MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 6: Hunting Evil (Part Six)

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People were filled to the brim with secrets. When the lock came undone, those secrets flooded out in torrents.

After digging into Luo Xiangfu's personal life for a full day and night, the investigation team was starting to get a much more three-dimensional image of the victim who had previously been no more than a name on a missing person report.

When compared to other sixty-something-year-old men in Dongye City, Luo Xiangfu had a notably more complex personal life and a more complicated web of social connections.

Over twenty years ago, he left his small-town teaching job and had been working as a freelancer ever since. He made his income through painting and calligraphy commissions, and he worked as an art appraiser as well. There was no denying that, at one point, he was a very in-demand artist.

His wife Kang Yu was a middle school teacher, and though her salary wasn't high, she was respected and well-liked. The couple raised one child together, and they led a happy, simple life.

The Luo family's house wasn't much to look at, and Luo Xiangfu had never been the type to dress particularly well either. In the summers, he always wore some cheap, plain t-shirts and pants and shoes that had already started to become faded and weathered with use.

But in reality, the Luo family was pretty well-off, financially speaking. Two years ago, when the couple's only son Luo Xiaolong left Dongye City to start his own business, Luo Xiangfu readily gave his son two million yuan to invest into his venture.

Two million yuan was by no means a small figure. In most ordinary families, they could scrimp and save for half their lives and not be able to put together such a large sum. Not only was Luo Xiangfu able to send his son off with such a hefty amount of capital, he was able to do so without suffering any drastic changes to his own home life. He and Kang Yu continued to live comfortably, and when Luo Xiangfu took an interest in photography, he was still able to afford all the most expensive cameras and lenses.

When Luo Xiangfu first got into photography, he primarily took pictures of scenery and landscapes. He had, after a while, visited and photographed just about every notable, scenic location near Dongye City.

Then, about two years ago, he stopped taking scenic photography altogether and focused solely on taking portraits of people. He became one of the many hobbyist street photographers that could be found in any big city. All his photos, from then on, were of beautiful young women with gorgeous faces and figures, though occasionally he would take pictures of cute little girls as well.

Within the Painting and Calligraphy Association that he belonged to, Luo Xiangfu's reputation wasn't exactly good.

For the most part, people in this day and age had a way of respecting the dead. Unless a person had committed grievous crimes in their life, they were often beyond reproach after they passed away. This, however, didn't apply to Luo Xiangfu.

"Old Luo, that guy… see, he actually wasn't all that talented when it came to painting and calligraphy. His real talent was in making a quick buck."

This was the sort of thing his colleagues said about him, even after his death, and there were some who made far more scathing remarks.

"Old Luo was always just using our association's good reputation to make himself seem more impressive. He was great at selling off his shoddy work to rich guys who don't know anything about art, and he always acted like he was some artistic genius. If it's just pretending to customers, fine. But he acted all high and mighty to us here at the association, too! What was he pretending for? Did he think we didn't know his only talent was in swindling the rich and the blind?"

Yin Qingdong, the vice president of the Painting and Calligraphy Association, was among the association members who were on somewhat friendlier terms with Luo Xiangfu. A month earlier, when Luo Xiangfu had invited some of his friends from the association to visit his home, Yin Qingdong had been one of the guests.

"Old Luo passed away? He was murdered?" Yin Qingdong asked upon receiving the news that Luo Xiangfu was the victim in a murder case. His face paled instantly when he heard, and he first looked absolutely bewildered, before a look of fear and disbelief came over him. "Have you caught the killer?"

Ming Shu looked him dead in the eyes and was silent for nearly twenty full seconds before he answered, "We don't currently have any leads. That's why we've come to speak with his association members, to better understand the situation."

Yin Qingdong had already broken out in a cold sweat. His thin eyebrows were pinched into a deep vee as he mumbled, "Who could have murdered Old Luo?"

Ming Shu had interviewed and questioned countless acquaintances of murder victims in the past. Looking at Yin Qingdong now, he was able to read him like an open book. And Yin Qingdong was certainly an interesting book.

When a person was killed, their close friends and family members almost always expressed shock at first. That shock then turned into intense sorrow as they began to mourn, letting the reality that the deceased would never return set in. This grieving process occurred whether a person died of natural or external causes.

The main difference between reactions to natural deaths and reactions to deaths caused by external forces, as in the case of murder victims, was that the close acqauintances reacting to the news that someone they know has been murdered often demonstrated fear and panic as well as sorrow. But even in those cases, that fear and panic rarely outweighed the sorrow.

