"The southwest? By the border?" Ming Shu balled up his right hand and pressed his fist to the corner of his lips. "Why would Luo Xiangfu send his street fashion photographs to a place like that?"
"Big Xu has already taken the guys from the field work team and headed out there," Yi Fei said. "But it's hard to get around on the southwestern border. They don't want to alarm any suspects, so they've been hesitant to mobilize the local police force. Even now, Big Xu and the others haven't made it to She Tu Village yet."
"Suspects?" Ming Shu had latched onto the key word in Yi Fei's explanation. "So you believe Luo Xiangfu sent the photos to She Tu because he was working with someone there?"
Yi Fei nodded. "To be precise, I think it could have been human trafficking. Luo Xiangfu took the photographs and mailed them. That could have been his way of helping the locals choose their targets. I can't think of any other reason for him to send photos out there."
Ming Shu furrowed his brows and thought for a moment. "It's not likely."
Yi Fei lifted his gaze. "Hm?"
Ming Shu swiped his thumb over his phone and pulled up a map of She Tu Village's location. "The border is right here. Across this mountain range is a neighboring country. I've been to many border towns, and the people there are somewhat unique. They don't have a strong sense of belonging to any one nation. Their communities are often mixed, and heavily influenced by foreign customs.
"This neighboring country still practices bigamy and allows married men to keep concubines. She Tu—rather, the villages and hamlets south of She Tu—may still practice bigamy illegaly."
Yi Fei didn't understand his logic. "That doesn't conflict with my theory. If She Tu Village is a place where one man keeps multiple wives, wouldn't the demand for women in a place like that be incredibly high?"
"But these places are generally very poor." Ming Shu put away his phone. "Their people live in poverty. They may have a high demand for women, but they don't have the economic resources to buy women from the big cities."
Yi Fei's pupils shrank.
"Do you understand now? The people of She Tu Village might buy women from a neighboring country, and they might sell their own women to a neighboring country. The locals probably don't make much of a profit from this business. To them, it's simply a way of life they've grown accustomed to.
"There's another possibility. They could be engaging in human trafficking with other similarly remote and desolate villages," Ming Shu explained. "But when it comes to abducting victims from big cities, I think the possibility is quite small. Human traffickers will always weigh the risks against the benefits of their crimes.
"In this day and age, the risks involved in abducting a confident, beautiful, and educated woman from Dongye City and selling her to a border down in the southwest are too high. Plus, in a place like She Tu Village, it's likely the village boss or 'prince' is the only person who could afford the cost of 'importing' a bride from the city. Human traffickers have no reason to engage in such high-risk, low-return ventures."
Yi Fei pressed a hand to his forehead and gave it some thought. "You have a point. But what was Luo Xiangfu's goal in sending those photos, if not for human trafficking?"
"Don't rush yourself." Ming Shu patted Yi Fei on the back twice, then took a seat and turned on his laptop. As he started typing, he continued, "We have a new lead now. We have two possibilities to consider. First, there's a similarity between Luo Xiangfu's killer, Lu Kun, and Li Hongmei. Luo Xiangfu's killer hated seniors who engaged in street photography, and they believed Luo Xiangfu deserved to die.
"But this killer is obviously more 'professional' than Lu Kun and Li Hongmei. Lu Kun's crime was a crime of passion. Li Hongmei had her struggles, and she'd made a plan, but when she snapped, there was an element of spontaneity to her crime as well.
"Luo Xiangfu's killer, on the hand, was extremely calm and did an exceptional job of hiding themselves. Even now, they haven't given away any hints of their identity. They have the characteristics of a serial killer, or a serial killer in the making."
Yi Fei nodded. "That's right. We were investigating that possibility."
"Second, Luo Xiangfu's killer is somehow related to She Tu Village," Ming Shu continued. His thoughts were becoming clearer and clearer as he spoke. "If that proves to be true, then we'll need to throw out all our earlier theories. Objectively, our first theory of a well-hidden serial killer is difficult to prove. It's like trying to find a needle in a haystack. This new lead, relating to She Tu Village, gives us a much better chance of finding the killer.
