Just as Ming Shu was about to rush back out to Qing Yue Village, he received a call from a team of Luocheng officers who had been dispatched to investigate another matter—
Hou Jiang was not at his dormitory at Luocheng University, and he hadn't rented an off-campus apartment. According to Hou Jiang's classmates, Hou Jiang had said he was leaving for a job early in July and wouldn't be back for the rest of summer break. The last time anyone saw him on campus was over ten days ago.
"Over ten days ago?" Ming Shu echoed. "Then my suspicion was correct. When Hou Jianjun visited Hou Jiang, it wasn't that Hou Jiang refused to see him. Hou Jiang was unable to see him. But why would Hou Jiang suddenly disappear?"
"Hou Jiang disappeared in Luocheng, so leave that investigation to us," Hua Chong said. "A car is already waiting for you downstairs. I arranged to have two trace evidence investigators accompany you to Qing Yue Village, so get going."
Ming Shu looked over at Xiao Yu'an.
"Go ahead," Xiao Yu'an said.
The police car sped down the freeway. Ming Shu looked out the window at the passing trees and fields. A sharp, stinging sense of urgency was rising within him.
What kind of person was Hou Jiang?
Was his disappearance a random, unrelated incident?
Or did it have something to do with Hou Jianjun?
Or… perhaps something to do with Hou Cheng?
Ming Shu's eyes suddenly flashed with a burst of clarity. Hou Jiang's classmates had said the last time they saw Hou Jiang was over ten days ago. That coincided with the time Hou Cheng was in Luocheng.
Hou Cheng had never given a full account of his movements in Luocheng, and surveillance footage could only prove that he had spent a period of time in Fu Kang District.
But if Hou Jiang's disappearance had something to do with Hou Cheng, then what was the connection between the two of them? What was Hou Cheng's motive?
Hou Cheng didn't have any friends in Qing Yue Village. Only Hou Jianjun and the other village officials would sometimes check in on him, and Hou Jiang was Hou Jianjun's son. Hou Cheng had no reason to make any moves against Hou Jiang.
Ming Shu shook his head to clear it, suddenly remembering what Hua Chong had said before he departed.
Leave that investigation to us.
He rolled down the window and took a deep breath of fresh air.
Rationally, he knew he should let Hua Chong handle the investigation into Hou Jiang's disappearance. On the surface, there seemed to be nothing which connected Hou Jiang and Hou Cheng. But it was perfectly possible that the two had encountered each other during Hou Cheng's time in Luocheng.
But the most important thing right now, the only thing Ming Shu needed to focus on, was excavating the true secrets hidden in Hou Cheng's basement.
Hot wind billowed across Ming Shu's face, heating up the worries that were already stewing in his mind. The officer in the driver's seat looked back through the rearview window and said, "Captain Ming, the air-con is running. Let's roll up the window, alright?"
"Sorry," Ming Shu answered, quickly closing the window next to him.
He was the one who believed there were still secrets in that basement, and he was the one who had ordered another search of the premises. But there was no guarantee they would actually find anything else.
He had been there for the last search, after all, and he had turned the whole place upside down. They had found the cash in the darkroom, but that was all. Nothing else of interest had been found, and it was very likely that nothing else was left to be found.
But the heaps of rotting produce were definitely suspicious. Hou Cheng had to be hiding something else.
When the police car reached Qing Yue, Hou Jianjun was just rushing back from a neighboring village.
Hou Jianjun was panting heavily while running. When he saw the police car, he raced towards it, gasping for breath, as though chasing his salvation. "What happened to my son?" he called out. "Why are you suddenly saying he disappeared? My son wouldn't disappear, he's happily attending Luocheng University!"
Ming Shu knew there was no point in him asking too many questions right now, so he only asked one: "The last time you called Hou Jiang, was his cell phone turned off, or did he not pick up?"
Hou Jianjun's lips quivered. "It… it was turned off!"
Ming Shu furrowed his brows.
"He turns off his phone often. He just doesn't like taking my calls, and he doesn't like seeing his useless old man," Hou Jianjun explained, desperately trying to convince himself that the worst hadn't happened. "He's definitely fine. I'm going to Luocheng right now. My son graduates next year. He's the perfect student!"
Ming Shu sighed and tried to offer a few words of reassurance to Hou Jianjun.
