Hu Chengyi was sixty-five years old that year. Born and raised in Hanshu Village. His family had been farmers in Hanshu for many generations, and they'd always led relatively comfortable lives. However, when it came to Hu Chengyi's father's generation, a bout of misfortune befell their family. All of Hu Chengyi's uncles died off before having children, and Hu Chengyi's father only had one child.
When he was young, Hu Chengyi suffered through a harsh life in the countryside. He didn't want to become a farmer, instead insisting on going to the big city to make a living. But those days, life in the city was just as bitter and arduous.
Hu Chengyi left his hometown and drifted all over the place. He worked many odd jobs on various cargo ships, and eventually lost all contact with his old family. He managed to muddle through life for many years, without ever making too much money. But he injured himself many times, and once he didn't receive treatment in time, resulting in an injury that ultimately left him crippled.
Upon realizing that he was already getting to an advanced age, Hu Chengyi decided to return home to find a wife and have a child. But when he returned to his village, he discovered that his parents had already passed away, leaving behind only a dilapidated old house for him.
He felt he had been too unfilial to his parents, so he mourned for them for three years. He lost his will to find a wife, and he felt even less motivated to continue working hard to make a living. Ultimately, he left home once more and made his way to Shouquan, to become a monk at Haijing Temple.
Not a lot of monks lived full-time at Haijing Temple back then. There was only Kui Chen, as well as some other decrepit old men.
Hu Chengyi was only thirty-three years old at the time. He was the youngest of all the monks there, and he was given the name Wu Qing. Besides meditating and praying with the other monks, he spent most of his time cleaning the front and back yards of the temple. Hu Chengyi was also in charge of the meals at the temple, but the older monks didn't eat much, so these were always simple meals—just a bowl of porridge and some vegetables.
Kui Chen was only a few years older than Hu Chengyi. Although he was in the prime of his life, perhaps due to having been a monk for so long, he also ate very little.
Time was almost meaningless on the mountain. Back then, the place wasn't called Mount Qiyue, and it wasn't a tourist destination. The only visitors were those who came to offer incense, and the occasional monk seeking lodgings at the temple. Otherwise, every day was the same as the one before it.
Five years passed in the blink of an eye.
During those five years, two of the elderly monks passed away, and it seemed the other four old monks didn't have long to live either. Although Hu Chengyi's name had the character 'yi' in it, meaning 'medicine', he didn't actually know anything about practicing medicine. Hu Chengyi had no blood ties to those old monks, but after having spent so much time together, he certainly didn't want to see them die prematurely due to lack of medical treatment.
And so he suggested to Kui Chen that they send the older monks down the mountain, to a hospital.
However, Kui Chen only shook his head. He said that everything in the world happened for a reason. These elderly monks would live for however long they were meant to live.
Hu Chengyi had been practicing Buddhism at that temple for five years already, but there were still some things that he couldn't accept so easily. He couldn't help but feel a certain way about Kui Chen's decision. He discreetly asked one of the older monks, whose health was poor enough that he could hardly eat anymore, if he wished to go to a hospital. If that monk agreed, Hu Chengyi intended to disobey Kui Chen and help that monk sneak down the mountain in the middle of the night if necessary.
But that old monk only gave a similar answer to Kui Chen's.
Hu Chengyi gave up after that.
Another old monk died. Afterwards, a young man came to the temple, saying he wished to become a monk.
That person was Liu Sui.
Hu Chengyi heard that this young man had been a language teacher in Shouquan. Both his parents were living, and he came from a rather good family. It was a little baffling that he would wish to become a monk.
And Kui Chen didn't immediately accept Liu Sui into the fold.
Hu Chengyi overheard Kui Chen and another elderly monk discussing the matter, whispering that Liu Sui had some deviousness in his heart.
Hu Chengyi instantly thought back to his own arrival.
Five years ago, when he first came to Haijing Temple, Kui Chen had accepted him right away.
Could it be that Kui Chen had understood from a glance that Hu Chengyi was a virtuous person with no devious intentions?
As he mulled this over, Hu Chengyi heard that other elderly monk say that Buddha accepted all sorts of beings. It was precisely because Liu Sui had deviousness in his heart that they should accept him and help him walk down the right path.
Half a month later, Liu Sui was allowed to join the temple.