"Ah, that's right. Did Kang Yu know Luo Xiangfu was sending his photographs to She Tu?"
"I asked Kang Yu and Luo Xiaolong. Neither of them knew about it," Yi Fei said. "But Kang Yu did give us a piece of information that we might be able to use. Early last year, Luo Xiangfu made a trip to go sightseeing. He went to the southwest."
"To She Tu Village?" Ming Shu asked.
Yi Fei shook his head. "Kang Yu isn't sure about that."
"So he's been to the southwest, and he's sending photographs down there…" Ming Shu got up and started to pace back and forth. In his mind, he turned over everything they knew again and again. He thought of the lawless customs of those border towns, and he thought of the photos Luo Xiangfu had taken of beautiful women.
Suddenly, a possibility occurred to him. "I have a theory."
Xu Chun, leader of the field work team, spent relatively little time at the Criminal Investigation Bureau. As soon as they had a case on their hands, he took his team and set out to investigate on the front lines.
He had already been to this part of the southwest many times. He'd investigated everything from drug trafficking to human trafficking to illegal immigration. It could be said that he was familiar with the area. Even as he and his team traversed the rolling mountains, he didn't need to hire a local guide to lead the way.
But the path to She Tu Village was particularly hard to navigate. This time, even he and his experienced field work team were stuck in place.
She Tu Village was considered a part of Liuqi City. Although Liuqi City was a city in name, it was hardly even a tenth of the size of Dongye City. Economically, its development was stagnant. It could be considered one of the least developed cities in the country.
And only a fifth of the road from Liuqi City to She Tu Village was paved. The rest of the journey would be made on winding dirt roads that twisted through the steep, rocky mountains.
The summer season in Dongye City just so happened to be the rainy season in She Tu Village. A heavy rain had caused rocks and broken tree trunks to collapse onto the sole road to the village, blocking the way. Though it was only afternoon, the sky was heavy and dark.
"Boss, what do we do?" asked one of the members of the field work team. "We'll be damned if we can even get in there!"
Xu Chun urged the car onwards, but could only make it a few meters before being forced to a stop. He reached for his phone to call in and report to Yi Fei, but found that they had no service out there. "Fuck! There's no way we're getting up there. Let's head back to Qian Tan and wait there for the rain to pass."
Qian Tan was a town located halfway between Liuqi City and She Tu Village. Geographically, it was much more accessible than She Tu.
In order to leave the mountains in which She Tu Village was nestled, the residents had to pass through Qian Tan. It was common for travelers to stop in Qian Tan to rest and recuperate during that journey.
Although the distance between Qian Tan and She Tu Village wasn't far when one drew a straight line between the two villages on a map, the rocky mountain roads that separated the two villages made it as though they existed in two completely separate worlds.
Most of the people in Qian Tan detested the people of She Tu Village. Some even considered the people of She Tu Village 'foreigners'. They feared those 'foreigners' would bring their own vile customs to Qian Tan one day.
The dark sky was getting even darker. The heavy rain seemed determined to squeeze out every last drop from the thick clouds overhead.
Xu Chun drove like a madman. All the members of his team were jostled to and fro in the back of the car. Occasionally, one of them would shout out, "Boss! Are you trying to kill us?"
Suddenly, their off-roader braked without warning. The member of the team who had just called out was thrown so badly that he nearly slammed his head into the window. "Boss, you…"
"Someone's out there." Xu Chun rolled down the window. The heavy rain instantly flooded into the car, pounding down like a torrent of steel needles.
All the passengers hurriedly looked out the window. They could all see, not far away, a woman mired in a mud pit. She had yet to draw her last breath; from the car, the field work team could see she was still weakly struggling to free herself.
"Quick, save her!" Xu Chun commanded, throwing open the car door and charging out into the rain.
