On September 3rd and September 4th, the security cameras in the vicinity of Jiulin Psychology captured Hao Lu numerous times. But after September 4th, Hao Lu never appeared on those security cameras again.
On the afternoon of the 4th, Hao Lu withdrew fifty thousand yuan from a bank in Nan District. On the same day, he shut off his cell phone and removed the chip from within.
"Hao Lu didn't use his ID to buy any train or plane tickets. If he left Dongye City, he could only have left by bus or car," Zhou Yuan said. "We're still going through the security footage from the freeway cameras at all the city exits, as well as the footage from bus stations, but I think the chances of Hao Lu leaving by bus are low. These days, you need your ID to buy bus tickets too, unless you buy them from scalpers at the station."
"Are we able to obtain Hao Lu's medical records from the past nine years?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Huh?" Zhou Yuan froze for a moment. "Medical records? I should be able to get them, but… I haven't looked in that direction yet."
"No problem." Xiao Yu'an gestured for Zhou Yuan to relax. "Tracking the suspect's movements is still the primary focus of the technical investigation team. We'll dispatch a few officers to check on Hao Lu's medical history."
The entire Serious Crimes Division flew into action.
Hao Lu had practically disappeared without a trace. There was still no sign of him. His cell phone had been disabled, and his bank cards hadn't been used. Just like Chi Xiaomin, he'd completely vanished.
But details about Hao Lu's life surfaced one by one. The truth seemed incredibly baffling, but the facts became clearer and clearer, bit by bit—
Hao Lu had only graduated from middle school, which was an academic background shared by many security guards. But Hao Lu was different from other security guards in one way. He loved going to the clinic's internal library to borrow books on psychology, and he sometimes even discussed the subject with the doctors that worked there.
Furthermore, whenever the security guards arranged social gatherings with one another after work, Hao Lu never attended.
The Jiulin Psychology Clinic offered full benefits to its employees. Every year, they offered its staff a comprehensive physical examination. But Hao Lu had never undergone one of those examinations. He wasn't the only security guard who turned down the complimentary exams, though. As people got older, they often developed a fear of medical exams, worrying they would be diagnosed with some major issue, so there were other guards who also refused the exams.
But the strange thing was, based on Zhou Yuan's investigation, Hao Lu didn't have any records at any hospital in Dongye City.
Had Hao Lu never been sick?
Or if he'd gotten sick, had he not gone to the hospital?
As soon as Ming Shu rushed out to Hulu Village, he sought assistance from the local police. Hulu Village was a small village with simple folk. No violent crimes had occurred there in decades, and the residents weren't very accustomed to seeing detectives from Dongye City.
Most of the villagers had no impression of Hao Lu at all. The ones who did know of him remembered him as a very introverted person who rarely spoke to people. According to them, Hao Lu didn't have much of a presence at all.
But Ming Shu obtained a key piece of information—Hao Lu had left Hulu Village nine years ago.
And Qin Guoxing had committed suicide nine years ago.
"The Hao family moved here from Qiucheng Village," said Xu Mao, one of the local police assisting in the investigation. "They weren't a prosperous family to begin with, and the Hao parents died one after the other, in quick succession. When Hao Lu left our village, he was the only surviving member of his family."
"How did Hao Lu's parents pass?" Ming Shu asked.
"They got sick," Xu Mao said. "Cancer, in both of them. It was an onslaught of misery. The two of them were diagnosed within a few months of each other, and the Hao family didn't have much money for treatment. They both passed on before long."
"Which hospital did they pass in?"
"First Hospital in Hudi County. It's the nearest major hospital to us."
The medical records from First Hospital in Hudi County, from so many years ago, had yet to be digitally recorded. But perhaps it wasn't a common thing for a couple to die within such a short span of time. There were people at the hospital who still remembered the Hao couple.
Tang Jianjun, the doctor who had treated them, was already retired.
