Searchlights illuminated the forested mountain. The ginkgo leaves that blanketed the ground glowed like a sea of fire.
Every inch of the area around the grave was brightly lit. The shadows cast by the huge, blood-soaked bag inside the pit were eerily dark and gloomy.
"The victim was dismembered, and there's no head in the bag," Xing Mu said. He was holding a severed hand which had already started to decay. "As of right now, I can't be sure whether the pieces in this bag belonged to the same person, or whether this is a combination of multiple victims. There's nothing here that identifies the victim either. If we can't find the head, we'll have to run DNA and fingerprint comparison tests."
Ming Shu stood beside Xing Mu, looking down at the mess of corpse parts. His brows furrowed deeply. "Approximate time of death?"
"Due to the body being split up, there are some inconsistencies in decay," Xing Mu said. "My preliminary guess would put the time of death between October 6th and 7th."
Police dogs were still diligently searching the mountain. The occasional sound of a bark would ring out.
"Before October 13th, then," Ming Shu said. "Before the deaths of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan."
Xing Mu's legs and feet had gone numb from squatting. He stood up for the time being and offered his assessment. "Judging by this scene alone, these two cases are completely different. Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were placed somewhere where tourists would easily be able to find them. They were brutally murdered, but their bodies were arranged in an 'artistic' way in the end.
"This time, the body here was completely hacked into pieces and buried in the mountains, far from where anyone would be able to find it. There was no sense of 'design' in this."
"For some killers, the murder scene is a means for them to express their psychology. But a few are capable of disguising their nature and showing the police exactly what they want the police to see," Ming Shu said. "Don't forget that in the case of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan, we're likely being played by the killer."
Xing Mu often struggled to keep up with Ming Shu's logic. He silently studied the body parts on the ground again before whispering, "You're the boss. Whatever you say is what goes."
"Hm?" Ming Shu asked.
"I said, before we piece the body together, we won't even be able to determine the cause of death," Xing Mu said. "I'll head back and conduct the autopsy now, so I can get you results as soon as possible."
Ming Shu looked all around him, ultimately gazing off in the direction of the place where Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan had been found.
There were no roads in this part of the mountain. It was difficult to calculate the exact distance from the two places where bodies had been found; one could only estimate. From the previously discovered dumping ground to this one, a person would need to walk for around fifty minutes—perhaps thirty, if they hurried.
One somewhat plausible theory was that Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan got lost at night on the mountain and stumbled upon the killer by mistake. They were subsequently killed for what they witnessed. The killer, in order to mislead the police, posed the two victims' bodies in a suggestive position.
However, Xing Mu had said that the corpse with the missing head most likely died on October 7th at the latest. In that case, it would have been impossible for Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan to stumble upon the murderer committing his prior crime on the 13th.
Xing Mu had many personal problems, but he was extremely professional. If he wasn't certain about his estimate, he wouldn't have offered a time frame for the time of death.
So what did Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan witness?
The headless corpse was extremely well-hidden, buried underground. If the police hadn't mobilized experienced units, police dogs, and advanced detection equipment, they wouldn't have discovered this pit at all. How could two lost tourists like Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan have found the body?
Even if one were to assume that Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan had indeed somehow found the body, wouldn't they have found it long after the murderer first committed his crime? Why would the murderer still have been hanging around after hiding the body?
Under normal circumstances, wouldn't the killer have left the scene of the crime long ago?
And if the killer wasn't on the scene when Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan discovered the body, how could they have gone after the two tourists?
Taking all that into consideration… was it true, what Xing Mu hypothesized? That the two cases were unrelated?
Ming Shu shook his head.
They had only found this headless corpse based on one crucial premise—the theory that Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan had seen something which got them killed. In the investigation into their case, Ming Shu had exhausted all possibilities and still come up with no results. That was what led him to the theory that the killer had gone after the two girls for witnessing something they shouldn't have seen.
Now, the search of Mount Qiyue had actually proved Ming Shu's theory plausible. But the preliminary autopsy results turned everything on its head and made the theory seem impossible once more.
Where did things go wrong?
What had Ming Shu failed to consider?
In the distance, a police dog let out an energetic bark. Soon afterwards, Fang Yuanhang shouted through their group's radio frequency, "Found the head!"
Like the other body parts, the head had also been tied up in a canvas bag and buried in a dirt pit.
The temperature on the mountain had been low as of late, so the head wasn't too badly decayed. It was possible to more or less make out the victim's facial features.
