Bei District, Fangzhi Road 4, Fengshui Lane.
Old, red-brick houses stood at the side of the road. From a distance, they looked like a brick wall. On one side of that 'wall', the street was always densely congested with traffic. As soon as the light changed and signaled pedestrians to cross, a crowd would surge forward like a swarm of hornets. Meanwhile, on the other side of the wall of buildings, there were back alleys filled with stray dogs, garbage bins, abandoned furniture, and so on. Occasionally, a car wanting to save time would cut through that alley.
For years, those alleyways had emitted a foul stench.
Ming Shu had just climbed out of his police car when he noticed the odor in the air. Immediately, he put on the face mask and gloves that he'd prepared in advance.
The body had already been taken to Bei District's precinct, but it was still necessary to come see the scene of the crime in person.
Ming Shu walked towards the garbage bins where the body had been hidden. A bit of mud splattered over the heels of his leather loafers.
He wasn't wearing a police uniform today. Instead, he was dressed in a short leather jacket he'd bought a while ago. It would soon be the holiday season, with Christmas and New Year's right around the corner, so the streets were full of a festive atmosphere. Ming Shu had gotten up very early that morning, just to go into the room Xiao Yu'an had set aside as his wardrobe, so that he could spend ample time picking and choosing his outfit. Originally, he'd planned on leaving work that night and going out for a romantic meal with Xiao Yu'an, to enjoy the festive season. However, with this case cropping up, their plans naturally fell through.
The trace evidence analysis of the crime scene had already been complete, but the district precinct's police had yet to leave, so the police tape they set up was still there to cordon off the area. Ming Shu greeted the officers who were still on the scene, then stooped down by the trash bins to compare the scene to the photos that had been taken.
Judging by the way the trash bin had been knocked over, the victim must have been stuffed into the bin in a head-down position. The bin had been left uncovered, so stray dogs foraging for food in the area had been able to get in and eat the flesh from the victim's hands, feet, neck, and face.
"Captain Ming!" A man with extremely short hair ran over.
Ming Shu got up and smiled when he saw the approaching person. "Little Xiang."
"You still remember me!"
"My memory isn't that bad."
Xiang Tao was a criminal police officer from the Bei District precinct. He hadn't joined the force all that long ago, and he was very young. When the Serious Crimes Division was investigating the cases of Sha Chun and Wu Zhen, they had needed cooperation from Bei District's precinct. Wang Hao, the vice captain of the precinct, was on bad terms with Ming Shu, so the assistance he gave was very perfunctory. Xiang Tao was very serious, though, and he'd put a great deal of effort into helping out the Serious Crimes division.
At that time, Ming Shu had already taken note of him.
"Captain Wang is off on training, so this case is being led by Captain Li, and I'm the officer in charge of the scene," Xiang Tao said. "After the body was reported, I rushed out immediately. If you have any questions about the crime scene, you can ask me."
Ming Shu nodded and smiled as he said, "You've been very proactive."
Xiang Tao didn't try to hide his own ambitions. "Captain Li told me that the Criminal Investigation Bureau will be recruiting again at the start of the new year. If I work hard, maybe I'll be chosen."
The corners of Ming Shu's eyes lifted slightly. Once again, he sized up this young police officer.
The last time they worked together, he had been able to tell that Xiang Tao wasn't content to stay under Wang Hao's thumb. Sooner or later, Xiang Tao would try to jump ship and make it to the Criminal Investigation Bureau. He hadn't imagined, though, that the kid would declare it so plainly at their next meeting.
Judging by his temperament, he seemed like a moldable talent.
"If you want to come to the Criminal Investigation Bureau," Ming Shu said, "which division would you want to join after you get there?"
Xiang tao smiled brightly. "The Serious Crimes Division, of course!"
Ming Shu wanted to give Xiang Tao a pat on the shoulder, but he had to forget it because he was wearing latex gloves. "Then work hard."
Xiang Tao stood up straight. "I will!"
At just that time, two stray dogs passed by the police cordon and eagerly peered in at the trash bins.
Stray dogs were very cautious. Generally speaking, they wouldn't usually come close when there were so many people around. An officer on the scene was worried that the dogs would charge in again and destroy the scene even further. He hurriedly lifted a hand to shoo them away. One of the dogs turned and ran, but the other didn't flee immediately. Instead, it bared its teeth. The light in its eyes was fierce and bright, and it arched its back—taking a posture like it was ready to attack.
Ming Shu furrowed his brows. "There are that many stray dogs here?"
