dove into her blanket.
She did not sleep that night, she had her eyes opened almost through the entire night.
It was Friday, the date was 16th July 2004.
Two days away from Zhang Xin Ai’s death.
1Guanyin is the Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion. She was first given the appellation of “Goddess of Mercy” or the Mercy Goddess by Jesuit missionaries in China. The Chinese name Guanyin is short for Guanshiyin, which means “[The One Who] Perceives the Sounds of the World. Wiki link
2This is 50 Chinese Yuan which equates to 7.65usd at the moment.