The woman was on the brink of unconsciousness, perhaps even on the brink of death. When she was brought back into the car, she deliriously opened and parted her lips, making almost no sound, until she managed to whisper, brokenly, "Luo… Luo-laoshi…"
The field work team hastily brought her to the only hospital in Qian Tan. While filling out the paperwork to admit her to the hospital, Xu Chun went through her purse to find her identification papers. He found them, along with a stack of envelopes and photographs.
Her name was Wen Li.
And the sender's address, printed on the envelope, was a place in none other than Dongye City.
Three days earlier. She Tu Village. Before the heavy rain.
Wen Li bent down and rummaged through the mail basket at the town's post office. She wiped the sweat on her forehead with one hand as she searched through the basket with the other.
"Stop messing around in there. Look at your hands, they're so dirty and sweaty. You'll ruin everyone else's mail, and if they can't find you, they'll come make trouble for me," complained a short and skinny postal office worker. "Your hamlet's letters were all sent out the day before yesterday. If you didn't get anything, then there was nothing for you. It's no use going through the stuff I have here.
"Just save yourself the trouble. It's so hot today, you'd better not get heatstroke while you're here! Hurry up and go back already. If you wait any longer, the rain will start coming down and you won't be able to go back even if you want to."
Wen Li looked at every single letter in the basket. There really wasn't anything from Luo-laoshi.
She straightened up reluctantly, but still didn't give up. "Ma'am, is it possible that the letter was mistakenly sent elsewhere? Could the mail for Maoyi have been sent to another hamlet?"
"Oi! What's wrong with you, little girl? Now you're suspecting me of not doing my job right?" The short and skinny woman stood up from her rattan chair and gave Wen Li a brusque onceover. "I've worked here for over twenty years, and I've never made a mistake! If you don't believe me, stay here tonight. Tomorrow, you can see exactly how I sort the letters!"
"I didn't mean it like that," Wen Li said. She was starting to feel anxious. "Luo-laoshi sends letters to the children and young women here every month. You must remember seeing them. But this month, he hasn't sent anything. I…"
"Why don't you ask him yourself?"
"I don't have his contact information."
"That's strange. He sends you letters, doesn't he? Doesn't he put a return address on the envelopes?"
"Just the address of a post office. Luo-laoshi told us not to reach out to him."
The short woman lazily fanned herself. "Then there's nothing you can do about it. Isn't it just a bunch of photographs, anyway? If he didn't send any, he didn't send any. Forget about it. Not like it was money. Before he started sending you people pictures, weren't you doing just fine?"
Wen Li bit her lower lip. It seemed she truly wouldn't find anything there, so she had no choice but to turn and leave the post office.
It was the middle of the rainy season, and the village was hot and humid. Wen Li wore a long-sleeved shirt and pants, as well as a woven straw hat to block out the sun. After walking for just a little while, she couldn't bear the heat anymore. She ducked under the shade of a tree and fetched some water from her backpack to quench her thirst.
She Tu Village was situated near the border, separated from their neighboring country by a mountain range. It was located far from the cultural and economic cities in the heart of the nation, and the people there could only scrape by. But the conditions in She Tu were relatively good, compared to the hamlets situated farther to the south. The people of those hamlets still lived by the same vile customs and practices that had been dominant hundreds of years ago.
It wasn't too terrible to be poor. The true horror was being poor without knowing it. Without anyone knowing it.
The true horror was being forgotten by society.
Wen Li wasn't a native of She Tu Village. She had arrived three years earlier as a volunteer, taking part in a poverty relief and outreach program.
When she first arrived, Wen Li had been aggressively ambitious. But after a month, she began to suspect she wouldn't be able to do anything to help the people who lived in this place.
For the past three years, she'd made Maoyi and Maoer her home. She personally witnessed girls sold to neighboring countries and ordered around by the men of the village.
Both villages practiced bigamy. It was illegal, but no one came to put an end to it. Many of the girls taken as concubines had yet to reach the age of fourteen. When they were 'married' off, they were forced to kowtow before their husbands as an act of subservience.
