The BBQ restaurant was extremely popular, and business was booming. Although Ming Shu had promised to grill some pork belly for Xiao Yu'an, it was Xiao Yu'an who manned the grill after they sat down.
There were actually servers at the restaurant who were in charge of grilling meat, but most patrons preferred to do it themselves. Only those who came alone and felt too lonely asked the servers to grill at their table.
When Ming Shu came here alone, he had the staff grill the pork belly for him. He'd tried to do it himself a few times, but never got good results. He either overcooked the lean meat or undercooked the fatty meat, never quite managing to take the meat off the grill at the right time.
This time, Ming Shu was with Xiao Yu'an. He wouldn't have to trouble the servers anymore. Xiao Yu'an was in charge of grilling, and Ming Shu was in charge of eating. With that tacit understanding between them, they quickly demolished a basket of the lettuce that served as an accompaniment to the meat.
Of course, Xiao Yu'an also ate. But he didn't eat as quickly as Ming Shu, and he was much more elegant about it.
"Ge, you don't look like you're eating BBQ," Ming Shu teased, smiling. "You look like you're at a fancy Western restaurant."
"Mind your own business," Xiao Yu'an said. He placed two slices of beef tongue, fresh off the grill, on Ming Shu's plate. The heated fat and oil were still sizzling on the surface of the two thin slices.
Ming Shu held back his hunger for a moment and continued, "You didn't even put bell peppers, onions, and garlic in your lettuce wrap earlier. Those three items are the soul of this restaurant, you know."
Xiao Yu'an had already wrapped another piece of pork belly in a leaf of lettuce. He'd only added the savory dipping sauce. Nothing else.
"Here, here, here! I'll make one for you!" Ming Shu made a bulging lettuce wrap, stuffed full of all the restaurant's standard condiments. "Here!"
Xiao Yu'an didn't reach out to accept it. Instead, he said, slowly, "I suddenly had a new thought about the killer."
The two of them had never adhered to any sort of 'no work talk on dates' rule. Ming Shu was the same way. Whenever a new thought about a case popped into his head, he grabbed his nearest teammate to discuss it right away.
He immediately lowered his hands and asked, "What is it?"
"At this point, we can almost be certain Luo Xiangfu wasn't this killer's first victim," Xiao Yu'an said. "And Yi Fei has been looking through cold cases and the missing persons database all this time, but he hasn't found anything."
Almost subconsciously, Ming Shu gobbled up the pork belly lettuce wrap he had prepared for Xiao Yu'an. He chewed just a few times before gulping down an enormous bite. Instinctively, he defended his vice captain: "Yi Fei has a lot on his plate. It can't be helped if he has a hard time juggling it all."
"You're right, he's done his best." Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "An elite detective has done his best and come up with nothing. That can only mean one of two things. Either Luo Xiangfu was this killer's victim, or the killer's previous victims have yet to be discovered. There could be victims who were never reported missing, victims who are still waiting for us to discover their bodies."
Ming Shu froze and considered that for a moment. "I could understand it if a victim's body hasn't been found, but Luo Xiangfu was killed on July 2nd. If there are any previous victims, they would have been murdered before that. In June, or even months earlier. If a person disappears without warning for that long… how could they not be reported missing?"
"What if the victims were extremely solitary senior citizens?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "Suppose these victims were old men who lived alone, estranged from their children. Perhaps they didn't even have any children. Perhaps they didn't have any friends. Their only hobby was street photography, and the only people who occasionally greeted them were neighbors and vendors at the local shops.
"Their neighbors might not be too concerned if they didn't appear for a while. Perhaps they weren't close. It might never occur to the neighbors of these victims to file a missing persons report with the police."
"A lot of solitary seniors do live like that," Ming Shu said.
"Although Luo Xiangfu had a wife and son, he was a fairly lonely person too," Xiao Yu'an said. "The killer may have targeted him because he lacked close interpersonal relationships."
"So one thing the victims have in common is that no one cared about them?" The cogs in Ming Shu's brain were spinning rapidly now. "The killer's next victim could also be a solitary old man who enjoys street photography. They could be someone like Luo Xiangfu, who had been rejected by his own family, or someone who doesn't have a family in the first place."
"It may seem like there are lots of street photographers these days, but they still make up only a small portion of the city's population," Xiao Yu'an said. He served Ming Shu a few more slices of beef as he spoke. "If we add the restrictions that the victims are solitary, middle-aged street photographers with bad manners, then our pool of potential victims shrinks even more. And if we can identify the targets, we can identify our killer."
"I…" Ming Shu wanted to say he would go arrange a search right that very minute, but then he looked down at the meat on his plate. He remembered they were still out at a BBQ restaurant, so he would have to put a temporary hold on the investigation.
