Pink Snow Paradise and the Golden Rose sat diagonally across from each other, separated by a cluttered and filthy street. The two nightclubs bore similarly tawdry names, and they both offered similarly vulgar services.
The only difference between the two establishments was that the Golden Rose catered exclusively to men, while Pink Snow Paradise entertained a fair number of middle-aged female guests.
Both clubs were the lowest of the low in terms of erotic services in Fu Kang District, or in fact in all of Luocheng. The services they offered were cheap, and their staff were often uncouth and unpolished. The guests they entertained were the same: low-class and lowbrow.
There were numerous benefits for the men and women who worked at these establishments. They didn't need to provide any identification documents, nor did they need to offer up their medical records. They were paid daily. They could come sell their services whenever they wanted, and they could leave and stop working whenever they wanted. And when they left, they could practically leave without a trace.
Of course, to sex workers who could find employment at more high-class establishments, places like Pink Snow Paradise and the Golden Rose were ones to be looked down upon. But to those whose appearances or figures wouldn't allow them to find similar work elsewhere, or to those who needed to make some quick cash without leaving evidence of their identity behind, these low-class places suited them just fine.
After an extensive search, the Luocheng police confirmed that Hou Jiang, prior to his disappearance, had been working at Pink Snow Paradise.
Liu Zhiqin personally led a team to Pink Snow Paradise and placed a photo of Hou Jiang in front of the shift manager, A-Su.
A-Su nervously took the picture and looked at it with some confusion at first. After ten or so seconds, he said, "Little Jiang, right, this is Little Jiang, isn't it? He isn't usually dressed like this, so I didn't recognize him right away. What, he's a graduate student at Luocheng University?"
"Do you still have your surveillance footage from the past two weeks?" Liu Zhiqin asked, retrieving the photo and putting it away.
"Yes, yes." A-Su quickly got up to lead the way through the club. "Please, may I… may I ask if something happened to Little Jiang? He hasn't been to work in over ten days."
Liu Zhiqin stopped abruptly and looked A-Su over before countering with a different question: "Your employee doesn't come to work for over ten days, and you don't think to report it to the police?"
"We… we don't have any rules about that sort of thing," A-Su explained, nervously wringing his hands. "It's like this, see. This sort of thing isn't rare at all. Lots of our entertainers work for a while, then disappear without a trace. Whether we care about them or not, we wouldn't dare look into it. Either they made enough money and decided to call it quits, or they got on someone's bad side.
"But what can we do about that? We can't investigate this sort of thing, and we certainly can't report it to the police. We can't afford to offend the police or our important clients."
Liu Zhiqin scoffed. "You're concerned about offending the police?"
A-Su gulped. He knew he was in trouble.
Since he became a shift manager, he had seen countless hosts quit without so much as a goodbye. But the police had never come to investigate those cases before. This time, a whole team of detectives had come. And by the look of them, they weren't from the local police posts or even the local precinct. They weren't 'acquaintances' of the club.
These detectives were from the Bureau itself, and that meant Little Jiang must have gotten involved in something serious. If it wasn't a homicide case, then it could only be a drug-related case. Regardless, it meant Pink Snow Paradise was in deep shit too.
A-Su thought back and recalled all of Little Jiang's strange mannerisms, and he couldn't help but feel vexed.
That sort of bizarre person should never have been hired in the first place!
The surveillance footage had been loaded up. On the monitors, Hou Jiang could be seen shuttling around the club, dressed in flashy white pants and a gaudy, colorful dress shirt. He flitted around between groups of middle-aged men, sometimes pouring them drinks and sometimes sitting on their laps.
"Your male hosts," Liu Zhiqin started. "Don't they all serve female clients?"
A-Su flinched. This detective clearly already knew too much about the inner workings of their club. They could be raided by the Department of Public Security anytime now.
"N-n-not all of them," A-Su stammered. "The ones who serve men are able to make a little more money. It seemed Little Jiang was really strapped for cash. As soon as he came here, he asked me how he could make the most money, so I… I arranged some male customers for him. He was a very neat and tidy person, very polite. A lot of men who come here like that. For a while, Little Jiang was one of our top earners."
"How long did he work here?" Liu Zhiqin asked.