Xing Mu carefully placed the head with the other corpse parts and suddenly announced, "The victim was beaten while still alive, particularly around the face. But the beating wasn't the cause of death. Based on these contusions, it's likely he was strangled to death."
Ming Shu studied the victim's face. There was no doubt that something gruesome had happened to that face. There were wounds all over. A crooked nose. Swollen eyes. But upon closer inspection, Ming Shu felt he'd seen the shape of that face and those eyebrows somewhere before.
"Fang Yuanhang," Ming Shu called out.
"Coming, coming!" Fang Yuanhang scurried over to Ming Shu's side. "Chief, what's up?"
"Do you recognize this face?" Ming Shu asked.
Fang Yuanhang studied the victim for a while. "If there weren't so many injuries on the face, maybe. But now… I don't know, Chief."
"That's fine," Ming Shu said. "I only felt he looked a little familiar. By the way, did you find anything at Haijing Temple?"
Fang Yuanhang instantly reported, "I originally thought there were only six monks living at Haijing Temple—Wu Zeng, Wu Nian, Wu Yu, Wu Shi, Wu Han, and their master Kui Chen. But after I looked into it, I found there are three other monks who aren't currently living at the temple, as well as some others who occasionally visit the temple to burn incense. With regards to Mount Qiyue, these monks are probably just as familiar with the area as Wu Zeng and the others."
"You mentioned the nails last time," Ming Shu said. "Did you find the same type of material at the temple?"
"No." Fang Yuanhang sighed. "I looked almost everywhere. The nails used in the construction of Haijing Temple and the ones used on Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan are different."
Ming Shu lifted his brows. "What do you mean 'almost'?"
"I'm not slacking off," Fang Yuanhang hastily protested. "I mean I checked the main buildings of Haijing Temple, but there's also an inner courtyard that mostly isn't in use. We haven't had a chance to search in there yet."
"Why not?" Ming Shu asked. "Not enough time?"
"It's not that," Fang Yuanhang said, shaking his head. "Master Kui Chen is in isolation back there. Even if we have a warrant, it's not proper for us to just break in."
When it came to searching sacred places, such delays were understandable.
"The three monks who aren't currently living at the temple, and the others who sometimes offer incense," Ming Shu continued. "Can you determine their real names?"
"There's no record of them at the temple," Fang Yuanhang said. "We can only ask the local police from Shouquan for help. Right now, we only know the identities of Wu Zeng and the other five. And we know one of them!"
"Who?" Ming Shu asked.
"Wu Yu's real name is Chu Xin, thirty-three years old," Fang Yuanhang said. "He's the nephew of Chu Linxiong, the boss of the Chu Group. Just a while back, when we were investigating Qin Guoxing's case, didn't we have some dealings with the Chu family? That case involved Chu Linxiong's illegitimate son Chu Can, and the one who visited us at the Bureau to aid in our investigation was Chu Linxiong's son Chu Qing. But still—they're all connected to the Chu family!"
"Your definition of someone we 'know' is too broad." Ming Shu laughed. "Is Wu Yu the one who hit on you?"
All the monks at Haijing Temple bore the same surname—Wu. Fang Yuanhang could practically guarantee that there weren't many people who could keep track of who was who after talking with him for a while, but Ming Shu clearly remembered each one of them.
"Fuck!" Fang Yuanhang swore. "Let's not talk about that!"
Ming Shu wanted to ask about the details, but the mountain forest wasn't the best place to continue analyzing their cases. The team members in charge of searching the mountain returned one by one, and everyone made their way back to Haijing Temple, where a helicopter was already waiting. Xing Mu was there, loading the body parts onto the chopper to take them back for a proper autopsy.
"We'll have to wait for the results of Xing-laoshi's autopsy," Ming Shu said. He took off his gloves and patted Fang Yuanhang on the shoulder. "Come on. Let's make our way down."
Lan Qiao didn't leave the Serious Crimes Division. She stayed and waited until Ming Shu and his team returned.
"Ready to plant your roots here with us?" Ming Shu joked when he saw her.
Lan Qiao was no less perceptive than any male detective, and she had a unique instinct as well. Instantly, she said, "I want to see the corpse you brought back."
Ming Shu immediately understood why. "You suspect the victim is Qiu Min?"
"Qiu Min's cell phone was last used in Shouquan, which means he either went to Shouquan or the person who took him from Yatou Mountain went to Shouquan. Now another corpse has been found on Mount Qiyue. Whether Qiu Min is alive or dead, I have to find him," Lan Qiao said. "Captain Ming, my thoughts can't help but travel in that direction."
