Liu Zhiqiang was born to a family of intellectuals. He had always been an avid reader and a passionate writer. In high school, he followed a literary track and served as the liberal arts class representative for all three years. He participated in various writing competitions, penning no small number of short stories, but he never ranked highly in those competitions and rarely even made it past the preliminary screening rounds. He was simply a mediocre writer, and his continued efforts to be published were akin to throwing stones into an ocean just to watch them sink.
Gradually, he came to realize he simply did not have what it took to become a published author.
To an aspiring sixteen or seventeen year old writer, this realization was devastating. But Liu Zhiqiang could be considered resilient, and he didn't wallow in despair for long before picking himself up and scoring well enough on the national college entrance exam to enter one of the top three universities in the country.
In college, Liu Zhiqiang only attended the mandatory courses and spent all his free time reading. He devoured everything from classics to popular foreign works, and he even dug into the web novels that were just starting to become popular at that time. At the same time, he also compiled detailed reports of various publishing agencies. From a very young age, Liu Zhiqiang had known what he wished to do with his life.
If he lacked the talent and ability to become an author, he would instead pursue a career in the publishing industry.
He couldn't write anything that would be deemed worthy of publication, but if he could help writers with innate talent bring their works to the public, then Liu Zhiqiang would consider his dreams at least half-realized.
During his third year of college, he took on an internship at Xinyun Press. And he had been there ever since. He was promoted from an intern to a junior editor, and from there he climbed his way up through the ranks, becoming a full-fledged editor, then an editor-in-chief. Eventually, he became the deputy director of the whole editorial department, and now he worked as the director of the new Mystery imprint, managing a team of around sixty people.
On the 'Outstanding Employees' wall at Xinyun Press, there was a photo of Liu Zhiqiang. In the photo, he still looked full of youthful vigor and even seemed a little inexperienced. The photo must have been taken many years ago.
The Liu Zhiqiang of today was no longer so youthful; all his vitality seemed to have been lost somewhere along the way.
In recent years, the publishing industry had not been in a good state, and many employees had left Xinyun Press. Those who remained could more or less be sorted into two categories: the ones who steeled themselves and steadfastly marched onwards, and the ones who trudged through their work like they were prepared to give up at any minute.
Liu Zhiqiang took a page out of both those books; both descriptions were halfway fitting for him.
Six or seven years ago, when Liu Zhiqiang had still been working as a senior editor, the publishing industry was booming. Liu Zhiqiang had thrown himself into his work and pushed out over ten bestsellers in a row.
But those good times didn't last, and the burden of working tirelessly every day began to wear on Liu Zhiqiang's physical and mental state.
After more than ten years of turbulent ups and downs in his career, Liu Zhiqiang had lost all those lofty ideals of his ambitious youth. Now, wearing a dress shirt and suit pants as he waited for a green light at a busy intersection, he was simply another ordinary working member of society.
When the light turned green, Liu Zhiqiang was still lost in thought. The other ordinary members of society around him surged forward like a rising tide, rushing for the other side of the intersection. Even in the sweltering summer heat, Liu Zhiqiang suddenly felt a cold shiver run down his spine.
It was only then that he came back to his senses and quickly began to make his way across the street as well.
It was rush hour, early in the morning. According to his usual schedule, Liu Zhiqiang should have hurried onwards to his office and been the first to clock in. He should have spent the day flitting around his department, checking on the smaller divisions under his command, leading meetings to hash out the schedule for the upcoming week, going to his supervisor's office to receive reprimands, going back to his own underlings to reprimand them in turn, and finally leaving the office late at night after spacing out for ten minutes at the end of the day.
But, on this day, instead of heading to the office, Liu Zhiqiang hefted his briefcase and made his way towards a McDonald's that was still serving breakfast.
He had requested leave from the office and didn't need to clock in that day.
