Yang Nanke didn't notice any abnormalities in Hou Cheng's demeanor. He continued to ramble on, boasting about quitting his job behind his parents' backs. He even bragged that he had left home without telling them, and that he had stayed off their radar for nearly half a year now. He proudly talked about ditching his own cell phone for a new one charged by anonymous, prepaid phone cards.
"As long as I stay hidden, there's no way they'll find me. Reporting me missing won't do any good. I know exactly what the cops in our little city are like. Most likely, they'll do some basic checks and give up right away. There's no chance in hell they'll realize I'm not in the North anymore." Yang Nanke shook his head and laughed. "Let my old man and the old hag worry about me. They've got nothing else to do all day, anyway. I'm doing them a favor, really, by giving them something to think about."
He threw back his head and laughed again. "If they can find me, great! It'll be a test of their abilities. And my sister? She quit her job as soon as she got married, saying she was going to help her husband at home. But there's not much for her to do, so I bet she's been bored all day too. She can go ahead and worry right along with our folks."
Hou Cheng listened to all this through gritted teeth. Sweat had already started to pour down his forehead.
The more Yang Nanke spoke, the more proud he seemed to feel. He gleefully told Hou Cheng about the way his family always spoiled their son much more than they spoiled their daughter, about the way his older sister had been like a servant to him ever since he was a child. Her grades were pretty good, and she probably could have gone on to a decent college, but since the family had this son to support, she had no choice but to give up her education and rush into a marriage with a man who clearly didn't love her. He ranted about how stupid his parents were as well, how they would live and die as insignificant civil servants just drifting mindlessly through life.
"I really can't stand my mother. She's always nagging me to get married. I'm only twenty-four, I'm still enjoying my youth! Why the hell would I get married? Besides, getting married costs money, you know? Those two wouldn't even buy me a car, and they definitely haven't saved up enough money to buy a house for me and a wife, so how can I possibly get married?
"That little family of ours, we can get by in a place like Lu City. But in a big city like your Luocheng? Hah, forget about it! This Luocheng place, out here, is way more advanced than even our province's capital city. My trip this time really is to expand my horizons."
He simply had nothing good to say about his parents. He continued to degrade and belittle them, making it sound as though their very existences were simply a waste of air.
"They're your mother and father," Hou Cheng said. "As their son, you shouldn't talk about them like this."
Yang Nanke was already fully enthralled by his own story; he was unable and unwilling to stop. "That's just how I feel about them, alright? I'm serious, they're pitiful and despicable people. They're happy spending their whole lives in a little shithole like Lu City. They don't want to leave, and they don't want me to leave. They're perfectly content working their deadend jobs. They have no ambition, no drive to improve their lives! They're like frogs who have resigned themselves to living at the bottom of the well.
"You know, after I graduated, I didn't even want to go back to Lu City. I could've easily found a job in our provincial capital. I only went back because the old hag begged me and insisted on it, saying she'd buy me an apartment back in Lu City."
Hou Cheng swallowed his anger and continued to pedal the pedicab in silence.
After yammering on for ages, Yang Nanke finally seemed to get bored of talking about himself. He suddenly asked, "Uncle, do you have any kids?"
"No," Hou Cheng said, his voice trembling with restrained rage.
"Then, your parents," Yang Nanke continued. "Are they… well?"
"They passed away when I was very young," Hou Cheng said.
Yang Nanke was silent for a moment before he let out a burst of laughter and slapped his leg.
"Uncle," he said, "I really envy you. Have you ever heard this saying? 'Living easy with a car and a house, both parents dead.' That's the kind of existence I look forward to the most."
Hou Cheng's palms were already sweating around the handlebars of the pedicab.
In that moment, killing intent surged through his veins.
For many years, Hou Cheng had lived a solitary life in Qing Yue Village. The other villagers looked down on him and didn't associate with him, and he also had no interest in associating with them.
He wasn't truly simple-minded or incapable of speaking well. He just didn't care enough to make an effort to speak to others.
