"I'm really not Entombed Heart!" Hou Cheng insisted, squirming incessantly in his seat inside the interrogation room. "What do you want me to say?! When I said I was Entombed Heart, you forced me to say I wasn't! Now, I've admitted that I'm not, and you won't believe me!"
Xiao Yu'an sat across from him. His posture was dignified and refined, and his voice was warm, but his presence was powerful. Almost overpowering. He said, "The story you've fabricated isn't convincing."
A flash of hesitation streaked through Hou Cheng's eyes. He asked, "How is it not convincing?"
Xiao Yu'an silently met his gaze and held it. Hou Cheng furrowed his eyebrows and frowned; half a minute later, he couldn't help but avert his gaze, his eyes darting around shiftily once more.
"What you're asserting is that your story is true. Not a fabrication," Xiao Yu'an said. "If that were the case, then there's simply no way you would calmly ask why your story isn't convincing. If your story were true, you would fiercely deny the claim that it's a fabrication. That would be the only logical response."
Hou Cheng clenched his jaw, the flesh of his cheeks visibly shifting with the increase in tension. "I'm not Entombed Heart, I just helped turn in the manuscripts. If Entombed Heart has committed a crime, go find him. Find him! Let me go!"
"I would also like to find him, but where would he be?" Xiao Yu'an mused. His voice was perfectly calm and steady. He didn't speak too quickly or too slowly. Any ordinary person listening to him would have felt soothed, but for those who harbored ill intentions in their hearts, it was a deeply unsettling voice.
"I told you I don't know!" Hou Cheng argued. "I already regret helping him, so stop forcing me to say what I don't know!"
"I won't force you," Xiao Yu'an said, "but I'd like to hear you tell me about the first time you met Entombed Heart. I'd like you to tell me exactly what he said to you that convinced you to sign a contract with Xinyun Press on his behalf."
"I already told you people all of that!" Hou Cheng raged.
"But you didn't tell me," Xiao Yu'an said. "I have every right to ask you to repeat your story one more time. Of course, you have every right to choose to remain silent."
Hou Cheng's eyes were filled with rage. The sounds of his heavy breathing echoed through the room.
"Choosing silence, is it?" Xiao Yu'an smiled pleasantly.
Hou Cheng didn't answer.
"You've already realized you made a mistake while staging this act for us, and it's a mistake that can no longer be corrected," Xiao Yu'an said. "And you also know that the more you talk, the more likely you are to slip up. The reason you're choosing to remain silent now is because you fear you'll say something to me that contradicts what you said before."
Hou Cheng's eyelids seemed to have grown heavy with despair. When he snuck a glance up at Xiao Yu'an, with his head still bowed, there was a dark, gloomy fog in his eyes.
Ming Shu had stayed behind in Qing Yue Village to conduct the renewed search of Hou Cheng's house, but he was distracted. He couldn't help but think of the village chief Hou Jianjun, as well as the son, Hou Jiang, who all the villagers claimed had no sense of filial piety whatsoever.
In the eyes of the Ming family, Ming Shu was probably also considered a child without any sense of filial piety. When he was little, he wasn't at all close to his parents or paternal grandparents. Instead, he acted like he was a child of the Xiao family.
Later, when he was seventeen or eighteen, he even rebelled to the point of leaving home. He abandoned the path that had been laid out for him and insisted on following in Xiao Yu'an's footsteps, pursuing him without a care for anything else in the world. Not only did he flounce off, disregarding all threats of being cut out of the family, he brought his parents shame by coming out of the closet as well.
In the Ming family, a man loving another man was considered a stain upon the family name.
When Ming Shu was little, he feared his paternal grandparents and would silently endure the beatings he received. But as he grew older, a budding confidence and arrogance grew inside of him. He refused to keep his head down any longer. He refused to tolerate the physical and verbal abuse he experienced at the hands of his grandparents, and he left it all behind, throwing away the family that had been his cage for so long, to chase his dreams and his man.
But even if he felt no filial obligation to his family, he wasn't completely devoid of feelings for his parents.
