Luocheng. Fu Kang District. The Golden Rose.
Under a flood of gaudily flashy lights, dozens of scantily clad sex workers sat in rows on one side of the club. Among them, there were several 'male models' who wore only underpants. The customers were lined up on the other side of the club, many of them in various states of undress. Most of these customers were half-bald and sported pronounced beer bellies.
Fu Kang District was the least modern and least cultured district in all of Luocheng. Although the Golden Rose nightclub had the words 'golden' and 'rose' in its name, there was nothing golden or rosy about it. Locals called the place a 'massage parlor' for middle-aged men, and all of the Golden Rose's customers were older men with very little pocket money.
All of them were viewed as low-class in the eyes of society.
Hou Cheng was short and small. His shoulders were hunched inwards as he covered his bare chest as best as he could.
He was sandwiched between two fat, drunk men. His shifty gaze swept left and right every so often, and a look of immense disgust and resentment had settled on his face.
The nightclub was chaotically noisy. Among the undercover police who had slipped into the club, there were members from the Department of Public Security as well as the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
The men from the Bureau had been dispatched by Hua Chong, because Ming Shu had previously mentioned that Hou Cheng had come to Luocheng one month prior but had yet to check into any proper hotels. If he wasn't staying with an acquaintance, that could only mean he was staying at an unlicensed hotel or a prostitution den.
The sex workers were the first to be taken away, followed closely by the customers who had gone to the club to hire their services.
Hou Cheng staggered to his feet and tottered along with the masses as they were herded out to the police vans waiting outside.
When they were shut inside the back of a van, someone gave a hoarse shout—
"Fuck! What kind of shitty fucking luck is this?!"
The van stopped at the local police precinct in Fu Kang District, where most of the suspects were unloaded and brought inside. Hou Cheng prepared to get out of the van as well, but he was stopped before he could.
"What are you doing?" he asked in a panic, grabbing hold of one of the police officers. "Don't I get off?"
"You're not getting off here," the police officer said.
"Why? Where are you taking me?" His eyes were vacant and uncomprehending, and he was so afraid that he began to shake.
The police officer yanked his arm out of Hou Cheng's hold and shot him a scathing glare before closing the door. "Just sit tight and don't ask any unnecessary questions!"
Hou Cheng was scared stiff. He sat back down, still shivering, and didn't dare to move again.
The police van got back on the road. The lights from outside were refracted and scattered by the windows of the car, spilling over Hou Cheng's face and giving his skin a sickly, mottled appearance.
At the Bureau, Ming Shu was already waiting for him.
When Hou Cheng was brought into an interrogation room, he was clearly still nervous and perplexed. His eyes darted this way and that, frantically searching for some hint of his fate.
In person, Hou Cheng looked even older than he did in his photos. He was around 1.7 meters tall. The top of his head was almost completely bald, and the skin of his face was loose and sagging. He wore polyester pants and a white vest in a style that was popular a generation ago. On his feet, he wore a pair of cheap leather sandals that looked like they cost only ten yuan or so.
Hou Cheng seemed extremely unsettled by the blindingly bright light of the interrogation room that was pointed directly at his face. He repeatedly rubbed his wrinkled hands together, and his eyes twitched this way and that in his anxiety.
Fang Yuanhang pretended to flip through his file. "Hou Cheng. Fifty-five years old. Resident of Qing Yue Village."
Hou Cheng nodded. "Yes, yes. That's right."
"How long have you been in Luocheng?" Fang Yuanhang continued. "Why did you come to Luocheng?"
"Since June," Hou Cheng answered. He swallowed nervously, over and over again. "I came… I came to escape the summer heat."
"Escape the heat?" Fang Yuanhang echoed skeptically. "You like to 'escape the heat' at prostitution dens?"
Hou Cheng shrank back in his seat and didn't say anything to that.
"Was today your first time?" Fang Yuanhang demanded.
"First… yes, first time…"
"Then, this past month, where have you been staying?"
Hou Cheng fixed his gaze on the table, refusing to look anywhere else. "Staying at… at a hotel."
"Which hotel?" Fang Yuanhang prompted.
Hou Cheng had no answer for that.
"Today wasn't your first time hiring a sex worker," Fang Yuanhang concluded. Maintaining a cold and stern voice, befitting a criminal investigator, he continued, "Do you wish to deny it?"
