The isolation temple was empty, and the musty sort of smell that wafted out from within gave the impression that the temple wasn't inhabited by any living person.
Yi Fei instantly asked the team to bring in searchlights. The beams of harsh light illuminated the dust drifting through the air. Thick layers of dust blanketed the floor, table, and bed as well. As for Master Kui Chen, he was nowhere to be found. There were no signs that anyone had been in this room anytime in the recent past.
Wu Shi ran over, beyond enraged. "How could you people…"
"Where is Master Kui Chen?" Yi Fei interrupted. "Didn't you guys say he was meditating in isolation back here? Where has he really gone? Does this place look lived-in to you?"
Wu Shi froze. He moved like he wanted to rush into the isolation room, but was stopped by Yi Fei at the door.
However, even from the door, he could see the state of the room that was illuminated by searchlights.
"M… Master?" Wu Shi's eyes, which were always drooping and nearly closed, opened wide in that moment, like he couldn't believe that Master Kui Chen wasn't inside.
A person who was supposed to be somewhere wasn't there, and judging by the state of the room, he hadn't been there for a very long time. This would have been a strange occurrence anywhere, but it had happened on Mount Qiyue, where three bodies had recently been found.
Trace evidence investigators streamed into the temple to conduct their search. Meanwhile, the five monks who lived at the temple were questioned one by one.
Wu Shi was fifty-two years old. He was the oldest monk living at Haijing Temple. Perhaps because he'd been living in isolation from society for so long, he had no idea how things worked in the outside world these days. He was extremely resistant to being questioned. To him, it felt like the police investigation was only disturbing the tranquility of their holy place. He insisted he didn't know anything about the Mount Qiyue cases or about Master Kui Chen's disappearance.
"But when did Master Kui Chen go into isolation?" Yi Fei asked. "You're the monk who's been at Haijing Temple the longest. You should know at least that much, right?"
"June of this year," Wu Shi answered.
"And after June," Yi Fei pressed, "you never saw Master Kui Chen again?"
Wu Shi shook his head.
"Where is Master Kui Chen from, and what is his secular name? Do you know these things?"
Wu Shi pressed his palms together. "I have no right to ask my master these things."
Yi Fei studied Wu Shi for a moment. "What about the others? You all live together at Haijing Temple. You must know something about one another."
Wu Shi sank into silence for a while. Finally, he said, "If you want to learn anything, you should go look into Wu Zeng's situation."
"Wu Zeng?" Yi Fei echoed.
Wu Zeng, real name Fang Pingxu, was twenty-four years old. He had been the one who gave directions to Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan on October 13th. Fang Yuanhang still thought he was suspicious, and he'd already thoroughly looked into Wu Zeng's past.
Wu Zeng had no parents. He grew up in Luocheng at an orphanage named Open Arms, and he had attended college in Luocheng as well. He'd applied to graduate schools in Dongye City, but failed to gain admission at the final step. He was so dejected that he didn't even pick up his diploma from his undergraduate university. Instead, he went to Haijing Temple and became a monk right away.
"There's also Wu Nian and Wu Yu," Wu Shi continued, shaking his head. "They're all strange, bizarre young people. None of them are truly here to practice Buddhism."
"What about you?" Yi Fei asked. "You say your brothers aren't here to practice Buddhism, and your master, who has been in isolation for months, has disappeared from Haijing Temple a long time ago. Are you saying you're the only one here who's earnestly practicing Buddhism?"
Wu Shi's eyes, which had started drooping again, instantly sharpened into a glare. "Don't be preposterous!"
"The police are investigating according to the law," Yi Fei retorted firmly. "What's preposterous about that?"
A local police officer from Shouquan called out from inside the isolation temple, "Captain Yi, Captain Yi! They're monks, please cool your head. If they won't talk to you, you can ask me for help."
Yi Fei had already received information on all five monks from the local police, but information on the master of Haijing Temple, Kui Chen, was still missing.
"Hajing Temple has already existed for many decades," the local officer explained. "A group of monks have lived here ever since. Some families had kids they couldn't afford to raise, so they would leave them here at the entrance to the temple. There are some vagrants, too, who wander out here and become monks. We only started verifying everyone's household registration some years back.
"Monks like Fang Pingxu, they have proper identification documents. They're registered. But Master Kui Chen has been here for many tens of years. He probably doesn't even know who he is himself. An old monk like that… we're not in a good position to force him to tell us anything either. It's really too much of a hassle."
"So you turn a blind eye to these gaps in information?" Yi Fei asked.