"Don't be hasty," Xiao Yu'an said. "I haven't gotten to my main point yet. There's something about this investigation that has perplexed us from the beginning. The killer hid Luo Xiangfu's body at the old amusement park, which is huge. If she were hiding Luo Xiangfu there anyway, why not choose a more discreet location at the park?"
"She's giving us clues," Ming Shu said. He had started to suspect that a long time ago.
"And why would she want to give us clues?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"Isn't it because she wants to challenge the police?" Ming Shu asked. "Ge, we've already discussed this."
"We have, that's true. But we never got to the bottom of the matter." Xiao Yu'an set down the BBQ tongs and fixed his steady gaze on Ming Shu. "She handed these clues to us on a platter this time because she concealed her last crime too well. The body was never discovered, and the victim was never reported missing. She wouldn't have been able to play her game with the police if her crime went by unnoticed."
Ming Shu pursed his lips and lowered his gaze with intense focus.
The killer had hidden her previous victim or victims too well, and that was why she'd left Luo Xiangfu in such an obvious place?
Then where exactly had she hidden her last victim?
"We can also think about this from a different angle," Xiao Yu'an said. "People are creatures of habit. Our killer murdered Luo Xiangfu at the old amusement park. That was a place Luo Xiangfu frequented, which meant it would have been easy for the killer to lure him out there. Furthermore, there are no surveillance cameras inside the amusement park. And not many people go there at night.
"Most importantly, we can assume the amusement park is a place that feels familiar to the killer. She's comfortable there. She knows her way around. That's her safe place."
Ming Shu instantly understood. "If she killed Luo Xiangfu there, it's possible she killed a previous victim there as well!"
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Most serial killers grow reckless as they claim victim after victim, but they're often extraordinarily cautious to hide the evidence when committing their first crime. There could be two reasons our killer buried Luo Xiangfu in such an obvious place, and these two reasons don't contradict each other. One, the killer had become arrogant. Two, the killer had already buried her previous victims in the less obvious spots around the amusement park."
Ming Shu wolfed down the rest of their meat and rushed up to the cashier to pay their bill.
Xiao Yu'an picked up their things and slowly made his way to the door.
In the car, on their way back to the Bureau, Ming Shu gradually came to his senses and made a realization. "Ge, you were trying to break my concentration, weren't you?"
"What concentration?" Xiao Yu'an teased lightly.
Ming Shu huffed. "You didn't 'suddenly' have a new thought. You just wanted me to have a nice dinner before analyzing your new ideas with me back at the Bureau!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled.
"You only told me over dinner because you were trying to avoid eating the pork belly wrap I made for you!" Ming Shu accused. "What's wrong with green peppers, onions, and garlic? It's a total waste if you eat the meat from that shop without the soul of the shop!"
"The smell is too pungent," Xiao Yu'an said.
"That's the whole point! That's what makes it delicious!" Ming Shu protested indignantly. "Tsk, you always scold me at home and tell me not to be a picky eater. It looks to me like the picky eater is you, huh?"
These days, Ming Shu's appetite was extremely good. And he wasn't picky. He could enjoy fine dining, and he could enjoy a one-yuan pie from a food stall at the side of the road. But he wasn't like that when he was young. When he was a kid, he was a little delicate and a little snooty. There were even some fruits he loathed.
He wouldn't eat bananas, because he'd once had some unripe ones. He wouldn't eat apples, because they were too ordinary and didn't taste good. He wouldn't eat grapes, because they were sour. He wouldn't eat pineapple, because he'd pricked his mouth on the eyes before and remembered how much it had hurt.
When other people told him children shouldn't be picky eaters, it was no good. But when Xiao Yu'an told him, it worked.
Xiao Yu'an had once peeled an apple for him and told him not to be picky, and Ming Shu had taken it to heart. From then on, every time he encountered something he didn't like to eat, he thought of Xiao Yu'an and happily ate it anyway.
Over time, Ming Shu was thoroughly cured of his pickiness.
And now, Xiao Yu'an had become the picky one.
"This isn't being a picky eater, this is just choosing to eat what I like," Xiao Yu'an reasoned. "Why should I force myself to eat raw green peppers, onion, and garlic when I don't like them?"
"Oh, fuck off!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "That's not what you used to say!"
"Oh?" Xiao Yu'an swept his gaze over Ming Shu. "What was it that I used to say?"
"You said to just bear it when you have to eat something you don't like," Ming Shu recited. "You said to just imagine you were eating something delicious!"
Xiao Yu'an continued to smile, silent.
"Don't just smile!" Ming Shu demanded.
"I'm thinking about how I should explain this to you," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu laughed. "Oh, so you know you have to explain yourself?"
