Splendor, a restaurant that had been wildly popular and well-known throughout Jingli City, had long since disappeared from the dining industry. People were eager to dine at popular restaurants, and they were just as prone to forgetting old names. If one were two ask ten random people on the street in the present day, nine of them wouldn't even have heard of Splendor before.
After a murder took place inside one of its private banquet rooms, Splendor's business grew worse and worse. Ultimately, the restaurant closed down within six months. Zhou Han, the owner who had grown famous with her restaurant, also quickly disappeared from the public eye.
Zhou Han had last been questioned by the police seven years ago, when Bai Ying escaped from prison. She'd had to offer up evidence that Bai Ying never tried to contact her.
Now, Zhou Han was already thirty-two years old. She no longer looked as vibrant as she did in the past, and she currently worked at her husband's marketing agency.
Twelve years ago, when Bai Ying killed someone at Splendor, the police had in fact looked into Zhou Han's background. At the time, she had been a beautiful and elegant twenty-year-old woman. Many people had their eye on her. But because Zhou Han had nothing to do with the case, and because Bai Ying confessed so quickly, the investigation into Zhou Han's background didn't go very far. The police didn't learn of the source of her funding for the restaurant.
In other words, the police didn't dig deep enough to find out about Zhou Han's 'sugar daddy'.
But things were different now. The similarities between three gruesome cases were like an invisible thread, tying together Cao Fenghuai, Gong Guozhen, and Qin Xiong—with the missing Bai Ying as the needle.
Shen Xun presented photos of all three victims to Zhou Han and asked if she recognized any of them.
When her gaze fell upon the rightmost photo, the young woman's amicable smile seemed to freeze on her face.
Le Ran, who was standing behind Shen Xun, instantly noticed her reaction—it was like a flower losing all its color in an instant.
And the photo on the right was of none other than Cao Fenghuai.
Shen Xun picked up the photo and asked, "You know him?"
Zhou Han didn't even take a second to think about it. She started to shake her head as soon as Shen Xun asked his question.
Her pupils had suddenly constricted, and her pursed lips were trembling.
"Mrs. Zhou," Shen Xun said. "Your reaction has already answered the question for you."
"I…" Zhou Han looked down at her freshly manicured hands and stammered, "What… what do you actually want?"
"We'd like to understand what truly happened in the past," Shen Xun said.
Zhou Han lifted her head with a fearful look on her face. "But I don't know anything."
"You do, and you know quite a lot," Shen Xun said. "If you don't know how to tell us what you know, just answer each of my questions one by one."
Before Zhou Han could refuse, Shen Xun continued, "Cao Fenghuai was murdered two years ago. Did you know about that?"
All the blood rushed out of Zhou Han's face. She clutched the edge of the table with both hands. "Wh… what are you saying?"
Shen Xun narrowed his eyes. "You didn't know?"
Zhou Han shook her head with terror. "Who killed him? Has the murderer been found?"
Shen Xun gazed into Zhou Han's eyes, judging for himself whether her reaction was genuine or not.
The murders of Cao Fenghuai and his family had taken place in Hongcheng of Han Province, while this was Jingli City of Zhou Province. The police in Hongcheng hadn't made the identities of the victims public, and the Cao family had also decided to keep the matter private for business reasons. Zhou Han had been married for a while now; if she'd cut ties with Cao Fenghuai a long time ago, then it would have been normal for her not to know that Cao Fenghuai had died.
"The killer is still at large," Shen Xun said. "That's why I've come to find you."
A rivulet of sweat trickled down from Zhou Han's temple. "Why did you come to me? I didn't kill him! I haven't had anything to do with him for a long time! I don't know anything!"
Shen Xun leaned back in his chair. "You've misunderstood. I just want to know what happened in the past with Cao Fenghuai. Mrs. Zhou, you won't continue to insist to me that you didn't know him, right?"
Zhou Han's shoulders trembled fiercely. After a while, she asked, "H… how was he killed?"