"Hey! Do you have to put it like that?" The local officer was almost boiling over with irritation, but he reminded himself that these cops were from the Bureau in the big city. Ultimately, he forced himself to swallow his ire. "In any case, all the information we have is here. You can look through it, and if you need anything else, you can bring it up with our superiors."
Yi Fei furrowed his brow, but he didn't continue arguing with this local officer.
Based on the information he received, Yi Fei found that Wu Shi's real name was Liu Sui—and he had grown up as a native of Shouquan. And the only monk who hadn't been called out as suspicious by Wu Shi was Wu Han, also a native of Shouquan. Before the two of them became monks, they had both been teachers at the same school. Liu Sui taught language, and Wu Han—originally named Tang Yuan—taught gym.
Twenty-seven years ago, the two of them both became monks, one after the other.
"Strange," Yi Fei mused. "Wu Shi and Wu Han were colleagues, then they became monks in the same year. But if we disregard their history and only look at how they live here, at Haijing Temple, it would look like they barely know each other at all."
"Do we need to investigate their backgrounds?" a team member asked.
Yi Fei gave it some thought, hesitating over his answer.
Naturally, they had to look into this. Everything about Haijing Temple was suspicious, and they existed in the blind spot of the law in a way that allowed them to harbor as many dirty secrets as they pleased.
But the Serious Crimes Division had too many cases on their plate at the moment. Yi Fei didn't have enough manpower here to investigate every little detail, and there was no way Ming Shu could spare any men.
"We'll investigate," Yi Fei decided in the end. He really couldn't let go of this curious lead. And if they truly couldn't manage everything, he could apply for backup from Director Xiao.
When faced with the police, Wu Han—real name Tang Yuan—was even more unwilling to speak than Wu Shi had been. He kept his gaze low, though his pose was quite square. "After Master Kui Chen went into isolation, I never went into the back courtyard. I don't know when he left Haijing Temple."
"How can you be sure Master Kui Chen left Haijing Temple of his own volition?" Yi Fei asked.
Wu Han's cheeks twitched faintly, but he still didn't lift his gaze. "You mean someone took Master Kui Chen away? Or someone killed him, like someone killed those people in the mountain?"
"I don't know," Yi Fei said. "I'd like to hear what you think."
Wu Han shook his head. "Master Kui Chen was kind and generous. Who could harbor any ill will towards him?"
"But the fact is Master Kui Chen disappeared. You and your brother Wu Shi both seem very calm about that?" Yi Fei made sure to emphasize Wu Shi's name, and as he expected—Wu Han's eyes twitched at that.
"Everything happens for a reason," Wu Han said. "Since Master Kui Chen isn't in his isolation temple, there must be a reason for his absence. I don't wish to speculate on what that reason may be."
Yi Fei had been investigating cases with the Serious Crimes Division for many years, but this was his first time investigating a temple of monks. He felt like his punches were all striking cotton. If he'd been given the choice, he would have preferred chasing down a dozen psychopathic killers rather than trying to dig up dirt on even one monk.
But work was work. He certainly couldn't quit halfway through an investigation.
"If you don't wish to speculate, that's fine. Leave the speculation to us," Yi Fei said. "Wu Shi pointed out three people worthy of our attention. Three people we should focus on in our investigation. What about you? Who do you think has been behaving strangely here?"
Wu Han shook his head. "I don't pay much attention to the others."
"Is that so?" After saying that, Yi Fei simply fell silent. He didn't excuse Wu Han, and he didn't move to leave.
The atmosphere grew heavier and heavier. Wu Han kept his head bowed the whole time. He finally lifted it now, peering up at Yi Fei.
"It's actually a good thing that you people have come to investigate Haijing Temple," Wu Han finally said.
Yi Fei blinked. "Hm?"
"Because none of the people who live here are kind, good people," Wu Han said. The corners of his lips suddenly curved up into a shaky smile. It was a smile that was somehow helpless, sinister, and uneasy all at the same time. It was the sort of smile that shouldn't have appeared on a monk's face.
Yi Fei froze.
Wu Han lifted a hand and pointed at his own heart. "We all have a demon living right here."
After saying that, Wu Han hung his head again.
"Does 'we' include Master Kui Chen?" Yi Fei asked.
Wu Han was silent.
"Captain Yi! Captain Yi!" Xiao Man called out, rushing out from the isolation room in the inner courtyard. He had an evidence bag in his hands.
Yi Fei saw right away that there was a rusted iron nail in that bag.
