Ming Shu sat in the passenger seat and glanced over at Xiao Yu'an. "Where are we actually going? We're not really going on a date, are we?"
"Buckle your seatbelt," Xiao Yu'an reminded.
Ming Shu obediently did as he was told. After he clicked the seatbelt into place, he said, "It's buckled. Ge, are we just going for a ride?"
Xiao Yu'an turned to him with a small smile. "We still have an open case on our hands, and you're thinking about going for a ride. Captain Ming, doesn't that weigh on your conscience?"
"Fuck off!" Ming Shu was suddenly brimming over with energy. He slapped his chest, feigning anger. "Who was the one who said we're going on a date? Who was the one who told me to put on my seatbelt? Who was the one who begged with all his might to get me to come out when I was totally ready to spend all night working at the Bureau? My conscience isn't guilty, but yours should be! Boss Xiao! Deputy Director Xiao!"
Xiao Yu'an let out a low laugh. "Those are some heavy grievances."
"How could they not be heavy?" Ming Shu huffed, still pretending to be angry, when in truth he wasn't the slightest bit annoyed. "You're allowed to tease me, but I'm not allowed to complain?"
Xiao Yu'an laughed and ignored his question. He pulled away from the Bureau and turned into traffic. The darkening night sky hung overhead.
"Ge," Ming Shu started again. "Seriously, where are we going? I genuinely feel a bit restless not knowing. I have more work to do."
"Not all work is done at the office," Xiao Yu'an said.
"So we're going to the scene of the crime?" Ming Shu asked. "The old amusement park in Xi District?"
"Not all work is done at the scene of the crime either," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Oh, for fuck's sake! Then where are we going?"
As soon as he finished throwing his mini-tantrum, Ming Shu slumped back in the passenger seat and turned to glare at Xiao Yu'an.
But as he glared and glared, his eyes gradually began to soften.
Xiao Yu'an didn't drive very often. He said it was because he didn't like to drive, but in truth he just didn't like to drive in the city.
The roads in the city were smooth and wide, but a car couldn't really pick up speed on those streets even when there was no traffic. Someone like Xiao Yu'an, who was used to driving off-road vehicles on cross-country military operations, could never feel free when driving in the city.
Ming Shu had seen what Xiao Yu'an was like when he drove military vehicles out in the open, and of course he had also seen what Xiao Yu'an was like in ordinary cars.
The Xiao Yu'an who sat behind the wheel of an ordinary car could easily captivate Ming Shu—
The sleeves of his dress shirt were rolled halfway up his forearms, revealing his strong yet beautiful wrists. The meridian lines of his forearms were a light blue-green, so faint they could barely be seen by the naked eye. His long, slender fingers were wrapped around the steering wheel. Once in a while, his ring finger would be adorned by a custom-made wedding band.
In the second year of their relationship, they had traveled overseas and ordered a pair of custom wedding rings.
As employees of the government, it was impossible for them to get married overseas. But if a paper contract could represent a marriage for others, then a pair of rings could serve as a contract for them.
Upon receiving their wedding rings, Ming Shu had been possessed by an irrepressible urge. In front of countless strangers, he dropped to one knee and 'proposed' to Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an had taken his hand. With the warmest smile in his eyes, he had allowed the wedding band to sink to the base of his ring finger.
They rarely wore their wedding rings. Only when they were both on vacation did they get the chance to take them out and wear them for a while.
Once, Ming Shu had fallen asleep in the passenger seat while Xiao Yu'an drove with his ring on his finger. When Ming Shu woke, the first thing he saw was Xiao Yu'an's hands on the steering wheel. And the ring on Xiao Yu'an's finger. As soon as Ming Shu saw the ring that served as a testament to their love, he moved unthinkingly. He leaned over and kissed the ring, then kissed the hand of his older lover.
The car was in motion, and this kind of behavior was clearly 'distracting' the driver.