Many years after Ming Shu left home, his father came to visit him in Dongye City, passing along a message from his mother about how much they missed him. His father even extended an invitation to him, to return home for a visit when he had time.
Later that year, he went home with Xiao Yu'an to have a New Year's Eve dinner with his parents. After that, Ming Shu and his parents had resumed a distant but tenuously peaceful dynamic of simply not interfering in one another's lives.
There was still that thin connection of blood between them. Although Ming Shu could never be a doting son, he didn't loathe his parents either.
Taking his own experiences into consideration, Ming Shu reflected on Hou Jiang's actions some more. And he couldn't help but think that something about Hou Jiang's alleged actions didn't seem quite normal.
According to the villagers, Hou Jianjun had poured his blood, sweat, and tears into raising Hou Jiang. Now that Hou Jiang was grown up, he didn't respect and admire his father. But even if he didn't respect or admire the man, it seemed far too extreme for Hou Jiang to refuse to see his father at all when the old man came to him bearing gifts.
The year Ming Shu reconciled with his parents, his father had given him a name-brand watch. Although Ming Shu never wore it, not even once, he had personally accepted the gift and said, of his own accord, "Thank you."
Hou Jiang so adamantly refusing to see his father was simply bizarre. Could there have been some other reason for his refusal?
While Ming Shu was lost in thought, he suddenly heard Fang Yuanhang call out, "Chief! What are you doing over there? We're heading into the basement now!"
Ming Shu had to set aside those thoughts of Hou Jianjun and Hou Jiang for the time being. As he made his way inside, he answered, "Coming."
Hou Cheng's shabby little house was a total of three levels—two above ground, and one basement. All the furniture was extremely old, and the paint on the walls was peeling to the point that it was almost all gone, yet Hou Cheng hadn't bothered to patch it up.
The ground floor was rather messy, but the second floor was kept extremely neat and tidy. There were three bedrooms, and the only one with a lock on the door was the cleanest. It could be said there wasn't a single speck of dust in that room, but to outsiders, there was a gloomy sensation that came from that place.
Because there was a black-and-white memorial photo of a couple hanging on the wall.
Hou Cheng had lost both parents at a young age. The memorial photo on the wall was of his deceased parents, and the room it hung in had in fact been their bedroom while they were alive.
"When you see this, you have to think Hou Cheng was a very filial son," Fang Yuanhang remarked. "His parents have been gone for decades, and he still cleans this room every day. These bed sheets and covers are all freshly changed. Compared to Hou Jianjun's son, the difference is just too huge."
It really was a remarkable difference. Ming Shu thought about it for a while, then gave Xiao Yu'an a call.
"I might be overreacting," Ming Shu prefaced. "But I'm starting to think something happened to Hou Jiang."
Xiao Yu'an listened patiently. "Why?"
"Intuition," Ming Shu said. He hesitated for a second, then amended, "No, it's not entirely intuition. If I were Hou Jiang, I wouldn't be so cold. No matter what, if Hou Jianjun always cared for him and came to see him with a present, Hou Jiang shouldn't have refused to even see him."
"That's a reasonable suspicion," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll discuss this with Captain Hua. If he deems it necessary, he may send some men to Luocheng University to investigate."
Ming Shu made a sound of acknowledgement. He was just about to hang up when Xiao Yu'an suddenly said, "Wait."
Hastily, Ming Shu pressed his cell phone to his ear again. "Director Xiao?"
"After we close this case, go home and rest for a few days," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu was a little stunned. He blinked, his lashes sweeping low over his eyes. "Was it really obvious that my mood was unstable just now?"
"Not obvious, no. I suspect I'm the only one who would have noticed," Xiao Yu'an said with a soft, fond laugh. "Don't brand yourself as 'unfilial' son. The way you and your parents communicate is simply different from what other families have. It doesn't mean you're 'unfilial'. Do you understand?"
Ming Shu's heart instantly felt lighter and warmer. "I understand."
"Go on, then," Xiao Yu'an said. "Finish your work with your mind at ease."
Ming Shu descended a flight of rusty metal stairs to the basement. He instantly smelled a strange, hard-to-describe odor.
