When Luo Min exited the interrogation room, he didn't speak to anyone. His face was pale. His bulky, mountainous body seemed like it would crumble and collapse at any moment. He drifted down the hall like a lost spirit.
Yi Fei called out to him, but he didn't seem to hear. He didn't even stop on his way down the hall.
Yi Fei wanted to go after him, but Ming Shu stopped him.
"There's no point in you going now," Ming Shu said, shaking his head. "There's no point in anyone going now."
Luo Min went downstairs by himself. He walked all the way out of the Criminal Investigation Bureau, to the deserted space outside. Only then did he finally come to his senses.
He lifted his head and gazed up at the tall, indomitable building that housed the Bureau. His memories suddenly drifted back in time. Many, many years ago, when he had only been in his twenties, he'd come to the Bureau for the very first time to receive a commendation for his outstanding performance at the Dong District precinct.
The him from back then had been energetic and brimming over with ambition. He put his all into solving every single case that landed in his lap. He never tortured suspects for confessions, and he never hastily closed up a case when there were still murky points of suspicion hanging around. He respected his elders and he treated his rookies well. He was considered one of the Dong District precinct's best men.
When was it that all that had changed?
At some point, he'd started looking down on those superiors and higher-ups who put such immense pressure on him. He found the newer detectives even more detestable. He started thinking of small cases as too small, but he couldn't solve the bigger and more complicated cases that came his way. He started torturing confessions out of suspects, and he started hastily closing cases even when some threads were left loose.
That had continued until four years ago, when he was demoted.
However, the bigger mistake was what he did nine years ago.
Qin Guoxing was right. The task force that investigated his supposed suicide had messed up, and their biggest mistake wasn't being fooled by the planted DNA. It was in letting go of the fact that a large amount of money had been withdrawn from Qin Guoxing's accounts, vanishing without a trace.
When Luo Min thought back to that case, he recalled that he had indeed found the missing money rather suspicious. But he'd been in a rush to close that case, and the DNA evidence seemed airtight. It seemed to prove beyond a doubt that the victim was Qin Guoxing.
So he gave up on his suspicions.
If he'd dug a little deeper, if he found the truth that was hiding under the surface, the series of murders that had just taken place in the present might not have happened at all.
Luo Min dropped his head into his hands and slowly squatted down on the ground. It was like he could no longer face the towering building behind him. Nor could he face the past version of himself who had once been honored there.
After a long while, he stood up and took off his police jacket. Then he threw it on the ground.
Finally, he turned and left with his head hanging low.
"He can no longer be a police officer," Lin Jiao remarked, standing by the window. "Just now, in the interrogation room, it wasn't him interrogating Qin Guoxing at all. Qin Guoxing was the one interrogating him."
Ming Shu stood next to Lin Jiao. He'd watched Luo Min all the while, until his departure. He wasn't completely unmoved by that display of abject frustration.
The vast majority of police officers were full of hope and ambition when they first joined the force. But after several years of hard work—some became the backbones of their teams, some paid the ultimate price, and some simply lost their way.
There were many detectives like Luo Min, but there were many others who were completely unlike him.
For example, Ming Shu himself.
For example, all the others in the Serious Crimes Division.
Ming Shu sighed and turned to Lin Jiao. "If Luo Min needs therapy, help him out."
Lin Jiao nodded. "Of course."
While facing Luo Min, Qin Guoxing had revealed all the details of his crimes. He had even spoken of where Wu Zhen hid Huang Mouquan's body—at a garbage disposal site to the north. That was fairly close to what Xiao Yu'an had already guessed.
"Wu Zhen, that idiot, had initially wanted to send 'me' back to the University of Medicine and secretly bury me on campus, saying it would be a sign of respect for 'me'," Qin Guoxing said. "But I don't need that kind of respect. Besides, it wasn't really me who died.
"I told him to bury 'me' at the garbage dump, but he wasn't willing to do it at first. Honestly, though. After a person dies, aren't they just a piece of garbage? Not just garbage, but putrid trash! Death is the great equalizer, after all. It doesn't matter if you were an elite who trampled on others in your life, or if you were a mediocre person who was trampled on… in death, you're all trash. Just trash…"
However, even after digging for three days, the police didn't find any signs of Huang Mouquan's body at the garbage disposal site Qin Guoxing had named.
"Fuck," Xiao Man swore. "Could Qin Guoxing still be lying?"
"He's already confessed to everything. What would be the point in lying about this?" Ming Shu asked. "The one who buried the body was Wu Zhen. Qin Guoxing only told him in advance where to bury it. That means Qin Guoxing told him to bury the body here, but it was Wu Zhen who carried out the act in the end. Qin Guoxing doesn't necessarily know what Wu Zhen actually did."
"You mean, Wu Zhen didn't listen to Qin Guoxing?" Xiao Man asked. "He made the decision on his own to bury the body somewhere else?"
Ming Shu gazed out across the garbage dump and narrowed his eyes. "Yes. But he didn't go too far."
There was a small river to the north of the garbage dump. In the springs and summers, the river was full to the point of flooding over to the riverbank. In the autumns and winters, the river practically dried up completely. It was autumn now, but still early in the season. The water had yet to fully recede.
"Wu Zhen believed he was burying Qin Guoxing, a respected university professor. That was why he offered to bury Qin Guoxing on the campus of the University of Medicine," Ming Shu said as he made his way out of the garbage dump and headed towards the river. "Although he promised to bury Qin Guoxing here at the dump, he couldn't do it when he actually brought the body here. He suddenly felt it would be too tragic to bury a 'professor' in a place like this. Here—"
As he spoke, Ming Shu lowered his gaze to the earth beneath his feet. "This place is near the garbage dump, but it faces the river. It's a wide, open space. The feng shui here is relatively good. Wu Zhen may have believed that buying the 'professor' here would still be adhering to Qin Guoxing's wishes, while paying some respect to the deceased."
That night, officers finally found a severely discolored sanitation sack buried several hundred meters away from the garbage disposal site, near the riverbank. The body inside had decayed rapidly throughout the warm summer months. It was nearly a skeleton by the time it was found.
The body's head was wrapped in a piece of fabric, and a small, palm-sized bag of lucky amulets had been placed in the breast pocket of the corpse's shirt.
"This is traditionally placed on the deceased to wish them good fortune in the afterlife," Xiao Man said after appraising the bag. He sighed and continued, "It probably wasn't Qin Guoxing who put it here, right?"
Fang Yuanhang had just come out of the interrogation room to join them. "Qin Guoxing didn't know about the bag."
"Wu Zhen put it in," Ming Shu said. "Wu Zhen and Sha Chun. These were the two victims who were dragged into this 'suicide' game by Qin Guoxing. Neither of them actually committed a murder. Wu Zhen took sodium cyanide to kill himself, and Sha Chun was killed by Xiao Chun.
"Yu Xiaocheng knew about Sha Chun's plan, but Sha Chun didn't do anything to hurt him in the end. Wu Zhen secretly buried 'Qin Guoxing' by the river and placed a bag of amulets in his clothes. These victims were at the end of their rope. They were desperate enough to end their own lives, but they still retained their humanity."
For a while, no one said anything.
Fang Yuanhang rubbed his own nose. "My heart feels all blocked up."
"The most abominable creature is the one who took advantage of their desperation and led them into these vile, heartless experiments!" Zhou Yuan exclaimed. He was extremely worked up. As a diligent but mediocre person himself, he knew exactly how convincing Qin Guoxing could be when he used his deceptive tactics on someone trapped in a spiral of low self-esteem.
Fortunately, this psychopath who took advantage of the misfortune of others had already fallen into the net of the law.
Xiao Yu'an gave the Serious Crimes Division time off on a rotating basis. Ming Shu had originally intended to be a good host and invite Zhao Fan to 'play' in Dongye City for a while, but as soon as the case was closed, Zhao Fan had to rush off on 'urgent business'.
"No way, right?" Ming Shu protested. "You're already here. Captain Shen can't have given you another assignment already, right?"
"I have something else on my plate," Zhao Fan said cryptically.
"Tsk, are you mad just because I didn't eat your cooking?" Ming Shu asked. "Alright, alright, alright. You come to my place and cook whatever you want. I'll buy all the ingredients for you. I'll have seafood shipped in by air. Happy now, Fan-ge? You're not mad anymore, are you, Fan-ge?"
"Next time, next time," Zhao Fan said, waving a hand to dismiss the invitation. "Shen Xun knows I've worked hard this year. He gave me a week off."
Ming Shu didn't understand the rush, then. "So why are you in such a hurry to leave?"
"I'm in a hurry because I have time off, of course." Zhao Fan was wearing a lively red outfit. He waved again to excuse himself. "I've got someone waiting for me at home. Raincheck on the seafood. Next time, I'll call up Lele and—oh, that's right, Captain Hua too. I'll cook for all three of you."
Le Ran was essentially the only person in special ops who didn't turn up his nose at Zhao Fan's cooking. As for Hua Chong, he'd once been roped into sharing a spicy boiled fish dish prepared by Zhao Fan after returning from a mission. Hua Chong had seemed alright with the food too.
And so, Zhao Fan had set his sights on those two as his targets.
Last year, when Ming Shu trained with special ops, Zhao Fan had set his sights on him as another target for his supposedly delicious cooking.
As soon as Ming Shu heard Zhao Fan say there was someone waiting at home, he dropped the subject. He understood in his heart and didn't press the matter any further. "Alright, I'll drop you off at the airport."
Zhao Fan climbed into the car without any delay. But before they'd driven even two kilometers, his cell phone suddenly rang.
Ming Shu heard him answer the phone and say, "Huh? You're coming to Dongye? I'm heading to the airport… ah, okay, okay, okay. Then you wait for me, I'll be right there!"
After hanging up, Zhao Fan said, "Ming-ge, Shu-ge, um…"
Ming Shu sighed. "Spit it out. Where are we going now?"
Zhao Fan gave him an address.
Ming Shu looked it up. Coincidentally, the place was just a few blocks away. When he drove Zhao Fan over to their new destination, Ming Shu saw that there was, indeed, someone waiting for him.
It went without saying that this was the 'someone' who Zhao Fan had said was waiting at home. That person had come to pick him up in Dongye City.
After saying goodbye to Zhao Fan, Ming Shu started to head back alone. He glanced around and spotted a few little crayfish shops. He suddenly remembered the extremely popular crayfish shop they'd dropped by earlier, at the start of their investigation into Sha Chun's case.
What was that place called again?
Shrimp Baby? Shrimp Baobei?
At the time, Ming Shu had planned on going with Xiao Yu'an to experience the supposed fun of lining up for hours just to eat at a popular restaurant. But the season for crayfish had already passed. There was no telling whether that shop still served crayfish at this time of year.
Ming Shu decided to go take a look. If they were out of crayfish, he could find a different shop.
Ming Shu gave Xiao Yu'an a call. At that moment, Xiao Yu'an was still at the Bureau.
"Ge, I'll come pick you up after work," Ming Shu said. "Let's go eat crayfish."
Xiao Yu'an laughed and asked, "Didn't you just invite Zhao Fan out to 'play'? Why are you inviting me now?"
"Zhao Fan was picked up by his 'someone'," Ming Shu said. When he spoke to Xiao Yu'an about personal matters, his tone sometimes took on a childish lilt. "I was inspired by him, so I'm coming back to pick up my 'someone'."
"Then wait a while," Xiao Yu'an said. "I have a meeting soon. I should be done at around eight."
"No problem," Ming Shu said. "I'll wait as long as it takes. No matter how late it is, I'll pick you up."
Although that was what he said, Ming Shu waited and waited and still got hungry. He had to park his car at their usual place and head out to buy himself a fried egg pancake while he waited.
The egg pancake shop near the Bureau was internet famous. Most other pancake stalls were just little carts set up along the side of the road. When the authorities came to inspect them, they had to be ready to pack up and run.
This shop by the Bureau was different. Not only did they rent a proper storefront and set out chairs and tables for their patrons, they had a big area just for taking photos too. There was a hanging rattan chair next to an especially garish fake cherry tree.
Ming Shu wasn't actually all that keen on going into a store like this, but health checks had been happening more regularly as of late. Illegal street stalls were too wary to do business in that area, so 'proper' stores like this net-famous one were the only ones still in business.
Two middle school students were taking selfies together on the hanging chair. Ming Shu glanced at them and found them a little amusing, so he didn't leave right away after placing his order. He figured Xiao Yu'an wouldn't be done with work for a while yet, so he may as well sit around for a bit and watch these kids make all sorts of elaborate poses to suit their strange aesthetics.
Soon, his pancakes were delivered to his table.
Unlike the regular food stalls that just served their pancakes wrapped in paper and a plastic bag, this shop served their food up in an exquisite bamboo basket. The pancakes sat on a napkin, and the shop even provided a fork and knife.
Ming Shu couldn't help but think that using a fork and knife to eat egg pancakes was like taking off your pants to pass gas. It was just too excessive. But, in the end, he did still pick up the fork and knife, properly cutting into his food.
Halfway through his meal, the kids posing by the hanging chair took off. No one else went over to take the seat for a while.
Ming Shu liked to observe people. Now, with no one left to observe, he suddenly thought back to the last time he'd had fried egg pancakes. He'd been out investigating Sha Chun's case with Fang Yuanhang at the time.
Fang Yuanhang, that guy… although his skills as a detective were growing rapidly, he seemed to have taken a wrong turn somewhere. And he was just getting weirder and weirder. He'd even said something a while ago about wanting to have a heart-to-heart chat.
Ming Shu checked the time. It was still early, so he figured he may as well give Fang Yuanhang a call.
"Chief!" Fang Yuanhang answered right away. A burst of noise came over the line, blasting straight into Ming Shu's ear.
Ming Shu hurriedly pulled his phone away from his ear. "Where are you? Why is it so noisy?"
"I'm out with my friend!" Fang Yuanhang shouted back. "We're getting net-famous cakes!"
Ah, net-famous food again. In this day and age, even cakes had to be worthy of being put online to reel in customers.
Ming Shu laughed. "Where are you getting 'net-famous' cakes?"
"Xinghong Street," Fang Yuanhang reported. Then, he suddenly exclaimed, "Oh, shit! Chief, there isn't a new case, is there? I haven't even had a full day off yet!"
"No case, don't get yourself worked up," Ming Shu said. He thought for a moment and decided against asking Fang Yuanhang what he'd wanted to have a 'heart-to-heart' about. He probably wouldn't get a straight answer even if he asked now. "Forget it. Have fun, we'll talk later."
"Chief, no! Don't be like that," Fang Yuanhang protested. "If you leave it at that, I'll never be able to stop thinking about it!"
Along with Fang Yuanhang's words, another voice drifted over across the line. "Is that the 'stallion waist' gege? Is it? Is it? Is it?!"
MIng Shu guessed right away that the person with Fang Yuanhang was that little gay kid named Yu Dalong. That kid was clearly quite an energetic monkey, and he'd proven useful at a critical moment in the investigation.
But Fang Yuanhang was as straight as an arrow. How'd he get mixed up with that kid? And they'd even gone shopping together on the first day of Fang Yuanhang's break?
Fang Yuanhang was probably out buying 'net-famous' cake to keep Yu Dalong company, right?
Ming Shu's interest was piqued. "Didn't you say you wanted to talk to me about something? Come over, I'll treat you to fried egg pancakes."
"Fried egg pancakes again?" Fang Yuanhang echoed.
"Say yes!" Yu Dalong shrieked.
Less than twenty minutes later, Fang Yuanhang and Yu Dalong arrived at the shop.
As soon as Yu Dalong saw Ming Shu, his eyes lit up, like he was meeting his idol.
Ming Shu ordered a deluxe pancake meal for each of them.
The 'deluxe' part of that meal referred to the fact that the pancakes came with some extra ingredients, as well as a cup of boba milk tea.
Fang Yuanhang really did want to have a serious talk with his chief. He wanted to find a good opportunity to casually ask who his chief was seeing, but with Yu Dalong there, it definitely wasn't the right time.
So Fang Yuanhang decided to keep quiet and muddle through this conversation without bringing it up.
Yu Dalong was extremely friendly and outgoing. He stretched out a skinny arm and introduced himself right away. "Hello, Chief! My name is Yu Dalong, we met once before at Mao'nian Skycity. I used to be in charge of the model Liu Mei."
Ming Shu shook Yu Dalong's hand and thought, Chief? You're copying Fang Yuanhang and calling me 'Chief'?
Fang Yuanhang pointedly nudged Yu Dalong.
Ming Shu smiled and said, "You two are on good terms."
Yu Dalong let out a silly laugh. "The cake shop on Xinghong Street has been open for almost half a month already. Fang-ge couldn't fulfill a promise he made me before, so he bought me cake to make up for it."
Fang Yuanhang grumpily thought, Aren't you meeting your 'stallion waist' gege now? Who says I didn't fulfill my promise?
Ming Shu hummed. "Oh? Is that how it is?"
Yu Dalong didn't say anything else at that. He just laughed.
Ming Shu looked towards Fang Yuanhang, and Fang Yuanhang abruptly averted his gaze.
Now, Ming Shu was really curious. Fang Yuanhang wasn't acting like he'd been bent. He was probably just getting along as ordinary friends with Yu Dalong.
So what was Fang Yuanhang so anxious about?
Just as he was mulling that over, Ming Shu's cell phone rang.
It was Xiao Yu'an.
The meeting was probably over.
Ming Shu took the call. Taking into consideration the fact that he had some spectators here, he waited until he'd moved to the door to say, "Ge."
Fang Yuanhang's ears pricked up. His detective instincts left him restless.
Yu Dalong also pricked up his ears. The two of them both held their breath.
"Where are you?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Having some egg pancakes," Ming Shu said. "You're done?"
"Mm. I'll go find you," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu glanced into the store. Fang Yuanhang and Yu Dalong instantly ducked their heads, focusing on their pancakes.
"Wait at the corner of Lanzhuang Street. I'll pick you up there." After saying that, Ming Shu hung up and went back to grab his things. "I'm heading out first. Do you guys have enough to eat? If not, I'll order something else."
Fang Yuanhang swallowed a big bite along with a mouthful of milk tea. "Chief, you have plans?"
Ming Shu didn't give him a clear answer.
Yu Dalong held up a beautifully wrapped box. "Chief, this is for you!"
Ming Shu lifted his brows. "Isn't this what you guys stood in line for so long to buy? You're giving it to me?"
"You treated us to pancakes, after all!" Yu Dalong said.
Ming Shu didn't argue. "Alright, then. Thank you."
Two minutes later—
"Why are you such a kiss-up?" Fang Yuanhang demanded. "Who was it who said they would cry if they didn't get to eat that cake?"
Yu Dalong smiled contentedly and said, "If my idol gets to eat it, it's the same as me eating it!"
Fang Yuanhang swiftly packed up the rest of his pancake. "Quit dawdling, let's go!"
"What's the rush?" Yu Dalong didn't understand. "I haven't finished eating."
"Then just catch up to me later," Fang Yuanhang said. "I'm heading out first."
"Hey, where are you going?"
By the time Yu Dalong rushed out of the store, Fang Yuanhang was already nowhere to be seen.
At the intersection of Lanzhuang Street, Ming Shu stopped the car to wait for Xiao Yu'an.
Fang Yuanhang stared from afar as he watched Xiao Yu'an open the door and climb into the passenger seat. He was thoroughly dumbstruck.
His chief… had called the highly revered Deputy Director Xiao Yu'an… 'ge'?
What kind of 'ge' was this 'ge'?
It wasn't the 'ge' that meant his actual brother, was it?
As the car pulled away, Yu Dalong finally caught up to Fang Yuanhang. He patted the back of Fang Yuanhang, who seemed to have been petrified and turned to stone. "Hey, it's only been a few minutes since I last saw you. What turned you stupid?"
Fang Yuanhang scrubbed his hands over his face and turned back to look at Yu Dalong.
Yu Dalong took a step back. "Fang-ge… what's going on with you, Fang-ge?"
Fang Yuanhang shook his head. "I just discovered a shocking secret."
Yu Dalong instantly perked up at that. "What secret? What secret? We're buddies, we're pals, we're practically brothers, aren't we? Brothers always share their secrets!"
"Outstanding people will always flock to other outstanding people," Fang Yuanhang said.
A leader would always get together with another leader.
Yu Dalong slouched with obvious disappointment. "Ugh, what kind of secret is that?"
"Your cake is gone, isn't it?" Fang Yuanhang gave Yu Dalong's shoulder a push, gesturing for him to turn and start walking. "I'll go buy another one from Xinghong Street with you."
Meanwhile, Ming Shu started driving south. Xiao Yu'an asked, "Why did you think of this only now? The season for crayfish is already past."
"It doesn't matter what we eat," Ming Shu said. "All that matters is who you're eating with."
Xiao Yu'an laughed. "Your mouth really knows how to talk."
At just that moment, Ming Shu turned off the main street and onto a smaller road.
An idea had suddenly sprung into his mind. He drove straight into a nearby parking space and stopped the car.
The place in front of that parking spot didn't look like a crayfish restaurant. Xiao Yu'an looked over at Ming Shu, but before he could even ask if they were at the right place, he saw Ming Shu unbuckle his seatbelt.
It was already obvious what his little boyfriend wanted.
Ming Shu leaned over, bracing himself with one hand on the back of Xiao Yu'an's seat. He cupped Xiao Yu'an's chin with his other hand and murmured, practically speaking against Xiao Yu'an's lips, "Forget about talking. Isn't the most important thing that this mouth knows how to kiss?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled and embraced Ming Shu, accepting a kiss from those lips.