"I'm the editor in charge of Entombed Heart." The introduction came from a woman in a dark blue bodycon dress. She had been summoned by Liu Zhiqiang. "My name is Guo Xian."
Ming Shu gave her face a cursory look before he put on a smile and said, "Please have a seat."
Liu Zhiqiang clearly didn't want to speak to the police. After getting them situated in a conference room and bringing over a few bottles of water, he quickly excused himself, saying he still had work to attend to.
In the small conference room, with three of its walls made up of frosted glass, only Guo Xian, Ming Shu, Fang Yuanhang, and Liu Zhiqin remained.
Guo Xian's appearance wasn't what Ming Shu would have expected of an editor at a publishing house. She had a curly perm that seemed incredibly dated. Big eyes, a straight nose. She had given herself a smokey eye, and she wore bright red lipstick. Her shoes had thin stiletto heels that were likely around eight centimeters in height.
Overall, she gave off a very refined and haughty look. Rather than an editor, she looked more like a powerful businesswoman who belonged in some high-rise office building. Or like the secretary of a powerful businessperson in some high-rise office building.
Perhaps she was used to being misidentified based on her appearance. Without waiting for Ming Shu to ask, Guo Xian explained, "We're a publishing company, but we're a business as well. I have never considered myself a stiff and inflexible editor. I make books, and I sell books. I work in marketing, and I have a hand in sales as well."
Ming Shu hadn't expected her to volunteer so much information without being prompted, but he seized the opportunity to ask a follow-up question.
"Marketing?" he prompted. "So, you're responsible for the packaging and promotions that have caused Entombed Heart's novels to sell so well?"
It was a pointed, probing question, but Guo Xian seemed unflustered. In fact, she looked like she was overjoyed. She proudly stuck out her chin and answered, "Of course. If it hadn't been for me, that country bumpkin definitely wouldn't have achieved this level of success."
"Wait," Ming Shu interjected. "Entombed Heart is from the countryside?"
Guo Xian's hand flew up to her lips, covering her mouth for a moment, as though she was perplexed by what she had just blurted out. "No, actually, that was just random talk. Don't pay it any mind."
Ming Shu faced her with a steely expression. "When speaking to us, there isn't any such thing as 'random' talk."
"Aiya!" Guo Xian huffed, pouting in what she must have believed was a cute way. "Well, I guess it's nothing serious. Authors… many of them don't have very shiny or marketable 'true' identities, so of course we need to package them and their work up all nice.
"Entombed Heart wrote all their own books, but their appearance is honestly just too disastrous. Part of my job is to create a mysterious and fashionable persona for them. When it comes to suspense, the main selling point is mystique. Entombed Heart's readers must never find out their true identity, or their brand would completely fall apart.
"What I just said would be a major leak if readers found out, so please be absolutely certain you don't repeat it to anyone. 'kay?"
Fang Yuanhang couldn't stand this sort of faux-cutesy talk. He rolled his eyes.
"We're detectives, not gossip hounds," Ming Shu said. "Our purpose for coming to Xinyun Press is simply to understand the person behind the name Entombed Heart."
Guo Xian pouted again. Her playful expression had taken on shades of hesitation and trepidation. "Can I ask what Entombed Heart has gotten into?"
"Why would you think Entombed Heart has 'gotten into' anything?" Ming Shu countered.
"You guys wouldn't be looking into them for no reason, would you?" Guo Xian looked more and more worried by the second. "You didn't receive… any reports, did you?"
"Reports?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"Content violation reports or whatever," Guo Xian said. She worried at her lower lip. "It must be our competitors, trying to sabotage us. I've personally looked over every word Entombed Heart ever wrote, and I made sure none of it violated any content guidelines."
Ming Shu raised his hands in a disarming manner. "Don't be nervous. Just tell me what you know. Whether or not there's an issue with Entombed Heart will be something for us to judge afterwards."
Guo Xian jumped, startled by Ming Shu's sudden change in tone. After a moment, she lowered her head and said, "He… his real name is Hou Cheng."