Hearing all this from Lan Qiao, Ming Shu suddenly remembered why that face had looked familiar.
That face… under those awful injuries, Qiu Min's originally handsome features could have been concealed.
At that moment, Xing Mu was carefully taking DNA samples from the victim's mouth.
In many cases, crucial evidence came from forensic identification tests. The body of the deceased could hold critical clues—for example, the killer's DNA could be found under the victim's nails or in the victim's various bodily orifices.
This victim's face had been beaten black and blue. Three of his teeth had been knocked out, and there was plenty of blood coating the inside of his mouth.
But what Xing Mu extracted was a piece of skin tissue, wedged between the victim's teeth.
"Is this what the killer left behind?" Xing Mu mused to himself. "The victim was clearly no match for the murderer, but he still bit his killer while struggling for his life? But what kind of killer would be so careless?"
The killer in this case seemed to be extremely well-prepared and cautious of being followed or tracked. And if, as Ming Shu said, this was the same killer as the one in the Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan case, then this killer's sense for covering his tracks must have been impeccable.
Would a murderer like that, after being bitten, really be careless enough to leave a piece of their skin tissue behind in the victim's mouth?
If the killer couldn't completely clean away all traces of their presence, shouldn't they have completely destroyed the victim's head? Why had the head been buried intact, not too far from the rest of the body parts?
Although Xing Mu struggled to cope with his superiors, he couldn't deny that Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an had incredible analytical skills. During team meetings, Xing Mu could only ever offer the results of his autopsies and do some broad, general analysis of what those results might mean. People like Ming Shu and Yi Fei were the ones who always seemed capable of seeing the truth through the fog.
Forensics was a technical field, and the division of labor in the Serious Crimes Division was very clear. But forensics experts and trace investigators had to contribute more to each case as well. Similarly, Ming Shu didn't hold a technical post, but still had to grasp the basic concepts of forensic science. And Xiao Man, for example, was a trace investigator, but when he finished up his own tasks, he always joined the field work team in canvassing places of interest.
Xing Mu didn't want to be left behind. Everyone else actively involved themselves in cases in whatever way they could. As of late, Xing Mu had proactively started to question his own findings as well. Whenever there was a contradictory point, he would refute his own findings the way he refuted his superiors when they were wrong.
After testing the DNA samples, Xing Mu discovered that the skin tissue between the victim's teeth and a portion of the blood in the victim's mouth belonged not to the victim but to Hong Chuanfei, whose DNA had been sampled and logged in the database not long ago.
The DNA of the victim matched the DNA of the blood that had been found in the abandoned arsenal on Yatou Mountain—the victim was none other than Qiu Min, the famous influencer who'd disappeared some time ago.
Xing Mu had already finished piecing the body back together at that point. No pieces were missing, and there were no pieces from another body mixed in.
Lan Qiao stood by that dismembered body, overcome by a complicated wave of emotions.
An ordinary disappearance case should have been investigated by the local police post, but the local police had realized that this case may not have been so simple. They'd reported it to the district precinct right away. After that, Lan Qiao's squadron of policewomen had set to work right away. They didn't waste a single second. They even reported the case to the Serious Crimes Division. And, not too long ago, they even managed to find the person who'd abducted Qiu Min.
It could have been said that this was already an extremely fast response to the disappearance case.
But Qiu Min had still died, and he'd died in 'pieces'. He'd died before the police even started to investigate.
"Captain Ming," Xing Mu said. "The cause of death has been confirmed. Qiu Min died of mechanical asphyxiation. The killer used both hands to choke him to death."
"What?" Ming Shu turned around, surprised. "Choking?"
Mechanical asphyxiation was one of the most common methods of murder. Strangling or choking someone, bearing down on someone's chest, covering someone's nose and mouth, or blocking someone's airway—all of these methods could impede breathing and eventually cause death by mechanical asphyxiation.
In homicide cases, strangulation with a rope was the most common. In the Serious Crimes Division's previous case, Sha Chun had been strangled to death by Xiao Chun.
Compared to strangulation with a weapon, choking someone to death with bare hands was much less common.
Because strangling a grown adult with a pair of hands was no easy task. It required immense strength, and it also meant the killer would have to take precautions to not leave their DNA on the victim's skin.
Furthermore, in most strangulation cases, the killers had one thing in common—they acted in the heat of the moment, committing an unpremeditated crime without any preparation.
