"You're Entombed Heart."
It was a calm, unhurried statement. But the sound of it filled the air like a heavy, weighty declaration.
"You… what are you saying?" Hou Cheng reeled backwards, stumbling after two steps and falling on his ass, sinking down onto a wooden stool. "I'm not Entombed Heart."
Xiao Yu'an's expression was utterly inscrutable. "Really?"
Hou Cheng frantically shook his head. "I'm really not!"
Xiao Yu'an watched him for another minute or so before he seemed to accept Hou Cheng's answer as the truth. "Entombed Heart's works are currently under suspicion of being involved in several criminal cases," Xiao Yu'an said. "Circulation has stopped for the time being, and until the cases are resolved, Xinyun Press won't be making any more deposits into your account."
Hou Cheng stared blankly at him. "Oh, that doesn't have anything to do with me."
"How could it not have anything to do with you?" Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "The payments to your account will stop, meaning the real Entombed Heart won't seek out your services again anytime soon."
Hou Cheng gave that some thought, still unwilling to meet Xiao Yu'an's piercing gaze. "That's fine, that's not a problem. He's already given me a lot of money, it's okay if he doesn't come to see me anymore. After the summer passes, I'll go tidy up my fields. I can plant melons. I don't need to rely on him."
Xiao Yu'an sighed. "You don't seem to understand my meaning."
Forget about Hou Cheng. Even Ming Shu didn't quite understand the act Xiao Yu'an was putting on.
"What meaning?" Hou Cheng asked, fidgeting anxiously.
Hou Cheng's skin was a waxy yellow; his sickly complexion made it difficult to tell if any color was rising in his face. But Ming Shu could see that his deep wrinkles were faintly trembling.
Logically speaking, there was no reason for Hou Cheng to be that nervous.
"You still don't understand?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "To put it plainly, if Entombed Heart no longer has any use for you, then the police won't have much use for you either."
These faintly threatening words were uncharacteristically harsh. The tone and word choices were both unlike Xiao Yu'an's usual way of speaking.
But, inexplicably, they fit the scene playing out before Ming Shu's eyes.
Ming Shu silently uttered a tsk inside his mind.
"I don't understand." Hou Cheng stood up. "What are you people planning to do to me? What do you mean by 'use'?"
"You are still a person of interest in the eyes of the Department of Public Security," Xiao Yu'an stated. "You were temporarily released under the assumption that you would aid us with our case. But, seeing as Entombed Heart won't be coming back, you can return to the Department of Public Security now and await your punishment."
Hou Cheng clearly hadn't expected this turn of events. He worked himself into an obvious panic and shouted, "That isn't what you people told me a few days ago!"
"A few days ago?" Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Did I speak to you a few days ago?"
Hou Cheng swallowed, hard. He had to shake his head.
"That's right. A few days ago, the one who released you was my subordinate." Xiao Yu'an cast a glance at Ming Shu when he said that, and Ming Shu instantly straightened his posture.
Xiao Yu'an returned his attention to Hou Cheng and continued, "It seems he made a mistake. I'm here to correct it."
Hou Cheng shiftily, anxiously rubbed his hands together. "But you… you people can't do this to me, you can't jerk me around like this. You think… you think farmers… you think you can push me around because I'm just a farmer?"
"Just a farmer?" Xiao Yu'an repeated slowly. "If you must identify yourself as such, fine—then let me ask you this. While the others in this village are toiling in their fields, you're here. Your fields are overgrown from neglect. Why?"
"I t-t-told you!" Hou Cheng stammered. "Entombed Heart gave me money, so I didn't want to do any farm work this year."
The sound of a car pulling up outside drifted into the house. Ming Shu moved to the door and saw it was a Luocheng police car that had parked out front.
Ming Shu hadn't called for backup. They must have been summoned by Xiao Yu'an.
"The car is here?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"It's here," Ming Shu confirmed.
Xiao Yu'an turned back to Hou Cheng with a cold, indifferent look. "If you have anything else to say, you can say it at the Department of Public Security."
Hou Cheng had a look of rage about him, but it was tinged with fear, as though he didn't dare express his anger. "Now… we're leaving now?"