In the case of Yin Qingdong, who was supposed to have been a friend of Luo Xiangfu's, receiving word of Luo Xiangfu's death only seemed to cause him to feel fear and panic. He didn't express much sorrow at all. If he did, the traces of mourning were so faint that they could have been considered negligible.

So whether or not Yin Qingdong had truly been a friend to Luo Xiangfu was a question that still needed to be answered.

As he questioned Yin Qingdong, Ming Shu couldn't help but think of Kang Yu. When she learned her husband had been murdered, Kang Yu's reaction had been somewhat abnormal as well. It almost seemed like, to her, Luo Xiangfu wasn't the man she spent every day of her life with. Rather, he seemed more like a stray cat or dog she saw on the street every so often.

The wife's reaction was strange. The supposed friend's reaction was strange. It was like Luo Xiangfu's death had about as much impact as a feather in a storm. Which was to say, not much of an impact at all.

"It's a pity," Yin Qingdong continued, once he had regained his composure. There wasn't much genuine emotion in his tone that Ming Shu could detect. "Old Luo was a man of many talents. His passing is a great loss to our association."

This was the sort of thing that people said just for the sake of appearances.

Ming Shu swept it aside and asked straightforwardly, "Did Luo Xiangfu have any serious conflicts with any member of the association?"

As though he hadn't expected such a young detective to ask such a blunt question, Yin Qingdong gave Ming Shu a shocked, blank expression for a moment before he answered.

"Old Luo… in these recent years, he didn't come around the association all that often. Most of our people didn't see much of him. There may have been some friction between him and some others, but serious conflicts? I can't imagine there were any."

"He doesn't come around the association all that often," Ming Shu echoed. "Is that because he's usually out ‘making a quick buck'?"

"That…"

Ming Shu leaned forward and adopted an even more serious, solemn tone. "This concerns the investigation into Luo Xiangfu's muder. I would ask you, President Yin, to cooperate with us."

Having spent many years in the arts and culture community, Yin Qingdong had adopted a charismatic and confident persona. But that persona was like a thin shroud that was easily blown away by a gust of wind.

The Yin Qingdong who had that shroud blown away no longer looked like a confident man. Rather, he suddenly looked every bit like a shifty, squirmy charlatan. "Then I'll be honest with you," he finally said. "The truth is, most people in the association didn't think much of Old Luo."

"Because he used the association's name to advertise his own work?" Ming Shu prompted.

"That was part of it, but that came later," Yin Qingdong said. "At first, people didn't care for him because he was… well, rather vulgar."

Without any additional context, there were situations in which ‘vulgar' could be taken as a good thing or a bad thing. There was a demographic for vulgar humor, for example. But in the professional arts and culture world, if a person or work was to be deemed ‘vulgar', it was the same as being called a bad joke.

Ming Shu nodded. "Go on."

"Old Luo didn't really know how to paint well, and his calligraphy was just alright. Way back in the day, when he was a teacher, he was a chalkboard artist. Of course, in the eyes of his students and colleagues, he was very talented. But we're a professional association, you know? Our standards for what's ‘good' are very different.

"Based solely on his talent, he wouldn't have been able to gain admission into our association at all. But back when he applied to join, our association was running out of funds. We were nearly bankrupt, and as soon as he came, he made some very generous donations."

Yin Qingdong looked somewhat embarrassed to admit such a thing before he continued, "The old president admitted him right away, and he even took Old Luo under his wing and personally advised and tutored him. Back then, we really couldn't have imagined that Old Luo didn't genuinely want to improve his work or be a part of our community. We didn't know he just wanted a fancy card saying he was a member of this association, one he could use to swindle rich folks into buying his shoddy work."

Ming Shu took a moment to consider all that before returning the focus of their conversation to the heart of the matter. "It's one thing for Luo Xiangfu to have people who looked down on him, but was there anyone he had deeply offended?"

Yin Qingdong furrowed his brows deeply. "You think someone in our association killed Old Luo?"

"It's just a routine question," Ming Shu said.

At that point, Yin Qingdong was starting to look more and more nervous. "It's not possible. It's really just not possible. When Old Luo joined us a few years ago, he did at least invite us out for meals and drinks. He wasn't an unpleasant person, and that was how I got to know him.

