After finishing one cigarette, Qin Guoxing glanced at the bags of joss paper and incense by his feet. He picked them up and continued making his way towards the mountain before him.
When the real Hao Lu first died, Qin Guoxing had thought it would be impossible for him to 'regress' into the life of an ordinary person after having lived as a university lecturer for so long. But after leaving the teaching podium, after getting away from his scornful colleagues and the students who loathed him, Qin Guoxing suddenly felt as though he had been born anew.
Maybe he should have given up on his pursuits a long time ago. Maybe he should have changed his way of living much sooner. He had just never been able to take that first step towards a new life.
Once he came to that realization, he felt infinitely more relieved. For the nine years following Hao Lu's death, Qin Guoxing carefully imitated Hao Lu, who'd only ever attended middle school, and began to walk in his shoes. He worked all sorts of menial jobs and completely shed his past persona of being a well-educated lecturer. He'd almost completely freed himself from his past, and along the way he'd even picked up the art of disguise from some performing artists.
Most of the time, he truly believed he was Hao Lu—the man from the countryside whose parents had died of cancer, the man who had been misdiagnosed with cancer himself.
Their identities had been swapped. The only person on earth who knew about the switch was already long dead, and it had been the perfect death—even the police believed it was Qin Guoxing who had committed suicide.
But Qin Guoxing still didn't often use Hao Lu's identification papers when he could avoid it. He didn't seek medical attention at any hospitals, and he never bought any plane or train tickets for travel.
Three years ago, he'd considered returning to Dongye City's University of Medicine to interview for a position as a groundskeeper or librarian. But he was afraid someone would recognize him as the deceased Lecturer Qin Guoxing, and he was even more afraid that no one would remember what Lecturer Qin Guoxing had looked like.
He had spent most of his life ostracized, and what he feared most was being completely forgotten.
In the end, he chose to take a job at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic, right across the street from the University of Medicine.
The clinic was technically a part of Guangye Hospital, but unlike most of the departments at the hospital, the Jiulin Psychology Clinic was relatively independent. Most of its doctors were hired from afar and brought in for high salaries.
Qin Guoxing got himself a job as a security guard at the clinic. It was a very easy job; all he needed to do, day in and day out, was patrol all the floors of the clinic.
Every week, Jiulin hosted a psychology workshop for the public. Anyone could sign up to attend and participate, and all the doctors at Jiulin took turns hosting the event. Qin Guoxing had had an interest in psychology even when he was still working as a lecturer at the University of Medicine. He'd read some books on psychology back then, and he never missed an opportunity to attend these workshops. He always sat in the row at the very back, wearing his security guard's uniform.
Out of all the doctors who spoke at these workshops, Qin Guoxing was most interested in Luo Yi.
Luo Yi was young and brilliant. He was full of poise and dignity. Twenty-some years ago, Qin Guoxing had imagined himself becoming this sort of man.
He admired Luo Yi, and he was jealous of him. The feelings he'd suppressed for many years all came surging back.
He was desperate to prove that, had he specialized in psychology rather than pharmacology, he wouldn't have been any less impressive than Luo Yi!
Jiulin had a small library that any of its employees could use. Over ninety percent of the books there were related to psychology. Whenever he got a chance, Qin Guoxing would borrow books on psychology and chat about the subject with the doctors at the clinic—though he never spoke to Luo Yi.
Although he currently lived under the identity of Hao Lu, who'd only ever graduated from middle school, Qin Guoxing was actually a well-educated intellectual with a doctorate degree. He quickly digested the information in the books he read, and he became even more enthusiastic about Luo Yi's workshops after gaining a more solid foundation of knowledge in the subject of psychology.
The events of many years ago sprung back to the forefront of his mind. He couldn't help but think of his own failed drug experiment.
Had his experiment truly failed completely?
If it had been a complete failure, then why had Hao Lu been driven mad by his drug?
If he'd continued that experiment…
Qin Guoxing practically trembled with excitement. He felt like he'd rediscovered a reason for living. He would continue his experiments on the human mind, but this time he wouldn't use drugs to alter his subjects' mental state. He would use psychology!
