A 'family extermination' case. A missing person case. And the 1013 case. Countless threads from these three cases intertwined. Had anyone else been in charge of the investigations, they would have lost their bearings a long time ago. Even the Ming Shu from a year ago might have struggled to simultaneously hold the reins of these three complex cases.
But things were different now. After all, Ming Shu had spent the past year training with special ops—and what kind of place was special ops? It was where all the most serious unresolved cases from across the nation were scrutinized. The clues and leads in such cases could be breathtakingly complicated.
After gaining experience in an environment like that, Ming Shu had evolved in terms of his critical thinking skills and his ability to see more broadly and more clearly. Plus, he had Xiao Yu'an watching over him now, like an indomitable mountain. If Ming Shu truly hit a wall, he could always rely on Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu's mind was full of tangled thoughts. After finishing his chicken soup and crab roe dumplings, he shut himself up in a small conference room and privately sorted through those thoughts for a while. Then, finally, he called Yi Fei over.
Yi Fei already knew what to expect. "We'll split up and investigate both cases, right?"
"Right," Ming Shu confirmed. "Qin Xu has become a solid link between these two cases. He was the first to discover the bodies of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan, and he took pictures. He was also the first to find the bodies of the victims in Unit 5-8, and he took pictures of them as well.
"But we're still in the very early stages of our investigations, and Qin Xu is someone with a very twisted psychology. We can't analyze him by an ordinary person's rationale. He's forcibly tied these two cases together, but his presence and influence could be something that distracts us from the truth."
Ming Shu drummed his fingers against the cover of his notebook, then decided, "Let's do this. I'll focus on the 5-8 case, and you focus on Mount Qiyue. We'll stay in contact about everything."
"Sounds good." Yi Fei nodded. "I've spent a while looking into Zhan Li already, and I didn't get a chance to update you on that before everything with the Qin family happened."
"What did Zhan Li say?" Ming Shu asked.
"Zhan Li's hatred for Lu Chen was caused by jealousy, pure and simple. We could tell based on her posts on her private Weibo. Her jealousy has only grown stronger and stronger since her first year of grad school. In March of this year, she poured fengyoujing into Lu Chen's tea as an 'experiment'. That proves that she had plans to poison Lu Chen to death, and she's had those plans for months.
"She admitted to following Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan to Mount Qiyue on October 13th with the intention of killing Lu Chen on the mountain. If the opportunity arose, she would have killed Zhao Siyan as well."
Yi Fei paused there for a moment, then continued, "But then she gave herself a defense. She said the forest on the mountain was truly too big, much larger than she'd anticipated. She couldn't find Lu Chen or Zhao Siyan before nightfall. Not only that, she even got lost on the mountain."
"Lost?" Ming Shu gave that some thought. "We can't rule out that possibility."
"That's what I thought as well," Yi Fei said. "Zhan Li went to Mount Qiyue purely on impulse. Until the 13th, she'd planned on poisoning Lu Chen. She only followed Lu Chen to Mount Qiyue that day because she suddenly thought the mountain would be a good place to commit the murder and hide a body.
"Since this was a spur of the moment decision, Zhan Li hadn't ever visited Mount Qiyue before. She couldn't be said to have been familiar with the area. It would have been normal for her to lose her way on her first trip there."
"Did she ever make it to Haijing Temple, halfway up the mountain?" Ming Shu asked.
"She didn't get there," Yi Fei said. "Zhan Li said that she was still trying to find her way when she heard the sound of drums, signifying the sunset, coming from higher up the mountain."
Ming Shu's right eyebrow arched upwards. "Are you saying that she claimed she heard the sounds of these drums and found herself suddenly filled with zen, calmed to the point of dispelling the murderous thoughts and intentions in her heart?"
Yi Fei's eyes widened. "Hey, not bad. That's pretty accurate."
"She wouldn't have mentioned the drums for any other reason," Ming Shu said.