Shen Xun shook his head. "It would be best if you answered my questions first. What was your relationship with Cao Fenghuai?"
The man before her had a much too powerful presence. Zhou Han was helpless to do anything but relay the events of the past, from more than ten years ago, in her stammering voice.
Fourteen years ago, Zhou Han had only been eighteen years old. She had just moved to the city from the countryside. She had no experience, no connections, and no education. She couldn't find a decent job, and thus wound up working as a hostess at a nightclub to make ends meet.
Cao Fenghuai had been young at the time as well. He didn't dare play around with women under his old man's nose, so he often ran off to other cities, outside Han Province, to have his fun under a false identity.
Zhou Han was beautiful and young, and she quickly became Cao Fenghuai's favorite partner. He adored her so much that he revealed his true identity to her, and even paid for her to open a seafood restaurant.
Just like that, Zhou Han was transformed from a hostess to the owner of Splendor.
In order to keep their relationship a secret from his family, Cao Fenghuai always snuck away from home to meet up with Zhou Han. And all the financial help he gave her was paid in cash. Zhou Han kept his favor for two years. During that time, Splendor became more and more popular—until Bai Ying killed someone in one of the private rooms.
After that murder took place, Cao Fenghuai gave Zhou Han a huge sum of money, meant as a sign of severing their relationship.
Zhou Han was very practical, and she was quick to adapt to her circumstances. She shut down Splendor and laid low for a while, before opening up a new business with the compensation money she'd received from Cao Fenghuai. Later on, she met her current husband and started to lead a normal life.
"I swear, after we broke up, I never had any interactions with Cao Fenghuai again. I didn't even ask around about him or his family," Zhou Han said. The more she spoke, the more anxious she seemed to become. "I'm deeply in love with my husband now. Please, you can't tell him that I was once 'kept' by another man!"
Bai Ying had once killed someone at Splendor, and Cao Fenghuai had been the financial backer of Splendor back then. Twelve years ago, seven years ago, two years ago… the police hadn't dug up the connections between these incidents. But now, with these three cases coming together, the truth was starting to rise to the surface.
"About the matter of Zhang Long's death," Shen Xun continued. "How much do you know?"
A person's eyes almost never lied. Upon hearing that name, Zhou Han's eyes dulled and darkened. After a few seconds, she said, "That case was solved a long time ago, wasn't it? Zhang Long was killed by Bai Ying."
"It's true that this is what the police concluded, but I'd like to hear your thoughts," Shen Xun said. "After all, the police overlooked many details at the time."
Zhou Han fisted her hands in her wool skirt under the table. "I actually… actually never understood why Bai Ying would kill Zhang Long. Bai Ying wasn't that type of person. And Zhang Long… Zhang Long was targeting me."
"Zhang Long had once pursued me, but I rejected him. He often came to the store after that to harass me."
"Did Cao Fenghuai know about this?"
"Where was Cao Fenghuai when Bai Ying killed Zhang Long?" Shen Xun asked.
Zhou Han froze for a second. Her eyes suddenly went wide. "Could it be… that Cao Fenghuai told Bai Ying to kill Zhang Long?"
"What do you think?" Shen Xun prompted.
After a moment of bewildered silence, Zhou Han shook her head and mumbled, "It couldn't be…"
Shen Xun carefully studied Zhou Han. "Twelve years have already passed. I'm afraid we won't be able to dig up the details now. But whether or not Cao Fenghuai was in Jingli City when Zhang Long died… you should at least know that much."
Zhou Han nodded. "He was here. But whether or not he had something to do with Zhang Long's death, I really don't know."
When Ming Shu rushed back to the bureau in Jingli City, Yi Fei was just getting back as well. The scattered clues were starting to come together, one piece at a time.
A whiteboard stood in the conference room that the local police had set aside for the special task force. Ming Shu stood in front of it with a marker, writing and drawing his thoughts.
Many, many names were written down on the whiteboard, and each one was connected to another by bold, thick lines.