Geniuses were far and few between. Most people were simply ordinary people trying to get by in life, and there was no shame in being ordinary. Hard work was something to be proud of.
These were the things that Luo Yi said to a bunch of 'losers' at the last workshop he hosted.
Qin Guoxing had wanted to retort, at that point—it was disgraceful for ordinary people to work hard! An ungifted person, even one who diligently trudged through life, was nothing more than a living corpse!
At his rented apartment, Qin Guoxing lined up a row of mahjong tiles like dominoes. He lightly pushed the first one, and then he didn't have to lift a finger again—that first domino, that first 'diligent but mediocre' person, pushed down all the rest. One by one, all the others would die.
He formed a plan.
He only needed to 'push' one person. Then he could watch his grand game of death unfold.
Wu Zhen, a screenwriter who once attended one of those public workshops at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic, was his first target.
Many years after shedding his old life, Qin Guoxing dressed up as a 'professor' once more. Compared to the way he looked in the past, his hair was much whiter now, and his wrinkles had grown noticeably deeper.
Last fall, he approached Wu Zhen.
Wu Zhen was wrapped up in his screenplays at all times; he had no time to pay attention to news from the outside world, and thus he had no idea a lecturer named 'Qin Guoxing' had committed suicide at the University of Medicine's School of Pharmacology nine years ago.
When Qin Guoxing presented Wu Zhen with his old work documents, which he'd always kept around for some reason, Wu Zhen instantly believed his ruse. Wu Zhen was a middle-aged man who'd been driven to the edge of despair by the harsh realities of life, after all. Some old identification papers were more than enough to convince him that Qin Guoxing was a professor.
Qin Guoxing was older than Wu Zhen, and he'd successfully fooled Wu Zhen into believing he was a prestigious university professor. When he lamented about his own struggles in life, Wu Zhen sympathized wholeheartedly.
"People like us are the laughingstock of all others in this world," Qin Guoxing said to Wu Zhen, over and over again.
In December, Wu Zhen fell into a deep depression. When Qin Guoxing decided the moment was right, he finally told Wu Zhen about his 'suicide' plan.
Wu Zhen was shocked. "You want me to kill you?"
"My entire life has passed in mediocrity. I want my death, at the very least, to break that mold." Qin Guoxing gazed into Wu Zhen's eyes and earnestly continued, "We're the same kind of person, you and I. Others look down on us. We've been trampled on our whole lives by 'prodigies'. We should do something, in the end, to finally make people notice us."
Astonished beyond belief, Wu Zhen instantly fled at the time.
But Qin Guoxing didn't lose hope. It was normal for Wu Zhen to have a reaction like that. After he gave it some thought, Wu Zhen would be sure to return.
In the meantime, Qin Guoxing had another pressing matter to attend to.
He needed a replacement.
A body double.
This person would die in front of Wu Zhen, on Qin Guoxing's behalf, in order to convince Wu Zhen of Qin Guoxing's death. Then, once Wu Zhen took the 'baton' from him, Qin Guoxing would present 'seeds' to Wu Zhen—one after another—while watching from the shadows to see how Wu Zhen could make those seeds sprout.
Qin Guoxing gazed upon the fallen mahjong tiles in his apartment and let out a dark, sinister laugh.
Once this experiment succeeded, he would prove himself a better psychologist than Luo Yi.
Experience was nothing to scoff at. Luo Yi was still such a young man. How could he possibly compare to Qin Guoxing?
Huang Mouquan, a man who sold skewers on Shanxiang Street, was from Hao Lu's hometown—and with Qin Guoxing living as Hao Lu, that meant he was essentially old neighbors with Qin Guoxing.
The skewers vendor had come to Dongye City half a year before Hao Lu. When Hao Lu had still been alive, he'd told Qin Guoxing about the tragedy that had befallen Huang Mouquan's family. He also mentioned that he and Huang Mouquan had played together as kids.
In the earlier years, when he first started living as Hao Lu, Qin Guoxing had feared nothing more than running into people from Hulu Village. He definitely wouldn't have gone out of his way to get in touch with people who had known Hao Lu.