Hou Cheng began to tremble more fiercely. He shook his head at first, then started to nod. "It wasn't the first time, it wasn't. I admit it."
Ming Shu observed the interrogation from the monitor outside.
Everything Hou Cheng did and said made Ming Shu more certain that Entombed Heart was someone else.
"I'm just… I'm just a bachelor, I don't have a wife at home. Is it a crime to come out here and have some fun?" Hou Cheng asked. "I… I got an ad at the hotel, that's why… why I went there."
"It's not a crime to 'have some fun', but buying and selling sex are crimes," Fang Yuanhang retorted. "Besides the Golden Rose, what other brothels have you been to?"
Hou Cheng stammered over his words, making some unintelligible noises. "There was… also…"
Ming Shu pushed open the interrogation room door and strode in coldly, like a blizzard. He gave Hou Cheng an icy, emotionless onceover.
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang greeted.
Ming Shu made a sound of acknowledgement before he sat down. "You're a farmer in Qing Yue Village, and the village's primary product is watermelon. You're a watermelon farmer, is that correct?"
"Yes," Hou Cheng answered.
"Watermelon just so happens to be in season right now," Ming Shu continued. "Why aren't you tending to your fields at home? Why have to come to Luocheng to 'escape the heat'?"
"Ah…" Hou Cheng's eyes began to shiftily dart around again. "That's…"
"Because you have another source of income, and the piddling amount you make from selling watermelons doesn't matter to you at all?" Ming Shu posited. His eyes bored into Hou Cheng's skull, yet Hou Cheng didn't dare look up at him.
"I don't have anything like that," Hou Cheng mumbled. "It's just too hot this year. I wanted a break."
Ming Shu didn't say anything else for a long time, but he didn't move his gaze away from Hou Cheng's face. He could plainly see that Hou Cheng was bursting from the seams with anxiety, sweating fear from every pore.
After a full ten minutes of silence, Ming Shu slowly said, "Entombed Heart."
Hou Cheng didn't react to that at first. It was only after thirty seconds that he jerked up his head, as though waking from a dream, and claimed, "Ah? Yes, that's me. That's me."
A delayed reaction like that was practically solid proof that Hou Cheng and Entombed Heart were not one and the same.
The one spreading the idea that 'some people deserve to die' couldn't possibly be this slow, dim-witted man who had been caught in a prostitute's bed in the middle of the night.
"Who is Entombed Heart?" Ming Shu asked.
Hou Cheng's surprise was evident on his face. He quickly avoided Ming Shu's gaze before he answered, "It's me, I'm Entombed Heart. Entombed Heart is my pen name."
"You just told me," Ming Shu pointed out, "that you have no other source of income besides your farm. You said your only reason for neglecting your fields and coming to Luocheng was to escape the heat. And now, suddenly, Entombed Heart is your pen name?"
By then, Hou Cheng's face was likely unbearably hot. But his unhealthily jaundiced skin wouldn't let a flush show even if one did rise in his cheeks.
"I don't want anyone to know," Hou Cheng said. His shoulders drooped and he fixed his gaze to the tabletop.
"You don't want anyone to know what?" Ming Shu asked. "That you're Entombed Heart? Or that you came to Luocheng to seek out prostitutes?"
Hou Cheng's mouth hung open for a long moment before he said, "My editor told me, the package is important. I can't let anyone know I'm Entombed Heart."
Ming Shu scoffed derisively. "You aren't Entombed Heart."
Hou Cheng's hands trembled on the table, the sweat from his palms pouring out in buckets. He leaned forward anxiously and demanded, "What do you mean? What have you people really brought me here for?"
Ming Shu deliberately ignored his question. "You're the suspense novelist, Entombed Heart?"
Hou Cheng nodded repeatedly. "Yes, that's me."
"You wrote all those books?"
"Yes, they're mine."
Ming Shu smiled coldly. "Your editor wants to make your work marketable, so she told you not to let anyone know that you're Entombed Heart. So why do you seem so unconcerned about causing trouble for her? You've been arrested on charges of soliciting prostitution. Your readers will find out about this very soon."
Hou Cheng jolted with panic. "N-no! You can't tell anyone!"
"If you aren't Entombed Heart," Ming Shu continued, "that would be a different story."
Hou Cheng fell silent, sinking into a deep internal struggle.