"That's the gist of what she said, yeah. But there are still some complications—Zhan Li didn't come to her senses as soon as she heard the monks ringing the bell. According to her, she calmed down a lot, but still felt some hesitation.
"On the one hand, she still wanted Lu Chen to die. On the other hand, she didn't want to sink so low. Moreover, she was on Mount Qiyue, where she now knew there was a temple. She doesn't believe in any god or Buddha, but she still didn't want to brand herself a murderer in a place associated with a 'higher power'.
"And so, she didn't climb any higher up the mountain. But she was unwilling to just go back down. She stayed in place and struggled with her dilemma for a long time, until it was very late in the evening. Even then, she still hadn't made up her mind."
"Wait," Ming Shu said. "Zhan Li said she got lost on her way up the mountain. It was already afternoon at that point. How did she find her way back down after dark?"
"That's the critical part," Yi Fei said. "Zhan Li said she got scared as it got dark. She pushed all thoughts of whether or not she should kill Lu Chen to the back of her mind and only thought of hurrying down the mountain, but she really couldn't find her way."
"And that was when someone appeared to guide her down the mountain?"
"Who was it?" Ming Shu asked.
Yi Fei shook his head. "A man who wasn't too old, claiming to be a backpacker. But Zhan Li said there wasn't much light at the time. She didn't get a good look at him."
"A man," Ming Shu murmured. "A backpacker. Unable to get a good look at him…"
"You suspect Zhan Li is lying?" Yi Fei asked.
"No," Ming Shu said. "I'm only concerned about identifying this man."
"Hm?" Yi Fei questioned.
"Zhan Li wouldn't have lied unless she'd done something which she needed to lie to cover up. For example, if she really had killed Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan," Ming Shu said. "But Zhan Li's explanation of her own actions and thought process does more or less check out. Besides, Zhan Li is good at martial arts, but Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were killed by sharp weapons. Zhan Li went up the mountain spontaneously, in a hurry. When would she have had time to prepare those ten iron nails?"
"I also think the chances of her being the killer are low," Yi Fei said. "On the night of the 13th, she was caught on surveillance cameras when she took the Route 308 bus home. Her face, in that footage, just didn't look like the face of a person who had recently brutally murdered two classmates."
"Then assuming she isn't lying, this 'backpacker' appeared at a very peculiar moment," Ming Shu said. "Zhan Li got lost, and she couldn't even find anyone to ask for directions. That means she must have been on an infrequently used trail. She was going up the mountain with the intention of killing someone, so it was only natural for her to try to pick a lesser-used road.
"But why was that man taking the same road? What was his reason for being on the mountain? Why did he run into Zhan Li so coincidentally, and even help her down the mountain?"
"I see your point," Yi Fei said, scribbling down some notes in his notepad. "I'll talk to Zhan Li again."
The little conference room fell silent for a moment.
"Fang Yuanhang will be with me this time," Yi Fei said. "He's been looking into Haijing Temple all this time."
"Ah, I almost forgot." Ming Shu took out a stamped document and passed it over to Yi Fei. "Fang Yuanhang applied for a search warrant for Haijing Temple. It's been approved."
With their tasks neatly divided, Yi Fei gathered up his team and rushed out to Shouquan. Before Ming Shu could call his own team to discuss the case of Qin Xiong's family, he received a call from Lan Qiao.
Once Lan Qiao's squadron of policewomen got to work on a case, their efficiency was quite high. They had already tracked down the person who'd delivered takeout to Qiu Min, in Shouquan, on October 14th.
After Lan Qiao arrived at the Serious Crimes Division again, she and Ming Shu sat at the same table while Shen Lan stood behind them. The tablet on the table played a clip of an interrogation.
The takeout driver said that Qiu Min's order was relatively odd. The order that had come from Mr. Qiu hadn't contained a specific address. Instead, the driver had been instructed to go to Fusan Lane of Hongshu Street, and to call the customer once he'd arrived.
