Two investigations had marched onwards in unison.
While Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an chased the trail of Entombed Heart out to Luocheng, the special operations team of the Ministry of Public Security picked up the twelve-year-old investigation into the tragic deaths of Li Guozhong and Li Liangyou in Xia Ben Village of Yuanhai County.
Initially, the local police in Yuanhai County and Hailu City didn't want the special ops team to take control of the case. They only wanted the team to supervise and guide the local forces' investigation. Their reasoning was that the special ops team, as outsiders, wouldn't understand the culture and the nuances of the local population. If the special ops team were to helm the investigation, they could very well run into walls put up by cultural differences.
Shen Xun, head of the special operations team, listened to that explanation with a cordial smile, but there was nothing cordial at all about what he said: "You locals understand the culture and the nuances of the people of Xia Ben Village, and you won't run into any walls that we might encounter. I see. Then why have you not brought the killer to justice in the twelve years since the Li family's father and son were murdered?"
The local police had never worked with the elite special operations forces of the Ministry of Public Security before. When they saw that the troops that arrived were all young, with even the leader being only around thirty years old, they thought they could get away with doing a cursory investigation and sweeping the whole ordeal under the rug again. They never imagined they would run into such a sharp tack right away, and they were instantly rendered frantic and confused.
Shen Xun had a fierce and aggressive personality. The day after arriving in Xia Ben Village, he launched a full-scale investigation with his team.
The special operations team had unique privileges available only to them. They had a far broader scope of decision-making power in comparison to the local police, who were subject to many more restrictions in their work.
When Ming Shu had run around the country investigating cases with special ops, he had been ecstatic about the lightened restrictions on the ways in which they could carry out their investigations. Before he left at the end of his year of training, he'd even told Shen Xun to remember him and call him up every so often so he could get another taste of the freedom that the special operations team enjoyed.
Shen Xun had laughed and jokingly told him it was certainly possible to invite him back, but in the future Ming Shu wouldn't be allowed to bully the younger operators as soon as he joined the team.
Ming Shu had huffed at that. He was a righteous, upstanding young man. When had he ever bullied his teammates? After thinking about it for a while, he realized Shen Xun must have been referring to the time he and the others had teased Yue Ran a bit after getting him drunk.
Under Shen Xun's scrutiny, the forces of the Department of Public Security in Yuanhai County were excised from the operation. Not only that, they were subjected to a thorough investigation of professional misconduct as well.
As Ming Shu had suspected, the case of the Li family's tragedy wasn't terribly hard to unravel. All it took was a team that genuinely wanted to find the truth.
The most important witness in the case was Li Chunyan, the young woman Li Liangyou had been courting twelve years ago. Presently, Li Chunyan was still unmarried. She lived in poverty, caring for her aging mother and father. Shen Xun personally went to visit her, and as soon as he entered the house, he heard the muffled sounds of sobbing from within.
Xia Ben Village was no longer a backwater fishing village that didn't even receive a television broadcast signal. Li Chunyan had already seen the news about Li Hongmei's crimes, and she had been drowning in her tears of guilt ever since.
"These past twelve years," she said to Shen Xun, "there hasn't been a single day when I don't confess my guilt to Liangyou. But back then, I truly didn't have a choice."
Li Chunyan's face had aged severely in the past twelve years. She was no longer a beautiful woman who had all the local bachelors vying for her attention. Her hair had thinned and paled. It limply covered half her face until she absently brushed it aside, still sobbing intermittently.
"You're from the big city, you don't understand what it's like here. Our village chief is like the emperor of our little village, and Li Shuxian is the son of the village chief. That means Li Shuxian is like our crown prince.
"I could only watch as Li Shuxian hired those thugs to kill Liangyou and A-Bo. Li Shuxian threatened me. He said, if I didn't support his alibi, he would get people to kill my parents and brothers too. He said, if I didn't testify on his behalf, he would get all those men to force themselves on me…"
From the inner rooms of the house, there came a suppressed sob from her elderly parents.
