MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 1: Hunting Evil (Part One)

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It was Sunday, and Dongye City's central shopping district was full of life. Countless men and women whiled away their weekend at the popular M.E.S shopping center. Even the usually quiet Shu Han book cafe, situated in one corner of the mall, was packed to the gills that day.

Shu Han was a chain store with locations all over the country. It was the type of cafe that sold books in addition to coffee, tea, and snacks, making it an appealing destination for anyone seeking to enjoy literature and culture in a relaxing environment.

Dongye City's first Shu Han opened several years ago, and since then more than a dozen locations have popped up all over the place, in residential and business districts alike. Although not many people actually bought books at Shu Han, the popular and expensive drinks sold more than well enough to keep business booming.

On the menu at Shu Han, even the cheapest cup of coffee cost fifty yuan. A few months earlier, they had even launched a special seasonal drink that cost seventy yuan. After ordering a drink, customers could take a book and relax in a lounge area. Even if they stayed from early in the morning to late at night, no one would try to shoo them away.

There weren't many cafes in Dongye City that sold such expensive coffee. Shu Han was the type of business to prioritize a smaller clientele willing to pay for a luxurious experience, even if it meant driving away other customers who balked at their prices. Each Shu Han location also boasted an impressive collection of books, which drew in avid readers as well. As a result, the environment in most Shu Han cafes, when compared to other trendy coffee shops, tended to be much quieter. Most patrons whispered when they spoke, so as not to disturb those reading around them, and many did not speak at all.

Of course, that was only the case on weekdays.

As soon as the weekend arrived, Shu Han became a popular destination for chattier customers as well.

At the M.E.S shopping center, the Shu Han cafe was the closest coffee shop to a large play area for children on the ground floor of the mall. Many young parents liked to bring their children to Shu Han after they had grown tired from playing, to enjoy a milkshake or some pastries while reading a children's book from the shelves.

When these parents and their children flooded into the usually quiet lounge area, it became an absolute disaster zone in no time at all.

She Qun, a young college student preparing to take an important graduate school entrance exam, was a regular patron of this Shu Han cafe. He visited so often that he had even applied for a membership card.

He came early every morning to claim a good seat, and he often filled up a whole table with his notebooks and study guides. On that Sunday, he was able to concentrate on his lessons for a few hours before a gaggle of rambunctious children barged into the cafe. From that moment on, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't focus on his notes.

The loud, curious children wouldn't stop talking for even an instant. As they flipped through various books, they held them up to their mothers and asked, "Mommy, what's this?" When they grew bored, they wailed, "Mommy, why do I have to keep sitting here?"

As his concentration was broken over and over again, She Qun turned and shot scathing glares at the irresponsible mothers and fathers who allowed their children to run rampant without a single care for the other patrons in the cafe. But beyond that, there was nothing he could do. He didn't have the guts to approach those parents and remind them that the lounge was meant to be a quiet area.

What was even more frustrating to She Qun was that these curious children, constantly asking what's this and what's that, weren't even the worst of the worst.

The most intolerable ones were the 'little lunatics' who ran back and forth all over the place, screaming or bawling their heads off.

She Qun clutched his head, almost ready to pull his hair out. These crazy 'little lunatics' were about to drive him crazy, too.

When he looked up from a thick stack of notes, he saw several other customers who looked just as irritated. Many wore displeased expressions, furrowing their brows and clenching their teeth. One of these men seemed exceptionally uncomfortable. He shifted in his seat restlessly, squaring his shoulders and heaving loud, heavy sighs.

This man was a familiar sight to She Qun. He looked to be in his thirties, and She Qun knew he was a regular at that cafe as well. The man usually sat in the northeast corner of the lounge, where he would hole up with some books after ordering a peppermint tea and proceed to read for the entire day.

Half a month ago, She Qun had gotten curious. When that man stepped away to use the restroom, She Qun had snuck a glance at the books on his table. What he found was that they were all suspense and horror novels.

To someone like She Qun, who spent every free second studying, time was money. He was completely unable to understand how this man could spend so much time reading frivolous novels for pleasure.

The man was approximately 1.7 meters tall. He had prominent cheekbones and eyes that were shaped almost like triangles, over which he wore a pair of black-framed glasses. He usually wore long-sleeved tees and washed-out jeans, and he always seemed to walk with his head down and his back hunched.

