Criminal Investigation Bureau, Deputy Director's Office.
"The victim, Meng Shan, was thirty-five years old. She used to be a singer in a mourning group called 'Nostalgia' before these groups were banned in the main city," Ming Shu said. He'd just finished eating. His lips and the tip of his nose were still faintly red. "She wasn't married, and she lived with her parents on Guangdan Road. When she was a singer, her parents—like most people on that street—were in the funeral business. Five years ago, Meng Shan's mother Zuo Qun died of rheumatoid arthritis. A week ago, her father Meng Yonghui died of lung cancer. She…"
"Wait a moment," Xiao Yu'an interrupted. "The results of your investigation concluded that the mother died of rheumatoid arthritis?"
"I misspoke," Ming Shu said. "What I meant was that Zuo Qun committed suicide by taking sleeping pills because she could no longer bear the pain of her rheumatoid arthritis."
"Is there anything suspicious about her suicide?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"All three members of the Meng family are dead now, so there's no way to confirm whether or not there are doubts," Ming Shu said. "My judgment is that Zuo Qun did in fact commit suicide, and her family members didn't urgently rush her to the hospital when they found she'd taken sleeping pills. I've already visited the Meng family's home. It only has two rooms, and it's around sixty square meters or so. The family lived together. It's very unlikely that Zuo Qun could have taken the pills without either of her family members finding out.
"There are only two possible explanations for why they didn't take her to the hospital. One is that they knew the arthritis was too painful to bear. They couldn't stand to see their loved one suffer, so they wanted to let her free herself from the pain as soon as possible. Another possible reason is that treatment for rheumatoid arthritis isn't cheap, and caring for these patients is exhausting work. It's possible Zuo Qun's family members hoped she would die sooner rather than later."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Continue."
"Meng Shan never married. She had a junior high school education. After the mourning group was banned, she lost her only source of income and started to work odd jobs. She now works at a studio called Dragoness Designs. I've sent someone to look into the studio," Ming Shu said. "The Meng family's business in the funeral industry wasn't doing well. Zuo Qun's medical treatment depleted most of the family's savings. In the past five years, they've been out of the business, relying on Meng Shan's salary to get by.
"Based on her cell phone and internet records, we can see that Meng Shan didn't have any friends. Her recent communications have been with her colleagues only. We learned from talking to people on Guangdan Road that Meng Yonghui was like a different person after Zuo Qun's death, and his relationship with Meng Shan was not good. People often heard the sounds of arguments between the father and daughter coming from the Meng family's home, and more than one person overheard Meng Shan swearing at her father and telling him to die."
Xiao Yu'an stood by the desk, facing Ming Shu. He leaned back slightly against the desk, not standing as stiffly as he would have in front of outsiders.
But even this relaxed and slightly lazy posture seemed somehow majestic when adopted by Xiao Yu'an.
"Are you thinking back to the case you investigated when you just returned?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
The author Entombed Heart, who had been extremely filial, believed all unfilial people deserved to die. He'd killed those who didn't respect their parents.
Ming Shu lifted his gaze and leaned back against the couch. "I did think of it, but that case was an outlier. Out of countless people, only one person like Entombed Heart would emerge, who would go so far as to kill unfilial people with his own hands. Although we can't rule out the possibility that these people exist, the probability of one being involved in this case is very low. But Meng Shan's time of death is really something we have to take note of."
"Meng Shan was murdered on the third day following Meng Yonghui's cremation," Xiao Yu'an said. "Quite a coincidence."
"Xiao Man told me that there were clear signs of a 'clean-up' at the Meng family's home. There were no footprints left on the floors, not even Meng Shan's own footprints. But a luminol test did reveal a small amount of blood on the floor," Ming Shu said. "We can now confirm that the Meng family's home was the primary scene of the crime.
"After Meng Yonghui's death, Meng Shan lived there alone. There were no signs of damage to the door, and no signs of climbing outside the window, so there are two possibilities of how the killer got inside. One possibility is that he tailed Meng Shan and charged in before she could close the door. Another is that she let him in of her own volition.
"It's hard to determine from what we know whether or not they knew each other. Because even if a stranger knocked at her door, she could have been convinced to open it for some reason."
Ming Shu paused for a few seconds to gather his thoughts, then continued, "There were drag marks from the door of the Meng family's house, leading downstairs. Created by a sheet of cotton cloth, which we suspect the killer used to wrap up the body. Meng Shan's body was moved downstairs, then transported away on some sort of vehicle.
