Many tens of years ago, the prettiest young lady at Dongye City's Vocational School for Girls, Lin Xi, fell in love with a young substitute teacher named Guo Yong. Guo Yong wasn't much older than her. He was handsome and mild-mannered, and he became an object of affection for many of the female students after teaching just a few classes.
Back then, there was much less freedom when it came to romantic relationships and falling in love. Although it was no longer set in stone that parents would dictate who their children married, there were still relatively few girls who would take the initiative to pursue the man of their dreams.
Lin Xi was an exception.
She liked Guo Yong, and so she pursued Guo Yong, openly putting all her affection for him on display.
The Lin family was fairly intellectual. Lin Xi's father and mother were, compared to many other parents of the time, much more 'enlightened'. They didn't think there was anything 'unethical' about a woman pursuing a man.
Lin Xi was beautiful, brilliant, and passionate. It was rare for anyone to be unmoved by her affections. However, before Lin Xi graduated, Guo Yong kept a distance between them, as they were teacher and student. It was only when Lin Xi graduated and was no longer a student that they struck up a romantic relationship.
Compared to the Lin family, the Guo family was much more traditional. They were a very ordinary, working class family from the city. Guo Yong's younger sister, Guo Shanmou, became very good friends with Lin Xi. Before her brother and her future sister-in-law married, Guo Shanmou whispered to Lin Xi, "Jie, what do you and my brother plan on naming your child?"
Lin Xi smiled and said, "Ping'an, meaning 'peace'. Whether we have a boy or a girl, my wish for my child is a lifetime of peace."
Soon after their wedding, Lin Xi gave birth to a baby, who she and Guo Yong did indeed name Guo Ping'an.
The child became the beloved baobei of the Lin and Guo families.
In that day and age, women were starting to take on various jobs in society. Once Guo Ping'an was eighteen months old, Lin Xi found a clerical job at one of the Chu Group's enterprises.
At that time, the Chu family had yet to become as powerful as it was in the present day. Lin Xi felt it was very worthwhile and rewarding to grow her career along with the business.
But how could the innocent Lin Xi have known that this job would push her and her family into a dark abyss?
All was well during Lin Xi's first two years with the Chu Group. The business was growing rapidly under the command of the young leader Chu Linxiong. Many of the other female entry-level employees gossiped about this good-looking man. Lin Xi had glimpsed Chu Linxiong once, and she couldn't deny that he was attractive. There was absolutely nothing bad anyone could say about his work ethic either. But Lin Xi never participated in the 'fawning' that these other girls did.
Because the man in her family was the best man in her heart.
Everything changed in her third year of employment.
Under normal circumstances, Lin Xi wouldn't have had any opportunities to meet and interact with Chu Linxiong in her position. But a small problem arose with a project one day, and Chu Linxiong personally came to her department to look into it.
During her school days, Lin Xi had been the most beautiful girl in her class. Back then, she was like a dew-stained rosebud. After becoming a woman and a mother, she had grown even more enchanting.
Chu Linxiong fell in love at first sight.
In matters of love, he had always been the sort to have a woman on each arm. But after that encounter with Lin Xi, he shockingly 'cleared his mind' for a long while and pushed away all the women he now saw as crass, vulgar creatures. He pursued Lin Xi with single-minded determination.
Lin Xi was shocked to the core by his pursuit, and she repeatedly told him that she was already married, thus had to reject his advances.
But what kind of man was Chu Linxiong? He was the sort who believed not a single woman in the world would ever refuse to submit to him.
The more Lin Xi refused, the more he wanted her.
Ultimately, Lin Xi had no choice but to give up her job in order to avoid Chu Linxiong.
But to a man like Chu Linxiong, tracking down a woman whose whole family lived in Dongye City was no challenge at all.
The peace that the Lin and Guo families had previously enjoyed was completely shattered by Chu Linxiong. Not only did Chu Linxiong harass Lin Xi incessantly, he also used underhanded tactics to make Guo Yong lose his job. He even threatened to have Guo Ping'an killed.
Lin Xi and Guo Yong reported this harassment to the police. They did everything they could think of, but still couldn't get rid of Chu Linxiong.
The only way for them to escape was to flee Dongye City with their family, to disappear somewhere far away. Even if Chu Linxiong was powerful, he probably wouldn't be capable of chasing them that far.
But both the Lin and Guo families had deep roots in Dongye City. Lin Xi and Guo Yong could leave with Guo Ping'an, but what about their parents?
After thinking it over, Lin Xi decided to stay.
However, an unexpected tragedy soon befell the Lin and Guo families—Lin Xi was abducted in broad daylight by Chu Linxiong. She was raped, then held captive by the Chu family for a year. When she was released after that year, she was a husk of her former self.