"Yes, right now," Xiao Yu'an confirmed. "The police car is waiting outside."
"Then let me get ready." Hou Cheng turned as he spoke, as though to head inside.
Ming Shu was one step ahead of him. He swiftly blocked Hou Cheng's course. "They'll have everything you need where you're going."
"I… I still have to clean…" Hou Cheng's shifty gaze darted around. He made to push his way past Ming Shu, but he was obviously unable to overcome the younger, stronger man.
"Do you intend to clean? Or do you intend to hide something you don't wish for us to see?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Hou Cheng's gaze sharpened for a split second, before that almost lifeless dullness returned to his eyes.
That second of sharpness was like a bolt of light flashing through a pitch black room, illuminating the sordid truth hidden within.
That one second was enough.
When Hou Cheng was taken away by the Public Security reinforcements who'd shown up to collect him, he was already working himself into a state of panic and frenzy.
Ming Shu stood outside Hou Cheng's house. He watched the police car vanish in the distance before he asked, "Ge, what did you realize?"
"If my theory is correct, then Hou Cheng is Entombed Heart," Xiao Yu'an said. "He's a very skilled liar, good at covering up his tracks. He even made up a relationship with a possibly fictitious person to lead us astray."
Ming Shu was baffled. "A cover-up? That can't be. We're the ones who first suspected he wasn't Entombed Heart, back before we had any contact with him. How could our doubts have been orchestrated by him?"
"Think about it. Really think about it," Xiao Yu'an advised. "Why did we suspect he wasn't Entombed Heart?"
Ming Shu fell into deep thought, his eyes clouding over with concentration. After a while, he said, "Because he doesn't look or act like a novelist at all."
"That's exactly it—he doesn't look like a novelist. The identity he crafted for himself led us to hold biases and prejudices against him. He insisted on it earlier as well, that he's 'just a farmer'." Xiao Yu'an spoke calmly and gazed into Ming Shu's eyes. "In this day and age, what would you imagine a suspense author is like?"
Ming Shu pursed his lips and didn't answer right away.
In his mind, a very blurry, hazy image began to grow clearer. Though he couldn't conjure up a distinct face as he considered Xiao Yu'an's question, he could see that the person he imagined was a young man.
Instantly, Ming Shu realized he had been influenced. This was clearly the young man who had been described by Hou Ximei and the others.
"Many people might instinctively think," Xiao Yu'an began, "that most suspense authors are males in their twenties to forties. Most likely, ones who wear glasses. Ones who have a comprehensive understanding of people of various professions and temperaments. Suspense authors are people who have read many books, or have been to many places. In summary, they are people who deeply understand society and have superior logic comprehension abilities. That's what most people would think when they think of a suspense author."
Ming Shu furrowed his brows. "Yes. That's true."
Xiao Yu'an continued, "If the information we received from Xinyun Press led us to a person fitting that description, then we would have instantly believed that person was the real Entombed Heart. Correct?"
Ming Shu thought about it for just a moment before nodding his emphatic agreement. "Right! The probability of an author hiding their identity behind someone else is vanishingly small. If the publisher led us to someone who matched the Entombed Heart in my imagination, I definitely wouldn't have thought of the possibility that there was a 'true' Entombed Heart hiding somewhere else."
"And what kind of person is Hou Cheng?" Xiao Yu'an prompted. "A farmer in his fifties. An elementary school graduate with no further education. A recluse, solitary and antisocial in nature. Bad at speaking.
"He lived in Qing Yue, a rustic little village, making his living as a watermelon farmer. Even the other villagers have very little contact with him. The local children call him 'simple' and 'stupid'. When you think of this kind of person, forget writing and being an author. You may even think he wouldn't know how to read."
It was a particularly hot day in the middle of summer, but Ming Shu suddenly felt a chill run down his spine.
"Anyone who encounters a person like Hou Cheng would most likely assume it was impossible for him to be a suspense writer," Xiao Yu'an said, smiling with his eyes. "From the start, he used his identity to mislead us. By fashioning himself as a person who couldn't possibly be Entombed Heart, he sent us on a wild goose chase for the 'real' Entombed Heart."
