Yuanhai County, Xia Ben Village.
Li Hongmei was born to a family that was not acceptable in the eyes of society. Her mother, Kang Ximei, had first been brought to Xia Ben Village as a victim of human trafficking.
And this type of 'procurement' wasn't an uncommon occurrence in Xia Ben Village. Men bought women, or parents bought young wives for their sons. The unfortunate victims became mere child-bearing tools in this backwards fishing village, and almost all of them never found happiness again.
Kang Ximei was an exception. She had found a slight blessing within all her misfortune.
She was from a neighboring country, she didn't speak Mandarin, and she had severe psychological illnesses. Since she was cheap, Li Hongmei's grandfather had purchased her for Li Guozhong.
Although his wife had been bought for him, Li Guozhong treated Kang Ximei well. He didn't make her suffer any abuse at his hands, and after they confirmed their relationship, he didn't seek out extramarital affairs with other women.
The other men in the village ridiculed Li Guozhang for his treatment of his wife. They jeered and reminded him that women were simply merchandise to be owned. Since this one had already been bought for him, he should use it well, and if it broke, he should simply get a replacement. What was the point of treating a woman so well?
Li Guozhong would always retort that Kang Ximei was his wife. A member of his family. And certainly not a piece of merchandise.
Kang Ximei couldn't understand any of it, but she was able to laugh in her days with Li Guozhong.
Before long, they welcomed their children Li Liangyou and Li Hongmei and became a happy and harmonious family of five.
When Li Hongmei was little, her mother Kang Ximei rarely had an episode. Perhaps that was because of the Chinese medicine Li Guozhong kept around the house, or perhaps it was because of the warm environment of their home. Regardless of the cause, she was typically a caring and loving mother to her children.
Xia Ben Village was located near the sea, and most of its residents made a living as fishermen. Li Guozhong and Li Liangyou, both vigorous and full of youthful energy, worked diligently to fish up a good haul every day to provide their little family with a relatively comfortable life.
Li Hongmei had been born ugly, but she was a smart and thoughtful child. Before tragedy struck her family, she could have been said to have had a happy childhood.
Li Guozhong had never read a book in his life; he was illiterate. His favorite pastime when he had any free time was to listen to 'educated' people describe the worlds from all the books they had read. He was simple but open-minded, and he could easily strike up a conversation with just about anyone.
Xia Ben Village had archaic and outdated traditions now, but it was even more behind the times ten years ago. With the atmosphere of an old-timey fishing village, it occasionally attracted young tourists and backpackers who passed through as sightseers.
These were mostly students, though occasionally an older retired visitor would come by. These tourists would stay a while in the village to experience the sensation of going back in time, before taking their leave once they'd had enough.
The villagers called them 'outsiders'.
In Li Guozhang's eyes, every outsider was an educated and cultured person. He liked to invite these strangers to his house, and he would often call Li Hongmei and Li Liangyou out from inside to sit with them in the front yard for some tea and conversation.
Among these 'outsiders', there had once been a woman. She was a white-collar worker named A-Shen. A-Shen said to them, Knowledge can change the course of fate. Especially for little girls.
At that time, for the girls born in Xia Ben Village, their fate was simply to get married one day and lose all sense of personhood.
After hearing A-Shen espouse the virtues of knowledge, Li Guozhang asked Li Hongmei and Li Liangyou if they wanted to leave the village to go to school.
Li Liangyou was an honest and straightforward young man, but he was simple and slow to speak. He had already passed the ideal age to enter school, and all he truly wanted was to make an honest living as a hard-working fisherman. Once he had enough savings, he wanted to find a wife the proper way—not by buying a woman like his father.
Li Guozhong approved of his decision.
Li Hongmei, on the other hand, was only a few years old at the time. She had always looked at the various books that outsiders brought in with a deep longing in her eyes.
"Papa, I want to go to school," she said. "I want to go out and learn, and I want to go to college, and I want to become a doctor like A-Shen!"
Li Guozhong was elated by this decision as well, but he teased her, saying, "Does that mean Hongmei is willing to leave us behind?"
Li Hongmei thought about this for a moment before she said, "No, I can't."
"Then do you still want to leave the village?"
"A-shen-jiejie said knowledge can change fate. I don't want to get married, so I'll become a doctor, and then I'll come back to the village and take you all to live in the outside world with me!"
Li Guozhong guffawed and called over Kang Ximei. "Look, you see? Our daughter is such a promising child."
Kang Ximei didn't know how to speak very well. Her only answer was a warm, gentle smile.
Li Guozhong continued, "Then your papa and your big brother will take care of saving for your tuition."
"Okay!" Li Hongmei cheered.
