Chi Xiaomin had practically evaporated. She had disappeared without a trace.
Before the murders took place, several of the girls who lived in the East 9 dorm saw Li Hongmei and Chi Xiaomin leaving together. But in all the public surveillance footage of Li Hongmei, after leaving the campus, she was alone.
Room 509 was beyond a doubt the scene of the crime. Many traces indicating Li Hongmei had returned still remained in that room, but there were no signs that Chi Xiaomin had come back with her.
But how could a living, breathing person simply disappear without leaving any traces at all?
Chi Xiaomin's sudden disappearance must have had something to do with Li Hongmei and the events that transpired within the university.
With some suspicions still lingering on his mind, Ming Shu took Fang Yuanhang and returned to the University of Foreign Languages.
The East 9 dorm, which had previously been so full of life and energy, was like a dreary ghost town. The police tape had already been removed, and now only Room 509 was still cordoned off. But East 9 was a women's dormitory. All of the girls on the fifth floor had left. Some rented a place off campus, while others went straight home. The residents of Room 510 were all receiving psychological treatment from the school counselor.
As soon as the fifth floor's residents all cleared out, the girls on the floors above and below them started to move out as well. The population of the building dwindled day by day. Even the bravest girls didn't want to stay in a place like that.
The tech investigators were still going over the footage from the nearest surveillance cameras on campus.
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang began. "If we're looking for Chi Xiaomin, there's no need for us to come back to East 9, is there?"
"There's a need," Ming Shu answered. His purpose in returning was actually to get another look at the bloody writing on the walls of 509.
They all deserve to die.
That was Li Hongmei's motive.
When Ming Shu put himself in Li Hongmei's shoes, the root of that motive couldn't have been more clear. Li Hongmei had endured three years of physical and mental torture from that group led by Wen Jingjing. Finally, her rage had broken free, and she killed her three tormentors.
But why didn't her rage explode sooner? Or later? Why now?
Thinking about it rationally, the abuse Li Hongmei received this time was nowhere near as serious as some of the abuse she had endured in the past. That meant Chi Xiaomin was a person of interest in this case.
On the other hand, not all human behavior could be explained rationally. Any little trigger could be enough to serve as the straw that broke the camel's back.
In the night, even with the hallway and room lights all switched on, even with the bodies of the victims already moved away, the bloodstained Room 509 made for a grisly sight.
Ming Shu stood in the center of the room, staring at the writing on the wall.
They all deserve to die.
Some people deserve to die.
These words, this idea of 'deserving death', was a link between Lu Kun and Li Hongmei.
Ming Shu's eyes grew colder, and the furrow between his brows deepened.
Was Li Hongmei like Lu Kun? Had she read the books of Entombed Heart?
For a moment, he ducked his head and scrubbed at his eyes. Two contradictory thoughts were tearing his mind apart.
Maybe Li Hongmei had been influenced by Entombed Heart.
Or maybe Li Hongmei had nothing to do with Lu Kun, and Ming Shu was jumping to baseless conclusions.
"Chief?" Fang Yuanhang called out to Ming Shu several times. Receiving no response, he had no choice but to lift a hand and give Ming Shu a shake. "Chief, what's on your mind?"
Ming Shu took a deep, slow breath. "Come on. Let's take a look through Li Hongmei's personal belongings."
That was when Fang Yuanhang seemed to connect the dots. "You think Li Hongmei has also read Entombed Heart's novels?"
"It's a possibility," Ming Shu said. He made his way over to Li Hongmei's bedside. Among her personal belongings, there could very well be clues as to the whereabouts of Chi Xiaomin as well.
Although the University of Foreign Languages in Dongye City had been established over sixty years ago, the East 9 dormitory building was constructed only in the past few years. The rooms were fairly nice and modern, with loft beds raised above a personal desk for each student.
Li Hongmei's personal area was extremely tidy. Opening the mosquito net around her bed revealed a duvet that was neatly folded at the head of the bed. Underneath her bed, her desk was extremely organized as well. She only kept the most basic school supplies, nothing more than the bare necessities, on the surface of her desk. There were no other items, not even a mirror.
And her closet was completely empty.
There were only about a dozen books on her bookshelf. Ming Shu took them all out and skimmed over the covers. They were all textbooks.
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang said. "The other three don't have any books by Entombed Heart on their shelves either."
Ming Shu nodded his acknowledgement and flipped through the book he was holding, an intermediate-level textbook of test questions about translations. Many notes, in various colors of ink, were scribbled on the pages. It seemed Li Hongmei had been planning to take the graduate school exam that year.
She had had plans and ambitions for the future, and she had torn those plans apart with her own hands.
Suddenly, a scrap of paper slipped out from between the pages of the textbook. Ming Shu picked it up. Once he read the note written on that piece of paper, his eyes gradually filled up with doubt.
