The office of the vice deputy director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau was quite different from the open office area where the Serious Crimes Division worked. It was quiet and clean. Every single thing was in its rightful place. But among the folders stacked neatly on the desk, carefully organized by color, there were three novels that seemed incredibly out of place.
The covers of these three books were bizarre and eye-catching. It was no wonder Ming Shu noticed them as soon as he entered the office.
"Director Xiao, you were looking for me?" Ming Shu greeted. Even though he'd closed the door behind himself, it was still work hours. He would at least pretend to put on an air of professionalism.
It had been a while since he and Xiao Yu'an started working together at the Bureau. But when they were at the office, Ming Shu never took the initiative to seek out Xiao Yu'an. He never participated in idle gossip about Xiao Yu'an, and whenever the other man did come up in conversation, Ming Shu only addressed him as 'Director Xiao'.
So far, no one had discovered the true nature of their relationship.
"Sit." Xiao Yu'an gestured at the seat facing his office desk. "How's the Luo Xiangfu case coming along?"
Ming Shu dragged out the chair and took a seat. His gaze fell to the three novels on the desk, and he was startled to see two words printed on one of the covers: Entombed Heart.
"Director Xiao, you're reading Entombed Heart's novels?"
Xiao Yu'an swept his gaze over the books, giving them a cursory glance. "I've talked to Lu Kun a few times. When he committed his crime, he seemed to have been in a sound mental state. But since then, he's shown clear signs of having developed some psychological issues."
Ming Shu had already known that much from his own encounters with Lu Kun.
Back at the Shu Han book cafe, he had personally clashed with Lu Kun. At the time, Lu Kun had been deranged. After killing two children, he had clearly experienced a psychotic break.
When he had been brought to the precinct, he showed obvious signs of falling into a depressed and despondent state as the mania wore off. His emotional outbursts were typical of what one might expect from any ordinary person in his situation. It wasn't until much later that Lu Kun suddenly made the connection between his own actions and the novels he'd read, blaming 'Entombed Heart' for driving him crazy.
Rationally speaking, this was most likely Lu Kun's attempt at clearing his own name. He had become conscious of his crime and would do and say anything to wash himself clean. It wasn't unexpected that he would start to claim, I'm innocent, I didn't do anything wrong, I was just listening to other people, the real criminal isn't me.
This sort of thing wasn't rare to see in criminal investigations at all.
"Lu Kun practically talks about Entombed Heart with every breath he takes. When I reviewed the tapes of his interrogations at the Bei District precinct, it seemed to me there was a clear turning point," Xiao Yu'an said. "It was only on July 6th, which is to say after Luo Xiangfu's body was discovered, that Lu Kun started to insist he had been brainwashed by Entombed Heart."
"Are you saying someone influenced Lu Kun to change his tune during that time?" Ming Shu asked.
"I suspected something like that," Xiao Yu'an said, nodding. "So I checked in with the officers who had been in charge of this case when it still belonged to the Bei District precinct."
Ming Shu raised his eyebrows with keen interest. "What did you find?"
"There was nothing suspicious about the interrogation process, but the societal impact of this case is immense," Xiao Yu'an began. "Several of the officers were shaken up, especially the younger ones and the ones with children similar in age to the victims. One woman, who was recording one of the interrogation sessions, said something in front of Lu Kun—that murderers were extremists, influenced by extremist thinking. After that, Lu Kun changed his plea and started talking about Entombed Heart."
Ming Shu gave that some thought before he said, "That's pretty quick thinking from Lu Kun."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Right. So, taking that into consideration, Entombed Heart is most likely just an empty excuse. But thinking from the standpoint that we should chase down every lead, I found myself wondering if Entombed Heart's novels wouldn't contain some hints that we can use."
Ming Shu picked up one of the books and idly flipped through the pages before rolling his eyes. "Boss, are you sure you don't just want to read some books?"
"If I only wanted to read for leisure, I wouldn't read here," Xiao Yu'an said as he got to his feet. "Want some water? I'll get you a cup."
Ming Shu pouted and reached for a nearby glass. "I can share with you."
Although the two of them had confirmed their relationship a long time ago, in terms of their daily lives, they still had very different habits. Take reading and drinking water, for example—
Ming Shu had never liked reading, not even as a kid. Xiao Yu'an, on the other hand, could pick up a book and read nonstop from morning to night. He read broadly as well, enjoying everything from classic masterpieces to popular commercial fiction.
And Ming Shu preferred drinks with some flavor to them. Tea was good, and so was coffee. Flavored water was fine too. He just preferred something he could taste. But Xiao Yu'an always drank plain boiled water, only making a pot of tea when he had guests.
But Ming Shu was a flexible person. If Xiao Yu'an told him to read a book, he would read it from start to finish, even if he hated it the whole time. And if it was Xiao Yu'an's glass in front of him, even if it was filled with plain old water, Ming Shu would drink it down.
When the stubborn Captain Ming who always stuck to his habits and principles was with his lover of many years, he wasn't so stubborn. He became like the kid who looked up to Xiao Yu'an all over again, shamelessly waiting to be pampered and spoiled.
