Greetings! We are back in business after an extended Chinese New Year break.
We kick off the Year of the Pig with our first piece from The Livings, web portal Netease’s nonficton platform.
Writing under a pseudonym, a Chinese cop recalls a whirlwind homicide investigation that sends him and his colleagues scrambling across town over the course of a cold winter night.
The tongue-in-cheek account—perhaps a bit too light-hearted considering a life was lost—is vivid in detail and noteworthy for its colorful descriptions of local police camaraderie and culture, which apparently includes a slight obsession with food.
The following story written under the pseudonym Salty Fish first appeared in Chinese in The Livings, a division of Netease News. (WeChat: thelivings)
When Midnight Homicide Hits, Instant Noodles Must Wait
Criminal investigation resembles an old movie that recycles cliched tropes. Come midnight, a special plot line always emerges.
Ring! Ring! The piercing pitch of the telephone woke the duty squad from our deep slumber.
Ding Sen rubbed his eyes as he ditched his comforter, turned on the lights and grabbed the receiver in a daze.
His opening greeting of “hello” was followed by an extended yawn, but the message that came through dashed the last of his languor.
“There’s been a big brawl at Bedazzled Ice Rink by the Ziyou Road pedestrian area. One person died at the hospital and multiple wounded.”
F*ck, I’m really a magnet for midnight murders!
When Ding Sen put down the receiver, he glanced at the clock in the duty squad lounge. Both hands pointed to 12.
“What’s up?” Squad leader Gui Feng and I also shed our blankets. It was custom for the criminal investigation team to retire early on quiet nights, so we had enough energy to cope if something went down in the wee hours.
“There was a big brawl at a rink at the pedestrian area. I think there’s been a casualty already. Such bad luck! How come there’s a homicide whenever I’m on duty?” Ding Sen grumbled.
“So be it. It’s no big deal. If a homicide happened, let’s solve it.” Gui Feng sounded every bit the seasoned investigator he was.
I laughed and joked, “Haven’t you lived up to your reputation? As soon as you join our shift, you bring us a homicide.”
Ding Sen was considered a veteran. He joined the force three years before I did and criminal investigation a year ahead of me. He was meticulous and a talented investigator. His only weakness was that he was prone to complain, which prompted his fellow squad members to coin a nickname that was a pun on his real name: “Ding Sen Jing,” or “Crazy Ding.”
Later on, because he tended to come across the most unusual deaths and draw the most homicides, folks called him “Thunderbolt Beibei,” after the literal translation of the 1988 mainland Chinese children’s movie Wonder Boy.
“Bei” means bad luck in Chinese. The wordplay caught on. As a courtesy, folks only used the nickname in context, so Ding Sen never got upset.
Ding Sen had a conflicting appointment the day before yesterday, so he switched shifts with one of our squad members. Lo and behold, a homicide happened on his new shift. Looks like he’ll be getting grief over his nickname again for some time now.
We notified the duty forensic doctor and technicians, as well as our commanding officer, Chief Huang, then set off for the crime scene together.
It was already nearly 1 a.m. by the time we left the station. Even though our town boasts a vibrant nightlife, it was already winter and the cold weather had already driven most residents back into their warm beds.
The pedestrian area was largely empty apart from our squad. Bedazzled Ice Rink was located centrally in the pedestrian area. It was dead when we arrived.
We summoned the manager of the rink. He told us that two youngsters got into an argument at around 11 p.m. for reasons that were unclear. One of them pulled out his phone and ordered the person on the other end to gather the troops, proclaiming he wanted to “take down” the other young man.
He then pointed at the other man and said, “Stick around if you have the guts. Let’s duke it out downstairs.”
Not wanting to appear weak, the other man also got on his phone. About 10 minutes later, two parties arrived in succession.
Initially, they exchanged insults before breaking into a scuffle. After trading a round of blows, the group in a defensive position fled and their attackers followed. The fight continued to unfold until reaching a dark corner.
Another 10 minutes later, one of the two groups left. Soon the manager saw an ambulance arrive. Medics carried a person who seemed badly injured to the back. A few others climbed into the vehicle.
“That’s when I called the police,” the manager said.
At that point, officers from the downtown station that alerted us to the homicide also arrived and briefed us on their follow-up.
After receiving the call from the ice rink manager, the entire station was deployed to the hospital—apart from a lone officer who stuck around to field calls—so that they could nail down the facts of the case as soon as possible.
But the officers were still too late. The heavily injured man died on arrival at the hospital despite rescue attempts.
