"Du Yunning, is that Mrs. Yuan?"
Yue Dingtang raised his head with a suitable amount of surprise and curiosity on his face.
Mr. Li sighed, "It is. Mrs. Yuan comes for afternoon tea when she has time, and now just over the New Year… Just now my staff already read the news to me, who knew that this would suddenly happen!"
Yue Dingtang: "How often do you and Mrs. Yuan meet?"
Mr. Li: "She was a very reserved lady. We've talked a few times, but we don't have a deep relationship."
Yue Dingtang: "We are currently conducting a social survey, which includes content related to Shanghai's public security. We happened to come across Mrs. Yuan's case. Do you mind if we talk to you about it?"
Mr. Li: "No problem. My son and daughter-in-law are in Nanyang. I have no relatives or acquaintances here. I was just about to have a reunion dinner with the guys. You can ask whatever you want."
Yue Dingtang looked at Ling Shu and handed him the notebook.
"Little Yang, come help me take notes."
He was treating Ling Shu like his assistant.
Ling Shu: ...
He wiped his mouth and reluctantly took out a pen.
"Sure! But, Old Yue, you have to hurry. Your wife is waiting for you at home. If you don't go home on New Year's Eve, your knees will be swollen from kneeling when you wake up tomorrow."
Yue Dingtang: ...
He forced himself to suppress the twisted corners of his mouth and looked at Mr. Li with a serious expression.
"When was the last time you talked to Mrs. Yuan?"
"The day before yesterday."
That was the last time Du Yunning and Ling Shu met.
The two of them exchanged glances.
"What did you and Mrs. Yuan talk about? Was her mood different from usual?"
Mr. Li thought for a while, "It seemed like it wasn't."
Yue Dingtang: "She wasn't unhappy, or sorrowful and depressed, or complaining to you?"
Mr. Li shook his head. "I saw that Mrs. Yuan was in a very good mood that day. She told me that when she comes here, the thing she likes the most is strawberry cake. She only wants to eat it when she's in a good mood. That day she ordered one and took one home."
Ling Shu: "Was there anything else?"
Mr. Li: "No, that's it."
Ling Shu: "When Mrs. Yuan comes here, other than me, has she had any other interactions with people?"
Mr. Li hesitated, "It seemed like there was someone else."
Ling Shu: "What was he like?"
Mr. Li: "He was well-mannered and gentlemanly."
Ling Shu: "Was he wearing glasses?"
Mr. Li thought for a while, "He should have been."
Ling Shu: "Was he wearing a red western suit?"
Mr. Li awkwardly laughed, "I don't remember that. Sometimes I'm not in the shop and it's the guys who take care of the business. I don't always meet Mrs. Yuan. Shall I call them over and you can ask them?"
Ling Shu: "Sure. Please call the guys who are usually here during the day. It won't take them long. We just need to ask a few questions."
Mr. Li agreed and became a little confused.
"Gentlemen," said Mr. Li, "please forgive me for being so direct, but aren't you both teachers? Why do you seem to be asking about a case?"
Yue Dingtang gently said, "Social investigations involve all aspects, and there is no lack of case narratives. It's inevitable to ask more carefully. We have had a few connections with Mrs. Yuan, and it's quite regrettable to hear the bad news. We just came by to ask, in case we might be of help."
"I see," said the shopkeeper, nodding. He then went to call someone.
A tall and thin waiter soon arrived. He was wearing a uniform and had an honest face, ready to answer their questions.
"When Mrs. Yuan came, there was a man who often appeared with her. They would sit here for half a day and then leave together. I was on duty three times when this happened," he said.
Ling Shu and Du Yunning had met up three times as well. Ling Shu asked, "Could it have been me?"
The waiter looked him up and down, then shook his head. "It wasn't you. That gentleman often wore a red Western-style suit and glasses."
"What did they talk about?" asked Yue Dingtang.
The waiter shook his head, then said, "Once, when I brought them tea, I heard them talking about poetry. I'm not very educated, so I didn't understand what they were saying."
"What was his name and do you remember anything else about him?"
"He said his last name was Hong. He didn't mention anything else, but he looked like you two, so he must have been a cultured man."
Yue Dingtang and Du Yunning exchanged a glance. This was similar to what the tea shopkeeper had said. This meant that it was likely the same man.
A new character has emerged.
This matches their previous speculation.
So, this man is very likely the one who helped Du Yunning draft the inventory of assets.
Even more, the two may have a closer relationship.
"Is he a regular here?"
