Qin Xiujuan was Qin Xiong's distant relative. She used to work on the farms in her hometown of Shichao Village. Later, once Qin Xiong's restaurant started to find success, Qin Xiujuan came to Dongye City to find work with him.
Because she came to work at Qin Xiong's restaurant early on, Qin Xiujuan was considered a senior among the staff. All the other employees called her 'Big Sis Qin'.
Big Sis Qin had grown up as the tough bully of Shichao Village. Her temper was wild, and it stayed that way even after she came to the city. She worked as a server, dishwasher, and security guard at Shrimp Baobao. Drunks often caused trouble at food stalls like Shrimp Baobao, and when the police couldn't get there quickly enough, Big Sis Qin would be the one to pick up a big stick and maintain order.
But that day, after discovering the grisly sight at the Qin family's home, Big Sis Qin's mental fortitude instantly collapsed. She was rushed to the hospital.
She had yet to recover.
"Qin Ying…" Big Sis Qin shifted around in her hospital bed when Ming Shu came to visit her. Her voice, her expression, and her movements all seemed dazed and confused. "I think I've heard of a person by that name before, but I've never met him."
"Heard of?" Ming Shu echoed. "From whom? What did you hear?"
Big Sis Qin clutched at her covers. "From Qin Xiong's family, of course. Ai, everyone knew of Qin Xiong's family back in Shichao Village. His father Qin Anqiang was the only one who managed to break free and make it to the big city at a young age. Qin Xiong was born in the city, and Qin Ying was his little brother—the 'ying' and 'xiong' from 'yingxiong', meaning hero. Qin Xiong's dad really knew how to name his kids!"
"So what you heard—" Ming Shu paused for a second. "—is that Qin Ying is Qin Xiong's blood-related brother?"
"Well, what else could he be?" Big Sis Qin responded without even thinking about it. "If he wasn't his real brother, what, was he picked up off the street? Everyone was struggling to make ends meet back then. They could barely raise their own children. Why would they ever pick up someone else's child to raise as their own? Ah, but there is something strange about that."
"Hm?" Ming Shu prompted. "What's strange?"
Big Sis Qin furrowed her brow and thought for a long moment before she said, "I don't think anyone from my hometown has ever seen this Qin Ying. They've only heard of him. Then, later, I heard this Qin Ying disappeared. After me and a few relatives moved to the city to work here, I can't remember Xiong-zi or his wife ever mentioning Qin Ying. It's like that person never existed."
"Then did you ever bring up Qin Ying to Qin Xiong or Huang Hui?" Ming Shu asked.
Big Sis Qin flapped a hand dismissively. "I'm not an idiot. If they didn't bring him up themselves, it was obvious they didn't want to talk about him. I'm just a hard-working employee. I couldn't afford to piss off the boss, could I?"
Longcheng Street, police post.
Liu Qin was an old officer already. He'd spent most of his life working on the lower rungs of the police hierarchy, and he was set to retire next year.
Twenty-one years ago—the year Qin Ke was born, and the year Qin Ying disappeared—Liu Qin had already been working as a police officer on Longcheng Street. However, he had no impression whatsoever of someone in the Qin family going missing.
There were no electronic records of cases from such a long time ago. In order to investigate those old cases now, detectives could only rely on the memories of the officers from back then as well as any paperwork that may have remained.
"Not to brag," Liu Qin said as he rummaged through some old files for Ming Shu, "but this memory of mine is nothing to scoff about. Don't get me wrong, when it comes to my investigative prowess, I can't compare you to elite city detectives at all. But my memory is extraordinary! You might find that I remember even more than what's written on these old documents. And if it isn't in my memories, then it certainly won't be in the files."
Liu Qin smiled as he tapped his own temple. "I remember every single thing that's happened here in the years since I became a police officer!"
Ming Shu flipped through the records from the relevant time period. He found that it was just as Liu Qin said—there really wasn't any record of a person going missing from the Qin family.
