The trip from Dongye City to Luocheng was more convenient by train than by plane. On the high-speed rail departing from Dongye, it took only two hours to reach Luocheng.
Fuan Yuanhang was still full of vigor, like he had been pumped full of highly-caffeinated beverages. He still had an enthusiasm for convoluted cases that carried him through the days and sleepless nights of the investigation without letting any exhaustion show on his face. He simply didn't look like someone who only slept three to four hours a night.
Ming Shu had downed a can of Red Bull before they departed, but even with the energy drink in his system, he still felt tired and sleepy. He didn't think he was getting old yet, but when he sat beside the years-younger Fang Yuanhang, he couldn't help but think of the time when he was that young.
Back then, he had more energy in a day than he could ever use up. When he had a case, he worked on that case nonstop. When he didn't have a case, he headed out to play basketball with Lu Yanzhou and those guys over in special forces. On those rest days, he could play nonstop from morning to night without getting tired. And when Xiao Yu'an picked him up and took him home, he still had the energy to cling to Xiao Yu'an all night.
Of course, no one except Xiao Yu'an knew he could be that clingy.
"Do you belong to the year of the monkey?" Xiao Yu'an had once teased him.
"You don't know what zodiac year I belong to?" Ming Shu retorted, pouting up at his lover. His eyes were brimming over with affection, and he continued to stick to Xiao Yu'an like glue. "Obviously, I belong to you!"
Xiao Yu'an understood right away and shook his head, smiling softly.
"My body and heart are yours," Ming Shu insisted, "so I don't belong to the monkey, I belong to you."
Saying that, he stretched up to kiss Xiao Yu'an's chin, but Xiao Yu'an shifted and captured his lips instead.
Their nights had been long, and beautiful as well.
"Chief! Chief!" Fang Yuanhang was calling out, back in the present. "Did you hear what I just said? What were you thinking about?"
Obviously, Ming Shu wouldn't tell his little apprentice that he had been reminiscing about a precious moment of marital bliss. He schooled his expression into its usual mask and answered, "Just thinking about the case."
"Which part?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Wanna talk about it together?"
Ming Shu ignored that and asked, "What were you calling me for? If you need to go to the toilet, go by yourself. How old are you? You can't possibly need me to chaperone you."
"Chief! What are you talking about?!" Fang Yuanhang blurted out, too loudly. He quickly looked to his left and right to make sure he hadn't disturbed anyone around them. "I was talking to you about the thing that happened in Luocheng last year."
"Last year?" Ming Shu only had to think about it for a second before he realized what Fang Yuanhang was referring to.
A severe wave of unrest had rolled through the Luocheng police force last year. Han Qu, the previous captain of their Special Police Force, had been suspected of being brainwashed by an evil cult and becoming an accomplice in their crimes. And Chen Zheng, the captain of the Luocheng branch of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, had leaked important information about the case to Han Qu because he had believed in the man's innocence.
Chen Zheng had been suspended and placed under investigation. His position was instantly left vacant, and Hua Chong—the captain of the Serious Crimes Division in Luocheng—had been filling in for him ever since.
The scandal with Han Qu had left a deep impact on Chen Zheng. Even after the investigation proved Chen Zheng's innocence in the matter, he had no desire to stay involved in such a high-risk position. Immediately after his name was cleared, he transferred out of the Bureau and was reassigned to a much more low-pressure role at a provincial police station.
Hua Chong had been named the vice captain of the Luocheng branch of the Bureau two months ago, but since the captain's seat was vacant, he was only the 'vice' captain in name. In practice, he was already the one who controlled the entire Criminal Investigation Bureau in Luocheng.
Ming Shu was a few years younger than Hua Chong. Before they first met, Ming Shu had already heard of Hua Chong's name—as well as his nicknames. It seemed the police in Luocheng called him cutesy things like 'Hua-er' and 'Huahua'.
Upon hearing about that, Ming Shu had been speechless. Even if a man's surname was Hua, meaning 'flower', wasn't it strange to call him 'Huahua'? What kind of bizarre nickname was that?
But after meeting Hua Chong in person, Ming Shu changed his mind.
Hua Chong had started his career in a special forces team. He was handsome, he had a good personality, he was physically strong and agile, and he was smart as well. This was the sort of guy that could make any nickname work for him. Even being known as 'Huahua' wouldn't ruin the first impression he gave off.
The last time Ming Shu and Hua Chong met had been at the Ministry of Public Security, where Hua Chong was reporting in for duty and Ming Shu was undergoing training with the special operations team.
When they ran into each other that time, Ming Shu had gotten a little shock. Previously, he had been one hundred percent sure that Hua Chong was straight. Hua Chong had come off as the type of straight guy that wouldn't be tempted even by the most temptuous man.