Though he had only attended elementary school, he wasn't illiterate. His parents had left him a house and the family's watermelon field, and that alone would have been enough for him to live on for the rest of his life. In his spare time, he liked to read books and newspapers. What he enjoyed the most were gruesome news articles that exposed the darker sides of society.
He didn't know when it started, but hatred and loathing had been building and building in his heart for a long, long time.
He had started to believe that many people deserved to die. Like children who were noisy in public places, like patients who took out their rage on their doctors, like corrupt government officials, like celebrities who abused drugs, like drivers who ran red lights, like husbands who beat their wives, like wives who cheated on their husbands…
But Hou Cheng was only a farmer. He had never stepped foot outside of his village, and he had no way of punishing all those people he believed deserved to die.
He had no one to talk to about this rage boiling inside him.
Often, he thought of how good things would be if his mother were still alive. His mother was a kind, gentle soul. She would listen to everything he had to say. Perhaps she would've even been able to comfort him.
But his mother was soft. She surely would have stood against his desire to 'hunt evil'.
So, he needed his father too. His father was fierce and cynical, but brave and honorable as well. Perhaps his father would have supported his burgeoning philosophy.
Hou Cheng didn't always feel like the 'old bachelor' that the other villagers saw him as. Sometimes, he still felt like that same eleven-year-old child who relied heavily on his parents. He was still that child whose spirits could be lifted with just a word or two from those beloved parents of his.
But, these days, his parents only spoke to him in his dreams.
When he woke, he could only toil away in the melon fields and mutter to himself—
"Why do good people pay with their lives?
"Why were you the ones buried beneath a landslide?"
"Why do those who commit evil acts get to keep living on in good health?"
"Aren't they the ones who deserve to die?"
"It's not fair!"
"I want them to die! I want all those demons to perish!"
His dissatisfaction with society and his grief over losing his parents constantly roared within him, tearing him apart. It was at a time when he felt completely powerless and lost that he picked up a suspense novel.
That book opened up his eyes to a brand new world. In an instant, it taught him the meaning and purpose of life.
The protagonist was a serial killer who condemned seven people to death with his own blade. All of them were people who had deserved to die.
In the end, the killer was felled by the police.
Hou Cheng was immensely dissatisfied with that ending.
Why should a righteous killer be killed? Those people who died deserved it, didn't they? Why did the police stand on the side of evil? Why was the righteous protagonist the one who was slain?
He couldn't accept it!
In the following weeks, he picked up his pen and rewrote the ending of that book.
In his version of events, the serial killer evaded capture by the police. Not only that, he proceeded to expose and kill a corrupt, high-ranking bureaucrat deeply embedded in the police system. The protagonist then shed his identity and donned a police uniform of his own, continuing down the same path of hunting and condemning evil.
Hou Cheng didn't show his version of the ending to anyone, but he suddenly realized… he could also write these stories!
Not only could he revise someone else's unsatisfying ending, he could write his own works from scratch.
With a pen in hand, he used all the pent-up rage he'd accumulated over the years and spewed his philosophy onto the pages before him. In his stories, those who committed grave sins against society were no longer human beings. They were only demons who wore human skin. His protagonist took up the role of a hero of justice, slaying these demons in the name of eradicating evil from the world.
When he met Yang Nanke, he had just started to write the first volume.
At first, the writing process had gone very smoothly. But then Hou Cheng discovered, no matter how hard he tried, he couldn't pen a killing scene that satisfied him.
He had read a book about writing once. That book said, if you struggle to write the details of a scene, you should go out into the world and experience for yourself what you want to write.
Thus, the sudden appearance of Yang Nanke was like a godsent opportunity to Hou Cheng.
When they arrived at Qing Yue Village, Hou Cheng did something he had never done before. He invited Yang Nanke to stay with him. Yang Nanke didn't answer right away; he took a thorough tour of the village before coming back and knocking on Hou Cheng's door.