Ever since he learned the police were investigating Entombed Heart, he had been nervous and frazzled. From time to time, he fell into an absent-minded trance. For a few days already, he had been avoiding the office, claiming he had field work he needed to do, and drifting between various bookstores in Luocheng.
That, in and of itself, wasn't anything out of the ordinary. The employees at publishing houses were naturally responsible for maintaining strong relationships with local bookstores. After a new book hit the shelves, the editor in charge of that book typically frequented the stores that stocked it. In part to see how well they were selling, and in part to put a little bit of pressure on the booksellers. By maintaining these relationships, they could secure the best display spots in the shop for their own products.
But Liu Zhiqiang had been the backbone of Xinyun Press for many years, and he was the head of the Mystery imprint to boot. Typically, field work didn't fall under his scope of responsibilities. It was rare for him to take time away from the office to personally visit bookstores.
It was abnormal. And there must have been a reason for that abnormality.
Ming Shu had gone to Xinyun Press twice to see Liu Zhiqiang, and both times he just so happened to arrive when Liu Zhiqiang was out of the office. The first time, Ming Shu had other matters to attend to and had had to leave quickly. The second time, Ming Shu had come for the express purpose of meeting with Liu Zhiqiang.
He would wait. For as long as it took.
To see a police detective visit so frequently was a point of alarm for many of the employees, and a point of curiosity for many others. Some were even celebrating what they perceived to be a sign of misfortune for their colleagues.
It was no secret that Xinyun Press would need to lay off a significant number of their staff in the second half of the year. Many of the employees who saw the detective's frequent appearance began to suspect something had gone awry with some other editor's book, and if some other editor got in trouble, that meant anyone who didn't get into trouble was much less likely to lose their job.
Ming Shu took a trip through the Mystery department while he waited for Liu Zhiqiang, asking a few of the younger employees about the man.
But everyone he spoke to seemed nervous and jittery, and none of them would say anything to paint their director in a bad light.
Ming Shu checked the time and eventually went to knock on the office door of Sun Sha, a deputy director of the imprint.
Sun Sha was in her forties, a little older than Liu Zhiqiang. She had a round face and dark circles under her eyes, looking every bit like a thoroughly exhausted office worker.
When Ming Shu sat down in front of her, she looked up through that obvious exhaustion and stiffly got to her feet to fetch a paper cup. "Allow me to get you some water."
"No need," Ming Shu said. His voice was somewhat cold, and his gaze didn't wander away from her face. "I don't drink plain water."
Sun Sha, already standing by the hot water dispenser, stopped abruptly. An awkward beat of silence passed before she said, "I… I see."
Ming Shu nodded across the office at the conspicuously empty desk. "Liu Zhiqiang isn't in, so there are some questions I'll need to ask you instead."
The air conditioning in the office was turned up high. Sun Sha wore a silk scarf draped around her shoulders, a style typical of women her age.
On her way back to her seat, Sun Sha tugged anxiously at the ends of her scarf several times. Her double chin bobbed whenever she swallowed nervously.
Ming Shu took in every minute detail of her reaction, then straightforwardly asked, "Have you read the books of Entombed Heart?"
"Guo Xian is in charge of Entombed Heart," Sun Sha said. She fixed her gaze on her own hands, not looking up.
"Don't avoid the question," Ming Shu said. "I didn't ask about the editor in charge of Entombed Heart. I asked if you, yourself, have read the books of Entombed Heart."
Sun Sha began to fidget, twisting her hands together this way and that. Her cheeks reddened. "I haven't."
"You haven't?" Ming Shu echoed. "But I just saw your department's workflow chart posted on the wall outside. Regardless of who the editor in charge is, any book your department publishes has to be read by the director and the three deputy directors."
Sun Sha abruptly lifted her head, her eyes filling with panic.
"You've obviously read Entombed Heart's books, yet you just lied to me and said you haven't," Ming Shu stated. "That tells me there's some problem with Entombed Heart's books. You know there's something wrong with them, something not suitable for publication, and yet for some reason you published them anyway."