Chief Huang immediately dispatched our squad and the forensic doctor to the hospital. He also ordered officers from the downtown station to secure the crime scene and assist the technicians who were canvassing the scene. Other officers were asked to reach out to neighboring store owners about security cameras in the vicinity, to see if they could obtain clear footage of the incident.
After deciding on assignments, Chief Huang pulled out his mobile phone and started making calls. Odds are the folks on the other end were secretly cursing. Naturally, they could only keep their gripes to themselves.
The No. 1 Municipal Hospital was glowing in the dark. By the time we arrived, the deceased had already been covered with a white sheet. We pulled his medical chart, which said that the victim was stabbed near his spine with a sharp object and died of excessive bleeding.
The deceased was a 17-year-old boy who wore raggedy jeans and sported a weird hairdo. A large knife wound featured prominently on his back. The bleeding had already stopped but the fresh wound still looked nasty.
Two others who rode along to the hospital also suffered stab wounds. The fellow I interviewed was called Li Xing. He was dressed quite unusually and had a funky haircut. His left forearm was stabbed in the fight.
During the interview, he kept cursing his attacker’s mother, maintaining a facetious and evasive front throughout.
“If you don’t handle this right, you better believe I’ll skin you all!” he kept threatening. I worked hard to contain my utter disgust as I took notes.
Initially, I thought there was a deeper reason behind the fight like a dead father or a stolen wife. But the truth blew my mind. It turns out it simply came down to two groups bumping into each other while ice skating.
I was worried that Li Xing might be lying, but his story actually squared with my colleagues’ notes. I couldn’t help but lament to myself:
It wasn’t easy for your parents to give birth to you and raise you—and yet you lose your life so randomly over such a trivial matter. It really wasn’t worth it.
At that point, Ding Sen had also finished conducting an interview. He rubbed his stomach and blurted, “Boy, I’m hungry. I could really use a bowl of noodles.”
His comment set off a chain reaction. Quite a few of our colleagues who were called in on their night off also started airing their displeasure. “Thunderbolt Beibei, we’re all here because of you. The least you could do is treat us to a meal, right?”
I glanced at my clock. It was already 2 a.m. We were justifiably hungry after all that work, but where to find food at this hour?
Ding Sen had been eyeing the vending machine at the hospital for some time now. The instant cup noodles clearly stoked his appetite. But all the nurses were already off-duty and a water dispenser was nowhere to be found in the hallway.
Without hot water, we could only pass on the cup noodles. In the end we bought a few packs of crackers and several bottles of water from the vending machine and made do.
Ding Sen collected our notebooks and examined them individually.
You had to hand it to him. A veteran was a veteran. Ding Sen quickly made a list of questions addressing issues that were overlooked in our notes and passed them on.
Although we goofed around at work, we were conscientious when it came to work, especially on a homicide, which demanded rigorous standards of evidence.
After handing out assignments, Ding Sen’s phone rang. It was Chief Huang. He said that officers from the downtown station had located a camera at a nearby storefront that recorded our suspects making their escape.
But the officers downtown had limited experience reviewing surveillance footage and the footage was quite disjointed. Ding Sen and company were needed immediately to lend a helping hand.
When we arrived, a junior officer wearing shoulder insignia indicating trainee rank was fidgeting with an old monitor.
Back then, Skynet, the massive video surveillance system now used throughout China, didn’t exist. We had to rely on the more rudimentary Safe City setup that drew from cameras situated some 100 or 200 meters apart. Coverage also didn’t extend to side streets.
The junior officer kept at it but couldn’t make sense of the video he pulled.
Chief Li, head of the downtown station, noticed our presence and greeted us effusively. “The experts are here. We have to count on you this time,” he said as he pulled two packs of Furongwang brand cigarettes from a pocket.
Ding Sen took one without hesitation, but I demurred. I came up the ranks at the downtown station, so accepting cigarettes from a former superior felt like a breach of protocol. But Chief Li insisted.
Ding Sen approached the young officer and tapped him on the shoulder, declaring:
Make way for big brother. Watch and learn.
He turned to me and added, “This young brother should look over my shoulder too. This is key to solving cases.”
On that note, he assumed his seat grandly, lifted his middle and index fingers and started gesturing. The junior officer got the message immediately. He pulled out a cigarette, handed it over and lit up. Ding Sen squinted as he took a long drag and lazily blew out a ring, then went to work.
The video quality was indeed quite shoddy. Many of the cameras on main roads were malfunctioning. With Ding Sen at the helm, our tracking efforts got off to an auspicious start.
We were able to track our suspects camera after camera. The junior officer was awestruck, pulling out a notebook and taking notes diligently.