Ming Shu swiftly changed the subject once more. "What does your pen name mean?"
"Just something I picked randomly," Hou Cheng said, though his answer was unsteady and uncertain. "Why are you asking about that?"
"'The heart is entombed while the soul floats free in this mundane world'," Ming Shu recited. "That's what you wrote in your books."
"Right, right, that's what the name means," Hou Cheng hastily agreed. He brought up his hands and wiped at the sweat staining his forehead. "The heart is in a tomb, and the soul… the soul is in society."
Ming Shu shook his head. "You never wrote that in your books."
Hou Cheng froze.
"I made it up just now," Ming Shu said. He glared at Hou Cheng with eyes like daggers. "You're not Entombed Heart! So, tell me. Who is Entombed Heart? How do you know them? Why did you sign a contract with the publishing house on their behalf?"
Hou Cheng had been absolutely blindsided by Ming Shu's interrogation techniques. He could only stare at Ming Shu for a moment, utterly stupefied. Sweat continued to pour down his skin, and it was only after a long while that he managed to insist, "I really am Entombed Heart! Little… Little Guo can prove it to you!"
"How will she prove it? With the contract you signed?" Ming Shu shook his head. "How about this? Instead, why don't you tell me all about your writing process."
Hou Cheng's ghastly complexion suddenly looked even worse. "That…"
"You can't tell me?" Ming Shu flashed a sharp, humorless smile. "That's fine, I won't force you. Forget about the writing process. Give me a summary of your latest novel instead. It just so happens that I haven't read it yet."
Hou Cheng hesitantly started, "There's… someone who was killed…"
Ming Shu waited for him to continue. When nothing else came, he prompted, "And then?"
"Then… then…" Hou Cheng folded his hands together and squirmed for a few minutes. There was absolutely nothing he could come up with. In his panic, he covered half his face and said, "I forgot."
"You're the author. You wrote the book. And it's the most recent one to be published. How could you have 'forgotten' the plot so easily?" Ming Shu questioned. He stood up. "Hou Cheng, do you intend to continue lying to me?"
Hou Cheng helplessly opened and closed his mouth, gasping silently like a dying fish. He looked up fearfully at Ming Shu and finally admitted, "I don't know."
"What don't you know?" Ming Shu demanded. "You don't know who Entombed Heart is? Or you don't know what was written in 'your' most recent book? You signed a contract on Entombed Heart's behalf. If Entombed Heart is implicated in a crime, then you'll take the blame as well!"
A wave of shock and confusion came over Hou Cheng's face. "What? He committed a crime? What did he do?"
Ming Shu sat back down. "So, you're finally willing to admit you aren't Entombed Heart."
Silence descended upon the interrogation room. Only the sounds of heavy breathing and a racing heartbeat could be heard.
Hou Cheng finally started to shake his head, clearly still dazed by this fierce line of questioning. "I'm not him, so let me go. I didn't do anything wrong."
"Then who is Entombed Heart?" Ming Shu persisted.
"I don't know," Hou Cheng mumbled guiltily.
Even the officer recording the interrogation session thought Ming Shu would explode into a rage at that.
But Ming Shu remained calm and continued, "Then tell me how you met. You don't know who Entombed Heart is, but you must have met them. You must have communicated with them. You know whether Entombed Heart is a man or a woman, and you know how old they are. Right?"
This time, Hou Cheng surrendered quickly and nodded. "I met with a young man, very young. He… he hitched a ride once, on my pedicab."
According to Hou Cheng, the real Entombed Heart was an elegant, pretty young man. Three years ago, when Hou Cheng had ridden his pedicab up to a neighboring town to collect some free disinfectant, he was stopped by Entombed Heart on his way back to Qing Yue Village.
These days, backpackers were a common sight in that area. Hou Cheng had given a ride to a few of them before. Seeing that he still had space in the back of the pedicab, he allowed Entombed Heart to get on.
Hou Cheng didn't speak much, but Entombed Heart was very talkative. He yammered on through the whole ride, recounting everything he had seen and heard so far on his trip. Hou Cheng only answered once in a while to acknowledge that he was listening. His passenger struck him as a very intellectual person, completely different from all the young people in the village.
By the time they reached Qing Yue, Hou Cheng had already learned that Entombed Heart was a writer.