Sun Sha shook her head. "No, it's… it's not like that."
Ming Shu leaned forward and braced his right forearm on the table. He pinned Sun Sha with a severe, scrutinizing look, but he didn't say anything else for a while.
The silence stretched on for a full minute.
It was only when Sun Sha's shoulders began to visibly shake that Ming Shu continued, "If it's not like that, then tell me how it is. Based on your reaction just now, I believe you know something, but you may not be the decision maker in these matters. You're only the deputy director. Even if there are things going on that you know are wrong, you have no control over those decisions, correct?"
Sun Sha's eyes suddenly reddened, and the wrinkles at the corners of her eyes began to tremble. She opened and closed her mouth a few times, but no words came out.
"Don't be nervous. Think before you answer," Ming Shu said. He gave her desk a light, unhurried pat, indicating he had plenty of time and patience.
Three minutes passed before Sun Sha finally spoke again. "It doesn't have anything to do with me. It was Liu Zhiqiang who signed off on it. I told him, I warned him, but he didn't listen to me."
Ming Shu tapped the tabletop with his index finger. "It seems there really is a problem, then. Please take a moment to calm down, Ms. Sun. Then clearly explain to me what the problem is."
Sun Sha's lips quivered with obvious hesitation as she struggled to decide what she should say, what she could say.
Ming Shu set a file down on her desk and reminded her, "A few pieces of paper can't snuff out a fire. The fact that I'm visiting your office means we've already discovered clues which indicate some wrongdoing has occurred. If you tell me the truth now, you'll find the consequences preferable to what they would be if we were to unearth the truth on our own."
"I'll talk! I'll tell you!" Sun Sha had made up her mind. She even tore off her silk scarf and threw it aside. "Director Liu was the one who went too far. He took this risk, the responsibility is his. Guo Xian is so young and inexperienced. She thinks any book that's well-written and captivating can turn a huge profit, and she thinks any book that can turn a profit should be published.
"But that isn't how it should be! As publishers and editors, we have a moral responsibility to society to make sure what we publish is appropriate. Entombed Heart's works were never suitable for publication!"
Ming Shu nodded every so often, at all the right times.
"How deeply a moving book can affect a reader… you're not in this business, so you might not be able to imagine it," Sun Sha said. "Entombed Heart is extremely talented. All the characters he pens are like living, breathing people. But he glorifies violence. He portrays an ordinary person with a character flaw and magnifies that character flaw until it becomes something that seems unforgivable. Then his protagonists slaughter these flawed, ordinary people in the name of justice."
She paused and took a sip of water before she continued, "Entombed Heart is very intelligent. What he writes aren't stories that plainly depict evil triumphing over good. Instead, he packages evil up and portrays it as what's good and what's just. When his protagonists murder characters who are flawed or have made small mistakes, not only are they not punished, these murderers are lauded as saints and saviors.
"He portrays these violent crimes as righteous acts of 'hunting evil'.
"He uses his writing to vilify flawed humans, painting their little misdeeds as unforgivable sins. That alone is enough to strike a chord within the more fickle and easily influenced readers in our society. The first time I laid eyes on Entombed Heart's manuscript, I knew this was a book that would be incredibly popular and widely read.
"But the written word can be wielded as a dangerous weapon. That's why we, as publishers, have always had a stringent process for reviewing manuscripts and ensuring they're suitable for publication. This isn't just to appease some faceless supervisor. It's something we do as our moral responsibility to society.
"And the books of Entombed Heart never met the standards of publication at our Xinyun Press."
"But those books have become bestsellers," Ming Shu pointed out.
Sun Sha shook her head, helplessness written all over her face.
After a moment, she dropped her head into her hands, as though shamefully preparing to make a belated confession.
