Just as Ming Shu and Fang Yuanhang left Wanwan Cuisine, the small team assembled by the Bei District precinct also learned from their search that an older man who often sold skewers from a cart at the mouth of Third Lane on Shanxiang Street hadn't been seen since Chinese New Year's. No one knew exactly which characters the old man's name was written with, but they knew his name was something like Huang Mengquan.
Wang Hao wasn't happy about working with Ming Shu to begin with. Upon gaining that intel, he sent one of his team members to relay the information to Ming Shu. That was a good enough way of concluding his task, and after completing his job, of course it was only natural for Wang Hao to clear the field.
Although this case was related to Bei District, it had been in the hands of the Serious Crimes Division for a long time already. Any and all credit from cracking this case would go to the Serious Crimes Division. Wang Hao wouldn't benefit at all from providing more assistance than necessary; just doing the bare minimum would be enough to keep up appearances. If he dedicated more of his time to this case, it wouldn't be a show of responsibility—it would just be a show of stupidity.
But the young team member Wang Hao sent to give Ming Shu a heads up about their findings was an enthusiastic young man who'd just been assigned to the Bei District precinct that year—Xiang Tao. Wang Hao had only told him to 'give Ming Shu a heads up', but Xiang Tao either didn't understand Wang Hao's implication or he didn't approve of his higher-up's way of conducting himself.
Whatever the reason, Xiang Tao went out of his way to provide a comprehensive report of their findings. He even brought one of the civilians with pertinent information directly to Ming Shu.
"Huang Mengquan used to sell his skewers right outside my home. He's been doing it for years. He used to sell cotton candy, sesame candy, and all sorts of snacks before too. All sorts of things that kids like," said Liu He'an. She was a woman in her sixties who lived on Third Lane, and she had a way of babbling and ranting that was typical of women in her age range and class.
"His skewers weren't very good, he always fried them in bad oil," Liu He'an continued. "His stinking meat, his stinking vegetable dishes… I caught a whiff of an awful smell every time I passed his cart. His ingredients were all practically rancid. He just used peppers and spices to cover up the bad taste. It was honestly gross!
"I never saw many people buying his skewers. I'd already started saying last year, there was no way he would make much money with that business. Sooner or later, he would definitely have to pack up shop and leave."
"You believe Huang Mengquan disappeared all of a sudden because his business was unsuccessful?" Ming Shu asked.
"Well, what else could it be?" Liu He'an questioned gruffly. "I haven't seen him since Chinese New Year's of this year. He definitely crept off with his tail between his legs. He didn't seem like a local, either. I don't know what rural farm he came from, but he had such a thick accent. I was seriously thanking the heavens after he left.
"Our little lane isn't on the main street, so the city doesn't care about us. They don't bother cleaning up the riffraff here. My grandkids are still growing up. If they ran out and sneakily bought some of that junk from Huang Mengquan's cart, what would I do then? Huh?"
"Are you positive Huang Mengquan never appeared again, after Chinese New Year's?" Ming Shu asked.
Liu He'an had been alive for over half a century, but she'd never been questioned by the police before. She spent ages deep in thought, turning her eyes up to the sky in focus. After confirming with her memories, she said, "I'm sure. Back then, I even asked my partner, 'Why hasn't that Huang's Skewers cart been around?' My partner said the new year's holidays weren't even over yet and told me not to worry. But New Year's is long gone now, and Huang Mengquan still hasn't reappeared."
"Huang Mengquan owned and operated a mobile food stall. He was open year-round on Shanxiang Street. That makes our investigation much easier," Ming Shu said. "First, we now know he most likely lived near Shanxiang Street. Second, city officials don't track all back alley vendors, but the probability is very high that Huang Mengquan has at least appeared on their radar before."
Xiang Tao eagerly listened to Ming Shu's analysis. "I'll go to the local police post to ask where Huang Mengquan lived!"
Ming Shu flashed him a smile. "Thanks for your hard work."
"Liu He'an and the boss's wife at Wanwan Cuisine both noticed that Huang Mengquan hadn't been around for a long time, but neither of them thought it was anything out of the ordinary," Fang Yuanhang mused. "They either thought he couldn't make a living here and took his business somewhere else, or they thought he went back to his hometown. None of them thought he could have been killed."
