When Wen Li came to, she learned from Xu Chun that Luo-laoshi had already been killed.
Upon hearing the news, Wen Li's eyes grew dull and disoriented. She looked as though she simply couldn't process the information she had been given. Finally, after a long while, she began to cry. Mechanically, she uttered, "How could it be? Who would hurt Luo-laoshi? He was so kind…"
After taking a video conference call from Xu Chun, Ming Shu rushed into Xiao Yu'an's office.
"I correctly guessed part of the reason Luo Xiangfu was sending photographs to She Tu Village," Ming Shu announced. He spread both hands on Xiao Yu'an's desk. "But I'd assumed She Tu Village would be similar to Li Hongmei's Xia Ben Village. I never imagined the conditions for girls and women there could be this bad."
"Before Luo Xiangfu visited She Tu Village with his tour group, Wen Li had already been working there for a year and a half. According to her, there are no redeeming qualities whatsoever about that place," Xiao Yu'an said. "It's been another year and a half since Luo Xiangfu first printed photos for them. Now, in Maoyi, the women and the girls alike have had their eyes opened. Luo Xiangfu has affected them. He's shaken up the status quo in that place."
When Ming Shu fell deep into thought, he liked to pace. The office filled up with the sounds of his footsteps. "The men will have been affected as well. When they realized the women who had been subservient to them since birth were starting to have ideas of freedom, they panicked. When the women stopped obeying their every command, they started to search for the reason.
"This reason must not have been difficult for them to unearth. They could have discovered, very easily, that someone had been sending photographs of modern women from Dongye City.
"In border towns like She Tu Village, the locals are difficult to deal with. More often than not, the local police can't do anything to intervene in their affairs. They can only help the people who seek out their assistance, like the little girl who escaped. But the villagers fiercely protect their own customs, and Luo Xiangfu disrupted those customs."
"So they sought revenge against Luo Xiangfu…" Xiao Yu'an's brows furrowed slightly. His words trailed off into silence.
"They have a motive," Ming Shu agreed.
Silence descended upon the office for a moment, before Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "But why didn't they go after Wen Li?"
Ming Shu suddenly stopped pacing. "Huh?"
"Wen Li hasn't been harmed, and she hasn't been confined to She Tu Village. She was free to leave whenever she pleased. If it weren't for the storm, she would have made it to Dongye City in a few days," Xiao Yu'an said. "Wen Li was the one who helmed the efforts to change the women in the village. Not Luo Xiangfu. She's lived in that little hamlet for three years already, and she was never forbidden from speaking to the women and girls.
"Could it be that the husbands and fathers in the village didn't know what Wen Li was saying to them? That doesn't seem likely. For Luo Xiangfu to be attacked while she remained unharmed… it doesn't check out.
"Moreover, the photos Luo Xiangfu sent were presented to the women and children by Wen Li. Even without Luo Xiangfu in the picture, Wen Li could have sought help from another street photographer. But if Wen Li were cut out of the picture, then things would really change."
"The locals didn't need to 'take care of' Luo Xiangfu," Ming Shu mused. "The one they really needed to get rid of was Wen Li…"
"Right." Xiao Yu'an clasped his hands together. "For now, let's forget about whether the locals hate Luo Xiangfu more or whether they hate Wen Li more. The fact of the matter is, it would have been extremely easy for them to 'take care of' Wen Li. There was no reason for them to go through the trouble of traveling all the way out to Dongye City to commit a crime."
Ming Shu thought about it for a moment. "What if they hired someone?"
"How would they hire someone?" Xiao Yu'an challenged, prompting Ming Shu to think more deeply on the matter.
Ming Shu paced over to one side of the room and pressed his forehead to the wall.
He had started to get worked up, and he'd fallen into an erroneous line of thinking. He'd made a mistake that he had just warned Yi Fei against. If the costs and risks of committing a crime were too high, many latent criminals would give up on committing their crime.
