Ming Shu had rushed out to Lanchuan County. There, he found a familiar figure. A familiar face.
Xiao Yu'an had mentioned over the phone that special ops would deploy someone to assist in the search. But Ming Shu hadn't imagined it would be Zhao Fan.
During Ming Shu's time with special ops, the first person he'd gotten familiar with was Zhao Fan. This guy was the most 'special' creature in special ops. He could strike up a conversation with just about anyone he met. Even if you talked to him about east while he talked to you about west, he could still somehow carry a conversation with his bizarre twists and turns in logic.
The most 'special' thing about Zhao Fan was that he had been born exceptionally beautiful, but he wasn't a delicate glass vase either. If special ops had to name their most formidable sniper, they would inevitably single out Zhao Fan.
"I'm no good?" Zhao Fan grinned. "Hey, you still don't like me, do you?"
Ming Shu got in the car. "Just didn't expect to see you. Has special ops been exceptionally bored as of late? What is Captain Shen doing, sending you out here on a whim?"
Zhao Fan started the car and said, "I just so happened to be out here for work. I was going to hit the beach for a vacation after that job, originally. You know me, I'm a monkey from the mountains…"
Ming Shu said nothing.
"See, I'm a kid of the mountains!" Zhao Fan continued, undeterred. "It's rare for me to get the chance to see the ocean. But then I got called out here to assist in this search."
Ming Shu knew what it was like for the people in special ops. It wasn't guaranteed that they would get even one break per year. And if a mission came up while they were on vacation, the job always came first.
Ming Shu suddenly felt a little bit sorry for Zhao Fan.
"As soon as I heard it was you, I figured I would come right out," Zhao Fan said cheerily, with a big grin. "After we wrap up this case, let's hit the beach and have some seafood. I'm an awesome cook, but I haven't experimented with seafood yet. You come with me and lend me a hand, and I'll cook you lots to eat."
Ming Shu's head started to ache as soon as he heard that.
Zhao Fan had an astonishingly massive ego, and he was entitled to his pride in a few regards. He could fairly boast that he was the 'face' of special ops, and he could boast that he was quite popular. But he certainly couldn't boast of his cooking skills.
When Ming Shu first joined special ops for his year of training, he hadn't been familiar with the area. And so, when Zhao Fan offered to cook a meal for him, he was naturally grateful. It was only after eating with Zhao Fan that Ming Shu understood why everyone had snickered when Zhao Fan invited him over to eat.
Zhao Fan, this guy… really didn't have any talent for cooking.
Ming Shu really didn't want to go to the sea and eat seafood cooked by Zhao Fan, and he genuinely didn't have time either. Just finding Qin Guoxing wasn't going to completely wrap up all the loose threads in front of him. Huang Mouquan's body had yet to be found. And there was the matter of the case that the little girl, Xu Yin, had brought to them as well…
When Ming Shu thought about it, there just really wasn't any time for a break.
"Better yet, you should just come back to Dongye City with me. We have seafood there too," Ming Shu said. "Ming-ge knows where all the good eats are. I'll get you fattened up before sending you back to Captain Shen."
The two made small talk for a while before the conversation turned towards the case.
"We're going to Xinglu Village now," Zhao Fan said. As soon as he started talking about serious matters, his tone also became more serious. "There are people in Lanchuan County who have seen Hao Lu—which is to say, Qin Guoxing masquerading as Hao Lu. But he isn't in the main city of Lanchuan County right now."
"Qin Guoxing's hometown is Xinglu Village, below Lanchuan County," Ming Shu confirmed. He'd done his research in advance as well. "Since he came back to the county, he'll definitely have gone back to his hometown."
Qin Guoxing sat on a large rock in the middle of nowhere, resting his feet. Next to him, he had two big bags of joss paper, incense, and fruit offerings.
His parents were buried on the mountain ahead of him. Many years had passed, and he now wanted to visit them properly and pay his respects.