But now things were different. Time had passed, and people's appearances would have changed throughout the years. He was no longer afraid that old residents of Hulu Village would suspect him of being an imposter.
He didn't have much time. He needed to find a suitable body double as quickly as possible.
And so, he went to Shanxiang Street to observe Huang Mouquan. The man didn't look like him, but his physical stature was similar enough.
Huang Mouquan lived alone in his late daughter's apartment—Unit 4-1 in Building 4 on Ninth Lane, off Shanxiang Street. Qin Guoxing brought traditional foods and liquor from Hulu Village when he paid Huang Mouquan a visit, disguised as Hao Lu.
More than ten years had passed since he left his hometown, so Huang Mouquan was naturally shocked to see a face from back home all of a sudden.
A person like Huang Mouquan couldn't have begun to understand the tricks of psychological manipulation that Qin Guoxing had learned. After the two of them dined together, Huang Mouquan let down his guard. And after that, Qin Guoxing visited Shanxiang Street many more times. He always wore a face mask and a cap; because it had been the middle of winter back then, he didn't draw much attention to himself in that attire.
While Huang Mouquan was distracted, Qin Guoxing took the key to his apartment and made a copy for himself.
And soon after that, just as Qin Guoxing had expected, Wu Zhen returned to him.
"I'll join in on your 'suicide' plan," Wu Zhen stated in a trembling voice. "People like us have no choice but to help each other. Life… life is truly just too painful!"
Qin Guoxing warmly reassured Wu Zhen, "Don't worry. We can't choose to be born, we can't choose to be gifted or ungifted. Fortunately, we can choose how we die."
They decided to put their plan into motion around Chinese New Year—most people would be visiting their families over the break, and many city officials wouldn't be working. It was the best time to commit a crime.
"You won't have to bear the burden of killing me directly. I'll take the poison myself. All you need to do is come here and take care of the aftermath for me," Qin Guoxing said. He took Wu Zhen to the door of Unit 4-1. "This is the apartment my parents left behind. I don't stay here very often, and I didn't show them enough filial piety during their lifetimes.
"So I want to spend my final moments here. My whole life has been useless. I haven't done anything worthwhile. I can't possibly face my family in death, so I'll cover my face with this cloth—please don't remove it when you come to take care of my body."
Wu Zhen earnestly nodded his head. "The poison… what poison do you plan to use?"
Qin Guoxing smiled. "Sodium cyanide. It's painless. The end will come quickly. If you need some for yourself, I can give you a portion."
On the third night of the first month of the lunar calendar, Qin Guoxing went to Huang Mouquan's home to celebrate the new year.
Two old men, far from their hometown, with no friends in the city except each other—sharing a few drinks and a simple meal was a sufficient way of passing the holiday.
Huang Mouquan had made lots of dishes from his hometown in advance. Qin Guoxing brought a plate of cut fruit, and he laced the oranges with sodium cyanide.
Huang Mouquan was a careless man. He picked up a slice of orange and started eating right away. The sodium cyanide took effect soon enough, and Huang Mouquan fell onto the table. Before long, he stopped breathing.
Qin Guoxing put on a pair of gloves and moved Huang Mouquan's body into the bed. He used a black cloth he'd prepared in advance to cover Huang Mouquan's face, tying it in a dead knot at the back of his head, as though Huang Mouquan had tied it himself.
Then, he put everything he'd touched—such as the fruit knives and dishes—into a bag. He cleaned everything thoroughly, ensuring not a single trace of his own presence would be left behind. Finally, as he took his leave, he placed the key in the flower pot outside the front door.
Some time later, Wu Zhen arrived in a sanitation worker's uniform. He used the key in the flower pot to open the door to Unit 4-1. He placed Huang Mouquan's body, which had yet to fully go into rigor mortis, inside a large burlap sack used by the city's sanitation workers. Then he dragged it from the fourth floor down to the first floor.
The body was thrown onto a hand-pulled garbage collection cart. Then, with the glowing lights of Chinese New Year's decorations wishing good fortune to all, Wu Zhen dragged the cart into the pitch black night.