For anyone from She Tu Village, coming to Dongye City to commit a murder or hiring someone from Dongye City to commit a murder would be just as difficult as abducting a woman from a big city to sell in She Tu Village.
They had no reason to go to such lengths.
And Wen Li hadn't been harmed. That could have meant the people of She Tu Village weren't as violent as they thought.
But did that mean there was no point in following this lead to She Tu?
After a few minutes, Ming Shu turned around. "Not even Xu Chun knows exactly what's going on in She Tu Village right now. I want to go have a look for myself."
Xiao Yu'an's computer monitor just so happened to be stopped on a page about a flash flood that had just hit She Tu Village.
"Director Xiao, don't try to stop me," Ming Shu said. "We can talk about this all we want, and we'll only know what we see on the surface that way. If we don't go in person, there's no way for us to get to the bottom of things."
"Speaking as a member of this law enforcement agency, I won't try to stop you. I wouldn't be able to stop you. Solving this case is your job, and it's mine as well." Xiao Yu'an smiled serenely. "But as your family. I'll worry about you. I would ask you to keep in touch with me and contact me, frequently, to let me know you're doing well."
Ming Shu blushed to the tips of his ears and took a deep breath. "I understand!"
Reaching Qian Tan wasn't as easy as reaching Luocheng. After a flight to the nearest airport, there was a stretch of road that could only be navigated in an off-road vehicle. It took Ming Shu and Yi Fei a total of fourteen hours to reach the police post in Qian Tan.
Wen Li hadn't sustained any serious injuries. She had only gotten caught in a small-scale flash flood, but her condition had already been rather weak at that point. In her exhaustion, she'd collapsed in a ravine and hadn't been able to pick herself back up. After being taken to the hospital for emergency treatment, she had recovered enough to accompany Xu Chun to the police post.
She had yet to come to terms with the news of Luo Xiangfu's death. Her eyes were red and swollen, and her reaction time was abnormally slow.
Ming Shu watched as she took out a stack of envelopes and photos from her backpack. All the envelopes had been dirtied by mud and rain. On a few of them, the writing was already indecipherable. But the envelopes in the middle of the stack had been preserved; on those, one could still make out the recipient's and sender's addresses.
Luo Xiangfu's handwriting was neat and strong. Ming Shu had seen examples of his writing at the Painting and Calligraphy Association, as well as at Luo Xiangfu's home. That handwriting had left a deep impression on Ming Shu, and he knew with just one glance that these envelopes had indeed been addressed by Luo Xiangfu.
Wen Li stared at Ming Shu for a moment before softly whispering, "Has Luo-laoshi really passed away?"
Ming Shu met her gaze. His own expression was steadfast and earnest. "Yes. We discovered Luo Xiangfu had regularly sent letters to She Tu Village for the past year and a half. We're here to investigate the truth behind his murder."
Wen Li burst into tears. "Luo-laoshi was a good person!"
Ming Shu studied her for a while before he said, "I'd like to ask you some questions related to the case. I hope you'll be able to answer honestly."
Wen Li hurriedly wiped away her tears and drew several deep breaths to calm herself. She nodded and declared, "As long as it helps, I'll tell you anything!"
"In She Tu Village, how many people were aware of your efforts to educate and change the women and girls?" Ming Shu asked.
Wen Li opened her mouth and paused for a while before answering, "Lots of people knew. I couldn't hide it from anyone."
"Were you ever harmed for your efforts? Did anyone try to obstruct you?" Ming Shu asked.
"I faced a lot of obstacles, yes. Sometimes they wouldn't let me into their homes, sometimes they would swear at me for not respecting their local traditions," Wen Li said. "The local police also warned me to be careful of my safety."
"Who are 'they'? The men of Maoyi and Maoer?"
Wen Li nodded. "Yes, but not just them. At the start, the villagers all treated me with disdain. They thought a woman like me, already in her twenties and still unmarried, was 'unclean'. But the men didn't bother with me much. They didn't think a woman could accomplish anything. The ones who hated me most were the older women in the village. They… how do I put this…"
Wen Li lowered her head, hiding her face as though she were too embarrassed or ashamed to continue speaking.