Her father and brother were men of their word. Once they made a promise, they kept it. They began to work even harder and headed out to sea on longer and more frequent fishing trips in order to save up for the tuition of the family's one and only daughter. Day by day, Li Hongmei grew up as well. Although it couldn't be denied that she was ugly, she read more and more, and 'outsiders' regularly complimented her on her intelligence.
When Li Liangyou was twenty years old, he became friends with a girl from the neighborhood—Li Chunyan.
Unfortunately, the son of the village chief—named Li Shuxian—was already pursuing the beautiful girl.
In terms of his looks and his family background, Li Liangyou couldn't compete with Li Shuxian. But in the end, Li Chunyan chose Li Liangyou. She saw him as a more reliable and steadfast man who would make a good husband for life.
But bad luck descended upon her.
Li Shuxian had been a menace on Xia Ben Village for many years. Word of his bad reputation had even travelled to neighboring villages. He pursued Li Chunyan not because he wanted to marry her, but purely because she was the most beautiful unmarried woman in Xia Ben Village. He could make himself look better by winning over Li Chunyan, and once he had used her up, he could toss her away just as easily.
When Li Chunyan chose Li Liangyou instead, Li Shuxian was utterly humiliated. Poisonous envy filled his heart.
Twelve years ago, at the end of the summer season, Li Shuxian abducted Li Chunyan and lured Li Liangyou out to a barren, deserted hill. But what awaited Li Liangyou there wasn't Li Chunyan; instead, he was met by the band of thugs Li Shuxian had hired from a neighboring village.
Li Guozhong had been afraid something would happen to his son, and had followed Li Liangyou to the hill.
But to the thugs, it made no difference whether the son showed up alone or the son and father showed up together. They were beaten almost beyond recognition; forensics confirmed they had been brutally assaulted by blunt, heavy weapons.
When Li Shuxian lured Li Liangyou out to the hill, many people—perhaps even most people—in the village knew. They could be considered eyewitnesses, and Li Chunyan certainly knew the truth of what had happened.
But they all kept their lips tightly sealed.
Li Hongmei was only nine years old at the time. She could only watch as her elderly grandfather died of rage and heartbreak. There was nothing she could do while her unwell, but usually kind, mother was bitten to death by wild dogs.
In her childish, naive voice, she would continue to insist to the police that came to investigate: "My papa and my big brother were killed by Li Shuxian! Please believe me, it was really Li Shuxian! If you don't believe me, ask Chunyan-jiejie!"
Li Chunyan cried bitter tears, but not only did she refuse to identify Li Shuxian as the guilty party, she stood beside him and defended him. "Shuxian was at my home at that time. He was playing mahjong with my brothers and sisters. We can all confirm he had nothing to do with this. Liangyou was killed by 'outsiders'."
The police came and went without uncovering the truth. Li Hongmei was only left with a lie—that her father and brother had gotten into a dispute with a band of outsiders who killed them over their argument. She was told the police would spare no resource in pursuing these 'outsiders'.
This supposed pursuit went on for twelve years.
But the whole village clearly knew who the real killer was. And the real killer had gotten away with it.
"We were just a small village, but our village chief still had the power to cover up his son's crime with a wave of his hand. Do you believe me?" Li Hongmei asked, as she finished telling her story. Her eyes were red and swollen. "In just one short month, I lost my whole family. There were countless witnesses, but what difference did that make?
"My brother died to save Li Chunyan, and even she didn't dare to come forward with the truth. The light of hope never shined down on that little fishing village, and it especially never shined down on me. I was only nine years old, and I was orphaned. Without a family, without a home. No matter how I screamed and cried, those officials wouldn't listen and wouldn't care. They only know to protect each other, and because of them my family could never rest in peace!"
Long before Li Hongmei began to tell her story, Ming Shu had already formed a general idea of what had happened to her family. Such occurrences were common in backwards villages like Xia Ben Village. Only the details ever changed.
But hearing Li Hongmei tell the tragic story of her family's demise, and hearing her speak of their ordinary life before that tragedy befell them, was enough to make anyone choke up. For a split second, the grief elicited by her words was suffocating.
From the moment her father and brother were killed, Li Hongmei's life had been irrevocably changed.
"Do you know why those monsters didn't do anything to a child like me?" Li Hongmei demanded as she pulled at her disarrayed hair. "It wasn't because they took pity on me as an orphan. It wasn't because they wanted to leave my family with one survivor. It was just because I'm ugly!"
Even Ming Shu couldn't follow the logic of that at first.
It was the logic of the evil, the damned.