"This family was very unfortunate," Tang Jianjun said. His whole head of hair had already gone white, and his voice was raspy in a way that was typical in older people. "By the time the parents were diagnosed, the cancer was too advanced to treat them. When I examined the son, it was the same—cancer."
Ming Shu was stunned. His gaze instantly sharpened. "Hao Lu is also suffering from cancer?"
The old doctor had spent his whole life working in a hospital; although it was only a hospital in a small county, he had witnessed all facets of life and death in his time there. He knew all about the highs and lows of humanity.
So when he heard the shift in Ming Shu's tone, Tang Jianjun wasn't particularly surprised. "Back then, people didn't understand the concept of regular check-ups. Especially people from small counties and villages. There are even those who go their whole life without getting a check-up. I remember it was the wife who was diagnosed first, and the husband was also admitted to the hospital soon after that. Hao… what was it again?"
"Hao Lu!" Ming Shu instantly provided.
"That's right, Hao Lu." Tang Jianjun dug into his memories. "Hao Lu took care of the two of them by himself. He came out to the hospital every day, and he was busy taking care of their home as well. Hao Lu was also in his forties at the time. He tried to juggle everything, but he just couldn't manage it.
"I saw him every day, and while talking to him about his parents' condition, I learned he'd never visited a doctor in his life. So I recommended that he get a check-up as well. He didn't agree right away, saying he didn't have time. Later, after his parents passed, he found me again and said he wanted a medical exam after all. And during that exam, we found a shadow on his lungs."
"The diagnosis was lung cancer?" Ming Shu asked.
"His father had lung cancer as well," Tang Jianjun said.
Ming Shu drew a breath. If Hao Lu had been suffering from lung cancer for nine years, how could he have survived for all those years without seeking medical treatment in Dongye City?
Either the diagnosis from nine year ago was a mistake, or the real Hao Lu was already dead. The person who started working as a security guard at Jiulin Psychology later, under the name Hao Lu, wasn't the real Hao Lu at all—it was the Professor!
The Professor hadn't only claimed Huang Mouquan as a body double when faking his own death. Years earlier, he had already stolen the identity of the deceased Hao Lu!
Nine years ago, the case of Qin Guoxing's suicide had been investigated by the Dong District precinct. The forensic scientists and trace investigators who'd worked on that case had already transferred out of public security due to the hardships that came with the job. And the leader of the special investigation team in charge of that case, Luo Min, had been found guilty of torturing confessions out of suspects. He had since been demoted, and he now worked as a beat cop at a local police post.
Xiao Yu'an assigned Yi Fei to the case.
The more Yi Fei learned about the old case, the more he felt like the case had been closed too quickly back in the day. Many details had been left hazy, and DNA technology had just been introduced back then. Qin Guoxing's DNA hadn't previously existed in the police's DNA library. The forensics team had identified the body by matching its DNA to the DNA the trace investigators found in Qin Guoxing's home. Hair follicles, fluids found on used toilet paper, and other DNA traces that matched the deceased were found.
But if this case had been investigated now, by the Serious Crimes Division, that wouldn't have been anywhere near enough evidence to definitively conclude the body belonged to Qin Guoxing!
The strangest thing was that Qin Guoxing had withdrawn all the money from his bank account shortly before his death. Where was that money now? Had someone taken it away, or had Qin Guoxing spent it all before committing suicide?
That was such an important detail, but the Dong District officers hadn't looked into it at all!
"So Hao Lu was diagnosed with lung cancer nine years ago at First Hospital in Hudi County…" Xiao Yu'an mused. He was looking at Ming Shu, through a video call, while contemplating the new information with his cheek propped up by one hand. "The mortality rate of lung cancer is extremely high. If it wasn't a misdiagnosis, then there's a very good chance that the missing person we're looking for isn't Hao Lu, but someone else."
"You mentioned that Hao Lu and the lecturer who died nine years ago, Qin Guoxing, looked similar, right?" Ming Shu asked. "The fact that these things all happened nine years ago is too much of a coincidence, and now the more I look at the two of them, the more similar they look. Hao Lu and Qin Guoxing… they look like the same person!"