"I was afraid of being late, so I called as soon as I got to Hongshu Street," the driver said. "After about five minutes, I saw a guy in a baseball cap come out from Fusan Lane. He said he was Mr. Qiu, and I also called his phone to confirm, so I handed over his order."
The officer in charge of questioning the driver asked, "Do you remember what this Mr. Qiu looked like?"
The driver thought back for a long while, then smiled sheepishly. "Sorry, I really see way too many people every day. I can't remember clearly. But if you guys have a picture of him, I might be able to recognize him."
The officer took out a total of five photos of Qiu Min, including his ID photo as well as photos from his everyday life.
The driver studied the photos for a long time, looking more and more confused by the second. "No, I don't think it was this person. He doesn't look like the guy I saw. He's too handsome, too pale. The guy I saw wasn't this handsome."
After scrutinizing the photos for a while longer, the driver definitively declared, "Definitely not this person! I know at least that much!"
Lan Qiao stopped the video of the interrogation at that point. "Captain Ming."
Ming Shu stood up and tucked his hands into his pants pockets. "On the 14th, someone used Qiu Min's cell phone to order takeout online. Not only that, they personally picked up the order. There are two possibilities—
"One, Qiu Min has been killed, and this person wanted to create the illusion that Qiu Min is still alive. Two, Qiu Min is somewhere else, for whatever reason, and this person is helping to create the illusion that Qiu Min is in Shouquan."
"It's an illusion either way," Lan Qiao mused. She sighed and continued, "My team has already canvassed the area around Hongshu Street. That's the oldest part of Shouquan. All the buildings are squat little bungalows, and there isn't any monitoring equipment on Fusan Lane at all.
"The delivery driver even mentioned that he didn't really want to take that order when he received it, because that area is too much of a mess, and the people who live on Hongshu Street don't usually order takeout."
"Do any of the residents there have any impression of Qiu Min?" Ming Shu asked.
"No, they all said they'd never seen Qiu Min before," Lan Qiao said. "As for the man in the baseball cap who picked up the order, we weren't able to create a sketch of him since the delivery driver couldn't remember what he looked like. We could only ask very generally about him, and we didn't get any useful information there."
"This 'body double' is most likely very familiar with Shouquan. He knows where he can appear without drawing attention to himself, and he knows where there isn't any surveillance," Ming Shu said. He paused for a few seconds, then asked, "What other clues have you found?"
Lan Qiao leaned back in her chair and didn't answer right away.
Ming Shu turned to her. "What is it?"
"Maybe I'm not thinking broadly enough, but I just can't fathom any reason for Qiu Min disappearing of his own volition," Lan Qiao said. "Before he disappeared, Qiu Min was living a good life. We checked out his work emails and the records on his streaming platform, and we've contacted around a dozen of his business associates. They all said that Qiu Min had already signed contracts with them for product endorsements that would span the rest of the year.
"On October 4th, the last day Qiu Min posted to his Weibo, he also sent one of his business partners an email to discuss plans for a promotional video for the upcoming month. There was just no reason for him to disappear so suddenly."
"It's not that you aren't thinking broadly enough," Ming Shu reassured. "It's just that all the clues in front of us are pointing to one explanation—most likely, Qiu Min has already been killed."
Lan Qiao took a deep breath. "There are quite a few people who have a motive to kill him."
As soon as Lan Qiao first brought the case to the Serious Crimes Division, Ming Shu had started to consider who could be the killer, if it turned out Qiu Min had indeed been murdered.
Of course, if Qiu Min had actually disappeared of his own volition, he could very well have thoroughly prepared an illusion to mislead the police into thinking that he was busily working right up to the moment of his disappearance.
The police had already been misled once, in the case of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan.
"Qiu Min's social circle was very small. We've already reached out to everyone who was in recent contact with him." It was Shen Lan who spoke now. "These are all people who work with him. Qiu Min has never been in a relationship, and he doesn't have any close friends. He's also been seeing his old acquaintances from the law firm less and less frequently. In fact, he basically hasn't seen them at all in the past six months or so.