But the case at hand didn't seem like a crime of passion at all.
The killer could have prepared much better ways of strangling or killing their victim. They could have used their blade to dismember the body right away.
So why had the killer resorted to choking the victim to death?
Was this act a vital part of the killer's process?
"By the way," Xing Mu said, "Qiu Min suffered severe beatings while alive. Not just to his face, but to his chest, abdomen, and thighs as well."
"It was Hong Chuanfei," Lan Qiao said. "Hong Chuanfei has already confessed to the torture of Qiu Min at the abandoned arsenal."
"Not everything Hong Chuanfei says is necessarily true, right?" Xing Mu asked. "He only admitted to beating Qiu Min, but what if he's actually the murderer too?"
Ming Shu turned to Xing Mu. "Xing-ge, if there's something on your mind, speak freely."
Xing Mu's face heated up. "Qiu Min was choked to death. I think, while beating Qiu Min, Hong Chuanfei could have gone too far. His emotions could have swelled out of control. Maybe he choked Qiu Min to death then, and made up a lie about 'someone else' taking Qiu Min away out of fear."
Lan Qiao shook her head. She knew the details of Qiu Min's case better than anyone. If Hong Chuanfei really had been the killer, his reaction wouldn't have been what it was when he was questioned.
But Ming Shu didn't immediately shoot down Xing Mu's theory. Instead, he asked, "Then why did Qiu Min's body turn up on Mount Qiyue? Did Hong Chuanfei bring it there?"
"That…" Xing Mu hesitated. "Maybe he wanted to deliberately create the illusion of Qiu Min being taken away by someone else? Someone who wanted to dismember his body? But, in fact, there was no other person! It was all Hong Chuanfei!"
Lan Qiao couldn't help but interrupt, "Xing-laoshi, have you met Hong Chuanfei? Have you interrogated him?"
Xing Mu shook his head.
"You only heard me and Captain Ming discussing this case, and you reached this conclusion that Hong Chuanfei is the killer," Lan Qiao said. "But, in reality, Hong Chuanfei isn't capable of something like this with his way of thinking. Plus, Qiu Min's case is likely related to the other case on Mount Qiyue. We can't jump to conclusions so quickly."
Xing Mu opened his mouth, then closed it again, feeling demoralized.
Ming Shu laughed. "Don't mind it, Xing-ge. Next time, if there's something else you want to say, you can whisper it to me."
Xing Mu almost blurted out, I guess it wasn't a waste to dote on you in the past.
But what he actually said was, "Wait, I do have something else."
Ming Shu nodded. "I'm listening."
"In typical dismemberment cases, the killer splits up the victim's body immediately after death," Xing Mu said. "But judging by the cuts and patterns of decay on the victim's body, it seems this victim was dismembered five to six days after death. That's very strange. It's like the killer choked Qiu Min to death early one morning, then hid his body somewhere for nearly a week before digging him back up and chopping him up into more than thirty pieces.
"Why would the killer do this? Also, when killers split up a body, it's often to make it easier for them to hide the corpse. You often come across cases where you find a leg here, and a bag of innards somewhere else, and so on. But in this case, the killer dismembered Qiu Min five or six days after the murder. Then the killer buried the corpse parts on Mount Qiyue again, only separating the head. And we found the head pretty easily as well. I just don't understand…"
"Qiu Min was dismembered five or six days after his death?" Ming Shu suddenly felt a few previously disjointed puzzle pieces locking into place. "Qiu Min's time of death was October 6th or 7th. Five or six days after that… couldn't that have been October 13th?"
Xing Mu froze for a moment. "Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan didn't stumble upon someone committing a murder. But they stumbled upon someone dismembering the body? But I still don't understand. After killing Qiu Min, why would the killer wait five to six days to dismember the body? And after dismembering the body, why not bury the pieces separately?"
"The purpose of dismembering the body may not have been to make it easier to hide the corpse," Ming Shu said. "There's one more possibility. Perhaps it was to blow off some steam."
"So you mean, after strangling Qiu Min, the murderer left the body there. Then, after some time, they came back with some lingering anger and suddenly decided killing Qiu Min hadn't been enough? So the killer dug up Qiu Min's body just to destroy it even more? Is that the equivalent to the old practice of exhuming a body for a public flogging?"
Ming Shu felt more and more pieces of the puzzle starting to slide together.
But they still didn't have enough information! The killer's identity was still shrouded in a fog.