Xiao Yu'an picked up his phone and started making his way towards the forensics and trace investigation offices. "Hao Lu and Qin Guoxing resemble each other, and prior to Qin Guoxing's death, his appearance was reported to have changed due to drug abuse. At the same time, Hao Lu was suffering from lung cancer.
"Then one possibility is that Hao Lu was the one who killed himself with sodium cyanide, and Hao Lu was the one who experimented with drugs. Hao Lu died instead of Qin Guoxing, and Qin Guoxing lived on after adopting Hao Lu's identity. He lives even now, conducting his psychotic experiments."
Ming Shu was still in Hulu Village. Right behind him was the Hao family's old home.
His expression was unusually grave. He balled his right hand into a fist and thumped it against the furrow between his brows.
"There are too many problems. First, why was the real Hao Lu willing to die in Qin Guoxing's place? Second, why did the real Qin Guoxing fake his death?" Ming Shu asked. "Third, DNA testing proved it was Qin Guoxing who died, not someone else."
Xiao Yu'an paused and waited for a while. "Anything else?"
"The first and second questions have to do with Hao Lu's and Qin Guoxing's ways of thinking. They can't explain their thoughts to us, so let's set those questions aside for the time being. As for my third point, DNA forgery and basic mistakes in DNA testing wouldn't have been out of the question nine years ago," Ming Shu said grimly. "So what I'm most concerned about is my fourth point.
"Hao Lu had lung cancer, but there was no lung cancer recorded on Qin Guoxing's autopsy report. DNA testing was relatively new technology nine years ago, but there's no reason a forensic scientist wouldn't have found lung cancer during an autopsy. If lung cancer had been reported, then this case wouldn't have been thrown aside so carelessly."
"Do you believe the forensic scientists deliberately hid the fact that the deceased had lung cancer?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu was silent for more than ten seconds. "The one who conducted Qin Guoxing's autopsy was Cai Xun. A few years ago, before he left his post, I worked with him a few times. He's an old forensic investigator with lots of experience, but he pales in comparison to our Xing-laoshi when it comes to skill. However, he certainly isn't incompetent enough to miss lung cancer during an autopsy.
"As for his character, I can't confidently vouch for him. But based on my impression of him, Cai Xun would have had no reason to falsify an autopsy report."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Then the only explanation left to us is that the deceased did not have lung cancer."
"Then wouldn't that pose a contradiction to the fact that Hao Lu did have lung cancer?" Ming Shu asked.
"There's one possibility. An extremely unlikely one, but a possibility nonetheless—Hao Lu's parents passed away because of cancer, and the doctors at First Hospital in Hudi County misdiagnosed Hao Lu with lung cancer," Xiao Yu'an said. "Think about it. Does that logic check out?"
Ming Shu closed his eyes, then sluggishly opened them again. Long hours of running all about had left him exhausted enough to show his weariness on his face. "I'm a little mixed up right now. I need to go through everything again."
Xiao Yu'an flashed a small smile. "Don't worry. The clues are all there now, and a logical thread has unraveled. You take a break. I'll take care of things over here."
Some faint red veins were visible in Ming Shu's eyes. His attention seemed to drift as he stared blankly at Xiao Yu'an through the video call.
Xiao Yu'an studied him for a while, then calmly called out, "Captain Ming."
"Huh?" Ming Shu instantly snapped to attention. "Director Xiao…"
"If I assign you a task right now," Xiao Yu'an said, "would I be completely inhumane?"
Ming Shu scrubbed a hand over his eyes and laughed. "You don't have to protect me like I'm made of glass. I can handle it."
"If our current theory is correct," Xiao Yu'an continued, "then the person who died nine years ago was Hao Lu. That means my earlier theory—that Hao Lu might have gone back to his home, Hulu Village—was inaccurate."
"The 'Hao Lu' who's missing might have gone home, but his home wouldn't be Hulu Village!" Ming Shu exclaimed, suddenly catching on to what Xiao Yu'an was saying. His reaction was extremely quick. "He would go back to Lanchuan County, where Qin Guoxing was from! That's his real home!"