Hu Chengyi didn't have any strong opinions about Liu Sui. Contrary to Kui Chen's perspective, Hu Chengyi couldn't detect any sort of deviousness in Lui Sui. In fact, he felt that Lui Sui was even more peaceful, thoughtful, and wise than him.
A few more months passed. Then, another teacher came to the temple. An old colleague of Liu Sui's—Tang Yuan.
This time, Hu Chengyi didn't overhear Kui Chen talking to the other monks about the matter.
But Tang Yuan, like Liu Sui, wasn't immediately accepted into the temple.
Hu Chengyi thought about it again and again, but he just couldn't understand what made these two young men inferior to him. Back in the day, he had been allowed to shave his head and join the temple right away.
At the end of that year, all the elderly monks, except one, passed away. But because there were new monks at the temple, the place didn't seem too cold.
Year after year passed. Some monks passed away, and some new monks arrived.
Seven years before the present day, Kui Chen's health began to deteriorate as well. He constantly coughed, and seemed to look older every day.
Hu Chengyi was worried and once more wanted to send Kui Chen down the mountain to visit a hospital, but then he remembered what Kui Chen's stance on that had been in the past. After thinking it over, he decided to still ask what Kui Chen personally wished to do.
It was then that Kui Chen said he did want to leave the mountain, to 'wander'.
"I've been on this mountain for many years. It's time for me to see the outside world."
Hu Chengyi got a bad feeling right away—that Kui Chen wouldn't be able to return. Kui Chen probably also knew that he wouldn't live much longer, so he wanted to find a deserted place to die alone.
If this had happened many years earlier, Hu Chengyi definitely would have tried to interfere and change his mind. But after practicing Buddhism for so long, Hu Chengyi truly had come to understand and embrace the notion that everything happened for a reason. He knew he shouldn't get in the way of Kui Chen's personal decision.
The day Kui Chen left the mountain, all the ginkgo leaves on the mountain were yellow. It was a gorgeous sight that seemed to have presented itself just to see off this monk who had spent so much of his life on the mountain.
Hu Chengyi, Liu Sui, and Tang Yuan had all watched as Kui Chen left the mountain, his figure growing smaller and smaller in the distance. That was an image Hu Chengyi had never forgotten.
After listening to Hu Chengyi's story, Ming Shu said, "Kui Chen left Haijing Temple seven years ago?"
Hu Chengyi took a sip of a strong black tea. "Yes. Seven years ago. That was when I last saw the Kui Chen I knew so well."
"What made you think that the Kui Chen who returned was no longer the Kui Chen you knew?" Ming Shu asked.
Hu Chengyi continued his story.
It was autumn when Kui Chen left Haijing Temple, and it was still autumn when he returned the following year. He looked exactly the same, and yet Hu Chengyi felt he was foreign in some way.
In the past, Kui Chen's eyes had been far more calm and compassionate. The Kui Chen who stood before Hu Chengyi now had only a cold, calculating look in his eyes.
Hu Chengyi suddenly understood why the previous Kui Chen had instantly known that Liu Sui harbored some sort of darkness in his heart. The true nature of a human heart could truly shine through one's eyes. In the past, Hu Chengyi hadn't been able to read people like this, but after peacefully practicing Buddhism for such a long time, he could finally see the same things.
But if he were to say that the man who'd returned wasn't the real Kui Chen, that would have been too improbable.
How could a different person look exactly the same?
Furthermore, Kui Chen still knew all about the monks at the temple. He could call out their secular names and the names they'd taken on as monks.
But this was a matter that Hu Chengyi couldn't move past.
When Kui Chen left one year earlier, he had already been very sick. But when he returned, his illness was gone and his body seemed much stronger.
Kui Chen said he'd left to 'wander', but had he really gone down the mountain to cure his illness?
According to Kui Chen's character and values, he shouldn't have been the type to tell such a lie.
Furthermore, Kui Chen didn't return alone. He also brought a very gloomy and bizarre young man with him.
This person's name was Yin Xiaofeng. Judging by his accent, he wasn't from anywhere around Dongye City. Kui Chen took him in as a disciple and named him Wu Nian.
"Wait," Ming Shu interrupted at this point. "Yin Xiaofeng didn't come to Haijing Temple by himself? He was brought by Kui Chen?"