Four months later, on June 22nd, Wu Zhen committed suicide by taking sodium cyanide. He used his 'creativity' to devise a death scene for himself, having himself sealed in cement. No one but him knew whether he wanted to be immortalized or whether he simply wanted to remain undiscovered forever.
Meanwhile, Qin Guoxing happily toyed with the mahjong tiles at his own home. He waited for Wu Zhen's 'disciple', Sha Chun, to pass the 'baton' on to the next desperate soul.
Sha Chun was the most 'outstanding' of the targets Qin Guoxing had chosen for Wu Zhen. Qin Guoxing had taken great pains to bring Wang Ying, a journalism major at the University of Medicine, to Wu Zhen as well. But Wu Zhen seemed more interested in a man named Luo Ganfeng.
When Luo Ganfeng suddenly disappeared, Qin Guoxing suddenly felt a sense of trepidation.
However, Wu Zhen smoothly passed the baton off to Sha Chun in the end. That left Qin Guoxing feeling immensely relieved. At around the same time, he learned that Luo Yi had a patient named Wen He, who seemed to suffer from low self-esteem.
Another 'seed' with a great deal of potential.
He chuckled darkly to himself as he remembered a talk Luo Yi had given at one of the public workshops. Luo Yi had once encouraged those attendees who suffered from depressive tendencies to develop a hobby. Qin Guoxing could guess that Luo Yi had given his own patients, including Wen He, similar advice.
And so, Qin Guoxing gave a child a pamphlet for 'Jianjia Bailu' and paid the kid with some spare change to deliver that pamphlet directly to Wu He.
The 'seeds' he chose for Sha Chun also included Long Tianhao, who'd made such a commotion at Guangye Hospital.
But just like last time, things deviated from Qin Guoxing's ideal path once again. The person who Sha Chun came closest to convincing was a young man repeating his third year of high school. This young man had taken the initiative to study at 'Jianjia Bailu' all on his own; he wasn't a 'seed' chosen by Qin Guoxing.
Gradually, things spiraled out of control.
Only one domino had fallen over, and now the next pieces were stuck in place.
Qin Guoxing had a strong suspicion that Luo Ganfeng had disappeared after learning the whole story from Wu Zhen. If that were true, then Qin Guoxing had to track Luo Ganfeng down right away and kill him with sodium cyanide. None who knew the secret could be permitted to live.
But Luo Ganfeng was nowhere to be found, and Sha Chun died.
Qin Guoxing began to panic—the seeds he'd chosen for Sha Chun were Wen He and Long Tianhao. The former was out of the country at the time, and the latter had cut ties with Sha Chun a long time ago. Yu Xiaocheng was the only one who had stayed close to Sha Chun, but Yu Xiaocheng had gone back to school not long ago, seemingly determined to continue repeating his third year.
Then who was the person who'd killed Sha Chun?
Qin Guoxing realized that the 'dominoes' he'd set up had been moved by someone else, someone unknown to him.
Nine years ago, when Qin Guoxing swapped places with Hao Lu, he'd gotten lucky enough to encounter a group of detectives who were only interested in closing the case quickly. The little tricks Qin Guoxing played with Hao Lu's DNA traces worked, and the police didn't even bother looking into why Qin Guoxing had emptied his bank accounts before his apparent suicide. They didn't care where the money had gone at all.
If the investigation into Sha Chun's death was also that perfunctory…
But the detectives in charge of Sha Chun's case seemed to be the cream of the crop. The true elites of Dongye City's police force.
To that day, Qin Guoxing still harbored a fear of the 'elite'. It was a fear that reignited his old feelings of jealousy. He'd harbored so much jealousy throughout the years—towards the professors that were better than him, towards the young Luo Yi. He feared them, and he wanted to become them.
His psyche had become twisted a long time ago.
The detective named 'Ming Shu' actually managed to find his way to 'Jianjia Bailu'.
Qin Guoxing couldn't sit still any longer.
In order not to attract attention to himself, Qin Guoxing quickly took a long leave of absence from work, stating he had a family emergency to deal with. He then disposed of all his personal belongings, except what little luggage he packed, and took a private bus out to Hulu Village.
