Beauty is often a facade...
Laid side by side, where the rows of two-storied Victorian brick houses stood. Inconspicuous, yet the average settings were often the most mysterious, for no one cared to look beyond the beds of roses and ivy.
While most staff reside at the University housing, there are a few exceptions. Like Professor Shen, Zhang Rounan also has her own off-campus residence. Located a short drive from Dragon University, her home was among the red brick and white doors, identical save for a few scattered shrubs. Black iron gates established the divides. Enough for privacy, but not so much that neighbors couldn’t hear the other side. For what lies behind these entrances one may never be sure, but the words of gossipers are like baited lures.
After a couple of knocks a few houses down, it was revealed that Wang Yike did indeed stay with Zhang during her impromptu sabbatical. From what the Team had gathered, the residents had not seen Professor Zhang for quite some time. Although she may be reserved, Zhang was always courteous and friendly. Wang seemed to be the only person coming and going the past few months.
The final decision was made to wait.
Once Wang Yike departed, Da Qing was told to follow her, grudgingly so. The cat was not at all pleased to leave, but with Chu and Guo busy watching over Li Qian, he didn’t have a choice. Understaffed as they were, especially now that Zhu Hong still hadn’t returned from her trip.
Professor Shen rung the bell, but there was no answer, nor could a sound behind the door be heard. His uneasiness grew the more time passed. Without a word, Zhao pulled out a set of tools, hunched down and started working on the locks.
“What are you doing?” Shen questioned with a slight hint of disapproval in his tone.
“Breaking in. Can’t you tell?” Zhao answered cheerfully. No doubt he’s grinning right now from being able to partake in some lawbreaking activities.
Despite his reservations, the Professor turned around and blocked Zhao’s actions from the street view. He was thankful for the abundance of vegetation that partially shielded them from the streets, as the passersby did not have a full view of the porch.
Although bemused, the Professor chastised, “This isn’t our protocol. She’s not a suspect.”
“I don’t follow protocols. Besides, you’ve been worrying since the drive here. Do you know you have a tendency to clench your fist twice whenever you’re anxious? You want to know what happened to your colleague more so than any of the rest of us. There!” Zhao removed his tools. Rising, he pushed the door opened. “Let’s make sure she’s not locked up in a dungeon, shall we?”
“Who taught you that skill?” Shen asked, with a tone of mild interest. As they stepped into the threshold, a familiar earthy scent filled their nostrils. Like an old library, neither cold nor warm, the air felt stagnant, untouched.
“An old friend of mine from the back-alley. But picking locks wasn’t the only skill I learned from him.” Purposely leaning towards Shen, Zhao casually proposed, “If you want to know more, we can discuss it over drinks.”
“I don’t drink.”
“I’ll teach you.”
Ignoring the Wolf’s offer that would probably lead to no good intentions, Shen returned to the business at hand. “Professor Zhang?”
As expected, there was no answer. Even though SID do not follow regular regulations- such as not entering without a warrant- still, they were two men in a female’s home. The reserved Professor was still contemplating the best way to tackle the situation when Zhao disappeared up the stairways, sniffing around like the stray he was. Forcing Shen to follow suit. Once he reached the second floor, Zhao strolled passed a few doors until he was stopped short by an opened entrance.
A dark expression crossed Zhao’s face before he spoke. “Does Professor Zhang live with an elderly mother?”
“Of course not.” The Professor rushed over quickly, then paused, “But you already knew that.” His uneasiness grew; he hurriedly entered the room.
Under the covers, long grey hair could be seen. There lied an elderly woman, with dark aged skin and slow breaths. She barely looked alive. Shen took in her aged appearance as he closed the distance between them. He tried to remember the last day he saw Zhang leaving his office, with barely a wrinkle around her eyes. Yet...There was no doubt this was Professor Zhang. Shen immediately checked her pulse on her neck. Weak, as it were, but still beating. Only then did Shen realize he was holding his breath.
“That’s her, isn’t it?” Zhao voiced from behind, a detachment that could not be ignored. “Just like the other cases, but at least she seems to be alive.”