"Li Shuxian asked me, 'Do you believe I have the power to make this all disappear?'" Li Chunyan trembled as she wiped at her tears, but fresh tears sprang back into her eyes right away. "He said, in Xia Ben Village, he and his father were the law. He said he had the ability to kill Liangyou and A-Bo, and that meant he had the ability to kill my whole family too. He even said they had connections all over the county, and that all sorts of important people were eager to support his father."
At that point, Li Chunyan lifted her head and gazed out the window that faced the sea. "Tell me. What's the difference between people like us and the fish that are laid out to die on our beaches? Liangyou and A-Bo were already dead. Did I have any choice but to give in to Li Shuxian's demands?"
"You have a choice now," Shen Xun said.
Li Chunyan slowly rose to her feet, trembling in the dusky light that bled into the room. "My body has already been ruined by Li Shuxian. He raped me, he broke me, and I never thought I would see this monster brought to justice in my lifetime. It's good… it's good that you're finally here. I've been waiting for you people for a long, long time."
Shen Xun sighed deeply. "Please accept our apologies. We came too late."
After a thorough investigation, irrefutable evidence of corruption in Xia Ben Village and Yuanhai County surfaced. Li Shuxian's father, Li Yuge, was currently serving as an official in Hailu City. He was suspected of homicide, bribery, abuse of power, and involvement in the criminal underworld; a separate investigation into his crimes was launched.
Li Shuxian was also arrested in Hailu City. The police officers who investigated the deaths of Li Hongmei's father and brother twelve years ago admitted that plenty of evidence had pointed to the thugs hired by Li Shuxian. But under pressure from Li Yuge, as well as the bribes and benefits they were offered, they pushed forth the story that a band of mysterious 'outsiders' were the killers.
As the investigation progressed, more and more villagers from Xia Ben came forward to accuse Li Shuxian and Li Yuge of various crimes. Because of the college dormitory murders in Dongye City, the long-buried corruption in Yuanhai County was gradually unearthed and unraveled, exposed to the public eye.
The special operations team would remain in Yuanhai County for a while longer. Since they were already there, Shen Xun was determined to clean out every bit of filth hiding in the county's darkest crevices. Their investigation would even extend to Hailu City. Not a single scrap of corruption would escape undetected.
"That's the right move. Corruption in smaller towns and villages is insidious. It's best to root it out," Xiao Yu'an said into his cell phone. He stood by the window, where the golden glow of the sun spilled through the tree branches outside and fell upon his body. "If you'd left immediately after unearthing the truth about Li Hongmei's family tragedy, I have a little rascal here with a strong sense of justice who would have been very displeased."
"Ming Shu, right?" Shen Xun let out a deep laugh. "Give him a message for me. I'll handle things here in Xia Ben Village and Yuanhai County, but if he's really desperate to come out here, the special operations team will always welcome him with open arms."
"Not this time, I'm afraid," Xiao Yu'an said with a laugh of his own. His voice was even deeper and lower than Shen Xun's. "He still has an open case on his hands."
Elsewhere, Ming Shu let out a huge sneeze. Sniffling, he mumbled to himself, "Who's talking about me again?"
Since Xiao Yu'an had given him the day off, Ming Shu slept all the way until well past ten in the morning. When he woke and looked around, he found he was alone in bed. He scooted over to Xiao Yu'an's side of the bed and hugged Xiao Yu'an's pillow tight, breathing in deep to chase after the other man's scent.
But the pillows and covers were all already devoid of warmth.
That meant Xiao Yu'an had gotten up a long time ago.
Ming Shu lazed around for a while longer before getting up and grabbing a pair of pajama pants. He scrubbed at his hair while wandering through the house, making his way to the living room, then the kitchen. He called out 'ge' three times, but received no response.
He pouted upon realizing Xiao Yu'an had abandoned him and gone to the Bureau alone.
"As if you don't need rest too," Ming Shu grumbled as he made his way to the bathroom to wash up. Before he even finished brushing his teeth, he heard his stomach growl.
"Oh, I'm hungry." When he looked into the mirror and saw his reflection, with his toothbrush still sticking out of his mouth and his features soft and relaxed from sleep, he suddenly remembered the incriminating photo that had been taken of him last night.