He'd made it halfway to Hulu Village before he suddenly realized—Hulu Village was Hao Lu's old home, not Qin Guoxing's old home!
The road from the area around Hulu Village to his own hometown in Lanchuan County was long. He switched buses and continued his journey. By the time he arrived at his old hometown, after spending several decades away, he suddenly felt like nothing mattered.
Struggling, working hard, fighting, deceiving, killing…
Everything seemed to fade into the backdrop, like these were things that had happened in another lifetime. It was like these were things done by someone else, while Qin Guoxing had stood by and watched. He felt like an innocent bystander to the actions of a crazed and deranged person.
He wasn't Hao Lu, and he wasn't the Lecturer Qin. He was still the teenager who'd taken his father's words about working hard to heart. But now, he had no desire to go to the city and make a name for himself. He just wanted to be a farmer who worked hard in the countryside, just like his father had done—before being killed by his mother.
But who was it who really killed his father?
Was it really his mother?
Or was it him, because he had been unwilling to let go of his future?
Qin Guoxing came back to his senses, drawing himself out of his memories.
The road ahead, winding up the mountain, was difficult to traverse. The two large bags of sacrificial offerings he carried were too heavy and cumbersome.
Qin Guoxing stood in place for a while, then whispered to himself, "Living… is just too tiring."
The woman who lived in Unit 4-5 of Building 4 on Ninth Lane was an old woman in her sixties. Her surname was Xu, and she had no family to speak of.
Xiao Yu'an dispatched a team to question all the neighbors. They learned quite a lot about Grandma Xu's situation—
Grandma Xu's husband had died an early death. She became a single mother, raising her only son—Zhang Yi'ke.
Zhang Yi'ke used to work for a tech company called Bright Eyes, which specialized in surveillance and monitoring equipment for government agencies and large corporations. A few years ago, Bright Eyes was developing rapidly, but they lost a big government contract to a competitor and gradually became a lesser-known company.
Just as Bright Eyes started to go downhill, Zhang Yi'ke decided to switch jobs. While job hunting, he was involved in a fatal car accident. He died on the scene.
After seeing her own child die before her, Grandma Xu became increasingly gloomy and withdrawn. She now lived on her own retirement pension, her son's savings, and the compensation from the car accident.
All the neighbors knew of Grandma Xu. When her son had just died, several of the women from nearby had tried to console her. Whenever neighboring families made anything suitable for an elderly woman to eat, they would bring a portion over to Unit 4-5 to share. But Grandma Xu's temperament had changed greatly. Not only would she refuse to let anyone into her home, she would often knock over the dishes they kindly brought her.
Over time, things changed. No one went to Unit 4-5 anymore. Little kids started to gossip about that 'old witch' who lived there.
This bitter old woman was very likely the only eyewitness to Wu Zhen disposing of Huang Mouquan's body.
Xiao Yu'an received a copy of Grandma Xu's recent medical records from the local hospital. A possibility came to mind.
Grandma Xu's hearing wasn't very good, and she was no longer all that nimble. But her eyesight was still quite sharp.
Ming Shu had already guessed, based on the presence of a brand new security lock on the door to Unit 4-5, that Grandma Xu had noticed something happening in or around 4-1.
But if Grandma Xu saw something, she must have heard something first. Just like the resident of Unit 4-6, it must have been a noise that first drew her attention.
But, according to Grandma Xu's medical records, her hearing wasn't good enough to have heard something from outside.
It was also very unlikely that Grandma Xu just so happened to be returning from outdoors at that time.
And the last time he visited Ninth Lane, Xiao Yu'an had already noticed that there was no peephole on the door to Unit 4-5.
Then how did Grandma Xu happen to catch sight of Wu Zhen's removal of Huang Mouquan's body, when there was nothing to alert her to the fact that something was going on outside?
Considering Zhang Yi'ke's old job, at a company which specialized in surveillance equipment, it would have been easy for him to install a small and discreet camera for his own mother.
Grandma Xu wasn't only an important eyewitness.
It was possible she had key evidence in her hands.