She Qun figured he must have been the type of person who wasn't good at socializing or even fitting into society. Maybe he had lost his job, and that was why he had so much free time to waste away at Shu Han.

When that thought passed his mind, She Qun had shaken his head and clicked his tongue in disapproval.

At his young age, She Qun had yet to experience true failure in his career. He seemed to have boundless professional and academic opportunities ahead of him, and the type of person he looked down upon the most was the sort who seemed to have let themselves go and given up on living a fulfilling life.

Before long, the man returned from the restroom. She Qun quickly ducked away from his table, but the man clearly noticed She Qun snooping around. However, he didn't seem to care. Their eyes met briefly as they passed each other, and She Qun only saw a cloud of anxiety and depression on the man's face.

Just a useless, mediocre man. At least, that was what She Qun thought at the time.

But on this day, this bustling Sunday, it was this mediocre man who stood up and walked to the counter with his chest puffed up and his head held high. It was this man who asked an employee to remind the children to be mindful of others and keep their volume down.

She Qun was surprised, to say the least. With his chin propped up on one hand, he watched as the man returned to his seat.

Very soon afterwards, a man wearing the cafe's uniform approached the parents with children and politely pointed out the 'Quiet Please' signs posted around the lounge. And finally, the reading area was quiet once more.

She Qun let out a sigh of relief and privately thought that maybe this sort of useless person wasn't completely useless after all.

But the blissful peace and quiet didn't last long. After barely five minutes had passed, the children who wanted to cry began to cry again. The ones who wanted to shout and play began to shout and play again. And their parents seemed helpless to do anything to stop them.

She Qun slammed his pen down on the table. He couldn't take it anymore. Whipping out his cell phone, he jabbed out an angry text to his friend: Fuck this shit! Book cafes seriously shouldn't let kids inside. It's not a fucking McDonald's, and it's not a fucking KFC! What kind of books do these shitty kids read? Are they even able to read? Thanks to them, I won't be able to finish reviewing my notes for today either!

As She Qun typed furiously, the bespectacled man stood up once again. This time, he didn't walk to the counter. Instead, he directly approached the parents of the noisy little monsters terrorizing the cafe.

"I'm sorry to trouble you," the man snapped sharply, "but please look after your children. They are simply far too noisy!"

The parents whispered a chorus of insincere apologies and turned to half-heartedly scold their children, who certainly wouldn't learn their lesson.

This time, the silence lasted only two minutes before the lounge erupted into chaos again. Some of the parents half-assedly shushed their children, but most simply didn't even seem to care. Some were fiddling on their phones and tablets without paying any attention to their kids at all.

By that point, She Qun was numb to the noise. He decided to give himself the rest of the day off, seeing as he wouldn't be able to get any work done. He took out his phone, put on his headphones, and started playing a mobile game with some friends. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see that man get up to confront those parents at least five more times.

"Shit, this guy's got some serious perseverance," he muttered under his breath, into the game's voice chat channel. His tone was laced with sarcasm and amusement. He had started to recount the events going on around him to his friends.

"Why don't you just leave? Who even goes to book cafes on weekends?" one of his friends asked. "Wouldn't the library be quieter, anyway?"

"The library is too quiet. I need some white noise in the background to be able to concentrate."

"And kids screaming, that's called ‘black noise', right?" She Qun's friend clicked his tongue. "It's dumb as fuck to try talking to parents like that. You think they'd listen? Hell no. The good parents would've taken their kids outta there after being told once or twice. Anyone who's still hanging around with their crazy kids doesn't even have half a brain in their head."

After chatting and gaming with his friends some more, She Qun scrubbed a hand over his face and decided to call it a day. He started to tidy up his table, figuring he could head back to his university campus and at least try studying at the library for a while.

Just as he was getting ready to leave, he noticed some movement at the table where the parents of the noisiest kids were sitting. A woman in a long, navy blue skirt stood up with a packet of tissues in her hand, most likely preparing to visit the washroom. Before she could take a single step away, a monkey-like child flung himself at her legs.

"Mommy!" he howled, his voice already sounding hoarse from screaming too much. "Where are you going, Mommy? Don't go! Stay and watch cartoons with me!"