But we lost our suspects after an intersection on Laodong Road. We pulled the feeds of several cameras nearby, but also came up empty.
Ding Sen pondered the matter briefly, pulled out a map and pointed to an alley near the intersection called Mofang Alley.
“They might be hiding here,” he said.
“Couldn’t that just be where they live?” I asked.
“Definitely not. This is a big crew and the manager of the rink said they were all speaking Putonghua, the national dialect, which means they aren’t locals. My guess is they’re migrant workers. I’ve canvassed Mofang Alley before. The residents are all locals, plus there aren’t that many buildings and it’s a small population. There are no rental flats. That’s why I’m positive that’s not where they live,” Ding Sen said.
“What now then?”
“Keep an eye on the closest camera. I bet they’ll show up sooner or later.”
Ding Sen was the real deal. About an hour into our vigil, the gang actually turned up. This time they weren’t running, strolling by the camera instead.
We counted a total of six suspects. Judging from their escape route, we were convinced they had no priors because they fled down a main road after the fight. You could tell they had panicked in a major way.
The next step was much easier. We tracked the crew on the cameras and followed them to a residential neighborhood.
By then it was nearly 5 a.m. After Chief Huang was brought up to speed, he started sending officers to the neighborhood.
It was an old neighborhood that hadn’t been outfitted with cameras, so we could only canvass the old-fashioned way by going door to door.
Rousing folks from their beds on such a cold night was a recipe for disaster. People were quite upset and it showed in their expressions. But cracking a case was a race against time—you can’t call it quits just because people give you a hard time.
Ding Sen trudged from door to door like the rest of us, taking the same abuse with a brave face. If a man answered the door, he offered him a cigarette first as an icebreaker.
When there’s a will, there’s a way. Ding Sen finally landed a major lead by chatting with an old man who was an early riser.
He said a group of young men living in a rental flat in the neighborhood’s Building 6 matched our description. But by the time we got there, the flat was empty. The door was ajar.
Unfortunately, being understaffed meant we were a step behind our suspects.
We returned to the police station that covered the neighborhood and pulled more surveillance footage, so we could establish when the suspects left. But the crew didn’t show up on any of the cameras.
The neighborhood was well-connected. Odds are the suspects picked a lesser-known route. We got in touch with their landlord immediately through the local officers. Confirming the identity of his tenants would still be a major breakthrough.
By then it was already past 7 a.m. The cold water and crackers we had were long gone. Our biggest wish at that point was to sit down to a bowl of steaming hot noodles.
But the noodle chop closest to the station wasn’t open for business yet and we couldn’t afford to venture further. We had to settle for some plain and stuffed buns. At least it was a hot meal.
Ding Sen chewed away at his bun and bitched at the same time.
Damn, such bloody bad luck—we can’t even manage a bowl of noodles.
Chief Huang approached and slapped him on the back of his head gently.
“Finish up quickly and get back to work. Even a bun this big isn’t enough to shut that foul mouth of yours.”
The landlord turned up. He said the tenant was a local restaurant that used the flat as their staff dorm. We located the restaurant immediately.
By the time we got there, it was nearly 9 a.m., when it was scheduled to open. The manager of the restaurant confirmed that indeed a few of their waiters fit our descriptions. They all hailed from the same hometown in Lei County, near the city of Wuyi in northern Hebei province.
Everyone was a bit excited now that we had confirmed the identities of our suspects. We geared up to stake out the restaurant, so we could arrest them on the spot. But we soon realized that our plan amounted to nothing.
The waiters never showed for their morning meeting. Restaurant policy dictated that latecomers would have their salaries docked. Looks like this crew planned on forgoing their paychecks for a clean getaway.
Even though our suspects had fled, the good thing was we knew who they were.
Anticipating that they might escape to their hometown via long-distance coach, we passed on their information to our colleagues in the traffic division and asked for their help. All that was left to do was wait.
We returned to our station and scrambled to get some shut-eye. Chances were we would be heading out in the afternoon again.
The entire squad slept soundly, somehow squeezing an effective eight hours out of a two-hour nap. At noon, our administrative staff woke us up for lunch.
It happened to be Saturday, a rest day for our canteen, so Chief Huang suggested eating at the local restaurant next door. He made a point of turning to Ding Sen and saying: “You’ll be getting your cabbage today.”
The cabbage joke stemmed from one of our previous meals. On that occasion, noticing that there wasn’t enough food, Chief Huang wanted to order an additional meat dish, but Ding Sen insisted on cabbage, even bickering with his superior.
Eventually, Chief Huang shut him down by pulling rank, blurting, “Kid, how dare you challenge my authority?” Since then ordering cabbage has become one of our inside jokes.
