Da Qing did not trust Professor Shen, and with good reason.
It was suspicious enough that he kept popping up at crime scenes. Maybe that could be written off as pure coincidence, but then he’d moved in across the hall and Da Qing would have known he was up to something even if he and Zhao Yunlan hadn’t gone investigating Professor Shen’s apartment while he’d been out.
(Some might call what they’d done snooping. Others might go so far as to say it was breaking and entering. Da Qing didn’t care. Those concepts didn’t apply to cats and Zhao Yunlan was, by virtue of being Da Qing’s master, an honorary cat. If Professor Shen hadn’t wanted them in his apartment, he should have installed a better lock.)
The folder they discovered left Da Qing with more questions than answers but at least it confirmed his instincts had been right; Professor Shen’s interest in Zhao Yunlan was anything but casual.
“I don’t like it,” Da Qing said a few weeks later. He was sitting on the coffee table while Zhao Yunlan lazed on the couch. “He’s up to something.”
“Probably,” Zhao Yunlan agreed, “but took he took care of me last night, then woke me up with the best breakfast I’ve eaten in years. So whatever he’s up to, he can keep doing it.”
“Hmph. You just want to mate with him.”
Zhao Yunlan gave a half-hearted swat and Da Qing jumped off the table and darted under the bed to survey the damage Professor Shen had done while Zhao Yunlan slept off the gastritis attack.
Yes, their apartment had been a little cluttered before Professor Shen got involved. And maybe the dishes had needed washing and the laundry sorting. But most of that mess belonged to Zhao Yunlan. Under the bed was Da Qing’s realm; Professor Shen had not only trespassed, but also declared war by throwing away Da Qing’s favorite toys.
Not that a good number of them would have been recognizable as toys.
Still, the bits of wadded paper, the socks pilfered from the (admittedly small) clean laundry pile, or the hair ties stolen from the woman on the first floor (the one who always forgot to shut her windows) were all Da Qing’s beloved possessions. Professor Shen had no right to throw them out.
So what if he’d replaced them with actual cat toys and a new pack of fish snacks? It was an obvious attempt at bribery and Da Qing refused to fall for it.
He gave one of the sparkly pompoms a swat in anger. It flew toward the wall and Da Qing chased after, pouncing on it as best he could with the mattress overhead. Firmly gripping it between his front paws, he rolled on his side to attack it with his back feet, happily chirruping to himself as he subdued it.
Da Qing raised his paw to slap at the pompom again, then stopped.
It didn’t matter that the shiny strips of tinsel were so enticing or that the catnip inside was delightfully fresh. The toys shouldn’t be in his home, and neither should the fish snacks.
If Professor Shen honestly believed Zhao Yunlan kept a normal pet cat, the snacks would have been left in the kitchen. The fact that they sat beneath the bed, the package still sealed, suggested Professor Shen not only recognized Da Qing as Yashou, but accepted it without question. Da Qing nosed the snack packet into the corner, then used the toys to bury it.
Satisfied, he turned his back on the pile of Professor Shen’s bribes and flicked his tail angrily.
Even if he was nothing more than a Dixingren living a normal life on the surface, Professor Shen should stay out of Da Qing’s affairs. Zhao Yunlan was Da Qing’s master, which meant he should have been the one taking care of Zhao Yunlan, not some dodgy professor.
Granted, Zhao Yunlan was atrocious at taking care of himself. Da Qing tried his best, but one cat could only do so much. Having someone else to help would take a load off his paws. But not if that someone was Professor Shen, who, apart from being shady, apparently had no qualms about leaving an ill Zhao Yunlan alone while he went on a shopping run for cat toys.
“Stop screwing around and pack,” Zhao Yunlan called. “We don’t have much time.”
The mattress squeaked overhead as Zhao Yunlan presumably began loading up his own bag with clothes for the SID’s trip to the mountains.
“You’re my master. You can pack for me.”
“All right. In that case you can wear the cat sweater Lin Jing got you last year. The yellow and black one with the little bumble bee wings. We’re going out into the wild – it will help you connect with nature. You’ll look so cute. I can take loads of photos and—”
“Fine, fine. I’ll pack my own things.” Da Qing’s irritation grew but thanks to Professor Shen, there was no target for his anger. The Deputy Chief did not take bribes. “But in a little bit. I need to do something else first.”