Ming Shu had just woken up. His mind was still hazy, and he'd moved purely on instinct. He'd seen something he wanted to kiss, and so he'd kissed it. Xiao Yu'an looked over at him, then carefully parked the car by the side of the road. He reached out and pulled Ming Shu over by the nape of his neck.
Xiao Yu'an's kiss was long and warm, but Ming Shu still wasn't satisfied. He took Xiao Yu'an's hand and brought it to his lips, kissing each finger in turn.
Xiao Yu'an gently touched his face and chided, "Behave."
"Ge, you actually like it when I misbehave," Ming Shu said lazily. "You love it more than anything, but you act like you don't!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled, but didn't say anything.
They got back on the road, drifting down the cold streets of an old city.
Slowly, Ming Shu left his memories and returned his attention to the streets of Dongye City.
Ming Shu had been warmed by those fond memories. The corners of his lips were quirked up into a smile that made him look like a nice young man. And not at all like the 'misbehaving' rascal from the past.
While he was lost in his memories, he had vaguely heard Xiao Yu'an say something.
Xiao Yu'an glanced at him out of the corner of his eye, then repeated, "We're going to Huayun Center."
"Huh?" Ming Shu laughed as his cheeks warmed. "We can't do that, can we?"
Huayun Center was located in Bei District, and it was one of the five most popular commercial centers in Dongye City. The shops were all fairly upscale, and the restaurants were all internet-famous. It was the hottest place in the city for young people to shop, hang out, and date.
The M.E.S mall was a part of Huayun Center.
After the murders at the book cafe, the M.E.S shopping mall and Huayun Center had taken a considerable hit to business. But, lately, Huayun Center was starting to become popular again.
Ming Shu often shopped there on his days off. Half his wardrobe consisted of flashy clothes he'd bought at that shopping center.
He liked to play ball with the guys, but he didn't like to shop with them. Why? Because he just didn't think his guy friends had any sense of style at all.
One time, Lu Yanzhou had shamelessly invited himself to wander around Huayun Center with Ming Shu. In just half a day, Lu Yanzhou reaffirmed all of Ming Shu's suspicions about uselessly handsome straight guys.
From then on, no matter how hard Lu Yanzhou begged, Ming Shu refused to shop with him.
There were benefits to shopping on his own. Ming Shu enjoyed the freedom, but when he sat down with a cold drink to take a break, he still felt a little heartsick.
He would think of Xiao Yu'an, who would be on some mission in some faraway place. He would think of how badly he wanted to shop at Huayun Center with Xiao Yu'an. They would come early in the afternoon and leave at night, after enjoying a romantic meal at a nice, Western restaurant with live music.
Ming Shu had once told Xiao Yu'an about these romantic notions over the phone. But whenever Xiao Yu'an actually came back to Dongye City to visit, Ming Shu himself forgot about those wishes. He just clung to Xiao Yu'an at home all day, refusing to go anywhere, refusing to let go, like he was permanently attached to Xiao Yu'an's body.
Now, Xiao Yu'an was bringing up the matter of his own accord. Heat flushed through Ming Shu's chest.
But Xiao Yu'an's next words weren't anywhere near as beautiful.
The heat in Ming Shu's heart began to cool.
"Huayun Center is like a holy ground for street photographers," Xiao Yu'an said. "A large number of photographers and models gather here on summer evenings. Luo Xiangfu spent a considerable amount of time here as well. We'll go take a look, and perhaps we'll learn something new."
Ming Shu pouted and deflated in the passenger seat. He turned away and gazed out the window. "Fine."
He couldn't really claim to be unhappy. Luo Xiangfu's case was still unresolved, and the killer could still strike again. Ming Shu's heart was set on solving the case. Even if he and Xiao Yu'an had gone out on a real date, he wouldn't have been able to truly enjoy himself. After trying on a few things in some shop, he probably would have dragged Xiao Yu'an into a dressing room to start talking about some new ideas he had about the investigation.