Hu Chengyi nodded.
Ming Shu stood up, pacing as he thought.
While investigating Yin Xiaofeng's background a while ago, Ming Shu had been unable to answer one question. Yin Xiaofeng's hometown was far away in Liangxi. Even if he wandered aimlessly, he shouldn't have been able to wander all the way out to Haijing Temple through sheer coincidence.
If Yin Xiaofeng had been brought back to Haijing Temple by Kui Chen, then everything would make more sense.
But why would Kui Chen bring back a person with extremely violent tendencies?
Was it as the elderly monks had said? To help 'fix' Yin Xiaofeng?
Assuming the 'new' Kui Chen was the same man as the Kui Chen who'd left, that would have been a good reason. But according to Hu Chengyi's statement, even if Kui Chen came back in the same body, the person within had already irrevocably changed.
Only a year passed between Kui Chen's departure and return. What could have caused such a big change in Kui Chen's personality?
Or could it be that the 'new' Kui Chen really was a different person entirely?
"Yin Xiaofeng never talked to others," Hu Chengyi continued. "He only occasionally spoke with Kui Chen. My reading comprehension skills are rather weak, so Kui Chen used to frequently explain Buddhism to me. After he returned, he never did this again."
The look in Ming Shu's eyes grew darker. "Because this 'new' Kui Chen could no longer understand the teachings of Buddhism himself!"
The most bewildering thing, for Hu Chengyi, was something that happened later.
Over the decades of Hu Chengyi's stay at Haijing Temple, the temple rarely accepted new monks. For one thing, Kui Chen had his reservations about many people who came to the temple. And for another, very few people came to Haijing Temple in the first place. But after Kui Chen returned, he accepted one new monk after another, in quick succession—
Chu Jiang. Wang Lu. Chang Qingying. Chu Xin.
In addition to Yin Xiaofeng, that made five new people in a short span of time.
Hu Chengyi gradually distanced himself from Kui Chen, but he often observed these newcomers. He discovered that, although they had become monks, they didn't act much like monks at all. Especially Chu Xin, the last to arrive. He was always lazing around, always ready with some sort of filthy or inappropriate remark. How could this person ever be mistaken for a monk?
It didn't seem quite true to say that Kui Chen took them in just for the sake of 'fixing' them. Hu Chengyi quickly realized that Kui Chen didn't only interact infrequently with him; Kui Chen also didn't interact much with the newer monks.
Could it be that he was somehow trying to 'fix' them by neglecting them?
As he grew older, Hu Chengyi began to feel more and more strongly that Haijing Temple was no longer the Haijing Temple he once knew. The new monks all seemed to have darkness in their hearts, and the master's heart was the darkest of them all. Here, Hu Chengyi could no longer find the peace he had sought out, and he felt more and more afraid.
The temple had actually become a place that could make a monk afraid.
Three years ago, Hu Chengyi made that trip down from the mountain to 'wander'. When he voiced his desire to depart from Haijing Temple, Kui Chen didn't try to dissuade him at all. Instead, he said something that sounded quite profound—that perhaps life away from the mountain was more suitable for Hu Chengyi.
"What did he mean by that?" Ming Shu asked. "Was he telling you not to return to Haijing Temple?"
"That was how I understood it," Hu Chengyi said. "But as far as I know, there's no master in the world who would say that to a monk who was getting ready to leave."
Ming Shu was already certain that there was something wrong with Kui Chen.
Hu Chengyi had been admitted to Haijing Temple by the real Kui Chen thirty-two years ago. Then, twenty-seven years ago, Lui Sui and Tang Yuan were also admitted to Haijing Temple by the real Kui Chen.
But when considering Liu Sui and Tang Yuan, Kui Chen had struggled with the decision. He'd had to be convinced by the other elderly monks to accept those two men into the temple, and to do his best to change them for the better.
Then, six years before the present day, Kui Chen returned to Haijing Temple with Yin Xiaofeng in tow. He then proceeded to accept Chang Qingying, Chu Jiang, Wang Lu, and Chu Xin into the temple. After Hu Chengyi departed, Kui Chen also accepted Fang Pingxu.
