If Yang Nanke was still alive, he would be twenty-seven years old that year.
Three years ago, he lived in a small city near the border—Lu City—which was a long distance away from Luocheng. He had studied at a third-rate college in the capital city of his province before returning to Lu City after graduation. There, he found a leisurely job and set his sights on an apartment in the heart of the city. His parents, Yang Juncheng and Huang Xia, paid the down payment for him, and his sister Yang Yan, older by five years, helped with the mortgage.
With financial assistance from his family, Yang Nanke led an easy life. By the age of twenty-four, he had already had several girlfriends, though those relationships never lasted for long. Whenever he visited his parents, he would be nagged endlessly by Huang Xia.
The Yang family wasn't outrageously wealthy, but Huang Xia and Yang Juncheng both had steady jobs, and their income was considered upper-middle class in Lu City. As the youngest of the family, Yang Nanke had grown up pampered and spoiled. He never learned to take a scolding, and whenever he was nagged, he lost his temper.
After parting ways with yet another girlfriend, Yang Nanke got into a huge fight with his mother Huang Xia over the dinner table. In the end, he threw down his chopsticks and stormed out, shouting over his shoulder, "Get off my fucking case!"
Huang Xia had worked herself into a rage at that as well. No matter what they did to try to placate the two, Yang Juncheng and Yang Yan were unsuccessful.
Yang Yan ultimately suggested spending some time apart from her little brother. He had a job, a steady income, and a roof over his head. He couldn't freeze or go hungry, so even if he spent some time alone, he would be fine. Eventually, he would cool off and visit them at home again.
Half a month later, Huang Xia started to miss her son. But when she gave him a call, she received word that his phone had been disconnected. Along with Yang Juncheng, she hurried across the city immediately. They let themselves into Yang Nanke's place with a spare key, only to discover that all the furniture had been wrapped up with anti-dust covers.
It was as though no one had lived there for a very long time.
Right away, Huang Xia panicked. She and her husband went to Yang Nanke's office to ask about him, only to receive an absolutely flabbergasted look from the manager who told them, "Yang Nanke resigned ten days ago. He said he wanted to go see sights he'd never seen before."
The manager sighed and continued, "He phrased it all nicely, but obviously he just quit to go traveling. Young people have no sense of responsibility these days. You didn't know about this?"
After hearing this, Yang Juncheng was relieved. He could feel at ease knowing that his son was simply traveling, and that nothing bad had happened to him. But Huang Xia wasn't reassured.
"It's all my fault, I shouldn't have fought with Ke-er," she said as she trembled with fear and tears in her eyes. "He must have felt uneasy after arguing with me. That's why he went on a journey! He's all by himself out there. What if something happens to him on the road?"
Yang Juncheng calmed her down as best as he could and convinced her they should go home for the time being. Neither of them thought to contact the police at that time. It was only a month later, when they were still unable to get in touch with Yang Nanke, that they went down to the local police station, accompanied by Yang Yan, to file a report.
In truth, Yang Nanke willingly cutting off communications with his family in order to go on a journey wasn't something the police would normally investigate. But in a small city like Lu City, everyone took their jobs very seriously.
With cooperation from the Yang family, the police began to investigate. They confirmed that Yang Nanke had resigned from his job some time ago, and further discovered he had hitchhiked his way out of the city. The last place where Yang Nanke could be confirmed to have appeared was a small village nine hundred kilometers away from Lu City.
The Yang family pleaded with the police to continue searching, but in such cases, a continued search was most likely nothing more than a waste of police resources. In the end, the police took a DNA sample from Yang Nanke's home and logged it in the national missing persons database.
It was this DNA record that matched with the blood found in Hou Cheng's basement.
The missing person report included a photograph of Yang Nanke as well. He was a young, fair-skinned, and delicate man.
Xiao Yu'an forwarded the photo to Ming Shu, who was still in Qing Yue Village. In Qing Yue, Ming Shu tracked down Hou Ximei and Wang Youqun.
Both women nodded and confirmed, "That's him! That's who I saw all those years ago."