Ming Shu had finally caught up to Xiao Yu'an's train of thought. "I believed Hou Cheng couldn't be the writer we were looking for," he said, "and I believed he definitely couldn't write something like, 'Some people deserve to die.' So, subconsciously, I completely ruled him out and began to search for the 'real' Entombed Heart, who I assumed was still in hiding."
"It wasn't only you. I thought that way as well," Xiao Yu'an said. "As soon as we all began thinking that way, we fell into Hou Cheng's trap. We traveled farther and farther down this misleading path, thinking we were searching for the 'real' Entombed Heart. The fact that Entombed Heart seemed to be masking their true identity also fell in line with our suspicions that they were hiding something."
Ming Shu took a deep, slow breath. "If it's like that, then visiting brothels was all an act as well. He put on that show to convince us he's just a mindless, lowlife farmer who went wild as soon as he got a little money. Then, during his interrogation, he kept saying—fuck! I was the one who forced him to admit he wasn't Entombed Heart! Hiding his identity behind a story of hidden identities… his scheme is way too convoluted!"
"Don't forget, Entombed Heart's business is writing suspense novels," Xiao Yu'an said. "It may have been very easy for him to put on this act for us. If we remove all our biases, we can then ask ourselves, why can't Hou Cheng be Entombed Heart? Why can't an antisocial farmer write a suspense novel? It's true that he wasn't in school for long, but he isn't illiterate.
"Whether or not a person can write a book depends on their mind and their insight, their experiences and their imagination. Not their level of formal education."
Ming Shu thrust his fingers through his hair and clutched his head for a moment, until he finally started to calm down. "But it doesn't check out," he realized abruptly. "Hou Cheng wasn't the first to tell us about the young man at his house. We got those reports from Hou Ximei and Wang Youqun, his neighbors. They both reported seeing this young man, and they have no reason to play along with Hou Cheng's farce."
"That's easily explained. Simply put, there was indeed a young man who came to stay with Hou Cheng," Xiao Yu'an said. "I would even go so far as to wager that the appearance of this young man was what inspired Hou Cheng to put his plan into motion. Think back—when you first heard about this young man staying at the antisocial Hou Cheng's house, was your first thought that this young man could be the 'real' Entombed Heart?"
"Yes!" Ming Shu answered immediately. He had started to pace back and forth.
Xiao Yu'an continued, "This could have simply been a genuine passerby. Three years have passed since then. It would be difficult to track him down. But with Hou Cheng claiming this young man is Entombed Heart, and with neighbors verifying they had seen a young man entering Hou Cheng's house, it strengthens Hou Cheng's claims that he was only used by Entombed Heart."
"I just had a terrible thought," Ming Shu suddenly blurted out. "Hou Cheng boldly claimed that this young man was Entombed Heart. Does Hou Cheng not have any concerns that the man could show up again and expose his lies?"
"Two possibilities," Xiao Yu'an said. "One, Hou Cheng is taking a risk. He's hoping the young man never reappears. Two, he knows it's impossible for that young man to reappear."
"Because he's dead," Ming Shu stated. He balled his right hand into a fist and rested his chin on it. "He was killed by Hou Cheng."
"We can't rule out that possibility," Xiao Yu'an agreed. Then, suddenly, he smiled. "Have I convinced you so easily?"
Ming Shu froze, his gaze settling on Xiao Yu'an. "Huh?"
Xiao Yu'an moved forward and cupped Ming Shu's face in both hands. "You've been ensnared by my logic."
Ming Shu frowned, feeling a little indignant. "Because it's you!"
"Cool your head and think about it some more," Xiao Yu'an said, releasing him. "Think for yourself whether or not my theory makes sense."
Ming Shu did think about it, but it wasn't long before he asked, "I just want to know, if we'd all fallen into this hole Hou Cheng dug for us, then how did you get out? How did you change your way of thinking? I couldn't have done it. Maybe eventually, one day, I would have started to doubt Hou Cheng's story, but I wouldn't have noticed the flaws so soon."