"There are surveillance cameras on the main street of Guangdan Road, but there isn't a single one in this alley where the Meng family's home was located. It's very difficult to zero in on the killer based on surveillance footage. We can only use the neighbors' reports of what they heard to determine the timeline.
"The murder occurred on December 11th between eleven at night and midnight. Xing-laoshi determined, based on the livor mortis on the body, that the victim was transferred to the dumping site by four in the morning at the latest."
"I've read the autopsy report," Xiao Yu'an said. "The killer only struck Meng Shan twice on the head, and Meng Shan had twenty-one white dog hairs in her mouth."
"That's the part I'm focusing on," Ming Shu said. "The state of the victim's body can tell us a lot about the killer's thoughts during the murder. The victim was struck by a blunt weapon twice. She wasn't violated, her clothes weren't removed. This shows that the murderer was very calm and cognizant while committing the crime. He didn't feel the need to repeatedly hit her with his weapon to vent his anger, and he was very sure that Meng Shan would die with just two blows to the head.
"He swung that hammer for the sole purpose of killing Meng Shan. We can rule out the possibility of an impulsive crime of passion. Because, first of all, he brought his weapons with him. Second, crimes of passion are typically committed in fits of rage. This is the point which I find strange. He seemed to have killed Meng Shan simply for the sake of killing her."
"A home invasion murder. The killer didn't violate the victim, and the killer didn't take any money from the victim. The killer remained calm from beginning to end. If he could take the victim's life with two hits of the hammer, he saw no reason to swing a third time. Afterwards, the crime scene was cleaned up. He had the disinfectant prepared," Xiao Yu'an said. "You're right to think it's strange. This kind of killer shouldn't have killed Meng Shan just for the sake of killing her. He must have killed Meng Shan for some purpose, and that purpose is related to the twenty-one dog hairs he put in Meng Shan's mouth."
"Ge," Ming Shu said, "what do you associate with those twenty-one hairs?"
"Dog hair itself has many associations, but the killer didn't put the hairs just anywhere. He put them under the victim's tongue, hidden so deep that the dog hairs stayed in place even with stray dogs eating away the victim's face," Xiao Yu'an said. "But we also have to consider that Fengshui Lane is a known haven for stray dogs. They not only forage for food there, but also pass their winters there. When the killer dumped the body in the trash there, he must have known that stray dogs would get to it.
"So one possibility is that he wanted Meng Shan's body to be chewed up. These two points combined—hiding dog hair under Meng Shan's tongue and feeding Meng Shan's corpse to stray dogs—indicate this could be a sort of revenge, a sort of mockery."
"You love eating dog meat, don't you? Then I'll let you eat!" Ming Shu mimicked this imagined killer's tone and guessed at the killer's thoughts. He seemed to understand what Xiao Yu'an was getting at. "But now you can't eat them anymore! Look, you're the one who's being eaten by them!"
"That's right, the killer could have been an extremist involved in animal rights. One who especially loves dogs. And perhaps Meng Shan enjoyed eating dog meat," Xiao Yu'an said. He paused, then continued, "But this is only a theory. We have no evidence to support it."
Ming Shu thought of the three millimeter cut on Meng Shan's lower lip again. "We have pretty much the same ideas about why the killer dumped Meng Shan's body on Fengshui Lane—he deliberately left her there so that stray dogs would eat her. But what was his reason for wanting her to be eaten by stray dogs? Ge, your suggestion just now was that he loved dogs and wanted dogs to personally take their revenge on Meng Shan. But earlier, my theory was that he wanted to use the dogs to cover up the wound he left on Meng Shan's lower lip."
"According to your line of thinking, Meng Shan's lips were the killer's target," Xiao Yu'an said. "The lips represent the ability to speak. The murderer could have killed Meng Shan to send a message that 'loose lips cause trouble'. This could be something similar to killers cutting out their victims' tongues after committing a murder."
"If that's the case, then Meng Shan either said something that offended the killer or knew a secret the killer was harboring. That would mean they knew each other," Ming Shu said. He pursed his lips once he finished speaking, like there was more he wanted to say.
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"When I first learned that the corpse had been chewed on, I thought of the possibility of cannibalism. But Xing-laoshi rejected that idea," Ming Shu said. "Maybe I'm focusing on this three millimeter wound because of my preconceptions. I'm still fixated on this idea of cannibalism."
"The killer could have cut off Meng Shan's lower lip, then eaten it." Xiao Yu'an paused for a few seconds. "Was Meng Shan's lower lip very alluring to the killer?"