"Where would ordinary people, living their lives in peace, get such gruesome ideas?" Ming Shu asked. After a short pause, he continued, "However…"
Fang Yuanhang whipped his head around. "Chief, what is it? 'However' what?"
"Did you notice anything about what Liu He'an said to us?" Ming Shu asked.
"Hm?" Fang Yuanhang furrowed his brow and thought about it for a while. "Liu He'an hated Huang Mengquan."
"That's right." Ming Shu started to walk as he spoke. "Peddlers that operate on the main street will be ushered away by city officials, but ones who work in back alleys are left alone. Liu He'an lives on Third Lane, a little alleyway without a property management agency looking after it, so no one was there to stop Huang Mengquan from selling his spicy skewers.
"The garbage from his business must have produced a strong smell, as well as sanitation problems. His business was bound to affect the quality of life for nearby residents. If Liu He'an wanted to, she could have had a major spat with Huang Mengquan. If she wanted to stay civil, she could only endure the effects of his business. The longer she endured it, the deeper her hate grew."
"But what does that tell us?" Fang Yuanhang asked, following in Ming Shu's wake.
Ming Shu turned halfway and glanced at him. "It tells us that some people who hated Huang Mengquan, like Liu He'an, may have wanted him to die."
Fang Yuanhang's eyes flew wide open. "Chief, are you serious?"
"It's a possibility," Ming Shu said. "We've been canvassing Shanxiang Street and Suzheng Street, and who have we found missing since Chinese New Year's? So far, we only know of Huang Mengquan, but that doesn't actually prove that Huang Mengquan was the body double used by the Professor. The way Huang Mengquan made his living tended to attract loathing, which is something that could interfere in our investigation. Hang-ge, don't jump to any conclusions."
Fang Yuanhang had still been in the process of digesting the lesson he'd just been taught when that sudden call of 'Hang-ge' made him feel like he was actually being mocked or teased. He thought, First it's Old Fang, now it's Hang-ge! If anyone didn't know, they would think I was your chief, and you were my henchman!
The search of Shanxiang Street and Suzheng Street was still in process. Upon learning that Xiang Tao had eagerly become Ming Shu's 'pawn', Wang Hao flew into a rage. But Xiang Tao didn't care about that. He doggedly continued to chase down information on Huang Mengquan.
"This person isn't actually called Huang Mengquan," said an officer at the local police post. "It's these three characters—Huang Mouquan. He lives on Ninth Lane, off Shanxiang Street."
Shanxiang Street had a total of nine branching back alleys. The larger the number, the more remote the location. The houses on the higher-numbered alleys were also older and more decrepit. Wanwan Cuisine operated on the main street, which was the best place to do business in that area. There were some proper shops and stalls on First Lane too, which was directly connected to Shanxiang Street. But all the other alleyways were filled only with roving peddlers.
According to the information provided by the local police post, Huang Mouquan was from Hulu Village, a small settlement within the jurisdiction of Dongye City. He was fifty-three years old that year, and he'd come to Dongye City proper a few years ago. Ever since, he'd been living in Unit 4-1 of Building 4 on Ninth Lane.
His long-deceased daughter had bought that residence from an old man many years ago.
"No family, solitary lifestyle, fifty-three years old. Hasn't appeared with his food cart in a long time, but no one thought his absence was strange. Every detail is consistent with our profile of the body double," Fang Yuanhang said as they rushed towards Huang Mouquan's home. "There's one more thing. He worked as a peddler, which meant he always had to show his face in public. That would make him an easier target, right?"
Ming Shu didn't dare confirm anything too soon, but with the information they had at that moment, the probability of Huang Mouquan being the body double was extremely high.
Many of the residences on Ninth Lane were abandoned. Upon seeing two new people arrive at the mouth of the alleyway, a few stray dogs cautiously slunk away with their tails between their legs.
The trace evidence analysis team had already arrived. While Ming Shu waited for Xiao Man to thoroughly examine Huang Mouquan's unit, he knocked on the neighbors' doors.
