For middle-class families, buying a burial plot for a deceased family member was a rather significant expense. In the past decade or so, the real estate industry in Dongye City had developed very swiftly—and the funeral industry hadn't fallen behind. When people were alive, they worked hard and fought for places where they would temporarily live. And when these people died, especially if they died suddenly, they wouldn't necessarily have a place where they could be buried right away.
The West Moon Funeral Home wasn't the best funeral home in Dongye City, but it was one of the most popular ones. Because there was no other funeral home in the city which did a better job at preserving the ashes of the deceased.
Usually, funeral homes charged a fee for preserving ashes of cremated bodies. Those who hadn't yet gotten the chance to buy a plot in a cemetery for their deceased loved ones, or those who didn't have enough money to buy a plot at the moment, would often leave the ashes to be kept at a funeral home.
As the economy and business policies changed, all sorts of businesses could fall on hard times—only the funeral industry would never falter. So many people died in the city every day. As long as people existed in the city, funeral homes would continue to thrive.
Because other funeral homes in the city weren't situated in very good locations, they weren't able to construct large 'memorial halls' for the ashes stored with them. Therefore, most of them had a rule that they would only store ashes for up to six months. Patrons had to collect their ashes during that time, or the funeral home would dispose of the remains.
The West Moon Funeral Home was different. Although it was located in a remote area, it did happen to be situated right next to a mountain. By taking up just a small part of that mountain, they were able to store countless urns containing precious ashes. They could offer their patrons a much longer storage time—a year or two would be no problem for them.
Many people who couldn't afford to buy a plot of land where their loved ones could be buried would send their deceased to be cremated at West Moon. The longer they could store their ashes there, the better. If they could leave them there for two years, they would manage to save up enough for a cemetery plot one way or another.
However, there were also many people who ultimately gave up on reclaiming the ashes of their loved ones. It seemed as though, sometimes, after two years passed, the feelings of affection for the deceased passed as well. The living were no longer willing to spend the money they'd earned with their blood, tears, and sweat just to house a lump of ashes.
Where would these abandoned ashes go in the end? The ones who abandoned these ashes never liked asking this question.
Today was Meng Shan's second visit to West Moon, and this time the funeral home was more crowded than it had been during her first visit. The hall where people could register for cremations and collect ashes was so crowded that if someone stumbled in by accident, they might not have known it was a funeral home—they would probably mistake it for a tertiary hospital.
Meng Shan had taken a hearse to the funeral home at two in the morning. After waiting for half an hour, she was finally able to purchase the cheapest urn available.
Five years ago, at around the same time of day, she and her father had bought the cheapest urn for her mother, who had died of illness. Now, her father's remains were being tossed into the disposal room, in preparation for being cremated.
Meng Shan lowered her head and looked at the plain urn in her hands. She laughed at herself and said, "I'm treating you two well enough, aren't I? You've died, and you can still sleep in a 'couple's box'."
From the administrative hall to the cremation room, there was a short hallway. The people who had more money would walk down this hall while throwing sacrificial paper money around. When anyone walked down that hall, they would inevitably get bits of paper stuck to them.
They were all mourning the dead, so no one cared about those little details. But Meng Shan suddenly felt afraid.
She pulled out a piece of paper money that had gotten stuck in her hair and fiercely balled it up in one hand, then threw it on the ground.
It was still early in the morning, and there was a long time to go before dawn. Winter nights were windy, and the funeral home was close to a mountain. The wind that blew over from the mountain was always cold and gloomy, as though it carried ghosts and wraiths.
Meng Shan thought of her own mother, then of her mother's ashes which had been scattered in some unknown place.
Back when her mother had been cremated, Meng Shan had paid for six months of storage, thinking that six months would be plenty of time to buy a grave for her mother. But the money she'd worked hard to save was ultimately taken by her father, to buy drinks and gamble on cards. Meng Shan had lost it all.
She'd cried and cursed at her father, who didn't say a word in his own defense—he only lowered his head and admitted he was wrong. But what good would admitting his guilt do? The money that had been lost would never return.
There was no other choice. Meng Shan had had to extend the storage period of her mother's ashes.
But for the rest of the time that those ashes were stored, neither Meng Shan nor her father were willing to spend the money to properly bury Meng Shan's mother.
The living were struggling so much just to live. Why did they have to care for a pile of lifeless ashes?
A dead person was dead. Wasn't it the same, regardless of where their ashes were dumped?
The money it would have cost to purchase a plot in a cemetery was enough to allow their living family to survive for a good, long while.
