Based on Hou Cheng's description, a sketch artist produced a portrait of Entombed Heart.
But this rendering was completely different from the ones the sketch artist had drawn based on the descriptions from Wang Youqun and Hou Ximei.
In the eyes of these three people who claimed to have seen Entombed Heart, the man had three different faces. Wang Youqun and Hou Ximei never had any direct contact with Entombed Heart; they had only glimpsed him long ago, and it would be understandable for their memories of him to be hazy.
But then Ming Shu took the portrait based on Hou Cheng's description back to Wang Youqun and Hou Ximei. Without telling them who the sketch was supposed to portray, he asked if they could recall ever seeing the man.
They both said they couldn't.
It was only after they'd given their answers that Ming Shu said, "This is the young man who came and went from Hou Cheng's place."
"Hah?!" Hou Ximei was visibly shocked. "That's impossible, I think? I don't remember him looking like this. I can't remember exactly what he did look like, but if you put him in front of me, I could definitely identify him. And this drawing doesn't look like him at all."
Wang Youqun had a similar reaction. "He was extremely handsome," she insisted. "That's all I remember, but the man in this drawing is so plain-looking."
Ming Shu took the sketch back and went to speak to Hou Cheng once more.
Due to concerns about alarming their true suspect and causing him to go into hiding, the Department of Public Security had decided to release Hou Cheng from their custody for the time being. Hou Cheng had been on his way out when he was stopped by Ming Shu once more.
The renewed line of questioning about his description of Entombed Heart clearly distressed Hou Cheng, making him squirm like a worm struggling to get out of the light.
"I remember what Entombed Heart looks like," Hou Cheng insisted, "but if you want me to describe all the details, I really couldn't do a good job. I just don't know how to describe these things. Even if you force me, I won't know. I tried my best. It's true, this sketch doesn't look exactly like him. But I don't know why it doesn't look like him. I don't know what needs to be changed."
Hou Cheng's claims didn't sound deceitful, and at this stage in the investigation, he no longer had any reason to try to cover up for Entombed Heart. He had no reason to lie or give a false description.
This was a common problem to encounter when creating sketches of suspects and persons of interest based on verbal descriptions from eyewitnesses. A witness's memory was often incomplete and distorted, even when it came to describing close friends and family members. They could easily recognize these friends and relatives in person, but asking them to describe every detail would be a daunting task for just about anyone. Thus, a sketch artist in the police force could only act as a consultant rather than a surefire means of identifying a suspect.
Hou Cheng was permitted to return to Qing Yue Village after that, but the police continued to closely monitor all of his movements, both in his everyday life and online.
Entombed Heart was still in hiding. Even Liu Zhiqin had yet to succeed in tracking down any trace of the author's true identity.
Ming Shu stayed in Luocheng for a few more days, reluctant to abandon this lead so easily. But he was constantly preoccupied by thoughts of Luo Xiangfu's case as well, and in the end he decided to make a return trip to Dongye City after all.
But, just as he made that decision, Xiao Yu'an gave him a call.
"Don't rush back just yet," Xiao Yu'an said. "Stay in Luocheng for a few more days."
"Why?" Ming Shu didn't understand the logic behind that. "Our trail to Entombed Heart currently stops at Hou Cheng. It's a dead end. There's no point in me staying here any longer."
"You released Hou Cheng and had him return to Qing Yue Village, isn't that right? Don't be impatient, and wait a few more days. Something of interest may happen while you're there," Xiao Yu'an said. "Besides, I'm coming to Luocheng."
Ming Shu instantly sat bolt upright in the bed at the Luocheng Bureau's dormitory. "Huh? You're coming to Luocheng?"
"There are some questionable things I wish to verify with my own eyes," Xiao Yu'an said.
The bed was hard and uncomfortable, and Ming Shu's voice carried a hint of dissatisfaction when he spoke. "What questionable things? Can't you tell me? Can't I verify these things for you?"
"At this point, I'm not clear on what's unclear," Xiao Yu'an explained patiently. "So it's better to take in the situation with my own eyes."
Ming Shu flopped back down and rolled onto his side, then let out a hiss of pain.
"What's wrong?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Hurts," Ming Shu mumbled. He cushioned his waist with a pillow and rubbed at the sore muscles there with his left hand while holding his phone in his right. Since he had Xiao Yu'an on the line, he took the opportunity to complain a little. "I've been running around without any time to rest, and I haven't been getting enough sleep. This bed is as hard as a slab of ice. My back hurts, my waist hurts, my legs and my feet hurt. My neck feels like it's literally being bent out of shape."