In the week that followed, Yang Nanke stayed at Hou Cheng's house to rest and recuperate from his travels. Yang Nanke continued to complain endlessly about his parents' faults. Gradually, a plan took hold in Hou Cheng's mind.
On the day Yang Nanke left, Hou Cheng didn't see him off. It was only when Yang Nanke was already outside the village that Hou Cheng rushed out to intercept him in his pedicab. He stopped Yang Nanke and told him there was a tradition in the village; before a visitor passing through the village left, it was their host's duty to treat them to a bowl of tangyuan in sweet rice wine.
Yang Nanke didn't doubt him for a second. He happily climbed into the pedicab and rode back to Hou Cheng's house with him, where Hou Cheng took him into the basement and smashed in his skull with a hammer he had prepared long ago.
"I haven't committed any crime," Hou Cheng sneered as he finished recounting his tale. His lies, which he clearly believed to be truth, burst forth from between his black and yellow teeth. "The law is useless, officers of the law are useless, you're all useless. That's why those criminals, those demons run loose in this world.
"If you're powerless to rid the world of evil, fine! But you want to stop me and my 'believers' from hunting these demons too? Did Yang Nanke not deserve to die? He was a bloodsucker, leeching off his parents and his sister, and he disrespected them while taking advantage of them! He was young, but he already had poison in his heart. The longer he lived, the more people he would harm."
Hou Cheng was getting worked up and overly excited, crowing about his past like a king boasting of his achievements to his loyal subjects.
He lifted his head proudly, staring ahead with his round, bulging eyes. "You cops have no sense of right and wrong. Your hearts are devoid of compassion and morality. It's just too bad…"
At that, he trailed off and drew a deep breath. His crazed, deranged gaze swept over Ming Shu's face. Then he started to shake his head, laughing.
Ming Shu was completely unmoved by the man's delusional ravings. He coldly demanded, "What's too bad?"
Hou Cheng gritted his teeth, then snapped, "It's too bad I was exposed… before I could write a book about massacring you cops."
The young detective accompanying Ming Shu in the interrogation room snarled, "What did you just say?!"
Hou Cheng let out another low, dark laugh.
Ming Shu lifted a hand and patted the younger detective on the shoulder, indicating for him to calm down.
"Scared?" Hou Cheng shot back, glancing at the young detective. "I speak of massacring corrupt cops, the evil ones, the ones who protect the demons in this world. If you're a righteous, upstanding police officer, what are you worried about? What are you afraid of? You must have a guilty conscience!"
The young detective's face went pale. "You—!"
"Go out and take a break," Ming Shu said. "Send in Fang Yuanhang."
The young detective was a member of the Bureau in Luocheng. He was even younger than Fang Yuanhang, even more inexperienced. As soon as he heard Ming Shu speak, he panicked and hurriedly protested, "Captain Ming, I'm not corrupt! I don't have a guilty conscience! I just… I just…"
Ming Shu sighed and turned to the other detective with a kind yet stern expression. "Can you believe in the words of a person like this? He brought tragedy upon his victim's family. Yang Nanke's words and actions were crass, and he was indeed an unfilial son, but do you believe this man sitting before us had the right to judge him? This is a murderer, and yet you would allow yourself to be swayed by his supposed logic?
"Don't panic. Go out and wash your face, and take some time to think. You'll understand soon enough that the words of a man like this aren't worth dwelling on at all."
On the other side of the table, Hou Cheng continued to chuckle darkly, gloomily under his breath.
The young detective puffed up his chest and slowly unraveled the convoluted web of deceitful words Hou Cheng had woven around him.
"Thank you, Captain Ming!"
"Go," Ming Shu said, sending the young man off with a smile, before turning back to Hou Cheng.
Xiao Yu'an watched all this from a monitor outside. For a brief moment, his eyes grew more tender and warm.
The Ming Shu in the interrogation room was an exceptional and mature Serious Crimes Division captain. Not only was he outstandingly professional, he was even able to comfort and reassure the younger detectives around him. He had earned that young detective's trust and become a person that rookies could rely on.