The trace investigators called out to him, "Captain Ming, we're going ahead to Hou Cheng's place."
"I'm coming right now," Ming Shu said. He turned back to Hou Jianjun once he'd answered the other officers. "That's right, I have one more question."
Hou Jianjun hastily wiped at the corners of his eyes. "What?"
"Was there any relationship between Hou Jiang and Hou Cheng?" Ming Shu asked.
"Hou Cheng?" Hou Jianjun froze and thought about it for a few seconds. "No… no, I don't think so."
"But you aren't certain?" Ming Shu asked.
Hou Jianjun heaved a heavy sigh. "Little Jiang doesn't respect me, and he doesn't respect the people in our village. He looks down on us all, and he doesn't go out of his way to talk to any of us."
Ming Shu nodded and decided not to waste any more time there.
Just as he was about to leave, Hou Jianjun added, "But when Little Jiang was still a child, he went with me to deliver food and fruits to Hou Cheng a few times."
One of the other village officials arrived in a car, urging Hou Jianjun to hurry up and get in. Hou Jianjun cast a look back at Ming Shu.
"Little Jiang will be okay, won't he? You'll definitely find him, won't you?"
Ming Shu pursed his lips. When he met Hou Jianjun's reddened eyes, clearly clouded over with worry, Ming Shu suddenly didn't know what to say.
It was the fate of a doting parent. Even though he had been abandoned in the countryside by a son who didn't love or respect him, Hou Jianjun still cared about his son. This son of his was still his pride and joy, and he still wanted to see Hou Jiang thrive. Now, not knowing what had happened to his son, Hou Jianjun could only look pleadingly at the detective who had arrived, hoping to hear these words:
Your son will be fine.
To Hou Jianjun, it felt as though everything would truly be fine if he could just hear those words.
But Ming Shu couldn't answer him.
The Luocheng police would definitely find Hou Jiang. But whether they found him dead or alive… right now, nobody could know what the outcome would be.
Hou Jianjun was carried away in the car that had come to pick him up. Ming Shu remained rooted in place for a moment, then hurried off to Hou Cheng's home.
The piercing brightness of a searchlight flooded the basement, illuminating it like a second sun. In the past two hours, everything had been cleared out of the basement, but nothing of interest had been found.
Once the basement was cleared out, the trace investigators turned off the searchlight and began to conduct a luminol test.
"Anything?" Ming Shu asked.
"There are traces of large bloodstains on the floor," the investigator reported upon emerging from the basement. "But at this stage, it's impossible to tell if it's human blood."
"Large bloodstains?" Ming Shu hugged his own arms and frowned, thinking it over for a minute. "I'm going back down."
From behind him, Fang Yuanhang called out, "Chief, there's nothing down there anymore."
"I'm not convinced," Ming Shu said. "There's definitely something. We just haven't found it yet."
The two trace investigators shared a skeptical look, but there was nothing to be done except to follow Ming Shu back into the basement.
Ming Shu was careful to avoid the areas marked for luminol testing. He started by checking the walls inch by inch, and by the end of his circuit, he was practically sprawled out on the filthy ground.
The basement walls used to be boarded up, but the wooden planks had since been removed. In some places, there were small cracks between the floor and the wall that remained.
But the cracks were small, and the angle was bad. It was difficult, nearly impossible, for the naked eye to peek through them.
Ming Shu, crouching in an extremely uncomfortable and awkward position, continued to move along the wall, closely examining every inch. He made another half a lap around the basement before suddenly shouting, "Come here! Check for a bloodstain right here."
The trace investigators rushed over instantly. Ming Shu stood up and stretched his aching neck. He was sure, even if only by intuition, that he had just found a critical piece of evidence.
"Affirmative!" the trace investigator exclaimed. "I'll take a sample up for analysis right now!"
The wait for the results of the blood analysis test was agonizingly long. Ming Shu brought a stool over and sat in front of the entrance to the basement. He pressed his right hand to his forehead and concentrated deeply, combing through all the hints they had collected one more time.
Watermelon. Vegetables. All sorts of junk, haphazardly collected in mismatched boxes. Those were all distractions. Hou Cheng was covering up something that had happened in that basement.