While held in captivity by the Chu family, she gave birth to a boy, fathered by Chu Linxiong. The boy was named Chu Xin.
Lin Xi went mad. She only had occasional moments of lucidity. During her year of captivity, the Lin and Guo families had been tormented beyond repair. Lin Xi's mother and father had passed away one after the other, and Guo Yong's father was bedridden with illness.
Guo Yong did everything in his power to take care of his wife and his young son, hoping that one day Lin Xi would recover and be able to think clearly again.
Compared to the psychologically devastated Lin Xi, it was Chu Linxiong who was the true psychopath.
Before Lin Xi gave birth to Chu Linxiong's child Chu Xin, Chu Linxiong had already threatened to kill Guo Ping'an. Now that Lin Xi had become the mother of his own son, Chu Linxiong's hatred for Guo Ping'an intensified even further.
"You're only allowed to leave me this one child," Chu Linxiong had said. "All the others… even if you birth more children, they must all die!"
In one of her moments of lucidity, Lin Xi hugged Guo Ping'an and wept. She said to Guo Yong, "If Ping'an stays in our family, he'll be killed one day."
Their experiences over the course of the past two years had already worn away all of Guo Yong's edges.
He no longer believed there was any justice in the world. He only wanted to protect his wife and child, even if they could only scrape by.
"But where can we send Ping'an?" Guo Yong asked. "The Chu family knows about all the relatives we have here."
Lin Xi shook her head. "While I was at school, I had a close friend. We were like sisters. We've lost touch over the years, but she's very kind, and she was very good to me. She… she'll probably help me!"
With no other options, Lin Xi took Guo Ping'an and secretly contacted her old classmate Bai Hong.
Out of all the girls in their class, Bai Hong was the one who'd gotten married the earliest. She'd married Qin Anqiang, a man from a rural village. The two of them had a wonderful, happy family with a son who was quite a lot older than Guo Ping'an.
After listening to Lin Xi recount her experiences, Bai Hong discussed things with her husband and decided that they would help Lin Xi by taking in her son. They would claim that this young child was a son they had been raising in Qin Anqiang's old village until then.
Lin Xi bid farewell to Guo Ping'an and personally chose the name Qin Ying for him—since Bai Hong's son was named Qin Xiong, naming them Qin Xiong and Qin Ying would make them sound more like a pair of brothers.
Bai Hong and Lin Xi agreed that once Chu Linxiong grew tired of Lin Xi and the threat of his presence passed, Bai Hong would return the child.
However, neither Lin Xi nor Guo Yong survived to see the day when Chu Linxiong backed off.
Chu Linxiong had many illegitimate children. He didn't allow them to live with them, but he didn't deny their existence either. He only doted on Chu Xin, who he raised as his nephew. He favored him even more than he favored the sons born to his lawful wife.
And he continued to give Lin Xi a life of endless torture.
He thought he could win Lin Xi's heart, but after many years of his pursuit, even after Lin Xi gave birth to his child, she still loved Guo Yong—a poor, weak scholar.
Chu Linxiong couldn't make Lin Xi fall in love with him, so he was determined to make her hate him.
Only hatred carried the same amount of weight as love.
Finally, at the height of her pain and madness, the former 'school beauty' chose to commit suicide. She finally escaped Chu Linxiong, and also left behind her husband and child.
Before committing suicide, Lin Xi never laid eyes on Qin Ying again.
Afterwards, Guo Yong died in a car accident. No one could prove whether that had been a genuine accident, or if it had been arranged.
Or if Guo Yong, having lost the will to live, had simply walked into traffic of his own volition.
After the death of his biological parents, Guo Ping'an continued to live in the Qin family as Qin Ying.
Bai Hong's kindness and Qin Anqiang's earnestness were unwavering. They treated Qin Ying as their own son, sometimes even treating him better than their own son Qin Xiong.
While Lin Xi and Guo Yong were alive, Bai Hong and Qin Anqiang didn't get Qin Ying a household registration because they knew one day, in the future, the child would return to his parents. Later, after Lin Xi and Guo Yong passed, Bai Hong and Qin Anqiang did consider adding Qin Ying to their family register so that he would formally become a part of their family. But adding Qin Ying to their family register would make it much easier for someone to discover that he was the 'abducted' Guo Ping'an.
The Chu Group was growing stronger and stronger at that time. Chu Linxiong had taken countless lovers and sired countless sons. Everything seemed like it would continue as usual, until twenty-one years ago—when the sixteen-year-old Qin Ying suddenly disappeared.