Building 4 had a total of six units. Four of those units had doors blanketed by thick layers of dust. Only 4-5 and 4-6 looked relatively clean and were locked; these two were probably occupied.
The door to 4-5 slid open a crack. A chain lock dangled between the gap.
Ming Shu instantly noticed that, compared to the much older door, the lock was extremely new.
An old, white-haired woman gazed out from within. Her eyes were already cloudy with age.
Fang Yuanhang also rushed over at the sound of the opening door. As soon as he saw an old lady in 4-5, he hurriedly showed her his ID through the crack in the door. "Hello, ma'am. We're the police."
The old woman made a gurgling sound at the back of her throat. Her wrinkles creased, and then—without saying a single word—she slammed the door shut with a bang.
"This…" Fang Yuanhang was bewildered. "Why'd she close the door? Doesn't this make us seem like the bad guys? Does this badge of mine look fake?"
"It's fine. Seniors are very often cautious, and that's a good thing," Ming Shu said. He turned to 4-6 and knocked for a while, but there was no response from within. It seemed no one was home.
Before long, Xiao Man emerged from 4-1. "Captain Ming, you can come in now."
Unit 4-1 was no more than twenty square meters in size. The furniture was old, the windows were shut, and a thick layer of dust had accumulated on the tables and floor.
While slipping some covers over his shoes, Ming Shu asked, "Did you find anything?"
"Fingerprints and shoeprints. The fingerprints have been damaged. It'll be very difficult to fully reconstruct them. But the shoeprints have been well-preserved. We'll be able to use them as evidence," Xiao Man said, looking towards Ming Shu. "But there's only one set of shoeprints."
"One set?" Ming Shu put on a pair of gloves as well. "That means no one else has been here. The shoeprints and fingerprints both belong to Huang Mouquan…"
"That's most likely the case," Xiao Man confirmed.
Ming Shu walked over to the utilities box. "We'll still have to take them back and model them."
"Understood," Xiao Man said. "I already checked the utilities box. The power is off, and the water and gas valves are also off."
Ming Shu nodded, then headed over to the refrigerator.
The refrigerator door was open, and the food inside had rotted a long time ago. The rancid stench had already faded.
There were three compartments in the refrigerator, filled with a total of eight bowls and plates that contained cooked food, as well as four plastic bags containing ingredients that had yet to be cooked.
"We've taken samples from each dish. We'll run our tests when we get back," Xiao Man said.
Ming Shu swept his gaze around the kitchen, then heard Fang Yuanhang call out from the bedroom—
"Huang Mouquan's closet is totally packed."
The bedroom was extremely narrow. With one bed and a huge closet inside, there was little room for anything else.
A pungent smell of old wood and lacquer wafted out from the closet. A big portion of it was stuffed full of cotton padding, while the smaller half was filled with Huang Mouquan's clothes.
Everything was there, from outerwear to underwear. Although it wasn't a huge wardrobe, it was enough to be everything a fifty-something street peddler like Huang Mouquan needed.
"There are ingredients in the refrigerator that he'd yet to cook, as well as prepared dishes. He didn't take any clothes with him, but the man himself has been gone for more than six months," Ming Shu mused. "He couldn't possibly have gone far of his own volition. The only explanation would be that he went somewhere without knowing he wouldn't be able to come back anytime soon. But the gas, water, and power…"
"When you guys go out, are you in the habit of shutting off your gas, water, and electricity valves?" Xiao Man asked.
Fang Yuanhang shook his head. "I don't even shut off my wi-fi."
"Many older folks will turn off the gas and electricity before going out. They think it's safer that way," Ming Shu said. He thought back to the water valve again. "But the water valve… besides those who are planning on leaving home for months or years, I feel it'd be very rare for anyone to go out of their way to turn off the water valve. It'd be enough just to make sure all the faucets were shut tight before going out."
"This is so weird!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "Huang Mouquan turned off the water valve, but he didn't take care of the food he had in his fridge, and he didn't take any of his clothes with him."