"They were 'accomplices' to the local men," Ming Shu supplied.
"Exactly!" Wen Li's eyes instantly filled with deep sorrow and regret. "They had been 'tamed'. It's these older women who torment the younger generation. They hated me. They banished me from their homes and called me a 'witch'. But I'm a poverty relief volunteer, I'm protected by the law. If I choose to stay in the village of my own volition, they can't force me to leave."
"Have you been seriously harmed in any way over these past three years?" Ming Shu asked.
"I've been harassed," Wen Li said with a bitter smile. "There are a lot of venomous bugs in the countryside. I've found them in my bag, my pots and pans, and my bed. They're the sort that won't kill you if they bite you, but you'll come down with a fever and become disoriented. Your whole body will become numb. And just seeing those bugs… it really wasn't an easy thing for a city girl like me."
"But you were still determined to stay in that place," Ming Shu said. There was a hint of admiration in his gaze, and his tone softened as well.
Wen Li sighed. "We all have to do something we feel is meaningful with our lives, don't we? And don't people always say, well, since I'm here, I might as well see things through? I'd already come to She Tu Village. I figured, why not persist for just a while longer?"
Ming Shu's gaze was extremely steady, but there were suppressed flashes of emotion passing underneath the mask he wore. "Do you know which of the villagers resented you and harassed you?"
"Yes," Wen Li said.
"Good." Ming Shu passed her a pen and a sheet of paper. "Write down their names."
Wen Li looked up, surprised. "Now?"
"Now," Ming Shu echoed.
Over the past three years, Wen Li had visited the local police quite often. But she had never met a detective like Ming Shu.
To her, Ming Shu seemed aloof. He carried an air of dignity and superiority that the local police lacked. The local police seemed more down-to-earth. But this aura that Ming Shu radiated wasn't unsettling. Rather, Wen Li felt reassured by his obvious competence.
She thought to herself that this was surely a great detective. One she could trust and rely on.
"After Luo Xiangfu started sending you the photos, did anyone ask you where the photos were coming from?" Ming Shu asked. He'd gotten Xu Chun to bring them two bottles of orange juice. He opened one for Wen Li, and drank from the other one himself.
Wen Li set down the pen. She was already able to think much more clearly than when she'd first entered the room. "Are you guys thinking… because Luo-laoshi and I were changing things in the village, the men who were losing control over the women wanted to retaliate against us?"
"You're very intelligent," Ming Shu remarked. "But the chances of them going to Dongye City to harm Luo Xiangfu, while sparing you, are quite slim. However, even if there's only a one-in-a-million chance, I can't let this lead go uninvestigated."
Hearing this, Wen Li furrowed her brows deeper and deeper.
Ming Shu and Yi Fei both stared at her. They both noticed that, in this moment, Wen Li's expression seemed to indicate more guilt than fear.
"I just thought of someone," Wen Li suddenly blurted out.
An electric spark flashed through Ming Shu's eyes. "Who?"
"The one who almost took Zhan Xixi as a concubine," Wen Li whispered, her voice trembling as she spoke.
Zhan Xixi was a name known to everyone in Maoyi. She was even known to many people in She Tu Village, and she was a beautiful girl.
At the start of the year, she had been set to marry into a different Zhan family. She was to become the villager Zhan Huanxiong's fifth concubine. At the time, she was only thirteen years old. She was the girl who'd escaped into the protection of the law.
In Maoyi, traditions and customs took precedence over everything. If Zhan Huanxiong wished to marry her, Zhan Xixi had no choice but to accept.
But Zhan Xixi was not only beautiful, but brilliant as well. Under Wen Li's tutelage, she had swiftly gained a sense of self-awareness. She knew it wasn't right for her to be married off against her will. She knew the customs the village had upheld for centuries weren't right.
