Dongye City. Xi District. Midnight.
Fast-paced dance music thundered through the Black Thorns nightclub. The bass shook through the club, causing the artificial spiderwebs adorning the ceiling to vibrate. The music was so loud that none of the young people crowded onto the dance floor could hear themselves speak. Most of them clutched beer bottles that reflected the flashing lights spilling down from above.
Black Thorns was one of the most famous nightclubs in Xi District. The owner was said to have come from an impressive background, with connections on both sides of the law. The security at the club was top-notch. Whenever anyone caused a commotion, they were 'taken care of' by highly-trained bouncers and hired thugs before the police could even arrive.
It was a themed night at the club. The leader of the security team, Wang-ge, had taken his most capable fighters inside, leaving the rest of the team to guard the entrances.
Summer was slow to retreat from Dongye City. It was hot when the sun sat high in the sky, and it was hot when the sun retreated for the night. Countless bodies were crowded into the club, and it was noisy as well, but at least the club was air-conditioned. It beat standing outside in the sweltering midnight heat.
Before the main show of the evening began, Zhang Xiong sought out Wang-ge. In broken Mandarin, he pleaded with Wang-ge to let him take a post inside the club that night.
Wang-ge patted him on the shoulder and refused with a shake of his head. "You just aren't cut out to be one of the guards in there. I know you're a strong fighter, but forget about the 1.8 meter men who come here. Even women in high heels are taller than you."
Zhang Xiong's face darkened. But Wang-ge was one of the leaders around these parts, and he was Zhang Xiong's immediate superior. When he found this job, Zhang Xiong had had nothing on him except his falsified identification papers. It wasn't easy for him to find work, so he knew he couldn't show his dissatisfaction here. Even if he had to let it show, he couldn't let it show in front of Wang-ge.
Nights in the city weren't like nights back home. Back home, the night sky was pitch black. But here, the night sky took on a deep purple-red hue.
Zhang Xiong listened to the shouts and music flowing out from inside the club. He looked up at the starless sky and wiped his sweat once more with a damp towel. Then, he spat a filthy curse through gritted teeth.
"What's wrong?" Xian Zi, another guard who had been stationed outside, turned to him and grinned. "Xiong-ge, is the heat riling you up?"
Zhang Xiong tugged at his dress shirt with an irritated look on his face. He wasn't used to wearing that sort of thing. "Aren't you hot?"
Xian Zi laughed. "So what if it's hot? That just means you sweat more, right? Just think of it as losing weight. Even if Wang-ge asked me to go inside, I wouldn't want to go. It's so crowded in there. Trust me, we're way more comfortable in our wide, open space out here."
"But there's air-conditioning inside," Zhang Xiong pointed out. He fussed with his shirt some more. The fabric was already soaked through, and his body odor was starting to seep out. There was nothing his cheap cologne could do to mask the stench.
"Tsk, so what if there's air-con?" Xian Zi retorted. "Xiong-ge, I've noticed you always like to stand right underneath the air-con vents. I used to do that when I was a kid. What, is there no air-conditioning where you're from?"
Zhang Xiong shook his head. "No."
Xian Zi laughed again. "How remote is that place? Ah, that's right. I think you haven't told us yet. Where's your hometown?"
Just as Zhang Xiong was about to answer, a clamor sounded out from the club's main entrance.
The two of them were guarding the side door, which was a ways away from the front of the club.
"Holy shit, are those cop cars?" Xian Zi craned his neck to get a look at the red and blue lights flashing out front. "I thought the boss had connections at the Bureau. Why are they suddenly checking in on us?"
Zhang Xiong's pupils shrank, and his expression suddenly changed.
It seemed a part of him wanted to run, but a part of him wanted to watch and observe the movements of the police.
Xian Zi stretched his neck out as far as it would go, trying to get a better look. "They went inside. What the hell is going on?"
One of the guards stationed at the front door wandered over to clue them in. It seemed to be a routine check, which the boss had known was coming.
Xian Zi instantly relaxed. "See? I told you. We've got the best spot out here."
Zhang Xiong also let out a breath of relief.
But five minutes later, Wang-ge suddenly came through the side door with a few cops behind him. He swept his gaze over the guards on duty at the door, then pointed and said, "There."
Wang-ge had spoken so quietly that Xian Zi couldn't even hear what he'd said. But Zhang Xiong was like an animal that could smell danger. A chill flashed through his eyes before he turned tail and sprinted towards the main street.