The woman tried to calm and hush her child, but he refused to let go and seemed only to cling on tighter while screaming even louder. Soon enough, the woman was starting to get angry, too. She said a few harsh words to her son and pushed him away, abandoning him right there on the spot and flouncing directly over to the cafe's restroom.

The child, who was obviously used to being spoiled and pampered, was shocked silent for a few seconds before he started bawling at the top of his lungs, causing every single person in the reading area to look his way.

She Qun instinctively glanced at the man who had gotten up several times to ask the parents to quiet their kids. In that instant, he was sure he could feel the man radiating a murderous aura. But based on his preconceptions of that man, She Qun thought that was impossible.

Forget a murderous aura. He had figured that man was the type that wouldn't even be able to get truly angry about something like this.

When his gaze trailed over to the man's desk, She Qun almost thought, for a second, that he was hallucinating.

Because amidst the books stacked on that man's table, there was a single notebook, open to a completely filled page where one sentence had been written over and over again:

THEY ALL DESERVE TO DIE!

She Qun gulped with surprise, his eyes widening to saucers. He stared as the man, whose face was contorted with malice, reached into a backpack and took something out. He then slowly, unhurriedly began to approach the bawling child.

Besides She Qun, no one seemed to sense any danger. Only She Qun, who stood petrified next to his seat, seemed to notice that man.

The belligerent child was still screaming and sobbing. When he saw the man approaching him, he pulled a face and only screamed louder. "I won't stop! I won't be quiet!" he screeched. "My mommy bought me water, and I—"

But his words were lost, his voice abruptly severed, when the man's right hand shot out in a flash.

There was a moment when time seemed to stand still. When the man stabbed the child in the throat with the dagger concealed in his hand, every last person in the cafe seemed to freeze. They only stared, as though incapable of comprehending what had just happened.

Blood began to gurgle out from the boy's throat. The faint metallic scent in the air became thicker and stronger, like a piercing needle stabbing into every spectator's numbed mind.

It was only then that someone screamed in shock.

"Murderer! There's been a murder!"

The crowd suddenly began to move, shrinking away from the boy in a frenzy. The assailant huffed as he yanked the knife out of the boy's throat, causing the boy to fall to the ground like a rag doll, convulsing violently and choking hoarsely on his own blood.

She Qun's pupils had shrunk to pinpoints. He stared unblinkingly at the man with the knife. His lips trembled. Blood rushed to his head.

The look of mediocrity in the man's eyes had disappeared, replaced by madness and cruelty. She Qun was almost certain he saw new blood veins popping up in the whites of the man's eyes. The man swung the blood-stained knife around, brandishing it at the people around him.

For a moment, the air itself seemed to freeze. Every witness felt a crushing weight bearing down on their hearts. Several children whose parents weren't present started to whimper and weep quietly, and the adults on the scene—parents and employees alike—all cowered in fear.

Not one was brave enough to step forward.

The boy who had been stabbed finally stilled. The murderer's face twisted with an ugly, malevolent smile and, in a flash, he whirled around and grabbed another child.

The second child's cries rang out like a piercing alarm. She Qun was one of the first to flee the reading area, with a throng of people right at his heels, all running for their lives.

As they fled, many shouted warnings: "He's got a knife! He's got a knife!"

The man let out a crazed laugh as he watched them go. He flung the second child to the ground, with such force that the child's head collided with the floor with a sickening crack.

No violent crimes had ever been committed within this Shu Han cafe before. It wasn't until a second victim had been claimed that an employee managed to inform the mall's security officers.

By then, it was far too late.

With a murderous light glinting in his eyes, the man seized yet another defenseless child, like a demonic beast finally shedding its human skin and baring its wretched fangs.

The cafe lounge became hell on earth as the panicked crowd continued to flee.

Only one person, a tall woman, charged forward against the retreating tide.

 

Three days earlier, Ming Shu had finally returned to Dongye City after completing an intensive, year-long training program with the Ministry of Public Security.

Before he received the summons to join the special operations team for training, Ming Shu had already been serving as the head of the Serious Crimes Division of Dongye City's Criminal Investigation Bureau. For years, he had fought on the front lines to crack major criminal cases and apprehend violent offenders.