After saying that, Xiao Yu'an circled around his desk and went to his computer, where he loaded up a few photos of Meng Shan.
Looking past her rustic style of dress, Meng Shan was actually a very beautiful woman with a small face and delicate features. Her height of 1.63 meters meant she wasn't all that short among the women of Dongye City. She had a shapely figure, and her face held a small dimple when she smiled. She looked a lot younger than she actually was.
"What's her most outstanding feature?" Xiao Yu'an prompted. "Don't think about it too hard, just say your first thought."
"Eyebrows," Ming Shu stated. "Her eyebrows are the most alluring feature to me. What about you?"
"Her eyes," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu crossed his arms. "It looks like we're not in agreement."
"In that case, it's possible that the first thing that attracted the killer was her lips," Xiao Yu'an said. "Of course, this is an idea that stems from your cannibalism theory."
Ming Shu lowered his head and thought deeply for a long moment. He suddenly noticed a small tin container on the desk. "What's this? Rose candy? You actually eat this stuff?"
"Jinlan sent it over for you. I grabbed a box and brought it here." Xiao Yu'an breathed a laugh. "I knew you would eat it as soon as you saw it."
Ming Shu took the small tin and put it into the pocket of his police uniform pants. "I'll pay a visit to Meng Shan's workplace."
The Dawn Commerce Complex sounded like a very grand place, but it actually wasn't a proper office building. It was a converted residential building.
The rent in commercial office buildings on major roads was very high these days. Not every business could afford an office in a building like that, so some residential buildings located near business districts or transportation centers were gradually being converted into office buildings. The homeowners could make money, and business owners could save money on rent—it was a win-win situation.
However, the facilities in these converted buildings often couldn't keep up with the times. The elevators were old, the garbage was frequently left around without being picked up, and there was no guarantee of proper security in the building. Any business could rent an 'office' in these buildings, so there was no way of knowing if the neighbors were a legitimate business or a criminal enterprise.
Fang Yuanhang and the others had already arrived at the office. The other tenants of the twenty-first floor whipped themselves into a frenzy when they saw so many police officers. They all shut their doors tightly, fearing the police would come check them out.
Ming Shu casually glanced left and right as he made his way down the hall, already starting to get an idea of the situation.
"This is Meng Shan's workstation," Chen Jinghuan said. She was extremely nervous. Her voice trembled as she spoke. "Meng Shan, she… something really happened to her?"
Meng Shan's workstation consisted of a desk that was partitioned off from the rest of the office, a solid black mesh desk chair, and a computer. There was also a cup sitting upside down on the desk; it seemed to have been washed clean already. Xiao Man squatted down by the chair and slowly examined it inch by inch with his gloved hands.
Autumn and winter were the seasons when hair loss tended to intensify. When someone sat and worked in one place for a long time, it was easy for their hair to fall onto the chair. This chair wasn't completely smooth, so when hair fell on it, that hair wouldn't slip away unless the chair was specifically cleaned. At most, the hair would slip into cracks of the chair.
The Meng family's home had been thoroughly searched already. By comparing the traces of DNA found in the apartment to the DNA of the 'faceless' body, the police had determined that the victim was none other than Meng Shan. But Meng Shan's face and fingerprints had all been destroyed, and she had no living relatives. So it wasn't impossible that the killer could have left behind fake DNA samples—just like Qin Guoxing had done so many years ago.
Although the possibility of this was very slim, Xiao Man still wanted to do his best to confirm that the 'faceless' corpse was Meng Shan. If he could find DNA at Meng Shan's workplace that also matched the DNA from the apartment, then they could be sure that the 'faceless' body was indeed Meng Shan.
Half a minute later, Xiao Man pulled two long hairs from the crevices of the chair.
"These hairs must have fallen a long time ago," Fang Yuanhang said, a little worried. "Can you still do a DNA test on them?"
"I'll do my best," Xiao Man said as he stood up. He just so happened to meet Chen Jinghuan's gaze, but the woman quickly looked away.
The technical investigators had already looked into Meng Shan's communication records. Out of all her colleagues, Chen Jinghuan was the one Meng Shan had contacted the most. Fang Yuanhang looked at the other workstations and asked, "Were you two seated next to each other?"
Chen Jinghuan nodded. "We started working here at around the same time."
"What kind of person was Meng Shan?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "What did you talk about the last time the two of you spoke?"
Chen Jinghuan's eyes were already red. She remained frozen for a long while before she said, "Actually… I'm actually not very familiar with Meng Shan. She didn't like to talk much, and she always did everything by herself. Whenever we talked on the phone, we only ever talked about work. She… she doesn't like to talk to us about her personal life."