For these girls, receiving an education was an unachievable fantasy. Many of them had been so brainwashed that they no longer saw themselves as human beings at all.
That meant they would never fight for their own rights. They would never realize the beauty of womanhood.
Wen Li was determined to help them, but she had no idea how to start.
There was an old saying: Give a man a fish, and he'll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he'll eat for a lifetime.
Wen Li tried everything. She tried to raise money for the girls and women of these hamlets, and she tried to teach them how to read. She even tried to teach them how to make souvenirs which represented their village, just to bring them a sense of accomplishment. But no matter what, their eyes remained dull and lifeless.
Eventually, Wen Li came to understand that the root cause of their despondency came from their way of thinking. They already considered themselves slaves to the men who lorded over them. If they didn't change this way of thinking, there was no way to teach them to fish.
But how could this way of thinking be changed?
Could Wen Li take them to see the outside world?
Could she help them understand how women outside their village lived?
The former was impossible. There was no way for these women to leave the mountains where they'd lived their whole lives.
But the latter… Wen Li could try.
Wen Li told them countless stories of what women in the big cities were like. She talked endlessly about what women their age did every day in those big cities.
But very few people were willing to listen to her. Of those who did listen, even fewer were willing to actually think about what they'd heard.
Early last year, Wen Li began to despair. She felt she had done everything in her power to help these people, yet had failed to truly help a single one.
She planned on leaving Maoyi and Maoer. She planned on never setting foot in She Tu Village again.
But just as she was preparing to leave for good, a tour group of senior citizens came through the village.
They came from all over the country. The group consisted solely of men in their fifties or sixties, and they had convened in Liuqi City. Many of the men carried professional cameras, in order to capture the scenic sights around the rural villages they would be visiting.
It was rare for She Tu Village to receive tourists. As a poverty relief volunteer, Wen Li was one of the few people in the village who could fluently speak Mandarin. The village officials called upon her to greet and guide the tour group.
Wen Li's spirit had already been broken. She had given up on She Tu Village. She led the tour group around unenthusiastically, without any passion or energy. A member of the tour group, with the surname Luo, stopped her several times to chat.
"Your style of dress is very unique. Why don't you model for me?" the old man said.
Wen Li's features were perfectly fine. Her appearance would have been nothing special in a bigger city, but in that little backwater village, she could be considered an outstanding beauty.
She didn't mind having her picture taken. After the old man finished, she chatted with him for a while.
The man passionately claimed his favorite hobby was street photography. Whenever he had time, he went out to find and photograph beautiful girls.
Wen Li knew of street photography, but she was still a little taken aback to hear this man talk about it so enthusiastically. "Sir, you must be in your sixties already, right?"
"So what if I'm sixty?" The man laughed, seemingly unoffended. "A man can discover and appreciate beauty even in his sixties! You see, I didn't have any hobbies for most of my life. All I cared about was making money to support my family. I made sure my son and my old bag lived an easy life. But me? I didn't have any hobbies, any hopes to live for. I didn't realize until this late in life that I needed a hobby to really feel alive!"
An idea was starting to come together in Wen Li's mind.
"Come over here, young lady. I'll show you the photographs I've taken." As he spoke, the man loaded up the album on his camera. He scrolled through, showing Wen Li photo after photo. "Beautiful, right? I took all of these. Every time I see a beautiful woman brimming over with youthful energy, I feel revitalized too!"
As she looked at the beautiful and lively women depicted in the old man's photographs, Wen Li suddenly thought of the girls in the village. The girls with dull and lifeless eyes.
Until now, she had only been able to describe the way women lived in the outside world. She had only been able to speak of what the modern woman's life was like.
But she had never shown them any images, any visual proof of this modern society!
There were bright and beautiful celebrities on TV, but their lives were too far out of reach. An example that far out of reach was unrealistic, and wouldn't succeed in changing anyone's way of thinking.