"Then do you have any impression of Qin Xiong's younger brother, Qin Ying?" Ming Shu asked.
Liu Qin thought for a while, then shook his head. "How many people do you think live on Longcheng Street? I have no need to remember all the law-abiding citizens. I only remember the ones involved in cases, and the ones who are a danger to our community."
Ming Shu spoke to another veteran officer at the police post, but that officer's statement was very similar to Liu Qin's—the Qin family had never come to the police post to report someone going missing from their family.
"My father was an only child, where the hell would I get an uncle from?" Qin Xu asked disdainfully when the question was posed to him. "You people can't find the person who killed my family, so you're making up a non-existent person to frame, isn't that right?"
Ming Shu laughed coldly. "If what you say is true, and I can't find the killer, then wouldn't it be much more convenient to frame you?"
Qin Xu's face twitched, and he spread his hands in defeat. "Okay, okay. I can't win against you."
"Think back carefully," Ming Shu prompted. "Did you ever hear the words 'Qin Ying' from Qin Xiong or Huang Hui when you were little?"
Qin Xu was obviously cowed by Ming Shu's intense gaze. He gave the question some genuine thought.
Half a minute later, Qin Xu shook his head again. "No, and I've never found anything about this person at home before."
Although there were no formal documents registering Qin Ying as a member of the Qin family, and although Qin Xu didn't know this person, it seemed Qin Ying truly did exist.
Because Huang Qing and Big Sis Qin weren't the only ones who confirmed Qin Ying's existence. Some of the Qin family's older neighbors also remembered a time when Qin Xiong had a younger brother.
"The Qin family all called him Ying-zi. I still remember, he was a very polite child," said Uncle Wang, a man in his seventies. "I didn't see him around after a while. I asked Old Qin—where did your Ying-zi go? Old Qin said he went away for school."
Ming Shu once again approached Huang Qing about the matter, asking for a detailed account of what happened within the Qin family twenty-one years ago.
"He just disappeared!" Huang Qing declared with absolute certainty. "No one else knows, but how could I not know? I was still on very good terms with my sister back then. Whenever anything unpleasant happened in the Qin family, she would always complain to me."
"What do you mean by 'unpleasant'?" Ming Shu asked.
"Conflicts with her in-laws, that sort of thing. You know, the problems that every family has. The Qin family actually came from the countryside, but Qin Xiong was born in the city. So they looked down on my sister for being from the country," Huang Qing said. "There was also Qin Ying. No one wants to live with their brother-in-law, right?"
"Around the time of Qin Ying's disappearance, did Huang Hui say anything that stuck out as odd or notable to you?" Ming Shu asked.
Huang Qing hesitated for a long while. "It's not good of me to say this… but since you're asking as a police officer, I'll tell you. When Qin Ying went missing, my sister was actually quite happy. She said it was better that way. She said she hoped he would never come back."
Serious Crimes Division, deputy director's office.
"Qin Ying's disappearance definitely isn't a straightforward matter," Ming Shu said. He tossed his coat onto the desk and casually undid the top buttons of his dress shirt. "Not just his disappearance. His whole existence is a complex thing. If this person existed in the Qin family, whether he was born to the Qin parents or adopted, they should have gotten him registered as a member of their family.
"There was no family planning policy in place at the time, and the Qin parents doted on Qin Ying. Why did they let him go unregistered?"
Xiao Yu'an unscrewed the cap of a bottle of water and placed it in front of Ming Shu.
Ming Shu picked up the bottle and took a long drink. He let out a breath once he finished, then continued, "They didn't register him, and they never went to the officials or police to see if they even could register him. I can only assume that, for some reason, this child couldn't be allowed to see the light of day. He couldn't 'officially' exist, and the Qin family didn't dare expose him to the police.
"But the paradoxical thing is that the Qin family didn't completely hide Qin Ying away. Their old neighbors all say Qin Ying used to come out and play with kids his age."