But when Xiao Yu'an brought up Huayun Center, Ming Shu had instantly believed Xiao Yu'an remembered the wishes Ming Shu had once blathered to him over the phone. Flowers had instantly bloomed in his heart. But then Xiao Yu'an made it clear they were there to investigate, and those flowers had no choice but to wilt.
Ming Shu couldn't deny that he felt just the teensiest, tiniest bit disappointed.
But Ming Shu had a strong sense of duty, so naturally he didn't let that disappointment show. Plus, it wasn't a big deal anyway. They'd lasted in a long-distance relationship for so long already; he and Xiao Yu'an understood each other very well. By the time they arrived at Huayun Center, that iota of disappointment in Ming Shu's heart had already disappeared.
The 'holy ground' of street photographers was indeed buzzing with life that night. A large fountain stood at the center of a courtyard nestled between various shops. Handsome young men and beautiful young women milled about, looking like blossoming flowers swaying in the breeze. Plenty of street photographers with professional cameras were snapping photos of them. It was as though the M.E.S murders had long since been forgotten by all.
There were some tall young men among these street photographers, but most were middle-aged men with a head of white or graying hair.
They were all considered passionate street photographers, but upon closer inspection, the differences between them were obvious—
Most of the young men treated the women they wanted to photograph with courtesy. They asked for permission before lifting their cameras, and if a woman turned them down, they typically didn't chase after them. Besides beautiful women, these younger photographers tended to take pictures of men as well. They often got along well with those subjects, greeting and fistbumping each other like old friends.
As for the old men, they only ever shot beautiful young women. No exceptions. Men never appeared in their camera lens. While the younger men would stop someone and ask for permission before photographing them, the older men swarmed up to any pretty girl they saw and started clicking away. When these older men did talk to a woman, they always stood extremely close to her and sometimes even pulled at her clothes to keep her from walking away.
Many shops that served cold drinks sat in a ring around the fountain courtyard, one floor up. Xiao Yu'an and Ming Shu found one with the best vantage point and grabbed a table. Xiao Yu'an had ordered an iced carbonated water for himself.
Ming Shu chewed on the straw of his vanilla milkshake.
"When you see this, you have to think Luo Xiangfu was just like these middle-aged street photographers," Ming Shu mused. "We've only been here for a little while, and I've already seen three of them get into little spats with young women. Some of them really don't show a shred of common courtesy."
"It's not all of them," Xiao Yu'an corrected. He pointed to a spot to the right. "Do you see that old man in the gray dress shirt?"
Ming Shu looked over and saw an older man chatting with a girl in a red dress. They seemed to be getting along well.
"That old man has been the perfect gentleman," Xiao Yu'an said. "No inappropriate gestures at all."
"But there aren't many that are like that. Look there, and over there." Ming Shu waved his hand about, easily picking examples out of the crowd. "Most of these older men are just like the Luo Xiangfu in Wen Yao's account."
Xiao Yu'an murmured, "Wen Yao…"
"Hm?" Ming Shu looked at him. "What about her?"
"'Wen' isn't a terribly common surname, and Wen Yao and Wen Li both share that surname. For a while, I suspected Wen Li," Xiao Yu'an said. "If Wen Li were hiding something, we would definitely have fallen into her trap."
Ming Shu's focus tightened. "That impossible, isn't it?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Don't worry, I confirmed everything. There's no connection between Wen Li and Wen Yao, and Wen Li was in She Tu Village when Luo Xiangfu was murdered."
"You scared me!" Ming Shu exclaimed.
"Sometimes, we need to rely on Wen Li to communicate with Zhan Huanxiong," Xiao Yu'an said. "She's extremely important in this case. I had to confirm that we could trust her."
Ming Shu nodded. "Oh, that's right. Speaking of which, Yi Fei and I refined our profile of the killer after talking to Zhan Huanxiong."
"Tell me," Xiao Yu'an said.