"Right now, we already know that Bai Ying is Qin Ying. After leaving Mount Qiyue, Qin Ying didn't return to Dongye City. He came out to Jingli City, where he worked odd jobs on Mu'ming Street until he was picked up by Qiao Ying, an old tailor who'd recently lost his son. With Qiao Ying's help, Qin Ying finally resolved his 'undocumented' status," Ming Shu recited as he continued to write on the board. "Qin Ying lived with Qiao Ying for a total of seven years. Specifically, from the age of eighteen to the age of twenty-five, at which point he was imprisoned. Captain Yi, is all that correct?"
Yi Fei nodded and added, "According to Qiao Ying and his neighbors on Mu'ming Street, Qiao Ying lost his son when he was still middle-aged, so he always treated Qin Ying like he was his own son. Qin Ying was also very filial and did his best to take care of Qiao Ying. To this day, Qiao Ying still doesn't believe Qin Ying killed anyone."
Ming Shu looked over at Shen Xun. "Qin Ying's motives are indeed a bit suspicious. The one who really had a motive was Cao Fenghuai."
Shen Xun stood up, picked up another marker, and drew a circle around Cao Fenghuai's name. "Assuming it was Cao Fenghuai who killed Zhang Long back then, how did Cao Fenghuai get Qin Ying to take the fall?"
"Money, power," Ming Shu said. "If we put ourselves in Cao Fenghuai's shoes, then compelling someone with his money and power would be the easiest way. Qin Ying lived a hard life before that. He finally found a place where he could live peacefully for seven years. What mattered to him the most was probably taking care of Qiao Ying, who'd taken him in."
"Cao Fenghuai threatened Qin Ying by threatening Qiao Ying, then," Shen Xun said. "All Qin Ying could do at the time was try to get a lighter sentence by confessing to the crime. Then, by staying on good behavior in prison and showing that he was reformed, he could get out after serving a few years and continue to live happily with Qiao Ying."
"But he didn't have to go as far as taking the blame for a crime he didn't commit," Le Ran interrupted. "Did he really not have any other choice?"
Ming Shu sighed. "Qin Ying was once pushed off a cliff by his own family. After being rescued, he didn't call the police. He didn't seek revenge either. He just quietly left to start a new life in a new place. A person like that must live with fear in his very bones. When someone much, much more powerful than him appears, he's likely to bend to their will."
Le Ran still wasn't willing to accept that explanation. "But then you would have a contradiction on your hands, Captain Ming. We're currently thinking that the cases of the Cao family, Gong family, and Qin family were all cases of Qin Ying's revenge, right? If he's such a weak-willed person, how could he kill three families in a row in such a brutal fashion?"
"This is Qin Ying's revenge," Ming Shu said. "But the avenger isn't necessarily Qin Ying."
Shen Xun didn't say anything, but he nodded faintly.
A short while ago, when Ming Shu was still on the way back from Second Prison, the two of them had discussed the mystery which surrounded Qin Ying.
At the very beginning, when the Serious Crimes Division first learned that Qin Xiong had a brother named Qin Ying, and that this brother had been missing for twenty-one years, they'd come to the conclusion that Qin Ying had been killed by Qin Xiong. After analyzing the details of what they knew, they theorized that some unknown person was seeking revenge on Qin Ying's behalf.
But there had been no way to guess who that person could be, because the police hadn't been able to get a clear idea of Qin Ying's interpersonal connections.
As the investigation progressed, an important clue surfaced—Qin Ying didn't die after being pushed off a cliff by Qin Xiong. He was saved by the monks at Haijing Temple, and he hadn't been heard from since.
This clue led the Serious Crimes Division down a different path. It made them think that, if Qin Ying was still alive, he could have been the one to return to seek revenge against Qin Xiong and Qin Xiong's family.
However, it was possible that Qin Ying didn't die on Mount Qiyue, but did later die somewhere else.