"That's why we believe, if something did happen to Qiu Min, it likely had something to do with his work."
"You know about the Shrimp Baobao situation, right?" Ming Shu asked.
Lan Qiao sorrowfully answered, "I did initially suspect the owner of Shrimp Baobao. But…"
Ming Shu's gaze suddenly flickered. "Did you guys already check out Shrimp Baobao?"
"We haven't had time yet," Lan Qiao said. "I know what you want to ask. If we'd gone out there, maybe we would have gotten some clues about the 'family extermination' case too. But… I'm sorry."
Ming Shu shook his head. "There's nothing to be sorry for, I just thought I'd ask. So, are there any other shops like Shrimp Baobao?"
"Quite a few," Lan Qiao said. "I have some suspects in mind, but it's not easy to say anything for sure yet."
"Okay." Ming Shu smiled. "You go ahead and keep investigating this case. I'll leave it in your hands."
The two talked for a while longer. Before Lan Qiao left, she asked, "Captain Yi isn't around?"
"Do you need him for something?" Ming Shu asked. "He just left for Shouquan."
Shen Lan discreetly heaved a sigh.
Lan Qiao immediately said, "It's nothing, just asking. I'll contact you again when we have a breakthrough."
Longcheng Street, Road 2. Old Chilun Residential District.
A team from the Serious Crimes Division was already going door-to-door, questioning all neighboring residents about the 5-8 case. Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an were at the crime scene again. The air inside Unit 5-8 still seemed to be saturated with the stench of blood.
The Qin family's case couldn't technically be classified as a 'family extermination' case. Strictly speaking, 'family extermination' cases wiped out an entire family, leaving no survivors. Although four people had been killed in 5-8, one of the victims hadn't been a member of the Qin family.
And the Qin family still had one surviving child—Qin Xu.
"One major question in this case is why Qin Ke suddenly came home with Yu Xiaohai," Ming Shu said. He stood in front of the coffee table in the living room, facing the couch that had once held two gruesome bodies. "The neighbors and Qin Xu all say Qin Ke rarely came home, and Yu Xiaohai had never even been here before. Phone logs from the night of the crime showed that Huang Hui called both Qin Ke and Qin Xu that night—Qin Ke first, then Qin Xu.
"At present, it seems they were both called back. Qin Ke came back with Yu Xiaohai, but Qin Xu didn't come—of course, Qin Xu could be lying about that. But why did Huang Hui suddenly call back her daughter and son? And, with her poor relationship with her family, why did Qin Ke actually come?"
"I've spoken to the employees of Shrimp Baobao," Xiao Yu'an said. "They were all quite consistent in their statements about Qin Xiong and Huang Hui. They said that the owners were extremely concerned about money. The couple was apparently very stingy with themselves and their employees, and they were only generous with their kids.
"Nearly all the employees at Shrimp Baobao were their relatives, from their hometowns—like Qin Xiujuan, who came to find Huang Hui here. But Qin Xiong and Huang Hui didn't even trust their relatives. At the end of every business day, they still carefully checked the accounts."
"Then Huang Hui could very well have called her kids back to talk about something relating to money," Ming Shu said. "And Qin Ke, who never comes home, came back with just one phone call this time. It's very likely that she came to talk about money."
"But judging by this whole family's disposition, how could Huang Hui allow a stranger to be in the room while they discussed a matter of money?" Xiao Yu'an mused. "According to Qin Xiujuan, Huang Hui was diligent to the point of checking their stock of every ingredient at the end of the day. Logically speaking, Huang Hui wouldn't be the type of person to let someone—who wasn't a close relative—into her house so late at night."
Ming Shu shook his head. "That's not the only thing that doesn't make sense. How did the killer subdue the three people who were in Unit 5-8 at the time? Where did they get that much power?"
"If the killer used violence, the chances of success would have been very low." Xiao Yu'an turned to Ming Shu. "But what if Huang Hui and the others were willingly listening to the killer's instructions?"