When he dared to look over his shoulder, he saw two plainclothes cops shoot out from behind Wang-ge. Their silhouettes cut through the night like blades, charging straight towards the fleeing fugitive.
"Zhang Xiong!" Wang-ge boomed, joining in on the chase.
In an instant, chaos descended upon the busy street. Police cars raced through traffic, sirens blaring. Civilian cars screeched to a halt, trying to get out of the wall, and shrieks of shock and panic rose from the people crowded onto the sidewalks.
Zhang Xiong wove his way through the jumble of cars, like a particularly agile ape.
A cab, spinning out of control, barreled towards Zhang Xiong. He dodged and deftly flipped himself over the hood of the cab.
Once he landed and steadied himself, he whipped his head around and looked back, only to find that he still hadn't shaken off those two plainsclothes cops!
His expression twisted, making the deep scar on his cheek look even more sinister than usual. That serpentine scar looked almost like it could come to life. He swore and spat a curse in the dialect of his hometown. The words that fell from his lips were like an evil incantation.
The sirens were getting closer. The police in pursuit were getting closer as well. Zhang Xiong froze for a second before abruptly yanking open the door to the cab and dragging the driver out into the street.
The driver, flung to the ground, quaked with fear and rage.
"You're carjacking me, motherfucker?!"
As the cab driver's belligerent protest pierced the night air, the nearest cops finally caught up. Zhang Xiong's pupils constricted once more. Before he could step on the gas, one of the cops leapt and flew through the air, shattering one of the cab's windows with a forceful kick.
"Lu Yanzhou!" Ming Shu shouted.
"Coming!" Lu Yanzhou was right behind him. Just as Zhang Xiong had flung the driver out of the cab, Lu Yanzhou grabbed Zhang Xiong and hauled him out, throwing him down on the ground.
'Zhang Xiong' flipped over, still intent on struggling, only to find Ming Shu's gun already pointed at his forehead.
Their pursuit of Zhan Huanxiong had begun as soon as Yi Fei learned the man had left Liuqi City.
Zhou Yuan had led the technical investigation division in their efforts to track down the suspect. They soon learned that Zhan Huanxiong had arrived in Dongye City on June 5th. Surveillance footage proved he had appeared near Luo Xiangfu's home numerous times, and he had often lurked in the shadows at Luo Xiangfu's favorite photography spots as well.
In mid-June, Zhan Huanxiong started working at Black Thorns.
After personally visiting Zhan Huanxiong's home in Maoyi, Ming Shu had rushed back to Dongye City and gotten in touch with Ye Chi, the owner of Black Thorns. Ye Chi looked like an elegant, refined sort of person. In truth, some years ago, he'd walked on the wrong side of the law. But after getting involved in a certain case, he had become a sort of 'colleague' to Ming Shu. Once in a while, Ye Chi would help the police by providing a few clues and leads. That was exactly why Black Thorns had never been investigated by the Bureau.
"Is there a problem with this Zhang Xiong guy?" Ye Chi had asked while flipping through his employee's records. "He only started working here a month ago."
"His identification papers are clearly forged," Ming Shu snapped coldly. "Yet you hired him on as a security guard?"
Ye Chi laughed and raised both hands in surrender. "This club of mine has many secrets. You know that better than anyone, don't you? If everyone who came to me had pristine records, would I be of any help to you? Besides, I'm not in charge of hiring these guards. If you didn't come asking about this guy, I wouldn't even have known he was working for me."
Ming Shu's cold gaze sliced across his face.
Ye Chi instantly put on a disarming smile and continued, "Just kidding, just kidding. I did know he was on my staff, but I had no idea he was involved in one of your investigations."
After chatting with a manager, Ming Shu learned that Zhan Huanxiong had been scheduled to work on the day Luo Xiangfu was killed. But, claiming he felt ill, Zhan Huanxiong had switched shifts with another guard.
And Zhan Huanxiong didn't report in for work the day after Luo Xiangfu's murder either.
Because Zhan Huanxiong was a special case, the Serious Crimes Division and the Special Police Force had teamed up to capture him.
After cuffing Zhan Huanxiong, Lu Yanzhou turned to Ming Shu and exclaimed, "This fucker can really run! Little Ming, your little legs can really go, too. You even beat the pants off me!"