"That's where we have a contradiction. Huang Mouquan shut off the water valve, which should indicate he was planning on going away for a long time. But he didn't get rid of the food in the refrigerator, which indicates he wasn't planning on going away for a long time." Ming Shu hugged his arms and lowered his gaze, falling deep into thought for a while. "Oh, that's right. Were there any signs of a struggle in here?"
"None that I could see," Xiao Man said. "But there is something I took note of."
"What is it?"
"I feel like this apartment is way too clean. Over-the-top clean."
"It just feels like it's been deliberately swept clean."
"Doesn't everyone clean before Chinese New Year's?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"No." Xiao Man shook his head. "I don't mean that sort of 'clean'. Even if Huang Mouquan had swept up before Chinese New Year's, half a year has passed."
"I understand what you're trying to say," Ming Shu said. "You feel like there should be traces that aren't here."
"Right. Criminals are terrified of leaving traces behind after committing a crime. They'll often clean up a crime scene before they go," Xiao Man said. "I've been to so many crime scenes, and the sense of 'cleanliness' here gives me the same feeling as that of a crime scene."
"Wait a sec!" Fang Yuanhang clapped his hands together once. "If we go with that and assume this place has been purposefully cleaned, then wouldn't that make this the primary scene of the crime? Huang Mouquan died here. Then his body was taken away. So the food in the fridge was left there, his clothes stayed behind, but the utility valves were all turned off.
"The killer had no reason to help Huang Mouquan clear out the fridge. Even if the food in there rotted, with the door to the fridge closed, the stench wouldn't be noticeable enough to make anyone come knocking.
"But the killer would've had to shut off the gas, power, and water valves. Old buildings like this are especially prone to power and water problems. If a pipe burst and flooded the place, then someone definitely would have come to investigate. If they couldn't get in, they may have even called the police!"
"That does explain away our contradiction," Ming Shu said. He turned back to Xiao Man and asked, "Have you already conducted a luminol test?"
"Yes, but we didn't find any traces of blood." Xiao Man started packing up his tools. "I have to get back and model the shoeprint first."
"If this really is the primary scene of the crime, then how did the killer get Huang Mouquan out of here?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "No traces of blood found by the luminol test means the killer probably didn't chop up the body here… ah, I just thought of something else. This also means Huang Mouquan died in a way where he didn't bleed, right? At least, a way in which he didn't bleed a lot."
Ming Shu stopped by the only table in the living area and swept a gloved hand over the edge. "If the killer didn't break up the body, he would've taken an adult male out of this apartment. He could have been seen."
"Then the most important thing now is to find witnesses!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed excitedly. "I'll get on it, right now!"
Later that evening, the reconstruction of the shoeprint didn't yield many new discoveries. But Xiao Man compared the model to the shoes Huang Mouquan had left at home, and he was able to determine that it was impossible for that shoeprint to have been left by Huang Mouquan himself.
That all but proved that Xiao Man's earlier feeling had been quite close to the truth. Huang Mouquan's home was very likely the primary scene of the crime. Someone killed him there, then 'cleaned' the apartment to get rid of all traces of a second presence there. In that cleaning, Huang Mouquan's tracks and the killer's tracks were both swept away.
This was the only way to explain why Huang Mouquan's home showed no signs of his own tracks.
But that gave rise to another question. Since the scene had been so thoroughly cleaned, whose shoeprints and damaged fingerprints had been left behind?
Could it be that someone else came to the scene of the crime after Huang Mouquan's death?
What could have been the purpose of that person's visit?
It was already the middle of the night, and the early autumn breeze was a little cold. Ming Shu gazed at the cheap but lively shops on Shanxiang Street with an expressionless look on his face. He looked like he was spacing out, but in truth his brain was racing through a thousand different clues.
Huang Mouquan had become entangled in a case. There was no doubt about that.
As for whether or not he had gotten mixed up in Wu Zhen's case and Sha Chun's case… there was still no way to be completely sure of that.
Conflicts between peddlers and other peddlers. Conflicts between peddlers and the residents of the places where they ran their business. Conflicts between peddlers and city officials. These sorts of disputes were extremely common, and such disputes often ended up in violent altercations and even fatalities. Such tragedies weren't uncommon in any city.