The writing on the note read—
If I avenge you, my life will be over.
If I live my life, then they will forever remain unfettered.
What should I do?
Do you wish for me to look to the future and live a full life? Or do you wish for me to sacrifice everything for you?
"What does it mean?" Fang Yuanhang asked. He frowned at the note, clearly confused, when Ming Shu passed it over to him. "Who's the 'you' and the 'they' in this? What's this bit about avenging someone? Did Li Hongmei write this? What is she trying to say?"
"She wrote it," Ming Shu confirmed. "The handwriting on that note and the notes in the textbook are exactly the same."
"Ah, hell," Fang Yuanhang mumbled. "I'm really confused now."
"Li Hongmei is an orphan. Both her parents are deceased, and she doesn't have any close relatives." Ming Shu closed the textbook. "The 'you' she writes about here could very well refer to her deceased relatives. It seems the burden Li Hongmei bears is even heavier than we know.
"Look into her background. Find out what happened in Xia Ben Village."
Criminal Investigation Bureau. The interrogation of Li Hongmei had started anew.
She had confessed to the crime, yet she refused to say anything about where Chi Xiaomin had gone. It was hard to imagine why she would guard that secret so tightly.
"Where is Chi Xiaomin?" Although Li Hongmei had demanded not to speak to any more beautiful policewomen, rules were rules. There had to be a woman in the interrogation room with her at all times. Cheng Xixue, from Task Force One, was sitting across from Li Hongmei now, with growing impatience on her face. "Where did she go after you left East 9 with her?"
Li Hongmei gave almost no reaction whatsoever. "I don't know."
"You claim over and over again that Chi Xiaomin is your friend," said Cheng Xixue. "You left the dormitory together, going in the same direction, yet you don't know where she went?"
Li Hongmei flashed a cold, tight-lipped smile. "The person you're looking for is the one who killed Wen Jingjing and the others, isn't it? I'm the killer. I've confessed. You have the evidence in hand. None of this has anything to do with Xiaomin. Why are you looking for her?"
Cheng Xixue slapped the edge of the table. "You killed three people less than four hours after parting ways with Chi Xiaomin! That means Chi Xiaomin is a person of interest in this case!"
Li Hongmei's eyes shifted and spun in their sockets, an utterly bizarre and unsettling twitch. "Then good luck finding her."
The interrogation proved to be fruitless. An utter waste of time. Cheng Xixue emerged from the interrogation room, shaking her head. "To tell the truth, if I had been classmates with Li Hongmei, I would have hated her too. Just looking at her face gives me the creeps."
"Go get some rest," Yi Fei said reassuringly. "We'll take care of what comes next. What you said just now, we'll keep it between us. When you put on that uniform you're wearing, you can't say these things to just anyone."
With Li Hongmei giving them nothing, it was a good thing the thorough search of the campus that Ming Shu had organized turned up a lead.
Chi Xiaomin had come to East 9 more than once, and she'd left a deep impression on everyone who saw her there. A few of the girls were able to remember that Li Hongmei had met Chi Xiaomin at one of her part-time jobs.
Li Hongmei had worked a total of three jobs. She was an evening shift proofreader for a newspaper, an extracurricular English tutor for junior high school students, and a cashier at a milk tea shop.
After investigating each business, the detectives were able to confirm that Chi Xiaomin worked at a fresh fruit shop next to the milk tea place where Li Hongmei had been employed.
"Did something happen to that young lady?" asked the owner of the fruit shop, with a deeply worried expression. "She was supposed to work the morning shift yesterday, but she never showed up. Now it's been two days, and she doesn't answer when I call her cell phone. She's been working here with me for almost half a year, and she's always been well-behaved. She's never done this before."
"Do you know where she lives?" Ming Shu asked. Even as he spoke, a bad feeling was already dawning on him.
The boss nodded and tore off a corner of a calendar page to scribble down the address. "Nothing happened to Xiaomin, right?"
Ming Shu read the address and knew it was nearby. It was a dilapidated apartment building that was so old and worn-down that it was close to being classified as a dangerous structure.
Fang Yuanhang rushed over to the address right away, while Ming Shu stayed back to ask some more questions about Chi Xiaomin's situation.
The boss didn't have a very good understanding of Chi Xiaomin either, only that the girl had come from a rural village, that she was around twenty years old, that she had stopped going to school a long time ago, and that she had come to the city to find work to make a living for herself.
"I think she wanted to save money to go back to school. She was close friends with a college student, but I haven't seen that college student in a few days either. A really ugly girl, that's who Xiaomin was always with. Ah, that's right—I have a copy of Chi Xiaomin's identification information."
The boss reached into a drawer and pulled out a piece of folded paper while explaining, "I had a part-timer in the past who stole over a thousand yuan after working for me for just a week. Now, whenever I hire someone, I always have them show me their ID and make a photocopy to keep here."