"Qin Ying didn't go to school, and he never worked," Xiao Yu'an said. "When he disappeared, he was still a minor. That's all we know so far. We can't confirm his exact age or appearance."
"Twenty-one years ago, if someone disappeared from a family, wouldn't ordinary family members contact the police?" Ming Shu asked, looking towards Xiao Yu'an.
"Even if they didn't know to report it to the police, after a few days, their neighbors surely would have urged them to seek help from the authorities," Xiao Yu'an said. "That's the suspicious part. The Qin family didn't call the police, and they didn't ask their neighbors for help either. Since Qin Ying was the beloved son of the Qin family, this shouldn't have happened.
"Even if the Qin family had some circumstances that prevented them from going to the police, they should have sought help from their neighbors when Qin Ying went missing. But none of their neighbors knew about this big thing happening in the Qin family. Later on, Qin Xiong's father even lied to their neighbors and said Qin Ying went away to study."
"Could Huang Qing be lying to us?" Ming Shu asked. "Would she have any reason to lie?"
"In regards to this matter, she has no apparent reason to lie," Xiao Yu'an said. "We can't be sure of that yet, of course. But if we consider all possibilities and assume Huang Qing is lying, then where is Qin Ying now? If he truly did only go elsewhere to study, where is he today?"
Ming Shu understood Xiao Yu'an's meaning. "I get it. Huang Qing is telling the truth, or at least the truth that she heard from Huang Hui. Qin Ying was in a very specific situation. He existed, but he couldn't 'officially' exist. And when he disappeared, it was necessary to make outsiders think he left in a normal fashion, for a normal reason.
"For now, let's set aside why the Qin family couldn't officially register Qin Ying as their child. Regarding his disappearance, I'm almost certain that Qin Xiong had something to do with it."
"And the Qin parents decided to protect their older son by hiding what he did to their younger son," Xiao Yu'an said. "They didn't contact the police, and they hid the truth from their neighbors. As for Huang Hui, she actually dared to tell Huang Qing that Qin Ying was missing. Most likely, that means she didn't know the truth. At least, not back then."
"There are no traces of Qin Ying left in the Qin family now, not even a single photo," Ming Shu said. "Qin Xiong and Huang Hui never spoke of Qin Ying to outsiders, and their son Qin Xu doesn't even know about Qin Ying's existence. They never dared mention Qin Ying to anyone because… the more cleanly Qin Ying disappeared, the better."
Xiao Yu'an drummed his index finger on the table a few times. "So, in conclusion, Qin Xiong killed Qin Ying twenty-one years ago. The Qin parents knew and hid the truth for Qin Xiong. Huang Hui was pregnant at the time and likely didn't know anything. But afterwards, even if Qin Xiong didn't say anything, it's likely that she eventually figured out the truth."
"Let me venture a guess," Ming Shu said. "Huang Qing said that she used to be on very good terms with Huang Hui, but Huang Hui changed once she became successful. She threw away her relatives because she looked down on their poverty-stricken lives. Although that reasoning checks out, Huang Hui may have had another reason for cutting off her old relatives so cleanly.
"Perhaps she eventually learned the truth of Qin Ying's disappearance from Qin Xiong. She knew that she was the one who'd told Huang Hui about Qin Ying's 'disappearance', and she couldn't take those words back. She didn't dare do to her own sister what Qin Xiong had done to Qin Ying, but she couldn't have her sister involved in her life with her knowledge of Qin Ying's situation. Thus, Huang Hui felt she had no choice but to cut her sister out of her life entirely."
Ming Shu paused for a moment, then continued, "This shadow has always hung over Huang Hui's head. And now, it was indeed Huang Qing who provided us with this key piece of information that no one else knew—that Qin Ying disappeared twenty-one years ago."