And yet, during their last encounter, Ming Shu had instantly noticed that Hua Chong had been swayed over to their side. And the man who managed to seduce him was none other than Liu Zhiqin, with whom Ming Shu had once had some bad blood!
"I've heard that Luocheng's 'Dark Willow, Bright Flower' duo is pretty formidable," Fang Yuanhang mused. "Chief, have you worked with them before?"
Ming Shu was a little worried about accidentally letting the secret of Hua Chong's relationship slip. He gave Fang Yuanhang some vague answer just to placate him, then put in his earphones and closed his eyes to get some rest.
When they arrived in Luocheng, Ming Shu and Fang Yuanhang headed directly to the Bureau.
It was an unspoken rule of law enforcement for visiting detectives to pay a visit to the local team when they entered someone else's jurisdiction to investigate a case.
"Oh, you're here?" Hua Chong greeted. He wore a dress shirt with his uniform pants, appearing slim and handsome, with an impressive air about him that seemed somewhat different from the average policeman. Perhaps it was because he'd spent time with special forces in the past.
Fang Yuanhang stared at him for a long moment when he first laid eyes on the man.
"It's been, what, half a year since we last saw each other?" Ming Shu answered as he gifted Hua Chong the specialty tea he'd brought from Dongye City. They exchanged a few pleasantries, then got straight down to business.
Earlier, when they spoke on the phone, Ming Shu had only given a concise summary of the purpose of his visit. Now, after Ming Shu went over all the details, even Hua Chong agreed that it was appropriate to look into the matter of Entombed Heart. He offered to dispatch one of his men to accompany Ming Shu and Fang Yuanhang on their visit to Xinyun Press.
Ming Shu couldn't have fathomed that the man Hua Chong chose to send with them would be Liu Zhiqin.
The door to the office opened just then. Liu Zhiqin himself came swanning in, waving a bag containing a few cups of iced milk tea inside. "Help yourself, it's Liu-laoshi's treat."
Ming Shu's eyes widened. "What are you doing here?"
"Why can't I be here?" Liu Zhiqin retorted. He set the bag down on a table and took out one cup of milk tea that was half-full of various toppings. After sticking a straw in, he set it down in front of Hua Chong. "Don't you still owe me and Captain Hua dinner and drinks?"
Hua Chong smiled and agreed, "That's true."
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang interjected curiously. "What's that all about?"
"Young people shouldn't be so curious," Ming Shu chided.
Liu Zhiqin was talking about a small matter that had come up during Ming Shu's year of training at the Ministry. It was really a trivial thing, but it had to do with keeping face.
There had been many components to Ming Shu's training with the special operations team. The emphasis was on hands-on field work and combat, but there was supplementary training on theory and technology as well. Ming Shu was at the top of the class in nearly every single field, but he did fall behind when it came to theoretical knowledge of internet security.
Liu Zhiqin used to be the core of the Ministry of Public Security's information defense team. He had been considered a special ops member back then, before he was transferred over to Luocheng, where he had now made a home. But when the special operations team needed him, Liu Zhiqin often made trips back to the Ministry to help out.
The course Ming Shu had taken on theoretical knowledge of internet security… had been taught by Liu Zhiqin.
According to the higher-ups, the average detective didn't need to know all about the inner workings of technological security and the internet. But they needed to at least understand the theory behind those subjects, to better understand modern society in ways that would aid them in solving modern cases.
Ming Shu hated theory more than anything. He hated reading, too. Even when he was still in school, he had never paid attention or studied diligently in his computer science classes. During his training at the Ministry, his old habits persisted. When he was in class, he didn't understand the lectures, and when he was out of class, he was too lazy to study the reading materials.
The first time he had been called on for an impromptu quiz in class, he had only been able to stare at Liu Zhiqin without answering a single question correctly.
Liu Zhiqin had said something back then that had Ming Shu pissed beyond belief—
"How could a captain of a serious crimes division be so lacking in knowledge?"
It was the first time someone had so directly called Ming Shu's capabilities into question. Ming Shu had heatedly declared that he would prove himself and take first place in the course on the final exam.
"And if you don't take first place?" Liu Zhiqin questioned, with a smile.
"If I can't get first, I'll treat you and whichever serious crimes division captain you think is the most capable to dinner!"
"Dinner isn't good enough."
"Dinner and drinks!"
The challenge had been issued by Ming Shu himself, but when it came time to actually study and memorize all that mind-numbingly boring material, he dozed off after a few minutes every time. So, naturally, he lost that bet.