The floor down there was stained by blood that was invisible to the naked eye. That meant Hou Cheng had once washed the blood away with water.
That little hint of visible blood that Ming Shu had seen in a crack in the wall was something Hou Cheng hadn't discovered. It was something that had been left behind by the victim.
This was a murder scene. This was where Hou Cheng killed someone.
Was it the young man who had once come to stay at Hou Cheng's house?
If so, where was his body now?
Hou Cheng must have been the paranoid sort. After killing his boarder in the basement, he must not have decided to dispose of the body right away. Instead, he had decided to hide it right there in the basement. He was a solitary man by nature. He must have feared someone would see him and get curious if he brought the body out of the house.
But when the stench of corpse rot grew unbearable, Hou Cheng must have realized he needed to move the body before it was too late. Before it was discovered in his home.
The house was his sanctuary. When he was forced to move the body, he must have moved it from one sanctuary to another.
Ming Shu suddenly stood up. That patch of land, Hou Cheng's fields, instantly sprung into his mind.
Outside of his home, Hou Cheng only had his fields. That was the only place he could have considered a secure location.
It seemed obvious now, but Ming Shu still had his doubts.
Hou Cheng was a suspense author. He must have known bloodstains couldn't be completely eradicated with just water.
So why were there so many detectable bloodstains left in the basement?
Were those stains also intentionally left behind to mislead them?
Ming Shu couldn't wait any longer. He took some of the officers who had arrived earlier and headed out to the watermelon fields.
It was July, just the right season for watermelon to be harvested. The villagers' fields were thriving. All except that one suspiciously neglected patch belonging to Hou Cheng.
The local officers cordoned off the unruly field and, underneath the sweltering summer sun, began to search the area with police dogs leading the way.
Many of the villagers abandoned their work and gathered around the police tape, gawking at the proceedings and speculating loudly about what the detectives could be looking for.
"I heard Hou Cheng killed someone?"
"Impossible, Hou Cheng is just a simpleton. How could he kill anyone?"
"Then what could the cops be looking for?"
"He can't have buried something there, right?! That's terrifying! My family's field is right next to his!"
"My house is right next to his. We're neighbors!"
"I said this year's harvest wasn't as good as most years, didn't I? I bet Hou Cheng did something to these fields!"
"You're just superstitious…"
The search continued on into the evening, until finally two graves were unearthed in the middle of the field, revealing two skeletons wrapped in rotting cloth.
"Holy shit!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "How the hell can there be two?!"
There were no forensic investigators on the scene. Ming Shu personally stooped down next to the graves and had a closer look.
"No, this isn't right," he concluded. "This can't be the victim we're looking for. Judging by the deterioration of the cloth, these bodies have been buried here for a long time. At least ten years. And based on the way the skeletal remains are positioned, they didn't decay here. It's more like they were already skeletons when they were moved into these graves."
Fang Yuanhang was so thoroughly creeped out that the hairs on his arms were standing up. "Then who are they? Why would they show up here in Hou Cheng's fields?"
The villagers gathered in the distance couldn't see what was going on, but their gossip didn't stop.
"It looks like they dug something up?"
"I can't look! I'm scared!"
"My kid goes over to play around Hou Cheng's house all the time, this is terrifying! I'm never letting him go over there again!"
Ming Shu studied the bodies for a long moment before he said, "They could be Hou Cheng's parents."
"Chief, is that a joke?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Hou Cheng buried his parents in his watermelon field? And he only moved them here after they had already decayed to the point of being just skeletons? Then he continued to grow watermelon in this field every year? Is he out of his mind?"
"Pay attention to where the bones were buried," Ming Shu said. "Imagine the diagonal lines crossing this field… these bodies are buried at the dead center of that intersection. In some villages, this spot is considered a place of respect. Being buried in a place like this is believed to bring auspiciousness in the afterlife.
"But we'll be able to verify whether or not these are the bones of Hou Cheng's parents if we visit the cemetery just outside the village."
In the past ten years, Qing Yue Village had begun to encourage cremation for its deceased. But prior to that, many of their dead were buried in private graves scattered around the hills outside the village.
The government now ordered cremations, but there was no movement to disturb older graves and dispose of the remnants within. And so, those old graves in the hills remained, becoming a protected mourning spot for future generations.