"Look what I found!" Xiao Man held out the evidence bag, presenting it to Yi Fei. "There was actually a nail like this in the isolation room!"
Yi Fei took the bag and studied it closely. The nail in the bag was extremely similar to the ten nails that had been used on Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan!
When that case first came to them, the Serious Crimes Division had searched every major construction site and building materials shop for those nails. Everyone gave them the same answer—that those nails were no longer in production.
And now, the same nails had been found in the isolation room at Haijing Temple!
"We'll have to run tests back at the lab to confirm whether or not these are from the same batch of nails as the ones in the 1013 Case," Xiao Man said. "But judging by the rust on this nail, I'd say there's an eighty to ninety percent chance of a match. I just checked all the nails in the isolation room, and they're all like this, while the nails used on the main temple are different.
"The temple in front has been repaired more recently, but the inner temple shows no signs of recent repair. Seven of these nails remained in a toolbox, but seven wouldn't have been enough to fix up a place like the isolation room."
"So you think there were originally seventeen nails in that toolbox?" Yi Fei asked.
Xiao Man nodded. "That's what I'm thinking!"
"But when you first entered the isolation room, you said no one had been in there for at least three months?" Yi Fei asked. "What about the toolbox? Are there any signs of it having been moved recently?"
"No," Xiao Man answered. "The dust on the toolbox was extremely uniform. Totally undisturbed."
"Strange," Yi Fei murmured. "If the person who killed Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan took the nails from the toolbox, they either flew through the room without disturbing any of the dust, or they took the nails a long time in advance. The logic doesn't check out."
"Maybe the killer planned a murder a long time ago?" Xiao Man asked. "The nails may not have been meant for Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan at first, but were used on them in the end."
"Then whose body were the ten nails originally intended for?" Yi Fei asked.
Xiao Man abruptly looked away. "Fei-zi, come on, don't look at me like that. You make me feel like I'm the one who's about to get nailed next!"
Yi Fei sighed. "Let's run those tests on the nails and toolbox first."
Ming Shu didn't rush out to Mount Qiyue again. He waited at the Criminal Investigation Bureau for Yi Fei's return.
No one in the Serious Crimes Division had left the office to rest. All the lights were still on, and everyone was still hard at work, even late at night.
After identification tests were run on the nails discovered at the temple, it was confirmed that the ten nails used on Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were from the same batch as the nails that remained at the temple. And not a single fingerprint was found on the inside or outside of the toolbox.
If the Serious Crimes Division had previously only suspected that the deaths of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were tied to Haijing Temple, they had proof to affirm their suspicions now.
"No one would deliberately wipe their prints from an ordinary toolbox," Xiao Man said. "Unless that person knew that their fingerprints should never have been on that toolbox in the first place."
"I still have the same concerns as before," Yi Fei said. "If the toolbox had signs of having been moved recently, then the murderer could have taken the nails away to use in the murder of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan. But there were no such signs. So the nails were taken away long ago? How do we explain the killer's behavior?"
Ming Shu lightly thumped his fist against Yi Fei's back. "You're going on a wild goose chase."
Yi Fei sighed and scrubbed his hands over his face. "I know, but…"
Ming Shu knew what Yi Fei wanted to say.
The Serious Crimes Division essentially had three open cases on their hands now, and the clues were all a jumbled mess. At a glance, any detective would struggle to figure out where to start looking. Every single thread had to be investigated. Any of them could lead the team on a wild goose chase, but none of them could go unchecked.
"The five monks are, relatively speaking, more suspicious," Yi Fei said. After pausing for a moment, he continued, "Wu Han said something very interesting to me. He said that no one living at Haijing Temple is a good person."
Light flashed through Ming Shu's eyes. "He said that?"
"It's really weird, right?" Yi Fei said. "Plus, I got the feeling that Wu Han was also implying to me that Master Kui Chen isn't a good person either. We already have the personal information of the five monks at the temple. Our team is looking into them now. But we don't know anything about Master Kui Chen's real identity. We won't be able to find out until we find him."
"Are you sure we'll be able to identify him even if we do find him?" Ming Shu asked.
Yi Fei laughed bitterly. "His identity could be that he has no identity. Even Wu Shi, who's been living at Haijing Temple the longest out of all the monks, doesn't know where this Master Kui Chen came from. But just based on his advanced age, Master Kui Chen would already be incapable of committing a crime like this."
"The missing Kui Chen…" Ming Shu mused. "Is it really the same Kui Chen who's lived at Haijing Temple for several decades?"
