The rural, rustic village had none of the dazzling lights of the big city. After sunset, the sky grew dark very soon. The darkness that enveloped the town was all-consuming, and the cell phone clutched in Ming Shu's hands glowed like a beacon.
Ming Shu reported everything they had seen and heard that day, as well as his own theories and deductions, to Xiao Yu'an. He spoke hurriedly, as though in a rush, and when he was close to finishing his report, a strong gust of wind blew past and set him off coughing.
After hearing Ming Shu recount the results of his investigation thus far, Xiao Yu'an gave it some thought before he said, "It would be too rash to draw any conclusions before meeting Hou Cheng."
"Ge, do you still believe there's a chance Hou Cheng is Entombed Heart?" Ming Shu asked. "We already have a pretty clear idea of what happened. Hou Cheng only has an elementary school education, and he regularly left the village without letting anyone know where he was going.
"His earnings from Xinyun Press were withdrawn from his account in batches. Besides the old house in Qing Yue Village, he didn't own any property. He never made any investments, either.
"If he didn't hand over the money to the real Entombed Heart after taking it out of the bank, then where has the money gone? Hou Cheng has already been missing for a month. I suspect he might have already been killed."
"It's too soon to make that call," Xiao Yu'an said disapprovingly. "Before looking into Entombed Heart, you had an idea of what this person would be like. When you learned that Entombed Heart could be Hou Cheng, that image you had constructed of Entombed Heart was shattered. It's affecting the way you think about Hou Cheng. It's confusing you."
Ming Shu opened and closed his mouth a few times, but couldn't think of anything to say.
Xiao Yu'an was right. Ming Shu really did feel confused. Otherwise, he wouldn't have come outside at this late hour to call Xiao Yu'an.
Now, after hearing Xiao Yu'an's calm and soothing voice over the phone, flowing directly into his ear, Ming Shu felt some of the confusion and frustration that had been building in his chest start to dissipate.
It was almost like Xiao Yu'an could see him. After half a minute, he asked, "Do you feel a little calmer now?"
Ming Shu nodded before he realized Xiao Yu'an couldn't actually see him. He quickly added, out loud, "Yes."
"Good," Xiao Yu'an said. "From my perspective, there's a fifty-fifty chance that Hou Cheng is Entombed Heart. If he is Entombed Heart, then his 'disappearance' is most likely voluntary. He's just gone somewhere, and hasn't been harmed by anyone. Correct?"
Ming Shu listened attentively and echoed, "Yes."
"Then your top priority is to find him," Xiao Yu'an said. "Qing Yue is an old village, they don't have any surveillance cameras installed. Transportation in and out of the city isn't well-documented either. But Hou Cheng should have a cell phone, right?
"Have the tech investigators track his phone. If they can't find anything, then—Liu Zhiqin is with you, isn't he? Have him help with the investigation."
"He's already looking into it," Ming Shu said.
"Good. There's the second possibility, too—that Hou Cheng isn't Entombed Heart. If that proves to be the case, then the most important thing will be to unearth the real Entombed Heart."
"I know," Ming Shu said. "But if we can't find Hou Cheng, does that mean we'll hit a wall in our search for Entombed Heart?"
"No, not necessarily," Xiao Yu'an said. "Based on what you've told me, Hou Cheng is a solitary man. He rarely ever associates with anyone. So if anyone has ever come to Qing Yue Village to look for him, then that person is someone we should be suspicious of."
"But, as far as we know, no one from outside the village has been in contact with him." Ming Shu stubbed out his cigarette. He wanted to light another one, but worried that Xiao Yu'an would hear the lighter. Instead, he simply took out his pack of cigarettes and held it in his hand.
"You've only asked the village chief and the other village officials about this. You haven't been thorough enough," Xiao Yu'an said. "Tomorrow morning, get some assistance from the Bureau in Luocheng. Conduct a complete investigation in Qing Yue Village.
"Think about it. Hou Cheng started taking these trips out of the village two years ago. Prior to that, he had always stayed put in Qing Yue. Then what do you suppose is more probable? That Hou Cheng suddenly left the village without a reason and encountered Entombed Heart by chance? Or that Entombed Heart came to Qing Yue Village and met Hou Cheng?"