"It stinks!" Fang Yuanhang complained, hurriedly covering up his nose and mouth. "What's that smell?"
The basement wasn't large. It was rectangular in shape, without any partitions, and around seventy square meters in size. Only a dim, murky light penetrated the room, which was crammed full of dusty old boxes and farming equipment.
Ming Shu walked along the wall and stooped down to have a look. "It's rotting watermelons and vegetables."
"What?" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "He was storing watermelon down here? And so many of them? Was he out of his mind?"
"The basement is cooler than the rest of the house. It isn't a strange place to store produce," Ming Shu said. As soon as he finished speaking, some vague thought, perhaps an idea, flashed through his mind. But it was gone in an instant, before he could seize it.
"Oh, got it," Fang Yuanhang said. He started to rummage through the boxes as well. "Then let's start looking—oh, damn! There's all sorts of junk in here! Above ground, this place actually looks like someone's home, but down here it's basically a garbage dump!"
Ming Shu had also noticed that many of the things in the basement were useless or broken. There were even torn-up cardboard boxes and crushed aluminum cans strewn about.
"Hou Cheng is hiding something," Ming Shu said. He began to tap the wall as he paced the perimeter of the room. "What we're seeing is what he wants us to see."
"What we see…" Fang Yuanhang was quick. A lightbulb went off over his head. "The money isn't here!"
"But it can't be far from here," Ming Shu said as he continued to move around the room. His feet landed on a small box of worn and broken cassette tapes; they crunched underfoot. "Hou Cheng only had two sanctuaries. His home, and his field, so—over here!"
As he spoke, Ming Shu turned around. "Get me a screwdriver!"
Fang Yuanhang frantically looked left and right, then blurted out, "I'll go up and find one!"
"Forget it." Ming Shu backed up a few steps. In a flash, his right leg flew up as he aimed a fierce kick at the wall. With a muffled bang, a wooden plank broke in half, crushed just like the cassette tapes on the ground.
"This is…" Fang Yuanhang hurried over and peeked inside, past the broken plank, and found a darkened room. "Is this a darkroom?"
As the broken plank collapsed, it stirred up a veritable storm of dust. Ming Shu waved a hand to disperse the cloud of filth, then shined a light into the room, discovering that it was only a small space that was barely even one square meter in size.
"Chief, you stay outside." Fang Yuanhang quickly stepped inside first, nearly slipping in the process.
"Be careful," Ming Shu cautioned. He had noticed that the ground inside that space was different from the ground in the basement. It looked like mud, damp and slippery, and one could easily slip on that surface.
"I see something!" Fang Yuanhang carefully made his way over to the left corner. "Chief, give me some light over here!"
In the corner, three locked iron boxes were neatly stacked up.
The boxes were moved out into the courtyard. The locks were broken open. And inside, stacks upon stacks of hundred yuan bills were revealed.
"We finally found it!" Fang Yuanhang cheered. "If Hou Cheng isn't Entombed Heart, why would he have so much money in his house? And why would he have hidden it so well? If we show him this evidence, he definitely won't be able to lie to us anymore!"
Ming Shu felt ready to let out a breath of relief as well, but an undeniable feeling of hesitation still lingered in his mind.
He rubbed at his temples, trying to remember the thought that had flashed through his mind earlier, the one that had disappeared too quickly. Intuition told him that thought was incredibly important. But no matter how hard he tried to recall it, the thought just wouldn't come back to him.
The bills in the lockboxes were counted. The total sum was 2.67 million yuan. It was exactly ninety thousand yuan less than the sum the publisher had paid Entombed Heart, after tax.
Hou Cheng watched the video that Ming Shu had recorded in the basement of his home. The color in his face gradually changed. That wooden, half-lifeless look in his eyes cleared away, like fog and clouds disappearing without a trace. Finally, he revealed his true colors.
"Fine. I'm Entombed Heart," he admitted, leaning back in his chair and fixing Xiao Yu'an with a hateful look. He barked a cold laugh. "That two million is rightfully mine. I earned it, legally. I can save it in a bank, I can invest it, or I can keep it in my own house. Is there anything strange about that?"