These statements were confirmed by the other employees.
In everyone's eyes, Meng Shan had been an extremely gloomy woman. She obviously had a beautiful face, but she didn't know how to dress herself up. She never wore makeup, she wore plain fashions, and she started working as soon as she arrived at the office. She never tried to chat with anyone else.
"The last time we talked, she called me to tell me her father had passed away. She asked me to help her request time off," Chen Jinghuan said. Her eyes darted left and right, as though there was more she wanted to say.
Ming Shu stepped up and sent Fang Yuanhang off to the side. He didn't start asking questions right away, instead only calmly gazing into Chen Jinghuan's eyes.
Chen Jinghuan became even more nervous. She eventually whispered, "I… I only know that much."
"Let's talk outside," Ming Shu said. "You seem to have something you'd like to say to me."
A strange energy filled up the whole studio. Chen Jinghuan followed Ming Shu out onto the balcony, then hesitated for a moment before she finally said, "I feel like our boss is a bit strange."
The studio's boss, Long Xiaoqing, wasn't present at the time. If it were an ordinary day, she would have been loudly berating people for making printing or typesetting errors already.
Chen Jinghuan recalled the last time she'd brought up calling the police. Long Xiaoqing had thrown a fit and declared that no one was allowed to call the police. After that, she didn't appear at the studio very often.
"Meng Shan's bereavement leave should have ended a long time ago, but she didn't come back to work. I suspected something was wrong and wanted to call the police, but our boss forbade it," Chen Jinghuan said, lowering her head. "She… she didn't come in today."
Meng Shan had started working for this business three years ago. At first, she only proofread texts. Then because the editorial team was understaffed, she picked up a few more skills by learning from others. She started to work on typesetting, and because she was very diligent and could bear the hardships of working there, she had one of the highest salaries at the studio.
This business seemed, at present, to be the only place where Meng Shan came into contact with society at all.
Did this company have something to do with Meng Shan's death?
Ming Shu instantly called Fang Yuanhang back over and asked him to thoroughly investigate the background of Dragoness Designs. He also called Zhou Yuan over to track down Long Xiaoqing.
Later that night, Xiao Man managed to compare the two hairs he'd extracted from the office to the DNA traces found at the Meng family's home. They were confirmed to be a match for the 'faceless' corpse.
When she was approached by the police, Long Xiaoqing was scared witless. Her face went white, and she hurriedly said, "Meng Shan only works here. I don't know her. No one in our company knows her. You go ask around elsewhere!"
Fang Yuanhang furrowed his brow. "You're so nervous. Is that because you're worried we'll find something?"
Long Xiaoqing's expression became even more unsightly.
"Be good and tell me everything about Meng Shan," Fang Yuanhang said. "And about your Dragoness Designs studio."
After being brought in by the Serious Crimes Division, Long Xiaoqing lost the bravado with which she normally berated her employees. She sat listlessly under the light in the interrogation room and explained, "Our company started out by doing flyers, corporate brochures. Things like that. Later, some magazines used us as a printing service. And after that, we also started printing some teaching materials for schools. It's what you police check for every year. Un… unlawful printing."
Unlawful printing wasn't something that was handled by the Serious Crimes Division. Fang Yuanhang asked, "You were afraid your business would be exposed, so you weren't willing to report it to the police even when you realized Meng Shan was missing?"
Long Xiaoqing opened her mouth, but was silent for a long time before she said, "How much will I be fined for this? Will I go to jail?"
The police officer who'd come over from the Economic Crime Investigation team said, "Depends on the circumstances."
"Then if I confess, is it possible for you to be lenient?" Long Xiaoqing asked anxiously. "It's not easy to make money right now. I support such a large team, I…"
At that moment, Fang Yuanhang suddenly heard Zhou Yuan's voice come through his earpiece—the unlawful materials printed by Dragoness Designs had been confirmed to be a large number of cult propaganda brochures. And the original files of all these brochures had been found on Meng Shan's computer!
Long Xiaoqing found herself at a loss for words. She finally confessed, "I was most afraid of you finding those brochures. I don't know if what happened to Meng Shan had anything to do with them. They paid a lot of money, and they said my team only had to worry about laying out the design and printing the brochures. Even if something happened, it wouldn't be traced back to me.
"Meng Shan didn't talk much, and she needed money, so I let her handle the project. This… this is something we only just started to work on. But you guys have to believe me, I don't have the slightest bit of a connection to these cults. I still hang the national flag above my door. I love this country, I… I love this country more than I love money!"