Ming Shu's eyes widened with sudden realization. "Of course! It had to be Entombed Heart who came to Qing Yue!"
"Correct," Xiao Yu'an said. "There's a chance Entombed Heart left some evidence of their visit. Conduct a more thorough search in the village, and place your focus on questioning Hou Cheng's neighbors. They might remember seeing something."
Ming Shu listened to the end, then let out a breath of relief, feeling far more relaxed already. "Okay. I'll get on it."
"Don't forget to sweep Hou Cheng's house for clues as well," Xiao Yu'an continued. "It may be worthwhile to pay another visit to Xinyun Press, too. Hou Cheng was the one who signed a contract with them, and he doesn't seem at all like the kind of person who could write a suspense novel. Did the people at Xinyun Press not have any doubts about his claims to be the author? You can dig a little deeper there."
"Got it," Ming Shu said. "Ge, I understand what I need to do."
"You sound so down and listless," Xiao Yu'an mused. "What's wrong?"
"Is that what I sound like?" Ming Shu subconsciously tipped back his head and gazed up at the vast, starry night sky.
Such a beautiful sky, with countless stars flecking the dark, couldn't be seen from inside the city. In the city, one was considered lucky if they could see a single star every now and then.
"I can tell," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu pouted. "I'm just worried the trail will go cold if we can't find Hou Cheng."
"There's no need to be so pessimistic," Xiao Yu'an reassured. "The secret of Entombed Heart was so deeply buried, and yet you've unearthed part of it already. Even if you're still searching, that's already a feat to be proud of."
"But the one who took note of Entombed Heart first was you," Ming Shu said. Lowering his voice, he whispered, "I was inspired by you. That's all."
"Is there any need to differentiate between what's mine and what's yours, when it comes to you and me?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "You're right, there's no need for that."
"Then you can be proud."
Xiao Yu'an's tone grew serious as he added, "A detective needs to act like a detective, especially when that detective leads their own division. If the captain is dispirited, who will his men look up to?"
A shiver ran down Ming Shu's spine. Reflexively, he straightened his back.
Xiao Yu'an was typically calm and soft-spoken, but it couldn't be forgotten that he had helmed countless combat missions during his time in special ops. There were moments when he could grow cold and serious, and when he became stern, it was plain to see he was an extremely powerful, formidable man. Ming Shu had watched him train rookies before, and just a cold stare from Xiao Yu'an could make those rookies shake in their boots.
"Do you understand what I'm saying?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"I understand," Ming Shu answered quickly, not wanting to be lectured any more.
Xiao Yu'an's tone softened again and became warmer once more. "Even though you're out there investigating on your own, if there's anything on your mind, if there's anything you need, don't hesitate to tell me. Now that I've been transferred to Dongye City, I'll give you all the support you need."
Ming Shu gripped his pack of cigarettes a little tighter. His mood was genuinely much brighter and better already. He grinned and answered, "Got it!"
"Also," Xiao Yu'an added. "Smoking a cigarette is fine once in a while, but don't stand there smoking one after another."
Ming Shu jumped, shocked by the accusation, and instinctively retorted, "I'm not smoking."
Xiao Yu'an laughed. "I can hear the sound of the pack you're holding."
Ming Shu was helpless to deny that. "Ge, isn't your hearing way too good?!"
Ever since they were kids, Ming Shu had been helpless against Xiao Yu'an's good hearing.
Whenever he stayed over at the Xiao family's house when he was little, Ming Shu had a room of his own. He was always too embarrassed to wake anyone else up when he got hungry in the middle of the night, so he would sneak downstairs from the third floor by himself.
He crept into the kitchen to get himself a glass of milk, careful not to make a sound.
But even the teensy bit of noise he did make was heard by Xiao Yu'an.
Although Ming Shu had never been close to his parents, he had still grown up in the cold and strict household of the Ming family. He knew that stealing food in the middle of the night was rude at best. At worst, one could even accuse him of being an ill-mannered delinquent.