"The fact that Qin Xiong's parents died one after another, in less than two years, is another point of suspicion," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu lifted his right eyebrow. "Qin Xiong killed his own parents?"
"If he truly killed Qin Ying and his parents knew about it," Xiao Yu'an said, "then it's certainly possible that he would 'take care of' his parents one day as well. Furthermore, Qin Xiong needed money to start his restaurant, and his daughter Qin Ke had just been born. As a new father, he certainly would have wanted to create a better living environment for his daughter.
"With his parents dead, their money and their home would all belong to him. Plus, his secret would be taken to the grave by his two parents."
Ming Shu furrowed his brow and felt a chill run down his spine.
The deaths of Qin Xiong, Huang Hui, Qin Ke, and Yu Xiaohai were all horrible in their own way, but Qin Xiong and Huang Hui suffered the most, and Yu Xiaohai could have simply been at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Besides Yu Xiaohai, the other three victims were all related to Qin Ying.
Supposing Qin Xiong did kill Qin Ying twenty-one years ago, it would have been Qin Xiong who did the deed and Huang Hui who helped cover it up. Although Qin Ke had yet to be born at the time, Huang Hui was pregnant. It was likely her pregnancy that helped Qin Xiong make up his mind on the matter of making Qin Ying 'disappear'.
With those theories in place, it was like a layer of fog and cloud had been lifted from the 'family extermination' case.
The murderer could have been seeking revenge for Qin Ying. Their violence against the corpses was an act of revenge and fury.
"There's still a problem," Ming Shu said. "If the killer was avenging Qin Ying, then who is the killer? How did they learn the truth about what happened twenty-one years ago? Also, we talked about this last time—Huang Hui called Qin Ke and Qin Xu home that night, possibly to talk about matters of money, and possibly under orders from the killer.
"Based on what we know so far, Qin Xu refused to go home. The killer didn't care, since Qin Xu wasn't one of his targets anyway. Qin Ke, however, was a target. It was critical for Qin Ke to go home. Huang Hui used some sort of method to get her back… well, wouldn't that mean Huang Hui was too obedient to the killer's demands?"
"The information we have about Qin Ying is too scarce to pin down someone who might want to avenge him," Xiao Yu'an said. "But I do have another idea."
"What is it?" Ming Shu asked.
"Our current theories are based on the assumption that Qin Ying is dead," Xiao Yu'an said. "What if he isn't?"
The light in Ming Shu's pupils darkened. Slowly, he said, "You mean…"
"Qin Xiong somehow made Qin Ying disappear all those years ago, and of course what he wanted most was to make Qin Ying disappear forever. But Qin Ying didn't die," Xiao Yu'an ventured. "Then, from Qin Ying's perspective, what would be the most detestable thing?"
"Qin Ying's perspective… Qin Ying's perspective…" Ming Shu paced as he mulled it over. He stopped suddenly and said, "If I were Qin Ying, then knowing Qin Xiong tried to kill me and wanted me dead would all be secondary. The most unforgivable thing would be that he killed my parents!"
"Yes," Xiao Yu'an said. "To Qin Ying, the link between Qin Xiong and the death of his parents couldn't be erased."
"So he came back for revenge," Ming Shu said. "Revenge for himself, and revenge for his parents!"
After a few moments of silence passed in the office, Xiao Yu'an got up and said, "But these are only theories based on the clues we currently have. At best, we can only use these theories to point the investigation in a certain direction. Ultimately, we'll still need key evidence.
"The most difficult thing right now is finding out whether Qin Ying is truly alive or dead. Either way, he's unregistered. And all the people who knew him best are now dead. Investigating the interpersonal relationships of an unregistered citizen who has been missing for twenty-one years is no easy matter."
Ming Shu lifted his head and calmly stated, "As long as we have a direction to go in, we're fine. We aren't afraid of a difficult investigation. Lacking direction would be much worse."