It was already known to the police that Liu Sui, Tang Yuan, Yin Xiaofeng, and Fang Pingxu each had extraordinarily dark pasts. Liu Sui and Tang Yuan, like Hu Chengyi, had been monks at Haijing Temple for many years. But Liu Sui and Tang Yuan didn't leave like Hu Chengyi, and when Hu Chengyi left, Kui Chen had voiced a hope that he wouldn't return.
Which meant the one and only monk who was truly fit to live at Haijing Temple had been driven away.
Then all the monks who remained at Haijing Temple were…
Ming Shu took a deep breath and suddenly thought of the heart surgery that Chu Xin had undergone overseas.
Was that surgery the missing link?
If Haijing Temple was a place full of people with demons in their hearts, then did the missing Chang Qingying, Chu Jiang, and Wang Lu also have dark secrets that were currently unknown to the police?
Had they all been gathered at Haijing Temple by the 'new' Kui Chen who'd returned from a year of traveling?
What exactly did Kui Chen want to create?
Dongye City, Fengxiang.
Chu Jiang, who'd left Haijing Temple last summer, had originally worked on the only dairy farm in Fengxiang. Six years ago, he'd become a monk. Things had changed during that time. Larger dairy companies had monopolized the industry, and the old dairy farm in Fengxiang had ceased operations.
Xu Chun managed to find the manager of the old dairy farm—a man with the surname Wen, who was now in his sixties.
A dairy farm wasn't an especially large business. A manager would have easily been able to remember the names of all his employees.
As soon as Xu Chun mentioned Chu Jiang, Old Wen's eyes took on a conflicted expression.
"If there were any problems with Chu Jiang," Xu Chun prompted, "I would ask you to please tell me the whole truth."
After a moment of silence, Old Wen said, "Chu Jiang has caused someone to die before."
Xu Chun's brows instantly furrowed.
Old Wen continued, "He didn't murder anyone. In fact, it wasn't truly his fault."
According to Old Wen, an extremely diligent woman had once worked on the dairy farm. She was a widow; her husband had died prematurely, and she now took care of both their parents all by herself.
Due to the pressure of all her responsibilities, the widow worked very hard and received the highest bonus out of all the employees every month. That inevitably attracted attention from everyone around her.
The widow never dressed herself up in anything fancy. She wore clothes that she mended again and again, giving her a very poor and rustic look. But the widow's natural features were actually extremely beautiful. One year, for International Workers' Day, there was a celebration at the farm where the widow got on stage to perform. It was a rare occasion on which she did her makeup and wore a beautiful outfit, instantly attracting even more attention.
From then on, the men at the dairy farm started to crack dirty jokes at her. The more brazen ones sidled up to her and outright hit on her. Out of all the men, Chu Jiang was one of the most outrageous ones.
As a widow, this woman was very worried about losing her job if she protested too fiercely. She had four elderly parents at home relying on her salary, after all. Over time, rumors began to spread through town that the widow was seducing men at the dairy farm.
This incident produced mass outrage. First, the men's wives came to the farm to find the truth and demand that the widow be fired. The widow cried and begged the manager not to fire her.
Then, when the wives learned that the widow was still working there, they became even more incensed and stormed over to the widow's home to demand an explanation from her in-laws.
The widow's reputation was thoroughly tarnished.
At the end of that year, the dairy farm was pressured into firing the widow. Even though the higher-ups knew that none of this was her fault, they had no choice but to get rid of her.
Before Chinese New Year's that year, the widow committed suicide by jumping into a river, driven past the brink of desperation by poverty and all the gossip surrounding her. It wasn't until a week later that her body was found.
Once the widow was dead, public opinion changed. People started to believe that it was clearly the men who had driven this widow to her death, as well as the wives of those men. The people from the town started to blame each other fiercely, and they ultimately focused their rage on the man who'd harassed the widow first—Chu Jiang.
Chu Jiang immediately became the target of their hatred.
That was human nature. All these other people had clearly wronged the widow as well, but as long as they weren't the first to harm her, they believed they could consider themselves innocent. They even believed they had every right to punish the first person who had wronged their victim.
Chu Jiang became ostracized. His relatives started to avoid him, and eventually he also lost his job.
In the whole town of Fengxiang, no one was willing to hire him.