The village officials brought Ming Shu out to the tombstones of Hou Cheng's parents, but urgently chided, "We must respect the dead, we must respect the dead. You cannot disturb these graves."
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang said. "You really want to exhume these bodies?"
Ming Shu walked around the graves twice, then shook his head. "There's no need."
The officials breathed a collective sigh of relief.
But Fang Yuanhang didn't quite understand. "Then, how will we determine whether or not the bodies we found in Hou Cheng's field were his parents?"
"These tombstones are extremely old and weathered, and they haven't been disturbed for many years. Judging by the growth of weeds and plants in the area, no one has been here in at least a few years," Ming Shu said. He studied the old, worn writing on the stones. "Hou Jiangfeng. Xu Hong. Their pictures have already fallen off."
Fang Yuanhang thought about it some more, then finally came to realize Ming Shu's meaning. "Hou Cheng is an extremely filial son! Upstairs, at his house, his parents' old room is kept spotless to this very day. For someone like him, it's impossible to let his parents' graves fall into this state, and he definitely wouldn't just leave it and do nothing if he knew their pictures had fallen off. If these tombstones are in this state, then there's only one explanation—"
Ming Shu nodded. "Hou Jiangfeng and Xu Hong are no longer buried here."
One of the trace investigators knelt down by the tombstones and conducted a cursory examination before looking up to confirm, "These graves have been opened before."
It was just then that Ming Shu received a phone call, informing him that the results of the blood analysis test were finally out. The huge amounts of blood that stained the basement floor belonged to a pig; the tiny smudge discovered by Ming Shu, however, was human blood.
Ming Shu felt steadier with that solid lead in hand. "Can you run a DNA test on the sample?"
"On it!" the caller answered.
Ming Shu didn't rush back to Luocheng right away after that. He only gave Xiao Yu'an a call to report their findings.
"In all probability, the human blood we discovered in Hou Cheng's basement belongs to the young man who stayed with him," Ming Shu said. "Hou Cheng went to a lot of trouble to hide the traces. He must have cleaned that basement thoroughly before covering up the stench of the corpse with rotting produce. He even splashed pig blood all over the floor to mislead us.
"We can almost be certain the young man who stayed with him has been murdered, but we still don't have any solid leads on how Hou Cheng disposed of the body. Originally, I thought he might have buried the corpse in his fields, but we only found the bodies of his parents out there."
"His parents?" Xiao Yu'an interrupted.
Ming Shu explained how he had come to conclude that those bodies belonged to Hou Cheng's parents. Then he continued, "There's likely something very wrong with Hou Cheng. He shows an abnormal obsession with his deceased parents."
"Meanwhile, Hou Jiang doesn't show even a shred of respect for Hou Jianjun," Xiao Yu'an mused. "From that standpoint, these two people are polar opposites."
Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "Director Xiao, what made you bring up Hou Jiang just now?"
"It just suddenly popped into my mind," Xiao Yu'an said. "The Luocheng police have been looking all day, and they've turned up an important lead in that investigation."
"What is it?"
"The 'job' Hou Jiang picked up… he was working as a host at a nightclub in Fu Kang District."
Ming Shu's eyes widened with genuine surprise. Of course, he instantly recalled that Hou Cheng had been arrested by the Department of Public Security in a nightclub in Fu Kang District.
"Let's set aside Hou Jiang for now," Xiao Yu'an said in that calm, unhurried way of his. "The investigation on our end is going smoothly. We'll know the truth soon enough. If you can extract DNA from that blood sample you collected, then we can run it through the national missing persons database. Even if you haven't found a body yet, we can still consider this a critical new clue."
Hou Cheng was brought into an interrogation room once more. His attitude was becoming more and more brash and brazen. "What do you want to ask me now?"
"My team conducted another search of your basement," Xiao Yu'an said. "Would you like to guess what they found?"
The wrinkles at Hou Cheng's temples quivered very faintly. "How many times have you people searched that basement of mine? Don't even try to bluff me. If you found anything, you wouldn't be asking me that question right now."
"You're really quite confident," Xiao Yu'an said, smiling. He slid a sheet of paper across the table. "Traces of bloodstains were found."
"Bloodstains?" Hou Cheng didn't seem particularly alarmed. "Can you prove it's human blood?"