"You think…" Yi Fei blinked, hard. "Kui Chen isn't the real Kui Chen. Someone is playing 'prince and pauper' at Haijing Temple?"
Ming Shu rummaged through one of his desk drawers and found a bottle of eye drops. He tossed them to Yi Fei and said, "Director Xiao says my language skills are weak, but why do I feel like yours aren't much better?"
"Huh, really?" Yi Fei caught the eye drops and looked them over. "Fuck, these are expired!"
"Then don't use them," Ming Shu said.
Yi Fei's eyes really were starting to feel too uncomfortable. He didn't pay any attention to the expiration date in the end and squeezed a few drops into his eyes.
"Three victims were found on Mount Qiyue," Ming Shu calmly stated. "The investigation into the social circles of Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan has already been completed. The most likely theory right now is that they encountered Qiu Min's killer while they were on Mount Qiyue. So the starting point of both these cases should be Qiu Min.
"Meanwhile, the nails found on Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan point us to Haijing Temple. Were the people at Haijing Temple the ones who wanted Qiu Min dead? We need to get to the bottom of this. We need to look into the monks at Haijing Temple, as well as the ones who occasionally visit to offer incense. We don't know Kui Chen's identity, but many people have seen him before. We can at least have a sketch made of him."
The eye drops were streaming down Yi Fei's face now. He quickly reached for a tissue. "Those monks don't really have anything to do with Qiu Min. Qiu Min was an internet influencer. Even if there were people who hated him, they would mostly be people like Hong Chuanfei. With the clues we currently have, I really can't think of any motive the monks might have to act against Qiu Min.
"Oh, that's right. Luo Ganfeng from our last case was also featured by Qiushan Wangmian, huh?"
After learning from Lan Qiao that Luo Ganfeng had been recommended by Qiu Min, Ming Shu had personally reached out to Luo Ganfeng.
He wasn't suspicious of Luo Ganfeng, of course. But he was a little worried.
Luo Ganfeng had been chosen as a potential 'domino' by the heartless Qin Guoxing. He had almost been trapped, just like Wu Zhen and Sha Chun. It was only because of Little Jun, his one close attachment in the world, that Luo Ganfeng had managed to escape Qin Guoxing's snare and start a new life.
Only a short time had passed since then. It would have been too tragic if Luo Ganfeng got caught up in someone else's malicious plot again.
Over the phone, when Ming Shu called, Luo Ganfeng had sounded quite calm. He reported that he hadn't encountered any suspicious activity as of late.
When Ming Shu mentioned Hong Chuanfei, with whom Luo Ganfeng had had a competitive relationship, Luo Ganfeng gave an answer that surprised Ming Shu a little.
"That's the owner of Stewed Hong, right? I know of him. After that Qiushan Wangmian video went up, he came to my shop a few times to check things out. I've been affecting his business, I think. But you don't have to worry about this. I'll handle it myself. His shop is closed now, but if he opens up again in the future, I'll close my store for a while and drive some customers to him. I'll take Little Jun on a trip. He's already all grown up, and he's never seen the sights."
"Everyone else who owns their own business wants to pull in as many customers as possible," Ming Shu said. "And at your last job, you worked day and night to succeed. Now you want to drive customers to your competition?"
"After what happened last time, I've already figured some stuff out," Luo Ganfeng said, laughing freely. "You can never stop working to earn money, but you earn what you can, within your limitations. Getting too far ahead of yourself isn't good either. We're all neighbors here, I don't need to put Stewed Hong out of business just for my own sake.
"I don't want to be too well-known, anyway. I just want to live my life in peace and quiet. I'm grateful to Qiushan Wangmian for recommending my shop, but if I'd been given a choice, I would have asked him not to promote me."
Back in the present, sitting with Yi Fei, Ming Shu suddenly mused to himself, "Not everyone who was recommended by Qiu Min wanted to be recommended."
Yi Fei didn't hear him clearly. "What are you mumbling about?"
"The reason Mount Qiyue became popular was that Qiu Min and some other influencers promoted it online," Ming Shu said. "To most people, being promoted by Qiu Min is a great thing. Qiu Min's recommendation can launch unknown restaurants and unknown tourist destinations to fame in Dongye City. The owners of these places are all typically grateful to Qiushan Wangmian."
"Right," Yi Fei said. "Popularity brings in more customers, and more customers means more money."
"Then who benefits from the popularity boom at Mount Qiyue?" Ming Shu asked.