Ming Shu cradled the glass possessively and slowly sipped the water. "The Bei District guys did a thorough pass over Lu Kun's background, and we even dug into all his online interactions for the past year. He never had any communication with unidentified persons. That means this 'brainwashing' he's talking about only came about as a result of reading Entombed Heart's books, and that isn't admissible as evidence in a criminal case."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "I know. But there's more we can do to get to the bottom of Lu Kun's situation."
"Hm?" Ming Shu leaned forward and placed both hands on the edge of the desk.
That pose made him look like an extremely studious and attentive student at a lecture.
And Xiao Yu'an was the smart, elegant professor.
"The 'brainwashing' Lu Kun talks about isn't a solid defense. It doesn't excuse his crimes. But there could be some truth to him being influenced by these books," Xiao Yu'an explained. "Assuming that's true, imagine if there's someone else who reads these books. Imagine a certain sentence, under certain circumstances, triggers another violent reaction. Would the tragedy at the cafe be repeated?"
Ming Shu suddenly thought back to an eyewitness named She Qun.
She Qun had said, just before the murders, Lu Kun had been reading a book. On the cover, there were the following words:
Some people deserve to die.
In crime and suspense novels, which often carried a heavy sense of intensity, such phrases were common and not literal. Not meant to be taken seriously. But it wasn't impossible that they could influence the way a reader thought.
After silently pondering the matter for half a minute, Ming Shu shook his head. "These are extreme circumstances. The book itself isn't guilty of any wrongdoing, the guilty party is Lu Kun. It's like how a lot of parents criticize video games these days, saying the games turn their children into addicts. There's no logic to that sort of argument, because the games haven't done anything wrong."
"Of course the book isn't guilty. You can't have thought I would try to pursue Entombed Heart as a suspect," Xiao Yu'an said. "But even if Lu Kun is a rare example, this sort of example can't be ignored. If the books of Entombed Heart can trigger a deranged person, there just might be something in the text that can be of use to us."
Ming Shu immediately straightened up and gave Xiao Yu'an his full attention. "What did you find?"
"Nothing so far," Xiao Yu'an answered, maintaining his calm demeanor.
Ming Shu huffed and propped his chin up on one hand. In that moment, he didn't look at all like the sharp and resolute captain who Fang Yuanhang called 'Chief'.
"I thought you called me in here because you had a breakthrough."
"I just think that nothing unexpected happens without a reason," Xiao Yu'an said. "Lu Kun surprised us by suddenly pleading innocent and claiming to have been compelled to kill. Most likely, shifting the blame to Entombed Heart is solely to shift attention away from himself. But since Entombed Heart has already become a piece on our board, we may as well look into their work.
"Sometimes, a clue that seems useless becomes the critical piece when we need to tie everything together."
Ming Shu nodded as he calmed himself. "I'll send someone to check out Entombed Heart. Ge, setting Lu Kun's case aside for aside for a bit, I have a guess about Luo Xiangfu's case."
Xiao Yu'an listened intently. "I called you here just to hear your thoughts on the Luo Xiangfu case. Go ahead."
"I don't have enough evidence to back up this theory yet," Ming Shu said. He stood up and started to pace in the small space next to the office desk. "The thing that drew a killer to Luo Xiangfu may very well have been his one and only hobby—street photography."
Xiao Yu'an leaned back in his chair and folded his hands over his abdomen. His gaze was full of attentiveness, encouraging Ming Shu to continue.
"We can most likely conclude that the killer isn't someone Luo Xiangfu knew. If the killer was someone he was acquainted with, then we would have already come into contact with them during our investigation," Ming Shu said. "Earlier, based on the murder weapon and the use of drugs in the assault, Xing Mu and I had concluded that it was very possible the murderer could be a woman.
"I admit that kind of deduction is haphazardous, but considering what we know now, it seems more and more likely that the killer is a woman."
Xiao Yu'an didn't interrupt. He remained completely silent, only nodding every now and then at the appropriate times.
"Luo Xiangfu was into photography for two years. The incident with Wen Yao was just the one that drew the most attention. I spoke to Wen Yao, and… how do I put it… she loathes Luo Xiangfu and men like him. She's harassed by that type of person not only on the street, but at her workplace as well," Ming Shu continued. "But her hatred isn't strong enough to drive her to murder. She was just looking for an outlet, a way to vent her anger. In this regard, she seems like the sort of person who's capable of managing her negative emotions. She might do something like rally public opinion to her side, but she wouldn't kill."
"Then the person who killed Luo Xiangfu," Xiao Yu'an finally chimed in, "could be someone who had experienced even worse cases of harassment. Someone who hated Luo Xiangfu even more."
"Exactly!" Ming Shu clenched his fists. "But this person is very well hidden, and Luo Xiangfu might not have even known her when he was alive. Investigating this theory won't be easy."
After a few beats of silence, Xiao Yu'an remarked, "This is a fairly conventional theory. Have you had any more outlandish ideas?"
Ming Shu stopped pacing and stilled in place. "Outlandish?"
Xiao Yu'an reached out and tapped the cover of Entombed Heart's book with his index finger. "'Some people deserve to die.'"
Ming Shu's eyes went wide. "Ge?"