Hou Cheng. Fifty-five years old. A resident of the rural Qing Yue Village, near Luocheng. Highest level of education: elementary school. Working as a farmer. Never married. Parents deceased. He lived a solitary life and paid his taxes every year. In his home of Qing Yue Village, he owned a small farmhouse and a piece of farmland.
"Holy shit!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "This isn't what I imagined at all!"
They were on the road to Qing Yue Village now. Fang Yuanhang continued to think about the new information Guo Xian had provided them. "A popular suspense novelist is a fifty-five-year-old farmer? Who's only ever been to elementary school?"
"Let's see him in person first," Ming Shu said. He gazed out the window at the dazzling sunlight spilling down on the roads they passed.
He suddenly felt possessed by an inexplicable bout of restlessness.
Ming Shu had the same concerns as Fang Yuanhang. Lu Kun had claimed Entombed Heart was a woman; although Ming Shu hadn't fully believed Lu Kun, he also hadn't imagined Entombed Heart could be an old man in his fifties.
Entombed Heart. Hou Cheng. One pen name, one real name. There was a huge sense of distance between these two puzzle pieces, like they might never connect.
Qing Yue Village was a peaceful and tranquil place. Life there was slow-paced, with none of the hustle and bustle of the city. The residents maintained traditional customs of rising with the sun to work, and retiring to rest at sundown. Even early in the evening, it was rare to see anyone out on the streets or in the fields. But all the little houses with little yards out front would start producing the sounds and scents of dinner being served.
Fang Yuanhang parked the car outside Hou Cheng's house.
Most of the people in Qing Yue Village shared the surname Hou, and most of the residential houses were identical in structure.
But Hou Cheng's house wasn't quite the same. It looked older and more rundown. The windows were practically black with filth, and a thick layer of dust had gathered on the iron gate. It looked like no one had lived there for a very long time.
"Does Hou Cheng not actually live here?" Fang Yuanhang scratched his head.
Ming Shu pushed open the iron gate, which had no padlock on it. He cautiously stepped into the small courtyard inside, just in time to see a figure racing through the trees. The muddy ground gave way with faint squelching sounds as the person fled.
"Freeze!" Fang Yuanhang shouted. He shot forward like an arrow leaving its bowstring, charging forth until he grabbed hold of the suspicious figure who'd tried to escape.
It was, unexpectedly, some shifty-looking kid.
"Who are you people? Let me go!" the kid demanded, struggling in Fang Yuanhang's hold.
"Who are you?" Fang Yuanhang countered. "Why are you acting all sneaky and suspicious around here?"
"I come here all the time, alright?!" The kid had no idea the person who'd caught him was a police detective. He continued to struggle like his life depended on it, kicking and flailing with all his strength.
"All the time?" Ming Shu echoed. "What about the man who lives here? Hou Cheng?"
"I don't know! He's been gone for ages!" The kid blinked after a moment and stared at Ming Shu for a while before he finally started to calm down. "Wait, are you guys here looking for Simple Hou?"
"You call him 'Simple' Hou?" Ming Shu asked.
"The whole village calls him that. He's dumb as hell and doesn't even know how to speak! If that ain't 'simple', then what is?"
Fang Yuanhang turned to Ming Shu. "Chief, what does this mean? Do you think Guo Xian was messing with us? I've read Entombed Heart's books before. The writing is really smart and detailed. How could those books have been written by a simpleton?"
Ming Shu furrowed his brows and paced a few steps.
This outcome wasn't a complete surprise to him, but dealing with this would be tricky.
It was very possible that Hou Cheng had been used as a front, while Entombed Heart was someone else entirely.
And that just so happened to prove there was something going on with Entombed Heart.
"You're here to look into Hou Cheng, but I want to know where he's gone as well," said Hou Jianjun, the village chief. He was holding a spotty, stained mug, and his gaze lingered on Fang Yuanhang's cigarette lighter for a long moment.
That lighter had been Fang Yuanhang's birthday present to himself. It had a unique shape, and it was obviously expensive.
"Tell us what you know," Ming Shu said.
Hou Jianjun took a gulp of his strongly-brewed tea, showing off a set of yellow and black teeth when he began to speak. "Hou Cheng is the simplest man in our village. He's been alone for all his life, but it never seems to bother him. The youngsters around here call him a simpleton, but he isn't actually stupid. He just often ignores people. He doesn't like to talk. He wouldn't answer when he was called.