"Just over two months or so," A-Su said. He flapped his hands in obvious distress and insisted, "Whatever he did elsewhere, I really don't have any clue about it. I just work here."
The surveillance footage was playing on fast forward. Suddenly, a familiar figure flashed across the screen.
Liu Zhiqin immediately rewound the video and froze the frame to capture that figure. A frown creased his brow.
The man on the screen was none other than the suspect currently detained at the Bureau: Hou Cheng.
Hou Cheng leaned back in his chair in the interrogation room and flashed an arrogant smirk. "Can't figure it out?"
Ming Shu's mind was racing, combing through the details of what he knew. "Hou Jiang was working in Fu Kang District. At a remote location, with no public surveillance cameras in the area. A place not far from the Golden Rose nightclub."
"Hey, not bad." Hou Cheng wanted to applaud his deductions again, but in the end he pressed his hands together without making a sound. "Hou Jiang and Yang Nanke were the same. They didn't deserve to live! Hou Jiang grew up without a mom. He only had Hou Jianjun. If it weren't for Hou Jianjun, that kid would have died when he was just a few years old. How could he ever have grown up healthy and gotten a chance to go to college?
"Young people these days just don't know how to pay back their parents for all the love and care they receive. They look down on their parents or treat them like enemies. If these people don't deserve to die, then who deserves to die? I pity the village chief for having an unfilial son like Hou Jiang!"
Ming Shu had grown sick and tired of hearing Hou Cheng's rhetoric a long time ago. He left Fang Yuanhang in the interrogation room to continue recording while he stepped out. After reporting recent developments to Xiao Yu'an, he got into a car and sped off towards Fu Kang District.
At that time, Liu Zhiqin had already established a search perimeter around a desolate little hill three kilometers away from Pink Snow Paradise.
The streets blurred outside the window of Ming Shu's speeding car. His expression was cold as he gazed out at the passing buildings, occasionally turning to glance at the tablet he had propped up next to him.
In the real-time stream of the recording from the interrogation room, Hou Cheng's face had twisted into a mask of malice. Every word he spat out seemed to be filled with hatred and blood.
Hou Cheng declared that when he first arrived in Luocheng, he'd had no intention of killing Hou Jiang. It was Hou Jiang himself who brought about his fate.
Originally, Hou Cheng had only planned on visiting various nightclubs in Fu Kang District during his trip to Luocheng. It was while he was wandering through the seedy establishments in the red light district that he happened upon Hou Jiang.
Hou Cheng had been shocked by the sight. He'd never imagined Hou Jianjun's promising young son would be selling his body in a nightclub.
As he observed Hou Jiang from the shadows, Hou Cheng was suddenly struck by inspiration for his next book. He would kill a hypocrite. One who looked like a decent, upstanding young man. One who studied at a prestigious school and seemed to have a bright future ahead of him. But underneath that glossy exterior, this young man would be rotten to the core, undeserving of his life and the father who raised him.
And he would be a homosexual.
Hou Cheng loathed homosexuals with every fiber of his being. And the core reason was simply that homosexuals could never produce offspring between them.
To Hou Cheng, that was a type of disrespect to one's parents. It showed a lack of filial piety.
"Homosexuals," he raged in the interrogation room, "should all die and disappear from this world! Especially homosexual men!"
Hou Jiang had already forgotten Hou Cheng, and he didn't recognize the man when they saw each other at Pink Snow Paradise. Hou Cheng spent many days loitering around, and he overheard Hou Jiang claim, many times, that he was an orphan who'd lost both his parents, and that he was just struggling to make a living in Luocheng.
The killing intent in Hou Cheng's heart began to rise. For one thing, he craved the inspiration that would come from condemning another demon to death with his own hands. And for another, Hou Jiang was simply too unfilial to be allowed to live.
Killing could be an addictive act. When he killed Yang Nanke three years ago, Hou Cheng had experienced a sort of elation that he had never felt before. That feeling had fueled his impassioned writing for the years to come.
Readers often remarked on how vivid and detailed Entombed Heart's killing scenes were. Those scenes were so intricate and realistic that they made readers' skin tingle with fear and excitement.