Lanchuan County was far to the southeast, and relatively far from Hulu Village. But Lanchuan County was even farther from Dongye City. Ming Shu would get there faster.
"I'll contact special ops right away," Xiao Yu'an said. "You get moving too."
Dongye City's University of Medicine had been renovated once, three years ago. Any remaining evidence from the scene nine years ago would be long gone, and Qin Guoxing's remains had already been cremated and entombed. It was extremely difficult to investigate this old case now. The only option was to start by talking to the police who'd been involved in the case when it was open.
Dong District, Huayuan Road. Local police post.
Just as Yi Fei approached, he heard some loud, boisterous cursing from inside.
Luo Min, forty-seven years old, had a big, round belly full of rage and hostility. He was in the middle of berating a young civilian officer who'd just been assigned to that police post.
The young officer was so terrified that he didn't dare utter a sound. His shoulders were slumped, and his head was bowed. Even in his police uniform, he couldn't withstand such an intense verbal assault.
"I'm… I'm sorry," the young officer stammered. His eyes were already red. "I'll be careful in the future."
"Careful? You'll be careful? What fucking good will that do!" Luo Min's cheeks spasmed with fury. His spittle flew everywhere as he raged, "You think I didn't promise to 'be careful' when I was your age? Do you think my bosses gave me a chance just because I made some empty promises?"
The young officer didn't know that Luo Min had been demoted to that police post after torturing confessions out of suspects. But everyone else at that police post already knew, and they'd long since grown a thick shield around their ears, rendering them immune to Luo Min's vitriol. None of them said a word as they watched Luo Min's obnoxious display.
In truth, this young officer hadn't done anything wrong. Luo Min's temper was simply bad, and he was particularly aggressive. He'd shamelessly tortured confessions out of people, and after being demoted to a local police post, he ran wild and unchecked. No one could stop him from taking his temper out on young officers, often for no reason at all.
After chewing the young officer out to his heart's content, Luo Min finally let the kid go. Luo Min was in a sour mood because he'd just invited his former superior out for a meal a while ago, hoping to worm his way back into the district precinct. He'd said all the right things, but the other party told him clearly—the higher-ups were cracking down on interrogation methods more severely than ever. There was absolutely zero chance of Luo Min ever making his way back to his old job.
"Fuck it all!" Luo Min snarled. As soon as the memory of that exchange came to mind, his anger surged again. Even after sending the young officer away, he kicked over a nearby stool.
Yi Fei watched as the young officer slunk out of the police post with his head hanging low. He lightly patted the young man on the shoulder.
The young officer had no idea that this was the vice captain of the Serious Crimes Division. Seeing that Yi Fei had such a warm and gentle expression, the young officer even kindly warned him, "Luo-ge is in a bad mood right now. If you have something to talk to him about, you may want to wait here for a little while."
Yi Fei sighed and walked over to Luo Min's office door. He knocked twice on the door that was already open and called out, "Captain Luo."
Luo Min opened his mouth, fully prepared to cuss out whoever had dared to disturb him. Upon seeing it was Yi Fei, he instantly swallowed back the foul language that had been about to spill past his lips.
Every single law enforcement officer in Dongye City knew of the importance of the Serious Crimes Division. All the cases that were too difficult for the district precincts were sent up to the Criminal Investigation Bureau, and the most difficult and complicated cases the Bureau took were all sent to the Serious Crimes Division.
The current vice captain of the Serious Crimes Division was quite young, and his position technically wasn't very high in the hierarchy of the police system in Dongye City. The captain and vice captain of the Dong District precinct both had more seniority than him, but Yi Fei's words still carried a certain weight.
And Yi Fei wasn't any ordinary vice captain. He had risen through the ranks with Ming Shu. He was Ming Shu's most trusted confidant.
Ming Shu had become the captain of the Serious Crimes Division at such a young age that it was obvious how much faith the higher-ups placed in him.