After learning from Xiao Yu'an that his melon fields had been thoroughly searched, Hou Cheng's mood became increasingly unstable.
Despite being presented with ironclad evidence, he refused to admit to the murder of Yang Nanke.
"What right do you have to accuse me of murder? Is that little drop of blood all you have? Little Long—" That was what Hou Cheng called Yang Nanke. It was likely the false name Yang Nanke had given while hitchhiking across the country. "—helped me clean up the basement when he stayed at my place. He scraped himself and bled a little, and that's enough for you to think I killed him? Go ahead and ask around in Qing Yue, you'll definitely find people who saw him leave my house! I didn't kill anyone!"
According to Hou Ximei's testimony, she did see Yang Nanke leave Hou Cheng's house one morning.
But that wasn't enough to prove Hou Cheng's innocence.
Hou Cheng easily could have let Yang Nanke leave his place on purpose. After Yang Nanke was witnessed departing, Hou Cheng could have snuck out of the village to intercept him somewhere, making up some excuse to bring him back to the house.
Since Hou Cheng's house was located far up in a corner of the village, it would have been easy for him to sneak Yang Nanke back unseen, especially if Yang Nanke stayed well-covered in the back of his pedicab.
Xiao Yu'an observed Hou Cheng for a long moment before he abruptly changed the subject. "Alright, let's not talk about Yang Nanke for now. Let's talk about your parents."
Hou Cheng's faced twisted into an ugly, demented scowl. "You people have no right to disturb their resting place!"
"What right do you have to move their bodies to your melon field?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "The old burial grounds in the hills are protected by the government, but that doesn't give you the right to exhume your parents from those protected graves and move their bones to your fields."
Hou Cheng breathed out like a bellowing bull. "They're my parents, I can bury them anywhere I want! The hill where they were buried was too far away from me, I couldn't feel them! Isn't it perfect, to honor them in my field? With them close by, I can see them every day when I go to work, and they can see me and bless my fields with a bountiful harvest!"
"I've never seen such a filial son as you," Xiao Yu'an remarked.
Those words clearly struck a nerve within Hou Cheng. His eyes flashed and he exploded, "Of course! I love my parents. I've always felt them with me. I won't marry, I won't have children of my own. I spent every day caring for my parents. Of course I'm the most filial son in this world!"
Here was a man who believed himself to be the most filial son in the world.
And there was a son who had cast aside the village chief, his father.
Between Hou Cheng and Hou Jiang, an improbable yet rational motive for murder began to surface. Though far-fetched, it was in keeping with Hou Cheng's logic and way of thinking.
Xiao Yu'an had already seized upon that thought. He asked, "Then is it your belief that people with no sense of filial piety deserve to die?"
Hou Cheng, mired in his own twisted sense of pride, boldly declared, "Of course! Disrespecting your parents is the gravest sin of all! Not only should unfilial children die, they should be butchered and ground to pieces!"
Xiao Yu'an's heart sank.
Hou Jiang may have already been murdered for being an unfilial son, and it was very possible that Yang Nanke had been killed for the same reason as well.
Some people deserve to die.
Entombed Heart didn't simply champion the philosophy of 'hunting evil' in his books. He had long-since picked up the executioner's blade and began to 'hunt evil' in reality as well.
"I didn't kill anyone," Hou Cheng repeated as he gradually calmed down. "Little Long just stayed at my house for a few days. I never even knew his real name!"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Will you force me to find Yang Nanke's bones before you confess?"
Hou Cheng stared at Xiao Yu'an with his eyes open to the size of saucers. Those wild eyes were filled with both arrogance and dread.
"The investigation has come this far. All your buried secrets are being unearthed by me and my team right now, one by one." Xiao Yu'an stood. His voice was cold and dignified. "We can find a single drop of blood Yang Nanke left behind. Do you truly believe we won't find his remains?"
Hou Cheng trembled and his shoulders sank, as though a dreadful possibility had just occurred to him. The fear in his eyes won out over the arrogance. "You…"
"You advocate 'hunting evil' in your books, but before your books were written, you took it upon yourself to 'hunt evil' in real life." Xiao Yu'an paused there before he continued, "Not only did you kill Yang Nanke, you drew inspiration from that murder."