Ever since he returned to Xinglu Village, Qin Guoxing had been reminiscing about the past. He seemed to oscillate back and forth between the identities of Hao Lu and Qin Guoxing.
He didn't know where his life had suddenly gone so wrong. The wrong turns in his life had been like those 'diligent but mediocre' people. Each mistake was like a domino, pushing down the next one in the sequence. But there was no telling what had been the first domino or who had been the one to push it down.
Qin Guoxing chased his memories back as far as he could, until he reached the only conclusion that seemed to make sense—his birth had been the first domino. His birth itself had been the first mistake.
He lit a herbal cigarette and smoked as he gazed at the lush, verdant hills.
He wasn't all that accustomed to smoking this sort of thing. He'd only learned a few days ago from the older folk at the village. Even after smoking a few, he still coughed on the smoke, which seemed especially irritating on the lungs.
When Qin Guoxing was little, his father had always smoked those herbal cigarettes after a long day of hard work. Then his father would say to the child, "Guoxing, ah. Always work hard. Your old man doesn't know much, but he can tell you one thing—as long as you work hard, you will definitely reap the rewards."
Qin Guoxing lived his life by that motto. Ever since he was little, he was the most diligent child among all his peers. And the path of his life rewarded him for his efforts. He managed to get into Dongye City's University of Medicine, one of the most esteemed medical schools in the nation, after finishing his undergraduate studies at a no-name school in the countryside.
When he arrived at the University of Medicine in Dongye City, he worked harder than ever. But just as his ambition reached a peak, just as he prepared to advance to the next level in life, he received some tragic news from home—while working, his father had suffered a stroke. Although his life had been saved after he was rushed to the hospital, he had yet to wake.
At the time, Qin Guoxing had been working on an important research project with his mentor. If he left abruptly, he would be unable to work with that mentor again.
His mother cried to him on the phone and begged him to come home. Qin Guoxing struggled endlessly over the choice between his family and his future.
It was his mentor who told him that filial piety was more important than anything. Of course Qin Guoxing was supposed to go back.
However, in those words of advice, Qin Guoxing heard a menacing threat.
The professor who was mentoring him was famous on campus for being a pragmatist. All of Qin Guoxing's upperclassmen who'd taken time off for personal reasons had fallen out of good standing with that professor.
In order to protect his future and avoid such a fate, Qin Guoxing gave up on his father. He didn't go home even once to visit him, leaving his mother to care for the comatose man alone.
Two months later, Qin Guoxing's mother could no longer bear that heavy burden. She strangled Qin Guoxing's father to death in his hospital bed, then imbibed pesticides to kill herself. On her suicide note, she wrote—
We won't burden you any longer. You have to take good care of yourself now.
With the passing of his parents, and the complications of their deaths being a murder and a suicide, Qin Guoxing had no choice but to rush home. After dealing with the aftermath and complying with the police investigation, Qin Guoxing raced back to the University of Medicine as quickly as possible.
That event became the turning point in his life.
Before that, Qin Guoxing's hard work had always paid off. But afterwards, no matter how hard he worked, he couldn't advance in life. He remained trapped in a vicious cycle.
Lanchuan County was far from Dongye City, so Qin Guoxing concocted a lie on his way back—he decided to tell everyone that his father had died of illness.
But this was a lie that could only fool his peers and the undergraduate students he taught. He wouldn't be able to hide the truth from his superiors at the school.
The truth beneath this lie was that his father had fallen ill, and when his father most needed someone to care for him, Qin Guoxing had refused to go home. His mother had been trapped by the inaction of her unfilial son and the misfortune of her husband. Ultimately, she'd killed her husband and then killed herself.
If the School of Pharmacology had thoroughly investigated the matter, Qin Guoxing would no longer have been allowed to stay at that school. But his mentor had intervened on his behalf, ensuring Qin Guoxing a lasting place at the University of Medicine.
With that, Qin Guoxing thought everything would be settled. He thought his future would advance smoothly.