"But it was just that. Our village is in the business of growing watermelons, and Hou Cheng grows melons, too. Grows 'em and sells 'em. He's got no problem understanding that business."
"When did he disappear?" Ming Shu asked.
"Disappear?" Hou Jianjun had to think about that. To people from an old-fashioned town like theirs, the idea of someone 'disappearing' was too strange and novel. "I don't think he disappeared. He just leaves once in a while and comes back after ten days or half a month or so, something like that. He never tells us where he's going, and we can't be bothered to ask. No one cares."
Ming Shu thought back to the thick layer of dust he had seen on the iron gate to Hou Cheng's courtyard. That much dust obviously couldn't have accumulated in just ten days or half a month.
"When was the last time you saw Hou Cheng?"
"He's been gone pretty long this time, more than a month. I think he left at the start of June."
"Was anyone particularly close to him?" Ming Shu asked. "Villagers, or out-of-towners?"
Hou Jianjun actually laughed at that. "Him? He's always been a loner. Besides us village leaders who have to check in on him once in a while, no one ever speaks to him. Oh! But some of the kids like to go tease him sometimes."
"Then, in these past two years, have there been many outsiders passing through the village?" Ming Shu asked, even though he already knew he wouldn't receive any sort of satisfactory answer.
And just as he expected, Hou Jianjun said, "There are always people coming through. It feels like a lot to us, but it's probably nothing compared to what you folks from the city are used to. Hey, fella, that lighter of yours… can I take a look?"
Fang Yuanhang was deeply unsettled.
"Hehe," Hou Jianjun chuckled. "My son is about the same age as you. He left the village for school, and he's got a bright and promising future. He just doesn't come home very often.
"I'm going to visit him in the city soon. I want to give him a lighter, something to put a smile on his face."
As they returned to Hou Cheng's house, Fang Yuanhang said, "There aren't any surveillance cameras in the village. Where Hou Cheng went and who he associated with… we have no way of figuring that out."
"Right now, the suspicion falls on Hou Cheng," Ming Shu said. "Xinyun Press paid him for his work. The deposits were made to his account. After taxes, the amount that remained was 2.76 million yuan, and all of it has already been withdrawn. The person making the withdrawals has been confirmed to be Hou Cheng. Based on that information, Hou Cheng is Entombed Heart—no doubt about it.
"But if Hou Cheng is really Entombed Heart, why would he withdraw all that money from the bank? He hasn't used the money to make any investments or buy any property. Where did the cash go?"
"If someone is using Hou Cheng as a front, that would explain it," Liu Zhiqin said. "After Hou Cheng withdrew the funds, he could have delivered them to this person who hides behind him. And this person, the one lurking in the shadows, is the real author."
Ming Shu turned to Liu Zhiqin. "Exactly! And we can check his online communications! That's your specialty, isn't it? If this person in the shadows truly exists, then they must have had some way of communicating with Hou Cheng."
Liu Zhiqin shook his head. "I've already run a preliminary investigation into that. No strange movements in his internet activity. It's possible this person conducted their business with Hou Cheng offline. It's like Hou Jianjun said, Hou Cheng would sometimes leave Qing Yue for unknown reasons."
"If we assume Hou Cheng is a front, then he's definitely already passed the money along to the real author," Ming Shu said. "And if our assumption is correct, then how did the real Entombed Heart meet Hou Cheng? We also have to ask ourselves, if Hou Cheng is no longer useful to Entombed Heart, would Entombed Heart…"
"Then isn't Hou Cheng in danger right now?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
Ming Shu turned back to him. "You also think Entombed Heart would dispose of Hou Cheng?"
"How else would we explain Hou Cheng's disappearance?" Fang Yuanhang said. "Hou Jianjun said Hou Cheng would sometimes go off for ten days to half a month, then he would come right back. I'm thinking, with what we know now, those are the times he met up with Entombed Heart. But he's been gone so long this time that it's possible something happened to him. It's possible Entombed Heart did something to him."
Ming Shu paced for a while before lighting a cigarette. "Give me a few minutes. I'm going to call Director Xiao."