The Qin couple had been extremely tight-lipped about the matter of Qin Ying being Guo Ping'an. Lin Xi herself had only ever told Guo Shanmou, in a moment of clarity, where her son had gone. She'd asked Guo Shanmou to swear that she would take care of Guo Ping'an in the future, if anything should happen to her.
After Qin Ying disappeared, Bai Hong went to Guo Shanmou and apologized endlessly.
Guo Shanmou guessed that the truth behind Qin Ying's disappearance wasn't so simple. Otherwise, Bai Hong wouldn't have shown such intense guilt and remorse.
But at the time, Guo Shanmou hadn't been able to figure out what had happened to Qin Ying.
Lin Xi's words echoed in Guo Shanmou's ears. It felt like it was just yesterday that she'd last spoken to her brother and sister-in-law. But everything was different now. Ultimately, Guo Shanmou chose to stay silent and stop asking questions about Qin Ying. She hid all the secrets she knew and kept her head down, focusing on her own family.
The old house filled up with a heavy silence. These ancient woes all bore down from above, weighing the old woman down with grief and resignation.
Her eyelids drooped low, almost blocking all light from reaching her eyes. Her hands were tightly clasped together, fingers locking with such force that all the wrinkles on her bony hands were pulled taut.
"They thought Chu Linxiong didn't know where Ping'an was, but in truth, Chu Linxiong knew everything," Guo Shanmou said after wiping away her tears. "We're just ordinary people. What could we possibly hide from Chu Linxiong? It was just that he didn't directly contact Ping'an. I didn't realize the truth until I was much older."
"Chu Linxiong knew Qin Ying's identity from early on?" Xiao Yu'an wasn't entirely surprised to hear this. "Then was he also aware that you knew these secrets?"
Guo Shanmou trembled. "Yes. Back then, me and my brother and Lin Xi were still young. We hid Ping'an away because we were afraid Chu Linxiong would hurt Ping'an. Chu Linxiong was that kind of person, after all. He was capable of anything, while we… we had no means to fight back. We could only hide.
"Later, after they passed away, I started to realize that Chu Linxiong knew Ping'an was with Bai Hong. But he never did anything, because…"
Guo Shanmou hung her head and sighed heavily, like she was incapable of going on.
"It's because Chu Xin had been born with a heart condition," Xiao Yu'an said. "Chu Linxiong probably never intended to kill Guo Ping'an. When Chu Xin's illness progressed to the point where a heart transplant became necessary, Guo Ping'an—Chu Xin's half-brother—would be the ideal donor."
Guo Shanmou wiped her tears away and nodded faintly. "Lin Xi told me about Chu Xin's heart problems. Back then, we didn't know that Chu Linxiong had set his sights on Ping'an's heart already. After Ping'an disappeared, I once suspected he'd been captured by Chu Linxiong for Chu Xin's surgery. I went to every hospital in Dongye City, but didn't find any news of anything like that.
"But I did learn from a doctor that not all patients with heart conditions are suitable for heart transplants. They would only resort to such a treatment when nothing else worked. My guess was that Chu Xin's illness hadn't progressed to such a point yet, so Ping'an probably hadn't fallen into Chu Linxiong's hands yet. In that case, if he disappeared, then he should just stay gone. The farther he went, the better. As long as he never returned…"
Tragically, the old woman's hopes were futile. Chu Linxiong was able to learn that the 'abducted' Guo Ping'an had become Qin Ying, and he was also able to learn that Qin Ying had become Bai Ying. It only took more time and effort on his part.
Qin Xiong pushed Qin Ying off that cliff at Mount Qiyue, which was an unexpected turn of events for Chu Linxiong. Chu Xin's condition had yet to develop to the point of needing a heart transplant at that time. If his condition remained stable, he might never need such a dangerous surgery in his lifetime. But Chu Linxiong wouldn't dare take this matter lightly. If Qin Ying had died, then Chu Linxiong would be determined to see the body. If Qin Ying was still alive, then he would always be Chu Xin's ideal donor.
Guo Shanmou didn't know what happened afterwards, but she still believed her nephew was living in a faraway place that she didn't know about. She believed he was just like her own children—living with a new family, leading ordinary lives.
Xiao Yu'an promised her that the police would definitely unearth the truth about what happened in the past. She finally burst into tears as she clutched Xiao Yu'an's hands, whispering again and again, "Thank you, thank you…"
Guo Shanmou was thus taken into police protection as a key witness. Her tears and her accusations against Chu Linxiong had come from the bottom of her soul, but the Serious Crimes Division couldn't bring Chu Linxiong to justice yet. At that moment, their priority was to protect Chu Linxiong and Chu Xin—just like they were protecting Guo Shanmou.