"This area was once slated for demolition. Half was demolished, and pretty much no one lives in the red-brick houses that are still standing. There aren't many people here, but there are places to take shelter from the wind and the rain. With how cold the weather is getting now, a lot of nearby stray dogs have gathered around here," Xiang Tao explained. "Based on the preliminary autopsy results, the time of death was within the past four days, and the victim was ditched here shortly after death.
"The garbage here isn't collected every day, it's an area that no one officially manages. Every ten days or half a month or so, hired cleaners come and deal with the trash. So the body wasn't found in the past few days. Captain Ming, in these four days or so since death, the face of the victim has been disfigured beyond recognition. But fortunately, the structure of the skull wasn't damaged, so we can still reconstruct the person's image. If we'd found the body any later and those stray dogs had gnawed on the skull, it would have been much more difficult to determine the victim's identity."
Ming Shu was already starting to draw some vague conclusions. He asked, "Have you found any fingerprints, shoe tracks, or anything else?"
"The tracks have been distorted, they were damaged by the wheels of passing cars. There are fingerprints, but they're old. They don't match up with the time of death, and they didn't match anything we have in the system."
Ming Shu lifted his head and looked towards the red-brick building next to him.
He was now standing in a back alley. To his left was a chaotic mess of demolished buildings. A few half-demolished houses still stood here and there, but the windows on those houses were all gone, and some were even missing their roofs. At a glance, it looked like a tragic earthquake had torn through this area.
To his right, however, the red-brick buildings were all intact. Compared to the wasteland to his left, these red-brick buildings still seemed to be in livable conditions. In fact, these were some of the first buildings to be constructed in Dongye City. They had been fixed up over a decade ago, so the exteriors looked different than they originally did, though the interiors still remained in disrepair.
Despite their poor conditions, it wasn't true to say that no one lived in these buildings.
Even if a house was dilapidated, there were those who would stay there.
Ming Shu turned his gaze away from some laundry that had been hung out to dry. "Have you canvased the neighborhood yet?"
"We haven't finished yet," Xiang Tao said. "So far, no one has said they saw anything like a killer dumping a body."
"Continue the investigation," Ming Shu said. "I'll be going to the district precinct. We'll hold a meeting later."
Bei District Precinct, Criminal Investigation Division.
After learning that Ming Shu had gone to the scene of the crime, Xing Mu took the initiative to head out to the Bei District precinct on his own to help the precinct forensics team with the autopsy. The detailed autopsy report was complete just as Ming Shu arrived at the precinct.
"For the time being, we can't confirm the victim's identity. We're waiting on the craniofacial reconstruction." Xing Mu looked a bit dejected. "But I don't trust that sort of technology."
Craniofacial reconstruction was used when DNA, fingerprints, and so on couldn't be used to identify a deceased victim. It was a method which involved reconstructing the person's image based on a complete scan of the skull, and the technology was backed by a huge database of resources. Despite that, the reconstructed image wasn't necessarily consistent with the real face of the deceased. In many domestic and international cases, there were examples of the reconstructed image being completely different from the actual image of the victim. So, typically, police would only resort to craniofacial reconstruction as a final measure.
"At least the age can be more or less determined," Ming Shu said, swiftly skimming through the autopsy report. "Cause of death and time of death have also been determined. If we look through the missing persons list based on the time of death, it shouldn't be a problem to determine the identity of the victim."
Although Xing Mu didn't like higher-ups, he had to admit that Ming Shu was very reliable.
The body was in a horrible condition. The face and throat were completely ruined. The stray dogs that had gnawed at the body had destroyed any clues that may have been left behind, so the identity of the deceased was, for the time being, extremely difficult to determine. As a forensic scientist, Xing Mu had obviously seen all sorts of things already. But this time, the victim had died of head trauma. He'd had to spend a long time studying the head of the corpse, and studying a head in such a gruesome state would inevitably make a person suffer some psychological impact.
But once Ming Shu arrived, he managed to make Xing Mu feel a lot more at ease with just a few words.
When he noticed Xing Mu staring at him, Ming Shu called out, "Xing-laoshi?"
Xing Mu quickly came back to his senses and picked up his copy of the autopsy report. "Let me touch on the important points. The victim was 1.63 meters tall, with a weight of 49 kilograms. She was between 35 and 36 years old. She suffered a fracture to the occipital bone, which resulted in severe injury to the brain. The fracture was inflicted by a blunt object. The weapon had a circular surface of around 4 centimeters which struck the victim. It was probably a hammer."
Ming Shu lifted a hand. "Wait a moment."
Xing Mu looked up. "Huh?"