When he was caught by Xiao Yu'an, he was nervous and instantly felt guilty. He backed up several steps until he was practically plastered to the refrigerator, where he pitifully whispered, "Gege, I got hungry, and I didn't mean to steal some milk. I'll never do it again. I'll eat lots at dinner next time so that I'm super full, and I'll never steal anything again. Can you forgive me just this once? Please?"
Xiao Yu'an moved closer, took the glass of milk Ming Shu had poured for himself, and tousled Ming Shu's soft and fluffy hair. "It's almost winter. If you drink milk without heating it up right now, you might get sick."
Ming Shu gazed up at Xiao Yu'an with his eyes open wide. "Gege, you're not mad?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Why would I be mad? Is there anything wrong with getting hungry?"
"But I stole the milk," Ming Shu said. His shoulders drooped.
"Drinking milk from home isn't considered stealing," Xiao Yu'an reassured. As he spoke, he found a small pot and poured the milk inside. He found a doughnut as well, and broke it up into pieces to toss into the pot. "You can drink it after we let it heat up for three minutes."
Ming Shu almost tripped over his own feet in his haste to run over to Xiao Yu'an, hugging him tight. "Ge, you're the best!"
Xiao Yu'an fetched a spoon to stir the milk and doughnut mixture. "If you ever get hungry again, come find me. I'll make you a midnight snack."
Ming Shu was ecstatic. He nodded enthusiastically and agreed, "'kay!"
And as they grew up, after undergoing specialized firearms training, Xiao Yu'an's hearing became even sharper.
When Ming Shu was in high school, he had already decided to follow in Xiao Yu'an's footsteps and attend the University of Public Security. But as a rambunctious teenager, only sixteen or seventeen, he could hardly go a day without feeling pent up if he didn't get himself into some trouble.
He liked to fight as much as any other boy. Once, he was on his way to brawl with a couple other guys at a pool hall… when Xiao Yu'an came home.
If he had known Xiao Yu'an would be coming home, Ming Shu definitely wouldn't have gone out looking for a fight. He would have tidied himself up and gone straight over to find Xiao Yu'an, to flirt and show off a bit, like a peacock spreading its tail feathers.
At that time, he had already set his heart on Xiao Yu'an, but Xiao Yu'an still only treated him like a little brother to be doted on.
The brawl was in full swing when Ming Shu suddenly felt the sensation of a familiar gaze on him. He turned and saw his gege standing not far away, wearing a neatly ironed uniform, watching him like a hawk.
Ming Shu instantly lost interest in the fight and bailed on the brawl like a soldier deserting his squadron in the middle of a battle. He took a few punches as he tried to retreat, but ultimately made it out of the scuffle.
"Ge, you're back!"
There was a lot Ming Shu wanted to say, but before he could get any other words out, Xiao Yu'an's hand came down on his head and grabbed it like a vice.
The force of his grip was so immense that Ming Shu felt his legs go weak.
"Why are you skipping class to get into fights again?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Ah, that…" Ming Shu tripped over his own tongue, unable to form a coherent sentence in his defense.
He couldn't admit he had just been itching for a fight, and couldn't settle down until he'd had a decent brawl!
Xiao Yu'an gave Ming Shu's head a firm shake before taking back his hand. "If you have too much energy to burn, just tie a tire around your waist and run five kilometers."
"Ge, I was wrong!" Ming Shu whined.
Xiao Yu'an finally laughed at that. "What happened to the arrogant kid who was fighting just now? What are you crying for?"
"I'm not crying," Ming Shu protested. After hearing Xiao Yu'an laugh and seeing him smile, Ming Shu relaxed. "Ge, how did you know I was here?"
The pool hall was closed. There was no way to tell what was going on in there; no one should have known about the fight, except the guys who were actually in the fight.
"I heard," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu stared at him, wide-eyed and uncomprehending. "You heard? What did you hear?"
Xiao Yu'an raised his eyebrows. "You, of course."
"That's impossible!" Ming Shu blurted out. "I didn't make a sound!"
"You didn't make a sound with your voice, but I could hear your body move," Xiao Yu'an said. It sounded almost like a joke, like he was just teasing. "I taught you how to fight, didn't I? You think I wouldn't recognize the sound of your moves?"
Ming Shu blushed to the very tips of his ears, and he couldn't help but laugh.