Serious Crimes Division. Interrogation Room.
Zhan Huanxiong sat in the same seat many suspects had occupied before him, but he didn't sit like most other suspects. His posture was markedly different. He sat with his shoulders raised, and his neck practically retracted into his chest. He was like a predator, ready to hunt.
"Zhan Huanxiong," Ming Shu began. "Why did you come to Dongye City?"
It was the first time Zhan Huanxiong had heard his real name uttered in Dongye City. Instantly, the aura of an ordinary security guard disappeared from him. It was replaced by the ferocious, vicious killing intent of a cold-blooded murderer.
The malice that filled his eyes was something Ming Shu had seen before.
Zhan Huanxiong was a man who had seen real combat. He'd fought in wars. He'd killed with his own hands, with his gun and his knife. The viciousness that ran through his blood was completely different from the scorn and greed that possessed local gangsters and bullies.
Pinned by Zhan Huanxiong's fearsome gaze, the recording officer in the interrogation room swallowed nervously.
But Ming Shu remained completely and utterly unaffected. He repeated, "Why did you come to Dongye City?"
Zhan Huanxiong gave Ming Shu his attention. Perhaps that was because he had never encountered a detective who could remain so calm and collected in his presence. Or perhaps it was because he hadn't forgotten the gun that Ming Shu had trained on him earlier that night.
"Why did you arrest me?" he retorted.
"Good question," Ming Shu said with a cold smile. "I had more than one reason for that."
Zhan Huanxiong's scar twitched.
"You're not a citizen of this country. She Tu Village granted you provisional permission to reside in Maoyi. But you should be perfectly aware that your residential papers only allow you to move about in Liuqi City," Ming Shu stated. "You have no legal right to set foot in Dongye City."
Zhan Huanxiong picked at the table with his nails. "Are you going to send me back?"
"Do you want to go back?" Ming Shu countered.
A flash of distrust passed through Zhan Huanxiong's gaze. After a moment, he shook his head. "It's really nice here."
Ming Shu hadn't expected an answer like that.
In fact, he had already been quite surprised to find Zhan Huanxiong working as a guard at Black Thorns.
Zhan Huanxiong had come to Dongye City to seek revenge against Luo Xiangfu. Once he'd carried out hig revenge, shouldn't he have fled the city right away? Why did he stay behind to work as a security guard?
Was he trying to hide in plain sight?
Ming Shu thought about it for a moment, then decided not to beat around the bush any longer. He set a photo of Luo Xiangfu down in front of Zhan Huanxiong and stated, "You knew you were prohibited from leaving Liuqi City, and yet you still came to Dongye City. He was your target."
As soon as he saw the man in the photograph, Zhan Huanxiong's chest and shoulders visibly tensed.
"Did I hit the nail on the head?" Ming Shu tapped the photo with his index finger. "Your country allowed men to keep multiple wives, and She Tu Village adhered to the customs of your country. But Luo Xiangfu's photographs influenced the girls you intended to take as concubines, and they rejected you. Angry and ashamed, you decided to take out your rage on Luo Xiangfu in the barbaric ways of your homeland."
Zhan Huanxiong tensed even further. His arms bulged to the point that veins rose to the surface of his skin. He let out a low growl from the back of his throat.
"On July 2nd, when Luo Xiangfu was murdered, you just so happened to take a day off work, saying you were unwell." Ming Shu gave Zhan Huanxiong a cursory onceover. "But you seem to be in good health to me. You took a day off for another reason, didn't you?"
"I didn't kill Luo Xiangfu!" Zhan Huanxiong bellowed.
Ming Shu narrowed his eyes. "You don't seem at all surprised to hear of Luo Xiangfu's death."
Zhan Huanxiong's eyes went wide, practically bulging out of his skull. For a moment, he was rendered speechless.
"How did you know Luo Xiangfu had been murdered?" Ming Shu asked. His tone alone was enough to make suspects feel a heavy weight bearing down on them. "Is it that you were the one who murdered him?"
"It wasn't me!" Zhan Huanxiong protested. He dragged in a ragged breath, like he wanted to explain himself but couldn't find the right words.
Half a minute later, he spewed out a rapid string of words in the dialect of She Tu Village. He spoke so quickly, with such immense emotion, that no one in the interrogation room stood a chance of understanding him.