"In the vast majority of homicide cases in which a blunt object is used as the weapon, the killer will strike the victim numerous times. One reason is out of anger, and another is that striking just a few times won't be enough to ensure death." Ming Shu looked at the report again. "But in this case, you guys came to the conclusion that the killer only struck the victim twice."
Xing Mu froze for a moment. "Yes, only twice. Although the human head isn't terribly fragile, it can't withstand heavy blows either. If the force of the attack was sufficient, and if the location was right, a single blow with a hammer could be enough to kill a person."
"Then what would have happened in this situation if the killer hadn't delivered the second blow?" Ming Shu asked.
Xing Mu didn't understand why Ming Shu was asking this question, but he could at least answer it. "The victim would still have died. Judging by the state of her skull, the killer's first hit was delivered with more force. The victim was immediately paralyzed."
Ming Shu paced a few steps. "It's possible that the killer was 'skilled' at this."
Xing Mu jumped with shock. "That means… the killer has killed in this same way before?"
Ming Shu didn't answer. While continuing to look through the autopsy report, he said, "The clothes of the deceased weren't removed, and the victim wasn't sexually violated before or after death. The alleyway where she was found wasn't the primary scene of the crime, just where her body was dumped… that really is an ideal place to dump a body. But if the killer wasn't someone who was very familiar with the area, they might not have even known about a place like that."
It was at this time that Yi Fei walked over. "The guys here have already looked into the area around the alleyway. There are ruined shoe tracks at the scene, but also a large number of tire marks. The killer most likely used some sort of transportation to get the body there. It's very critical for us to find the primary scene of the crime now."
"The victim was fully dressed—jeans, sweater, but no overcoat or down jacket. And no shoes on her feet," Ming Shu said. "The kind of dress she was in would be typical of someone who'd just come home. They would take their shoes and outerwear off, but wouldn't yet have changed into more comfortable at-home clothes because they'd yet to shower."
"The victim was killed in her own home?" Yi Fei asked. "Then the body was moved to that spot by the killer?"
"The possibility of that is high," Ming Shu said as he looked over the autopsy report once more. "The body showed signs of impact to the chest, abdomen, thighs, and knees. There are also wounds inflicted by pressure and choking on her back and the back of her throat. The victim struggled with the killer before she was killed."
Xing Mu walked over to Yi Fei and made some gestures at Yi Fei's back. "The killer most likely used the hammer to kill the victim after pinning her to the ground."
Yi Fei instinctively touched the back of his head.
"From the injuries present on the body, we can assume the killer subdued the victim in a very short span of time," Ming Shu said. He looked towards Xing Mu. "Xing-ge, is that correct?"
"Correct," Xing Mu confirmed. "They had a fight, but there was no skin tissue or blood from the killer found in the victim's mouth or under the victim's fingernails, which meant the victim lost her ability to fight back very quickly."
"The victim was a woman over 1.6 meters in height, on the lighter side in terms of weight," Ming Shu said. "She wasn't strong enough to fend off her assailant, but in times of peril, people can experience an explosive burst of strength. She must have fought back with all her might, but the killer still managed to pin her down very easily.
"The killer was most likely a strong male. If my previous assumption is correct, about the victim being killed in her own home, then the killer is either someone who lives with her, or she took the initiative to open the door for the killer… what is this dog fur?"
"The victim's lips and tongue had been bitten off by stray dogs, but I found a tuft of white animal fur inside her mouth," Xing Mu said. "It was below her severed tongue. After an analysis, we determined that the fur came from a dog."
"How could dog fur be inside her mouth?" Yi Fei asked.
"It's not too strange for someone to have dog fur in their mouth. Some people might have dogs at home, some people might just like dogs and play with them. They might give their dogs baths. Dog fur could get into their mouths then, or when they play with dogs. But the victim had a total of twenty-one strands of dog fur under her tongue," Xing Mu said. "That couldn't have been ingested accidentally. I think it's possible that the killer deliberately placed that fur in the victim's mouth."
"Dog fur hidden under the tongue…" Ming Shu paced a few steps again, then turned again. "Is this the killer's 'calling card'? What did the murderer want to express with these twenty-one hairs?"
"Dog fur was found in the victim's mouth, and the face and neck of the victim was clawed and chewed up by dogs," Yi Fei said. "Could there be some sort of connection between these things? Xing-ge, is it possible that these hairs were left behind by the dogs that were eating the corpse?"
"The possibility of that is very low," Ming Shu interjected, shaking his head. "If stray dogs had left them behind, the hairs should have been scattered all over her mouth, not all clumped together in one place, under her tongue. The killer deliberately left this as some sort of sign. By the way, Xing-ge—are you sure all the bite marks on the face were caused by stray dogs?"