"Massage," Xiao Yu'an advised.
"Who has time for that?" Ming Shu had learned his lesson from his abrupt movements earlier. This time, he rolled over slowly, still rubbing his sore waist. "And I don't like it when other people do it, anyway. They never know what they're doing."
"I meant I'll massage it for you," Xiao Yu'an promised. His voice dropped to a lower, deeper tone that was utterly captivating. "Three days… no, the day after tomorrow. I'll arrive that evening."
Ming Shu shot straight up again, his pain all but forgotten. "Really?"
"Really," Xiao Yu'an laughed. "I'll come have a look at the case, then I'll have a look at my baobei's waist."
Ming Shu sighed as he sat up properly and crossed his legs. Already, after just talking to Xiao Yu'an for a while, the weight of the exhaustion that had built up within him over the past few days seemed to dissipate. "Ge, don't you know anything about the art of seduction?"
"If I don't," Xiao Yu'an said, "will you be the one to teach me?"
"What you should have said—" Ming Shu cleared his throat. "—is that you'll have a look at your baobei's waist, then you'll have a look at the case."
Xiao Yu'an hummed, deliberately putting on an act of needing to think about it. "The case comes first."
"True, but you're supposed to at least say that sort of thing to flatter me," Ming Shu argued, before laughing at himself. "Ah, fuck. I'm acting so spoiled that I'm even grossing myself out."
"The case is important, but baobei's waist is important too," Xiao Yu'an reassured, freely offering a word of flattery on command. "Get some rest now, I know you're tired. As soon as this case is solved, I'll give you some time off."
"What about you?" Ming Shu asked, though he already knew the answer.
"I don't get time off," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'm in charge of more than just the Serious Crimes Division."
"Then I don't want a vacation either. I want to keep you company."
"Do you want to keep me company at the Bureau?" Xiao Yu'an asked. His voice was light, obviously infused with the warmth of a flirtatious smile. "Or would you rather wait for me at home? You choose."
"That…" Ming Shu could feel his ears growing warm. "Then, I'll wait for you at home. We haven't done 'homework' in a pretty long time. I'm about to turn from a studious, hard-working, top-ranking student into a delinquent who's about to flunk out."
"Mm, it sounds like we'll need to arrange for some remedial classes," Xiao Yu'an deadpanned. "How about we find a time to do 'homework' all day and night? Can a little delinquent handle that?"
"Of course. In order to become a top-ranking student again, working all day and night is just what's expected," Ming Shu said before pulling the covers up over his head, hiding bundled up underneath. "Director Xiao, you're so obscene, saying these things to your subordinate."
Xiao Yu'an's voice dropped to a deeper and even more alluring pitch. "What subordinate? Aren't you my student?"
Ming Shu shivered. "Laoshi, you're so obscene!"
Xiao Yu'an didn't laugh. He kept up the act, his voice unwaveringly soft and soothing as he continued, "The student is the one who offered to take remedial classes. How can he call the teacher obscene?"
"Then am I the one who's obscene?" Ming Shu couldn't fully suppress a laugh.
"Mm," Xiao Yu'an hummed in obvious agreement. "This student is pretty self-aware of his own qualities."
"Hey!" Ming Shu huffed, feigning indignance.
Now, Xiao Yu'an finally laughed as well. "It's getting late. A good student should hurry up and get some rest."
After setting down his phone, Ming Shu tossed and turned in bed for a while before deciding to get up and go to the bathroom to take care of himself.
Before Xiao Yu'an called, Ming Shu had barely been able to keep his eyes open. But after talking, he felt reinvigorated. He couldn't fall asleep, and he really wanted to do some 'homework' by himself.
It was Ming Shu who had used the word 'homework' first, and when Xiao Yu'an first heard it, he hadn't been able to stop laughing.
Ming Shu had explained, "Ge, doesn't 'homework' give you a comfortable and cozy feeling? It's something you do at home, with someone you like."
Xiao Yu'an brushed a finger over the bridge of Ming Shu's nose. "Isn't homework your worst enemy? When you couldn't finish in time, I had to write your assignments for you."
"That's different." Ming Shu tilted his head and nuzzled his face against Xiao Yu'an's hand. "I want to do 'homework' with you."