Because someone was taking revenge for Qin Ying, and that person's final target would be either Chu Linxiong or Chu Xin.
Chu Linxiong was still the CEO of the Chu Group in name, but he no longer involved himself in the day-to-day affairs of the business. At most, he would only appear on special occasions. Presently, the person in charge of the Chu Group was Chu Qing. There were rumors within the Chu Group that Chu Linxiong hadn't willingly handed power over to Chu Qing, but had been gradually phased out by this heartless descendant of his.
The last time Chu Linxiong appeared in the public eye had been earlier that year. He had spent all the time since then recuperating at South Spring Manor in the suburbs on the outskirts of the city.
When Xiao Yu'an paid him a visit, he studied the white-haired, bed-ridden old man. It was very difficult to imagine that this had once been a business mogul, and a heartless madman.
Once a person grew old, they became weak. Chu Linxiong's own son had very easily snatched power away from him, leaving him to be tormented by illness and the pains of his own body.
Chu Linxiong had been strong and diabolical all throughout his life. This was perhaps the first time in his life he had ever felt weak and miserable, helpless to do anything against the people trampling over him.
"Police?" Chu Linxiong struggled to sit up. His voice was hoarse, but his tone was still full of contempt. "I'm not afraid of the police. What can you do to me? Go ahead, tell me. What are you investigating me for this time?"
Xiao Yu'an calmly studied Chu Linxiong as he uttered just one name. "Gong Ping'an."
Chu Linxiong's expression suddenly changed. Three seconds later, he rasped, "Who?"
"Guo Ping'an," Xiao Yu'an repeated, enunciating each word clearly. Afterwards, he crisply stated two more names. "Lin Xi. Guo Yong."
Chu Linxiong had managed to sit halfway up. He parted his lips, but didn't make a sound.
Xiao Yu'an actually spotted a trace of guilt in his eyes.
Even a demon, at the end of its rope, could feel remorse for its past sins?
But what was the use of that remorse now?
"It seems you still remember them," Xiao Yu'an said. "Guo Ping'an, Qin Ying, Bai Ying. Seven years ago, your men bribed Gong Guozhen, a prison guard at Jingli City's Second Prison, and got him to hand over the prisoner Bai Ying. Then Bai Ying was sent to Country B by you, where your illegitimate son, Chu Xin, received Bai Ying's heart."
After a short silence, Chu Linxiong declared, "Nonsense!"
"You can claim it's nonsense, but have you bothered to wonder why I'm here to talk to you about this nonsense?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "It wasn't easy to schedule a meeting with you, Chu-xiansheng. Your son Chu Qing put up quite a lot of obstacles for us."
Upon hearing the name 'Chu Qing', Chu Linxiong's expression contorted with a flash of obvious resentment and revulsion. It was to be expected of an old, kingly wolf who'd given up his throne to a young, strong heir.
"That bastard!" Chu Linxiong spat.
"I came to see you," Xiao Yu'an continued, "in part because someone has revealed all your crimes to the police. And also in part because…"
Chu Linxiong interrupted with a snort. "Revealed my crimes?"
"Let me finish." Xiao Yu'an's tone wasn't especially severe, but it was still enough to make chills run down any listener's spine. "I'm also here in part because someone wishes to harm your beloved son."
Chu Linxiong's aged face tensed. It was only then that a glint of light, becoming of an astute businessman, crossed his eyes.
"Decades ago, you forced Lin Xi to bear your child. Afterwards, you drove her crazy and destroyed her family. You can't admit to these crimes, and it will indeed be very difficult for the police to find evidence. However…" Xiao Yu'an paused. "Seven years ago, you used Gong Guozhen to take the prisoner Bai Ying out of prison. Then you gave his heart to Chu Xin. This is something we'll be able to prove very soon."
Chu Linxiong warily said, "I don't know what you're talking about."
"Naturally, I'm not here to ask you to voluntarily offer evidence to the police. Investigating this case is our job," Xiao Yu'an said. "I'm here to inform you that someone has been taking revenge for Guo Ping'an, and they've been active for the past two years. Gong Guozhen is dead. Cao Fenghuai, who put Guo Ping'an in jail for a crime he didn't commit, is also dead. Not long ago, even Qin Xiong, Guo Ping'an's brother in name, was killed.
"These were all people who had harmed Guo Ping'an. So do you believe Chu Xin, who ultimately took Guo Ping'an's life, would be spared?"
Ever since Chu Qing stole away his power and locked him up in this place under the guise of letting him 'recuperate', Chu Linxiong had been cut off from the news of the outside world. It was even a challenge for him to see Chu Xin.