But after more than ten years passed, Qin Guoxing became nothing more than a joke at the School of Pharmacology.
No matter how hard he worked, he couldn't produce any results. He couldn't win any grants or important projects, and his superiors didn't care for him. He worked as a lecturer for more than ten years, and he remained a lecturer to the end. All his peers had earned promotions, or had left the university altogether to pursue lucrative business opportunities. Qin Guoxing was the only one who stagnated, left behind in an unfulfilling life.
It was his punishment.
His father had been the one to encourage him to work hard, but Qin Guoxing hadn't done anything to pay back his father for his years of encouragement and support. He had even driven his mother to an early grave as well, through his neglect.
So this must have been retribution. His father was taking away all the success that Qin Guoxing had found earlier in life.
When did Qin Guoxing's mental state begin to distort?
He wasn't sure about that himself.
The more he was left out, the farther behind the pack he fell, the more he wanted to succeed. He had his heart set on conducting an experiment that would stun the world, one that would impress all the superiors who looked down on him, all his peers who'd advanced faster than him, and all his students who gave him negative reviews in class!
He would make them all notice him!
He holed up in his lab and started researching psychotropic drugs. Once he got some results, he would no longer be a nameless lecturer!
But in order to develop a revolutionary new drug, he would need test subjects. All his experiments were conducted in secret. So how would he be able to find willing test subjects?
Using the drug on himself…
That was something he had indeed considered.
But he'd studied medicine. He taught medicine. And his research surrounded medicine. He knew all about the dangers of untested drugs.
He wasn't willing to put himself at risk.
But if it was someone else…
He thought of Hao Lu, a person he'd met not long ago who was close to him in age.
Hao Lu was a few months younger than him, and his hometown was out in the countryside. He'd come to Dongye City less than six months ago and started working as a janitor at a local teahouse.
Qin Guoxing had no friends at the university, and his parents were long dead. When he had nothing to do, his only hobby was going to the local teahouse to listen to opera. The first time he saw Hao Lu there, he was actually quite surprised.
Hao Lu's facial features were all astonishingly like his own. From behind, he looked almost identical to Qin Guoxing.
Hao Lu was also surprised by their similarities. He took the initiative to approach Qin Guoxing and ask where he was from.
Lanchuan County and Hulu Village were far away from each other. The two of them couldn't have been related by blood.
Since they bore such a strong resemblance to each other without being related by blood, they felt an instant connection. Hao Lu was fascinated by this twist of fate, and he volunteered a lot of information about his own background and family life to Qin Guoxing in conversation.
Qin Guoxing soon learned that both of Hao Lu's parents had died of cancer earlier that year, and Hao Lu himself had been diagnosed with cancer in his hometown.
"I won't be living long anyway, so I figured I would see the big city and world outside my village," Hao Lu said. He'd already made peace with his fate, and he hadn't sought out any further medical treatment after coming to Dongye City. He'd simply found a job, hoping to enjoy what remained of the rest of his life in the glittering city.
Qin Guoxing instantly guessed that there were two reasons for Hao Lu's reluctance to visit another hospital. One was that Hao Lu had witnessed his parents die of cancer after suffering a great deal of pain while hospitalized. Two was that he simply didn't have any money.
Originally, Qin Guoxing felt sorry for this man who struck him as a kindred spirit. But seeing as his research was at a critical juncture, with his need for a test subject more pressing than ever, a diabolical plan soon formed in Qin Guoxing's mind.
Hao Lu, who suffered from lung cancer, was the most suitable subject!
Hao Lu obviously didn't know anything about medicine. A man without much money, who thought he was at the end of his days, wouldn't care all that much about what medicine he was taking—as long as he thought that medicine would save his life.
And so, Qin Guoxing told Hao Lu that he was developing a new drug to treat lung cancer. That drug wasn't on the market yet, but he could personally produce a batch for Hao Lu.
"But I don't have much money," Hao Lu said helplessly.