Chief Huang ordered quickly after arriving at the restaurant. The young and healthy physical specimens that we were, we polished off four dishes of peanuts and four dishes of sliced radish that were served as appetizers before a single entrée had arrived.
Chief Huang’s phone rang while we were waiting for our main courses. Judging from the serious look on his face, we could tell that we had caught a break in our case.
Indeed, as soon as he hung up, Chief Huang announced: “Our brothers from the traffic division have helped us track the crew down. They are already on a bus headed to Lei County and the bus has already left downtown. According to the bus schedule, they’ve been gone about half an hour. We’re gonna go after them now. We’ve got to cut them off!”
As we dashed out of the restaurant, the owner yelled behind us frantically: “Your food is ready. It’s about to be served!”
Chief Huang responded hastily: “We’ll have to pass. We’re in a hurry! I’ll pay you later!”
The restaurant owner shut up.
Back at the station, we gathered our handcuffs and retractable batons and took off on our pursuit.
Ding Sen was flooring it on the highway, pushing our old Jetta to a speed of some 140 kilometers per hour. Car after car zipped past us and faded into the distance. Riding shotgun, I was terrified and kept telling him to slow down.
“What are you driving so fast for? It’s not like we’re going to miss them. Plus this isn’t exactly the sturdiest of cars. Do you think you’re driving a bumper car?”
As I spoke, my phone rang. It was Chief Huang. He ordered me to put the call on speaker and started tearing into Ding Sen.
“Ding Sen Jing, have you lost it? Why are you driving so fast? Cut it out now. At this rate, Lord knows how many times the car has been captured on camera. If you keep this up, the docked points and fine for speeding will be on you!”
The tongue lashing did the trick. Our car started to slow down, but the bus carrying our suspects also appeared in our line of sight. Chief Huang had given highway patrol a heads up, asking them to take the lead in intercepting the bus.
Meanwhile, we tailed the bus. The bus wasn’t going very fast. Ding Sen started whining as we kept our distance. “We were at 140 [kilometers per hour]. Now we’re down to 80, just screwing around. What a bummer!”
With the help of highway patrol, the bus was forced to pull over. Led by Chief Wang, we boarded the bus and arrested the six men in the surveillance footage. Ding Sen and I were assigned to transport one of them back in our Jetta.
After shoving the young man into the backseat, Ding Sen glared at him and said: “Kid, think this over carefully for this uncle’s sake. Come clean about everything in return for lenient treatment. You aren’t the only guilty party in this matter.”
Lo and behold, the kid pursed his lips and burst into tears. That got on my nerves and I snapped.
“What are you crying for? At most it’s a life for a life. Why are you acting like a girl?”
The kid cried even harder.
“Uncle, I didn’t mean to stab anyone, but they kept chasing after us. One of them kept beating me with a steel pipe. I stabbed him in the back only because I couldn’t take it anymore. But I never intended to kill him.”
He then showed us his left forearm, where there was indeed a sizable bruise.
The admission caught Ding Sen and I by surprise. We thought it would take a major effort to identify the killer. Who knew the kid would fess up so quickly.
Suppressing our delight, we identified the kid as Peng Xinghe and drove back to our station immediately, where we would take a formal statement and lock down his story.
Back at our station, after we handed over Peng Xinghe over to our colleagues for preliminary questioning, our stomachs started growling again.
We found a box of instant noodles in the main office. We glanced at the expiry date. It was two days ago, but at that point everyone was too famished to care. We eagerly boiled a pot of water and soon the entire office smelled like ramen.
Yet during the three minutes you’re supposed to wait for your cup noodles to cook after pouring in hot water, our brothers who conducted the preliminary interrogation on Peng Xinghe delivered an update.
Peng revealed that their crew had split up. Three members of their group were still at large, two of whom had stabbed their rivals in the forearm and in the back.
The trio were currently holed up in a flat in the Hongling neighborhood in the western part of the city.
Chief Huang immediately convened the troops and we got ready to set off. At that point, our noodles were almost ready. Members of the squad begged the chief to let them eat first, especially Ding Sen, who stared at him with puppy eyes.
Chief Huang simply retorted: “See if you still have an appetite for your noodles if we let the suspects escape. Let’s go!”
The smell of piping hot noodles—with meat sauce and dried vegetable bits on top—wafted in the air. We all couldn’t help but sniff.
Screw it—without coordination we lifted the lids on our cup noodles in synch, grabbed our plastic forks and managed a few quick slurps and chews, then made a mad dash for the parking lot. Glistening with oil, the noodles were still steaming hot, forcing us to part our lips as the food glided down our throats.