"That's the opinion put forth in these books, and it's an opinion that's common on the internet these days," Xiao Yu'an said. "I have some acquaintances at the TV station, and I had them send over the unedited records of the interviews they did after Lu Kun's arrest. Among the people interviewed, more than one held the opinion that those children deserved to die."
Ming Shu pulled his chair out again and slowly sank back into it.
"Have these people really been so aggrieved by noisy children that they truly think there's no choice but to kill?" Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "I find it hard to believe hatred that fierce is normal."
"So, abnormal hatred?" Ming Shu mused. He hesitated and gave that some thought for a moment before his eyes flashed with certainty. "That's what it is! Abnormal hate."
"Noisy children, and elderly photographers who force people to model for them. There seems to be nothing in common between these two groups, but they've both had similar effects on society," Xiao Yu'an said. "If there are people who believe killing noisy children is righteous, then there may be people who believe killing forceful street photographers is righteous as well. There could be a connection there, between that mindset and your case."
Ming Shu cupped his face in both hands, leaning forward with intensity burning in his eyes. "If that's the case, then this investigation just got even more complicated. Anyone with a twisted enough heart, who hates old street photographers, could have killed Luo Xiangfu, and… shit!"
"What is it?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"If we're right about this, then Luo Xiangfu definitely isn't the killer's only target! They'll kill again!"
"That's exactly right," Xiao Yu'an confirmed. "We can also assume they may have killed before as well."
Ming Shu's leg began to bounce restlessly, without his conscious notice. His face paled, taking on an unhealthy tinge. "If we're going to look into it from this angle, then we'll have to dig into old cases or the missing persons list. But it'll be like finding a needle in a haystack."
By then, the sun was already starting to set. The golden glow spilled in through the windows, shining through the flecks of dust in the air and turning them into brilliant golden specks of light.
"It's about time," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu was clearly still enthralled by the case. "Time for what?"
"There's no need to work overtime today, and work hours are already over," Xiao Yu'an said as he started to gather up the files on his desk.
"No, but…" Ming Shu frowned, visibly puzzled. "You're telling me to go home?"
"Do you often stay late at the office?"
"We haven't solved the case yet."
Xiao Yu'an asked, warmly, "Ever since you became the captain of the Serious Crimes Division, have you become the type who doesn't rest and doesn't sleep until they've cracked a case? You don't go home, until all your cases are solved?"
Ming Shu thought about it and realized he couldn't deny it at all.
"And if you don't have any cases," Xiao Yu'an continued, "you arrive late and leave early, and don't do any real work."
"That's not true!" Ming Shu retorted with an indignant huff. "The cases we get in Serious Crimes are all complicated, and I work nonstop to get to the bottom of those cases. After I wrap them up, don't I have every right to catch up on some sleep?"
"I didn't say you don't have the right," Xiao Yu'an said. He circled around his desk and approached Ming Shu, stopping beside him. He stood while Ming Shu sat, creating a vast difference in height between them.
Xiao Yu'an reached out with his right hand and very casually, naturally gave Ming Shu an affectionate pat on the head.
Ming Shu sighed contentedly, clearly not at all bothered by the hand stroking his hair.
"The case has to be solved, but not at the expense of your body and your health," Xiao Yu'an said. "At this point, the case won't be solved by just you spending all night at the office. Understand?"
Ming Shu had been a detective for several years. Of course he understood the logic behind what Xiao Yu'an was saying. But in the past, his reason for staying late in the office—often even staying all night—wasn't just that he had a case he wanted to solve as soon as possible. Another reason for his nights spent at the office was that being in a long-distance relationship was almost like being single. There was nothing waiting for him at home; it was a lonely existence.
He didn't know how to cook, so he could only order take-out. Then he would go right back to thinking about whatever case he was working on. If it was going to be like that, then he had always figured he may as well stay at the office and eat at the cafeteria. He could set up a cot in the Serious Crimes Division's office area and nap when he got sleepy. It saved time and effort, and he didn't have to suffer the loneliness of being at home by himself. His mind wouldn't drift and think of all sorts of pointless things.
"Even machines need maintenance and rest. Naturally, people do as well. When you're well-rested, your mind will be sharper and faster." Xiao Yu'an gave Ming Shu's shoulder a firm pat. "Quit wasting time here. Pack up your stuff and come to my place tonight."
Ming Shu leapt to his feet in a flash. "Come to your place to… 'do homework'?"
Xiao Yu'an lightly flicked Ming Shu's forehead, between his brows. "Jinlan dropped by yesterday and left me a bunch of medicinal herbs and a free-range chicken. She told me to stew it for you and make sure you're eating enough."
Xiao Jinlan was Xiao Yu'an's older sister. Even before she got married, she had doted on Ming Shu and treated him like family. Now that she was a wife and mother, she took even better care of him, often sending him care packages in the mail.
The Xiao family had more than made up for the lack of familial warmth Ming Shu received from his own family.
There were no surveillance cameras in the vice deputy's office, so Ming Shu wrapped his arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist and hugged him tight. "Then after I've eaten enough, you have to make sure I get enough of something else."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Whatever you say."