Memories of Xiao Yu'an trickled through Ming Shu's mind like a gentle stream. Finally, he yawned and was able to fall asleep.
Two days later, in the dead of night, Xiao Yu'an arrived at the high-speed rail station in Luocheng and climbed into the police car Ming Shu had driven over to pick him up.
It was already too late to make it out to Qing Yue Village that night, so Ming Shu took Xiao Yu'an back to his own dormitory provided by the Bureau.
The Luocheng Bureau's dormitory only contained single beds. Some rooms housed just one person, while others could house multiple people. When Ming Shu first arrived in Luocheng, he hadn't counted on Xiao Yu'an coming out there as well. He'd asked for a private room, and now he was regretting it and wishing he'd asked for a double.
There weren't actually many officers who lived in the dorms. Fang Yuanhang was staying in Qing Yue Village, and many of the rooms with two beds on the floor where MIng Shu was staying were vacant. But suddenly switching to a double room without any apparent reason would draw too much attention.
So Ming Shu had only been able to think about their sleeping arrangements for a while, without bringing it up in the end.
But Xiao Yu'an didn't need him to bring it up. After washing up in Ming Shu's room, Xiao Yu'an gave the simple excuse that it would be easier for them to discuss the case if they were sharing a room. Then he picked up Ming Shu's luggage and moved it into a neighboring double room.
"Isn't this risky?" Ming Shu whispered.
"Why is it risky?" Xiao Yu'an asked, innocently raising his eyebrows. "Isn't it normal for two or three detectives to share a room when they're out of town for an investigation? Saves on resources, and makes it easier for us to share information."
Xiao Yu'an could say anything and make it sound perfectly rational.
Ming Shu couldn't have been happier, but he still playfully muttered under his breath, "You cunning old fox."
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an hummed, acting as though he hadn't heard. He'd already closed the door. "Old what?"
Ming Shu wrapped his arms around Xiao Yu'an's waist. "Old pervert."
Xiao Yu'an laughed and gave a firm slap to Ming Shu's lower back.
"Oi!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "You're really gonna hit me?"
Xiao Yu'an pressed a finger to Ming Shu's lips, hushing him. "If I don't, this mouth won't learn to be civil."
Of course, Ming Shu was only pretending to be angry. He didn't move away, keeping his arms stubbornly wrapped around Xiao Yu'an as he mumbled, "Ge."
Xiao Yu'an nodded towards the bed by the window. "Go lie down."
As soon as he saw Xiao Yu'an, Ming Shu felt more relaxed and at ease. That was probably why his mind drifted to thoughts that he shouldn't have been thinking in that moment, and that was probably why his whole body tensed with anticipation as he asked, "Now?"
Xiao Yu'an gave his cheek a light pat. "What are you thinking, hm? Doesn't your waist hurt? Don't you want a massage?"
A fierce blush exploded across Ming Shu's face. He turned red from the tips of his ears to the back of his neck. When he flopped down on the bed, he continued to complain with feigned irritation, "You're teasing me?"
Xiao Yu'an had strong, skillful hands, and he knew Ming Shu's body well. He knew exactly which muscles gave Ming Shu trouble, and he concentrated the efforts of his massage on those spots.
When Xiao Yu'an started, the pain was so bad that Ming Shu almost cried out as he squirmed. His back arched, nearly forming the shape of a bow. He did his best to muffle any sounds that threatened to escape his lips, fearing his voice would travel through the thin walls. He even buried his face in his arms to restrain his voice as much as possible.
There was truly nothing better than a massage at home, where he could scream as much as he wanted. Sometimes, even when it didn't hurt at all, he would shout a little just for the hell of it.
Xiao Yu'an could always tell when Ming Shu was crying out in genuine pain and when he was crying out just to misbehave. When he shouted for no reason, Ming Shu would always get a slap on the ass.
"Ge, you really don't hold back when you hit me," Ming Shu had once said.
At that, Xiao Yu'an had lowered himself over Ming Shu's back, bearing his weight down on him as he whispered something in Ming Shu's ear, his breath ghosting hotly over Ming Shu's skin.
Ming Shu's whole body had broken out in shivers, instantly going numb.
As he hugged the pillow in the dorm room, receiving a massage from his lover and reminiscing about their past, Ming Shu was consumed by a mix of pain and pleasure. In the end, when he couldn't contain it anymore, he let out a low, long moan.