"Qin Ying was earnestly working on his rehabilitation in prison. It's not reasonable to think that someone like him would escape from prison." Ming Shu wrote Wen Xiang's name on the whiteboard and tapped it emphatically. "If Wen Xiang is telling the truth, then Qin Ying was forcibly taken out of prison by the guard Gong Guozhen. As for why Gong Guozhen did this, my guess would be that it was in self-interest. Someone instructed him to get Qin Ying out."
"We can work backwards to confirm Wen Xiang's claims," Yi Fei said. "If Wen Xiang lied and Qin Ying wasn't taken away by Gong Guozhen, if Qin Ying really did escape on his own, then with the way Gong Guozhen initially took good care of Qin Ying in prison, it wouldn't make sense for Qin Ying to take revenge on Gong Guozhen after escaping.
"Gong Guozhen's family died so tragically, in a similar way to the Qin family and Cao family. That means the most logical truth would be that Qin Ying had indeed been taken away by Gong Guozhen, against his will. And this was an act that resulted in harm coming to Qin Ying."
"Right," Ming Shu said. "These three cases took place in three different cities, but the killer used the same methods to kill. We need to investigate these cases together, which means we need one uniform motive for this killer. Captain Shen, we've already investigated Qin Xiong's family thoroughly. Right now, we can still dig deeper into Jingli City's Second Prison and the Cao family.
"Gong Guozhen was just a prison guard. He took a big risk, getting Qin Ying out. Someone outside the prison had to have taken over from there. Who was that person? And if we assume that Qin Ying has already been killed, would his avenger allow that person to live?"
"So what you're saying is, these serial murders aren't over?" Le Ran asked. "The killer still has another target?"
"There's still a missing link right now," Shen Xun said. "And the person hiding behind Gong Guozhen is likely that missing link."
The conference room fell silent for a moment as everyone sank deep into thought.
Ming Shu hugged his arms to his chest and stared at the whiteboard, which was now densely packed with writing. His head ached, but it wasn't a painful sort of ache. There was a glimmer of light there as well, like the truth was finally close to breaking out of the ground.
"If this 'avenger' really exists, then it must be someone who knows Qin Ying," Ming Shu said. "Someone who understands Qin Ying, loves Qin Ying, and knows that Qin Ying would never kill anyone, much less break out of prison. Otherwise, this 'avenger' wouldn't have spent so much time seeking justice and truth for Qin Ying."
Ming Shu spoke very slowly, and he paused before he decided, "This is someone who used to live alongside Qin Ying."
"Qiao Ying?" Yi Fei ventured. "But Qiao Ying is old, and he can't even walk all that well anymore. He doesn't seem capable of committing these crimes."
Le Ran furrowed his brows. "It's also impossible for him to have hired a killer. There's no precedent for hiring killers in cases like these."
"Qin Ying has stayed in a total of three places for a long period of time," Ming Shu said. "Before the age of sixteen, he lived with the Qin family. After being pushed off a cliff by Qin Xiong, he stayed at Haijing Temple for a short while. Then, from the age of eighteen to twenty-five, he lived on Mu'ming Street in Jingli City. After the age of twenty-five, he was in prison for several years.
"Haijing Temple can be ruled out, and we've already thoroughly looked into the Qin family. Now our two 'blind spots' are Second Prison and Mu'ming Street. It's highly probable that this 'avenger' met Qin Ying while he was living at one of these places."
"I also thought of a possibility," Shen Xun said.
Ming Shu turned to him. "Hm?"
"You haven't clearly mapped out Qin Ying's life and background yet," Shen Xun said. "Before becoming a member of the Qin family, whose child was Qin Ying?"
"It's impossible for us to find out now," Ming Shu said.
"Then is it possible that this 'avenger' is from Qin Ying's original, real family?" Shen Xun asked.
After another long moment of silence, Ming Shu capped the marker in his hands. "It's possible, but I still think our investigation should focus on the two areas I pointed out. Because we don't have a single lead on Qin Ying's real family right now."