"That's good practice," Ming Shu said. He took the photocopied document and saw that Chi Xiaomin hailed from a town called Kong Liu, near Lanxiang City, which was over a thousand kilometers away from Dongye City.
Before long, Fang Yuanhang called in with what he had discovered. He reported that Chi Xiaomin wasn't at the place she'd rented, and so far there were no other clues as to where she could have gone.
Another piece of alarming news came in at the same time: Chi Xiaomin's identification documents were forgeries. In the official census registry, no such person existed.
"Holy shit!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "Is Chi Xiaomin a 'ghost'?!"
In law enforcement, a 'ghost' was someone born without any official records and raised by a 'master' as an orphan. These orphans didn't go to school, and when they grew up they didn't enter the workforce. They only performed menial tasks for their master, and were sometimes ordered to do illegal work as well. If the existence of a 'ghost' was discovered, or if they brought their master any trouble, the 'ghost' would be 'taken care of'.
Most ordinary people would never come into contact with a 'ghost', and the vast majority would never even hear the word 'ghost' used in this context. But Fang Yuanhang, back in his police academy days, had participated in a large-scale raid to bust up a criminal organization that dealt in raising 'ghosts'. During that raid alone, they had discovered more than three hundred surviving children.
Chi Xiaomin's situation bore certain similarities to the conditions of those 'ghosts'.
If Chi Xiaomin was a 'ghost', then what was her reason for getting close to Li Hongmei? Did her disappearance mean she had been caught and 'taken care of' by her old master?
Ming Shu stood in the doorway of the apartment Chi Xiaomin had been renting. At a rough estimate, the room couldn't have been larger than ten square meters.
The lighting in the room was poor and the air was thick with the unpleasant scent of mold. There was a single bed pushed up against one wall, and on the bed was a pile of clothes and thin blankets.
The blankets were unfolded.
A collapsible table stood in the center of the room. A rice cooker, a bowl and chopsticks, and basic condiments were all that sat atop the table. It was evident that Chi Xiaomin cooked and ate at this table.
The place was just like any cheap apartment. There was no wooden closet or dresser, only a makeshift wardrobe made out of a steel bar and some cloth. Next to the dresser, there were four chairs arranged into a makeshift table, and a heap of books were scattered messily atop those chairs.
Ming Shu made his way over and picked up the book on top of that pile. It was a romance novel. A man and a woman were portrayed on the cover, and the title was awkward and pretentious.
Most of the other books were similarly trashy. But at the bottom of the pile, there was one book with a cover that didn't look at all like any of the others.
Ming Shu pulled it out, and his brows suddenly furrowed into a deep vee.
It was a suspense novel. By Entombed Heart.
Li Hongmei, handcuffed, stared down at the book that had been placed on the table in front of her. The interrogation room was silent for a long while before she finally said, "This isn't mine."
"It's not yours," Ming Shu agreed. "Have you read it?"
Li Hongmei was very, very slow to answer. Eventually, she said, "Xiaomin lent it to me once."
"Did you like it?" Ming Shu asked.
Li Hongmei shook her head.
"Did Chi Xiaomin like it?" Ming Shu pressed.
Li Hongmei started to shake her head, but after a moment nodded instead.
Ming Shu's tone changed considerably as he continued, "When you killed Wen Jingjing and the others, were you influenced by this book?"
"No," Li Hongmei answered, worrying at her broad lower lip. "They deserved to die."
"Then," Ming Shu prompted, "who told you they deserved to die?"
Li Hongmei opened her mouth, then closed it again.
"When did you start to believe they deserved to die?" Ming Shu persisted.
Still, Li Hongmei remained silent, refusing to answer.
The sense of pressure and urgency in Ming Shu's tone continued to build, growing stronger and stronger as he demanded, "Was it after you read Entombed Heart's book?"
Li Hongmei shook her head this time.
"Did you discuss Entombed Heart's book with Chi Xiaomin?" Ming Shu continued.
And this time, Li Hongmei nodded. Her forehead was drenched in sweat.
Ming Shu seized onto that crack in her solid defenses and pried, "Did you always like suspense novels? Your tuition and your cost of living are all paid by you. When you're not at school, you're at work. When did you have time to read this novel?"
Li Hongmei started to shake her head again, more fidgety and uncertain now. "No, I… I had time."
"Really?" Ming Shu asked. Without giving her a chance to think, he continued, "Your university library records show that from your first year of college to now, you only read a total of four novels. Those novels were all about commonplace career struggles. Your first encounter with the suspense genre was through this book by Entombed Heart."
"Yes, that's—yes." Li Hongmei was starting to lose control of her carefully measured tone.
Suddenly, Ming Shu switched up his line of questioning, making it impossible to follow his line of logic and reasoning. "When did you meet Chi Xiaomin?"