"Director Liu used to be my intern. As an editor, he's incredibly capable and skilled. He rose through the ranks much more quickly than I did, and he's since become my superior." She paused here and heaved a sigh. "He's a veteran of the publishing industry now. The problems that Guo Xian can't see in a manuscript, Director Liu should be able to see.
"He knew the messages in Entombed Heart's books were extreme. He knew those books contained incendiary content, but in order to compete in today's publishing marketplace, he turned a blind eye and allowed them to be released, nearly unedited. He even pulled out the most extreme beliefs in those books and splashed them on the covers to lure readers in."
Ming Shu recited the quote: "'Some people deserve to die.'"
Sun Sha wiped away her sweat as she nodded. "Exactly, that's the line. But that isn't all. Entombed Heart's books contain many elements that are sure to resonate with people, and that's why his books sell so well. But these are things that can easily resonate with latent criminals as well. We…"
When Sun Sha trailed off, seemingly unable to continue, Ming Shu gave her a moment before he prompted, "What did you do?"
Sun Sha flashed a bitter smile. She got up and moved to the window, gazing outside with a lonely and despondent look on her face.
"I was twenty years old when I came to work at Xinyun Press. My mentor told me that every editor, every publisher must uphold their own values and morals. Some scintillating stories paint black as white, good as evil, and no matter how appealing and marketable those books are, they simply must not be published.
"We can't control what other publishers put out, but we can control our own content. I used to think I strongly upheld my own values as well as the values of my mentors and my readers, but…"
Sun Sha hesitated for a moment.
"In recent years," she continued, "many people from the younger generation have attacked us for being sheep or government lackeys. Were we wrong? Were we wrong to think we had a moral responsibility to society?"
Ming Shu's knowledge of the publishing industry wasn't deep; he had no way to give her a certain, objective answer.
Sun Sha quickly recomposed herself. "Forget it, that isn't important right now. Let's get back to Entombed Heart. Entombed Heart's manuscripts weren't entirely unique. When we received his first submission, it wasn't the first time we'd received something like it. Three or four years earlier, we'd already seen something similar. But, back then, our decision was always the same—we either requested significant revisions, or we declined the manuscript for publication."
"What changed?" Ming Shu asked. "Why would Liu Zhiqiang suddenly go against the standards and regulations you've upheld all this time?"
"What other reason could there be? Pressures of the business, of course." Sun Sha sighed. "The publishing industry has been in a slump, and in our attempt to climb out of it, we've made many big changes within the company. Our main editorial department was broken up into these small imprints that function independently, for the most part.
"The pressure from above on our imprint is incredibly high. We have to keep putting out books that sell well, and if we falter or fail, our studio will be dissolved. If that happens, we—the director and deputy directors—wouldn't lose our jobs. We'd be reassigned within the company, but that might not be the case for our younger employees.
"For their sake, Director Liu decided to take a risk and gamble on Entombed Heart's works. Those books dress up evil as justice. They're eye-catching and captivating, and they masquerade as books about defeating true evil.
"And for Director Liu, whisking a book through the stages of approval is no challenge at all. He can sway the guidelines with some gifts and flattery, but this isn't the right way for a publisher to act. I stood against this decision, but I'm only a deputy director. If Director Liu wants to push a book through, he can push it through with or without my signature."
Ming Shu finally understood. This was exactly why Liu Zhiqiang had seemed so anxious when they first paid Xinyun Press a visit.
Fang Yuanhang tracked Liu Zhiqiang down at a nearby bookstore and stopped him in his tracks. It seemed Liu Zhiqiang had been bearing the immense weight of his actions for a long while now. As soon as he saw the police approach him, he collapsed under that weight and sank to his knees, sobbing.
The sight of a grown man breaking down in tears was enough to stupefy Fang Yuanhang.
"It was my misdeed, the responsibility is all mine. I was obsessed with the need to succeed," Liu Zhiqiang confessed when he was brought into an interrogation room at the Bureau in Luocheng. His head was bowed in shame as he continued, "Back then, when Entombed Heart first appeared, our sales weren't good. Readers of suspense novels were becoming more and more unsatisfied with the works we put out.
