Upon exiting the interrogation room, Ming Shu slumped against the wall and rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. He was suddenly overcome by an intense wave of exhaustion and resentment.
A human life was like a hand of cards—some were dealt a good hand, and some were dealt a bad hand. Wen Jingjing, Lian Qiao, and Qin Manyue had been born with pretty good cards. Their families were relatively well off and they had been capable young women in their own right. But they spent their lives tormenting others, dirtying their own cards, only to be butchered in the end.
Were they wrong to do what they did to Li Hongmei? Of course they were.
But did they deserve to die? That wasn't for Li Hongmei to decide.
However, it seemed almost like a paradox—because who did deserve to judge these girls, if not their victim Li Hongmei?
Beyond a doubt, the cards Li Hongmei had been born with were the worst of the worst. Anyone who had to live with those cards in their hands might have met an equally tragic, bitter fate.
Ming Shu thought of his own life, his own past.
Compared to the vast majority of people in the world, Ming Shu was undoubtedly considered lucky. He was born into a family with wealth and status, which meant he started the grand race of life far ahead of many others. Though he had never been close to his parents, and though he had never received any affection from his blood-related family, he received more than enough of that affection from the Xiao family to make up for it.
The Xiao family treated him as warmly as any one of their own children, and the children of the Xiao family spoiled and doted on Ming Shu like he was their own little brother.
Most importantly, he had been lucky enough to meet Xiao Yu'an when he was still a child.
Whatever Ming Shu wanted, whatever he wished for, Xiao Yu'an would give to him. He had always filled up Ming Shu's life with satisfaction and happy little surprises.
A set of familiar footsteps approached from his left. Ming Shu came back to his senses and took a deep, slow breath to steady himself.
"All done talking?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He didn't use any words like 'interrogation', and once he'd asked his question, he lifted a hand and gently touched it to Ming Shu's forehead.
Ming Shu made a soft sound of confirmation and nodded. "Ge, about the Xia Ben Village case…"
"You want to go?" Xiao Yu'an interrupted.
"I know it isn't appropriate for me to go," Ming Shu admitted in a low, quiet voice.
"Li Hongmei's case falls under our jurisdiction, but her parents' case, strictly speaking, isn't something we should stick our noses into," Xiao Yu'an confirmed. "Back then, the case stopped at Yuanhai County and wasn't escalated any higher. Now, with so much attention on Li Hongmei, the Hailu City detectives have already started to investigate."
"Just the city units?" Ming Shu asked.
"I understand what you're getting at," Xiao Yu'an said. "If only a few detectives from the city investigate the case, it could easily be buried again. If they don't swiftly find irrefutable evidence of the truth, then the case may be forgotten once more when the attention on Li Hongmei begins to dim. The villagers of Xia Ben could cover this up all over again.
"But don't worry, a special operations team is being dispatched as well."
Ming Shu's eyes suddenly flashed with hope, but quickly filled with resignation once more.
"You're still an honorary member of special ops, I know you want to go," Xiao Yu'an said. "But, unfortunately, we still have cases on our hands that aren't tied up yet. You won't be able to join in on that investigation."
Ming Shu was starting to crave a cigarette. He took one out and held it in his hand, rolling it absently between his fingers.
Xiao Yu'an gently took the cigarette away. His eyes were warm enough to soothe Ming Shu's craving for the time being. "What should you be doing right now?"
Ming Shu stared at his own reflection in the pupils of Xiao Yu'an's eyes. His lips moved a little, but no sound came out.
"If your heart is restless and your mind is in a fog," Xiao Yu'an suggested, "take a break before anything else."
"I can't take a break!" Ming Shu protested. He instantly straightened his back and squared his shoulders. "Luo Xiangfu's case still isn't solved, and we still haven't gotten to the bottom of what Entombed Heart has to do with any of this. Then there's also Chi Xiaomin. There's so much that needs my attention. How can I take a break now?"
"You're right, and I'm glad you remember what's important. It's good not to let your emotions lead you around by the nose," Xiao Yu'an said with a warm, gentle laugh. "Come with me."
"I've never let my emotions lead me around," Ming Shu grumbled.
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an asked, turning around.
"I said I've never let my emotions lead me around by the nose!" Ming Shu repeated. "I've only ever been led around by you…"
Xiao Yu'an softly tapped the tip of Ming Shu's nose. "When did I ever lead you around by the nose?"