Taking in the sight of Chu Linxiong's confusion, Xiao Yu'an continued, "I need your cooperation in finding this person who's avenging Guo Ping'an."
Chu Linxiong didn't speak for a long time. He first stared at Xiao Yu'an, looking directly into his eyes. Then he looked away. Finally, he let out a bitter laugh. "You're trying to trick me into admitting to something I didn't do!"
Xiao Yu'an laughed as well. "I'm trying to save your son, Chu Xin, from becoming the next victim of this 'avenger's' knife."
Time seemed to freeze. The sound of increasingly heavy breathing split the still air.
Xiao Yu'an didn't move or make a sound. And eventually, Chu Linxiong gradually lost his composure. In a trembling voice, he asked, "That person… that person killed so many people?"
"That person?" Xiao Yu'an echoed. "You've known all along who it is?"
After a long silence, Chu Linxiong let out a long sigh and finally said, "At QE University in Country B, there was a professor named Chi Mingyue. Four years ago, he jumped off the hospital roof and died."
Xiao Yu'an raised his eyebrows. "Chi Mingyue?"
Jingli City Bureau.
The person who sent New Year's presents to Qiao Ying was very likely the person who was taking revenge for Qin Ying. But zeroing in on this person's identity was extremely difficult. There were many problems. For one thing, the payments had been made from an international account. For another, that account hadn't made any transactions on any ecommerce platform in the past four years.
To investigate this person, the appropriate course of action was to seek cooperation from international law enforcement agencies. But taking that route would be inefficient and would inevitably cost the police a lot of time. Shen Xun had originally wanted to hand things over to the Information Warfare Division, when he received a timely call from Liu Zhiqin.
The special operations team was currently investigating the case in Han Province. Although Liu Zhiqin was located in Luocheng, he was still keeping up with the case in Hongcheng, in the same province. After getting in touch with Shen Xun, Liu Zhiqin had voluntarily taken on the task of looking into these internet records.
And, while the identity of the person who purchased those New Year's gifts was still unknown, Ming Shu found through his meticulous search of Qin Ying's past that Qin Ying had once been very keen to learn English. To that end, Qin Ying had once studied with a student tutor for a very long time.
"There was a person like that, but he didn't live around here," Qiao Ying said. "He was younger than A-Ying, just a student who'd recently graduated from high school. A-Ying told me, at around that time, that he'd signed up for some local English lessons. All the tutors were college students or high school students who were volunteering to teach English. That student and A-Ying were on good terms. He came over to our place for dinner very often."
"Do you remember his name?" Ming Shu asked.
Qing Ying thought about it for a long while. "I think A-Ying called him Little Yi."
Ming Shu followed up, "Which 'Yi'?"
"I don't know." Qiao Ying shook his head, but the corners of his lips were quirked up in a fond, nostalgic smile. His gaze drifted away from Ming Shu and settled elsewhere, like he was gazing at his missing child. "A-Ying always used to tell me that he never went to school, and that he was uneducated. He said he envied no one more than he envied those who were well-educated. He was always very tired after work, but since the community had organized a class, he always took the time to go learn. After studying, he would come back and teach me some English."
Ming Shu didn't wish to interrupt Qiao Ying, but he couldn't help but ask, "Do you have any of Bai Ying's old textbooks or workbooks here?"
"Yes, I kept all of A-Ying's things. Absolutely everything." Qiao Ying got up and found three old English books. "There's more. Take a look at these first. I'll find the rest."
The English books were all junior high school textbooks. Ming Shu swiftly flipped through and saw various names and distinctly different styles of handwriting on the pages.
They all seemed to be secondhand books.
Qiao Ying found a few more books and brought them out. It was obvious that these books all came from other junior high schools, but these had the same handwriting inside. When Ming Shu ran a comparison, he saw that it was Qin Ying's handwriting.
But in addition to Qin Ying's notes, many of these books also contained someone else's handwriting.
In all probability, the only other person who could have written in Qin Ying's books was Qin Ying's tutor—most likely, the 'Little Yi' who Qiao Ying had mentioned.
The local language classes hosted on Mu'ming Street had run for less than two years. That community center had already been turned into a mahjong hall for senior citizens. When Ming Shu found the old neighborhood officer who'd organized the classes, the officer had to go to a lot of trouble to find a list of the tutors from back then.
"What are you looking into this for? They were all high school and college students." The officer couldn't stop chattering, babbling on and on. "They couldn't have been bad people, right?"
Ming Shu scanned the list, looking for anyone with a name which contained a character that could be pronounced 'Yi'.
Suddenly, his brow furrowed. He stopped at the sight of a name near the bottom of the page.