“How did you….” Shen’s words were barely spoken when the person on the bed began to stir but quickly fell back into unconsciousness. “Professor Zhang?” He shook her shoulder gently. There was no response. Fear racked his nerves, as guilt began to grow. Was he too late again? How many lives would it take?
“She needs to be at a hospital.” Zhao once again pulled him back to the present. The man was unusually quiet, had hunched down next to the bed, observing, collecting data with his eyes and ears. Shen realized Zhao’s presence was able to ease him back out of his self-imposed guilt.
For a brief moment, the two silent men gazed at the frail woman. Time was of the essence, knowing Wang Yike could return at any time. With Zhang’s condition, it would be best for her to receive treatment, for the time being. They needed answers from Zhang, and more importantly, from Wang, the most likely suspect in the previous unsolved case. When crimes involve partners, the best tactic is to keep them apart during interrogation.
“I’ll stay here for Wang,” Zhao volunteered as he stood up. “You should settle your colleague at SID.”
The Professor grabbed his upper arm as he turned around. “You shouldn’t be here alone.”
“Is that an order? Or...Are you worried about me?” Zhao glanced at Shen’s hand, who quickly removed it.
“SID protocol doesn’t allow solo acts,” the Professor explained, “It’s for everyone’s safety.”
“You know I am not just anyone.” He gave a knowing smile at Shen’s attempt to deflect.
“You’re part of SID now, which makes you my responsibility.”
Thankfully, the Wolf didn’t argue further. After confirming with Da Qing of Wang’s whereabouts, Shen contacted Lin Jing. Thus, a half an hour later, Lin Jing came with a two-person medical team. Carefully, they transferred Zhang to their vehicle and left as quickly as they arrived. Once Professor Zhang was gone, they inspected the house for further evidence.
Leaving no stone untouched, or more accurately, going wherever the Wolf’s nose took him, the man even went through Zhang’s fridge. Zhao pulled out a jar with dark red liquid. He shook his head and passed the jar to Shen. “We should’ve swept this place first before Lin Jing took her away.”
Shen took a sniff of the liquid, a metallic odor. “Blood?”
There were no signs the victims had their blood taken. Given Professor Zhang’s condition, she was too weak to have her blood removed.
“Have you noticed Wang wore a red sweater? No matter the weather.”
Shen’s eye widened at the comment, as he placed the bottle back in the fridge. Leave it to this Wolf to remember what women wear. After they finished sweeping the house for other evidence, the men settled in the living room. As they waited for the Wang’s return, Shen started to notice Zhao’s habits. Although the man never seemed to stop talking at times, there were moments he closed himself off from his surroundings. Calculative gazes absorbed everything with a fine observation. The man may have a will of his own, but he was good at his job.
“You know, the more you look at me like that, you’re only giving me mixed messages,” Zhao cut into Shen’s inner thoughts. With his elbow on the sofa, the man leaned his head against his fist, with his gaze locked upon his observer. “It would save you time if you would ask what you needed to know.”
There are two kinds of Detectives. The one who focuses on deduction, while the latter focuses on human psychology. In both methods, one either has to learn, or experience. Zhao Yunlan, the Professor concluded, falls into both categories. Given what he had learned so far, this man only trusts what he sees.
And Shen wanted to know what he had seen. “How did you know about the previous cases?”
A cat is not a cat if it doesn't know its own tail. Specifically when one was being tailed…
It was his job…His duty. No one could track targets better than him. He may not be a dog, but he still knew his prey. Unlike Lao Chu, who stuck out like a sore thumb, especially with the deadly looks, who on several occasions had scared off even the police. Da Qing’s ability to blend in to his surroundings had always been his greatest attribute. From changing to his feline body, to tracking in his human body, even Zhu Jiu had to admit defeat.
However, today was different than the rest. Another figure was following him. A feline, perhaps? Her scent was overwhelming, just a touch of catnip in the air. She had tailed him since he started his mission. Beyond his better judgement, he allowed her to follow him for half a day’s time. Maybe she was the accomplice from the other crime, perhaps? At least, that’s what he tried to convince himself, until he realized...he had seen her before. This was not the first day she had followed him.