"In truth, most suspense readers want more thrilling and more exciting, heart-pounding material. A book without serious conflicts and tragedy struggles to captivate them. Entombed Heart's manuscripts didn't contain a single shred of mercy or goodwill. His work reversed the roles of good and evil and praised gratuitous acts of violence.
"There was nothing but conflict and tragedy in his work, and it's true that they didn't fall in line with our standards for publication. But those books were sure to win over the reader. They were sure to sell."
As he spoke, Liu Zhiqiang brought up both hands and rubbed his eyes. "I had received orders from above to put out a bestseller, fast, or they would dissolve a part of our imprint. I… I had no choice but to set aside our moral obligations and focus on the success of our business."
"But you released more than one of Entombed Heart's novels," Ming Shu said. "Because the taste of success was too sweet to resist. Correct?"
Liu Zhiqiang's head drooped even lower. "His books… they really are well-written. He may be a farmer without a formal education, but he's a genius. I envied him, and I admired him as well. He had all the innate talent that I lacked. With my abilities, I'll only ever be capable of supporting a genius like that.
"His first book brought us success, and that success brought our department the favor of our superiors. We put out a few other bestsellers after that and solidified our position as one of the company's top imprints. But when I saw young people debating the themes of these books, and the philosophy that 'some people deserve to die', I was afraid.
"There were readers who truly believed senior citizens who took up reserved seats on public transportation, or noisy children, or parents who left their children alone at home all deserved to die. I was scared! I was terrified that, sooner or later, one of these readers would take Entombed Heart's message too seriously and act out this idea that 'some people deserve to die'."
"Such a reader has already appeared," Ming Shu said.
Liu Zhiqiang's eyes filled with horror, and his hands began to shake uncontrollably. "I… I thought as much. Or you wouldn't be here investigating Entombed Heart, you wouldn't be investigating our publishing house. We can recall all of Entombed Heart's books, but the impact on society… I…"
"You already have no means of eliminating that," Ming Shu stated coldly.
A broken, suppressed sob rang out from the interrogation room, echoing down the hall.
"My books violated publishing guidelines?" Hou Cheng repeated. After shedding his disguise, he had become just like one of the protagonists in his novels. Hateful and scornful, looking down on the world. "Then why did Xinyun Press accept my manuscripts? I'm just a writer. I write books, I don't kill people.
"What decade is this, hm? Are writers not allowed to express themselves freely? Xinyun Press claims my books violate their publishing guidelines now, but why did they allow them to be published in the first place? They even placed the most provocative quote on the cover of my books. That's all on them, I don't have anything to do with it."
"You're very good at providing your own excuses," Ming Shu said.
"These aren't excuses. I'm just explaining what you don't understand. I have every right to explain something to you, don't I?" Hou Cheng chuckled darkly. "If the publisher wants to recall my books now, fine. But they have to compensate me fairly, as per our contract.
"I'll tell you one more time, I'm just a writer. I'm not responsible for the actions of my readers. I'm not responsible for lunatics who read my books, seize upon one line, and go out murdering people. When a monster wants to kill, they can find ten thousand reasons to do so. Being 'provoked' by my books is just one of those thousands of excuses.
"If my books are truly capable of inciting violence, then…"
A dark, cold, and crazed light suddenly flashed through Hou Cheng's eyes. "Then, who knows how many of my readers have hunted and slain evil all across the country?!"
Ming Shu's pupils suddenly shrank to pinpoints in surprise.
The whole country!
In his previous analysis of the situation, he hadn't even begun to think on such a grand scale.
The killings at the book cafe, and the killings at the college dormitory. Both cases occurred in Dongye City, and the perpetrators in both cases had already been apprehended. Their motives were extremely clear, and under normal circumstances, both cases could already have been considered closed.