Ming Shu furrowed his brows tightly. "Why would they do that? What kind of relationship did this person have with the Qin family?"
"I have two ideas," Xiao Yu'an said. "One possibility is that this person was brought back by Qin Ke. Huang Hui always spoiled Qin Ke. Perhaps she wasn't the type to let strangers in, but she compromised since this person had been brought over by Qin Ke.
"Another possibility is that this person was someone Huang Hui knew. Perhaps she'd even called Qin Ke and Qin Xu home at this person's request. We know Huang Hui didn't call Qin Xiong that night, and the employees at the restaurant said Qin Xiong didn't act any differently than usual when he left the shop after closing."
Ming Shu drew in a sharp breath. The scent of blood flooded into his lungs. "Killing a whole family and mutilating the bodies… this couldn't have been an ordinary grudge."
At that moment, a clamor sounded out from outside. One of the officers shouted, "You can't go in there!"
Ming Shu went to the door just in time to see a plainly dressed middle-aged woman staggering forward, forcing her way inside.
The woman's eyes were thoroughly reddened. Her skin looked dry and cracked, her hair was disheveled, and she was carrying a travel bag. She looked extremely tired and travel-worn.
Ming Shu instantly made the connections and asked, "You're Huang Qing?"
Huang Hui had a younger sister named Huang Qing. Before the four victims had even been identified, Ming Shu had already dispatched some people with instructions to find a way to contact Huang Qing.
The woman nodded. With a broken sob, she asked, "My sister and Keke are really gone?"
All the important pieces of evidence in the apartment had already been collected. Ming Shu invited the woman in and pulled out a chair for her. "Please sit."
"Can I see them?" Huang Qing asked tearfully. "I haven't seen my sister for so many years. I didn't think…"
Ming Shu gave Huang Qing a onceover.
Judging by her clothes and her appearance, Huang Qing hadn't led an easy life.
Not every older sister would help their younger sister after getting rich, but the huge gap in wealth between Huang Hui and Huang Qing just confirmed the words of Shrimp Baobao's employees—Qin Xiong and Huang Hui had been extremely stingy, except with their two children.
Huang Qing was forty-one years old that year. She lived in Shujiang, a small town under the jurisdiction of Dongye City. Her husband was always away on business, and she had no regular job. She took care of her in-laws and her son, and their family was relatively poor.
"You said you haven't seen Huang Hui in many years?" Ming Shu prompted. "Were there ever any problems between you?"
Huang Qing sighed. "It's all in the past. I stopped hating her a long time ago."
"What happened?" Ming Shu asked.
According to Huang Qing, she and Huang Hui had always been on good terms since they were children. After they grew up, Huang Hui went to the city to work. There, she met Qin Xiong and soon married him, starting a life together without much money. Soon after that, Huang Qing also got married. The two new families often visited each other on New Year's.
Qin Xiong's parents had both worked at an old machinery factory back then, and he had a younger brother as well. After marrying Huang Hui, the five of them all squeezed into that small apartment, 5-8, and barely managed to get by.
However, shortly before Qin Ke was born, Qin Xiong's younger brother went missing, and their mother fell ill—never to recover. In a short span of time, the Qin family was reduced by two people.
When Qin Ke was just one, Qin Xiong's father passed away as well. The apartment then became the family home of Qin Xiong and Huang Hui.
At that time, Dongye City was undergoing rapid development. Qin Xiong and Huang Hui were scrimping and saving as much as possible, in hopes of opening up a restaurant. Huang Qing, without discussing it with her husband, lent them every cent of her own family's savings.
The restaurant Qin Xiong and Huang Hui opened up would become the predecessor to Shrimp Baobao. Of course, back then, it wasn't called Shrimp Baobao—they opened as 'Longcheng Pavilion'.
Qin Xiong was a rude and crass type of person, and he always had to be seen as the dominant head of the family whenever outsiders were around. As a result, he often fought with Huang Hui. But he really was a very good cook.
