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“When’s your birthday?” An Xiaoning asked.

After a moment of hesitation, Dong Hai answered, “I was born on the 17th of May.”

An Xiaoning pretended to gasp in shock. “Wow, May is the warmest month of summer! Were you born in the day or at night?”

“Hmm… I think it was 3 o’clock in the morning. How about you?”

“I was adopted at a young age. My foster parents have never told me when I was born, and I’ve never celebrated my birthday before,” said An Xiaoning, feigning ignorance.

“You were adopted?” he asked in surprise.

“Yes, I was adopted, that’s why I don’t know my exact birth date,” An Xiaoning said with a sigh.

Upon exiting the plaza, she asked, “Where are we going?”

“My place. Are you up for it? We’re getting along better than I had imagined,” he said, staring at her.

A smile formed on An Xiaoning’s face as she gazed at him shyly like a teenage girl. “Your place? What if your parents are at home?”

“No, I’m living alone without my parents,” he answered, shaking his head.

“Alright then, I’ll go have a look at your place. But you have to send me back at 9 o’clock sharp,” said An Xiaoning as she took a look at the time.

“Sure.”

An Xiaoning cocked her head slightly towards the side and caught sight of Ma Jianguo’s car parked at a distance away, after which she continued to follow Dong Hai to the apartment he had rented.

“Have you had any girlfriends before?” she asked curiously.

Shaking his head, he denied, “No I haven’t, I’m broke and I don’t have a house or car, no one would want to date me.”

“What’s wrong with that? Those superficial things are far less important than a genuine personality,” said An Xiaoning, acting as if she didn’t mind that he was penniless.

A smile formed on his face upon hearing her words. “Girls like you who think that way are hard to come by these days.”

The two chatted along the journey and finally arrived at his apartment. “You’re a brave one. Many girls wouldn’t dare to follow a stranger to his house at night,” said Dong Hai, chuckling as he opened the door.

“Who said so? Many girls are just as daring as I am. But, I doubt you’re a crook. How long have you been living here?” An Xiaoning retorted.

“Hmm, I’ve been living here for more than two years.”

Nodding along, she continued, “It’s such a secluded area though, the streets are all barely lit. How dilapidated indeed.”

There were no street lamps in sight, let alone surveillance cameras.

An Xiaoning could not help but find that to be a major loophole that the culprit must have taken advantage of.

“It’s indeed rather secluded, but there’s nothing for me to be afraid of since I’m a man. The main reason I chose to live here is because of the cheap rent. Well, I don’t quite have a choice since I only earn a little more than two thousand dollars a month, barely enough to cover my living expenses. In this city where the cost of living is so high, such a meager amount is only enough to make ends meet,” Dong Hai said candidly.

“I don’t think so, you can save a ton by cooking your own meals.”

As soon as he switched on the lights, An Xiaoning scanned her surroundings to see that it was an old and shabby apartment. However, it was rather clean and tidy, though there was very little furniture.

An Xiaoning discovered a strange, damp odor in the room, as well as a pile of long rope scattered on the ground beneath the table.

An Xiaoning entered the room while remaining cautious and asked, “What do you work as?”

“I work at a food production factory nearby. I don’t have any chairs here, you may proceed to sit on the bed.”

An Xiaoning nodded and sat right down on the bed, not giving away any clues about her real identity at all.

“There aren’t many beverages in my house. Here, have this,” said Dong Hai, handing her a bottled beverage he took out from a carton on the ground.

“Is there a washroom here? I’ve had too much water earlier,” An Xiaoning asked.

“Let me show you the way,” said Dong Hai as he walked towards a small door while An Xiaoning followed closely behind. He then waited for her outside the washroom with a torchlight in hand.

A pungent odor infiltrated An Xiaoning’s senses as soon as she stepped foot inside the washroom, which was obviously a public restroom.

Unable to tolerate the overwhelming stench any longer, An Xiaoning locked the door from inside and hurriedly sent Ma Jianguo a text message.

She then guided herself out of the pitch-dark washroom using the flashlight of her mobile phone, pinching her nose in disgust.

Finally, she took a deep breath and inhaled some fresh air. Sensing someone approaching her, An Xiaoning shone her flashlight around to have a look, only to realize that it was Zu Dong, who was dressed in plain clothes.

“It’s freezing out here, get back inside,” said Dong Hai.

“Alright.”

Dong Hai led the way back while An Xiaoning slowed down on purpose and lagged behind him, just so he would not notice that she had left the door to his apartment slightly ajar.

They then sat down on the bed while he turned on the television. “Have some,” he said, handing her the bottled beverage again.

“I’m not thirsty.”

Seeing that she was not keen, Dong Hai did not continue to pressure her and instead said, “Tell me honestly, were you disappointed when you saw that I was nothing like you had expected?”

“Nothing of that sort. If I were disappointed, I wouldn’t have agreed to follow you here to your apartment. Besides, we’re just friends who met online, we’re not a couple yet. I haven’t quite thought about those actually.”

Dong Hai turned to look at her and said, “I liked you since the very moment I first laid my eyes on you at the plaza. You’re really pretty, and I’ve never seen anyone as beautiful as you are. In fact, many celebrities can’t hold a torch to you.”

An Xiaoning looked down and pretended to be shy, though she had known clearly what he was up to. “I guess it’s time for me to go. Otherwise, my family is going to be worried.”

“Um, can I call you Rui’er?” he asked, reaching out to grab her hand all of a sudden.

“You may address me that way, but could you please let go of my hand?” she said, trying to retract her hand but to no avail, as he had tightened his grip.

“Would you agree to be my girlfriend?” Dong Hai asked, staring at her intensely.

Keeping her eyes fixed on him, An Xiaoning replied, “And what if I don’t?”

“Then I’m not letting you leave.”

“Alright, I agree then. Can you send me back now?”

“Do you mean it? Why do I have a feeling you’re just brushing me off so you can leave?” he asked apprehensively.

“You won’t let me leave regardless of whether I agree or not. Just what do you want me to do? Besides, it’s only the first time we’re meeting, how much progress do you expect us to make?” An Xiaoning asked, pursing her lips.

“Don’t go home tonight.” As soon as he finished speaking, Dong Hai leaned in, in an attempt to embrace her forcefully. However, An Xiaoning managed to dodge quickly and hurriedly escaped.

He quickly got up and chased after her, but he was stopped by Zu Dong as soon as he stepped out of the door. The latter then let out a yell, after which Ma Jianguo and Gong Le quickly appeared and pinned Dong Hai onto the ground, restraining him with handcuffs.

An Xiaoning heaved a huge sigh of relief and instructed coldly, “Bring him back.”

“What rights have you got to arrest me? I didn’t break the law, let go of me!” Dong Hai hollered at An Xiaoning as he was picked up forcefully.

“Save your explanation for when you arrive at the police station,” said An Xiaoning as she turned around to enter the rented apartment, Ma Jianguo hurriedly catching up with her.

Dong Hai was seated in between Zu Dong and Gong Le in the back seat, his hands trembling uncontrollably.

An Xiaoning and Ma Jianguo did not manage to find anything suspicious in the room. After all, it had already been more than a year since the murder took place — all traces of evidence would long have been destroyed.

After switching off the lights and television, the two then closed the door and returned to the police car. Ma Jianguo took over the wheel while An Xiaoning rode in the passenger seat.