"There's no need for payment," Qin Guoxing said. "As long as you assist me in the research and development of this drug, I'll provide the treatment to you for free!"
Hao Lu had extremely deep memories of the pain his parents had gone through before their deaths. He had already given up on a long life and decided to end his own suffering if the pain grew too intense.
When Qin Guoxing tried to persuade him more insistently, Hao Lu suddenly laughed and said, "Qin-ge, you're missing a test subject for your medicine, aren't you?"
Qin Guoxing instantly jumped with surprise. It was only then that he realized Hao Lu must have taken care of his parents while they were hospitalized. Perhaps he had learned something about medicine, as well as drug testing, there.
"After my father passed, I had no other relatives left. I originally thought I may as well die too," Hao Lu said. "I never imagined I would come to Dongye City and meet you. We look so similar that I feel like I can treat you as my real brother. I don't have long left in my life anyway, so whatever medicine you have, you can use it on me. I'll just… just consider this helping out my own family."
Qin Guoxing was deeply moved by those words. He instantly decided to take Hao Lu to a hospital affiliated with the University of Medicine for a full medical exam.
But Qin Guoxing's conscience only woke for a moment. Once that moment passed, the sinister plans in his heart filled up his mind once more.
He did take Hao Lu to get a medical exam, but not to a proper hospital. He took Hao Lu to an illegal clinic.
The doctor there reported that Hao Lu wasn't suffering from lung cancer at all. His previous diagnosis must have been a mistake.
Qin Guoxing should have told Hao Lu the good news, but when he faced Hao Lu after hearing this from the doctor, he only feigned a sorrowful sigh.
Hao Lu just so happened to have caught a severe cold at the time. His cough was especially bad, causing his lungs to ache.
Qin Guoxing acted like he was extremely worried and quickly drove Hao Lu home. After that, he solemnly placed his experimental drug before Hao Lu.
After taking several doses of the medicine, Hao Lu exhibited extreme reactions. Abscesses appeared on his face and limbs. He began to show a negative psychological response as well. Hao Lu had been a kind and warm person, but he suddenly became crazed and temperamental.
It was like the twisted soul of the one conducting the experiment had been transferred to Hao Lu through the drug.
Qin Guoxing felt fear and excitement at the same time.
The drug he was so proud of developing was currently killing a man.
If Qin Guoxing proceeded with these experiments, Hao Lu would surely die.
But if he stopped his experiments now, and if his actions were later revealed, Qin Guoxing himself would surely be sent to prison.
At that time, it was actually Hao Lu who ventured a solution.
"Qin-ge, I really envy you," Hao Lu said. "We look so similar, just like brothers. But you're a college professor, while I've been a farmer my whole life. I even ended up with a cancer that's killing me. Life simply isn't fair."
Qin Guoxing stared at the helpless Hao Lu, momentarily speechless.
"I want to know what it's like to be a professor at a university too," Hao Lu continued with a laugh. The abscesses on his face made that expression look especially gruesome. "How about this? I'm going to die anyway. Why don't you let me die as you? Wouldn't that be good?"
Qin Guoxing didn't understand right away. "What… what do you mean?"
"We look so similar," Hao Lu repeated. "And I have all these abscesses on my face now. No one would be willing to look at me for long. From today on… let me be Qin Guoxing, and you can be Hao Lu. I'll go to your work to experience what the life of a professor is like, and you can let me die peacefully in your lab."
"What nonsense are you talking about?" Qin Guoxing asked.
"Cancer is too painful. My parents both died of cancer, of pain. You know all about medicine, don't you? You must know about poison, too. I'll wear your clothes in your lab and take poison to kill myself. Everyone will think I'm you."
"You're crazy!" Qin Guoxing exclaimed. For the first time, he felt intimidated by Hao Lu. "We only look alike. Do you think everyone else is blind?"
"Didn't I say? I'll start acting like you, starting from today. I'll visit the school from time to time to let your students and colleagues get used to my face," Hao Lu said. "Although I'm not very well-educated, I've looked into this before. I've read that drugs can cause a change in a person's appearance."