Shen Xun laughed. "A very clear, rational line of thinking. You've learned a lot from Director Xiao."
Ming Shu lifted his brows. A flash of light crossed his eyes. "I've learned enough."
Mu'ming Street was an old street. A few years ago, it was said that the whole area would be developed, but only a few of the buildings to the south of the area were demolished in the end. The rest of the street fell outside the development area, so those buildings were left in their dilapidated states. Many young people moved away, and those that remained were mostly older folks and those without any better options.
The search of Mu'ming Street was led by the special operations team, with help from the Jingli City police.
Ming Shu's focus was on looking into Qin Ying's male acquaintances who were close to him in age.
During the investigation, the team found more than ten people who fit that description. These were men who either used to live on Mu'Ming Street or still lived there. They had all been close to Qin Ying, and they were all baffled by Qin Ying's alleged crime and escape from prison.
However, after Ming Shu spoke to them one by one, they were all ruled out as potential 'avengers'.
"Why have you people come here again?" The wrinkles on Qiao Ying's face trembled. "My boy is a good man. He wouldn't ever hurt anyone!"
"I'm here because there are points of suspicion from the case back then," Ming Shu said.
Qiao Ying was stunned for a long moment. Then, suddenly, tears welled up in his eyes. He clasped his hands together and bowed deeply to Ming Shu.
Ming Shu helped the elderly man straighten up and asked, "After all that happened with Bai Ying, was there anyone who frequently appeared near your home?"
"There were many people," Qiao Ying said. "Police officers, journalists, neighbors, and A-Ying's friends…"
"Bai Ying's friends," Ming Shu repeated. "Do you know them all?"
Qiao Ying nodded, then shook his head. "A-Ying was very popular."
"Was there anyone who sometimes visited you after Bai Ying had served a few years in prison? After he left the prison?" Ming Shu asked. In order to avoid hurting Qiao Ying's feelings, Ming Shu was careful not to use words like 'escape' to talk about Bai Ying's departure from prison.
Qiao Ying sighed. "All his friends went their own way. But…"
"But what?" Ming Shu prompted.
"A few years ago," Qiao Ying said, "someone would send me some traditional gifts each year, for New Year's."
"Who?" Ming Shu asked, perking up. "Do you still have the packages?"
Qiao Ying got up. "I'll get them out for you."
More than ten minutes later, Qiao Ying returned with several folded boxes from an inner room. Judging by the shipping labels, they had all been shipped out by an online shopping company.
Ming Shu quickly took a picture of the shipping labels and asked Le Ran to look into it right away.
Qiao Ying also mentioned that he hadn't received any New Year's presents in the past four years.
"Who do you think sent you all these presents?" Ming Shu asked.
Qiao Ying opened and closed his mouth a few times before he finally whispered, "I always hoped it was A-Ying. As long as he's alive and well, even if he never comes to see me again, I would be content."
Le Ran quickly reached out to the shopping service that had shipped the goods to Qiao Ying. From their transaction records, he learned that the person who'd placed the order was located in Country B.
"If this person is abroad, that makes it much harder for us to look into them," Yi Fei said. "This is someone who was determined to send Qiao Ying gifts on New Year's, but they didn't wish to divulge their name. And they stopped in the past few years."
"Because he was no longer abroad. He came back to the country!" Ming Shu exclaimed. "We can refine our profile of this killer some more now—he once went abroad, either for work or for school, and he came back four years ago to investigate the truth behind Qin YIng's alleged murder case and prison break.
"This person must have had some level of status and a good number of contacts. He must have been a good communicator, or he wouldn't have been able to find out about Cao Fenghuai and Gong Guozhen. As for Qin Xiong, I suspect Qin Ying may have previously told this person about the events of his childhood. Otherwise, this 'avenger' really wouldn't have been able to find out about Qin Xiong."
The case of Gong Guozhen had been open for a long time, and now there was a new breakthrough. The Jingli City police organized a special task force of their own, once again personally heading out to Second Prison to take a look.