Faced with the photos of Qiu Min's autopsy, Hong Chuanfei was scared half to death. Tears streamed down his face as he clutched his head with his hands and babbled, "I didn't do it! It wasn't me! It really wasn't me! I just took him to the arsenal and beat him there! I really don't know what happened after that!"
Sitting across from him, on the other side of the interrogation table, were Ming Shu and Lan Qiao. Just as Lan Qiao was about to speak, Ming Shu lifted a hand and interrupted her, signaling that he would lead the interrogation this time.
"You wanted Qiu Min to die very badly, didn't you? You took him away on October 4th with the intention of killing him. Later, you beat him until he was gravely injured, and you left him tied up at the armory with the intent of letting him die in pain. Isn't that right?" Ming Shu's tone was extremely calm and even, almost like he was a machine. "Now that you've seen his demise, do you feel elated?"
"I don't!" Hong Chuanfei protested, horrified. "I… I'm scared. I was wrong. I shouldn't have done any of that! If I'd gone to the police right after leaving Yatou Mountain, would Qiu Min still be alive? But… but I didn't know what would happen to him after I left."
Ming Shu picked up a close-up photo of Qiu Min's face and held it up in front of Hong Chuanfei.
Hong Chuanfei reflexively turned his head away, not daring to look directly at the photo.
"Turn back around." Ming Shu tapped his finger against the photo. "See these injuries? They weren't caused by someone who came 'after you left'. They were all left by your beating!"
Hong Chuanfei shuddered violently. He clasped his hands together in front of his face and bowed his head. "I know I was wrong. I'm guilty. Sentence me for my crimes, but I really didn't kill anyone. I do not confess to the charge of murder!"
The interrogation room filled up with the sounds of Hong Chuanfei's gasping sobs.
Before long, Ming Shu asked, "How many people knew about your plan?"
At that, both Lan Qiao and Hong Chuanfei looked at Ming Shu.
"Just… just me. I'm the only one who knew," Hong Chuanfei said. "How could I have told anyone else?"
"I won't press you for an answer today," Ming Shu said. "But after you calm down, take some time to really think about it. When you began to harbor this killing intent towards Qiu Min, did you accidentally let it slip to anyone else? And when you were following Qiu Min, did you notice anything out of the ordinary?"
Hong Chuanfei shuddered again. "There's… there's someone who wants to frame me?"
"It's not that I think someone is trying to frame Hong Chuanfei, but the real killer could have used him," Ming Shu said after leaving the interrogation room and going to find Xiao Yu'an. "Our two cases are now linked. Qiu Min, Lu Chen, and Zhao Siyan were all most likely killed by the same person."
Although Xiao Yu'an hadn't personally gone to Mount Qiyue this time, his understanding of these cases was no less thorough than Ming Shu's. And since he hadn't been running around outside, he was less tired and more capable of thinking clearly.
"It's true that Hong Chuanfei doesn't seem to be lying, but can you confirm that the person who killed Qiu Min and the person who dismembered him five or six days later are the same person?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "That conclusion is drawn a little too hastily."
Ming Shu still had the autopsy report in his hands. His expression deepened with thought at those words.
The five or six day gap between Qiu Min's death and dismemberment was very unusual, and Ming Shu had spent a long time wondering why the killer would have waited.
But if the killer and the person who dismembered the body were two separate people, then it would be more understandable.
However, that gave rise to a new question—were there really three people who wished death upon Qiu Min? And had they really managed to 'work together' in this case? Hong Chuanfei abducted him, a mystery person killed him, and yet another mystery person found his body and dismembered it?
Theoretically, it was possible. But in practice, it was highly unlikely.
"Two homicide cases, three victims. No matter how we look at these cases, the killer is someone with strong ties to Mount Qiyue. The temple on the mountain must be investigated, thoroughly," Xiao Yu'an said. "Yi Fei just told me the monks have been obstructing their attempts to check the inner courtyard."
"What did you say?" Ming Shu asked.
"I said the more they try to obstruct the search, the more necessary the search becomes." Xiao Yu'an checked the time. "By now, they should have gained entrance to the inner temple."
The ones obstructing the police's attempts to search the inner temple were the older monks, Wu Shi and Wu Han. Yi Fei had a search warrant, and all his actions at Haijing Temple were lawful. Previously, he'd avoided forcing his way into the back temple out of respect. But now, he had to barge in—as was his lawful right.
The heavy door to the inner temple was pushed open. A dense darkness blanketed the room inside. And a sinister, musty scent rolled out.