Just like last time, Grandma Xu only cracked open her door by a sliver, and she kept the new security chain in place. She peeked out through her sagging eyelids, like it took immense effort just to keep her eyes open. Her wrinkled and chapped lips twitched several times.
Although Xiao Yu'an wasn't dressed in a police uniform, he had a respectable and reliable air about him. When he produced his ID, he had a far more dignified and trustworthy aura than Fang Yuanhang.
But Grandma Xu was still unwilling to unlatch the security chain on her door. In a dry, raspy voice, she croaked, "Get out of here, all of you. I have nothing to say to you."
"Ma'am, you've lived here for several decades. You remember the young woman who once lived in Unit 4-1, don't you?" Xiao Yu'an began politely. "Twenty years old, moved to the city from her rural hometown. A plain, cheerful girl."
Grandma Xu's expression went vacant, like she was searching through her memories.
"You may not have a very deep impression of her," Xiao Yu'an continued. "Because she passed away ten years ago, shortly after moving into Unit 4-1. Do you know how she passed away?"
Grandma Xu shook her head.
"She was mobbed and killed by her assailant," Xiao Yu'an said. "Afterwards, her father moved into Unit 4-1. An older gentleman who was much like you. He'd experienced the pain of losing his child, and he spent the rest of his life in mourning."
Grandma Xu opened her mouth. The wrinkles on her face started to tremble faintly.
Xiao Yu'an remained perfectly calm and respectful as he continued, "I came to you today because I know you have some evidence that is very important to us. Would you be able to help us, as well as this father who'd suffered the bitter loss of his child?"
After a long moment of silence, Grandma Xu finally released her tight grip on the doorknob.
She unlatched the security chain and turned in a lonely, sorrowful way. "Come in, then."
Fang Yuanhang followed Xiao Yu'an into this old and rundown one-bedroom apartment. On the wall facing the front door was a black and white memorial photograph. The sight made Fang Yuanhang freeze for a second. When he looked around himself, taking in the walls of the living room, he found at least ten other photographs—all memorial photos of the same person, showing the same face.
They were all of Grandma Xu's late son, Zhang Yi'ke.
It was a startlingly eerie scene. Fang Yuanhang broke out in goosebumps, but Xiao Yu'an easily took it all in stride.
Grandma Xu seated herself in a rattan chair and blankly gazed at one of the memorial photos. "Is it very frightening in here?"
"There's nothing 'frightening' about a parent's longing for their child," Xiao Yu'an said.
Grandma Xu breathed a dry, humorless laugh. "Everyone who comes to visit me complains about how scary my home is. They all say I'm raising a ghost. Some people don't say it out loud, but I know. I can tell what they're thinking."
After pausing for a few seconds, Grandma Xu continued, "You're the only one who ever gave me an answer like that. Whatever you have to ask me, go ahead and ask."
Solemnly, Xiao Yu'an began to address the matter of the case. "Around Chinese New Year's of this year, you saw a person move 'something' out of Unit 4-1. Is that correct?"
Grandma Xu was silent for a long moment before she answered, "I also saw someone enter 4-1 several times before Chinese New Year's. Old Man Huang was very good to that person. He even lent the man the key to his apartment."
Fang Yuanhang couldn't resist loading up a photo of Hao Lu—rather, of Qin Guoxing living as Hao Lu. "Ma'am, was it this man?"
Grandma Xu took a look at the photo, then pushed Fang Yuanhang's tablet away. She got up and started moving towards the bedroom. "I'll find it for you. You can see for yourselves."
More than ten minutes later, Grandma Xu hobbled back out. She held a rectangular cardboard box in her hands. "Everything is in here. I don't know anything else."
Xiao Yu'an took the box and peered inside. A small camera and a very old laptop sat in the box.
Surveillance cameras did exist on Shanxiang Street, but the footage from several months ago had already been erased. Ninth Lane itself didn't have any public surveillance cameras, and the buildings themselves certainly didn't have any inside.
As Xiao Yu'an had guessed, Zhang Yi'ke really had installed a monitoring camera for Grandma Xu.
"Yi'ke used to work with these things, and he was always working overtime. He didn't even have time to bring home a daughter-in-law," Grandma Xu said. Her voice suddenly became soft and tender. The harsh rasp from before was all but gone now. "The security here isn't very good. Yi'ke always said, once we saved enough money, we would buy a good home and move together."