Even the editor-in-charge Guo Xian had once told Hou Cheng, "Entombed Heart-laoshi, your killing scenes are just so wonderful, so brilliant!"
Hou Cheng had laughed dryly at that.
How could those scenes be anything short of brilliant? He had personally hefted the executioner's blade in his hands. How could there be another author whose killing scenes were more vivid than his?
But three years had passed in the blink of an eye, and the inspiration Hou Cheng drew from the murder of Yang Nanke was quickly drying up. He needed to kill someone else… no, he needed to slay another demon. With his own hands. That was the only way to feel that elation again.
Hou Jiang had appeared before him at just the right time.
All sorts of people, crooks and honest folk alike, frequented the red light district. Hou Cheng lurked around for several nights before he finally caught Hou Jiang alone.
Hou Jiang left the club drunk every night. He drank a mix of red wine and hard liquor throughout his shift, and sometimes a client would even slip something into his drinks.
It was really just too easy to 'take care' of someone who was so thoroughly intoxicated.
As Hou Jiang left the club one night, Hou Cheng intercepted him with a sinister smile.
Hou Jiang should have been able to push him aside easily, but he was caught off guard when he heard his own name fall from Hou Cheng's twisted lips.
He had only given a fake name at Pink Snow Paradise. Everyone at his part-time job called him 'Little Jiang', and there were none who knew him as 'Hou Jiang'.
Hou Jiang instantly froze in shock and stared at Hou Cheng. "You…"
"Don't be alarmed, we hail from the same place," Hou Cheng said. "I watched you grow up."
Hou Jiang's eyes were somewhat unfocused with drunkenness, but he warily eyed the suspicious old man.
Hou Cheng shook his head sorrowfully and said, "Your father thinks you're studying diligently at college. No one would ever have guessed you were at a place like…"
Without waiting for Hou Cheng to finish speaking, Hou Jiang pulled him into a deserted alleyway and hissed, "Who are you? What do you want?"
Hou Cheng shrugged. "I told you, I'm from your hometown. Don't you remember me? Your father often came to my house to deliver food and supplies. You often came with him."
Finally, a flash of recognition passed through Hou Jiang's eyes. "You're that… Hou… Hou Cheng? What are you doing here?"
"Your father must be thinking," Hou Cheng said, "what are you doing here?"
Underneath the dusky streetlights, Hou Cheng's eyes widened with alarm. "Don't you tell him!"
"That wouldn't be good, would it?" Hou Cheng mused. "I don't want to lie to your father."
"Uncle Cheng!" Already inebriated, there was simply no way for Hou Jiang to control his reactions and his panic. "My dad doesn't know anything about this, you can't tell him!"
Hou Cheng let a moment of silence stretch on between them before he said, "Then you have to do as I say."
"What do you want me to do? Hou Jiang asked. He was feeling dizzier by the second.
"Come with me," Hou Cheng said.
Hou Jiang hesitated, freezing in place.
"If you don't come with me, I won't only tell your father. I'll tell your teachers and classmates at school, too." Hou Cheng flashed a dark, grim smile. "What school you go to, what you're majoring in, what you plan to do for a living… your father bragged about it to everyone in the village."
Hou Jiang grit his teeth. He had no other choice. He followed Hou Cheng from the darkened alley, into the even darker night.
A clamor of static burst out from Ming Shu's cell phone, distracting him from the feed on the tablet. Liu Zhiqin's voice came through. Grimly, he reported, "We've dredged up a severely decomposed body from the aqueduct by the hill near the club."
Ming Shu pulled over to the side of the road and slammed a hand against the steering wheel.
From the live feed of the interrogation room that was still playing on the tablet, Hou Cheng continued to gloat: "I pushed him down on the ground and beat him to death with a hammer! Just like I smashed in Yang Nanke's skull three years ago!"
He crowed with manic laughter. "I splattered those brains of his all over the pavement! And he deserved it! Who told him to treat Hou Jianjun like that?! Hou Jianjun was a wonderful father, but Hou Jiang was an unfilial son! He only used that head of his to calculate how he could take advantage of his father. Better to smash it in! I dumped him in the aqueduct, and that's where he lies to this day!"
Ming Shu pushed open the car door and stumbled out, sprinting towards the aqueduct.