"You suspect some were inflicted by a person?" Xing Mu asked.
"Dongye City hasn't seen any cannibalism cases yet, but in other cities, cannibalism cases have been on the rise in recent years," Ming Shu said. "I was involved in the investigation into one such case earlier this year, during my time with special ops. The killer was a woman in her forties who ran one location of a chain of gyms. Middle class, divorced, and her son was studying abroad. Before we apprehended her, she'd killed eight men—all under twenty-nine years of age—who had been customers at her gym. This woman had money, and she had looks. She was considered a powerful woman with a successful career, but behind her glossy exterior, there lived a monster who ate people for fun."
Xing Mu shuddered.
Ming Shu continued, "She killed them not out of hatred, but out of love. She ate their bladders, then discarded their bodies by composting them. During the interrogation, she said that the state of a person's bladder could indicate whether they were young and healthy. She said her victims' bladders were all very delicious."
Xing Mu's face had gone a ghastly white. He covered his abdomen and said, "I need to use the restroom."
"That case left a very deep impression on me. A human being eating another human being, not out of hate, but out of a so-called 'love'." Ming Shu set down the autopsy report and leaned back against his desk. "Today, when I heard the face of the victim had been chewed up, my first thought was that it had been chewed up by a person."
Forget about Xing Mu. Even Yi Fei had broken out in goosebumps. "Cases of a 'face-mutilating demon' have taken place overseas, and more than once. But we've been to the scene of this crime, and we did see that lots of stray dogs roamed in the area. It's not strange that the body would have been chewed on by dogs."
"At the scene, I noticed a detail," Ming Shu said, crossing his arms. "A large number of stray dogs lived in that alleyway. There are so many of them that they're no longer afraid of people. When the trace evidence analysis team was there, some of the dogs felt their territory was being invaded and didn't hesitate to attack.
"The killer chose to dump the body there. One reason must have been that he believed it was a well-hidden spot, meaning this is a person who's very familiar with the area. Could another reason have been that he knew the dogs were there? Did the murderer deliberately let the stray dogs help him destroy some kind of evidence?"
Xing Mu returned from relieving himself in the restroom. When he came back and heard that Ming Shu and Yi Fei were still discussing the matter of cannibalism, he suddenly let out a sound. "Ah!"
"Xing-laoshi?" Ming Shu prompted.
"The injuries on the victim's face. There was one point that was a bit perplexing," Xing Mu said. "Her face, neck, hands, and feet were definitely all gnawed on by stray dogs. There's absolutely no mistake about that. I found no signs of a human bite on those areas. But she did have a wound on her lower lip, a three millimeter scratch inflicted by a sharp object."
"Three millimeter?" Ming Shu echoed. He instantly looked through the detailed diagrams in the autopsy report again.
"It's not on there," Xing Mu said. "Why don't you come with me to the autopsy room?"
The victim's body had been placed on the autopsy table. The woman's face could no longer be called a face.
Ming Shu walked up to the table and watched as Xing Mu lifted the woman's mutilated chin. Xing Mu pointed to her lower lip and said, "Right here. The gnawing marks from the dogs elicited no response of life, and the wound from the sharp object elicited basically no response either."
"Basically?" Ming Shu echoed.
"The facial area was damaged too severely, and this one wound is too small. I wouldn't dare draw a definitive conclusion," Xing Mu said. "And I don't understand. If this sharp injury was inflicted after death… why? Why did the killer use a sharp object to make this small incision?"
Ming Shu stood still for a moment. "Perhaps the killer cut away the victim's lower lip. Or both her lips, even. That's a possibility as well."
Xing Mu was surprised. "W… why?"
"I don't know." Ming Shu's expression grew slightly darker. "We have a lot of questions on our plate right now. Twenty-one dog hairs. A three millimeter wound inflicted by a sharp object. Based on the potentially ritualistic nature of these details, we can't rule out the possibility of this being a serial killer. We have to identify the victim and find the primary scene of the crime."
Bei District. Dawn Commerce Complex. Building C, Room 2114. Studio of Dragoness Designs.
"What's wrong with your team? Don't you even do a check before printing? What did you print?" Long Xiaoqing marched up in her high-heeled shoes and slapped a thick stack of papers onto a desk. "Everything came out fucking crooked! Don't even think about working for me if you don't know how to fucking typeset!"
Four women in their twenties were berated so fiercely that their necks shrank into their shoulders. In the office, which was full of stacks of books and magazines, no one spoke for a while.
"Now you're mute, huh?" Long Xiaoqing grew even more enraged. "Do I not pay your salaries? We've had a lot of orders recently, everyone has to work overtime every day, but I've doubled your overtime pay. And this is the kind of shit you show me?"