And so, five years passed. Meng Shan would occasionally think of her mother's ashes. Although she felt guilty, it was always a shallow sort of guilt. Easily forgotten after playing a game or two of cards.
But now, Meng Shan felt fear.
Right in front of her eyes was that hallway, blanketed with sacrificial paper money. A wicked chill seemed to be present in that long hall to the crematorium, which made Meng Shan feel like she was surrounded by her mother's complaints of her lack of filial piety.
But in order to be filial, a prerequisite was money.
Meng Shan was poor.
As she sat in the lobby of the crematorium, Meng Shan once again felt the pain of poverty.
She had already gotten a number. After two more numbers were called, it would be her father's turn to enter the cremator. But just now, someone had paid to cut in line for their relative to be cremated at an 'auspicious' time, so Meng Shan had to wait for one extra number to be called first.
People always said that everyone was equal only in death, but at a funeral home, it became apparent that people weren't equal even in death.
The rich could cut in line by paying more money, but this wasn't like cutting in line in life. In life, cutting in line garnered contempt, but here—it made a person seem admirable.
Meng Shan heard someone else in the waiting room say, "That family paid an extra thirty thousand yuan. They have a lot of money."
Meng Shan hugged the empty urn in her arms and wearily closed her eyes.
The old man who had been a nuisance all her life had finally died. He'd passed away at home. After Meng Shan got a death certificate from the local police, she'd been granted permission to have him cremated.
Many years ago, in the dilapidated neighborhood where Meng Shan lived, the older generation had been very particular about deaths. Whenever someone died in the neighborhood, the elders could sing mournful songs for three days and nights. Because Meng Shan was beautiful, and because her voice wasn't bad, she had been enlisted in a mourning group when she was only in her teens. For more than ten years after that, she sang these mourning songs. It was only when city regulations changed and began to prohibit these noisy, disruptive activities that the mourning group disbanded. Meng Shan didn't know how to do anything else, though. This stream of income had been cut off for her, leaving her in a tight spot.
When her father passed, she didn't even arrange a memorial. No one had liked that old man anyway, so no one would come to offer money as a parting gift. She kept the body at home for two days, then at two in the morning on the current day, transported it to the funeral home.
Once in a while, the sounds of sobbing rose in the waiting room. Meng Shan's head was a tumultuous mess. She wanted to hurry up and have the body cremated already. But she waited and waited, until dawn nearly broke—and her turn still hadn't come.
There were too many wealthy people who were cutting in line.
They didn't just pay to jump the queue. Before sending the body of their deceased into the cremator, they would also spend thousands of yuan on fireworks to send off the body. And so, the bodies would slide into the cremator, accompanied by the noisy crackling of these fireworks.
At nine in the morning, Meng Shan finally heard her number called out.
She scrubbed her face, then expressionlessly moved to stand in front of the doors to the cremator.
Her father's body had already been placed on the conveyor belt to the cremator. This was the ceremonial moment for her to say her 'final farewell'.
Meng Shan looked at that old face. She only felt like she was sick of this sight, and even her bow was very perfunctory.
The man waiting to perform the cremation probably also thought this was strange. The 'final farewell' usually involved a large group of people who sobbed and cried out for the deceased. Some people got so worked up that they had to be pulled aside, to avoid letting them weep over the bodies.
The beliefs of Dongye City stated that the soul would linger for a long time if the body were to be stained with tears.
But Meng Shan was here alone, and she didn't shed a single tear.
The cremator asked if she wanted to buy any fireworks.
Meng Shan had gotten fed up with all this a long time ago. Her tone was unkind as she said, "These things that cost tens of thousands of yuan. Do you really think I look like I can afford them? Even if you're just doing business, you have to have a sense for these things. I…"
Halfway through that sentence, Meng Shan suddenly stopped.
Because the cremator currently working here was very different from what she had imagined. This man was actually young, upstanding, and handsome.
"I…" Meng Shan averted her gaze, embarrassed. "Hurry up and burn it."
"There are cheap ceremonial fireworks too," the cremator explained. "The most common type is a pack of twelve for ninety yuan. Lots of people will buy that one. This is the final farewell. Don't you want to give your father a lively send-off?"
Ninety yuan wasn't too expensive. Meng Shan could afford that. But she felt a sudden burst of rage, causing her to shout at the cremator, "Lots of people buy it, so I have to buy it?! You guys are too good at getting rich off the dead!"
The cremator's brow furrowed. Meng Shan realized she'd lost her temper. She lowered her head and said, "My apologies. I don't need it."