Hou Cheng had lived alone for decades, owning only his little house and his farmland. When he had some free time, he would pick up a few secondhand books the village had bought and give them a read just to pass the time. It had become almost like a hobby for him. Although Hou Cheng didn't feel anything close to adoration for Entombed Heart, he did sincerely admire the young man.
There were no tourist facilities or attractions in Qing Yue Village, and Entombed Heart claimed it was purely by chance that he had made his way out there. He said he was traveling for inspiration, and he had simply hitched a ride with whoever would have him. He meandered through the country aimlessly, stopping and staying a while at any place he found interesting.
"This place seems pretty interesting to me," he said. "It's far from the city, and the people seem to live leisurely, slow-paced lives. I'd like to stay for a few days."
Initially, Hou Cheng didn't have any intention of allowing Entombed Heart to stay with him. But after Entombed Heart spent all day walking through town, without finding any suitable lodgings, he returned to Hou Cheng's house.
That put Hou Cheng in a difficult position. For one thing, he didn't have anything that could be used to host a guest. For another, he was used to living alone and felt unnerved by the thought of letting someone else into his domain.
But the sun had already set. Everyone had gone back to their homes, and the outdoors wasn't safe at night. Hou Cheng dithered over it for a long while, but in the end he did invite Entombed Heart to stay with him. He even cleaned out the nicest room in his home for Entombed Heart to sleep in.
Entombed Heart stayed for a full week.
He never left the house. He never spoke to anyone else. He simply shut himself up in that room and wrote.
Hou Cheng had been displeased about the unwanted visitor at first, until Entombed Heart took a stack of cash out of his backpack.
"Cheng-shu, please accept this as my payment for room and board. Thank you for your hospitality."
When Hou Cheng counted it up, the stack of bills Entombed Heart gave him totaled up to thirty thousand yuan.
Even after a full year of farming, Hou Cheng's net profit was only in the five-digit zone. And this young person here suddenly handed him thirty thousand yuan like it was nothing!
Hou Cheng was shocked.
"Cheng-shu," Entombed Heart said, "I've received a lot of inspiration from staying here. To a writer, inspiration is the most important thing. It's priceless. I should be thanking you, so please accept the money."
Very few people in the world would be unmoved by money. And so, carelessly, Hou Cheng allowed Entombed Heart to stay as long as he wanted.
Before leaving Qing Yue Village, Entombed Heart brought up the matter of acting as a stand-in on his publishing contract.
Hou Cheng didn't really understand the details. All he got was that Entombed Heart would pay him one hundred thousand yen a year just to sign the contract with Xinyun Press on his behalf. Hou Cheng would only need to turn in the manuscripts, receive the payments for the published books, and pay taxes on the money from the publisher.
To Hou Cheng, one hundred thousand yuan was an astronomical sum.
"Shushu, I know you're worried, but think about it. If you help me, why would I ever do anything to harm you?" Entombed Heart asked earnestly. "I have some personal reasons which make it difficult for me to sign with a publishing house. That's why I'm asking for your help. We've spent so much time together, so you must have a clear idea of whether or not I'm a bad person, right?
"Here, let's do this. It's fine if you don't answer me right away. I still need to edit my manuscript, anyway. You think about it for a while, and after some time, I'll come back and find you."
After Entombed Heart left, Hou Cheng did think about it. And the more he thought about it, the more he regretted his indecision.
It was just signing a contract for someone. What could go wrong? Entombed Heart looked like a well-educated young man. He couldn't be writing about anything scandalous, could he? Just for signing the contract, Hou Cheng would receive a hundred thousand yuan.
He didn't even make that much from a whole year of farming.
When would such good luck ever befall him again?
After a few months, just as Hou Cheng was starting to mourn the loss of a rare opportunity to get rich, Entombed Heart returned.
This time, Entombed Heart didn't go to Hou Cheng's house. The two of them met up out in Hou Cheng's fields, and Entombed Heart was wearing gloves and holding a flash drive when he appeared. He asked Hou Cheng to send the contents of the flash drive to Xinyun Press, then destroy the flash drive immediately afterwards.
For that reason, Hou Cheng made a trip to the nearest town and bought a secondhand laptop.
Following Entombed Heart's instructions, Hou Cheng sent the manuscript, waited, and successfully signed a contract with Xinyun Press, becoming the fake Entombed Heart.