"I'm just like you, I also believed Hou Cheng at first," Xiao Yu'an said. "Until Liu Zhiqin told me he didn't find any trace of Entombed Heart online."
Suddenly, Ming Shu understood.
"You trained with the special ops team for a year. I'm sure you know exactly how highly ranked Liu Zhiqin is, as an internet security expert," Xiao Yu'an said. "If it had been anyone else who didn't find anything on Entombed Heart, I may have assumed Entombed Heart was simply too good at hiding. But if Liu Zhiqin couldn't find anything at all, then I suspected right away—the Entombed Heart who Hou Cheng claimed existed simply couldn't have existed! My reason for rushing out here today was to investigate this theory."
"You bluffed him," Ming Shu said.
"It wasn't just a bluff," Xiao Yu'an said. "I also read Entombed Heart's books. In one of them, a long passage was dedicated to a detailed description of watermelon farming. Other passages included various details of rural life as well."
"If the locations depicted in Entombed Heart's novels resemble Qing Yue Village, then Entombed Heart is Hou Cheng?" Ming Shu thought about that for a moment before he shook his head. "It isn't conclusive proof. According to Hou Cheng and the other villagers, that young man happened to pass through Qing Yue and stayed for a while. So it would make sense if he were able to describe the village in his writing. That does make sense, right?"
"It doesn't," Xiao Yu'an said gently, shaking his head as well. "Whether it was Hou Cheng or the other villagers, they all said that the young man entered Hou Cheng's house and never came back out for the entire duration of his stay. He had no time to look around Qing Yue and take in the sights. Furthermore, Hou Cheng mentioned that the young man had traveled all over the place, visiting many other villages. If that were true, then why was Qing Yue the village featured in Entombed Heart's books? Why not any other village?"
"That…" Ming Shu gave it some more thought. After a long moment, he realized he had no more arguments to mount. "Then, what do we do now?"
Xiao Yu'an gave him a pat on the head and ruffled his hair. "You're the captain of the Serious Crimes Division. You're asking me what to do?"
"Don't do that, you're messing up my hair!" Ming Shu shook his head to get free. "If Hou Cheng is Entombed Heart, then… where's all the money he took out from the bank?"
Xiao Yu'an said nothing and waited for Ming Shu to draw his own conclusions.
"You think it's right here?" Ming Shu asked. "Hou Cheng is hiding more than two million yuan in cash, in his own home?"
"Did you notice his expression when he was taken away by Public Security just now?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "This old house definitely contains a secret of his. It could be the money, it could be something else. You conducted a search of the house, but it wasn't thorough enough."
"I'll order another search immediately," Ming Shu said. He took a moment to smooth down his hair that had been ruffled into disarray by Xiao Yu'an. "But… isn't it odd? By going to a brothel to hire a prostitute, Hou Cheng did further convince us that he wasn't Entombed Heart. But did he really need to go that far?
"Lu Kun and Li Hongmei both committed their crimes after reading Entombed Heart's books. We can be suspicious of Entombed Heart, but we didn't have enough cause to arrest him. After all, his books were all formally approved for publication through legitimate channels. Even if his readers committed crimes, we could have questioned him, but we couldn't have infringed upon his civil liberties.
"But now, after he was caught soliciting prostitution, the Department of Public Security has every right to detain him. With this, Entombed Heart has dug his own grave."
"When someone is setting up a trap, particularly one with so many convoluted twists and reversals, it's easy for even a brilliant mastermind to make mistakes," Xiao Yu'an said. "Many criminals in murder cases are the same. The killers want to erase all evidence of their presence at the scene of a crime, but their attempts to erase their traces only result in more traces being left behind. The more they try to hide their tracks, the more they disturb the original state of the scene.
"The flaws in Hou Cheng's story have already been revealed. When we return to Luocheng, I'll personally question him."
"Wait." Ming Shu grabbed hold of Xiao Yu'an's wrist. "Ge, you just copied me."
The corners of Xiao Yu'an's eyes shifted, crinkling with a faint smile. "Hm? What did I copy from you?"
"You copied my way of playing 'bad cop'," Ming Shu accused. "You usually don't speak so harshly, not even to suspects."