What a spectacle it must have been—all of us running in different directions, breathing hard and chewing at the same time.
En route to Hongling, Ding Sen kept mouthing off from the driver’s seat.
Such bad luck. Setting aside the fact that we worked our asses off, we’ve already arrested the main suspect. But even though we’re hungry enough to eat a horse, we’re not even allowed a bite of our instant noodles. What kind of world do we live in?
Although I empathized initially, his non-stop whining got on my nerves. I blurted: “Ding Sen Jing, can you just shut up? I’m hungry enough as it is. If you keep complaining I’m going to pass out before we arrest the other suspects.”
A miffed Ding Sen got in one last word.
Homeboy’s noodles were just about ready, the meat sauce and condiments barely mixed in, and you order us to take off. Do I look superhuman to you?
As he spoke, Ding Sen licked his lower lip unconsciously, still savoring the few gulps of instant noodles he got down. You have to admit—sometimes cup noodles are just downright tasty.
When you’re starving and a hot bowl of instant noodles are presented to you, it’s like being in heaven. Any talk of artificial flavors, unhealthy oils or trash food goes straight out the window. The only thought that remains is: “I need to fill my stomach.”
After reaching Hongling as fast as we could, we made for the trio’s apartment immediately. Just as we were pondering how to barge in, the door opened.
The three suspects emerged, wearing backpacks and towing suitcases. They were clearly on their way out. Ding Sen and I froze. Ding Sen was the first to recover, pinning one of the suspects by the throat and yelling, “Freeze! Police!”
Credit: Charles Koh
We later found out that the three suspects had already booked an underground driver and were planning on leaving the city that night. Close call—they would have been gone with the wind had we left the station after finishing our instant noodles.
The questioning went smoothly. The entire crew accounted for their crimes truthfully.
At around 11 p.m., Peng Xinghe bumped into Li Xing while he was ice skating, which sparked an argument. Li Xing summoned his friends by phone, threatening to kill Peng Xinghe. Peng didn’t back down either, also calling for backup.
After both parties arrived, they went at it in the ice rink first. Peng’s side was clearly weaker and outnumbered, so they eventually bolted. But Li and company were relentless and gave chase.
The boy who died somehow found himself an abandoned steel pipe and kept attacking Peng. When Peng couldn’t take it anymore, he pulled out a switchblade and stabbed his opponent in the back over the other man’s shoulder while the two faced off, using his right hand.
Two of Peng’s companions followed suit and pulled out knives, stabbing two members of the other crew, one of whom was Li.
In less than 24 hours, the homicide had been solved and all the key suspects arrested. Everyone was ecstatic, but folks were lukewarm by the time our late-night meal arrived. I don’t know if it was because we were too hungry or the food was too crappy.
It was already past 10 and most of the restaurants near the station were already closed. Someone managed to procure a few servings of fried rice noodles from a snack stand.
But the quality was hardly worth writing home about—the noodles were truncated and clumped together, a downright turnoff. Meanwhile, the largely intact instant noodles that had been sitting on our desks were too soft to eat.
The next day at 7 a.m., we delivered the suspects to their detention facility. Taking in his weary-eyed, yawning team on the ride back, Chief Huang declared: “Let’s stop by a breakfast place. Let me treat y’all to a proper breakfast.”
“Hip hip hooray!” we hollered.
On our way back, we passed a noodle shop that looked quite presentable. Brakes screeched as our four police cars came to an abrupt halt. We stormed into the restaurant like a pack of famished wolves. Ding Sen led the charge, making a beeline for the pot by the entrance that held the deep-fried boiled eggs and nabbing one quickly.
Maybe he’s been trained as a professional pickpocket, but someone he managed to retrieve the egg from the pot, which was filled with scalding oil, without burning his fingers.
He rammed the egg down his throat, resulting in a choke that prompted his body to bolt upright. Still, he had no intention of catching his breath, instead blurting in slurred speech: “Boss, how about a bowl of noodles with beef? Extra noodles and a fried egg on top!”
Before the owner had the chance to take his order, the rest of us crowded up to him as well.
“Boss, beef noodles with a fried egg.”
“Boss, braised beef noodles with a fried egg and a deep-fried boiled egg.”
The owner started to scramble. The last thing I heard was Chief Huang yelling:
Take it easy on the old man, you beasts! My wife is going to give me a good thrashing if I head home with an empty wallet!
That’s right—another fine tradition in criminal investigation is our collective fear of our wives.
We snorted and just stopped short of giving him the middle finger.
All names are aliases and locations have been changed.
Translators: Min Lee and Katherine Tse