"The killer is female," Ming Shu began. "Because of Luo Xiangfu's crass approach to street photography, the killer wanted to 'punish' and 'erase' him. Her motive is likely similar to Hou Cheng's. She believes what she's doing is righteous. But she isn't one of Hou Cheng's 'followers'. Hou Cheng's 'followers' will most likely all commit crimes of passion, like Lu Kun.
"I compared the two of them. Hou Cheng is a suspense author, and he likes to imbue his crimes with suspense. He likes to set up convoluted twists and turns, and that habit of his was very well expressed in his crimes. Hou Cheng did a lot of unnecessary things to complicate his own plot. If he hadn't done all those things, it would have taken us much longer to lock him up. In short, he was influenced by his own writing, and his crimes weren't 'clean'."
Xiao Yu'an hummed his agreement.
Ming Shu continued, "Luo Xiangfu's murderer, on the other hand, didn't do anything superfluous. She even left it to someone else to destroy all the evidence on the scene. She's much more meticulous than Hou Cheng. Judging by how 'clean' this crime was, Luo Xiangfu wasn't her first victim.
"Zhan Huanxiong said he saw her cover Luo Xiangfu's mouth with her right hand after approaching him. That was definitely when she drugged him. Although Luo Xiangfu was already under the influence of alcohol and sleeping pills at that point, he was only disoriented. He could still stand, though he most likely wouldn't have been able to defend himself. To a woman, however, it could be very risky to leave him in that state.
"She's experienced. She knew how to control the situation, and that was why she dared to commit this crime."
"Just based on how 'clean' this crime was," Xiao Yu'an said, "we can determine a few things about the suspect as a person—she's capable, she's level-headed, she's confident. She'll be much harder to deal with than Hou Cheng."
"I think she's someone who lives in the city," Ming Shu said. "Someone who's lived in the city for a long time. Someone with a first-rate education. She's met many people in life, but she's extremely independent. And she likely has a very respectable, important job."
"There are too many people who fit that description," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu rubbed his temples. "If we add the limitation that she's someone who hates street photographers, then that would narrow down our options by a lot."
This time, Xiao Yu'an didn't answer right away. After a minute or so, he finally ventured, "It's possible she doesn't hate street photographers."
Ming Shu set down his milkshake. "Huh?"
"I've discovered a rather interesting phenomenon," Xiao Yu'an said.
The evening air was growing cooler, and more and more people were crowding into the shops above the fountain courtyard. Many of them squeezed into the drinks shops. Ming Shu was jostled by someone who bumped into him from behind, causing him to slam into the table in front of him. He looked back and saw it was a group of chatty middle school girls.
He had no business scolding other people's young daughters, so he just dragged his chair over to Xiao Yu'an's side of the table. "What phenomenon?"
"Not everyone here is a street photographer who chases after handsome young men and beautiful young women. There are some who dress up in the latest fashions and come in order to be captured by their cameras." Xiao Yu'an pointed down into the courtyard with one finger. "See?"
"So what?" Ming Shu followed Xiao Yu'an's finger and saw a woman in white walking back and forth between the street photographers.
"She wants to be photographed," Xiao Yu'an said. "But maybe her outfit isn't eye-catching enough, or maybe her looks are too ordinary, or maybe her figure is only average, or maybe she simply doesn't have the aura of a model. For whatever reason, no one has been taking her picture. Ever since your milkshake arrived, she's been wandering around the fountain. It's been almost forty minutes."
"Does she really need to go that far?" Ming Shu mused, not catching Xiao Yu'an's deeper meaning. "If she wants to be photographed, why doesn't she ask her family or friends to take her picture? If she really doesn't have any other options, she can just hire a photographer. A decent cell phone or a basic SLR… pretty much anything can take a good picture these days."
