At the critical moment when there were only twenty-nine hours left in the investigation and the hostage’s life had entered the countdown stage, the entire direction of the Municipal Public Security Bureau’s investigation was shaken.

Yan Yi remained silent, seemingly pondering and contemplating, slowly standing up from his position in front of the computer.

Following his movement, Jiang Ting also stood up. The two faced each other, their gazes locked for a long moment, before Yan Yi finally spoke:

“You speak, I’m listening.”

Jiang Ting reached out and hung a high-definition earphone on Yan Yi, while he put on another one himself. They replayed the phone call from the beginning. The sound of the recording crackled, and the first sentence was, “Two billion, how’s the preparation going?”

Jiang Ting pressed pause. “The kidnapper repeated this sentence several times during the negotiation with Shen Xiaoqi’s father. From my memory, each repetition had a thicker and lower voice, with a flat intonation. The questioning tone at the end of the word ’le’ was not emphasized, indicating a relatively mechanized tone without emotional factors.”

Yan Yi nodded.

“But when you started negotiating with the kidnapper, his voice changed.” Jiang Ting unpaused, and the clear sound of “ha” came through the earphones, followed by:

“I’m right here, come and get me. I’m waiting for you.”

“Did you hear it?” Jiang Ting stared intently into Yan Yi’s eyes. “He had a very disdainful cold laugh before provoking you. The intonation at the end was clearly rising. What do you think it means?”

Yan Yi muttered, “Emotion.”

“Yes, the previously mechanized and flat tone suddenly became emotional. Keep listening.”

“If you can’t get the money, don’t even think about the child’s life… That unlucky brat has already been kidnapped… Dream on if you think you can have one back without paying…”

Jiang Ting paused again.

“If you don’t know the background of this kidnapping case and completely eliminate the extraordinary elements such as the blood-soaked shirt, the White-Tailed Sea Eagle, the exorbitant ransom, and the precise execution time, based solely on this recording, what is your initial impression of the kidnapper in your mind?”

Yan Yi pondered. “A greedy, vicious, and ruthless traditional kidnapper.”

Jiang Ting nodded in agreement. “Yes, traditional and typical.” He immediately clicked play for the third time.

As he did so, the electronic voice rustled out the last sentence left by the kidnapper, cold and emotionless: “Twenty-nine hours until execution time.”

The recording ended.

“Now,” Jiang Ting said, “clear your mind of the image of that greedy, vicious, and ruthless kidnapper, and just remember this last sentence. Then, considering the blood-soaked shirt, the sea eagle, the high ransom, etc., has your judgment of the person on the other end of the phone changed, or is it still the traditional and typical kidnapper?”

Yan Yi suddenly locked eyes with him.

The air in the command vehicle grew tense.

“No, he changed,” Yan Yi said softly, each word filled with disbelief. “He has become… the executioner.”

Jiang Ting’s expression remained unchanged. “Or, you could say, a cold and merciless executor of punishment.”

“This kidnapper has always given the police a feeling of being unpredictable because he expressed his intentions in a very contradictory manner. But if we look at his abnormal behavior as two separate parts and consider him as two different roles, everything can be explained.”

Jiang Ting leaned against the back of his seat and took off the earphones, raising a forefinger to Yan Yi. “First, he kidnapped Shen Xiaoqi and blackmailed the Shen family, urgently demanding ransom through threats, showing malice and mockery towards the police. When he appears in this role, key words like ’two billion’ and ’execution’ will absolutely not be mentioned. Instead, ‘don’t even think about the child’s life’ is used—clearly leaning towards the common words used when kidnappers threaten to tear up the ransom.”

Yan Yi pondered, nodding without speaking.

“But when he takes on the role of the executioner, his motivations seem to have nothing to do with money. On one hand, the two billion in cash is impossible to take away, and he didn’t ask the police for any transportation or even the basic condition of non-sequential banknotes. On the other hand, he has abandoned the typical emotions of viciousness and greed displayed by traditional kidnappers. He repeats the execution deadline with a coldness that shows an extremely strong sense of execution. At the same time, his precision with time seems to carry a strong sense of ceremony.”

Yan Yi suddenly realized something. “A sense of ceremony?”

“Yes,” Jiang Ting said. “Personally, I lean towards the opinion that this executor, whose motivations are unrelated to money, is the true identity of the kidnapper.”

Yan Yi took out a cigarette and unconsciously rolled it between his fingers, repeating, “Motivation.”

He seemed to be carefully pondering these two words, and after a moment of contemplation, he said, “If the pursuit of execution is his true motivation, then the kidnapping is just a step leading to the ultimate goal of ’execution’…

Yan Yi stopped speaking, rubbing his temples with force. A certain speculation seemed to be on the verge of emerging in his mind, but it remained elusive.

“Kidnapping is part of a ritual. And ‘ritual’ is the externalization of an individual’s inner emotions towards something, characterized by emotional attraction, displacement, and subconscious visual projection,” Jiang Ting paused and said, “Generally speaking, the pursuit of a sense of ritual represents people projecting their inner visions onto reality and commemorating, marking, and identifying with them. As the executioner, the kidnapper’s inner vision, which is also the necessary means to satisfy his desire for punishment, indicates that it is highly likely—”

“This isn’t the first kidnapping case,” Yan Yi interjected abruptly.