Ignoring Zhao Yunlan’s threats to feed him only dry kibble if he made them late, Da Qing darted out from under the bed, then shifted into human form so he could open the door.
“Where are you going?” Zhao Yunlan demanded.
“To get new cat toys since your boyfriend threw mine away,” Da Qing said. “It’s either that or your sofa dies.”
Then he slammed the door shut so he could claim he didn’t hear Zhao Yunlan’s shopping requests. If Zhao Yunlan wanted more lollipops, he could buy them himself. Or better yet, send Professor Shen to get them.
There wasn’t much time before they needed to leave, so Da Qing chose the convenience store close to their building.
He’d never bought cat toys there (normally he made Zhao Yunlan buy them) but it seemed a good enough choice since that was probably where Professor Shen had been forced to go. It was the only place nearby that stayed open late. If he was in luck, he could buy his own supply of pompoms – they were incredibly fun - and throw out the ones Professor Shen had tried to bribe him with.
“Do you carry these?” He held one up to show the woman behind the counter.
“Sorry, we’re all sold out. A professor bought my entire stock last night right before I was about to close.”
“Really? A professor?” Da Qing managed to ask without hissing.
“Oh yes. Normally I don’t get customers so smartly dressed.” Da Qing chose to ignore the way she eyed his overalls. “So I asked what he did for a living. He said he’d recently moved here because it’s affordable and closer to someone he’s sweet on.”
“He told you that?” Da Qing suspected Professor Shen might have a romantic interest in Zhao Yunlan, but he didn’t expect the man to admit it.
“Only after I tried to set him up with my daughter. He wasn’t even interested in her photos, just told me not to offer her number to random strangers.”
“You really shouldn’t.”
“If you’d seen him, you’d understand. He couldn’t be a serial killer, not with those eyes.” Da Qing made a mental note to send Xiao Guo around to explain how good looks weren’t synonymous with safety as the woman continued. “Anyway, he explained he was buying all the toys to win over the cat of his ‘good friend’. He doesn’t think he stands a chance if the cat hates him.”
“He doesn’t,” Da Qing agreed.
“He also bought the last pack of fish snacks, the ones you always get for your cat. He thinks they’re low quality because he said something about finding a recipe to make homemade ones. Can you believe that? A good-looking professor who can cook! I told him if it didn’t work out with the friend’s cat to come back. My daughter has a dog that will eat anything.”
Da Qing managed to extract himself before he got offered the daughter’s number (it wouldn’t be the first time). Wandering down the aisles, he grabbed the lollipops Zhao Yunlan wanted, pondering what the woman had told him.
Professor Shen was suspicious as hell, that much was certain. But maybe Da Qing had been going about this all wrong. Maybe the toys and the snacks weren’t bribes, so much as gifts. Just friendly gestures of diplomacy.
If Da Qing really wanted to know what Professor Shen was up to, he needed to watch him more closely. Having him over would make that easier. Zhao Yunlan had never been one to stay in a long-term relationship. If they mated, maybe that would get it out of both of their systems, and Professor Shen would move on.
And, if that didn’t work, then maybe the arrangement would lead to an improvement in their nightly dinner fare. Zhao Yunlan had raved about Professor Shen’s congee. There couldn’t be any harm in trying out his other dishes. Besides, cats weren’t meant to eat Zhao Yunlan’s noodles and honestly, neither were people.
“Do you remember if he bought anything else?” Da Qing called to the woman. “The professor, I mean. Any food for himself? Not ingredients so much as snacks.”
“Let’s see… most of what he got were groceries. But he did buy a bag of lollipops – the same kind you just picked up.”
The fact that Zhao Yunlan needed more meant Professor Shen hadn’t shared the ones he’d bought. Did that mean Professor Shen liked them? Da Qing had never seen him with one, but maybe after the incident with the cake, he worried Zhao Yunlan would steal them. Da Qing would never judge anyone for not wanting to share a favorite snack.
Besides, gift-giving was also part of cat culture. It was only polite to reach for another bag of lollipops to leave on Professor Shen’s doorstep. Maybe that offering would lure him across the hall where he could be observed (hopefully in the kitchen).
Da Qing still didn’t trust Professor Shen, not by a long shot. But he had claws and knew how to use them. If he could keep Zhao Yunlan safe, play with the pompoms, and get a few good meals out of the arrangement, what did he have to lose?