Xiao Yu'an continued to smile without really smiling, showing just a hint of humor in his eyes. "How many times have you imitated me? Or is it that you're only allowed to imitate me, and I'm not allowed to imitate you?"
"I imitate you because you're awesome," Ming Shu argued, tipping his head back to look up at Xiao Yu'an. "Your way of speaking, all cool and calm, scares the hell out of people. And…"
"And?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"And I've admired you, I've worshipped you, ever since we were kids. You know that!" Ming Shu's voice rose, growing both fierce and fiercely intimate. "So what if I imitate you?"
Xiao Yuan huffed a quiet laugh. Just as he was about to respond, a sudden burst of noise flooded in from outside.
Many villagers had gathered around a three-wheeled truck, all chattering noisily about something that had just happened involving the village chief Hou Jianjun.
"Hou Jiang really has no sense of filial piety at all! He goes off to the city to study, and now he won't even acknowledge his own father?"
"People say you raise your kids well, and your kids will take care of you in your old age. I think it isn't like that at all! Just look at poor Old Hou. He worked so hard to raise Hou Jiang, and now Hou Jiang has turned his back on him!"
"But Hou Jiang isn't completely in the wrong here. Having Old Hou as a dad does cause him to lose face."
"You can't say that! Who among us isn't a farmer? Hou Jiang is a farm boy himself! The only difference is he went to school in the big city, and now he thinks he can look down on his father? Who do you think paid for him to go to school in the city? His old man, the farmer!"
Ming Shu remembered meeting Hou Jianjun. Because of the exchange regarding Fang Yuanhang's distinctive lighter, Ming Shu's impression of the old man was fairly deep. After listening to the hubbub for a while, he more or less understood the situation—
Hou Jianjun had a twenty-four-year-old son, named Hou Jiang, who was currently studying for his master's degree at Luocheng University. Hou Jianjun had only been a young man when his wife passed away; he raised his son alone, playing the role of both parents and tending to his responsibilities as one of the village leaders as well.
Ever since he was young, Hou Jiang had been sent to attend school in the small town near the village. He had never maintained a very close relationship with his father.
When Hou Jiang was eighteen, he gained admittance to Luocheng University. Hou Jianjun was so thrilled that he invited the whole village to a dinner party to celebrate. But the man of the hour, Hou Jiang himself, didn't make an appearance at the dinner, spurning his father in front of the whole village.
Hou Jiang's rejection of Hou Jianjun was witnessed by the entire population of Qing Yue.
In the years since he left for college, Hou Jiang rarely ever returned to Qing Yue Village. But whenever Hou Jianjun had time, he would go out to Luocheng to visit his son, even if it was only to see him for a moment.
But many times, Hou Jianjun was only met by closed doors.
This time, Hou Jianjun had taken over a thousand yuan that he'd saved and bought a lighter similar to the one Fang Yuanhang had in his own pocket. Hou Jianjun had hoped to impress his son with the present, but when he made the trip to Luocheng, he was still unable to see his son.
Hou Jiang wouldn't answer his phone calls, and he wouldn't open the door for his father.
Hou Jianjun had returned to the village, desperate and despondent. The refusal of the expensive, luxury lighter had been the straw that broke his spirit. He felt he was truly out of options.
He went home and found a supply of pesticide, intending to commit suicide. It was only by chance that a village official who went over to discuss business happened upon him and stopped him in time, averting a near tragedy.
The pesticide had been knocked aside, seeping into every inch of Hou Jianjun's front yard.
As a caring community, many of the villagers had thrown aside their work and immediately rushed over to console Hou Jianjun.
Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu stood behind these villagers, a distance away. They observed Hou Jianjun from afar.
"He really wants to throw away his father!" Hou Jianjun wailed, weeping profusely and sobbing with enough force and despair to reach the heavens. "He refuses to see me. He wants to completely cut ties with me!"
"Every family has its demons," Xiao Yu'an mused. He patted Ming Shu on the back. "Let's go. Don't look anymore."
But Ming Shu was firmly rooted in place, suddenly remembering his own family.
The family that rarely ever crossed his mind.