"Hand! My hand!" Ming Shu amended. "You led me around by the hand, okay?"
It wasn't appropriate to be overly affectionate at the Bureau. After leading Ming Shu back to his own office, Xiao Yu'an set down a bottle of iced honey tea in front of him.
"Has there been any news about Chi Xiaomin?" he asked.
"Yeah, I told Li Hongmei we would definitely get to the bottom of the old case in Xia Ben Village, and she was finally willing to talk about Chi Xiaomin," Ming Shu said. He didn't open the bottle of tea and start drinking yet, instead only picking it up and pressing it to his face. "Chi Xiaomin was the only friend Li Hongmei ever made in Dongye City. They became friends when they met through their part-time jobs earlier this year.
"Chi Xiaomin knew Li Hongmei was being bullied and harassed at school, but she didn't know about the things that happened in Li Hongmei's childhood."
"Then," Xiao Yu'an prompted, "how much did Li Hongmei know about Chi Xiaomin?"
"Not much at all. Just that Chi Xiaomin wasn't from the city, and that she was trying to save money to go to school. That lines up with what the boss at the fruit stand told us as well," Ming Shu said. "Li Hongmei trusted Chi Xiaomin, mostly because Chi Xiaomin would give her the fruit that was discarded by the fruit stand owner. That sort of kindness was something Li Hongmei had rarely ever been shown.
"After they grew close, Chi Xiaomin lent some of the books she'd bought to Li Hongmei. Entombed Heart's book was among them, and they discussed the plot and themes after Li Hongmei read the book. They both agreed with the idea that there are some people who deserve to die.
"Li Hongmei said she remembered very clearly that she only ever confided in Chi Xiaomin about her suffering on campus, without ever expressing any intent to seek revenge. But one time, after Li Hongmei complained about Wenjingjing and the others, Chi Xiaomin said to her, 'Then you should just kill them.'"
Xiao Yu'an narrowed his eyes, falling deep into thought.
"Of course, Li Hongmei had already planned to commit a murder a long time ago," Ming Shu said. "Chi Xiaomin's words were just the spark that lit the fuse. According to Li Hongmei, when they left the East 9 dormitory building after arguing with Li Hongmei's roommates, Chi Xiaomin said to her, 'If I were you, I wouldn't put up with their bullying any longer. How can you stand it, when they've already gone so far? Hongmei, I'm really disappointed in you.'"
"We can't believe everything Li Hongmei says," Xiao Yu'an suddenly interjected.
Ming Shu nodded. "Yeah, I understand. We can basically be sure at this point that Li Hongmei and Chi Xiaomin did part ways after leaving the dorm, before they left the university campus. Chi Xiaomin was alone when she appeared in the surveillance camera footage we found.
"That's in line with what Li Hongmei told us. She said, as soon as Chi Xiaomin expressed her disappointment, Chi Xiaomin turned and walked away. The only other thing she said was that one line. 'Some people deserve to die.'"
"Chi Xiaomin is likely familiar with the university's campus. That was how she evaded most of the surveillance cameras," Xiao Yu'an mused. He pressed down gently on the back of his left hand with his right index finger. "Her existence will have an inevitable impact on the judgement of this case."
"Yes, exactly!" Ming Shu frowned. "Just who is she, really? If we say she was the force that influenced Li Hongmei to kill, we have to consider that Li Hongmei has been burdened with many other troubles. She may have exploded sooner or later, even without Chi Xiaomin's influence. But if we say Chi Xiaomin is just a normal friend of Li Hongmei's, then why has Chi Xiaomin disappeared now?"
"Then let's 'cut her out' for the time being," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Huh?" Ming Shu didn't understand.
"We currently have several complex and convoluted cases in front of us. Their branches are twisted and gnarled together, and it feels like there's no end in sight. Isn't that right?" Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu nodded.
Li Hongmei, Lu Kun, Luo Xiangfu, Xia Ben Village, Entombed Heart. And now, the mystery of Chi Xiaomin as well. Although Ming Shu was a seasoned detective with several years of experience, encountering so many complicated cases at once still felt like being thrown into a bottomless pit. He could only hear the wind whistling past his ears as he fell, and the light from above seemed to grow dimmer and dimmer until it finally disappeared altogether.