The cremator nodded. "Then please return to the waiting area. The door will open automatically once the cremation is complete."
Meng Shan returned to the waiting room, listless and despondent. She watched the grief of the other mourners, feeling like she was an emotionless, cold-blooded animal.
Another hour later, Meng Shan received the cheap urn she'd bought. It was filled to the brim now, as it was handed to her by the cremator.
She bowed her head and whispered, "Thank you."
The cremator only hummed curtly, then turned to gesture for his assistant to put another body on the conveyor belt.
Another wave of wailing sobs rang out.
Meng Shan left in a rush. Arranging for the ashes to be stored at the funeral home took even more than another hour. By the time she was able to leave the West Moon Funeral Home, it was already midday.
She looked at the slip of paper in her hand, which said that she would need to collect the urn within six months. She crumbled that piece of paper into a ball, just as she'd crumpled up that bill of paper money earlier, before dawn.
Pick up the urn?
Take it back for burial?
She shook her head with a bitter smile and walked over to a trash can, tossing the crumpled paper inside.
"Goodbye, old man," she whispered. "It's not that I'm unfilial. It's that I really can't get enough money to buy you a grave. You know better than anyone what kind of life I led. Don't resent me like my mother did. You guys keep each other company, and in your next lives, consider your own situation before you decide to have children. Otherwise, even if you have a child, you won't be able to raise them well—they'll be just like me. I can't lead a good life, so I can't buy a grave, and the two of you can't even be buried in peace. Isn't this a vicious cycle? I'm leaving now. Don't come looking for me."
Outside the funeral home, a long line of cars was parked around the block. Some were luxury cars that cost millions of yuan, and some were simple cars that only cost a few tens of thousands. Meng Shan had ridden to the funeral home in the hearse which had picked up the body. The hearse would only take her there; it wouldn't take her back home, so she would have to take the bus.
Fortunately, she didn't live too far away. She could get home in just four bus stops.
Guangdan Road was a very old street. Lots of flower wreaths could be seen in that area. Due to their close proximity to the funeral home, many people living on Guangdan Road were in the funeral business. Some got rich and bought lavish homes in the heart of the city, but still typically lived out there to continue selling flower wreaths and sacrificial money.
Meng Shan used to feel like this street was full of yin energy. It was a bit better from spring to early autumn, but in late autumn and winter, when the white light of street lanterns lit up the area, the road looked no different than a path to the afterlife.
Her house was located in the innermost alley of Guangdan Road.
"Little Meng, you're back?" A woman in her fifties stuck half her body out through a door. "Did you get everything done?"
Meng Shan smiled politely. "Yes, thank you."
"We're all neighbors, what need is there to thank me?" The woman wiped her hands on her apron. "About that thing…"
Without waiting for the woman to finish speaking, Meng Shan took out her cell phone. "It's a total of 1,130 yuan? I'll transfer it to you."
The woman beamed, all her wrinkles deepening with the smile. "Alright, good, good. You transfer it."
Although Meng Shan hadn't held a memorial for her father, some expenses were inevitable. Meng Shan couldn't be bothered to arrange everything, so she'd hired her neighbor who offered a 'one-stop' funeral package—at 1,130 yuan, it was already the cheapest option.
After paying, Meng Shan finally sensed that she was truly alone now. She no longer had any relation to her mother and father.
She stood at the side of the road for a while, feeling hungry. It was only when she thought about it that she realized she hadn't eaten for over ten hours.
The street was lined with little restaurants, most of which had been converted from residential homes. These places used subpar meat and vegetables, and the oil was always reused again and again. But a box of rice or fried noodles would only be around ten yuan or so. The target customers were people who lived and worked in the neighborhood. These people weren't especially sophisticated, so they only had two requirements for food—it had to be oily and it had to be cheap.
Meng Shan's father used to buy these boxed meals all the time, but Meng Shan thought they were disgusting. Every time she saw him eating these meals, she couldn't resist the urge to argue with him. Now that the man had passed away, Meng Shan felt nauseous as soon as she detected the familiar scents coming from those restaurants.
It was better to go to the market, buy some ingredients, and cook at home.
With that thought in mind, Meng Shan turned and walked in the opposite direction.
There were actually quite a few small fruit and vegetable stalls on that street. But Meng Shan always went to the vegetable market a kilometer away, because she believed even the produce sold on that street was tainted by yin energy. Those who ate too many vegetables tainted by yin energy would suffer from strange diseases.
It was only the afternoon, but the temperature had been dropping consistently for several days already. The sky was gray and overcast, like the face of death.