Luo Min wasn't like Wang Hao. Wang Hao didn't like Ming Shu, and he didn't make any secret of it. But Luo Min was the type to step on those who he perceived as lower than him, using them as footstools to make himself feel better, while cozying up to those he perceived as his superiors, hoping to gain their favor.
The instant he saw Yi Fei, Luo Min changed his expression on a dime. He immediately welcomed Yi Fei into his office and warmly greeted, "Captain Yi, to what do I owe the pleasure of this visit?"
Yi Fei wasn't an intimidating person by nature, and he'd grown used to playing a supporting role at Ming Shu's side. But he was extremely displeased with the display of bullying he'd witnessed upon his arrival at the police post. He skipped all the pleasantries and instantly cut to the chase, asking about the old Qin Guoxing case.
Luo Min had taken on countless cases during his time at the district precinct, and Qin Guoxing's case hadn't been unique in any way. The investigation had also been quite quick and not very memorable. Luo Min couldn't recall the details about it right away, and he even tried to laugh and joke with Yi Fei about it.
The typically gentle and warm Yi Fei finally couldn't hold in his anger. He sternly stated, "Captain Luo, the case you investigated nine years ago may have something to do with the case the Serious Crimes Division is investigating now. Please give it some serious thought!"
Luo Min gulped. A look of alarm filled his eyes. After a moment, he averted his gaze, as though trying to avoid taking on any responsibility or blame. "I was in charge of that case, there's no mistake about that. But there wasn't much that needed to be investigated. The situation was clear, the evidence was all there. If anything went wrong, that's on the forensics and trace investigation teams. It doesn't have anything to do with me."
"You also think something went wrong during the course of that investigation?" Yi Fei asked.
Luo Min's eyes widened. "I didn't mean anything by that, I was just saying!"
"Let me ask you this," Yi Fei started. "Nine years ago, you discovered Qin Guoxing withdrew all the money from his bank accounts before his death. Why didn't you follow up on that lead? Who did he give the money to? You didn't ask yourself that question?"
"He obviously spent it all himself," Luo Min spat, finally shedding his mask of courtesy. "He killed himself. Isn't it natural for a person to squander their life savings before a suicide? Forensics confirmed Qin Guoxing committed suicide. Why is it so important where his money went?"
Yi Fei suddenly didn't want to ask this person any more questions.
Many criminal detectives investigated every single point of suspicion in a murder case. They didn't let anything slip through the cracks. If they had been careless with Sha Chun's case, for example, Yu Xiaocheng might have been put away as a murderer.
But some detectives were simply unwilling to dig deeper when presented with hazy clues. All they cared about was closing the case. They didn't care about finding the truth. They simply wrapped up a case and blamed any mistakes on other members of their team.
At the end of the day, although both types of detectives were criminal investigators, they weren't the same type of people at all.
Yi Fei calmed himself. He didn't waste any more time talking to Luo Min. After collecting his thoughts and organizing the new information he'd unearthed, he reported back to Xiao Yu'an.
Southeast. Lanchuan County, Xinglu Village.
These days, nearly all young people aspired to spread their wings and fly to the outside world. The ones who were tough enough could leave the small towns in which they were born and fly out to a bigger city. The only people who remained in these rural villages were the elderly who had no way of leaving, as well as the children who had been left behind by their parents.
Hao Lu had been back for some time already. He spent every day gazing at the clear blue sky and golden fields. Sometimes, he thought to himself that he should have returned a long time ago.
This was his real home. He had been born here, and he'd grown up here. At the age of eighteen, he'd gotten into the medical school closest to his home. From that point on, he imagined he would soar to greater and greater heights. But in the end, he'd returned home before growing old.
The ID card in this person's shirt pocket identified him as Hao Lu. A face which resembled his was printed on the card.
He had been carrying this ID card for the past nine years, but he'd only used it a handful of times.
Because he knew.
He knew he wasn't the real Hao Lu.