"Don't fight so much anymore," Xiao Yu'an chided. "I didn't teach you how to fight so that you could get mixed up with punks like that."
"I know," Ming Shu said, listening obediently before deftly changing the subject. "Ge, how long are you staying this time? Let's go have a rabbit roast!"
Their childhoods were long gone, but the memories were as fresh as if they had been made just yesterday. When Ming Shu reminisced, he couldn't help but smile.
His call to Xiao Yu'an had ended a while ago, and his cell phone screen had already gone dark. Ming Shu took a deep breath to get himself focused, then got back to work.
The next day, Hua Chong sent over a few men from the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Luocheng. The reinforcements arrived in Qing Yue, ready to assist in Ming Shu's thorough search of the village. Ming Shu stayed to supervise for most of the day, before returning to Luocheng with Liu Zhiqin.
Liu Zhiqin was heading back to track down Hou Cheng, while Ming Shu was on his way back to Xinyun Press to have another chat with Guo Xian, Hou Cheng's editor.
Guo Xian was still wearing a bodycon dress that revealed all the curves of her figure, and her makeup still consisted of piercingly bright red lipstick and a smokey eye. She continued to maintain a coy and coquettish tone as she said, "Hou Cheng wasn't home? I don't know anything about that.
"He already put out one book this year, and he doesn't have anything scheduled for the next six months or so. I'm in charge of a lot of other authors, so I can't possibly keep track of this one man all the time."
"Are you positive Entombed Heart's novels were written by Hou Cheng?" Ming Shu asked.
Guo Xian blinked. She looked genuinely surprised by that question. "Hm? What do you mean?"
"Let me ask a different question," Ming Shu amended. "How did Hou Cheng first get in touch with your company?"
"He pitched us his work," Guo Xian said. "He sent us a manuscript, and I reached out to him after reading it. How should I put this… I was genuinely quite moved by his work. At the time, I had no idea he was a fifty-something-year-old farmer.
"If I had known, I might not have signed him. Because the truth is, when it comes to selling books these days, it isn't just what's inside the book that matters. The author needs to be marketable as well.
"Hou Cheng's writing is very in vogue, and that's worth a lot. But this person… like I said last time, he's just a country bumpkin. Fashionable young women wouldn't want to buy suspense novels written by some hillbilly like that."
"So you would agree," Ming Shu prompted, "that there's a disconnect between this author and his work?"
Guo Xian blinked rapidly, clearly flabbergasted, before she suddenly snapped her fingers. "Ah! That's exactly right, you put it so well. There's a disconnect. Didn't I tell you he always gave me a strange feeling? It was the feeling that there's some disconnect there!
"The way he speaks, the way he acts… it all made me think there was no way he could write such clever books. I even suspected him of plagiarism at one point, but he's just a simple farmer from the boonies. He wouldn't know anything about plagiarism, would he?
"And in my position, I read a huge amount of books and manuscripts. I have a comprehensive understanding of this industry, and I can basically guarantee his works aren't copied from anywhere."
"What else about him or his work gave you a 'strange' feeling?" Ming Shu asked.
"Let me think about that…" Guo Xian propped her chin up on one hand. "He doesn't know how to edit his manuscripts! Our editorial process here is to give the authors suggestions, and the authors are to make the revisions themselves. But whenever I call Hou Cheng to go over our editorial notes with him, he refuses to make any changes. He says that we have to either leave the manuscript as is or make the changes ourselves.
"When I asked why, he said he didn't know how to make revisions, and he couldn't explain exactly what he meant by that. I've worked with plenty of authors, and most of them don't like revising their own manuscripts, but Hou Cheng gave me a different feeling. Other authors don't enjoy making revisions, but Hou Cheng didn't know how to make them. If it hadn't been stated plainly in his contract that he was the sole author, I would have started to suspect he didn't write his own books."
Ming Shu had planned on paying another visit to Liu Zhiqiang after chatting with Guo Xian. Yesterday, Liu Zhiqiang's reaction to seeing three detectives enter his workplace had been somewhat suspicious. But Liu Zhiqiang had gone out that day, and wasn't at the office.
That night, Liu Zhiqin reported what he'd found on his end. He had discovered that one month ago, Hou Cheng came to Luocheng. Presently, his cell phone was at a secondhand shop.