The real Entombed Heart's whereabouts were a constant mystery. He seemed to appear out of nowhere one minute and vanish into thin air the next. Whenever he met up with Hou Cheng, he would take the payments from Xinyun Press and leave Hou Cheng with a hefty sum for acting as his stand-in.
They had been working together for two years now.
"When was the last time Entombed Heart reached out to you?" Ming Shu asked.
"May of this year," Hou Cheng said. He breathed a sigh like a weight had been lifted off him, perhaps because he had finally given his full confession. "He came to pick up his money, gave me fifty thousand, and told me to treat myself to a break. Summers are unbearable in the village, it's too hot.
"Since I had money, I came out to the city. I never thought… I never thought I would be arrested by you people…"
"This case is incredibly bizarre," Hua Chong said. He had invited Ming Shu out for a meal in the little alleyway of shops across from the Bureau.
They'd gone into a gan'guo restaurant and ordered an extra large helping of a mixed pork ribs, rabbit, and eel dish. In addition to that, they'd gone to some of the neighboring stalls and ordered a pot of dihua soup and a foil-baked fish.
By the time everything arrived, their table was completely covered by food.
"There's definitely something going on with Entombed Heart," Hua Chong said. "Even if he isn't trying to incite violence through his writing, this whole thing about having Hou Cheng act as a front for him is very suspicious. Would any normal writer do something like that?"
"It would have made sense if it was a matter of tax evasion," Ming Shu said as he dug in. He had been working nonstop for a few days already and seriously needed to get some food in his belly, so he didn't hold back in front of Hua Chong. "But he had Hou Cheng pay every cent in taxes that was owed.
"Entombed Heart's sole purpose in doing all this was obviously to hide his identity, and he was smart about it, too. He found an antisocial guy like Hou Cheng, who doesn't have any family members. Plus, a place like Qing Yue Village wouldn't have any surveillance cameras.
"Hou Cheng is the only person who knows the truth, and without evidence, no one else can testify on the matter."
"And if it becomes necessary, Entombed Heart can dispose of Hou Cheng," Hua Chong mused. He fell into thought for a moment, then added, "We have to operate under the assumption that Entombed Heart intends to commit a crime."
"I was thinking the same thing," Ming Shu said. "Two suspects in murder cases were influenced by Entombed Heart. I have to find him as soon as possible."
"What do you intend to do with Hou Cheng?" Hua Chong asked.
"He'll be critical in our investigation. Captain Hua, I want to formally make a request of you." Ming Shu clinked his glass against Hua Chong's in a toast. "Hou Cheng…"
Before he could even make his request, Hua Chong answered, "Don't worry, I'll make some arrangements on my end. Hou Cheng is our only lead in this matter right now. If he's taken in by the Department of Public Security and word gets out, it could very well spook Entombed Heart into hiding."
Ming Shu smiled. "Thanks. Once I wrap up these few cases, I'll treat you and Liu-laoshi to some drinks."
"And will we invite Le Ran?" Hua Chong asked.
"Of course!" Ming Shu's mood instantly brightened at the mention of Le Ran. "That little idiot is a riot."
Ming Shu had met Le Ran during his year of training with special ops. Le Ran wasn't very old, but he was deeply experienced. One night, after a big group of the trainees had wrapped up a mission, they'd all gone out for drinks together.
Le Ran was a good fighter, and he could usually hold his liquor pretty well. But he could only drink one type of alcohol in a night; mixing different drinks was sure to make him dizzy.
No one knew who poured Le Ran some wine first, and no one knew who poured him some hard liquor afterwards. But the mix took effect instantly, and Le Ran suddenly went completely motionless.
Most drunks went on a wild, drunken rampage, or simply went straight to sleep. But Le Ran was the honest type of drunk; when he got in that state, he answered any question you asked him. So, naturally, his buddies had spent the whole night teasing the hell out of him.
At first, Ming Shu had thought it would be unkind to bully his squadmates, but then he got into it. If Shen Xun, the supervisor of the special operations team, hadn't come to take Le Ran away, the rowdy group could have stayed rowdy until daybreak.
"Le Ran went to Xia Ben Village," Hua Chong said. "He's working on the case you guys transferred over to special ops. The truth of that case has been buried for twelve years. It's about time it came to light."
Ming Shu sighed when he remembered Li Hongmei, but he still felt reinvigorated and motivated to get back to work.
"When I'm responsible for a case, everything comes to light."