Among the ranks of Dongye City's law enforcement officers, the name 'Ming Shu' glowed like a golden beacon of hope.

His year of training with the special operations team had been far from leisurely. In fact, only those who had never participated would call it a 'training' program. Those who had endured the experience had a different name for it:

Purgatory.

And in his year of purgatory, Ming Shu had undergone backbreaking work. He felt as though every bone in his body had been broken and reshaped. Upon his return to Dongye City, he wasted no time in filing a request for a week of leave to recuperate.

And so, on the day of the massacre at the Shu Han cafe, Ming Shu happened to be shopping for new clothes at the M.E.S shopping center.

The esteemed Ming Shu was twenty-eight years old. With a height of 1.85 meters and a chiseled, expressive face, he cut a dashing figure in anything he wore. Though he took his job very seriously, he wasn't like many law enforcement officers who didn't care much about how they dressed. He paid a relatively great deal of attention to his own appearance, and when he wasn't working on a case, he was often dressed in the most flashy, eye-catching outfit in a crowd.

At the time of the attack at the cafe, Ming Shu had just tried on a light leather jacket at a store on the upper level of the mall. He was turning this way and that, examining the fit in the dressing room mirror, when he heard shouts and screams rising from below.

He exited the dressing room just in time to see a troop of security guards rushing past the menswear store. Before they went too far, he stopped one and demanded, "What's going on?"

It was obvious from just one glance that the security guard Ming Shu had stopped was a rookie. He had probably never dealt with a serious situation before. His face was ashen with fear and shock, and he couldn't stop trembling and stammering as he answered, "There's—there's someone down—downstairs, kill—killing children!"

Ming Shu's expression changed in an instant, his eyes narrowing and taking on an aggressive, intense look. He had a straight nose, deep-set eyes, and bow-shaped lips, a face that was both beautiful and handsome in equal measure. When he smiled, he looked like the easygoing sort. But when his expression turned cold and sharp with focus, he could look truly terrifying.

The security guard broke out in a cold sweat, his teeth chattering with fear. "Just—just down there! In the book—book cafe!"

Ming Shu swept his gaze over the ground floor of the mall, where more and more people were gathering. Without hesitation, Ming Shu pushed past the security guard and rushed to the stairs. He grabbed hold of the railing and swung his long legs over in one smooth motion, vaulting himself over the barrier and leaping over the crowd to land downstairs.

Despite the commotion outside, the lounge inside the Shu Han cafe had grown eerily quiet, like the calm in the eye of a storm. The crazed man was now holding a six-year-old girl hostage, and the tall woman who had entered the cafe, while everyone else fled, was trying to negotiate with him.

The police had already been called, but none had yet to arrive. The constables from the local Jiangzhan Road station and the special forces from the nearby Bei District precinct all needed more time to reach the scene.

The man inside the cafe had his knife jammed against the girl's throat. Already, a sickening trickle of blood could be seen dripping down her throat. The tall woman in a gray suit had drawn close. With a solemn look on her face, and a faint tremor in her tone, she said, "Let her go. Let me take her place. I'll be your hostage."

But the man only brandished his dagger at her. His nostrils flared, and his eyes flashed with madness. "Get out of my way! I've already killed some of them, it won't matter if I kill one more!"

"Let her go," the woman repeated. She took a deep breath and slowly reached out to the man with one delicate, finely manicured hand. "Give her to me."

The sounds of police cars were finally drawing near. Their sirens sent the man spiraling even further into a frenzy. His face contorted with madness, until his features hardly resembled those of a human face at all. He began to howl nonsensically, and his blade flashed back to the child's throat in an instant, ready to pierce her skin.

There were two entrances to the Shu Han cafe: the main door, for patrons to come and go, and the side door, used by employees. Ming Shu had split away from the crowd gathered in front of the cafe and circled around to the side entrance. He flashed his badge at the few employees cluttered around the door, then slowly and silently crept inside.

At that moment, the girl who had been taken hostage was too scared to cry out loud. Tears rolled silently down her cheeks. The woman in the gray suit seemed frozen as well, paralyzed and unable to find a way to save the girl from the violent man's grasp.

"They're all trash! They're monsters! They deserve to die!" the man wailed belligerently. "I warned them, I warned them again and again! They didn't listen! They're not human. I'm doing the world a favor by getting rid of them!"