In the interrogation room, Hou Cheng continued to spew his victorious confession to Fang Yuanhang.
"I originally wanted to kill him in a different way," Hou Cheng proclaimed. "That way, I could experience a different means of 'hunting evil'. But if I didn't use a hammer, I wouldn't have been able to fully banish this demon from our world. When I slammed the hammer into his head the first time, he was stunned stupid. When I brought it down again and again, his eyeballs popped out of his skull.
"Ah… I really want nothing more than to write that scene into my next book."
When Ming Shu rushed to the bank of the aqueduct, the stench of decay was already thick in the air.
Hou Jiang had been stuffed into a woven canvas sack, and the sack had been tied to a steel reinforcement beam. His death had been even more gruesome than Yang Nanke's. His whole skull was shattered, beaten to pieces. Blood and brain matter had soaked through the entire sack.
Around the desolate aqueduct, trash heaps were piled up all over the place, emitting a noxious odor. Before the decaying body was recovered, any stench of corpse rot it released would have been covered up by the stronger stench of garbage that surrounded the dumping ground. And it just so happened to be a rainy summer. After a few heavy downpours, all traces of the crime and the corpse had been washed away. Even if someone had happened upon the body by chance, the case would have been incredibly difficult to solve.
The most heartbreaking part of it all was that, despite having been missing for many days, no one had reported Hou Jiang missing.
The people at Pink Snow Paradise didn't care if he lived or died, as long as he didn't bring any trouble to their business. And Hou Jiang's classmates said he didn't often show up at the university anyway; he was always wrapped up in his own research projects, and he always worked alone. He rarely even met with his advisor.
And his father, who was already so accustomed to having his calls ignored and having Hou Jiang refuse to see him, hadn't imagined his son could have been harmed.
A young man was killed without anyone who cared for him, without anyone who looked for him. The last person to ever knock on his door was his father, who had come with such high hopes of gifting him an expensive cigarette lighter.
Even at the moment of his death, Hou Jiang never understood why such a tragic fate had befallen him.
At the end of his confession, Hou Cheng had become so enthralled by his own story that he'd started to relive it. He spat out the words he'd uttered at the time:
"I'll kill you, you demon!"
Fang Yuanhang had had enough. He stood in a rage and bellowed, "Who's the real demon here?! You murder in the sake of 'hunting evil', but it's all for your damned inspiration! The real demon is you!"
Hou Cheng jumped, startled by the sudden outburst. It was a moment before he recovered and continued, gloomily, "Keep recording for me. Send a message to Hou Jianjun. Tell him that no one in the village cared for me, but he used to bring me food. I owed him a debt, and I'm grateful to him. So I killed that unfilial son of his, and now my debt is paid!"
Fang Yuanhang was so furious that his hands shook uncontrollably. "You're a lunatic! Chief Hou helped you out. You slaughtered his son. And you dare act like you did him a favor?!"
No one had yet informed Hou Jianjun of his son's death. He was still waiting at the Bureau, expecting the police to bring his son back safe and sound.
In the lobby where he waited, he could see Yang Nanke's father, Yang Juncheng. The man had finally stopped sobbing, like he had run out of tears to cry.
Yang Juncheng lifted his head. The two men looked at each other for a moment, each unaware of the tragedy that had befallen the other.
It was obvious that Yang Juncheng no longer had the strength to stand. Hou Jianjun got up and wobbled over to him, offering him the only tissue he carried. In his hoarse, raspy voice, he reassured, "Everything will be okay. Everything will be okay."
On the way back to the Bureau, Liu Zhiqin spoke up: "Human nature is too complex. Hou Jiang didn't respect Hou Jianjun. He didn't wish to acknowledge him or have anything to do with him, but he still saw Hou Jianjun as his father. When we searched Hou Jiang's apartment, we found paperwork for two insurance policies. People who live in the countryside have no understanding of the importance of things like that. It's likely Hou Jianjun never knew his son had purchased health insurance for him."
Ming Shu furrowed his brow and gazed out the window.
"It's no longer possible for us to determine why Hou Jiang went to work at a place like Pink Snow Paradise," Liu Zhiqin continued with a heavy sigh. "I still remember the first time we met Hou Jianjun. I remember the way he looked at Fang Yuanhang's lighter. The pain of losing his son… that just might be something he won't be able to bear."