Xiao Yu'an breathed a laugh. "Good attitude. You've got this case under control, but don't forget that 'our' direction isn't necessarily the only direction for the investigation. You can't relax the search into the four victims' interpersonal relationships either."
Ming Shu stood up straight, looking very poised and dignified in his uniform.
Dong District Precinct. Women's Squadron.
After an intense search, the police found a person of interest.
Hong Chuanfei, thirty-four years old. He operated a stewed dishes restaurant called 'Stewed Hong' on Huyong Street of Dong District. The shop was located on the ground floor of a residential building, and it wasn't very large. Although a few chairs and tables were set out inside the restaurant, very few people dined there. Most customers bought their dishes to-go.
Stewed Hong hadn't been opened by Hong Chuanfei himself. Hong Chuanfei had inherited it from his father, Old Hong.
Old Hong had spent his whole life making stewed foods. He used to work as a cook in another restaurant, then quit his job to open his own little business of making stewed dishes.
Stewed Hong wasn't an especially famous or outstanding restaurant. Its customers were mostly just residents of the neighborhood where it was located. Old Hong had a mild disposition, and he didn't have much of a competitive spirit. Up until he fell ill and passed away, he was very satisfied with the small business that he had poured his life into building up.
Old Hong passed two years ago, and Stewed Hong came into the hands of Hong Chuanfei.
Hong Chuanfei was Old Hong's only son, and he wasn't very highly educated. Before taking over Stewed Hong, Hong Chuanfei had worked various jobs—driving cargo trucks, selling spicy skewers on the street—but he'd never made much money.
Old Hong left his business and his craft in Hong Chuanfei's hands. Even before Old Hong died, Hong Chuanfei had already taken over as the new cook at Stewed Hong. Customers didn't mind the change. Business at Stewed Hong didn't get any worse, but it didn't improve either.
Then, a few months ago, a shop called 'Fatty Li's' opened up across the street from Stewed Hong. The owner was a man in his thirties, and he seemed to employ a frail-looking teenager.
Fatty Li's mostly sold pig-gut dishes, but they also had some stewed foods on the menu. That made them quite similar to Stewed Hong. While Stewed Hong focused on stewed dishes, they had pig-gut on the menu as well.
Both shops were located in the same area, and their dishes were similar. The only difference was in their specialities.
When Fatty Li's first opened up, Hong Chuanfei had been extremely anxious. He couldn't stop worrying that Fatty Li's would steal his business.
And Hong Chuanfei was far more 'competitive' than his old man. He wasn't content to stagnate; he wanted to make Stewed Hong more and more popular. He was young, and he had big ideas. He knew that the restaurant industry was very competitive those days, and it was no longer true that quality products spoke for themselves—advertising was necessary. In order to become more successful, one had to take the initiative to put themselves out there.
So, Hong Chuanfei ran promotions on various takeout platforms, and he personally advertised on Weibo and the city forums to promote his own stewed dishes. But he was met with little success.
TV and radio stations in Dongye City had programs dedicated to recommending local foods, and each year they would choose the Top 50 BBQ Restaurants, the Top 100 Noodle Restaurants, and so on and so forth. The restaurants that were honored would receive a certificate with their ranking that they could display in their window, and anyone who was interested could wander in to try their food.
Hong Chuanfei had gone out of his way to ask around about being featured on these lists, but most of the restaurants that made those lists had some sort of connections—many were run by distant relatives of studio executives, for example. Many others paid their way onto the list. Of course, there were a few whose dishes were genuinely good, but those were far and few between.
Hong Chuanfei had no 'connections' to speak of, so he could only bribe the executives to get on the list. But even when he offered money, he still had to impress the judges enough to make the list. Even after trying several times, he failed to make the list every time.
In addition to these official TV and radio programs, there were also independent bloggers who would recommend local sights and foods. Due to the unique personalities and recommendations of these bloggers, their influence had long since exceeded that of any official program.