"The people who live in the town of Shouquan, of course," Yi Fei said. "The tourism industry hasn't developed out to Mount Qiyue yet. Buses don't run directly there, so during the season, families with cars can offer their services as private drivers and shuttle tourists around. The farmers from Shouquan can make a profit too. We saw it when we were there, right? Anyone can set up some shade and stools and charge tourists money for a spot to sit for a while. These people are probably all grateful to Qiushan Wangmian, and other influencers, for driving tourists their way."
"Then has anyone been hurt by the popularity boom at Mount Qiyue?" Ming Shu asked.
"Yeah, probably. Like how Shrimp Baobao suffered when Cheng Jianghu became popular," Yi Fei said. "Mount Qiyue becoming popular means other tourist destinations in Dongye City might attract fewer visitors in the fall… wait, no!"
Yi Fei's eyes widened with realization. "There's also Haijing Temple!"
"Correct. There's also Haijing Temple," Ming Shu said. "The increase in tourists has brought life to the mountain, and more people probably pass by to offer incense at the temple now. But the mountain's newfound popularity is sure to disturb the monks' previously peaceful lives.
"And the tourists aren't all polite or courteous. Many of them aren't Buddhists and don't adhere to the temple's traditions or rituals. Most of them reach the halfway point of the mountain and want nothing more than to take a photo by the temple, posing just like those popular influencers. Over the past two years, Mount Qiyue and Haijing Temple have seen popularity booms."
Yi Fei's brows furrowed deeply. "There may be more to it. If Wu Han's words weren't meaningless, then the monks at the temple have their secrets. The more popular Mount Qiyue becomes, the more exposed the monks' lives will become to the public eye. And, eventually, their secrets will become exposed to the outside world."
"If we're talking motive, this could very well be the motive for the monks to commit the crime," Ming Shu said. He pinched the bridge of his nose. "As for evidence, the nails at the temple are one piece. But that isn't conclusive proof of anything. Kui Chen is nowhere to be found, so right now—we can only turn to these five monks for our breakthrough."
"That guy Wu Yu," Yi Fei murmured.
Ming Shu understood what he was thinking right away. "We had some dealings with the Chu family in our last case, and now a member of the Chu family is involved in this case as well. Instead of inheriting his family business, he left home and became a monk. Why did Chu Xin become a monk? Do we know that yet?"
"Chu Xin is a chatterbox, but it's hard to know what's true and what's a lie coming from him," Yi Fei said. "But we did get one thing clear—Chu Xin was officially the nephew of Chu Linxiong, the head of the Chu family. But Chu Xin actually held a position that was just as important as the ones held by Chu Linxiong's four legitimate sons. Do you still remember Chu Can?"
Ming Shu laughed. "You think my memory is that bad? As if I could forget the case I just worked on."
"That's not what I meant to say," Yi Fei said. "You weren't working directly on the side of things that dealt with Chu Can, after all. If he didn't make a deep impression on you, it would have been understandable."
Ming Shu tapped his own temples. "Every case the Serious Crimes Division investigates is logged right here in my head. Chu Can, right? Chu Linxiong's illegitimate son. He held Liu Mei captive and killed a girl that Liu Mei brought to him. The Chu family gave up on him a long time ago."
"Yes, that Chu Can, Yi Fei said. "Compared to Chu Can, who was his own son, Chu Linxiong favored his nephew Chu Xin much more. There's a rumor within the Chu family that Chu Xin is actually Chu Linxiong's flesh and blood son. Now that Chu Linxiong is set to retire, his four legitimate sons are fighting for power.
"Chu Qing—the one who Chu Can tried to drag down with him last time—is the most popular one to take over Chu Linxiong's position, but before Chu Xin left the family, Chu Xin surpassed Chu Qing in every way. Back then, Chu Qing wasn't nearly as popular as he is now."
"It's all about the rich and famous fighting amongst themselves again." Ming Shu heaved a sigh.
Ordinary people often loved to gossip about the rich and famous, but the police typically didn't like to deal with cases which involved these powerful families.
"If he was so capable and favored by Chu Linxiong, why did he suddenly become a monk?" Ming Shu asked. "Could it really be as Fang Yuanhang said? That this guy got tired of sleeping with beautiful men and women and suddenly 'saw the light'?"
"He has a bad heart," Yi Fei said.
Ming Shu looked up. "Hm?"
"Seven years ago, Chu Xin had an operation done overseas," Yi Fei said. "Most likely, it was a heart transplant."