"But there were still people who turned their noses up at him and wouldn't ever accept his invitations, so eventually he stopped inviting us and stopped coming to the association as often. He turned his focus to making money and doing business, like you said. If you're looking for a suspect, you really won't find anyone here at our association. It'd be a better use of your time to talk to his family, or the businessmen he dealt with."

Of course, even without Yin Qingdong offering that bit of unsolicited advice, Ming Shu had already sent his men to thoroughly investigate Luo Xiangfu's family members and business associates.

But since the subject had been brought up by Yin Qingdong himself, Ming Shu took the opportunity and asked, "His family? Do you have reason to believe we would find a suspect in his family?"

Yin Qingdong hesitated. "Old Luo and his wife, Kang Yu… and their son, Luo Xiaolong. The relationship between them, all of them, was never that good."

"Really?" Ming Shu mused. "But when Luo Xiangfu disappeared, it was Kang Yu who looked everywhere for him and reported him missing. She seemed to have been panicked."

"Sure, she looked for him, but that doesn't prove anything. Panicking doesn't prove anything either! How do you know she wasn't faking that? Let me tell you this. I'm an artist, in the same line of work, and it's true that Old Luo wasn't very talented. It's true that he had a knack for talking a big game and swindling big customers.

"But he never stole. He wasn't a thief. He was just a man who always put his family first. It isn't a crime to want to earn money to support his family, is it?"

Yin Qingdong seemed to have drifted off onto a tangent, but Ming Shu allowed him to continue.

"There's no mistake about it," Yin Qingdong insisted. "Old Luo worked hard for his family's sake. His clients were all the rich and senseless type that would throw around ten thousand yuan, or tens of thousands of yuan, at the drop of a hat. But Old Luo still dressed like a peasant! And why is that? It's because all his money was squandered by that spoiled brat and gold-digging wife of his!"

Ming Shu thought back and remembered that Kang Yu was not only well-pampered, like she was no stranger to salon treatments and luxury skincare products, but had been rather well-dressed as well.

If Kang Yu and Luo Xiangfu had stood side by side, it was possible that no one would have been able to tell they were a married couple. They looked like they were from different worlds entirely.

"Once, when we were out drinking, Old Luo told me he grew up in rags, practically destitute," Yin Qingdong said. "His family couldn't afford medical care when his poor old mother got sick, and it wasn't long before she passed away. Now, Old Luo practically thinks about nothing except making money, but he never spends any of that money on himself. He told me he gives some to Kang Yu to spend, and the rest he saves in case of emergencies."

"Did you know about the two million he gave to Luo Xiaolong?" Ming Shu asked.

"Of course I know, how could I not know? Old Luo talked about it all the time. He was thrilled about it, and who wouldn't be? What kind of father wouldn't be happy to be able to support his son? Ah, but that reminds me—I remember Luo Xiaolong used up all that cash, and later came back to ask Old Luo for more."

Ming Shu's eyebrows rose at that. This was new information. "How much did he ask for? Did Luo Xiangfu give it to him?'

"I'm not sure about that."

"When did this happen?"

"Pretty recently," Yin Qingdong said. He fell into thought for a moment, thinking back. "Last month, when Old Luo invited me, Old Fu, and Old Li to his house. That's when he told us. At that time, he hadn't given his son the money yet. He was just complaining about how his kid had no business sense, and any money he gave Luo Xiaolong would just be wasted. But as for whether or not he gave him the money in the end, that I don't know."

Ming Shu immediately followed-up with another question. "Then, do you remember Luo Xiangfu and Kang Yu having an argument when you visited their home?"

Yin Qingdong looked surprised at that. "Kang Yu told you?"

Ming Shu ignored the question and pressed on. "Was it a very serious fight?"

"Actually, I wouldn't really call it a fight at all," Yin Qingdong said. "It was really just Kang Yu one-sidedly scolding Old Luo for speaking poorly of their son in front of guests. Absolutely unreasonable, don't you think? If Old Luo is in a bad mood, doesn't he have a right to complain? Just because he's Luo Xiaolong's father, does that mean Luo Xiaolong is entitled to waste his money away?"

Yin Qingdong shook his head disapprovingly. "It's a good thing Old Luo was never short on money. He's such a weak-willed man. That's why Luo Xiaolong has been able to borrow so much money from him. Excuse me for saying something unkind, but the truth is even if Old Luo hadn't been murdered, that son of his would have drained him dry one day."