"If it isn't human blood, then what type of blood is it?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Hou Cheng's dark and gloomy eyes roamed Xiao Yu'an's face, but Xiao Yu'an simply continued to look at him with unwavering concentration.
After half a minute, Hou Cheng smirked. "You guys have already realized that it's just pig blood."
"Do you mean the bloodstains on the floor?" Xiao Yu'an tapped the results of the blood analysis test that he had placed on the table. "You're right, the traces of blood found on the floor belonged to a pig. But why would there be pig blood in a basement? And quite a lot of it as well, covering a large portion of the floor. Have you killed pigs in your basement? It couldn't be, could it?"
Hou Cheng's eyes grew shifty, darting around in their sockets, causing the nearby wrinkles of his face to tremble as well.
"I told you last time," Xiao Yu'an said. "The harder you try to cover up a crime, the more likely you are to leave behind traces for us to find."
Xiao Yu'an shrugged and suddenly seemed to change the suspect. "But you're a suspense author. I suppose it isn't surprising that you would plant all these reversals and false leads. Your books are full of complicated twists and turns, burying the truth, but in reality…"
For a while, silence reigned. Xiao Yu'an left Hou Cheng stewing for a minute.
"The more complicated you make your story," Xiao Yu'an said, "the more clues there are for me to unravel. Do you understand?"
Hou Cheng sneered. "If you found anything, you wouldn't be here talking nonsense to me right now."
"Alright, no more nonsense," Xiao Yu'an said. "You planted the pig blood as a misdirect, but you didn't realize you failed to fully erase the traces of your true crime. You didn't account for the smallest trace of blood that remained trapped in a tiny crevice between the floor and the wall."
As he spoke, Xiao Yu'an lifted his right hand and made a gesture to show just how small the incriminating bloodstain was. "If the wood paneling on the walls hadn't been removed, you certainly wouldn't have been able to notice this little bloodstain. Even after the panels were stripped away, you would still need to look very, very closely to spot it. It's perfectly normal if you missed it."
Hou Cheng opened his mouth. The expression in his eyes rapidly changed.
"Nervous now?" Xiao Yu'an got up and started to pace as he continued, "You should know that with modern technology, it's possible to pull DNA from a years-old blood sample. The person who was harmed or murdered by you in your basement… we'll be able to identify them very soon."
Hou Cheng didn't utter a single word. An ominous, furious glint flashed out from beneath his drooping eyelids.
"There's one more thing," Xiao Yu'an said, suddenly stopping in the middle of the room. He set both his hands against the edge of the table and continued, "Because of those bloodstains, my team went to search your fields as well."
Hou Cheng's pupils shrank. "You—!"
"Isn't that a perfectly logical step in our investigation?" Xiao Yu'an said. "Assuming the basement was the scene of the crime, how would you dispose of the body? You would bury it in your watermelon field, because that's one of your sanctuaries."
Hou Cheng clenched his jaw and grit his teeth with an audible grinding sound.
"Unfortunately," Xiao Yu'an continued, "we didn't find the victim. But at the heart of the diagonal intersection of your field, we did find two bodies—already decayed to bones."
Hou Cheng's mood changed in an instant. He lunged out of his seat and howled in rage. "I'll kill you! I'll kill you all!"
Xiao Yu'an took a step back. "You're this worked up because those are the bones of your parents, correct?"
Hou Cheng's back was fiercely hunched as he panted like a wild beast under attack. "How dare you dig in my fields?! How dare you disturb my parents' rest?!"
"The one who disturbed your parents' rest was you!" Xiao Yu'an retorted sharply, sternly. "You were the one to exhume them from their graves. And the one who committed a crime that led to their bodies becoming exposed once more was you as well."
Hou Cheng clutched his head in his hands. "That's bullshit! I've always been a filial son!"
"Then you have an extremely unique way of showing your filial piety," Xiao Yu'an said. He looked down on Hou Cheng from above, his tone and demeanor suddenly turning fierce. "Every single crime you've committed will come to light. I won't let a single one slide."
That night, the results of the DNA test came back. The extraction was successful, and after running the DNA sample through the national missing persons database, a match was found. The DNA in the blood that had remained hidden in Hou Cheng's basement for many years belonged to a young man who had disappeared from Lu City three years ago: