Upon realizing Director Li had been standing behind him and observing him this whole time, Ming Shu was overcome by a strange sensation.
It was like an unpleasant sensation, but not only unpleasant.
Ming Shu had been working under Director Li ever since he came to Dongye City's Criminal Investigation Bureau. In terms of his investigative skills, Director Li couldn't actually match up to some of the more seasoned police officers who regularly worked in the field. He was much less of a match for people like Xiao Yu'an, who'd come from special ops with a special 'sense' for these things.
But strong investigative skills weren't all that mattered for the director of a bureau. Directors also needed to have excellent managerial skills and the ability to keep the big picture in mind.
No one was more suitable to hold the position of Director of the Criminal Investigation Bureau than Director Li.
Ming Shu had always thought it was a very comforting thing to have a director who was so good at withstanding pressure and mediating conflicts between different divisions.
But right now, Director Li's gaze was making Ming Shu feel distinctly uncomfortable.
Ming Shu reacted quickly enough to not allow any of that emotion to show on his face. He breezily asked, "Director Li, did you just see Captain Liang? Was he looking for you?"
"No, he wasn't looking for me," Director Li said. "Maybe he came back because he had some business here."
"Has Captain Liang already transferred over to the Bei District precinct?" Ming Shu asked.
"What, do you need him for something?" Director Li countered.
"Well, Captain Liang used to be our leader and all. Lots of the guys in the Serious Crimes Division don't know about his transfer to Bei District." Ming Shu smiled. "We have to at least find time to have a meal with him, right?"
"Can you really find the time right now?" Director Li asked with a laugh. "Liang Zhao told me there's no need to be all formal about this. Besides, his transfer is only temporary. It isn't like he won't ever be back."
Ming Shu took that in stride and said, "That's true. Then, once Captain Liang returns, I'll make a date to eat with him."
Director Li swept aside the subject and asked, "How's the Mount Qiyue case coming along?"
"Still in the preliminary stages," Ming Shu reported.
"Mm, keep at it." Director Li smiled again, then jokingly added, "If you run into any problems, do your best to bring them up with Director Xiao. You're out of my hands now."
Ming Shu smiled. "I understand."
After saying his piece, Director Li made his way downstairs. Ming Shu waited for a while after he left, then finally went off to talk to Xiao Yu'an about contacting special ops.
Xiao Yu'an called Shen Xun right in front of Ming Shu, efficiently arranging everything Ming Shu requested. It was only after Xiao Yu'an had made that quick call that Ming Shu mentioned running into Liang Zhao and Director Li outside.
"I was hiding in a corner watching Liang Zhao, and Director Li was watching me from another corner." Ming Shu tsked. "Isn't this image a bit weird?"
"Do you suspect there's something going on with Director Li?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu shook his head. "I didn't say that at all. Director Li is about to retire, he wouldn't get up to anything. But it was just a feeling… a feeling of discomfort, I guess."
At that time, Yi Fei called with the news that Xiong Hanqiang had been planning to leave Shouquan. He'd already gotten his car on the freeway when the officers rushing to Shouquan to speak to him stopped him en route and brought him back to the Serious Crimes Division.
"I was running from a debt! I've got nothing to do with those two women!" Xiong Hanqiang declared, sitting anxiously in the interrogation room. "I only drove them to Mount Qiyue, I didn't do anything else! I work in Shouquan and sometimes take on some passengers. You can check my driving records. Those two women hailed down my car. I drove them to Mount Qiyue. And they paid me fifty yuan."
As he spoke, he took out his phone with trembling hands and scrolled through his WeChat transaction logs. "Look, this is the money they sent me. If I spoke a single word of a lie here, you can send me to jail right now!"
The trip between the bus station on West Tianxing Road and Mount Qiyue was about thirty kilometers, and there was no public transportation that made the trip. Now, with the onset of autumn, plenty of private drivers waited around West Tianxing Road to pick up passengers.
Ming Shu was wearing earbuds. The field work team was just in the middle of reporting to him on Xiong Hanqiang's family situation.
Xiong Hanqiang was in the business of selling fertilizer. He had one elderly father, a wife, and two daughters at home. His family had originally been fairly stable, in terms of finances, but starting from last year, the fertilizer business in Shouquan had become tougher to deal in. Xiong Hanqiang had struggled to make ends meet, working like his life depended on it to earn money. When Mount Qiyue became a net-famous tourist destination, he'd ridden that wave and started acting as a driver to tourists. On his busiest days, he could earn one thousand yuan just from driving people around.
But just taking passengers wasn't enough to make up for the loss of business in his fertilizer business. Debt collectors had started banging on his door practically every day.
This man—who had been a filial son and a loving husband and father until then—actually chose to run away from home.
Once Ming Shu had the general idea of Xiong Hanqiang's background in mind, he turned to the man and asked, "What did Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan say in the car?"
"They just talked about the leaves on Mount Qiyue," Xiong Hanqiang said. "I told them it was still too early to be making the trip. I told them the leaves wouldn't be yellow for another week, at least."
"Did they ask you any questions?" Ming Shu continued.
Xiong Hanqiang lowered his head and thought back. "Oh, that's right! One of the women asked to add me on WeChat. She said she wanted to call me to pick them up again once they got back down the mountain!"
The expression in Ming Shu's eyes changed slightly. "You didn't go?"
"They didn't call me!" Xiong Hanqiang spread his hands helplessly. He was just a man in his forties, but his face was already greasy and wrinkled, weathered by life. "I figured they found another car, and I just drive people in my spare time anyway. I have my own life at night."
This 'life', as Xiong Hanqiang called it, was playing mahjong with his friends and neighbors.
The logistics team had already verified that detail.
Ming Shu continued that line of questioning for the time being. "Since they wanted you to drive them back as well, they should have told you approximately when they would be coming down the mountain."
"They did," Xiong Hanqiang admitted with a nod. "It gets dark on the mountain at seven, and I dropped them off before noon. They said they would be out before dark at the latest, so that would be around six or so. No later than seven."
That meant the victims had planned on coming back down before dark, but they were killed in the mountains well after dark. Whatever changed their plans must have happened in the few hours after they went up the mountain. Specifically, it must have happened in the afternoon, after they passed Haijing Temple.
Ming Shu paced up and down the hallway, lightly rubbing at his eyes with his right hand.
It was almost a sure thing now that the victims had been killed at night. But what was their reason for not making it down the mountain before dark?
"They wanted to photograph a more beautiful view," Xiao Yu'an suggested. He appeared at Ming Shu's side with a paper cup in one hand, which looked to contain hot coffee.
Ming Shu accepted the cup and took a sip, realizing only then that it was a semi-sweet latte.
"It's actually quite easy to understand. Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan went to Mount Qiyue to photograph the golden ginkgo leaves," Xiao Yu'an said. "Their thought process was similar to Fang Yuanhang's. They were all influenced by popular 'influencers', and they all wanted to go to this net-famous spot to take pictures.
"The victims didn't have their own car. To reach Mount Qiyue, they had to go to the trouble of taking a bus, then a private car. Since they'd gone to all that effort, they must have thought, why not make our way to the most beautiful place on this mountain?
"And four days ago, before the cold snap, where would the most beautiful place on Mount Qiyue have been?"
"The higher up you go, the more yellow leaves you'd find," Ming Shu said. "They didn't make it back before dark because they climbed too high and misjudged the time?"
"The conditions at the peak of Mount Qiyue are very rough," Xiao Yu'an said. "It's very possible that two girls could climb up and not be able to get back down."
"Then the murderer appeared when they were in peril, by coincidence?" Ming Shu mused. He furrowed his brows. "That does check out."
"How's the investigation into their social circles going?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Xu Chun is still looking into the bar where they worked," Ming Shu said. "Lu Chen's parents are currently abroad, and they're rushing back now. Zhao Siyan's mother has already arrived."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. Just before Ming Shu left, he called out to him again.
Ming Shu turned back around. "Hm?"
Xiao Yu'an lifted a hand and wiped at the corner of Ming Shu's lips.
Ming Shu almost reflexively bit down on Xiao Yu'an's finger.
After wiping the milk foam off Ming Shu's lips, Xiao Yu'an slapped him on the waist and said, "Go on."
Wei Rumei, Zhao Siyan's mother, was a capable woman in her fifties. When she returned from identifying Zhao Siyan's body, she was crying her heart out.
"It's all our fault! Her father and I were the ones who caused bad people to set their sights on her!" Wei Rumei wailed. She was covering the upper half of her face with both hands. Her face, bare of makeup, was drenched with tears of remorse.
"Why do you say that?" Ming Shu asked.
"Siyan was always spoiled by us when she was growing up. She never knew any hardships. When she tested into the University of Dongye for graduate school, I joked with her father that she was all grown up now. A proper adult, who could pay for her own living expenses." Wei Rumei choked up at that point, then forced herself to continue, "Siyan wanted to prove she was strong, so she went to a bar to work with her friend."
"You knew she was working part-time at a bar?" Ming Shu asked.
That was rather suspicious.
Usually, when parents found out their daughters were working part-time at places like bars or nightclubs, they would try to put a stop to that kind of work. Especially parents in families like Zhao Siyan's. But it seemed Wei Rumei knew, yet didn't do anything to stop her daughter.
"I was all mixed up at the time. She was so stubborn, insisting she didn't want to use our money anymore. I had to compromise and let her do as she pleased." Wei Rumei shook her head without pause. "She was just an innocent girl. She must have been preyed upon by the people from that bar!"
Nan District's entertainment district. Linshen Jianlu.
Upon learning two of their female employees had been killed, the boss of Linshen Jianlu, Shi Niannian, was endlessly shocked. "You haven't made some mistake, have you?"
Xu Chun had already procured the bar's work schedule, which showed that Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan only had the night of the 13th off. They were on the schedule for the past three nights.
"These two didn't come to work, and they didn't call in sick. You didn't know anything about that?" Xu Chun asked.
"I…" Shi Niannian was already in her thirties, but looked like she was only in her twenties. When facing the police, her gaze drifted restlessly. "I don't come to the bar every day. It's usually the manager who oversees the staff."
The manager Shi Niannian mentioned was named You Lin. Upon being questioned about Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan missing work, You Lin's reaction was more or less the same as Shi Niannian's.
"I knew they didn't come in, but they're just part-time workers. It's not unheard of for part-timers to just decide they want to quit. There's no need for me to go looking for them, is there? Besides, these past few days have all been weekdays. We weren't too busy, so even without the two of them showing up, we could manage."
That explanation more or less checked out. Xu Chun went on to ask, "What kind of work did they do here? Were there any customers they were especially close to?"
You Lin evaded the question. "What kind of place do you think this is?"
"Did I say something that I shouldn't have said?" Xu Chun retorted.
You Lin froze, then hurriedly answered, "Lu Chen was a bartender. Zhao Siyan also wanted to learn how to be a bartender, but her skills weren't up to par. She stayed a waitress the whole time."
"You haven't finished answering what I asked." Xu Chun's gaze sharpened. "Were there any customers they were especially close to?"
"That…" You Lin hesitated. "I'm not in a good position to say."
Xu Chun loaded up He Yi's photo on his tablet. "Is this person a regular customer of yours?"
You Lin took a close look. "I don't remember him."
"Think some more."
"I understand your wish to protect the privacy of your customers, but this case is no small matter," Xu Chun said. "Manager You, I advise you not to hide anything you know."
After a long silence, You Lin finally said, "He… he once pursued Zhao Siyan. Whenever Zhao Siyan was working here, he would be here too. He once asked us for Zhao Siyan's real name too—all our waitresses use aliases here. Zhao Siyan wasn't attracted to him, though. I heard Lu Chen even found some people to beat him up."
Xu Chun immediately reported his findings to Ming Shu.
"He Yi wasn't only rejected by Zhao Siyan. He was also beaten up by people hired by Lu Chen?" Ming Shu muttered into his phone as he stood in the hallway. "Then he does have a motive to commit this crime. What about other customers? Did anything else stick out at Linshen Jianlu? What about on that whole street?"
"The owner of Linshen Jianlu, Shi Niannian, reacted a bit strangely to the news of the victims' deaths," Xu Chun said. "But there was nothing else."
"Strange in what way?" Ming Shu asked.
"She seemed to fear being investigated, she seemed to fear the police." Xu Chun laughed. "I look a bit rough around the edges, you know."
Ming Shu hadn't personally gone out to meet Shi Niannian. Based solely on Xu Chun's impression of her and her reaction to the news about Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan, Ming Shu couldn't confidently conclude whether or not she was relevant to their case.
Everyone had their secrets. Shi Niannian's evasiveness when talking to Xu Chun was very likely caused by something unrelated to the case at hand.
"Where are you now?" Ming Shu asked.
"Still in the entertainment district," Xu Chun said. "I called you as soon as I stepped out of Linshen Jianlu, didn't I?"
"Go to the Cultural Bureau right away. Find He Yi."
Dongye City. Cultural Bureau.
That evening, He Yi was intercepted by Xu Chun as soon as he stepped out of his office building.
"Who are you?" He Yi asked.
Xu Chun sized up this ordinary-looking man. Average height, seemingly not too brave. Xu Chun couldn't help but feel a little disappointed.
He Yi had met Zhao Siyan at Linshen Jianlu. Then he pursued her—or, rather, harassed her. He was later rejected by Zhao Siyan and beaten up by people hired by Lu Chen. That was certainly enough of a reason for He Yi to hold a grudge against the two victims, and thus a motive for him to commit the crime.
However, with his physique and temperament, he simply didn't seem like the sort of person who could have stabbed two adults cleanly through the temporal bone.
But no matter what, the amount of suspicion on this person wasn't small. They had to get to the bottom of things.
Xu Chun flashed his badge. "Do you know Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan?"
He Yi's expression instantly changed. His eyes filled up with surprise, and even fear. "They… they…"
"It seems you have a very deep impression of them." Xu Chun pulled open the door to his car. "Let's go. Come have a chat with me at the Bureau."
He Yi took a step back, looking very reluctant.
Xu Chun raised his eyebrows. "What?"
"I still have work. I have to work overtime tonight," He Yi said, gazing at the building behind him.
It was the end of normal working hours, and most people were leaving the office at that time. Many people were coming out of the building, and several of them even greeted He Yi when they passed.
To anyone who worked at a place like the Cultural Bureau, a stain on their character was what they feared most. And being investigated by the police was certainly the darkest stain imaginable. In just a few minutes of conversing with Xu Chun, He Yi had already started to sweat through his shirt. Visible patches of wetness appeared at his armpits.
"Little He?" A slightly plump woman in her fifties passed by at that time. "I saw you step outside ages ago. How come you haven't gone to dinner yet?"
The woman glanced at Xu Chun once she finished speaking, and added, "Is this a friend?"
Xu Chun wasn't wearing a police uniform, and he didn't look like a typical cop. The way he looked when he stood next to He Yi, and the expression on He Yi's face, gave off the impression that He Yi had found some trouble with a normal civilian.
Xu Chun was perfectly aware he didn't look like a detective. He turned to the woman and greeted her with a smile.
The woman instantly narrowed her eyes defensively.
"Yes, he's… he's my friend," He Yi hastily answered. "Director Gong, my friend is here today, so I won't be eating at the cafeteria."
The woman seemed to sense that something wasn't right about the atmosphere here. She persistently asked, "Little He, are you really okay?"
He Yi smiled anxiously. "I'm fine, I'm fine. Director Gong, please go ahead to the cafeteria."
After the woman left, Xu Chun smiled coldly and said, "Get in the car."
He Yi grit his teeth tightly. He took a few steps towards the car, but just as he seemed like he would reach for the door handle, he turned abruptly and started sprinting off towards a small side alley.
But how could Xu Chun possibly let him get away?
As soon as He Yi turned, Xu Chun had determined that he intended to run. Before He Yi could even take two full steps, Xu Chun had grabbed him and thrown him into the back of the car.
"I didn't commit any crime! What right do you have to arrest me?" He Yi demanded, somewhat timidly, as the car started to move.
"Then why did you just run?" Xu Chun retorted. "I only intended to bring you in to assist with our investigation. Do you understand the meaning of the word 'assist'?"
"You'll disrupt my work life like this," He Yi said. "Everyone will know I was taken away by the police!"
"Then shouldn't you reflect on why the police didn't take anyone else away, only you?"
"I—!" He Yi suddenly looked like he'd been prodded in his weak spot. He fell silent and remained silent for the rest of the trip to the Bureau.
Serious Crimes Division. Interrogation room.
"How do you know Zhao Siyan?" Ming Shu asked.
He Yi lowered his head. After a long while, he said, "I don't know anyone by that name."
Ming Shu tapped his index finger on the table. "There's no need to tell such an obvious lie, is there? We have the surveillance footage from Linshen Jianlu, and we have the records of your communications with Zhao Siyan. The evidence proves you not only knew each other, but you had a dispute."
"But wasn't that thing resolved a long time ago?" He Yi protested, becoming anxious and worked up. "Could she have filed another police report saying I harassed her? It was already settled back then!"
"What 'thing' was settled?" Ming Shu asked.
As though he hadn't heard Ming Shu speak, He Yi anxiously continued, "That's right, I pursued her, but I only pursued her. I didn't do anything else to her. But she—she got people to beat me up. Isn't that the real crime here? The one who took a beating was me. Even if she's playing innocent and reporting me now, you shouldn't be here investigating me, right?"
Ming Shu narrowed his eyes. "You believe I've brought you here because Zhao Siyan filed a police report against you?"
"What else could it be for?" He Yi asked. "I swear, after she and her friend reported me to the police that first time, I never went near her again!"
"They're already dead," Ming Shu suddenly said.
He Yi froze for a few seconds, like a crashing computer. After a stunned silence, he blurted out, "Dead? Who's dead?"
Ming Shu fixed his gaze on He Yi as he slowly stated, "Zhao Siyan. Lu Chen."
He Yi's jaw went slack. His mouth hung open, and the light in his pupils was almost frozen in place. It was a perfect expression of absolute shock.
After another thirty seconds or so, he suddenly leapt out of his seat. Spittle flew past his lips as he exclaimed, "You think I killed them?!"
"Sit down." Ming Shu avoided the spit that nearly splattered on his face. Patiently, he continued, "Right now, you only need to answer a few of my questions. First, on October 13th, where were you?"
He Yi was extremely worked up. He couldn't hear Ming Shu's questions at all. He continued, "It definitely wasn't me! How could I possibly kill anyone? You guys are mistaken, I want to go back! You guys have to believe me. Back then, they were the ones who had me assaulted. They were the ones who threatened me. I wasn't even brave enough to report them to the police. How could I kill anyone?!"