That was a very different story from the one Kang Yu told. Ming Shu studied Yin Qingdong as he thought back to his conversation with Kang Yu and the explanation she had given for her fight with Luo Xiangfu.

Between Kang Yu and Yin Qingdong, someone was definitely lying.

The question was, who was lying? And which one of them had more to gain by lying or hiding the truth?

"What else?" Ming Shu asked. Though his thoughts were spinning rapidly, processing this new information, his expression was perfectly calm and unreadable. "The people Luo Xiangfu did business with. Were there any you had a particularly deep impression of?"

"Now that's the sort of information I wouldn't dare give out willy-nilly," Yin Qingdong said, flapping his hand as though to shoo away the subject. "You detectives have the power to investigate that on your own, don't you?"

Ming Shu flashed a cryptic smile that crinkled the corners of his eyes.

"All I know," Yin Qingdong hurriedly added, "is that some of those rich folks owed Old Luo money. That's what Old Luo said, at least. But I really don't know who he was talking about. I can't just make wild guesses about it, right?"

"Just one last question," Ming Shu said. "What do you know about Luo Xiangfu's interest in photography?"

"Ah, now that's something I know a lot about," Yin Qingdong said. "You've asked the right person. A while ago, I even went with Old Luo to shop for a camera."

"Kang Yu said that ever since Luo Xiangfu got into photography, he hasn't been taking commissions or any other sort of work," Ming Shu said. He threw these crumbs of information out almost casually, just waiting for Yin Qingdong to gobble them up.

Yin Qingdong laughed at that. "Kang Yu had the gall to say that? It's her fault that Luo Xiangfu got so wrapped up in photography, you know. It was a way of escaping from his horrible home life. That wife of his only cares about herself and her son. She's been cold to Old Luo for years. Whether Old Luo spends time at home or not, no one in his family cares. The way she treats him, that's emotional abuse, you know?"

Ming Shu had dealt with emotional abuse cases before. There was a common belief that when it came to domestic abuse, whether it was emotional or physical, the victims were always women. But in reality, that wasn't necessarily the case. In middle-aged couples, a fairly significant portion of emotional abuse victims were men.

"Luo Xiangfu mostly took pictures of young women," Ming Shu continued. "Has he shown you those photographs before?"

Yin Qingdong opened and closed his mouth a few times, like he wasn't sure what to say, before he finally sighed and nodded. "Yeah, I've seen them. Every time he showed them off, he seemed really happy. But you tell me, an old man like him? Chasing after young girls to take their pictures? What kind of behavior is that? If this were a few decades ago, he would have been branded a criminal and carted off to jail!

"I tried to tell him that he should stop that sort of thing, but he wouldn't listen. He would just say that he's worked hard for his family all his life and never had a hobby before now. And now, at this age, he's finally found something he enjoys. He really didn't want any of us giving him advice about it at all."

Ming Shu leaned back in his chair and took a moment to process this onslaught of new information. It was at just that moment that he received a call from Zhou Yuan.

"Captain Ming! We found something on the surveillance tapes!"

The clip of footage in question was of a poor quality, taken on July 1st at 10:24 in the evening. A man wearing a brimmed hat, moving suspiciously, entered the gated neighborhood in which Luo Xiangfu lived. At 11:57, the same man exited through the same gate.

It was very likely the man was Luo Xiaolong, and the camera that had caught him coming and going happened to be one of the only two cameras in the neighborhood that worked: the one above the west gate.

"Captain Ming," Zhou Yuan added meekly. He was a small man, with a small voice to match. "I remember when you told me to check the footage from the camera on the west gate, Kang Yu said Luo Xiangfu never came and went through that gate. She told us it would be a waste of time to check that camera."

Of course, Ming Shu remembered that detail as well. He also remembered that, when he had visited Kang Yu in her home, she'd made a point of telling him that Luo Xiaolong hadn't been home in many months and that he was still rushing to get back to Dongye City now.

With the discovery of this surveillance footage, it now seemed evident that Luo Xiaolong had been at the Luo family's home the day before Luo Xiangfu's murder. And just a month before that, Luo Xiangfu had complained to his friends about his son's lack of business sense and habit of always asking him for money.

Did Luo Xiaolong sneaking into his family home in the middle of the night have anything to do with a dispute over the money he'd asked for?

Did Luo Xiangfu's death have anything to do with Luo Xiaolong?

"Where is Luo Xiaolong right now?" Ming Shu demanded with a cold, unforgiving scowl.

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