When greeted by the police, the boss at the secondhand shop started sweating buckets in an instant.
"Someone sold it to me," he claimed, when the detectives asked about Hou Cheng's phone. "I don't know where it came from."
"Do you still remember what the person who sold it to you looked like?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"How could I remember that?!" the merchant demanded. "I get tons of cell phones in stock every day, obviously I can't remember where each one came from!"
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang said, after they left the shop. "I'd say it's pretty likely someone stole Hou Cheng's phone. It's a pretty average phone, but the market price is still more than a thousand yuan."
Ming Shu silently pondered the matter for a moment before he mused, "What was Hou Cheng's purpose for visiting Luocheng?"
"Maybe he came to find the real Entombed Heart?" Fang Yuanhang suggested.
"It's possible," Ming Shu agreed. "On the bright side, we're getting closer. We can narrow down the scope of our search. The dealer at the pawn shop said Hou Cheng's cell phone was sold to him four days ago, so it's very likely Hou Cheng is still in Luocheng right now.
"The vast majority of hotels in Luocheng keep detailed records of guests who check in, and we haven't been able to find any record of Hou Cheng checking into a hotel here. Which means Hou Cheng is either staying with an acquaintance or at a hotel that doesn't require guests to sign in. Or…"
"Or?" Fang Yuanhang prompted.
"Or he's been staying at 'erotic' places," Ming Shu said.
The investigation in Qing Yue Village stretched on to a second day. Finally, two villagers came forward and admitted they remembered a fair-skinned young man who had once visited Hou Cheng's home.
Hou Ximei lived across the street and a house down from Hou Cheng's place. The distance between the doors of their houses was only around two hundred meters. Hou Ximei was in her forties, and she led a very ordinary life.
When the women in Qing Yue Village weren't out in the fields, they were at home doing housework. And when they had some free time, they would often take a little stool out to the front of their houses. If they had company, they would gab about their families, and if they were alone, they would look left and right and all over the place, keenly searching for something interesting to help them kill time.
"I don't remember exactly when it was," Hou Ximei said. "But it definitely wasn't this year or last year. It's been a pretty long time. I've lived in Qing Yue for decades, and I never once saw any strangers go up to Hou Cheng's house before. So it left a deep impression on me.
"I've got no clue where that young man came from, but he stayed at Hou Cheng's place for several nights. Hou Cheng is usually very hard-working, but for those few days, he didn't go out into the fields at all."
"You even noticed that much?" Ming Shu asked.
"That's because his land is right next to my family's fields," Hou Ximei said. "I thought that young man left soon after he arrived, because I didn't see much of him. But then, one morning, I saw him leaving with a big bag on his back. Hou Cheng didn't even come outside to see him off."
"Has this man been back to the village since then?" Ming Shu asked.
"No," Hou Ximei answered with absolute confidence. "Well, if he has, I haven't seen him."
The other witness was named Wang Youqun. She had only moved to Qing Yue from a neighboring village a few years ago, when she married into a family in Qing Yue. Her story lined up with Hou Ximei's version of events, but she was able to provide some additional details about the visitor's appearance.
"I can't remember exactly what he looked like anymore," Wang Youqun said, "but I remember thinking he was very handsome. You could tell right away that he came from a big city. Compared to the men in our village, he was a completely different species.
"Oh, I'd say he was just like you men. Clean and well-groomed, not like our farmhands. I went home and told my husband I saw a handsome young man in town, and my husband really gave me a good scolding, haha!"
Fang Yuanhang was visibly excited. "This guy could be the real Entombed Heart! Hou Cheng is so antisocial, there's no other reason he would let some random person live at his house for several days, right?"
Ming Shu called out a sketch artist from the Bureau in Luocheng to have a portrait made of this suspicious visitor. But the witnesses' memories were already blurred, and the two portraits based on their descriptions looked like drawings of two entirely different people.
It was at this stage in the investigation that the Department of Public Security in Luocheng received word of mass arrests made during a raid on a nightclub in Fu Kang District. Tens of prostitutes and dozens of clients were arrested.
Among them was Hou Cheng, who had been missing for a month.