The woman shook her head frantically. "They're just children, they don't know any better. If you have any kids of your own—"

"Bullshit!" the man roared. "They're monsters! Demons! They're the ones who wronged me. Do they not deserve to be punished?!"

The dagger pressed against the child's throat drew another trickle of blood. The woman clenched her hands into fists and realized she couldn't afford to waste any more time. Without thinking, she lurched forward and hurled herself at the man.

It was enough to break the man's vicious concentration for just a second. His grip on the hostage loosened as the woman crashed into him, pushing him away and pulling the girl free.

The man's rage returned just as quickly as it had been broken by the momentary distraction. He seized the woman by her pale throat and screeched, "Do you want to die?! You saved a demon! You must be a demon, too! I'll fucking kill you!"

Even with the man's arm crushing her throat, the woman did her best to remain calm. "I told you. I'll be your hostage. I'll replace her."

Because the lounge wasn't fully visible from outside, most of the people in the crowd gathered in front of the cafe wouldn't have been able to see the exchange that had happened in the blink of an eye. They only saw, a moment later, a young girl with blood dripping from her throat wobble out of the front door, teetering this way and that, as though her head were only precariously attached to her shoulders.

It was only Ming Shu, who had snuck in through the staff entrance, who witnessed the exchange. Moving as swiftly and silently as a current of electricity, Ming Shu crept between bookshelves and couches, remaining camouflaged and hiding in the man's blind spots.

But the man seemed to sense that something was wrong. His arm around his new hostage's throat tightened, constricting her airway. Time seemed almost frozen once more as the sound of creaking, breaking bones pierced the air.

Ming Shu didn't wait any longer. He burst out from behind a bookshelf and charged at the man's back, deftly knocking the dagger out of his hand with one forceful strike. The man wailed in agony and confusion, and the blaring sirens sounded even closer now.

By the time a special forces team in riot gear burst into the cafe, Ming Shu had apprehended the crazed man, dislocating his wrist and elbow and kicking the dagger a safe distance away before hauling the man up from the pool of fresh blood splattered all over the ground.

"Ming-ge?" The leader of the special forces team was the first to widen his eyes with recognition at the sight of Ming Shu. "What the hell are you doing here? Since when are you back in town?"

Ming Shu ignored the confrontational tone that the officer with the shaved head took with him. Although he was still wearing the rather flashy and unprofessional leather jacket he had tried on earlier, his expression commanded respect from all the special forces officers who had rushed in.

"Cordon off this area and evacuate the crowd," he ordered. "Right now."

His gaze passed over the two children who had been so brutally slain, and in that moment, his dark eyes grew even darker.

 

Bei District Precinct. Interrogation room.

Inside the interrogation room, behind a sheet of one-way glass, the suspect Lu Kun was shaking uncontrollably. His hands were cuffed, and his face was as pale as a sheet of paper. Three police officers sat across from him: two to conduct the interrogation, and one to record every word.

Ming Shu stood on the other side of the one-way glass, with his arms wrapped around himself. He had finally shed the leather jacket from the mall, affecting a more professional appearance now. His eyebrows were tightly drawn into a deep vee as he silently observed Lu Kun.

The violently hostile murderer who had claimed the lives of two children was like a completely different person now. That raging hostility was nowhere to be found. As he sat before the police officers, Lu Kun hung his head deeply and didn't seem to dare to look at the officers at all. He continued to tremble incessantly, looking the part of a weak and useless person once more.

"They shouldn't have been so noisy," Lu Kun rasped. "I told them, I told them nine times. They're the ones who didn't listen…"

"So you killed them?" one of the interrogators snapped, his tone filled with obvious rage.

"What else could I do?! I had nowhere else to go. I got there first, and I paid to be there! Why should they be allowed to disturb everyone and act like little monsters without consequence? Why should I have to be the one to leave to find some peace and quiet?"

Lu Kun dropped his head even lower, sinking his hands into his greasy hair. From a certain angle, his head seemed abnormally large, and he couldn't stop shaking it back and forth, shedding fine strands of hair with every motion.