But Ming Shu had anticipated this. When he left She Tu Village, he'd brought Wen Li with him.
Wen Li was invited to enter the interrogation room. As soon as Zhan Huanxiong laid eyes on her, he fell silent for ten seconds or so. Then he slapped the table and started to flail his cuffed hands. A string of curses, rattling out as fast as the bullets from a machine gun, fell from his lips. He started to sweat profusely.
"He's swearing at me," Wen Li said, trembling. She was so nervous that even her words wavered.
"As long as I'm here, you don't need to worry about anything," Ming Shu reassured. "Please help me ask him where he was on the night of Luo Xiangfu's murder, as well as why he started working at Black Thorns."
With an interpreter in the room, the two languages flowed back and forth. Sweat began to bead along the back of Wen Li's neck as she listened to Zhan Huanxiong tell his tale.
Zhan Huanxiong admitted he had come to Dongye City for the purpose of seeking revenge against Luo Xiangfu. But when he arrived, he only knew his target's surname was Luo. He had only glimpsed Luo Xiangfu once, from a distance, when the man's tour group passed through She Tu Village. And so, he began to lurk outside the post office that Luo Xiangfu had used to send his photographs.
Liuqi City was the only city Zhan Huanxiong had ever known. The luxuries of Dongye City far exceeded his expectations. As he searched for Luo Xiangfu, he became more and more reluctant to return to She Tu Village. Although he was the 'king' of his village, the women there were dirty and ugly. Although he had his own house, it was only a dirt house. In the summer, mosquitos were everywhere and the heat was inescapable.
In Dongye City, even though he only worked as a security guard, he could enjoy air-conditioned rooms every day.
Before he managed to track down Luo Xiangfu, Zhan Huanxiong had already found work at Black Thorns. Although he was from a remote village, although he couldn't speak Mandarin fluently, although he wasn't tall enough for the job… his agility and fighting skills were impressive. Wang-ge, the leader of the security team at Black Thorns, decided to hire him for those skills. On his very first day of work, Zhan Huanxiong thoroughly trounced a local hoodlum who'd caused some trouble for the club.
The bar had a dormitory for employees. Zhan Huanxiong started living there, but he slept very little. He spent his nights working, and he spent most of the day searching for Luo Xiangfu.
In Dongye City, trying to find a person by wandering about aimlessly was akin to trying to find a needle in a haystack. Zhan Huanxiong eventually asked Wang-ge for advice on the matter.
Wang-ge, right away, said the solution was simple. All Zhan Huanxiong needed to do was stake out the shopping malls in the heart of the city. If the person he was looking for was a street photographer, then that person would surely hang out in those places all the time. Black Thorns was also pretty close to the old amusement park, which was another popular spot for photographers.
And at the end of June, Zhan Huanxiong really did happen upon Luo Xiangfu at the old amusement park.
It would have been extremely easy for Zhan Huanxiong to kill Luo Xiangfu right then and there. But in his time working at Black Thorns, Zhan Huanxiong had come to understand a few things. There were no public surveillance cameras in She Tu Village, but those cameras were everywhere in Dongye City. Moreover, the cops in Dongye City weren't like the ones in She Tu Village. The city cops were a hundred times tougher and more valiant.
Zhan Huanxiong had once paid a visit to the precinct in Xi District as well as Dongye City's Criminal Investigation Bureau. Just one glance at the cold, solemn facades of those buildings had been enough to send a chill down his spine.
How could he kill Luo Xiangfu without being caught?
He agonized over that question every day.
One option was to kill Luo Xiangfu and leave behind no traces. The other was to simply kill him and flee the city. That way, even if he left evidence behind, he would be invulnerable as soon as he got back to the village where he reigned as 'king'. At worst, he could cross the mountains and hide out in his home country for a while.
He had no idea how to commit this crime without leaving any traces behind. When he first arrived in Dongye City, he'd already made up his mind to butcher Luo Xiangfu and flee back to She Tu Village. But after enjoying life in the flourishing Dongye City for a while, he no longer wanted to leave.
Time passed as he weighed his options, and his revenge was delayed over and over again.
Zhan Huanxiong didn't dare act carelessly, but he couldn't give up on his revenge either. In the end, he rented a cheap apartment in a building near Luo Xiangfu's home. There, he began to familiarize himself with the range of the surveillance cameras in the area.