A spy she may be, but she was terrible at it. It took only a few decisive turns for Da Qing to be ahead of his follower. The young feline immediately stopped when he was out of sight. Da Qing could had let her be, but a part of him needed to know. Curiosity may kill the cat, but there was no issue when one is immortal.
Seconds later, he appeared behind his wayward feline spy. “Why are you following me?” Da Qing demanded to know, from the young woman in pink, who squeaked from his appearance.
Undeterred by the accusation, she quickly collected herself and shot back, “Why are you following me?”
“Excuse me? I'm ahead of you,” Da Qing laid out the obvious.
“No you're not,” the stubborn feline continued to battle despite being caught, “You were behind me.”
“In order to catch you in the act. Of course, I have to be behind you…,” Da Qing hissed.
“Catch me? Are you in heat?” She accused out of thin air.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” Da Qing's mind began to explode with anger for the first time in his thousand years of celibacy. “I am not in heat!”
“Then, why are you chasing after me?” She arched her head innocently, deliberately, like he was the one being caught red handed.
“For the last time, you are the one who followed me!”
As the two cats continued to argue who was following who, unbeknownst to them, a dark figure in red with black leather gloves slipped away.
There are two types of predators, the one who attacks as soon as the prey is in sight, while the other awaits for the right moment to strike.
But this man who sat across from him, exuded more than an air of quiet aloofness. Professor Shen had always given the aura of someone who would bide his time. Something behind those spectacles reminded Zhao this could all be a facade of given signs. From his experience, obsession with control, often as not is found in those who can’t handle life without self imposed inhibition. The longer one restrained their primal nature, the more dangerous they became.
Given the chance, this sheep could be a wolf in disguise.
“Anything that is kept buried will eventually surface; it’s only a matter of time,” Zhao shrugged easily before continuing, “There’s a serial killer who steals lifeforce, aging its victims until the last drop. As much as SID tried to hide it, the body count kept climbing.” Zhao’s brow furrowed, gazing at Professor Shen meaningfully. “Even though you refuse to bring it up, these murders started soon after your colleague took her extended leave. You knew she was connected. That’s why you asked for the books.”
“Nothing seems to get past you,” the corner of Shen’s mouth pulled slightly, but not enough to bring a smile. He seemed irritated at the knowledge. Zhao saw the exact moment his defenses rose, subtle as they may be, but those long lashes never failed to flicker when he came close to the facts.
“Yet, you’re still reclusive as ever,” the Wolf chuckled slightly at the response. Rising from the couch, he approached the man behind the lenses. “Now tell me, what is your relationship with her?”
“How long have you known each other?” Zhao settled himself on the coffee table, facing his partner.
“Since I started to work at the University,” Shen answered stiffly, “Are you suspecting me?”
“I only want confirmation. Even when taking over SID, you still kept your part time job. Was it because of her?” Zhao asked the gnawing question that kept him up the previous night. “You waited, even though you had your suspicions.”
“She’s not a Dixing,” the Professor countered.
“But her Lover is…,” Zhao argued as he leaned forward. “And you chose to ignore the signs. Why?”
“There was no evidence at the time Wang could be the killer. There were no such records of her past that would lead us to believe she was out to harm others. Although the girl is antisocial, she has never shown a violent side. Before, she had always been fearful of others. With no close friends or family, it was Zhang who took her under her wings.”
“Relations between Dixing and Haixing are forbidden. Even though the laws are lax at the present, but as the Head of SID, you turned a blind eye to them,” Zhao reminded the Professor, not because he disagreed, but because he wanted to know. “Which makes me wonder if she’s the reason why you remain at the University despite your real job. Is Zhang the reason why you’re unattached?”
Unfazed by the accusations, his calm demeanor remained. Shen adjusted his glasses before he spoke, “I never knew the Wolf had such a wild imagination. However, if you plan to be a novelist, I suggest you should come up with logical plotlines. Because I doubt your story would sell.”
Amused by his jest, the Wolf couldn’t help but change tactic. “Do you want to become my muse?”
“A muse is someone who could inspire. I’m just an ordinary Professor.”
“Ordinary?” Zhao sneered at the word. Does this man never look at himself? Or wonder why his class has an unusual number of females?