"All done," Xiao Yu'an said as he sat back and gave Ming Shu some room to move. "How do your waist and back feel now?"
Ming Shu continued to lay perfectly still, unwilling to move. "Ge, keep going. Just a little more."
But Xiao Yu'an stood up. "Everything in moderation."
Ming Shu huffed and finally rolled over to get out of bed as well. "You're always so reasonable about everything."
Xiao Yu'an smiled and captured Ming Shu's chin in one hand, stroking his thumb under Ming Shu's mouth a few times. "Will you always listen to my reasoning?"
Ming Shu had been closely watched over by Xiao Yu'an ever since he was a child, and when they grew up, it was Ming Shu who had determinedly pursued Xiao Yu'an until he won him over. In Ming Shu's heart, the only reason for anything and everything in the world was Xiao Yu'an.
There was no reason for existence, as far as Ming Shu was concerned, outside of Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu sighed as the warm and indulgent sound of Xiao Yu'an's voice washed over him. His legs felt like jelly, and he pitched himself forward to embrace Xiao Yu'an again, hiding against his chest. "You obviously know the answer to that."
Xiao Yu'an stroked his hair and allowed him to lean against him for a while before he spoke again. "Go to sleep now. We'll set out for Qing Yue early in the morning."
Qing Yue Village was located far away from the heart of Luocheng. The road to the village was bumpy, and the wheels of their car sent dust and dirt flying up from the ground.
Ming Shu drove while Xiao Yu'an sat in the passenger seat.
"Ge, what are you looking at?" After jolting over a pothole in the road, Ming Shu glanced over at Xiao Yu'an out of the corner of his eye.
"Admiring the view," Xiao Yu'an said without turning his gaze away from the window. He seemed totally fixated on the plain, boring fields that rolled past beyond the glass.
"You call this a view?" Ming Shu asked. "Isn't it just farmland?"
Xiao Yu'an didn't answer right away.
Ming Shu thought about it on his own for a moment, then let out a low hmph under his breath. "You're silently making fun of my lack of aesthetics again."
With regards to aesthetics, Ming Shu excelled at choosing fitting and fashionable clothes for himself, unlike his good friend Lu Yanzhou, who had the fashion sense typical of a straight guy. Ming Shu had a good eye for art as well, but he fell short when it came to finding beauty in nature.
When they were younger, Xiao Yu'an often took Ming Shu on trips around the world. Together, they took in all sorts of sights, ones close to home as well as ones far away when they traveled abroad. They had visited golden beaches, dense jungles, vast deserts, and even glaciers that stretched on as far as the eye could see.
But it seemed Ming Shu had been born with eyes that were simply incapable of appreciating the beauty of nature. When he took in these sights, his reaction was always somewhat lackluster.
He couldn't help but think, rather than simply appreciating those landscapes, it would have been far more interesting to do more intimate things with Xiao Yu'an at those scenic spots.
When he first expressed those thoughts to Xiao Yu'an, he was still young and impetuous—he had yet to turn eighteen. Xiao Yu'an had laughed good-naturedly, though with a bit of regret as well, as he told Ming Shu he simply had no understanding of aesthetic beauty.
"What do you mean I don't understand?" Ming Shu protested. He had lifted his head proudly, showing off his bright and beautiful visage like a young peacock spreading its tail feathers.
"You call this vast and endless sky a bland and uninteresting canvas," Xiao Yu'an said, lifting a finger to point at a spot in the starry night sky. "Look there, that constellation is the Summer Triangle."
They had climbed to a spot elevated five thousand meters above sea level, where the sky was clear enough to make out the colors of the Milky Way. The sky was a twinkling expanse of stars, and it was undeniably a rare sight to behold.
But Ming Shu shook his head. "Ge, I only have eyes for you."
Xiao Yu'an said nothing to that.
Ming Shu continued, earnest and sincere, "Compared to you, even the most beautiful sights in the world are dull to me. Ge, I see you, and I know how to appreciate you, so how can you say I don't understand aesthetics?"
It was only in his youth that Ming Shu would have been bold enough to say such blatantly affectionate things to Xiao Yu'an. Even thinking about it now, Ming Shu felt deeply, helplessly abashed.
Xiao Yu'an had finally pulled his attention away from the window and turned to Ming Shu. "I'm not making fun of you, but what about you? What are you smiling about?"
Ming Shu instantly schooled his face into a neutral expression and pretended to have no idea what Xiao Yu'an was talking about. "Huh? I wasn't smiling. You're mistaken."