"Not strange," Xiao Yu'an said, still remaining perfectly calm. "The only purpose of finding this sum was to prove that you are, in fact, Entombed Heart. And now you've confessed."
Hou Cheng scoffed derisively through his nose. "Hoh, so now you've proved I'm Entombed Heart. Now what are you going to do to me? I signed a contract legally, I published my books legally, and I haven't committed tax fraud. What right do you have to hold me in custody?"
"You were arrested and you're being detained by the Department of Public Security, not by me," Xiao Yu'an said. "You tried to set a stage and play a clever game, but in the end you dug your own grave."
"You—!" Hou Cheng slammed both his hands onto the table. A vile, sinister expression stormed over his face, but it was quickly replaced by a twisted smile. "Right, hiring a hooker was my mistake. I was wrong. I'll never do it again. Alright? Paying for sex is illegal, fine, but it isn't some heinous crime. I haven't done anything malicious. You'll teach me a lesson, then let me go, right? I swear I'll go back, and I'll just behave real nice and write books. I'll never go out sleeping with random women again."
"You'll be 'real nice' and write books?" Xiao Yu'an echoed. "You mean you'll use your books to incite violence and awaken your readers' latent killing intent?"
Hou Cheng let out a surprised breath. He sounded almost impressed, and he smacked his lips as he glanced at the officer recording their session. "Would you listen to that? Listen, listen. Is that the sort of talk that should come from a proper, contemporary detective?"
The recording officer cast a glance at Xiao Yu'an, wearing a somewhat complicated expression, as though believing Xiao Yu'an had indeed said something improper.
"See? Even the little cop knows you can't talk like that," Hou Cheng said. "I have every right to write my books, and I have every right to publish them. What's wrong with you people? You aren't out there catching real killers, but you're here making false charges against me? A suspense author?"
"I never let the real culprit escape," Xiao Yu'an said, "no matter how innocently they package themselves up."
The air in the interrogation room seemed to gradually grow colder and colder. An immense, invisible pressure bore down on Hou Cheng.
After a short period of silence, Hou Cheng shook his head. "You're not making any sense. I haven't done anything wrong, so I don't have any reason to 'package' myself up. If my books had been published illegally and you say they incited violence, fine. But is that the case? Were my books published illegally?
"No! I signed a deal with a legitimate publishing house. The details are all plainly written out on my contract in black and white. There were no problems at all in the review process of my books. You're not in this industry, you have no idea how difficult it is to get a book published these days. If there was even one line that the censors took issue with in my book, the publisher would have killed the deal. It never would have made it to market."
That all seemed to make sense. The recording officer was nodding along.
"If you think there's a problem with my books, if you think the content is bad or unconscionable, then you should be investigating Xinyun Press and their Mystery department. What's the point of keeping me here?" Hou Cheng continued. "I just write the books. How they're published and marketed is none of my business.
"I don't even know what kind of content would be axed by the publisher, but if they didn't axe my books, then they're publishable, aren't they? And my books are sold everywhere after they're published. Am I supposed to know exactly who's out there buying them? If a criminal has read my book, does that mean my book is guilty? Do I, the author, have anything to do with those murderers?
"By keeping me detained and interrogating me, aren't you exposing your failures as detectives? Isn't your job to punish the killers, to protect society? Now that you've failed that, you've come to make things difficult for me, a humble writer?"
Another office in the interrogation room spoke up, declaring, "Hou Cheng! You're going too far!"
Hou Cheng shrugged carelessly. "What are you going to do now? Torture a confession out of me?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled serenely, unflustered by Hou Cheng's words. "You're really quite an interesting person. Through your own natural talent, you've achieved very good sales with your work. Yet you insisted on creating a false identity for yourself and leading us detectives around in circles."
"Is that any reason to suspect me of a crime?" Hou Cheng retorted. "I'm a suspense author. I need inspiration, and I'm not ashamed of drawing inspiration from my own life. As long as I don't hurt anyone, is there anything wrong with me playing these little games with my life?"
"I didn't say it was wrong, I only said you're quite an interesting person." Xiao Yu'an stood up and looked down at Hou Cheng.