"So Chu Jiang became a monk in the end?" Old Wen asked, once he finished telling Xu Chun what he knew of the past. "I didn't know about that part. I was the one who had to tell Chu Jiang he was fired. I didn't want to get rid of him either, but I had no choice, and he said he understood.
"We really didn't mistreat him. We gave him every cent of the compensation he was owed. And all this is his own fault, really. Who told him to harass someone's widow? Officer, you understand, don't you?"
After leaving Old Wen's home, Xu Chun went to visit the Fengxiang police. The police and Old Wen gave him the same story. They said that Chu Jiang never committed a major crime, but that he wasn't exactly a good person either. The town's gossip and scandals followed him everywhere.
Xu Chun couldn't help but think of one of the other missing monks, Wang Lu.
Before coming to Fengxiang to investigate Chu Jiang's background, Xu Chun had first looked into Wang Lu in Shouquan.
Wang Lu was thirty-six years old that year. Just like Chu Jiang, he had become a monk six years ago. The difference between them was that Chu Jiang had held a job, while Wang Lu had been unemployed for many years.
Wang Lu's father had passed away a long time ago, and his mother was cared for by his sister Wang Xi.
"An absolutely useless man!" Wang Xi declared, when asked about her own little brother.
It was hard to strike it rich in a small town like Shouquan, but it was actually very easy to find a job and a spouse and to live an ordinary life. But Wang Lu lacked even that basic initiative. Ever since he was young, he has been unambitious and unmotivated. After graduating from junior high school, he began drifting aimlessly through life, as though he were simply waiting to die.
His parents asked a variety of people to help him find a job, but Wang Xi was unwilling to work. He was lazy, and he wasn't smart. He took advantage of the fact that his parents wouldn't kick him out to stay at home and leech off the older generation, living idly until he sent his father to an early grave through the rage he instilled.
"After my father passed, I brought my mom out to my home to live with me," Wang Xi said. "That piece of work wanted to come as well, but I'm not as nice as my parents. They felt sorry for him, but I didn't. This is my home and my husband's home. We have two kids of our own, so where are we supposed to let him live? Even if we had the means, I wouldn't want to support him!"
"So you kicked Wang Lu out?" Xu Chun asked.
"What else was I supposed to do? Let him leech off my family forever?" Wang Xi demanded. She worked as middle management at a local enterprise, and her way of speaking was relatively brash. "I'm his sister, that's true. But I have no obligation to support him! He's a grown man, with hands and feet. It's more than possible for him to get a job and support himself, isn't it? I won't even let my children come into contact with him. How could I let him live here!"
After investigating these missing monks, Xu Chun called Ming Shu.
"Wang Lu and Chu Jiang seem to have nothing in common on the surface, but there are a lot of problems with them both," Xu Chun said. "Wang Lu leeched off his old man and angered him into an early grave. Chu Jiang harassed a widow, and played a part in causing that widow's death. From a legal standpoint, neither of them committed a crime. But morally speaking, neither of them are clean."
Ming Shu had expected these results. Of the four monks who left Haijing Temple, only Hu Chengyi was morally 'clean'. And now he was living out the rest of his days in peace.
As for Chang Qingying…
Chang Qingying was forty-seven years old. A native of Luocheng. It was inconvenient for Dongye City's police officers to investigate there, outside their jurisdiction, but everything became easier when the local police from Luocheng stepped up to help.
Before going out to Hanshu Village, Ming Shu had called Hua Chong to explain the situation and to ask Hua Chong to dispatch someone to assist with their investigation. The police in Luocheng were extremely efficient, and he quickly found out the truth behind Chang Qingying's past.
Ming Shu didn't know if Hua Chong had a cold or what, but his voice seemed much more hoarse than usual when he spoke over the phone.
"This Chang Qingying you want us to investigate," Hua Chong started. "Although there isn't an official record of a criminal investigation, someone at his old workplace—a construction company—jumped to his death."
"And that incident had something to do with Chang Qingying?" Ming Shu asked.
"The deceased's name is Zeng Fan. He and Chang Qingying were employees of the same department. When Zeng Fan first joined the company, Chang Qingying was his mentor," Hua Chong said. "Six years ago, the company made an advertising deal with the government. The department Chang Qingying and Zeng Fan belonged to was in charge of executing that marketing plan.