But his feet would never hit the ground.
"So we'll have to cut away some of those branches," Xiao Yu'an reasoned. "With so many intertwining clues, we'll only confuse ourselves if we pursue each and every one."
"I've already been hacking at those branches," Ming Shu said. He finally unscrewed the cap of the bottle of honey tea, gulping down several mouthfuls in one go. "Luo Xiangfu's case led us to discover Luo Xiaolong's drug use, and Luo Xiaolong's drug use led us to discover the den outside the city.
"There's a whole syndicate dealing drugs out there, and there's no telling how deep their connections run. Even the special forces teams can't move carelessly around them. Our Serious Crimes Division doesn't usually get involved in drug cases, but there's no denying this is going to be a big bust. The special forces guys need a portion of our manpower."
Ming Shu sighed and pressed the bottle of iced tea to his temples again. "But I really can't spare anyone or any energy to help with their case, so I had no choice but to remove myself from that part of the equation for now.
"And when it comes to the Xia Ben Village case, it's true that the special operations team will head the investigation. It's true they have a higher rank than us, and they'll encounter fewer obstacles along the way. But if we could have spared the men, we should have at least sent a team out to Xia Ben Village to cooperate with their investigation."
"This is your problem," Xiao Yu'an said, his gaze softening. "Of course, it's one of your strongest points as well."
Ming Shu didn't say anything to that.
"You have an incredibly strong sense of responsibility, and your ability to chase down several leads at once is also incredibly impressive," Xiao Yu'an said. "You can often extrapolate and draw a line between two dots that no one else would think to connect. When it comes to solving cases, that's one of the greatest strengths anyone can have. But right now…"
Xiao Yu'an's tone shifted. "You've been caught up in a net of all those lines you've drawn."
"I…" Ming Shu hesitated for a moment. "You taught me to think this way, you know."
"I did," Xiao Yu'an agreed. "But I also taught you that, when the net gets too complicated, you need to return to the origin. The starting point."
The two of them locked eyes and faced each other for a moment.
"The drug den outside the city and the accident at the amusement park," Xiao Yu'an said. "You're right to set these aside for the time being. It's also right for us to set aside the Xia Ben Village case for now. So, tell me—what is the most important thing right now?"
Ming Shu's response was instantaneous: "Finding Luo Xiangfu's killer and confirming the true identity of Entombed Heart."
Xiao Yu'an smiled approvingly. "It seems you are still thinking clearly. You just needed to calm down a little."
"There's also Chi Xiaomin," Ming Shu added, not willing to give up on that thread entirely. "Her disappearance is just too bizarre. Ge, I don't want to chop down those branches."
"Then," Xiao Yu'an said, "are you capable of following those three threads at once?"
If anyone else had asked that question, even if it had been Director Li, Ming Shu would have answered instantly without thinking about it—I can do it!
But the person sitting in front of him was Xiao Yu'an. There was no need to put on a brave face or an overconfident front.
After half a minute, Ming Shu shook his head. "I'm worried that I won't be able to."
"Then we'll take it slow," Xiao Yu'an reassured. "Don't rush into things headlong. We'll unravel these threads one by one."
In this day and age, it was next to impossible for a person to truly make themselves invisible. No matter how hard they tried or how meticulous they were, they would inevitably leave traces of their existence behind in the circles of society that they moved through.
Entombed Heart—real name unknown, gender unknown, age unknown—had published three books to date. All three were crime-related suspense novels. The most recent had been released earlier that year, in May. It was titled Green-Tinted Perfume Bottle, and it was this book that bore a cover with the message:
Some people deserve to die.
The book had been published by Luocheng Xinyun Press.
Ming Shu could have dispatched a few men to visit Luocheng, the city where the press was based, but in the end he decided to make the trip himself.
Dongye City and Luocheng were cities which existed in the same economic circle. Their police forces had a good relationship, and the Serious Crimes Divisions from the two cities had even previously worked together on major cases which involved both their jurisdictions.
Hua Chong, the current vice captain of the branch of the Criminal Investigation Bureau located in Luocheng, had known Ming Shu for many years. Ming Shu picked out a box of specialty tea from Dongye, delegated his tasks to Yi Fei, and set out for Luocheng with Fang Yuanhang.