Hou Cheng lifted his head. The lights from overhead poured onto his face, illuminating the way his Adam's apple bobbed with some restrained emotion.
Xiao Yu'an took in every minute detail of his expression before he smiled again. "When I meet an interesting person, I don't mind working hard to dig up even more interesting stories about them."
Hou Cheng's back and shoulders stiffened.
"For the time being, you'll stay in the custody of the Department of Public Security," Xiao Yu'an stated coolly. "Since you're familiar with suspense novels, I'm sure you know very well that the more a killer tries to cover up a crime, and the more they try to clean up their crime scene, the easier it becomes for the police to find them.
"Entombed Heart, you've done too much and you've said too much. From what you just told me, I've had a brand new revelation."
Hou Cheng's expression turned cold.
"You advised me to investigate Xinyun Press, did you not?" Xiao Yu'an said. "What a coincidence. I was planning on doing just that."
When Ming Shu rushed back to the Bureau in Luocheng, he was just in time to find Xiao Yu'an boiling some water for tea.
"Director Xiao!" Ming Shu rushed up to him and, once he was sure there was no one else nearby, he whispered, "Why are you making tea?"
"Just trying something new," Xiao Yu'an said. He rarely drank tea, but he had a very elegant and beautiful way of brewing a pot.
When Ming Shu stayed with the Xiao family at their old estate, he had seen Xiao Yu'an brewing tea for the esteemed guests the family often received. Ming Shu had watched the way Xiao Yu'an's slender hands lifted and moved the old-fashioned pieces of an antique tea set, his fingers and wrists dancing in ways that demonstrated power and guile in equal measure.
It was a sight that more than pleased the eye.
Now, even though Xiao Yu'an was only steeping a tea bag, Ming Shu still thought his way of steeping tea was remarkably different from that of the average person.
"Are you tired? Ming Shu asked, full of genuine concern. "You only willingly brew tea for yourself when you're exhausted. Otherwise, you just stick to water."
Xiao Yu'an set aside the cup for a moment and smiled. "When you investigate a case and put your heart into it, it's only natural you'll feel tired. You're hanging on by a thread as well, aren't you?"
There was nothing Ming Shu could say to refute that argument. He frowned slightly as he reached out for the cup. "I just got back, and I'm thirsty too. Let me have—ow!"
His demand, let me have a drink, never fully made it out of his mouth. He was rudely interrupted by a firm slap to the back of his hand. Ming Shu quickly yanked his hand back and shot Xiao Yu'an a glare. "Ge, that hurts!"
"I just poured in boiling water, it's hot," Xiao Yu'an warned. He fetched a paper cup and filled it halfway with some warm water. "Drink this."
Ming Shu eyed the cup, but didn't reach out to take it. "Unflavored. I want something with flavor."
Xiao Yu'an watched him for a moment, until Ming Shu added, "It's fine, the tea will cool off in a minute. I'll blow on it."
At that, Xiao Yu'an turned and glanced out the window. It was already dark.
"Hm? Ming Shu had started reaching for the tea again, planning to blow on it until it cooled down.
"Let's go out for a walk," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'll buy you something to drink, something flavored."
Ten minutes later, Ming Shu had an iced latte frappuccino in hand as he walked alongside Xiao Yu'an. At that late hour, the summer heat was just starting to fade.
"If Hou Cheng sticks to his current story, we'll be put in a tough spot. In the end, we'll have to let him go," Ming Shu said. "We don't have any solid evidence that proves he incited violence. We just have that line, 'Some people deserve to die.' It isn't enough to prove anything.
"But if we're to say Hou Cheng is completely innocent of inciting violence, I can't believe that either. There are plenty of suspense authors out there, yet Hou Cheng is the only one who went to such great lengths to hide his identity. Just based on that alone, he's extremely suspicious."
"Hou Cheng attempted to deflect attention from himself today by pointing us towards Xinyun Press," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'm thinking, now, there's certainly something suspicious about the publication history behind Entombed Heart's works."
Ming Shu immediately thought of the head of the Mystery department, Liu Zhiqiang. When that man heard the police were investigating Entombed Heart…
His reaction had been incredibly strange.