It was only because Lu Kun had suddenly mentioned Entombed Heart, and because Li Hongmei had read Entombed Heart's works as well, that Ming Shu decided to look into the author.
Then, what was happening in other cities?
Had other readers been influenced long ago, carrying out their own acts of vigilante justice in the name of 'hunting evil' all across the country?
Could it be that those cases seemed so open-and-shut that no detective had thought to dig deeper and investigate the matter of Entombed Heart?
It was just as Entombed Heart had said. He was simply a writer. He had no way of directly controlling his readers. If the police had investigated him earlier solely because his books had been read by people who went on to commit serious crimes, it was likely that their investigation would have been deemed trivial. In the eyes of the public, they would have been berated for wasting time and resources on chasing down a fruitless lead.
The only reason Ming Shu had been able to come to Luocheng to chase after this thread of Entombed Heart was Xiao Yu'an, who had given him his full support.
Ming Shu's pulse gradually quickened. When he looked at Hou Cheng, he could see the man wearing an incredibly smug expression, obviously believing there was nothing Ming Shu could do to him now.
"With the evidence we have, there's really nothing we can do to detain Hou Cheng for long," Xiao Yu'an said, rubbing his temples. "We can make Xinyun Press recall his books, but that's about it."
"I won't settle for that!" Ming Shu declared. After working so many sleepless nights, the red veins in his eyes had grown more pronounced and his voice was becoming hoarse and raspy. "His intent was to incite his readers to commit murder all along. He did it on purpose, and that's why he forged a false identity for himself. If he didn't have any idea his works could have these repercussions on society, why would he have gone to such lengths to cover up his true identity?"
"You're right. We all believe he intentionally led his readers to kill, particularly the younger and more easily influenced ones. But we can't use those suspicions as evidence," Xiao Yu'an said. "He can easily push all the responsibility onto Xinyun Press. What he holds in his hand is a pen. Not a knife, not a gun."
"But he can kill with that pen!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "Do we have to prove he really killed someone before we can…"
Xiao Yu'an looked up when Ming Shu suddenly trailed off. "Hm?"
"Really… killed someone…" Ming Shu mumbled to himself while pressing hard on his temples.
His head suddenly ached, like a forgotten thought was struggling to burst forth.
"What's wrong?" Xiao Yu'an made his way over to Ming Shu, gently laying a hand over the nape of Ming Shu's neck and massaging lightly.
"What if Hou Cheng really killed someone?" Ming Shu blurted out, suddenly lifting his head. "When we thought there was a 'real' Entombed Heart hiding out there, we had a fear that Hou Cheng could have been murdered by this 'real' Entombed Heart to hide his tracks.
"But what about now? What about that young man Hou Cheng claimed was the 'real' Entombed Heart? Could that young man have been murdered by Hou Cheng already?"
Xiao Yu'an's eyes narrowed with concentration, his gaze becoming cold and solemn.
The office fell silent around them. Ming Shu stood in place, not moving a muscle. When a flash of inspiration finally struck, like a bolt of lightning, he suddenly remembered that fleeting thought he had failed to capture back at Hou Cheng's house.
"I got it!" He slapped his hands together with a resounding clap.
"What is it?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"The scent in Hou Cheng's basement was awful," Ming Shu explained, with a renewed burst of energy surging through him. "We found loads of rotting watermelon down there. When Fang Yuanhang asked me why someone would keep so much watermelon in a place like that, I told him the basement would typically be cooler than the rest of the house. I told him it made perfect sense to store produce down there.
"But I missed one thing. Even if the basement was a good place to store watermelon, Hou Cheng should have cleaned out the rotten ones once they went bad. Why would he leave them down there? The basement is still a part of his home. He had to have a reason for neglecting his basement when he kept the upper floors so clean! And his reason for leaving the rotting watermelon down there could be that he wanted to use that scent to cover up another scent…
"We still haven't uncovered every secret in that basement!"