He tensed for a second, then suddenly burst out laughing like a loon. He started humming to some random tune, singing along—
"I'm something nice, I'm something nice, something nice, something nice, I'm something nice…"
After washing his face and giving himself a clean shave, he wandered into the kitchen and turned off the stove. A pot of pigeon soup had been stewing on low heat all morning. Ming Shu lifted the lid and took a deep whiff.
"Ah, it smells delicious."
Xiao Jinlan-jiejie hadn't visited recently, and they hadn't had any pigeon in the fridge last night. Xiao Yu'an must have gotten up early to pick some up from the market.
Ming Shu licked his lips and swallowed a mouthful of saliva before going to find a bowl. When he got back to the pot to serve himself, he decided the bowl was too small. He could ladle out bowl after bowl until he was full, but that was too much of a hassle. Instead, he went to find a much bigger bowl and simply upended the whole pot of soup into that bowl, pigeon and all.
It was only after he'd poured the contents of the pot into the bowl that he realized there were two pigeons.
"Fuck me," Ming Shu muttered as he picked up his chopsticks. "Is this what you think of me? You think I can eat this much? Two pigeons in one go? I should probably save one for you, huh?"
Ten minutes passed.
After finishing the first pigeon, Ming Shu looked at the second one in the bowl and changed his mind. "You know what, I forgot to take this one out before I started eating. My saliva is in there now, and pigeons are better eaten fresh, anyway. It won't taste as good if it sits here until tonight. I'd better eat it for you after all."
Another ten minutes passed.
Ming Shu set his chopsticks down in the huge bowl where only bones remained. He sank down in his chair and rubbed his stomach, content and practically immobilized.
He let out a long burp and admitted, "I can really eat. You know me too well."
By noon, Ming Shu had already tidied up. He cleaned up in the kitchen and living room and even washed his and Xiao Yu'an's clothes, humming happily all the while.
Out of all their usual household chores, Ming Shu was best at cleaning. He was good at washing dishes, doing the laundry, and even washing fruit for dessert. Not only was he fast, he got everything exceptionally clean.
But that wasn't because he was especially hard-working. It was just because he didn't know how to cook.
Xiao Yu'an took care of the cooking in their household, and Ming Shu happily handled the cleaning.
After hanging up the last of the laundry to dry, Ming Shu tugged at the pajama pants he'd put on earlier and realized the waistband had almost slipped down over his ass.
They had bought those pants online, and the fit wasn't right at all; they were much too big. But the pants had only cost a few dozen yuan, so Ming Shu had been too lazy to return or exchange them. The pants had been tucked away somewhere for ages, forgotten about until now, and they slipped down Ming Shu's hips with every few steps he took.
He wasn't wearing anything under those pants. His mind drifted and soon conjured up a… colorful idea.
He wrote to Xiao Yu'an on WeChat: Ge, are you at the Bureau? Are you busy?
Xiao Yu'an answered right away: You're up? I'm not busy right now.
Ming Shu: Then I have something to report to you.
Xiao Yu'an: Hm?
Ming Shu: I randomly grabbed a pair of pants when I woke up. They're too loose. They keep slipping down. They almost slipped right down to my legs.
Xiao Yu'an: And then?
Ming Shu: Are you really not busy? You don't have anyone around you?
Xiao Yu'an: No.
Ming Shu: Then I'm gonna say it, okay?
Xiao Yu'an: Okay.
He had even added one of WeChat's default smiling emojis to the text.
Ming Shu: They were hooked by my big and powerful FRONT, so they didn't fall down. LOL!!!
A minute passed without a response. Ming Shu got tired of waiting and poked Xiao Yu'an by sending a sticker, before adding, It's still supporting it now. Ge, do you want to take a look?
Xiao Yu'an continued to ignore him.
Ming Shu suddenly had a bad feeling. Fuck, what if something had suddenly come up over there? What if someone had seen their conversation?
He waited a while longer, but still received no response.
Ming Shu: Director Xiao?
Ming Shu: Deputy Director Xiao?
Xiao Yu'an finally replied: My nice thing is really impressive.