The waiter replied, "I've been working here for three years, from the previous owner to the current owner, Mr. Li. Mr. Li has been kind enough to keep me on. But I rarely saw Mr. Hong before."
Yue Dingtang asked, "So where does he live and work? Do you know?"
The waiter shook his head naturally.
He was just a random guest. Unless he was a celebrity like Du Yunning, how could others recognize him?
Yue Dingtang frowned, a little disappointed.
This was certainly a clue worth exploring, but if this Mr. Hong was really related to Du Yunning's death, once the news was released, he would definitely never show up in the area again. Moreover, he might even buy a ticket to leave town and disappear into the vast sea of people, leaving them completely helpless.
If this man was related to Du Yunning's death, then he wouldn't show up here again. He might even buy a ticket and leave the city, never to be seen again.
“Ah, that’s right!”
Suddenly, the waiter remembered something. "The last time it snowed, Mr. Hong had to leave. I called a taxi for him and heard him give the driver an address - 36 Hengtong Road."
Yue Dingtang and Ling Shu looked at each other.
That was the address of the Xiaoji Noodles restaurant. Two days ago, the owner, Old Xiao, had been implicated in the fire next door and burned alive in the restaurant.
Was this a coincidence, or was it intentional? What was the connection between Mr. Hong, Du Yunning, and Old Xiao?
Just then, Boss Li spoke up. "Gentlemen, it's getting late. If you wait too long, you won't be able to find a taxi."
The sky outside had gone completely dark, making it even colder outside.
Yue Dingtang checked his watch and realized they had to leave.
"Thank you for your hospitality," he said. "We'll come back to apologize after the New Year for bothering you."
The other foreign customers had already left.
"It’s not a bother at all, anyway I’ll be spending my New Year’s here. After the New Year’s, our cafe will be taking a short break. If you like it here," said the shopkeeper, "then come back after that."
Yue Dingtang and Ling Shu made their way to the entrance.
The driver was still waiting outside.
"Big Sister must be waiting for you to go home for the reunion dinner. You can go home first and then let’s talk about it in a couple days," Yue Dingtang said.
He called her “Big Sister” in such a warm and affectionate tone that Ling Shu had to swallow his complaints.
"We should strike while the iron is hot. Who knows what might happen in two days? We can't risk our lives for the reunion dinner; let's go straight to Hengtong Road," he said, before getting into the car.
The area around Hengtong Road was a mix of old and new houses. In the night, the different colors of the buildings were not so distinct. However, the lights from all the houses lit up the street. The smell of steamed fish and rice cakes drifted in the air, giving the night of New Year's Eve a festive atmosphere.
The fish and pork were only lightly seasoned, almost tasteless. For ordinary people, having a dish of steamed pork and rice cake on the table during the New Year was already considered a feast. Eating lobster and steak, like they just did, was a luxury they could hardly imagine.
Most of the buildings here were residential, with a few stores. They were all old-fashioned stores, run by generations of the same family, relying on word-of-mouth from regulars.
The country was in turmoil, with some places still in war. Although Shanghai was relatively peaceful, people could still see the smoke from the newspapers. Except for the passionate young people and intellectuals who were worried about the country, most ordinary people were still living their daily lives, following the same routine.
However, there were two exceptions in this festive atmosphere of New Year's Eve.
These were the two houses that had been destroyed by fire.
One of them was the Xiaoji Noodles shophouse that Ling Shu often visited.
"The man in the house where the fire started was originally a laborer at the dock. He injured his leg when he was carrying goods and could only do some light work at home, such as stuffing cotton. His wife was good at embroidery and often brought fabric from outside to embroider. So their house was full of cotton and fabric, which were highly flammable," Yue Dingtang said as they walked to No. 36 Hengtong Road.
"According to the investigation, it is likely that their child was playing with fire and the adults were asleep and didn't notice it in time, resulting in the fire spreading quickly. They were all burned to death, and even Xiaoji Noodles next door was affected," he continued.
"That doesn't make sense," Ling Shu said, stopping in his tracks. "Poor people usually don't light lamps at night to save money, so it's unlikely they had matches or candles or even oil lamps. Even if their child found matches in the middle of the night, why didn't the couple or the boss of the noodle shop escape?"
Author's note: If you have any unused nutrition drinks, feel free to send them my way. They expire in two days.
Unrelated to the main story —
Yue Dingtang: Where did I get a wife from?
Ling Shu: When did I become your assistant?
Yue Dingtang: You will eventually have to call me boss.
Ling Shu: You will eventually have to call me husband.
Yue Dingtang: ...
Realizing what he said, Ling Shu turned around and yelled, "Director, the script is wrong!"