Grandma Xu bowed her head. "No matter how we saved, there was never enough money. Yi'ke eventually installed this camera. He said I would be able to see the outside while staying inside. He told me to call him right away if I ever saw anything out of the ordinary."
Suddenly, her voice started to tremble. "But when I saw something out of the ordinary, Yi'ke was already gone. I couldn't call him."
Xiao Yu'an didn't interrupt, quietly listening to her whole story.
Grandma Xu lifted her head and let out a shaky breath. "That person saw it. The camera. I was scared, so I took it down right away. After the holidays passed, I had someone install a new lock on my door."
"It was seen?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Impossible. If it had really been seen, you wouldn't…"
"Thank you, ma'am," Xiao Yu'an interrupted. To Grandma Xu, he added, "I won't take the camera away, and I'll return the laptop as soon as possible."
Grandma Xu waved a hand to dismiss them. She had nothing else to say.
Zhou Yuan loaded up every video from the old laptop. Surveillance footage from different time periods started to play on his various monitors.
The video quality wasn't great, and the camera had been installed in a very discreet place, so the angle wasn't very good.
However, it was still possible to make out the two people who appeared in front of Unit 4-1.
One of these people was Qin Guoxing, masquerading as Hao Lu. The other was Wu Zhen.
Between December of last year and this year's Chinese New Year, Qin Guoxing came to Unit 4-1 five times, seemingly as a guest.
On the twenty-sixth of the twelfth lunar month, while Huang Mouquan was out, Qin Guoxing came to Unit 4-1 with Wu Zhen. Qin Guoxing produced a key at this point and unlocked the door to 4-1, letting them in. Ten minutes later, the two men reemerged and departed after Qin Guoxing locked the door once more.
On the fifth of the new lunar year, Qin Guoxing appeared at the door at 8:41 in the evening and knocked. He was carrying a plate of fresh fruit, already sliced. Huang Mouquan opened the door and invited him inside.
At 10:25 that same night, Qin Guoxing left Unit 4-1 alone, wearing gloves and covers on his shoes. He was carrying a large bag. After closing and locking the front door, he used a cloth to wipe the handle and lock.
Finally, he walked out of the camera's frame for a moment, in the direction opposite the stairs. He reappeared in the camera's view half a minute later, then hastily rushed downstairs.
At 10:53 that night, Wu Zhen arrived in a sanitation worker's uniform. He disappeared from the camera's view after appearing, going off in the same direction as Qin Guoxing. He reappeared in front of the door to Unit 4-1 with a key that he'd picked up from somewhere, out of frame.
At 11:16, the door to Unit 4-1 opened again. Wu Zhen exited, dragging what appeared to be a large sanitation bag. Based on the shape and size of the bag, it was very likely that it contained a person. After closing the door, Wu Zhen made his way to the stairs.
When he passed the camera, Wu Zhen suddenly looked up. He gazed at the lens, like he'd found something.
"Ah!" Zhou Yuan exclaimed.
No wonder Grandma Xu thought the camera had been discovered. Wu Zhen was practically locking eyes with whoever watched this footage.
Xiao Yu'an hugged his arms as he stood in front of the monitors and watched the footage play out. "Wu Zhen only looked towards the camera. Judging by his actions after this night, he didn't actually notice it."
Fang Yuanhang nodded. "If he really had noticed it, he wouldn't have let Grandma Xu go."
"But this footage only shows us that Wu Zhen left with Huang Mouquan's body," Zhou Yuan said. "What did Wu Zhen do with the body after this?"
"There's a funeral parlor four kilometers away from Shanxiang Street," Fang Yuanhang said. "Could Wu Zhen have gone there to have the body cremated?"
Xiao Man snorted. "You're not thinking practically. You think you can walk into a funeral parlor and burn a body whenever you please? What funeral parlor would burn a body for you just because you ask, without a death certificate?"
"You can have a cremation without a death certificate," Xiao Yu'an said. "As long as you have an 'in' at the parlor."
Fang Yuanhang shot Xiao Man a glare.
Xiao Man glared right back.
"But Wu Zhen wasn't the sort of person who would have had connections like that," Xiao Yu'an continued. "He was wearing a sanitation worker's uniform. He very likely had procured a garbage cart as well. Where would be the least noticeable place a sanitation worker could go?"