Ming Shu breathed a sigh of relief and answered: What were you doing? Why didn't you answer me?
Xiao Yu'an: I was imagining what my nice thing would look like if the pants slipped all the way down.
Ming Shu: ……
Ming Shu: Ge, you're not allowed to imagine such unflattering things about me!
Xiao Yu'an: Then what should I imagine?
Ming Shu: My POWERFUL FRONT hooking the pants and keeping them up, obviously!
At that, Xiao Yu'an sent over a voice clip instead of a text.
Ming Shu hit play and discovered it was simply the sound of Xiao Yu'an laughing.
It was a deep, adoring laugh, with a hint of a teasing quality to it. The sound was incredibly pleasing to the ear.
Ming Shu's face hadn't reddened when he wolfed down the hot pigeon soup. His face hadn't reddened when he ran around cleaning up the house. But now, with just a short clip of laughter, Xiao Yu'an had caused Ming Shu's whole face to go up in flames. He blushed all the way to the tips of his ears.
He had already been sitting down on the rug. Now, he flopped onto his back and rolled around without a care for what he looked like. In the end, he even accidentally rolled his pants right off his hips.
Xiao Yu'an sent another message: It's all the same.
Ming Shu was still deeply captivated by the voice clip he'd received. It took him a moment to respond: Hm? What's all the same?
Xiao Yu'an: Whether your pants fall off or not, in my mind you're beautiful all the same.
Ming Shu froze in the middle of pulling up his pants, and his face burned even hotter. He mumbled to himself, "Director Xiao? More like Degenerate Xiao! Pervert Xiao!"
Finally, after getting his pants back on, he wrote: I'm coming to the Bureau now.
Xiao Yu'an: Got enough rest?
Ming Shu darted back into the bedroom and answered: I ate two whole pigeons. That's gotta be enough.
Xiao Yu'an didn't dissuade him. He sent: Then come over. Drive safe.
After tossing his phone onto the bed, Ming Shu started rummaging through the closet for something to wear.
Most of his clothes were at his apartment, but he had some stuff there as well. After finding a complete outfit, he paused and glanced over at the drawer. Then he went over and pulled out a pair of Xiao Yu'an's underwear.
"Degenerate Xiao, I'll teach you not to mess with me!"
In the afternoon, there weren't many people at the Criminal Investigation Bureau. Most of the detectives were out doing field work.
By the time Ming Shu walked back into the offices of the Serious Crimes Division, he had already groomed and dressed himself properly. He had even schooled his expression into the usual mask he donned for work. He looked every bit like a handsome, elite police detective now. The Ming Shu that stuck to Xiao Yu'an like glue, the Ming Shu that was Xiao Yu'an's 'nice thing', was like a different person altogether.
Yi Fei had just rushed back from a meeting with the tech investigators. When he saw Ming Shu, his eyes lit up. "Director Xiao gave you the day off, and you still came in so early?"
"Coming in to work in the afternoon is considered early?" Ming Shu laughed. "Luo Xiangfu's case is still unsolved. I can't relax even if I get a day off. And don't try to put on a brave front, old man. Your eyes lit up when you saw me. You missed me, didn't you?"
Yi Fei came closer and bumped his fist against Ming Shu's shoulder. "Do you even have to ask? When do I not miss you when you're gone? Truth be told, I've been hoping you'd come in all morning. I hoped and I hoped, and in the end I hoped so hard that your little rookie popped up. He said that Director Xiao gave you and the others who went to Luocheng most of the day off, and that you probably wouldn't be in until the afternoon or evening."
"Tsk." Ming Shu shook his head. "How could I stay away that long? This case is bearing down on us. As if my conscience would let me take a whole day off."
"I can always count on your conscience," Yi Fei agreed. He tossed the reports he was holding onto a nearby desk, then looked all around them before tugging Ming Shu off to the side. Suppressing his voice, he whispered, "I need to talk to you about something."
Ming Shu and Yi Fei had been partners for many years. They could take one look at the other's expression and know how serious a situation was.
"Does it have something to do with the trip Director Xiao and I took to Luocheng?" Ming Shu asked.