Hou Cheng's eyes opened even wider, practically stretched beyond their physical limitations.
"That's why the descriptions of the murders in your books are so vivid, so… provocative," Xiao Yu'an deduced. He looked down at Hou Cheng beneath the bright lights of the room, peering at him through heavy-lidded eyes. "When I read your first book, I had to stop and wonder why your protagonist buried one of his victims in a public cemetery. What kind of cemetery would allow just anyone to bury a body on the premises? Wouldn't this location be too easy for the police to discover?
"But now I understand. You were simply drawing from your own experiences and writing what you know."
Hou Cheng's face had gone pale. His wrinkles trembled incessantly.
"Over ten years ago," Xiao Yu'an continued, "you dug up your parents and buried them in your watermelon field. Their graves were left empty and unattended, and soon became overgrown. Then, three years ago, you murdered the unfilial Yang Nanke in your basement.
"When the scent of decay became too apparent, you had no choice but to move his body. You panicked. You didn't know where to bury him. The outside world is strange and scary to you. You feared, no matter where you hid him, he would be discovered. You only had your melon field, but your field was where you had already buried your parents. To bury Yang Nanke there would be a grave sign of disrespect to them."
Hou Cheng started frantically shaking his head. "No! It's not like that! You're wrong!"
Ignoring him, Xiao Yu'an continued, "So, where could you bury him? Where would he remain undiscovered? You suddenly remembered the burial grounds outside Qing Yue Village. You thought of the protected graves that wouldn't be disturbed for at least another thirty years!"
Hou Cheng howled and slammed his fist down on the interrogation table.
"Those in your village deeply respect the dead. Burying your victim in your parents' old graves was indeed a safe move," Xiao Yu'an said. "Now, do you still believe I won't find Yang Nanke's remains?"
"What?" Ming Shu exclaimed. "Yang Nanke is buried in the original graves of Hou Cheng's parents?"
"Correct," Xiao Yu'an said over the phone. "I've already discussed it with Captain Hua. We'll send a task force your way right now. As soon as they arrive, cordon off the burial grounds and search the graves of Hou Cheng's parents."
Ming Shu took a deep breath.
Opening up a burial site in a rural village was no small matter. That was why Xiao Yu'an and Hua Chong had decided to send a special task force.
Ming Shu had had similar suspicions when he first visited those graves in the hills, but with the village officials repeating their mantra of not disturbing the dead, he'd left the burial grounds undisturbed.
Now, Xiao Yu'an was stating with absolute certainty that Yang Nanke was buried in those graves.
That meant they had to open them up. No matter what.
By the time the task force arrived in Qing Yue Village, it was already the middle of the night. Upon hearing the police would be opening a grave in the hills, nearly all the villagers had swarmed out to spectate. Several of the village officials wanted to protest and stop the police, but they suddenly received a call from Hou Jianjun.
Hou Jianjun had made his way to the Bureau in Luocheng, and that was where he now remained. "Let them open it! Let them dig it up! Hou Cheng has committed a crime, there's no need for us to protect him!"
And so, led by the village officials, the villagers were all ushered outside the police tape set up around the burial grounds.
Though it was the dead of night, floodlights had been brought out, illuminating the hill as brightly as the sun. Ming Shu stood by and personally watched as the tomb was opened up.
Two coffins rest in the ground, side by side, giving onlookers an inexplicable chill.
As soon as the graves were open, the one responsible for unsealing it stepped aside, not wanting to have anything to do with the coffins resting inside.
To any ordinary person, opening up a decades-old grave was something undeniably inauspicious.
Ming Shu nodded towards Fang Yuanhang, beckoning him closer. "Let's go."
The first coffin was opened, revealing nothing inside. It was completely empty.
Many of the surrounding police wore grim expressions. Though they were used to seeing fresh corpses, it was the first time they searched for skeletal remains in such old coffins.
The lid of the second coffin was also slowly nudged away. Inside, astonishingly, was a huge cloth sack covered in old, dried bloodstains.