Xiao Yu'an didn't challenge his obvious lie; he turned back to the window and gazed outside once more.
When they finally approached Qing Yue Village, Xiao Yu'an asked Ming Shu to take a detour and park the car a distance from Hou Cheng's house, around the corner a street away.
Neither of them wore police uniforms, but based on their looks and demeanor alone, it was obvious they weren't from the village.
"Where are we going now?" Ming Shu asked.
"Do you know where Hou Cheng's fields are located?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Of course. I've been out there a few times."
"Lead the way. I want to take a look."
The countryside was the same everywhere. Squat houses, dirt roads, and uniformly sectioned patches of farmland.
Qing Yue Village's main export was watermelon, and it was just the season for harvesting their crop. The day was sweltering with the summer sun beating down from above, but all the villagers were out toiling away in the fields, rushing to get their watermelons sent off to the big city for trade.
A parade of trucks were lined up in front of the fields, ready to be loaded up with the harvest. The scent of sweet watermelons and tangy sweat intermingled in the air.
Compared to all the fields around it, the patch of farmland in the southeast was notably barren. No one was working in those fields, and the land had become overrun by weeds.
"That's Hou Cheng's land," Ming Shu said, pointing it out. "He didn't even plant anything this year."
Xiao Yu'an made his way across the fields, weaving through the farmers. He was stopped once in a while by villagers asking if he wanted to buy any watermelon from them, and he took the opportunity to chat for a short while with each of the villagers who approached him. Finally, he made his way over to Hou Cheng's field.
"That piece of land's already gone to waste!" one of the villagers hollered. "No point looking over there, nothing to see!"
"Were watermelons planted in this field as well?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "In the past?"
"Yeah, plenty of 'em!" the villager shouted back. "For over ten years, he'd been growing 'em there!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled his thanks and nodded, then took a few pictures of Hou Cheng's fields with his cell phone.
"Ge, what did you just figure out?" Ming Shu asked.
"Nothing urgent," Xiao Yu'an reassured. "Let's go see Hou Cheng."
After he was released from police custody and sent home, Hou Cheng had holed up in his house and refused to take a single step outside. He became even more withdrawn and antisocial than before.
When Ming Shu knocked on the front gate, it took a long while for Hou Cheng to answer. Hou Cheng's eyes filled with obvious shock when he saw them.
"What are you doing here?"
"Why can't I be here?" Ming Shu challenged. He pushed his way past Hou Cheng and stepped into the courtyard in front of the house. "Under normal circumstances, you would still be in the custody of the Department of Public Security right now."
Hou Cheng quickly dropped his head and averted his gaze. "I've been home this whole time. Entombed Heart hasn't contacted me."
Ming Shu had been to Hou Cheng's house several times already. He led Xiao Yu'an forward, but it seemed Xiao Yu'an had no intention of setting foot inside the house. Instead, he paced around the courtyard a few times, as though looking for something.
"Director Xiao?" Ming Shu called out.
It was only then that Xiao Yu'an entered the house.
Hou Cheng followed them, nervously clutching a cup in his hands. He snuck glances at Xiao Yu'an every so often, but always quickly looked away when Xiao Yu'an turned around to look back at him.
"What have you been doing these past few days?" Ming Shu asked.
"Been home. Read… reading. Books." As Hou Cheng spoke, he hastily tidied up a messy pile of secondhand books littering one of his tables.
Ming Shu picked up one of the books before Hou Cheng could put them all away. "Another crime novel?"
"Just something I picked up randomly," Hou Cheng said. "Why are you here today? What do you want to know? I already told you everything."
Before Ming Shu could answer, Xiao Yu'an suddenly said, "We want to know who you really are."
Those words were enough to surprise not only Hou Cheng but Ming Shu as well.
"Didn't I already tell you everything?" Hou Cheng asked with a slight tremble in his voice. "And you people have looked into it, too. You know I'm just a farmer."
"No." Xiao Yu'an gave Hou Cheng a cold look, and said nothing further.
Hou Cheng's expression became more and more bizarre.
Xiao Yu'an left Hou Cheng hanging for half a minute. Finally, it seemed Xiao Yu'an had seen enough. His gaze pierced through Hou Cheng, seeing past his eyes and deep into the fog that shrouded his heart.
"There was never a young man," Xiao Yu'an stated. "You're Entombed Heart."