Ming Shu wasn't the type of man who liked to owe anyone anything, so he wanted to pay up on what he owed as soon as he lost the bet. But Liu Zhiqin had been called away on another mission, and Hua Chong had already returned to Luocheng by then, so the debt remained unpaid.
If Liu Zhiqin hadn't mentioned it so suddenly, Ming Shu would have forgotten all about it.
"I never said I wouldn't treat you, I'll treat you as soon as this case is wrapped up!" Ming Shu declared, before turning to Hua Chong with a nod. "Captain Hua, I'll be taking Liu-laoshi, then."
Hua Chong had become even more steadfast and imperturbable since taking on the role of vice captain at the Bureau. He nodded and said, "Just tell me if there's anything you need, anything at all."
Luocheng Xinyun Press was a well-established publishing house, founded several decades ago. The business had experienced struggles as well as periods of rapid growth, and nowadays it could be considered one of the top five publishing houses in the country. From outside, their main headquarters looked like an old, simple, and elegant building. But inside, the offices were all extremely modern, with top-of-the-line tech and furnishings.
In recent years, the entire publishing industry had fallen into a slump. Many smaller presses had already gone bankrupt, and Xinyun Press was experimenting with new ideas for transforming their business into one with staying power.
"This publisher has put out a lot of suspense novels lately," Liu Zhiqin said as they entered the building. "Some are written by native authors, some by foreign ones. Some are set in modern times, and some have fantastical elements. They've put out all sorts of things, and the quality is all over the place."
Ming Shu slowed his step and looked at Liu Zhiqin curiously. "You've already looked into them?"
"Captain Hua told me to help you guys out, so of course I had to do some homework in advance," Liu Zhiqin said, playfully elbowing Ming Shu as he spoke. "Plus, I sometimes like to browse around in bookstores and pick up a few best-sellers. Unlike you."
Ming Shu frowned and fell silent.
Was it so wrong that he didn't like to read?
Who made it a rule that everyone had to love books?
"Do you know what the increase in suspense novels on the market reflects about our world?" Liu Zhiqin prompted.
"Do you even need to ask?" Ming Shu retorted. "The increase in criminal cases in our society has piqued the curiosity of the common man. In order to stimulate their imaginations, they seek out increasingly complex and fascinating stories. It doesn't matter if it's books, movies, or video games. The depiction of murder cases in fiction has become like a 'necessity'.
"It's not as obvious in this country yet, but in neighboring countries, crime fiction has already become a staple of life."
"That's not all," Liu Zhiqin said. "There's one more reason for the popularity of suspense fiction."
Ming Shu stopped in his tracks. "Hm?"
"Society is placing more and more pressure on people. Everyone needs a means of relieving themselves of that pressure. When negative pressure builds up within an author, to the point of bursting, they may use their writing as a means to vent."
"You're talking about Entombed Heart," Ming Shu guessed.
Liu Zhiqin shrugged. "It could be the case with other authors as well."
While the two of them were engrossed in conversation, an employee from Xinyun Pressed rushed up to meet them.
The man was in his thirties, dressed in a dress shirt and suit pants. He wore his work ID on a lanyard around his neck, and he had the most ordinary appearance and most ordinary hairstyle imaginable. The lenses of his glasses were somewhat thick, and he had a restless expression on his face.
With an obviously forced smile, he politely greeted, "Greetings, welcome to the three of you. My surname is Liu, please accept my business card. I just received word that you fine gentlemen are here to investigate a police matter, and I rushed over right away. May I please ask if something has happened? Is there anything I can do to assist in your investigation?"
Ming Shu took the offered business card and gave it a cursory glance.
The card bore the man's name and position: Liu Zhiqiang, head of the Mystery imprint at Xinyun Press.
Liu Zhiqiang explained that their 'Mystery' imprint was a newly established branch that focused solely on publishing realistic and modern suspense novels.
"Are you familiar with the author Entombed Heart?" Ming Shu asked. "The one who wrote Green-Tinted Perfume Bottle."
"Ah, that…" Liu Zhiqiang fussed with his glasses, pushing them up the bridge of his nose. He has a strange look in his eye, like he was looking down on these visitors, but didn't dare to show he was looking down on them.
"You've met them?" Ming Shu asked.
"Never," Liu Zhiqiang denied, hastily shaking his head. "How about this? If you men are looking into Entombed Heart, I'll call over the editor in charge of their works. She's usually the only one who communicates with Entombed Heart."
Ming Shu's gaze lingered on Liu Zhiqiang's face for a moment before he nodded. "Fine."
Liu Zhiqiang pushed open the door to a conference room, and though he had intended to leave without looking back, he couldn't help but cast a backwards glance at the three detectives. His eyes were filled with trepidation and dread.