"Then, go ahead. Explain yourself, Boss Xiao."
Xiao Yu'an cleared his throat. "When I made you eat fruit that you didn't like, I was only in my teens."
Ming Shu was silent.
What did that have to do with anything?!
"I was too young, too unreasonable," Xiao Yu'an explained, perfectly serious and earnest. "Later, I realized it was wrong to make you eat what you didn't like. Because even if I forced you, you wouldn't be happy about it.
Ming Shu blinked and thought, No, I was really happy…
"As I got older, I began to think people should be free to do as they please. They should eat what they like to eat, and they should avoid what they don't like. If it's something they must eat, then they should have just a bit of it," Xiao Yu'an continued. "I was unreasonable as a teenager. You're twenty-eight this year, and you're a police detective. You should be more reasonable than a teenager. If I'm not keen on green peppers, onion, and garlic, then the reasonable Captain Ming shouldn't force me to eat them."
Ming Shu slapped his thigh. "Boss Xiao, when did you get so good at making shit up? You have an explanation for everything!"
"You called me 'boss'," Xiao Yu'an said. "So of course I had to give you a reasonable explanation."
"Then how about I call you…" Ming Shu stopped himself short. He'd almost blurted out a certain name he only used when they 'did homework'.
Xiao Yu'an raised his eyebrows. "Hm?"
Ming Shu blushed to the tips of his ears and swiftly turned around to stare out the window. "Never mind! Forget it!"
Back at the Bureau, Ming Shu immediately called a meeting with all members of his division who were still at the office.
Yi Fei had known that Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an must have gone out to investigate the case, but when they returned with so much new information, he still felt somewhat unsure.
"It's no problem for us to look into solitary, male, middle-aged street photographers," Yi Fei said. "But can we be sure there's a previous victim buried at the old amusement park?"
"Not yet, but the chances of it are high," Ming Shu said. "So we have to conduct a search."
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang chimed in. "The amusement park isn't small. It won't be easy to search the whole place, will it?"
"But to the killer, there are likely only a few places that could be considered optimal for hiding a body," Ming Shu said. He put up an enlarged map of the amusement park on the projector in the conference room and pointed out a few spots with a laser pointer. "The first is here, near the park's southern exit. This place is close to an area scheduled for demolition, and it actually overlaps with an old residential neighborhood. Lots of people dump their trash here during the day, and no one goes there at night. In the summer months, the heat makes the garbage stink enough to cover up any other rotten odors.
"The second place is here, in this small grove. The trees here have grown out of control, to the point where they block out the sun. Plus, the drainage in this area is awful. The ground has already become extremely sludgy. There are even people who call this place a 'swamp'."
Ming Shu indicated a third spot on the map. "And here as well. The public restrooms at the heart of the amusement park. There are a total of twelve restrooms located around the park, and these here are the biggest. They take up two floors and were once considered one of the most 'impressive' public restrooms in all of Dongye City. But now it was one of the filthiest places in the entire park."
"Chief!" Fang Yuanhang raised his hand. "There's one more place where someone could hide a body."
"Where?" Ming Shu asked.
"The haunted house in the northern part of the park," Fang Yuanhang said.
The other team members began to murmur amongst themselves, and Ming Shu located the haunted house on the map.
"The haunted house wasn't really scary in the past," Fang Yuanhang explained. "It's nothing compared to the ghost schools and ghost hospitals that were inspired by haunted tours from overseas. But it's gained a reputation as a true house of horrors in the past few years when people started claiming to have been cursed by that house.
"There are lots of rumors about the haunted house in Xi District. One says that lonely ghosts wander around late at night. And many people who didn't even believe in curses and ghosts went to check out the house, only to come out badly shaken and 'changed'."
"There's definitely something sinister about this abandoned ghost house," Ming Shu said. "But it won't be the focus of our search this time."
Fang Yuanhang didn't understand. "Why?"
"Because it's scary enough to ward off most people, but a small number of people will be attracted by the horrors of the house instead. In other words, to the killer, this wouldn't be considered a safe place to hide a body. Understand?" Ming Shu paused for a moment, then continued, "The killer's ideal hiding place is a place where absolutely no one would go."
At first light, the police once again cordoned off the old amusement park. The Criminal Investigation Bureau and the Xi District precinct joined forces to scour the area, targeting the three places Ming Shu had marked out.
By midday, a body that had already gone waxy with decay was discovered in the 'swamp' beneath the copse of overgrown trees.
"Time of death was at least three months prior," said Xing Mu. He wore a heavy-duty mask as he carefully inspected the body. "His injuries have been well-preserved. They're just like Luo Xiangfu's. The victim was struck repeatedly in the throat, suffering a broken cervical vertebra. No way to determine age as of yet. I'll need to take him back for a full autopsy."