By the time they arrived back at the Bureau, the sun had started to rise. Ming Shu didn't see Hou Cheng again.
The case of Entombed Heart could now be considered closed. Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an had painstakingly unwoven the fine, tangled threads of the web that had spawned between the cases of Lu Kun and Li Hongmei. They had finally gathered enough evidence to put Hou Cheng away, and along the way they had unearthed two previously unknown victims.
Ming Shu had already done everything he could.
Hou Cheng had committed his crimes in Luocheng, so it would be the Luocheng police force that handled the rest of the proceedings. Ming Shu should have hurried back to Dongye City right away to continue investigating the still unsolved murder of Luo Xiangfu.
But Ming Shu suddenly felt tired. Utterly exhausted. His knees went weak and he staggered back a step, expecting to crash into the cold wall behind him.
Instead, he fell into the hold of a familiar pair of arms.
He jerked his head up and swiftly looked over his shoulder. His tone started as something softer, needier, but quickly morphed into a more professional tone befitting a subordinate as he blurted out, "Ge… Director Xiao!"
"Tired?" Xiao Yu'an subtly added some pressure to the small of Ming Shu's back, giving him a reassuring push, before pulling his hand away.
"I'm alright," Ming Shu answered. He used the force from Xiao Yu'an's gentle push to straighten back up. "I just feel a little slow right now."
Xiao Yu'an faced him with a small smile. "We'll head back tonight. You can sleep on the way."
"We're leaving tonight?" Ming Shu blinked and struggled to keep his eyes open. "I…"
Xiao Yu'an gazed at him warmly, affectionately. "Hm?"
"I still owe Captain Hua and Liu-laoshi dinner and a drink," Ming Shu said. "I wanted to settle that debt before going back."
"I'm afraid that might not be possible," Xiao Yu'an said. "There's a lot that remains to be taken care of in this Entombed Heart case. They'll probably be even busier than us for a while."
Ming Shu thought about what that meant for a moment, then ventured, "They'll have to look into murder cases all across the country and determine which suspecets had been influenced by Entombed Heart?"
"That's right. That information will be critical in Hou Cheng's sentencing," Xiao Yu'an confirmed. "Due to the special nature of this case, the investigation will have to proceed discreetly. The impact Entombed Heart had on society is irreversible, and there's a possibility more murderers will emerge under the philosophy that 'some people deserve to die'. This case will have to be handled quietly. National exposure would only draw more attention to Entombed Heart, in turn bringing him more 'believers'."
Ming Shu nodded. Then, after a moment, he asked, "Are we taking the high-speed rail back to Dongye? With Fang Yuanhang and the others?"
Originally, Ming Shu had only brought Fang Yuanhang to Luocheng. But Xiao Yu'an had come with reinforcements from Dongye City to help with the investigation, and now there were around twenty officers from Dongye City stationed in Luocheng.
"We'll split into groups," Xiao Yu'an said. "Some of us will go back tonight, some will go back tomorrow night."
As sunlight washed over the Luocheng Bureau, the halls were lit up in all their majesty. Everyone proceeded with their work, business as usual. Hou Jiang's autopsy was conducted, and the autopsy report and his medical records confirmed he had been diagnosed with a brain tumor three months earlier.
There was a good chance that was why he had gone to Pink Snow Paradise to earn a quick buck soon afterwards.
Hou Jianjun finally received word of his son's murder. His pale, ashen face instantly froze, and his every breath began to sound like his last.
The village officials who had rushed out from Qing Yue Village to keep him company all shed their own tears as they crowded around Hou Jianjun to support him. But as soon as Hou Jianjun stood, he collapsed on the ground.
Ming Shu quickly rushed over to help him up, but Hou Jianjun would perhaps never stand again. He could only whisper brokenly under his breath, "Why… why…"
Every day, countless people asked this question.
And Hou Jianjun might only be able to ask that one question, utter that one word, for the rest of his life.
Ming Shu remembered the insurance policy Hou Jiang had bought for Hou Jianjun. And gradually, his heart grew empty and cold.