"The local sanitation office… no, the garbage dump!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. He slammed his right fist into the palm of his left hand, then deeply furrowed his brows. "But that's not right either. If Wu Zhen had tossed the body at the dump, it's impossible that no one would have found it by now."
Zhou Yuan pulled up a map on one of his monitors. "The nearest garbage disposal site is two kilometers northeast of Ninth Lane. It's a bit far to walk without being noticed, but since it was the middle of the Chinese New Year's holiday, and since Wu Zhen was wearing a sanitation worker's uniform, it isn't impossible that he made the trip without drawing attention to himself."
"Wu Zhen wasn't the killer, and he didn't know that the person who died was Huang Mouquan. He thought he was disposing of the body of the Professor, Qin Guoxing," Xiao Yu'an said. "Out of respect for the person he believed to be Professor Qin, Wu Zhen wouldn't have dumped the body just anywhere. If he buried it in the ground, it would have been more difficult to find."
The joint graves of Qin Xiao and Chu Qing were located on the mountain. Qin Guoxing made his way up, panting heavily. The two bags of joss paper, incense, and fruit offerings he carried were so heavy that his arms were numb by the time he reached his parents' graves.
He sat down and rested for a while, then started to make his offerings. He couldn't find a pole to string up the firecrackers he'd brought, so he laid them out on the ground and lit them there. The firecrackers exploded instantly, booming through the air and rapidly spreading a heavy cloud of smoke.
No one else was nearby. Qin Guoxing knelt before the graves and kowtowed to his parents three times. A cold, gloomy smile sat on his face as he said, "Dad. Mom. I've returned. I didn't get a chance to burn any paper money for you in the past, so I'll make up for it all now."
He lit the incense and the joss paper. The wind carried the ashes away. He'd brought what looked like a lot of firecrackers, but they finished bursting within a few minutes. Qin Guoxing felt like his surroundings were too quiet after that, so he played some mourning music that he'd downloaded on his phone.
Once the incense was all lit and the sacrificial money was all burnt up, Qin Guoxing's belated show of respect was complete.
He was now prepared to end his own life.
In his 'last' life, he'd lived and died as Qin Guoxing. He'd worked hard without ever succeeding in making a name for himself.
In 'this' life, he'd become Hao Lu. With that assumed identity, he'd performed experiments with other people's lives. He'd set up a game of 'dominoes', but only one piece fell before his plans were destroyed.
He was a failure in both lifetimes. He couldn't beat the pharmacology professors he'd worked with, and he couldn't beat the young and brilliant Luo Yi.
He was tired.
He was just so tired.
When he thought back, he realized he wasn't all that different from Wu Zhen and Sha Chun. Diligent but mediocre.
If he'd known things would turn out like this, he wouldn't have killed Huang Mouquan in the first place. If he'd made himself the first 'domino', maybe his sincerity would have carried his experiment farther. Maybe more dominoes would have fallen.
The incense sticks would still burn for a while longer, but the joss paper went quickly. Once the ashes scattered, Qin Guoxing got up and turned off the mourning music. Silence descended, and he suddenly heard a voice from not far behind him.
"Hao Lu." Ming Shu's eyes were ice cold as he gazed upon the killer who was now playing out the part of a filial son at his parents' graves. "Or should I call you Lecturer Qin?"
There wasn't much surprise on Qin Guoxing's face.
When the Serious Crimes Division first started investigating Sha Chun's case, Qin Guoxing had already predicted this—that these elite detectives, especially their Captain Ming, would one day learn the truth about everything.
But he hadn't expected Ming Shu to appear before him at this point in time.
He didn't want to be caught.
He wasn't afraid of being tried and sentenced in a court of law. But he didn't want to be judged by these 'elites'.
When he faced them, his whole sense of self crumbled.
He envied them. He hated them.
Luckily, he had already prepared a bottle of highly toxic sodium cyanide for himself. Once imbibed, it would quickly end his life.
"Let me say a few more words to my parents," Qin Guoxing said, smiling as he slipped his right hand into his jacket pocket.
This seemingly innocuous action didn't escape Ming Shu's notice.
Qin Guoxing turned back to the graves as soon as he finished speaking, immediately taking the bottle of sodium cyanide out of his pocket.
He unscrewed the cap very quickly. Just as he prepared to pour the deadly poison into his mouth, Ming Shu abruptly drew his gun—
A single shot rang out through the surrounding woods.
The bullet ripped through Qin Guoxing's wrist, tearing open a bloody wound. The plastic bottle flew out of his hand and fell into the grass.