"Long-jie, I'm sorry. I'm the one who printed these." Chen Jinghuan stood up. In a clearly miserable state, she continued, "It's true that I was careless, but… but I didn't do it on purpose either. I worked all night and didn't sleep. My mind was all muddled. I'll redo it right now, please don't be angry."
Long Xiaoqing was going to continue scolding the team, but when her mouth opened, she suddenly asked, "You worked all night? Meng Shan isn't back from her break yet?"
Chen Jinghuan said, "No. Her bereavement leave should have ended the day before yesterday, but she still hasn't come back. Her father passed away, though. It's not appropriate for us to rush her back to work. This project was originally her responsibility, but we divided it up to cover her. Long-jie, we're all doing our best."
"What's wrong with rushing her?!" Long Xiaoqing flew into a rage again. "Who doesn't have deaths in their family? She's the only one who's special? She's lucky I granted her bereavement leave at all, and now she's leaving her work hanging and refusing to return? If she doesn't come back, she may as well die!"
The young women all looked at each other. They felt that Long Xiaoqing's words were too harsh, but at the same time they also felt that it was indeed a huge inconvenience for Meng Shan to be dragging her feet now.
Long Xiaoqing finished scolding the team and picked up the phone, dialing a number while saying, "If you guys won't rush her back, I will!"
The women all peered at Long Xiaoqing from behind their computer monitors.
"Her phone's off?" Long Xiaoqing spat. "You're playing dead, huh? Which one of you knows where she lives?"
Chen Jinghuan whispered, "How are we supposed to know? Long-jie, something can't have happened to Meng Shan, right?"
Long Xiaoqing, who had been thoroughly pissed off this whole time, suddenly looked shocked as she muttered, "Fuck!"
Chen Jinghuan didn't understand the real meaning behind this curse. She assumed Long Xiaoqing was worried about Meng Shan, so she tried to suggest, "Long-jie, should we call the police?"
Long Xiaoqing jolted back to her senses. "Call the police for fucking what?! Redo these prints for me, right now! No one even think about asking about this matter again!"
In order to identify the victim as quickly as possible, the police focused their attention on the area surrounding Fengshui Lane. They'd already carried out a labor-intensive search through Fangzhi Roads 1 through 4.
Ming Shu didn't return to the Criminal Investigation Bureau. He stayed in Bei District.
In many cases where bodies were dumped, the killer would dump the body in a place far from where they usually lived and worked, in order to hide their identity. But in those cases, the killer would typically dismember the body. This time, the body hadn't been dismembered.
The victim had been dumped in an alleyway where lots of stray dogs lived. The garbage there, on Fengshui Lane, was rarely collected. Cars taking a shortcut occasionally passed down that lane, but people very rarely came to that alley. A few people lived in the surrounding houses, but only a few.
These were all details that would only be known to someone who was familiar with Fengshui Lane.
That meant the killer was familiar with Fengshui Lane. It was a sanctuary to him.
It was very probable that he lived in this neighborhood, and that he had killed someone in this neighborhood.
But what did the twenty-one dog hairs mean?
"Captain Ming!" Xiang Tao hurriedly rushed over. "In our search of Fangzhi Road 1, we heard that a courier service which claims to offer year-round service has been closed for a few days. The owner is a woman in her thirties who lives alone, named Huang Yan. Her cell phone has been off, and no one has been able to get in touch with her. Her age and the dates she's been missing line up with the details we've discovered!"
Fangzhi Road 1, Jiangbei Village 2.
"This is the place. They used to be open every day, but now I haven't seen any movement inside for ages!" A local resident pointed to the door of the courier's office. "My package is still inside. Last week, they told me I could come pick it up. I didn't have time to grab it. Now this week, she won't even open the door. It's a good thing you guys came. I would have called the police if you didn't!"
The courier's office was located on the ground floor of a residential building. Huang Yan had personally gotten a door installed in one wall, which faced the road running through the small residential neighborhood. Currently, the door was closed, but the curtains of a window that was facing the trash bins in the alleyway weren't completely drawn shut.
Usually, no one passed through that alleyway. So naturally, no one would bother to look through that gap in the curtains.
Ming Shu walked over to the garbage bins, bearing the terrible stench to peer in through the window to the office.
The interior was dark. Row after row of shelves sat inside. The shelves should have been full of packages, but they were currently empty.
Ming Shu shifted his line of sight down. His brow suddenly furrowed tightly.
The packages had all been dumped on the ground, forming a small mountain.
And under that 'mountain', a pair of calves and feet were exposed.