An odor filled the air. It wasn't too strong, but it was noxious. Many of the surrounding officers adjusted their face masks.
"Holy… fuck!" Fang Yuanhang swallowed thickly. He reached out with one gloved hand and grabbed a corner of the bag.
The bag wasn't exceptionally heavy. With just one hand, he could lift it out.
As forensics cut open the cloth sack, everyone watching furrowed their brows.
The body hadn't finished decaying very long ago. Soft tissue still clung to the bones like a gray sludge.
"This must be Yang Nanke," Fang Yuanhang said, looking towards Ming Shu. "It can't be anyone but him, right?"
Ming Shu didn't answer. He turned to the forensics investigator and asked, "Can you determine the cause of death?"
The forensics expert picked up the badly damaged skull. After a moment, he said, "Blunt force trauma to the head."
A tragic scene began to unfold in Ming Shu's mind. Three years ago, Yang Nanke had been in the basement of Hou Cheng's house, preoccupied with something. Hou Cheng approached from the shadows, silently creeping up behind the defenseless Yang Nanke, with his weapon in his hands.
Before dawn, the tests on the blood staining the cloth sack came back. The blood on that bag and the human blood discovered in Hou Cheng's basement all belonged to Yang Nanke.
At the same time, Yang Juncheng and Yang Yan had rushed to Luocheng. What awaited them was a pile of cold, white bones.
As soon as he received the news, Yang Juncheng collapsed and broke out in devastated sobs that echoed through the halls of the Bureau. His wails went on and on as the morning sun began to climb in the sky.
"Who killed my son?!" Yang Juncheng moaned. "Why? Why?! Nanke! My son! Your father has failed you!"
Finally unable to deny his guilt any longer, Hou Cheng listened to the sounds of Yang Juncheng's grief bouncing off the walls. Then he let out a monstrous laugh.
Ming Shu had personally escorted Yang Nanke's remains back to Luocheng. He hadn't slept all night, and now he slammed his palm down on the table in the interrogation room with a thundering clap.
The laughter abruptly stopped.
Hou Cheng stared at him with bulging eyes for a moment, then slowly began, "That's right. I killed Little Long, because he deserved to die! Who are you to judge me?"
"You killed someone," Ming Shu stated coldly. "You committed a crime. And you think you can escape punishment by law?"
"I didn't kill anyone!" Hou Cheng shouted.
"Have you forgotten?" Ming Shu snapped. "Just a minute ago, you said you killed Little Long."
"But I didn't kill anyone. Not a person. Not a human being," Hou Cheng insisted excitedly. "What I killed was a demon! What I advocate is killing demons! They wear a disguise of human skin, but they ceased to be human a long, long time ago!"
Ming Shu's eyes widened. Haltingly, he spat out, "You—you finally admitted to it! You used your books to advocate murder! To incite violence!"
"Because there are people who deserve to die! There are people who are supposed to die!" Hou Cheng suddenly lifted a hand, pointing at his own eyes with his index and middle fingers. "My eyes are clearer than yours. I see more than all you cops! You wear your uniforms and act like you protect the just, but all you protect are demons! You won't punish those who deserve to be punished. You've allied yourselves with monsters, and you all deserve to die!"
Xiao Yu'an, with his arms crossed, observed the happenings in the interrogation room on a monitor outside.
Ming Shu remained calm. "You believe Yang Nanke deserved to die? Why? Did you not kill him to provide yourself a cover identity? Was it not for the sake of this twisted game you played?"
Hou Cheng's hands were already cuffed.
He repeatedly struggled against his restraints, causing them to clang against the table.
"Yang Nanke was unfilial," he said. "I helped his parents rid themselves of evil!"
"Bullshit!" Ming Shu snarled.
At that moment, in the reception hall of the Bureau in Luocheng, the white-haired Yang Juncheng sobbed so fiercely that he came close to losing consciousness. Next to him, Yang Yan cried silently as well.
And in the distant Lu City, Huang Xia had collapsed as soon as she heard her son had been killed. She was in the hospital now, in critical condition.