These were all traits and skills that Ming Shu had developed in just a few short years. Merely four or five years earlier, Ming Shu hadn't been all that different from the young detective he just comforted. He had also been easily angered by suspects.
Once, he had even shed tears over a suspect's provocations.
At that time, Ming Shu had been twenty-two years old.
The case had involved a string of serial murders in Dongye City. The suspect was a woman who had countless excuses to justify her actions, and Ming Shu was one of the detectives in charge of the interrogation.
Faced with indisputable evidence of her crimes, the woman had haughtily confessed her guilt. But she spewed endless justifications for her actions and fiercely accused the police of being spineless cowards, blind fools, and accomplices in her crimes.
She gleefully recounted each of her murders, mocking the detectives for being unable to stop her after she'd claimed her first victim.
"Why was I able to kill so many people? Of course, it's because you helped me! Do you know who my victims loathed the most? Do you think it was me? No! They hate you! Because you people were too slow to act. Because you're stupid, you're cowardly. That was why they died by my hand!"
Ming Shu was the youngest of the three detectives present in the interrogation room. That much was easy to tell just by looking at his face.
The suspect targeted him, aggressively ripping him apart for being powerless, unprofessional, and irresponsible. She even declared that he was the one who owed her victims an apology.
In her fury, she spat her vitriolic rhetoric directly at him and spewed spit all over Ming Shu's face. He was so taken aback by her fierce attack that he froze, stupefied. After being replaced by a senior detective, he left the interrogation room and washed his face with ice cold water for a quarter of an hour. It had been winter, and soon his face and hands were both numb from the cold. Even then, he hadn't shaken off the shroud of self-doubt that the woman had cast over him.
Ming Shu had given his all to solving that case. There were many nights when he didn't sleep, as though he were fully prepared to shave years off his own life span just to bring that case to a close.
But the killer had simply been too crafty. She claimed four victims before she was apprehended.
Truthfully, there had been no need for Ming Shu to directly face the suspect. He had been the one who asked to be a part of the interrogation. And even before he entered the interrogation room, he had already been asking himself over and over again—
What if I had tried harder? What if I had done more? Would her victims still be alive?
Xiao Yu'an had come to pick Ming Shu up from the Bureau that day. He could see, as soon as Ming Shu met him outside, that Ming Shu was still distraught.
When Ming Shu approached, his face was completely emotionless. It was like he was doing everything in his power to hold in his breath, to hold in his reactions and his feelings.
It was only a few seconds later that Ming Shu seemed to realize who was standing before him. Xiao Yu'an could clearly see Ming Shu worrying at his lower lip.
He beckoned Ming Shu closer and warmly said, "Come here."
Ming Shu drew closer one step at a time, gazing unwaveringly at Xiao Yu'an. Then, with his voice hoarse from exhaustion, he called out, "Ge…"
Xiao Yu'an opened the car door and invited Ming Shu to climb inside. He shielded his other hand over the frame of the car, ensuring Ming Shu didn't bump his head.
By the time Xiao Yu'an climbed into the driver's seat, he could see that Ming Shu had started to cry.
Ming Shu had drawn his feet up to the seat and wrapped his arms around his legs. He curled himself up into a tight ball, hugging his legs to his chest and crying into his knees. His shoulders shook uncontrollably.
In front of his teammates and superiors, Ming Shu hadn't said a word. He hadn't even allowed his eyes to redden. But now, in front of Xiao Yu'an, sitting in Xiao Yu'an's car, he allowed himself to weep like a child.
"It's my fault. It's my incompetence," Ming Shu sbobed. "If I had been stronger, if I had done better, they wouldn't have died."
Xiao Yu'an reached across the center console and pried Ming Shu loose from the ball he'd curled himself into, guiding Ming Shu to lift his head. He comforted Ming Shu, gently but firmly, the way the present day Ming Shu had comforted that young detective.