"They're the ones who didn't listen," he repeated. "Their parents are the ones who didn't do anything! The reading area is clearly a quiet area. There are signs that say 'Quiet Please' right at the entrance, and those heathens simply would not be quiet!"

After a few seconds, Lu Kun suddenly lifted his head. His eyes were bloodshot and suddenly filled with immense shame. He began to shake even more violently as tears started to fall from his eyes.

"I was wrong," he wailed, abruptly changing his tune. "I shouldn't have killed! Those two kids… can they be saved? I… I was just too impulsive. I didn't do it on purpose! Everybody has times when they're impulsive and confused, right? I'm not a murderer! I'm not!"

Ming Shu sighed. He turned away from the scene unfolding behind the one-way glass when he heard the sound of a door to another room opening not too far away. The first to emerge was a female interrogator, followed by the woman in a gray suit who had tried to intervene back at the cafe.

The courageous woman had already finished making her statement. Her name was Yu Caixin, thirty-two years old. She was an associate at a headhunting firm, and at the time of the incident at Shu Han, she had been waiting to meet with a candidate. Before her candidate arrived, she had witnessed Lu Kun rising several times to remind the parents and noisy children to keep quiet. But she had never imagined the man would go on such a horrific killing spree.

Yu Caixin no longer looked like the brave, spirited woman who had stood against Lu Kun at the cafe. Instead, she looked deflated and depressed. Of course, this was nothing out of the ordinary for someone who had experienced a traumatic event, after the adrenaline and tension had left their body.

Ming Shu regarded her from his spot farther down the hallway. After their eyes briefly met, he bowed his head to her in a sign of gratitude and respect. Many may have found it hard to imagine that, before the police arrived, it had been this sharply dressed woman who stopped Lu Kun from claiming another victim.

She had more than earned the admiration of an elite police detective like Ming Shu.

When Ming Shu first bowed to her, Yu Caixin looked startled. Then an expression of deep remorse washed over her face. She shook her head and murmured, "Those children were innocent. I'm sorry, I wasn't quick enough to save them."

The female investigator escorted Yu Caixin on her way past, accompanying her to the exit. Ming Shu leaned against the wall of the hallway and sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose.

Bei District was the most economically prosperous district in Dongye City. The crime rate was extremely low, and it was almost unfathomable that such a devastating incident could occur.

Seeing as Lu Kun had incited panic in such a crowded area, killing two children and taking another woman and child hostage, the most obvious course of action for the special forces team may have been to shoot him dead on the spot. Videos of Lu Kun's attack were already circulating like wildfire online, inciting further panic among families with children.

However, although the incident was sure to leave a scar on society and be talked about over and over again, the case itself was simple. Lu Kun had committed a crime of passion. After killing one boy, he had experienced a psychological break and began to kill indiscriminately.

A police-affiliated psychologist had already rushed to the precinct to conduct a preliminary evaluation of Lu Kun's mental state.

Ming Shu continued to pore over the written account of Lu Kun's statement, taking in every single word. His delicate lips were set in a firm, straight line, and his eyes were sharp and emotionless, filled only with deep concentration.

Lu Kun's personal information was all plainly stated in his file.

Thirty-five years old. A resident of the Chushan district in Dongye. Owned a house, but no car.

He had attended a mediocre college, and up until four months ago, he had been working as a river monitoring programmer for a water conservation company. Due to a mistake at work, he had been fired. And ever since, with no job and no spouse, he had paid regular visits to the Shu Han cafe, where he'd spent the past two months fanatically reading almost every crime novel they had.

Suddenly, the vice captain of the Bei District precinct's criminal investigation team, Wang Hao, swiftly marched down the hall with three other officers following in his wake.

Ming Shu looked up and saw the man's face was engulfed by a furious expression. He made way for the officers to pass, but at the last minute reached out and stopped them for a moment. "How do you plan to deal with this case?"

Wang Hao had a mean face, with rough features one might expect of a hardened police captain. He scowled, furrowing his thick eyebrows, and snapped, "This case hasn't been transferred to your Serious Crimes Division yet."

The meaning of his words and gruff tone couldn't have been more clear. Wang Hao may as well have stated out loud: None of your business. This is our jurisdiction, our case. How we deal with it ain't got nothing to do with you.

Ming Shu looked askance at Wang Hao for a few seconds, but he didn't allow himself to get riled up by the man's hostility.