"But the fact of the matter is, she didn't ask her family or friends. And she didn't hire a photographer. She stands stubbornly in front of these street photographers, hoping to become a beautiful sight in one of their lenses." Xiao Yu'an pointed in a different direction now. "And she's not the only one. Do you see the woman in the light gray suit over there? She's also been here for a while already, but no street photographers have approached her. Earlier, when a woman dressed in a similar outfit was surrounded by photographers, she stood nearby and watched."
"What's going on in their minds?" Ming Shu asked.
"It's easy to understand," Xiao Yu'an said. "They don't necessarily want to be photographed. In this day and age, it's very easy to take a photo. You can take a selfie, you can ask a friend to take your picture, or you can even ask passersby if you don't have a friend with you.
"What they want is to be noticed and acknowledged by these street photographers. To them, that would mean their beauty has been acknowledged. And that would give them a deep sense of satisfaction."
Ming Shu furrowed his brows. "…but lots of people are fed up with street photographers."
Like Wen Yao.
And the beautiful Little Yun of the Special Police Force.
"Some people are sick of them, but some people love them," Xiao Yu'an said. "People who dislike street photographers, being forced to pose for photos. People who wish to be photographed, being ignored. Both conditions could arouse hatred."
"So you're saying this kind of person could also have killed Luo Xiangfu?" Ming Shu asked. "Luo Xiangfu only took photos of beautiful young women. He ignored, and maybe even rejected, women who he didn't consider beautiful enough. And he was killed because one of those women took his rejection as an attack on their self-esteem?"
"The human heart is volatile. Any stimulus could spark dissatisfaction and resentment. We can't rule out this possibility." Xiao Yu'an stood up. "But this is just one small thread we've discovered during this excursion."
"We're leaving?" Ming Shu hurriedly slurped down the rest of his milkshake. "Let's sit for a while longer. It's still early, we may as well observe some more."
Xiao Yu'an had already picked up Ming Shu's cell phone, which Ming Shu had tossed onto the table earlier, and put it into his own pants pocket.
Ming Shu had once been careless enough to leave his cell phone and wallet at a restaurant. Ever since then, Xiao Yu'an would always either remind him or just pick up Ming Shu's things himself.
"Didn't you once say you wanted to come here and have dinner at a nice, Western restaurant with me?" Xiao Yu'an asked. His voice was deep, almost husky. "The evening rush is over. If we go now, we most likely won't have to wait for a table. If we go any later, they might run out of the dishes you want."
Ming Shu was surprised. "You want to take me to a Western restaurant?"
You remember what I said?
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "I told you when I went to find you at the Serious Crimes Division. Tonight, we're going on a date."
Ming Shu instantly leapt to his feet. "I thought it was just for work!"
"Not just for work," Xiao Yu'an said warmly. "After work, there's a time to relax."
Ming Shu followed Xiao Yu'an to the door of the cold drinks shop, then frowned and pressed his hands to his stomach.
Xiao Yu'an looked back at him. "What's wrong? Your stomach doesn't feel well?"
"No." Ming Shu shook his head, but his expression had become complicated.
A while ago, his stomach had already growled a few times.
It was a good thing the shop was so noisy. Ming Shu was the only one who'd heard.
He hadn't eaten enough at lunch; one box meal just couldn't fill him up.
"Ge, let me talk to you about something," Ming Shu said.
"You don't want to have Western food?" Xiao Yu'an saw through to the heart of the matter with just one glance. "You want to choose somewhere else?"
"How did you know?" Ming Shu asked.
"You're holding your stomach. If you're not feeling unwell, that means you're hungry," Xiao Yu'an said. "You think you won't be able to eat enough at a Western restaurant?"
Ming Shu started to laugh. "You have to be all proper and elegant when you eat Western food. I can't be elegant today. Ge, let's have BBQ. I know a place here that's really popular. I've been there by myself a bunch of times. We'll save the Western food for next time, okay? I'll grill up some pork belly for you!"
Xiao Yu'an sighed indulgently. "Okay."