Back then, there weren't many restaurants in the area. It was nothing like how things were now. The food at Longcheng Pavilion was genuinely excellent. Bit by bit, they grew more popular, and the Qin family also gradually broke away from their previous life of poverty.
After building up some savings, Huang Hui instantly returned the money she'd borrowed to Huang Qing, with interest. At first, Huang Qing had thought this was wonderful—it showed that her sister would never borrow something without repaying it. But, later, Huang Qing realized Huang Hui only repaid her to fully wipe the slate clean.
They could be poor together. But once one of them got rich, poor relatives became useless burdens.
Huang Qing knew that the restaurant her sister and brother-in-law had opened was becoming more and more successful, but she never thought to ask Huang Hui for anything. The only time she did ask was when it came to her own son's schooling.
The schools in Huang Qing's hometown were terrible, and she wanted to send her son to school in the city. She asked Huang Hui to help her contact some of the schools there, but Huang Hui refused immediately, without a single care for their sisterly bond.
Huang Qing had been shocked and angered by the instant refusal. She instinctively brought up the matter of the money she'd loaned Huang Hui.
But Huang Hui sharply retorted, "Didn't I pay you back with interest? Do I still owe you for that?"
Huang Qing had felt utterly humiliated. She took her son home with her and completely cut off contact with Huang Hui after that.
Qin Ke, however, liked her aunt quite a lot. She would sometimes call Huang Qing and send small gifts.
"I calmed down a long time ago. No matter what happened in the past, she's my sister. I don't blame her for anything," Huang Qing said in a sorrowful voice. "She used to be such a good person. If she hadn't married Qin Xiong, if she hadn't been influenced by him, she wouldn't have become…"
Ming Shu looked towards Xiao Yu'an. "Qin Xiong had a brother?"
The Qin family's household registration information didn't show anything about a brother, and it certainly didn't indicate that this brother had disappeared before Qin Ke's birth—twenty-one years ago.
As far as the police knew, Qin Xiong had been an only child, and this home had been his inheritance from his late parents.
"Please think back again," Xiao Yu'an said to Huang Qing. "Did Huang Hui ever talk to you again about this brother of Qin Xiong's?"
Huang Qing opened her mouth with a look of confusion. After a moment, she asked, "He… you people are looking for him? He's already been missing for so many years. He's probably dead by now."
"Don't worry about that," Xiao Yu'an reassured. His voice was strong yet gentle, with a quality which compelled people to listen to him. "Please just tell us all you know about him."
Huang Qing lowered her head and thought for a while. "I remember his name was Qin Ying. He was a lot younger than Qin Xiong. My sister said that Qin Xiong's parents had brought Qin Ying home from somewhere, he wasn't their biological child. But Qin Xiong's parents still treated Qin Ying better. Whenever the family had anything nice, it would go to Qin Ying first."
"Huang Hui was very resentful of Qin Ying?" Ming Shu guessed.
"Anyone would be uncomfortable with a situation like that. Later, when Qin Ying disappeared, my sister and Qin Xiong were both relieved." Huang Qing wiped her tears as she spoke. "Ah, my heart is aching for Keke! Who could have hurt her?!"
"So Qin Xiong had a brother," Ming Shu mused, later. He hugged his arms to his chest and paced back and forth between the living room and bedroom of Unit 5-8. "Knowing that, we can see that Qin Xiong's life actually took a turn after Qin Ying disappeared. Qin Ying had been picked up by Qin Xiong's parents, without any documentation, but he was loved by Qin Xiong's parents. Twenty-one years ago, did Qin Ying really disappear, or was he…"
Saying that, Ming Shu looked up and met Xiao Yu'an's gaze.
"A family living in poverty, with limited resources," Ming Shu said. "Qin Ying's existence alone made it harder for Qin Xiong to breathe. Qin Xiong's wife was pregnant. His child was about to be born. It isn't impossible that he would have done away with this person who was taking resources away from his own little family."