"Looks. Beauty. That's the root of all evil," Li Hongmei declared. "If I had been beautiful, I would probably be dead by now—either murdered or abused to death by the filthy men in that village. But those bastards thought, because I'm ugly, there was no way anything but misery awaited me in life. There was no way I would be able to struggle free of that hellhole. They thought that letting me live would make me suffer more than killing me back then.
"Detective, do you understand? In their eyes, no one would ever look my way. No one would ever give me a chance to bring those monsters to justice. In their eyes, with this face of mine, I would only ever encounter persecution and torment in my life. My existence and my suffering brought them pleasure and joy. They're truly the scum of the earth!"
A cold rage whipped through the air around her. Ming Shu suddenly stood up.
Even though he had grown accustomed to sitting in the presence of dark and twisted hearts, he had no way of remaining expressionless in the face of such intense malice.
"But I… but I still wanted to fight to survive," Li Hongmei said, rubbing at the tears in her eyes. "I'll never forget those words. 'Knowledge can change the course of fate.' I studied like my life depended on it, and I was finally able to leave Yuanhai County and come to Dongye City.
"When I came to this big city, I felt like everything had changed! I felt like if I just worked hard, I could be saved. I could finally be seen! Once I had the ability, once I had a place in society, I would definitely make Li Shuxian pay for his crimes. And Li Shuxian's father, the village chief. And the police who covered up their crime. All of them, I would make them all pay!"
The interrogation room was small and narrow, certainly not large enough to create an echo. But Ming Shu could feel Li Hongmei's shuddering words reverberate through his mind over and over again.
"But I failed," Li Hongmei said, shaking her head softly, again and again. "Li Shuxian was right about me. I never stood a chance of being seen or heard by anyone in this world. I only suffered persecution and torment. I finally clawed my way free from that abominable village, only to fall into a deeper abyss. The big city is wonderful, but I had already lost this race at the starting line.
"What do I have that I can use to compete with those rich and beautiful girls from the city? I'd lost when I was born. Wen Jingjing, Lian Qiao, Qin Manyue… girls like them, are they really any better than Li Shuxian?
"I finally realized what I needed to do. With the way I was born, with the way I look, there truly was no chance of me ever being seen or heard." Li Hongmei's mouth twisted into a bitter smile. "My choices? To endure this torture my whole life and become a laughingstock. Or to become a monster, even more monstrous than the other monsters out in the world. A thousand times, ten thousand times more monstrous than them!
"That was the only way you people would ever have listened to me! And my roommates, are you telling me they didn't deserve to die? Didn't they ever think about the consequences when they tortured and humiliated me?!"
When she finished, Li Hongmei seemed to have spent all her fury and energy. She dropped her head and panted as though out of breath.
Ming Shu couldn't help but wonder how things would have turned out if Li Hongmei had entered college and met roommates who wished to help her, instead of ones who only scorned and ostracized her.
Would Li Hongmei have kept to her original plan? Would she have carved out a place for herself in this world and gone on to seek justice for her family the right way?
Or would she still have wallowed in loneliness for years, only to ultimately realize she would forever be alone in the world? Only to explode, just like she had done in this lifetime?
There were no answers to such ruminations.
"I have one more question," Ming Shu said.
Li Hongmei slowly lifted her head.
"You knew it was Li Shuxian who orchestrated the murders of your father and your brother," Ming Shu said. "When you were at your wit's end, seeking justice, did you never think of taking your revenge out on Li Shuxian directly?"
"Are you trying to tell me," Li Hongmei replied, "that I shouldn't have killed my roommates to draw attention to the crimes committed against my family? Are you trying to tell me Wen Jingjing and the others didn't deserve to die for the crimes they committed?"
"Answer my question," Ming Shu stated.
Li Hongmei threw back her head and let out a burst of ferocious, crazed laughter. "I want to seek justice for my family! Do you understand that? My family were all innocent, all good people. I want Li Shuxian to stand on trial for what he did. I want him to be sentenced in a court of law. I want him to admit his guilt, not to be killed by me!"
Ming Shu could plainly see the mania, the loathing, and the abject misery that consumed her.
"My life doesn't matter. I killed people, and I'll pay for that with my own life. I'll accept my sentence!" she proclaimed. Then, she fell silent for a moment before she asked, quietly, "You'll catch Li Shuxian, won't you?"
"The truth of the Xia Ben Village case will surely come to light," Ming Shu swore.
Li Hongmei trembled. "Thank… thank you."
"No, I won't accept your thanks," Ming Shu said.
Li Hongmei looked up, stunned.
"Solving crimes and bringing the perpetrators to justice is my job, my duty. I don't need the gratitude of a murderer," Ming Shu said. "Failing to bring a killer to justice in twelve years… that's a grievous failure on the part of the police in your county."