Qin Guoxing screamed and collapsed. Zhao Fan raced forward and immediately restrained Qin Guoxing.
"How many people have you killed?!" Ming Shu roared. "You think you have any right to kill yourself now?!"
After suffering failure for half his life, Qin Guoxing had already lost his will to live. When he was apprehended and escorted back to Dongye City, he didn't look at Ming Shu or Zhao Fan along the way. And no matter what Ming Shu asked him, he only gave one answer—
I'm the killer you're looking for.
Grandma Xu from Unit 4-5 had already provided evidence in this case, but the chain of evidence was actually still incomplete—Huang Mouquan's body had yet to be found. And the details of Wu Zhen's case, Sha Chun's case, and the nine-year-old 'Qin Guoxing' case were all still murky. The Serious Crimes Division had already deduced the truth, but Qin Guoxing's confession was still important in closing those cases.
If Qin Guoxing was unwilling to talk about those details, then the road ahead would be rocky.
"He seems to be terrified of us," Zhao Fan said. "Especially of you."
"It's a normal response," Ming Shu said.
"But he doesn't seem to be afraid of you because you're a police officer," Zhao Fan continued. "And it doesn't seem to be because you shot him in the wrist."
Ming Shu faintly lifted his brows. "Then in what way is he scared of me?"
Zhao Fan thought for a long while before he said, "Hm… I don't know how to describe it."
It was extremely rare for the notorious 'chatterbox' Zhao Fan to not know how to describe something. Ming Shu couldn't help but look towards Qin Guoxing again.
There was nothing flashy or outstanding about this person's appearance; outwardly, he was an ordinary person in every single way. But underneath that 'ordinary' skin lay a heart capable of planning a deadly suicide game.
Qin Guoxing was already twisted to the extreme. What could he possibly be afraid of?
He now faced the police, but he didn't seem to fear them because they were police. Then what reason did he have to fear them at all?
Even after reaching Dongye City, Zhao Fan couldn't find a way to describe what he felt. But Xiao Yu'an immediately identified that feeling and put it into words.
"What Qin Guoxing fears isn't the police, but the 'elite' in any industry," Xiao Yu'an said. "He remained a university lecturer until he was in his forties. He failed to make any great strides in his research, and he failed to produce results. He sees himself as someone who has been trampled over by the 'elite' his whole life.
"He has a doctorate degree, but after assuming Hao Lu's identity, he continued to work menial jobs. Why do you think that is?"
"Although the only person who knew his true identity was already dead, he would've still been afraid of his secret getting out," Ming Shu said. "That was why he kept a low profile. He wasn't even brave enough to take the train anywhere. How could he have tried to advance to a more lofty career?"
"That's one reason," Xiao Yu'an agreed. "But there's another reason as well. Simply put, he was afraid of coming into contact with anyone he considered an 'elite'. Their existence would remind him of his own past failures at the School of Pharmacology, and they would make him wish he were dead."
Ming Shu scratched at his hair. "It's hard to understand that way of thinking."
Qin Guoxing's wrist had already received medical attention. He gazed at Ming Shu without any light in his eyes, then asked to be interrogated by a different set of police officers.
"I'll confess everything, but I don't want to face you guys," he said. "Especially not you."
"You're in no position to be making demands right now!" Fang Yuanhang snapped.
Ming Shu thought back to Xiao Yu'an's analysis of Qin Guoxing's state of mind, then asked, "Who do you want to replace me?"
Fang Yuanhang was surprised. "Chief?"
Ming Shu lifted a hand to interrupt him. To Qin Guoxing, he continued, "If it's a reasonable request, I can find a replacement for you."
At some point, Qin Guoxing had already started to tremble. His tightly bandaged hand repeatedly slipped off the table. "Is Officer Luo still here?"
Fang Yuanhang couldn't recall anyone in the Serious Crimes Division with the surname Luo. "Which Officer Luo?"
But Yi Fei had instantly realized what Qin Guoxing wanted. "You want to see Luo Min?"
Qin Guoxing nodded. "Yes, that's right. Luo Min. Tell Luo Min to come! As long as the person sitting across from me is Luo Min, I'll tell you everything!"
Fang Yuanhang went to pick Luo Min up from the police post that he'd been demoted to. Out in the hallway, Yi Fei worriedly mused, "That Hao Lu case from nine years ago… Luo Min, and all the members of his team at the time, are responsible for how poorly it was handled. I'm afraid Luo Min won't get much if he's the one interrogating Qin Guoxing."