For example, there was the influencer 'Qiushan Wangmian', who had made many restaurants very, very popular.
Hong Chuanfei even dreamt of Qiushan Wangmian coming to his restaurant to try his food, then making a promotional video.
He was confident in his own cooking abilities. As long as Qiushan Wangmian came to Stewed Hong, Hong Chuanfei was sure he would impress him! Then his customers would steadily grow, flooding into his father's small shop. Stewed Hong would flourish, and perhaps even achieve the same success as Shrimp Baobao in Nan District!
Rumor had it Shrimp Baobao also started out as an insignificant little shop. It had only become wildly popular because there hadn't been much competition back in the day.
In order to entice Qiushan Wangmian into visiting Stewed Hong, Hong Chuanfei did everything he could think of. He even created multiple Weibo accounts, just to leave various comments on Qiushan Wangmian's old videos, posing as ordinary people and 'recommending' that he visit Stewed Hong and try the dishes there.
But, for whatever reason, Qiushan Wangmian never visited.
However, two months earlier, Qiushan Wangmian released a new food recommendation video. As soon as Hong Chuanfei saw the title, he immediately swore out loud.
Qiushan Wangmian had gone to Fatty Li's!
"We've already finished canvassing Huyong Street," said the officer Shen Lan in her report of her findings. "The surname of the owner of Fatty Li's isn't actually Li. His real name is Luo Ganfeng, and his cooking skills are exceptional. Even before Qiu Min released that video, his business was doing quite well. After the video, new customers swarmed to Fatty Li's. Luo Ganfeng wasn't prepared for the rush, and he even had to close his shop for a few days.
"Qiu Min visited Fatty Li's without telling Luo Ganfeng, and he didn't reveal his identity while he was there. He ordered a few dishes just like any other customer. Luo Ganfeng didn't know that a real hotshot had come to his restaurant until after the video was uploaded."
Lan Qiao nodded. "That fits Qiu Min's style. We can tell from his videos that he favors these sorts of small shops, in hidden streets and alleys. All his videos are about places like that, besides the ones that are paid promotions."
"Among all the shops Qiu Min has recommended, Fatty Li's is actually the one that increased in popularity the least. It seems the owner Luo Ganfeng doesn't want his shop to become too popular. When we spoke to him, he even said that he would have stopped Qiu Min from posting that video if he'd known about it in advance," Shen Lan continued. "When I asked why, Luo Ganfeng didn't explicitly answer, but he asked if I knew Captain Ming Shu from the Bureau."
After pausing for a second, she continued, "He said that Captain Ming knows him, and that if we have any questions about him, we can ask Captain Ming."
Lan Qiao mulled it over for a while. "Fatty Li's is relatively unpopular, but that's only when compared to other restaurants Qiu Min has promoted. It must have a lot to do with Luo Ganfeng's own wishes and attitude. But compared to Stewed Hong, Fatty Li's must be booming. It must have squeezed Stewed Hong dry of all its customers by now."
"Yes," Shen Lan confirmed. "At the start of this month, Hong Chuanfei closed his shop."
Lan Qiao studied a few clips of surveillance footage. Hong Chuanfei could be seen on every monitor.
Before October 4th, when Qiu Min stopped updating his Weibo account, Hong Chuanfei had repeatedly visited Qiu Min's residential neighborhood. Hong Chuanfei seemed nervous and on edge, like he was extremely vigilant about where he stepped and how he moved.
On October 2nd, at 11:00 PM, Qiu Min got home late at night. Surveillance footage showed that Hong Chuanfei had even followed him into his apartment building that night. Judging by the footage, Qiu Min was unaware that he was being followed. He didn't look over his shoulder until he'd taken out the key to his home.
When Shen Lan pulled Hong Chuanfei in for questioning and mentioned the name 'Qiu Min', Hong Chuanfei's gaze suddenly hardened and froze.
Then he gritted his teeth and bellowed, "He's dead! He's long gone!"