Qin Guoxing interrupted, "You're thinking…"
Hao Lu suddenly demanded, "Whose fault is all this? Qin Guoxing, you were the one who wanted to experiment on me. And you don't intend to pay any price for it?"
"You have no choice!"
After that confrontation, Hao Lu firmly stated, "You can choose not to go along with my plan, but then I'll tell everyone what you've done!"
Qin Guoxing had started to shake.
"Isn't this a good thing?" Hao Lu continued. "I'll die in your name, and I won't have to be tortured by cancer any longer. You'll live on in my name, and you won't have to go to jail or suffer any consequences for your experiments. Can you think of any better way to proceed from here?"
In truth, Qin Guoxing really couldn't think of a better solution.
He'd never imagined his own medicine would turn Hao Lu into such a twisted soul.
"But…" Qin Guoxing took a moment to calm himself down. "But no matter how similar we look, it's useless. As soon as they test your DNA, the police will know who you are."
"DNA?" Hao Lu had never heard of such a thing before. "What is that?"
Qin Guoxing was silent for a moment, then finally shook his head. "Forget it. I'll figure something out."
As the plan was set into motion, Qin Guoxing began to disguise himself by applying costume makeup to imitate the presence of abscesses on his own face. He was the one to teach his classes, but the one who appeared on campus at the cafeterias and libraries was Hao Lu.
Rumors that the lecturer Qin Guoxing was conducting illegal experiments on himself began to spread, which explained the sudden change in his appearance and the abscesses on his face.
Qin Guoxing was even summoned to speak to the vice dean of the university because of those rumors.
Hao Lu's temperament grew worse and worse. After getting enough of the experience of being a university professor, he began to desperately wish for death.
All his ills and pains had been brought on by the experimental drug, but Hao Lu mistook them for symptoms of cancer.
"Give me the drugs!" Hao Lu roared monstrously. "Let me die!"
Qin Guoxing procured sodium cyanide for him and cleaned out his own living quarters. On the bed, balcony, and toilet, he scattered many of Hao Lu's hairs. He placed Hao Lu's toothbrush in the cup by the bathroom sink, and he also threw some toilet paper stained with Hao Lu's bodily fluids into the wastebasket…
After all the preparations were complete, he gave the sodium cyanide to Hao Lu.
The very same day, Hao Lu was found dead in Qin Guoxing's laboratory. And on that day, Qin Guoxing took Hao Lu's identification card and became Hao Lu.
Although Xinglu Village was officially a part of Lanchuan County, it was the farthest village from the heart of the county. The road was in a state of disrepair, and the whole trip out there was rough and bumpy.
Worse yet, Zhao Fan had been a member of the narcotics team out on the southwestern border before he joined special ops. He was an extremely reckless driver. Ming Shu repeatedly offered to take the wheel and let Zhao Fan rest, but Zhao Fan immediately refused every time.
"I got it, I got it," Zhao Fan said. "You rest, you rest!"
Ming Shu was jostled about so fiercely during that ride that he was just about ready to puke his guts out. How could he possibly rest?
The permanent population of Xinglu Village was extremely small. There were no hotels or inns there, and the Qin family's former home had been demolished more than ten years ago. When Qin Guoxing returned, finding a place to stay was sure to be his biggest challenge.
Outsiders rarely visited the village, and all the villagers knew one another. When Ming Shu asked around, he learned very quickly that the Wang family, to the west of the village, had recently taken in a stranger as a boarder.
Old Man Wang didn't hide anything from the police when questioned. He pointed to a room in his house and said, "That person is renting a room here, this one. But he isn't here right now. I don't know where he wandered off to."
The Serious Crimes Division was still in the process of trying to find Huang Mouquan's body.
Xiao Yu'an arrived at Ninth Lane once more and knocked on the door to Unit 4-5 in Building 4.