Wen Xiang no longer tried to hide the truth. This time, he gave a full statement.
Bai Ying had originally been thought of as a prisoner who escaped, but now everyone knew he had been drugged and forcibly taken out of prison. That revelation thrust Second Prison into the spotlight.
Could Gong Guozhen have accomplished something like removing a prisoner by himself?
Someone on the outside must have helped him. But were all the other guards oblivious to his actions?
Did they know and turn a blind eye? Or were they active participants in his ploy?
After so many years with the Serious Crimes Division, as well as one year of 'brutal' training with special ops, Ming Shu was very clear about one thing—many people who seemed innocent weren't innocent at all; it was simply that the investigation had yet to unearth their secrets.
Second Prison, of Jingli City, couldn't hold up under a thorough investigation.
Li Liangping, a prison guard just like Gong Guozhen, finally confessed during an intense interrogation with the special operations team and the city's criminal investigation department. He admitted to helping Gong Guozhen get Bai Ying out of prison, and to receiving three hundred thousand yuan in hush money from Gong Guozhen afterwards.
Three hundred thousand yuan. Seven years ago, in a place like Jingli City, that would have been enough to buy a two-bedroom apartment.
"I really don't know anything else. Gong Guozhen told me not to ask any questions and not to tell anyone anything. He told me to just take the money," Li Liangping said. He hunched his shoulders under the bright lights in the interrogation room. "Gong Guozhen said he could get this done without drawing any attention to himself. As long as I cooperated, we could get rich together. If I didn't cooperate…"
"What would happen if you didn't cooperate?" Ming Shu asked sharply.
Li Liangping hung his head. "Gong Guozhen said it was some big shot on the outside who wanted to buy Bai Ying. Since I already knew about it, he said it was too late for me to bail out!"
"What big shot?" Ming Shu demanded fiercely. "What kind of 'big shot' can make prison guards commit such a crime?!"
Li Liangping clutched his head with both hands. "Only Gong Guozhen knew!"
While Le Ran stayed in Jingli City to continue assisting Ming Shu, Shen Xun went ahead to Hongcheng in Han Province to oversee the investigation into the case of Cao Fenghuai's murder from two years ago. There, he learned of one very important secret that the Cao family had been hiding—Cao Fenghuai had once killed a person in Jingli City, over a woman.
That person was Zhang Long.
Such an important piece of information, not coming to light until the special operations team came to investigate, wasn't a good look for the Hongcheng police. But the blame didn't fall completely on them. After Cao Fenghuai died, his close confidant had frantically covered up the past, deliberately concealing that piece of information about Zhang Long. It was only now that this confidant, after being diagnosed with cancer, decided to come clean.
Twelve years ago, the person who'd killed Zhang Long at Splendor was Cao Fenghuai. Afterwards, Cao Fenghuai threatened to harm Qiao Ying if Qin Ying didn't take the fall. He further sweetened the pot by promising to take care of Qin Ying and Qiao Ying for the rest of their lives, as long as Qin Ying took the blame.
In order to protect Qiao Ying, who had given him a home, Qin Ying confessed to a crime that he hadn't committed.
The truth had finally come to light, but the real killer and his family had already met brutal ends at the hands of a vigilante.
But exactly whose hands did that deed?
And the person who'd reached out to Gong Guozhen… why had they 'bought' Qin Ying?
Ming Shu stared at the whiteboard in the conference room, with his brows furrowed in deep contemplation. The cell phone in his pocket suddenly began to vibrate—it was Xiao Yu'an.
Although the two of them had been in separate places for a while now, they made frequent calls to each other. Ming Shu kept Xiao Yu'an updated on all the progress he was making, and Xiao Yu'an reported to him about the situation in Dongye City as well.
"Director Xiao," Ming Shu answered when he took the call.
"I've received some currently unverified information," Xiao Yu'an said. "Seven years ago, the heart transplant surgery Chu Xin had in Country B was an illegal operation."