Meng Shan swiftly walked to the vegetable market, which was the most popular place in this area.
'Mortal Lake' was a truly popular drama. Even the vegetable market was playing the theme song from this show. Meng Shan hadn't yet watched the show. Before taking her bereavement leave from work, she'd heard her female colleagues talking about the characters, so she knew there was an actor named 'Hu Ying' who was currently extremely popular.
After buying enough food for one person, Meng Shan decided to go home and catch up with this drama. She had a few days of bereavement leave and nothing else to do, anyway.
The night after her father's cremation, Meng Shan stayed up into the middle of the night, watching this drama. When she got up to use the restroom, she suddenly felt panicked.
It was a very eerie, hair-raising sensation, like a pair of eyes was watching her from a hidden place where she couldn't see them.
She hurriedly spun around, fearfully checking her surroundings.
The house she lived in was very old. It was the home her parents had moved into after getting married. The walls hadn't been painted in years. They were mottled with yellow and black stains. Those marks just looked dirty during the day, but at night, it felt like there was something hiding behind the wall, getting closer and closer… as though that something would burst forth from the walls at any moment!
Meng Shan shivered and once again moved to the door to make sure it was locked. This was an action she had repeated more than three times since coming home.
When she passed the living room, her chest inexplicably tensed without warning.
A day earlier, in the space where she stood now, her father's body had been laid out.
The room was quiet, but the silence seemed to take on a corporeal form. It was like a ghost was drawing closer and closer. Meng Shan looked towards the curtains that were billowing in the wind blowing in through the drafty window. When the curtains were blown back wide, she suddenly saw a face that was split open by a wicked smile.
Meng Shan shrieked. Her legs went weak, and she fell to the ground.
The wind stopped, and the curtains came back down.
Meng Shan trembled in a cold sweat. She didn't know how much time passed before she managed to stand up on shaky legs and slowly make her way to the window.
She was up on the sixth floor. It was impossible for anyone to be outside.
With shaking fingers, she took hold of the curtains and pulled them back with a swoosh. In front of her eyes, there was only blackness, and beyond that the unlit building across the street.
Meng Shan's frantically racing heart finally started to calm down. She sat down at the edge of her bed. She wanted to continue watching the drama, but fear loomed over her like a shadow. The intriguing plot could no longer hold her attention.
People in the funeral industry didn't take time off during national holidays. Their working schedules didn't know the difference between day and night. Whenever someone died, they had to be there.
Winter was the busiest season for the funeral business.
When the seasons changed, it was easy for people to get sick. In big cities, people 'freezing to death' in the winter was no longer a common problem. But the reality was that many older people did still get sick in colder weather, subsequently dying in the winter.
This was such a common trend that it gave birth to a folk saying—surviving the winter was akin to surviving another year.
Wang Hongying yawned while driving. In just one night, she had already made eight trips to the West Moon Funeral Home. This was work that her son should have been doing. A while ago, when someone from the Meng family had died, it was her son who'd transported the remains to the funeral home. The Meng girl only paid her a little over a thousand yuan in the end. If they hadn't been neighbors in the same building for such a long time, Wang Hongying wouldn't have bothered taking such a small job.
Money is hard to earn, and shit is hard to eat.
Wang Hongying cursed bitterly in her heart, but she still had to go to the next home to fetch the next body.
Her son had gone to the hospital the day before yesterday to have an appendectomy. For the next month or so, she would have to be the one—as his mother—to work through the night to transport remains to the funeral home.
After having worked more than half her life with death, Wang Hongying wasn't even a tiny bit afraid of dead bodies. Her car had been modified into a hearse, made for transporting remains. The back was completely empty, left open specifically for loading in the deceased.
There was a dead body in the back right now. Another old man—everyone she'd transported today had been old.
The old man's son was supposed to be sitting in the passenger seat, to best ward off evil spirits.
But the children and grandchildren in this family were heartless creatures. They felt like sitting in a car with a dead body was inauspicious, so they left Wang Hongying to transport the body alone while they drove their own car to the funeral home.
Wang Hongying loathed people like that. She glanced into the rearview mirror, then got such a fright that she slammed on the brakes.
Once the car stopped, she swiveled around and looked back in a panic. In the back, besides the body… there was clearly nothing at all.
But just now, in the rearview mirror, she was sure she had seen a stranger sitting there.
"My vision's going bad again…" Wang Hongying scrubbed her face, then took a sip of hot tea.
In her line of work, seeing someone in the back seat through the rearview mirror was a common occurrence. It wasn't some sort of paranormal event. It was just a hallucination caused by being too fatigued and too vigilant for too long.