Whenever she looked at the young women in Wen Li's photographs, her eyes filled with admiration and envy. Her mother was also one of the more enlightened women in the village.
Before the wedding, Zhan Xixi and her mother escaped from Maoyi and fled to She Tu Village to report the 'crime'.
Everyone in the village, and everyone in their hamlet, was shocked. This was the first time in decades that anyone in their area had reported a nonconsensual marriage as a crime.
The people of the Zhan family surrounded the small police post, demanding that the civil police officers return Zhan Xixi. Even the highly respected chief of Maoyi was present in the crowd.
The police were normally powerless to intervene in the affairs of the remote hamlets. But if someone was stepping forward to report a crime, then the police no longer had to turn a blind eye.
Zhan Xixi was ultimately sent to Liuqi City, where she started a new life with her mother.
The incident left a huge impact on Maoyi. More and more women began to resist and rebel.
"Zhan Huanxiong confronted me," Wen Li said. "He tried to force me to tell him who was sending the photographs. Of course, I refused to tell him. But one day, he cornered me again and told me he knew the photos were coming from Dongye City."
"This Zhan Huanxiong," Ming Shu said. "Is he still in She Tu Village?"
Wen Li suddenly dropped her head into her hands, choking up again. "He hasn't been in the village since May of this year. People said he went over the mountains, but now that I think about it, he could… he could have gone to Dongye City."
Ming Shu stood up. Holding his bottle of orange juice, he paced over to the window, then paced back.
The logic he'd discussed with Xiao Yu'an still held true. Zhan Huanxiong may have had a motive to kill Luo Xiangfu. But did he have the means?
Their killer was a calm and meticulous person who'd left behind very new clues. Zhan Huanxiong, a villager from a desolate hamlet in the mountains… could he have committed a nearly perfect crime?
Moreover, judging by the murder weapon and the nature of Luo Xiangfu's injuries, it was still more likely for the killer to be female.
"You said you were told Zhan Huanxiong went over the mountains," Ming Shu said. "Is that to say, over the border? To the neighboring country? Why would he go there?"
"That's where he's from. He isn't a native of this country," Wen Li said. "This might be hard for you guys to understand. In Maoyi, half the permanent residents are from foreign countries. They're free to marry the women here, as long as they register with the office in She Tu Village.
"I heard Zhan Huanxiong was born here, but his parents were both foreigners, and he spent many years living across the border. He fought in wars over there, as a mercenary or a spy. I'm not too sure, but…"
Ming Shu's eyes widened. "He fought in a war? As a spy?"
Wen Li nodded hesitantly. "The country on the other side of the border has all sorts of military powers. Every few months, they get into some new conflict. Zhan Huanxiong often brags about being some sort of platoon leader over there. He's always boasting about how many people he's killed.
"The people in She Tu Village respect physical strength. Although Zhan Huanxiong is a small man, only 1.6 meters tall, he has a whole box of war medals from his battles. He's highly regarded in Maoyi.
"Ah, that's right. Ever since I arrived in She Tu Village, Zhan Huanxiong hasn't gone over the border to fight in any wars. Liuqi City introduced a new policy that prohibited foreign soldiers from immigrating and taking up permanent residence here.
"Since he couldn't fight in wars anymore, Zhan Huanxiong started going over the border to work at various casinos. He made enough money to be considered wealthy in Maoyi. When he came back, he took a wife and four concubines. Many people were eager to marry off their daughters to him because he had money and he could fight. Getting close to him made these other families look good."
Xu Chun staggered under the weight of all this information. "Unbelievable. That's too much."
"We need to go to She Tu Village right now!" Ming Shu declared.
The torrential downpour had subsided. Local forces hastily patched up the road between Qian Tan and She Tu Village. Ming Shu forged ahead in an off-roader, navigating down the treacherous paths and finally making his way to She Tu, deep in the mountains.