"However, the project was a failure. Not only did the company not gain more attention, they managed to tarnish their reputation. Afterwards, the blame was pinned on Zeng Fan. It's said that he made at least three mistakes during that project. One mistake just led to another, and another."
"Wait," Ming Shu interrupted. "Who claimed Zeng Fan was responsible?"
Hua Chong laughed. "Of course, it was an official statement given by the company's personnel. But my team later learned that Zeng Fan was acting based on advice he'd received from Chang Qingying. If we follow that route, then it would certainly be discovered that Chang Qingying also contributed to those mistakes. He shouldn't have gotten away clean."
"So Zeng Fan was ousted as a scapegoat?" Ming Shu asked.
"Zeng Fan was, in name, the person in charge of those matters, after all. Chang Qingying was his superior at the time, and he did have some responsibility to supervise the execution of the project. But the execution itself was Zeng Fan's responsibility," Hua Chong said. "The company's decision to pin the blame on Zeng Fan wasn't very controversial, but Zeng Fang himself reacted very strongly and insisted it was Chang Qingying who wronged him. He claimed Chang Qingying led him astray on purpose.
"On that matter, we did unearth one other detail—Zeng Fan was easily riled up, but he was very capable. The work he'd done at the department, until then, was all good. The company's higher-ups all appreciated him, but Chang Qingying was always pushing him back down. If Zeng Fan wanted to rise through their ranks quickly, after all, he would have to push Chang Qingying down. Would Chang Qingying simply allow him to do that?"
"Chang Qingying understood early on that Zeng Fan was someone to be feared," Ming Shu mused. "He knew Zeng Fan was the biggest threat to him at their company…"
Hua Chong coughed a few times and continued, "It seems we're on the same page there. Chang Qingying most likely deliberately used the company's project to cast a negative light on Zeng Fan, for the purpose of smothering out Zeng Fan's rise in the company. But he probably couldn't have imagined that Zeng Fan wouldn't be able to get past that failure, and that Zeng Fan would jump to his death soon after his punishment was decided."
Once all those connections had been established, Ming Shu closed his eyes. All these clues were like pieces of the same puzzle, clicking into place inside his mind.
Chu Jiang, Wang Lu, and Chang Qingying all indirectly killed someone due to their deficits of virtue.
"After Zeng Fan's death, his family members went to the company and asked for an explanation," Hua Chong continued. "The company brushed them off at first, but then the younger members of the Zeng family took the matter to the media. After that, Chang Qingying—as Zeng Fan's direct supervisor—resigned."
"Reason?" Ming Shu asked.
"Issues with his work performance," Hua Chong said. "Of course, the other employees couldn't explicitly admit that Chang Qingying deliberately misled Zeng Fan. And you already know what happened after that. Chang Qingying left to become a monk at Haijing Temple."
Ming Shu heard the sound of a door opening nearby, followed by the sound of footsteps.
"Medicine. Hurry up, take it."
This was Liu Zhiqin's voice.
"Captain Hua," Ming Shu said. "You're sick?"
Hua Chong huffed a laugh. "Just a seasonal cold, no big deal. Oi, Little Liu-ge, my ph…"
"Student Ming," Liu Zhiqin said. He'd taken Hua Chong's phone away from him.
Ming Shu's eyes twitched. "Professor Liu."
Liu Zhiqin continued, "Captain Hua's throat isn't well. If you have any other questions, you can ask me."
"I'm good." Ming Shu and Liu Zhiqin had only had a handful of completely civil conversations with each other. As soon as Ming Shu heard that someone else was on the phone now, he said, "Just take good care of Captain Hua, and I still remember the drink I owe you. Don't nag me about it."
Liu Zhiqin laughed. "Why is that the first thing you say to me?"
Ming Shu silently thought, Obviously to shut you up before you start harping on me!
After Hua Chong finished taking his medicine and got his phone back, Ming Shu heard him say to Liu Zhiqin, "I'm still talking to Captain Ming about official business."
"It's so much easier to communicate with a decent person," Ming Shu said.
"Hm?" Hua Chong hummed.
"Nothing," Ming Shu said. He cleared his throat, and they talked about a few more details before hanging up.
Not long after that, news came from the Serious Crimes Division—
The true identity of Kui Chen had been confirmed.