What Wen Li had been missing all this time… could it have been photographs of ordinary women?
If the girls here looked at these photographs, again and again, would that stimulate their minds and finally make them think about their lives? And ways to change their lives?
Would they still believe they had to live their whole lives in this little village, serving their husbands, fathers, and brothers like slaves?
Wen Li suddenly felt the flames of ambition reignite in her heart. She grew impassioned once more, telling the old man all about everything she had seen and heard in this place. She spoke to him of all her efforts to change things. Her eyes gradually reddened as she talked, and eventually she could no longer hold back her tears.
At first, the man seemed puzzled by her story. But he slowly began to understand, eventually starting to nod along with her words. He reached into his pocket and took out a pack of tissues, handing them to Wen Li.
"I used to be a teacher," the man said. "But I wasn't a very impressive teacher. I wasn't that good at educating my students. They were only ever impressed by my chalkboard art. But…"
The man's tone suddenly changed. "I still remember what our school's principal said to me before I left my job. He said it was a teacher's job to educate people, but teachers weren't the only ones who could educate people. He told me, 'Little Luo, teaching is not a lucrative career. You want to do more to support your wife and child, and I won't stop you from pursuing that course in life. But remember. When you have the chance in the future, help those who need your help. That is a form of education, too.'"
"Luo-laoshi," Wen Li whispered.
"Is there a place in this village where we can print photographs?" the man asked.
"There is!" Wen Li answered excitedly. "I'll take you there right now!"
That day, the man printed a copy of all the photos in his camera for Wen Li to take back and show to the women and children of the village.
Before the man left, he said, "I have many more photos at home. I'll sort through them when I get back, and I'll send you new photos once a month. I just hope I'll be able to help the women and children in this place."
"You will!" Wen Li exclaimed, her eyes glistening with tears of hope. "Luo-laoshi, can you give me your contact information?"
The man hesitated for a moment before he shook his head. "I don't want my family to know about this. I fear my wife… wouldn't quite understand."
Because the photographs had relit her blazing hope, Wen Li didn't leave She Tu Village as she'd originally planned. When the men weren't home, she took the opportunity to gather the women and girls. She showed them the photos, telling them over and over again that they weren't born to live the lives they currently led.
The photographs were astonishingly effective. There wasn't a single soul that wouldn't be taken in by the youthful energy and beauty of the women depicted in those pictures. All the girls who looked upon them left with new hopes and dreams of their own.
Progress was slow, but Wen Li began to notice the eyes of the village's young women and girls starting to change. Then, even the older women in the village began to look upon the photos with a light in their eyes. It was as though they could finally picture themselves dressing up in modern clothing and wearing trendy makeup.
Quietly, they whispered to Wen Li, "Are the women in these photos really the same age as us? They're not celebrities? They're ordinary people?"
"Yes!" Wen Li answered excitedly. "They're all ordinary people from the big city. They're ordinary people, just like us!"
Slowly but surely, the atmosphere in the village began to change. The women started to look forward to receiving Luo-laoshi's photos every month.
In the past six months, Luo-laoshi had started sending photos not only of fashionable and confident women, but of beautiful little girls as well.
In his letter, Luo-laoshi wrote: It's hard to change the ways of the older generation, but much easier to change the ways of the new generation. Make sure you show the children these photos of kids their age. I hope even the young ones can start to dream of a brighter future.
After more than a year, Wen Li's efforts began to yield results. A thirteen-year-old girl fiercely refused to be married off. With her mother's help, she managed to escape from Maoyi to She Tu Village. She sought help from the government there, and now she was attending school in Liuqi City.
Wen Li wished she could tell Luo-laoshi all about their successes, but she had no way of contacting him. And, this past month, Luo-laoshi's photographs never arrived.
"Has something happened to you?" Wen Li mused to herself as she stood in the shade of a tree. A muffled clap of thunder rolled across the sky.
Wen Li came to a decision.
"I'll look for you. I'll find you!"