In the three years since Yang Nanke went missing, the Yang family had searched tirelessly for him. Even when there was nothing the police could do, they didn't lose hope and searched for him their own way, always believing their youngest would be returned to them one day.
Even though Yang Nanke had been an unfilial son, they had chosen to forgive him.
Their greatest wish was to see Yang Nanke stand before them again, happy and healthy. Even if he continued to have frivolous relationships that didn't last, even if he continued to fight with the family.
Yet Hou Cheng dared to say he had killed Yang Nanke for the sake of Yang Nanke's parents.
Ming Shu couldn't help but think of Lu Kun.
After slaughtering two children, Lu Kun had also declared that they deserved to die. He had insisted he was doing the world a favor by getting rid of those nuisances.
But even if those children had committed some crime, it should never have been Lu Kun's knife which punished them.
Even if Yang Nanke had been unfilial, it wasn't Hou Cheng's right to punish him.
These people who acted out the philosophy that 'some people deserve to die' were truly, utterly out of their minds.
In a crazed, exuberant state, Hou Cheng began to detail exactly how he had killed Yang Nanke—
Three years ago, Hou Cheng had been on his way back to Qing Yue Village from a neighboring town when he was stopped by Yang Nanke, a young man carrying a traveler's backpack.
"Uncle, can you give me a lift?"
Hou Cheng didn't like to associate with people, but Yang Nanke insisted on climbing into his pedicab.
On the road, Yang Nanke babbled incessantly about his experience of traveling from a city near the northern border all the way to the south of the country. He went on and on, as though he and Hou Cheng were already good friends.
Hou Cheng had asked, "You're so young, and you've already stopped working?"
"Fuck work," Yang Nanke spat disdainfully. "I'm my family's only son, and my older sister is already married off. My parents bought me an apartment, and my sister and her husband help pay the mortgage. I'm all set, and sooner or later, my parents' house will be mine too. Work is too tiring. Why shouldn't I travel the country and see these beautiful sights? I'll travel until I run out of money, then go home and relax."
Hou Cheng had slammed on the brakes at that, swiveling around to look at Yang Nanke.
Yang Nanke had been badly rattled by the sudden stop, jolting forward and nearly slamming his head against the steel frame of the pedicab.
"Uncle," he laughed, half-jokingly, half-seriously, "are you trying to mess with me?"
A fierce loathing rose up in Hou Cheng's chest.
He wasn't like Yang Nanke, whose parents were alive and well. Hou Cheng had lost both his parents when he was still a child.
He had been born in Qing Yue Village, and he'd lived for eleven years with his father Hou Jiangfeng and his mother Xu Hong.
Back then, Hou Cheng wasn't an antisocial child. He was simply somewhat withdrawn. Rather than play with other children his age, he preferred to go out into the fields and help his parents with their work.
The village elders all said the boy was far too clingy, like a girl.
When Hou Cheng was eleven years old, the village experienced a summer of heavy rain. The downpour never stopped, and the melon fields were thoroughly flooded, ruining their crop for the year. Each family would barely be able to scrape by until the next year.
Hou Jiangfeng said to Xu Hong back then that sending Little Cheng to school would cost a lot of money, so Hou Jiangfeng would go look for work in the nearby city, while Xu Hong stayed at home to take good care of their child.
Xu Hong had insisted on seeing Hou Jiangfeng off. They boarded a minibus together and, along the way, encountered a mudslide that completely buried the bus with everyone inside. By the time a rescue team arrived, both Hou Jiangfeng and Xu Hong had passed away.
Hou Cheng became an orphan. He continued to live on government support, in that old house, working the melon fields he'd inherited. The thing he regretted most as he grew up all alone was never having the opportunity to care for his parents in their old age.
Over ten years ago, he had exhumed Hou Jiangfeng and Xu Hong and buried them in his watermelon field. That way, he could imagine every melon that grew was a blessing sent to him by his parents.
The type of person he came to despise the most was the unfilial child who didn't know what a good, lucky life they led.
Just like Yang Nanke.