"At the start of this year."
"When did you start reading suspense novels?"
"At… also at the start of this year."
"When did you decide you would no longer tolerate being bullied? When did you decide to kill your roommates?"
Li Hongmei fell silent again.
Ming Shu pinned her with a fierce, unwavering stare. "At the start of this year. Correct?"
After a moment of total silence, Li Hongmei buried her face in her hands and emitted an unintelligible, slurred sound.
When Ming Shu was finally able to make out the words, she was still chanting:
"They all deserve to die. They all deserve to die."
"The situation with Chi Xiaomin is just too strange," Ming Shu said. He was lying on the couch in Xiao Yu'an's office. The couch wasn't long enough to fully accommodate his legs, so he had one bent at the knee, and the other was draped over the armrest. "If she has nothing to do with Li Hongmei killing her three roommates, then why has she vanished all of a sudden?
"Li Hongmei was clearly influenced by her to read Entombed Heart's novel. But even if she did recommend the book to Li Hongmei, that's no reason for her to disappear. Is she hiding from something? Or did something happen to her?"
Xiao Yu'an stood by the window, silent for the time being.
Night had fallen once more. The darkened windows were like a mirror, reflecting a shadow of his figure.
Ming Shu had his eyes closed. While he turned the facts of the case over in his mind, again and again, he narrated his thoughts: "If Chi Xiaomin is a 'ghost', then who was the 'master' who raised this 'ghost'? And this is the second murder case where the prime suspect has read Entombed Heart's novel. Li Hongmei and Lu Kun both believed there are people who deserve to die. They…"
He cut himself off with a heavy sigh. "Fang Yuanhang said this case has got him all confused, and I'm all mixed up now too. Ge, help me figure this out."
Xiao Yu'an picked up a black leather-bound notebook and took a seat on the couch. "You talk, I'll listen."
"We have four cases with fatalities on our hands right now. First, Lu Kun went into a frenzy at a book cafe and murdered two children. He had read Entombed Heart's books, and he believed 'some people deserve to die'. And now he claims Entombed Heart compelled him to kill.
"Second, the fatal accident at the amusement park. This one I think we can set aside for now. It seems too much like a coincidence, and doesn't have much to do with our other cases.
"Third, Luo Xiangfu's murder. We've already ruled out all his close acquaintances as suspects. Many of them had a motive, but none of them had the means and opportunity to kill him. I have strong suspicions that his forceful street photography, targeting young women and children, was what brought him to his demise. But we're still investigating that lead.
"Finally, our fourth case—Li Hongmei kills her three roommates in one night. She endured three years of torture from her peers, and one last argument finally made her snap. Just like Lu Kun, she had read a book by Entombed Heart."
After reeling through everything they knew about these cases, in practically one breath, Ming Shu looked at Xiao Yu'an. "Of these three cases we're concerned about, in two we already have a suspect with clear motives. And if Luo Xiangfu was really killed as punishment for his street photography, then all three of these cases share a common thread."
"The killers all believe 'some people deserve to die'," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Exactly!" Ming Shu's eyes were suddenly bright, bursting with a spark of light. "Moreover, they don't think they're killing people. They think they're slaying monsters, demons. They've given themselves what they perceive to be a rational excuse for killing. They tell themselves they're ridding the world of evil!"
Slowly, Xiao Yu'an prompted, "Then what is Chi Xiaomin's role in all of this?"
"That's what I'm stuck on. She could be a lot of things—someone who coincidentally met Li Hongmei through work, or a 'ghost' who got close to Li Hongmei with ulterior motives." Ming Shu clasped his hands together. "She could even be Entombed Heart! Think about it, if she were Entombed Heart, maybe she wouldn't be satisfied with influencing people just through her books. And if she wasn't satisfied, what would she do? Wouldn't she go 'offline', so to speak, and target people in person? If it's like that, Li Hongmei could have been her test subject."
"Your theory works under the assumption that Chi Xiaomin is still alive," Xiao Yu'an said. "Think more broadly about this. There are two reasons a person could disappear. One is because they want to disappear, and the other is they were forced to disappear—that is to say, they were murdered.
"If Chi Xiaomin is already dead, would Li Hongmei be a suspect?"
Ming Shu felt a foreboding shiver run up his spine. "What reason would Li Hongmei have to kill her?"
As soon as the words fell from his lips, Ming Shu froze.
The scrap of paper he had found in Li Hongmei's textbook came to mind.
"Did you remember something?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu told Xiao Yu'an all about the note he had found, then added, "I've already sent Fang Yuanhang to look into her family history. We should have results soon."
The next day, Li Hongmei's background came to light—
She was an orphan, but her family members hadn't passed away due to natural causes. Twelve years ago, her father and older brother got into a confrontation with some 'outsiders'.
They were beaten to death.