"I wasn't the one to blame?" Ming Shu had asked at that time, still sobbing. His eyes were filled with a vacant, lost look, desperately seeking Xiao Yu'an's reassurance.
"The murderer is the one to blame," Xiao Yu'an said. "Don't ever allow yourself to be swayed by the words of a killer. You already did your very best."
After he spoke, Xiao Yu'an saw Ming Shu's eyes gradually fill with conviction and resolve.
Those eyes became firm and bright.
And now, Ming Shu looked upon Hou Cheng with that same fire of determination burning in his eyes. "You won't have the opportunity to influence anyone else," Ming Shu said, "and your old books won't sway any new readers either."
Hou Cheng's deep wrinkles trembled and convulsed on his face like worms on a hook. His hands, worn and calloused from a lifetime of farm work, struggled against his restraints until he finally stopped fighting and started to clap instead.
"That's fine. I've already done everything I can," Hou Cheng declared. "My books have already reached thousands, hundreds of thousands, millions of readers. Among them, I'll have countless heirs! Many of them have already taken action and slain evil! Do you think my 'believers' only dwell in your Dongye City? No! They're everywhere in this country! Everywhere in this world! Anyone who read my books could have become my follower!"
Ming Shu's eyes grew cold and dim.
What Hou Cheng was saying was something Ming Shu had already contemplated.
Two murder cases involving Entombed Heart had come up in Dongye City. Could it have been coincidence that Entombed Heart's 'believers' only appeared in one place?
No! Crimes relating to Entombed Heart must have taken place in other cities as well. But the local police there simply hadn't dug deeply enough into their motives. They hadn't unearthed the connection to Entombed Heart!
"I commend you," Hou Cheng said, still clapping. "You're better than those idiotic cops who found nothing until now. But if you're so valiant, why must you oppose me? At the end of the day, you're still defending the demons in this world. You aren't putting your skills to good use."
"You believe judging others is the right thing to do? You have no right to judge them," Ming Shu stated. "Human beings aren't saints or gods. The number of people in this world who are completely free of wrongdoing is vanishingly small. If a person is imperfect, they deserve to die?"
Ming Shu stopped there, realizing halfway through his argument that he was wasting his breath.
A crazed, arrogant thug like Hou Cheng wouldn't ever listen to reason.
"They do deserve to die!" Hou Cheng exclaimed, cackling once more. "Who wrote the laws we live by? People! Why is it that these lawmakers have a right to judge others, while I don't? Am I not a person like any other? Are all people not born equal? I have every right to judge evil as I see fit!
"My mother and father never should have died, and yet they did die, leaving me alone in this world! It's my right and my duty to correct the wrongs in our society, to make sure those who deserve death perish by my hand!"
There was no point in continuing this conversation, and Ming Shu had no interest in listening to more of Hou Cheng's deranged ravings.
Just as he was getting ready to leave, he heard Hou Cheng say, "Let me tell you one more thing."
"What?" Ming Shu shot a sidelong glance at him.
Hou Cheng flashed another diabolical smirk, baring his stained and rotting teeth. "I killed more than just one person with my own hands. It wasn't only Yang Nanke."
A faint, inconspicuous change came over Ming Shu's expression. "Who else?"
"Why don't you guess?" Hou Cheng suggested, his mouth still twisted into the shape of a vile grin.
Ming Shu pursed his lips until they were little more than a thin line, a sharp blade. A single name had already sprung into his mind.
"Can't figure it out?" Hou Cheng asked smugly. "Then go look into it bit by bit. Maybe you'll find his body before long. I'm glad, you know, that I got the chance to slay a demon as bad as Yang Nanke before you people took me captive."
"The person you killed…" Ming Shu frowned. "Was it Hou Jianjun's son, Hou Jiang?"
Hou Cheng had burst out laughing again; at Ming Shu's words, his laughter abruptly stopped.
After half a minute, he applauded once more. "Not bad. You truly are quite intelligent. Then go ahead and guess… where is his body?"