This was certainly a critical lead.
"The twenty-one dog hairs could be related to a cult!" Xing Mu exclaimed, jumping up from his seat as soon as he heard this news. "If it's cult-related, then everything makes sense! Meng Shan could have been dragged into this because she was working on a promotional brochure for a cult, and then she was killed by them!"
Once a cult became involved in a criminal case, it became a major case for the Serious Crimes Division.
Ming Shu didn't hesitate. He immediately reported this new information to Xiao Yu'an.
The cult that had hired Long Xiaoqing's company was called 'Heart's God'. It preached that people at the most successful points in their lives—that is, at the 'summit' of their lives—possessed the most divinity. If one were to commit suicide at this time, the 'god' in their heart would take form and become a real god. That person would break free from the turmoil of the mortal coil, and their destiny would become one with the cosmos.
But no matter how prettily the followers of this cult packaged up their rhetoric, the essence was still that they were driving people to commit suicide.
Dongye City was a developed city where cult activity was strictly prohibited. When exactly had this Heart's God cult cropped up? And how far had it developed already? So far, these questions had no answers.
The Criminal Investigation Bureau and the Special Police Force held a joint emergency meeting to prepare to take immediate action.
In the late winter night, outside the Chuang'ou suburbs in Dong District, the red and blue lights of police cars flashed.
Although this was a suburban area full of villas, basically no one lived in the area. Some media companies and web-based businesses were stationed there, pumping out gossip and trendy content for their consumers day and night.
According to the lead provided by Long Xiaoqing, the main members of Heart's God resided in one of these villas.
"This Heart's God has their old nest up in the north. Last time I was up there for special training, I heard about them. There's something wrong with them up here," Lu Yanzhou said as he tapped his temples. "They don't engage in terrorist attacks like other cults, but they harm their own. They preach about committing suicide, then commit suicide. And once a higher-up commits suicide, a string of other suicides follow, like how people martyred themselves in old times. The members of the cult are completely brainwashed. They truly believe the most honorable thing for them to do is to follow one of their 'priests' into death. Just earlier this year, in a village south of Xiao City, two-thirds of the population killed themselves in one night."
Ming Shu turned and furrowed his brow at Lu Yanzhou.
It was cold out. A white fog puffed out in front of Lu Yanzhou when he spoke. "It's a good thing you guys found this in time," he continued. "It looks like Heart's God hasn't finished setting up in our area yet. Once they set out their nets, it's hard to control them."
Officers from the special police force in black riot gear surrounded the Heart's God base. A muffled shot sounded out, and soon enough a swarm of men and women were led out of the villa. Among them, three people were hollering, "You are blaspheming against god!"
"Blasphemy my ass!" Lu Yanzhou snapped. "Suicide is still suicide, no matter how you package it up!"
Clearing out that nest of Heart's God cult members became the task of the Special Police Force. The Serious Crimes Division was only responsible for looking into their connection to Meng Shan's death.
Li Qingfei, a thirty-nine-year-old from up north, was the leader of the Heart's God base in Dongye City.
After looking at Meng Shan's photo, Li Qingfei was overcome by a confused expression. In a hoarse voice, he said, "I don't know this person."
"Your promotional brochures were all made by her!" Fang Yuanhang said. "How could you possibly not know her?"
Li Qingfei opened his mouth and said nothing for a long moment, then suddenly laughed. "If you accept our teachings, your sins can be forgiven…"
"They're out of their minds." Yi Fei pushed open the door and exited the room. "We've finished interrogating everyone. They all say they've never seen Meng Shan before."
Ming Shu hugged his arms to his chest and stared at the monitoring screens which showed the inside of the interrogation room. The corners of his lips were tightly drawn down.
Heart's God had taken root in several smaller cities and villages to the north. Many recent suicides could be linked back to them.
And all their victims were their disciples. Without any exception, the deaths relating to Heart's God were suicides. At least, according to the information the police had in their hands, there had never been a homicide relating to Heart's God and there was nothing about dog hair appearing in the mouth of a deceased person.
Meng Shan's death and the deaths caused by Heart's God were completely different.
Could it be that Meng Shan's murder had nothing to do with Heart's God? Could Dragoness Designs be unrelated as well?
As he thought, Ming Shu took a piece of rose candy out from the small tin in his pocket.
It seemed like they would have to think about this from another angle.
At that moment, Zhou Yuan knocked on the door and squeezed inside, holding his laptop. "Captain Ming, Captain Yi. I've made a discovery."