The discovery of another victim should have been a major breakthrough, but the team instantly ran into another wall. They had no way of identifying the victim.
The victim had no identifying documents on his body, and no one had reported him missing. His DNA didn't match any records in the missing persons database.
"This does prove one of our theories," Ming Shu said. He was visiting the forensics department to review the autopsy report Xing Mu had handed him. "The victim did live a solitary life. There was no one to care for him or report him missing."
The victim was seventy years old. Older than Luo Xiangfu.
"She started with an older victim, then gradually increased the difficulty of her kills," Ming Shu mumbled to himself. "Luo Xiangfu was murdered on July 2nd, and this victim was killed in April…"
Xing Mu sighed. "If he had any children, then these children are just too irresponsible. How could they not worry after not hearing anything from their father for so long? Even if they'd just reported him missing, that would have been enough."
"Then we'll have to be the ones to get to the bottom of this." Ming Shu stood up from his seat and glanced at the pictures in the autopsy report. Subtly, his right hand tensed around the file.
"Where do we begin?" Xing Mu asked.
"It's simple, but it'll be hard work for our field work team," Ming Shu said. "This victim was just like Luo Xiangfu. A street photography enthusiast. He may have been solitary and anti-social, but in this city's circle of street photographers, there must be someone who's seen him around. If we ask the hobbyists at every popular street photography destination in the city, there will definitely be someone who knows something about a photographer that hasn't made an appearance in over three months."
Two days later, seventy-three-year-old Hui Chengxian was invited to pay a visit to the Serious Crimes Division.
He just so happened to be the polite and courteous gentleman Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an had seen at Huayun Center.
"This is a photograph of Old Chen. I took it for him earlier this year." Hui Chengxian took out a printed photo, passing it over with a heavy, remorseful sigh. "Old Chen used to love taking photographs at Huayun Center more than anything. Sometimes when we ran into each other, we would chat for a while. Sometimes we would just focus on taking our own pictures, without talking. He had a good eye. Not only did he know how to take good pictures, he also knew how to dress himself pretty well."
Ming Shu picked up the photograph.
The old man in the photo had a wild, unbridled, and almost fierce look in his eyes. He wore a dark blue tracksuit and didn't seem to exude a sense of senility at all.
"I haven't seen Old Chen at Huayun Center in a long time, but I never imagined something could have happened to him. I thought he moved out of the country to be with his daughter." Hui Chengxian shook his head. "I should have asked around about him."
Hui Chengxian didn't know Old Chen's full name or where he lived. He only remembered that Old Chen had once said he lived near the old amusement park.
A photograph. A surname. A rough idea of where the victim had lived. These were all critical details. Before long, the victim was identified.
The victim was Chen Quanhan. He'd lived by himself on Puouxin Street in Xi District. His daughter, Chen Mi, wasn't out of the country at all. She lived in Dongye City with her husband; the two of them owned and operated a restaurant.
Upon hearing of her father's death, Chen Mi seemed entirely unaffected. "I haven't had anything to do with him in a long time," she said. "Please don't involve me in his troubles."
Yi Fei furrowed his brows. "He was your father. We'll have to ask you to please cooperate with our investigation."
"I don't have a father like that. We cut all ties between us over ten years ago. Who he knows, who he offended… I don't know anything about that sort of thing," Chen Mi said. "We may be related by blood, but in truth we're essentially strangers. I apologize, but there's nothing I can do to help."
"Your father mentioned something about you to his fellow street photographers," Ming Shu said all of a sudden. "He said you were out of the country."
Hearing that, a look of intense disgust filled Chen Mi's eyes. "That's the way he is. He lies and exaggerates. He had delusions of me getting into a prestigious foreign school, then working some prestigious foreign job. But I'm just an ordinary person. I'm as ordinary as you can get. I couldn't possibly make his dreams come true. Look here…"
Chen Mi stood up, turned around, and lifted up her t-shirt.
On her back was a web of dark, crisscrossing scars.
"All of these were formed by Chen Quanhan. He cut me, he whipped me. Even after all this time, my scars won't fade." Chen Mi let out a bitter laugh. "My mother passed away when I was very young. Every time I took a test and failed to meet Chen Quanhan's expectations, he hurt me. I went to the police, I went to the neighborhood association. But it was no use. No one helped me until I was saved by my husband."
Chen Mi paused for a moment. Then she continued, "When I was weak and small, you people didn't help me. Now that Chen Quanhan is dead, you want me to help you? All I can tell you is that I don't know anything, and that I don't care. If you want to find out how he died, then you can investigate the matter on your own."