Wang Hongying had experienced similar situations before.
After getting the car on the road again, she checked her notebook and saw that after this trip, she had three more homes to visit. But after being frightened like that, she knew she could run into some serious trouble if she kept driving. She had no choice but to call a colleague who was in the same line of work, giving her last three jobs away. After finishing up this drive, she intended to go home and get some sleep.
As the day broke, Wang Hongying got in her empty hearse and began to drive away from the funeral home. From the funeral home to Guangdan Road, just four stops away by bus, there was actually a small side road which only locals knew about.
Wang Hongying took a turn and cut through that small path. Her brain was feeling foggier and foggier. She suddenly saw a stray dog shooting across the road with something in its mouth.
Because of her exhaustion, Wang Hongying's reactions were very sluggish and delayed. She wasn't prepared for this at all. She could only jerk her steering wheel and crash into the garbage bins to the side, in front of her.
The bins were all knocked over, and garbage flooded out everywhere.
The garbage bins in this back alley were all incredibly filthy. Wang Hongying stared at the garbage littering the hood and windshield of her car, completely dumbfounded. What shocked her the most was that in the farthest garbage bin from her… there seemed to be a person!
How could there be a person in a garbage bin?
The bin had been knocked onto its side. Two human legs stuck out from inside, looking like they were struggling to climb out.
Wang Hongying instantly realized that this was probably a homeless person, rummaging through the garbage bins to look for food. The dog that had just run past… didn't it have some sort of food in its mouth?
"I haven't hit and killed someone, have I?" Wang Hongying was anxious and afraid. Seeing that no one was around, she wanted to drive away. But then she thought again and looked at the mess around her. She was sure that the police would have a way of finding out that her car had been the one to hit someone. If she ran now, it would be a hit and run—a felony!
"What bad luck!" Wang Hongying exclaimed. She sat in the car and thought for a long time. When she finally saw that the legs sticking out of the bin had stopped moving, she became more and more afraid. Ultimately, she steeled her nerves and carefully got out of the car, moving over to the bin.
"You… are you okay?" Wang Hongying squatted down by the garbage bin and shook the person's calf a little.
The person in the bin was completely unresponsive.
"Oh, god! You're really dead!"
Wang Hongying completely lost her wits. She cried for a long time before finally taking out her cell phone to call the police.
"Hello? Police? I… I just hit and killed someone… but I didn't mean to, it wasn't on purpose. Will you… will you come take a look?"
Criminal Investigation Bureau, Serious Crimes Division.
"The Bei District precinct just took a case. Someone found a female corpse in a garbage bin on Fengshui Lane," Yi Fei reported as he placed a tablet in front of Ming Shu. "Take a look."
A corpse appearing in the trash was a common occurrence which was usually resolved by the precinct where the case took place. But it was now the end of the year. At the end of every year, police officers were all put under a great deal of pressure. The current rules stated that all homicide cases from the district precincts had to be reported to the Criminal Investigation Bureau, where the Serious Crimes Division would have the power and authority to investigate them all.
"A female corpse?" Ming Shu picked up the tablet and opened an image.
"Investigators have already searched the scene. The person who reported the body to the police was a middle-aged woman. She claimed a dog ran past her car, causing her to swerve and crash into the garbage bins. That was when she found a body inside. She thought she'd hit someone and killed them," Yi Fei said. "Currently, the victim's identity has yet to be determined. In their preliminary investigations, forensics have found that the victim had a fracture at the back of her head from being struck by a blunt object—this was most likely the cause of death.
"The dog that ran past, which the caller mentioned, didn't have food in its mouth. It had a piece of flesh from the corpse. Stray dogs had started to gnaw on the body, which caused many injuries that are making it difficult to study the body."
Ming Shu swiftly flicked through the photos on the tablet.
The pictures from the Bei District precinct were very detailed. The body was clad in dark blue jeans. The victim's shoes had already fallen off somewhere. On her upper body, she wore a thin, pale yellow sweater, which was stained with blood.
Because no clothing covered these parts of her body, the victim's feet, hands, neck, and face had all been severely scratched up and chewed on. It was impossible to identify her from her face.
Ming Shu zoomed in as much as he could on the victim's face. "Are we sure all these wounds were from stray dogs?"
Yi Fei shook his head. "The precinct hasn't finished the full autopsy yet. You think some could have been inflicted by another person?"
Ming Shu stood up. "I haven't seen the body, so I can't make that call. Let's go. We'll take a look and see."