Years ago, when Ming Shu had just graduated from the University of Public Security, he had worked a while at the Bei District precinct. Even back then, he had never been on good terms with Wang Hao.

These days, having advanced to the Serious Crimes Division, Ming Shu had a broader scope of responsibilities and bigger problems to deal with. He had long since forgotten that unpleasant friction between himself and Wang Hao, but Wang Hao was clearly still holding a grudge.

At just that moment, Ming Shu's cell phone began to ring. He took it out and, upon seeing the number on the screen, some of the sharpness left his expression, replaced by an unbidden look of tenderness.

"If I remember correctly, Captain Ming," Wang Hao continued, starting to make clear what he had only implied earlier. "You just got back from training at the capital, yeah? This case is my responsibility for now. If the higher-ups want to change that later, you can stick your nose in then."

Ming Shu didn't argue. He didn't answer his phone either, as Wang Hao had assumed he would. Instead, he simply declined the call and returned his phone to his pocket before brushing past Wang Hao.

As they passed each other, Ming Shu paused briefly and clapped Wang Hao on the shoulder.

"You didn't dispatch a team quickly enough," he said. His voice was calm and even, but his words carried an obvious weight that couldn't be ignored. "And your rookies couldn't handle themselves well at the scene. If this was a premeditated murder, and not a crime of passion, the consequences will be much more serious than they are now."

 

With his hard-earned vacation disrupted by the catastrophic emergency at the mall, Ming Shu didn't exit the Bei District precinct until night had fallen. As soon as he stepped outside, he spotted a tall, familiar figure greeting him with a wave.

Ming Shu faltered in his step for just a moment. He quickly smoothed a hand over his forehead before approaching the man and getting into the waiting car. They pulled away from the Bei District precinct right away, merging onto the main highway and speeding towards the headquarters of the city's Criminal investigation Bureau.

"Looks like your vacation is over," said Lu Yanzhou. He gripped the steering wheel so tightly that blue-green veins popped up over the backs of his hands. "Let's get you back to the office to make your report."

Ming Shu propped his elbow against the window of the car, gazing out at the passing streets. The myriad neon lights of the city flashed through his eyes, twinkling and shining and casting an amber glow over his pitch black pupils.

"Why are you the one picking me up?"

"Why can't I be the one to pick you up?" Lu Yanzhou glanced at him from out of the corner of his eye. "I just happened to be in the area doing some business. Figured I'd give you a ride and save your men from having to make the trip out here."

"Seems like you've gotten more considerate in the past year," Ming Shu mused. He dug through the glove compartment and helped himself to a bottle of water, downing half in one go without bothering to ask permission. "How about you finally come work for me?"

"Dream on." Lu Yanzhou laughed and brought the car to a stop at a red light. "At my rank, I'm not transferring anywhere. I've got a couple good rookies in my division, though. If you really need more men, come and pick some for yourself."

Lu Yanzhou was the backbone of Dongye City's special police force. He didn't work directly for the Criminal Investigation Bureau, but he was the same age as Ming Shu, and they had always been good friends. A few years back, when the Serious Crimes Division was lacking in men who were well-suited for field work, Ming Shu had repeatedly tried to recruit Lu Yanzhou, only to be turned down every time.

"I wouldn't be able to hack it in your Serious Crimes Division," Lu Yanzhou had always said. "I'm not cut out for that kind of backbreaking work."

As they crawled through the streets, trapped in traffic, Ming Shu began to doze off with his head propped up against one hand. He was half-asleep when Lu Yanzhou suddenly said, "By the way, have you met your new boss yet?"

Ming Shu cracked open one eye. Shadows drifted over his face. It was a long while before he spoke, with an almost lazy quality to the drawl of his voice:

"Xiao Yu'an?"

 

Author's Notes:

There are some unrealistic aspects to this setting. The ages of the characters are all rather young for their positions. Usually, city-level criminal investigators would fall under a criminal investigation branch. Provincial and municipal investigators would be attached to a criminal investigation bureau, and the Ministry of Public Security would be called a criminal investigation bureau as well.

The fictional setting of Dongye City is a large city similar to a municipality, so I've used the general concept of a criminal investigation bureau, but the city is not based on any real location!

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