"This is the first time I've been to a place this remote," Xu Chun remarked. As soon as he climbed out of the car, he poured a whole bottle of water over his head. While riding shotgun, he had sweated profusely as they wound down the dangerous roads that couldn't really be called roads at all.
Ming Shu was the best driver out of all the men there; he had received military training during his time with special ops, after all. If anyone else had been driving, they would have run a genuine risk of plummeting off one of the wickedly sharp turns in the road.
"Looks like the old saying is true. 'To walk the road to riches, you must first build a road.'" Xu Chun heaved a heavy sigh. "If it weren't for a case, I would never come to a hellhole like this!"
Wen Li looked a little helpless as she whispered, "If outsiders never come to this place, the village will remain isolated and undeveloped. Things will never change."
Ming Shu briskly walked towards the local police post.
Before Wen Li spoke of Zhan Huanxiong's experience in war, Ming Shu had thought that the chances of Zhan Huanxiong being the killer were slim. But if Zhan Huanxiong had fought as a mercenary or spy in multiple wars, if he had even amassed numerous medals, that had to mean he was a skilled fighter.
And if he came from a wartorn country, then it was likely that killing a man was simply no big deal to Zhan Huanxiong.
In these border villagers, people could point their guns at one another at the drop of a hat.
To someone like Zhan Huanxiong, having the girl he'd set his sights on flee under someone else's 'instigation' was something that would bring great shame and humiliation..
Who did Zhan Huanxiong truly hate?
Zhan Xixi? Wen Li? Luo Xiangfu?
Logically, Zhan Huanxiong should have taken out his rage on Wen Li. Not Luo Xiangfu, who lived half a world away in a distant city.
So why was Wen Li never harmed in her three years at She Tu Village?
Ming Shu hadn't been able to conceive of an explanation when he was still in Dongye City. But now, standing in She Tu Village, he was starting to understand—
The men here didn't see the women as human beings at all. To take revenge against a woman would be a stain on the man's pride.
Would a person seek 'revenge' on a pig, goat, cow, or dog that they owned?
Of course not.
They simply thought nothing of Wen Li. Only the older women in the village went out of their way to bully and harass her in petty little ways. After Zhan Xixi escaped the hamlet, Zhan Huanxiong had naturally come to detest Wen Li. But the one he hated most must have been the person who'd sent the photographs from a faraway place.
Because that person was a man!
In Zhan Huanxiong's eyes, only a man would be worthy of being the target of his vengeful rage.
Ming Shu was relieved that he hadn't given up on this lead just because it didn't seem logical. He was glad he hadn't given up just because it wasn't something a normal person would have done.
This kind of twisted, deformed logic… if he weren't standing on the soil of She Tu Village himself, he might never have been able to conceive of something so heinous.
The police at the local station in She Tu Village were rather suspicious of Ming Shu's sudden arrival. Although they were all police, their roles were extremely different. It was only after Wen Li spoke up on behalf of the visiting detectives that the local officers dug up Zhan Huanxiong's residence registration papers.
The man in the identification photo was jaundiced and emaciated. He had an ominous glint in his eyes. A wicked, sinister scar marred his cheek.
"Can you determine where Zhan Huanxiong has been since May?" Ming Shu asked.
"That…" The local officer seemed to struggle with the question.
Wen Li explained that there were no surveillance cameras in the village. Anyone who wanted to leave could simply leave, via any form of transportation, without reporting their movements. Zhan Huanxiong's residential status allowed him to move freely within the territory that was considered part of Liuqi City. He only would have run into a security checkpoint if he tried to leave Liuqi City.
"But the checkpoints are rather lax," one of the local officers explained. "If Zhan Huanxiong really wanted to slip out, he could have easily snuck past the checkpoints."
Ming Shu sent Yi Fei out to Liuqi City right away. That night, Yi Fei reported back—
On May 29th of that year, Zhan Huanxiong had hurriedly left Liuqi City through the northeastern entrance.