The possibility of Huang Mouquan being killed by someone who hated him was actually far greater than the possibility of him being chosen as a body double for the man in the shadows of Wu Zhen's case.
When it came to fatal cases involving street vendors, nine out of ten instances were crimes of passion. The murderer's sense of evading the law would usually be very weak. Some didn't have any sense of caution at all. Not only would they do a bad job of hiding their crime, they would even blab about it themselves.
As a result, these sorts of cases were usually resolved very swiftly.
The conditions of Huang Mouquan's home clearly weren't in line with what one would expect from the scene of a crime of passion. Someone had cleaned up that room, and Huang Mouquan had disappeared without a trace. If it weren't for the Serious Crimes Division's investigation of Sha Chun's death, no one besides the boss's wife at Wanwan Cuisine would have realized that Huang Mouquan was gone.
Half a year had passed, and in all that time, no rumors about the missing Huang Mouquan had spread around Shanxiang Street or Suzheng Street.
Taking that into consideration, it seemed likely that Huang Mouquan hadn't been killed in a fit of rage by someone he interacted with in his day to day life.
As for what other enemies he had, that remained to be seen.
If only they could connect Huang Mouquan to the Professor and to Wu Zhen…
A new idea suddenly popped into Ming Shu's mind, and he quickly called Xiao Man. "We brought Wu Zhen's personal belongings back to the office, right? Take a look at Wu Zhen's shoes and see if they match the shoeprint you took from Huang Mouquan's place. If Huang Mouquan is the body double we're looking for, then Wu Zhen must have had some sort of connection to him. Those shoeprints could have been left by Wu Zhen. If they weren't…"
Xiao Man got Ming Shu's meaning right away. "If they weren't left by Wu Zhen, then Director Xiao can decide whether we'll continue to investigate Huang Mouquan's case or whether it'll be reassigned to Task Force One or Two!"
The hours ticked by, and the night grew deeper. The old woman in Unit 4-5 was still unwilling to open her door, but the resident of 4-6 finally returned.
It was as Ming Shu had imagined. The resident of Unit 4-6 was a man in his twenties who worked as a waiter at a barbecue restaurant on Suzheng Street, which remained open until the middle of the night.
"Granny Xu and I are the only ones who live here now," Li Zhenfei said. He was very calm even when facing the police. He pointed towards 4-1 and continued, "Someone used to live there, an older uncle. But then I stopped seeing him around. He probably moved away."
"Moved away?" Ming Shu asked. "You saw someone move? When?"
"Oh, it wasn't like that." Li Zhenfei shook his head. "I didn't see anything, but no one's come in or out of that house in ages. So he must have moved, right? I did hear some noises from there over Chinese New Year's."
"What kind of noises?" Ming Shu asked.
"Like the sound of stuff being moved around," Li Zhenfei said. "Overtime pay around New Year's is really good, so I wasn't home a lot during that time. But on my day off, I heard some sounds. I was in bed, though, and I couldn't be bothered to get up and look. After that, I didn't see that old uncle again."
"Chief!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "The commotion that Li Zhenfei heard might not have been anyone moving furniture around. It could have been someone moving Huang Mouquan's…"
"Remember the chain lock on the door of 4-5, the old woman's apartment?" Ming Shu asked. "Compared to the door, that chain is obviously much newer. Li Zhenfei heard some movements, but he couldn't be bothered to get up and check what was going on. That's perfectly normal. He works the night shift, so he could have been very tired.
"But 4-5 is even closer to 4-1 than 4-6. If Li Zhenfei heard something, the old woman definitely could have heard it too. She would have at least heard it."
"You mean… the old lady didn't just hear it, but she saw something too?" Fang Yuanhang's eyes flashed with a sudden realization. "She saw something that terrified her, something that made her install a chain lock for security!"
At that moment, Xiao Man called back. His voice was trembling slightly from excitement.
The shoeprints left at Huang Mouquan's apartment were a perfect match for a pair of Wu Zhen's shoes—and the height and weight of the person who left the tracks, determined by the trace analysis team, were an exact match for Wu Zhen as well!