"Qin Guoxing just wants to face someone who won't put him on guard. Right now, he's in a state where he doesn't want to fight any longer," Ming Shu said. "Qin Guoxing used Hao Lu's death as a cheap trick, and that trick wasn't detected by the police who investigated the case back then. In Qin Guoxing's eyes, Luo Min and the others are inferior to him. He'll only feel his own superiority when he faces them."
Yi Fei sighed. "He's already in a position like this, and he's still seeking a sense of superiority."
"Isn't the search for superiority what drove him to do all these things?" Ming Shu asked. "He was too desperate to feel superior. He wanted nothing more than to achieve something that would allow him to surpass the 'elites' around him. Unfortunately, he put his ambitions to work in the worst ways."
Luo Min arrived in his police uniform. He seemed incredibly uneasy.
He had once dreamed of coming to work with the Serious Crimes Division at the Criminal Investigation Bureau. Years ago, when he used torture to extract confessions from suspects, his reasons had been twofold. First, he had been under immense pressure from his higher-ups to close more cases. Second, the Bureau had been recruiting from the city precincts back then. If Luo Min performed well at the Dong District precinct, and if he 'behaved' in front of his superiors, he could have been recruited by the Bureau. If he was especially outstanding, he could have even joined the Serious Crimes Division.
But all that had been ruined. He wasn't even a detective at the Dong District precinct anymore. He had been demoted to a police post where he dealt only with trivial matters as a civilian officer.
"Captain Luo," Ming Shu greeted. Though he stepped up and took the initiative to greet the man, his tone was cold and indifferent.
This behavior, in Luo Min's eyes, was arrogance.
"Captain Ming…" Luo Min let out an awkward laugh. He didn't know what to say and instinctively started to defend himself. "I wasn't the only one responsible for this case from the School of Pharmacology."
"Now isn't the time to talk about that," Ming Shu interrupted. "You were the head of the task force on that case, and Qin Guoxing has asked for you by name. Go in and give him a proper interrogation."
Lou Min's expression turned ghastly. He stammered, "Then if I contribute to this case, will the case from nine years ago be…"
"Captain Luo," Ming Shu interrupted once more. "I'm only the captain of the Serious Crimes Division. How your old cases are handled is not something I have any say in."
The door to the interrogation room opened. Qin Guoxing lifted his head. As soon as he laid eyes on Luo Min, his lifeless gaze suddenly filled with light. He sounded almost pleasantly surprised as he exclaimed, "Officer Luo!"
Fang Yuanhang stared at the surveillance monitor from the neighboring room. "Qin Guoxing's attitude has changed too quickly, hasn't it? Why does it feel like they're two chummy old friends having a tearful reunion?"
"To Qin Guoxing, Luo Min is something like an old friend," Ming Shu said. "This is like a 'homecoming' to him. Luo Min is, in one sense, his home."
Luo Min and Qin Guoxing sat in the interrogation room. In addition to the two of them, an officer recording the interrogation was present. Lin Jiao, who Ming Shu had asked to come over from the Bureau's Psychological Research Center, was also in the room.
When he sat before Qin Guoxing, Luo Min was the one who seemed more like the anxious suspect in the room.
Qin Guoxing spoke eloquently and calmly, especially when talking about the details of the case from nine years ago. He seemed to be showing off.
"I wasn't actually all that worried about you guys catching on to the fake DNA I planted in my home," Qin Guoxing declared. "I had a basic understanding of what DNA technology was like back then, and I knew my DNA wasn't in your database yet. None of my immediate relatives were alive, so the DNA samples you found at my place—the hairs, the fluids—were like 'orphans'. You had nothing but the body to compare them to.
"What I worried about most was that you would check the whereabouts of the money that had been in my accounts."
At that point, Qin Guoxing actually laughed. He looked overjoyed. Across the table, Luo Min's face had paled.
"But you guys didn't look into that at all. I emptied my accounts before I 'died', but none of you even bothered to wonder who took that money."
Luo Min grit his teeth. "You—!"
"You people were played like fools! By me!" Qin Guoxing gloated. His eyes bored into Luo Min. "I've never succeeded at anything in my whole life. I've always been stepped on by the 'elite'. So thank you, for letting me experience what it feels like to step on someone else!"