Yi Fei nodded. "Three days ago, Captain Liang paid us a visit. He didn't approve of you and Director Xiao setting aside Luo Xiangfu's case to chase a lead to Luocheng. Based on the way he was acting… I think he'd already complained to Director Li.
"I wanted to tell you right away, but I didn't want to disrupt your investigation in Luocheng. It's a good thing you and the guys in Luocheng actually tracked down Entombed Heart, and found evidence of his wrongdoing. If you'd stayed there any longer without producing results, it would've been tough to keep explaining things to Captain Liang and Director Li over here."
"I figured Liang Zhao would have a problem with our decision, but Director Li…" Ming Shu trailed off and didn't finish that thought. Instead, he said, "Forget it. None of us know what Director Li is really thinking. Liang Zhao can say whatever he wants. He isn't in charge of the Serious Crimes Division anymore. Director Xiao approved of me and Fang Yuanhang going to Luocheng, and he must have discussed it with Director Li first."
"That's true," Yi Fei said.
"When I wasn't here," Ming Shu started, "did Liang Zhao give you guys a hard time?"
"No." Yi Fei leaned against Ming Shu's desk and sighed. "I'm starting to believe in this Director Xiao. He's bold and decisive, he's brave, and he gets the job done. He's daring enough to let you chase down out-of-the-box leads like Entombed Heart. We're only finding out about these cases that could have happened all over the country because he supported his men and, in the end, even personally went out there to help with the investigation.
"If Captain Liang had still been in charge of the Serious Crimes Division, I just know Lu Kun's case and Li Hongmei's case would have been shut in an instant. We never would have dug up the crimes of Entombed Heart."
A surge of pride rose in Ming Shu's chest, but he kept his expression calm. "Management changing who manages us is management's business. It doesn't have much to do with us detectives who work on the front lines. All we need to do is focus on our jobs. Regardless of who we report to, our job is to solve cases. That will never change."
Yi Fei smiled. "You really didn't go to the Ministry of Public Security for nothing. You didn't just mature over there. Your whole worldview seems to have changed."
"You're kissing my ass," Ming Shu joked.
"Who's kissing your ass?" Yi Fei retorted. "This is sincere praise, my good man."
"Gross, cut it out!" Ming Shu rolled up the sleeve of his dress shirt and pointed at his own forearm. "Look, I'm getting goosebumps."
The two of them chatted for a while longer before the subject naturally shifted onto the matter of Luo Xiangfu.
A portion of the Serious Crimes Division's manpower had been dispatched to Luocheng over the past few days, but that didn't mean the investigation into Luo Xiangfu's case had completely ground to a halt.
Before Xiao Yu'an left for Luocheng, he laid out two courses of action for Yi Fei. One course was to continue digging deep into Luo Xiangfu's interpersonal relationships. The other was to start looking into unsolved cases from the past three years.
Looking into cold cases was always a daunting task. Many clues could only be found when a case was fresh; the older a case got, the harder it was to find new clues.
At that time, Yi Fei had said, "Actually, Captain Ming and I thought about tackling this by diving into cold cases. But it's too hard to zero in on something that way. It would likely be a meaningless waste of time."
"A detective needs to be prepared to accept that sometimes their work will be meaningless," Xiao Yu'an had said. "If you choose this route, start by looking into cold cases involving victims in their fifties and sixties."
Yi Fei was dedicated, and he worked steadfastly until he happened upon a lead that had yet to be discovered by anyone else.
The vast majority of street photographers would upload the photos they took of handsome men and beautiful women to various social media platforms or professional photography websites. Luo Xiangfu had created accounts on four such sites, but he'd only ever uploaded a small handful of photos.
It seemed he didn't really know how to share his work with other people; most of his photographs were kept solely on his computer. He would admire them as he edited them, often sitting alone in front of his computer until late into the night.
That was one of the reasons his wife Kang Yu had come to resent him.
But the Serious Crimes Division had now discovered that Luo Xiangfu didn't keep all his photos to himself. He had printed many of them out and sent them by mail to a small village on the southwestern border.
He had sent them to She Tu Village.