Before the night of Luo Xiangfu's murder, Zhan Huanxiong had already learned which public surveillance cameras were purely ornamental. He'd memorized the blind spots of the working cameras. And he'd also gained a clear idea of Luo Xiangfu's daily schedule and habits.
It would be easy to dispose of this sort of 'solitary' old man.
But there was something Zhan Huanxiong had failed to consider: He wasn't the only one who held a grudge against Luo Xiangfu.
On July 2nd, Zhan Huanxiong was suddenly struck by an intense bout of indigestion. After suffering from diarrhea all day, he called his supervisor and took a day off work. But by the time his shift came around, he was starting to feel better.
He'd cleared his time off with his manager, but it was Xian Zi who'd taken his shift. Zhan Huanxiong called Xian Zi directly, hoping to get his shift back since his symptoms were diminishing.
But Xian Zi didn't want to give up the shift. "Xiong-ge, this has been pretty troublesome for me. You wanted me to take your shift, so I already cancelled all my plans for tonight. A good bro wouldn't make me switch back now."
Zhan Huanxiong didn't really understand the ways of people from the city, but it wasn't a big deal if Xian Zi didn't want to switch back. He dropped the subject and hung up.
It was early in the evening when he got off the phone. He lay down in the shitty apartment he'd rented, but only stayed put for a while before suddenly remembering what Wang-ge had said. According to Wang-ge, street photographers loved nothing more than taking photos of beautiful women in the evenings and at night.
Zhan Huanxiong hurriedly got up and prepared to find Luo Xiangfu.
He knew where Luo Xiangfu lived. When he passed through the neighborhood, he saw that the lights in Luo Xiangfu's apartment were off.
If Luo Xiangfu wasn't at home, he could only be out somewhere taking pictures.
Zhan Huanxiong wasn't completely brainless. After thinking for just a moment, he deduced that an old man like Luo Xiangfu wouldn't go too far from home at night. That ruled out Bei District and Nan District. Most likely, Luo Xiangfu had gone to a popular street photography spot in Xi District.
After narrowing down the possibilities, Zhan Huanxiong set out in search of Luo Xiangfu. But the hours ticked by without any success. Even at ten that night, Zhan Huanxiong had yet to catch sight of Luo Xiangfu.
Most of the buses in Dongye City, except the special night line, stopped running at eleven in the evening. The old amusement park was the only popular photography spot that Zhan Huanxiong had yet to check, but it was already so late. Even if Luo Xiangfu had gone there, he'd probably left long ago.
Zhan Huanxiong dithered for a while over whether he should keep looking or go home. In the end, he decided to at least check out the old amusement park.
Though, in truth, he didn't go just to look for Luo Xiangfu. He genuinely just had nothing better to do.
And, while chatting idly, the security guards at Black Thorns had once mentioned that the old amusement park was a popular dogging spot.
Zhan Huanxiong wanted to catch an eyeful of these couples who were wild enough to have sex in a public place. Not only that, he wanted to try it for himself.
He'd been pent up ever since coming to Dongye City.
But when he arrived at the old amusement park, he miraculously happened upon Luo Xiangfu.
Much to Zhan Huanxiong's surprise, Luo Xiangfu wasn't carrying his usual SLR camera. He was simply wandering around, frantically looking left and right.
At that time of night, there weren't many people loitering around the amusement park. Zhan Huanxiong instantly felt wary and suspicious. He quickly scaled a tree and hid in the branches, obscuring himself from view.
This sort of move wasn't easy for the average person. But to a soldier like Zhan Huanxiong, it was a basic skill.
Luo Xiangfu wore a strange expression on his face. It seemed like he was waiting for someone.
Soon, a person wearing a raincoat, with the hood up, approached Luo Xiangfu from behind. They caught him in a chokehold and covered Luo Xiangfu's mouth and nose with their right hand.
It wasn't long before Luo Xiangfu collapsed.
The person in the raincoat stripped off Luo Xiangfu's clothes and took photos of his exposed body. Then that person began to beat Luo Xiangfu's throat, repeatedly, with a long, slender rod.
Zhan Huanxiong had witnessed it all. The murder, and disposal of the body.
"You're lying!" Fang Yuanhang shouted, angrily springing to his feet. "If you're telling the truth, why didn't you report the murder to the police? Your story is full of holes. There was never anyone in a raincoat. It was you!"