He looked sharply at Jiang Ting. “—Every precise time announcement, the repeated ’eight minutes past eight,’ is connected to something that happened in the past!”

Jiang Ting neither confirmed nor denied it, nodding slowly and heavily after a long while.

Yan Yi wasted no time and immediately took out his phone, dialing the number of the Municipal Public Security Bureau.

“Hello, Deputy Director Wei, it’s Yan Yi… The search and rescue have made no progress, and the kidnapper refuses all communication… Listen to me, Deputy Director Wei, I have a new investigative direction here…”

“What? What did you say?” Deputy Director Wei was overwhelmed by a barrage of calls in the meeting room. “What the hell, it’s already this late, and you still want to throw a curveball at me?!”

“I want to concentrate manpower on reviewing similar case files within the province over the past three years,” Yan Yi said, word by word. “This is highly likely not the kidnapper’s first offense.”

The sun gradually set, and time ticked away second by second.

On the highway, three police cars whizzed past, heading towards the bustling city of Jianning during the evening rush hour.

With a bang, the door to the office of the Criminal Investigation Detachment was pushed open.

Yan Yi was followed by a large group of personnel temporarily drawn from the Technical Investigation, Graphic Investigation, Materials Department, and others. As he walked forward with big strides, he turned his head and gave orders, “The search scope includes all the paired cases of abducted teenagers over the past three years within the province. Cases where the two hostages have a certain social relationship between them should be the primary focus of screening. Only cases where a hostage’s family receives a large ransom call should be considered as secondary focus. Prioritize reviewing old cases where the hostages were not successfully rescued, not necessarily confined to Jianning. There is a higher possibility of incidents occurring in various sub-bureaus, stations, towns, and cities in our province…”

Everyone hurriedly took notes as they followed behind him. One graphic investigator timidly raised his hand and asked, “Deputy Yan, it’s rare to have two hostages in one kidnapping. Do the hostages have to be a pair of teenage boy and girl? Can it be two boys or two girls?”

Yan Yi impatiently replied, “Yes! It works! Nowadays, I’m not surprised by anything kids do!”

Bang!

Suddenly, Yan Yi bumped into something and almost stumbled. He heard a cold voice in front of him:

“You’re the one who shouldn’t be surprised by anything!”

Yan Yi rubbed his head and looked up, only to see Captain Fang Zhenghong of the neighboring Narcotics Division.

Fang Zhenghong still had that sallow complexion, and his expression was very unfriendly. Yan Yi’s heart sank slightly when he caught sight of him, but after over ten years of professional criminal investigation, he had polished himself to be relatively smooth. He didn’t bother arguing with Fang Zhenghong and just smiled slightly, nodded, and tried to walk away.

However, just as he brushed past him, Fang Zhenghong reached out and stopped him.

“With less than twenty hours left until the ransom deadline, you’re pulling people back to review old case files. Do you think you have too much time on your hands?!”

Here it comes again.

Yan Yi halted his steps, pondering for a moment in his mind, but his face maintained a gentle expression. “Oh, this matter. Captain Fang, you may not know, but Deputy Director Wei does believe there is a high possibility that the kidnapper has committed previous offenses. That’s why we hope to try a new breakthrough direction through previous clues.”

He didn’t argue with Fang Zhenghong and used Deputy Director Wei as a shield. As expected, Fang Zhenghong didn’t continue to dwell on this topic and let out a snort from his nostrils. He opened his phone and sent a message on Weibo:

“Why didn’t you immediately report to Director Lv and Deputy Director Wei when the incident made it to the trending list? Why did you hastily use your personal connections to remove the trending topic, only causing even greater and worse social public opinion? Now everyone thinks you have something to hide!”

The half-smiling expression on Yan Yi’s face disappeared, and he said calmly, “Everyone knows the tactics of manipulating public opinion. Just find a few big influencers and buy a batch of internet trolls. The commotion will only last for two or three days. If we’re worried about every little thing the internet says, then how can we focus on solving the case? Why bother with so many internet trolls?”

“You go tell that to the Traffic Police Brigade next door!” Fang Zhenghong scolded sharply. “The head of the Traffic Police Brigade came to the Bureau this morning and scolded us for the whole morning! And he hasn’t even left yet!”

This was the jurisdiction of the Criminal Investigation Detachment, and Fang Zhenghong was scolding them mercilessly, without showing any mercy. Not only did everyone in the office look displeased and stand up, even the interns in the corridor outside stopped in fear.

In the Deputy Support Brigade Office not far away, Jiang Ting heard the commotion and suddenly stood up from behind the desk. He walked to the door and glanced outside through the glass.

Fang Zhenghong had always had strict discipline and a frugal lifestyle. He didn’t like Yan Yi, who was a bit slick and had luxurious habits. It wasn’t a secret within the Bureau. But privately, their working relationship had to be maintained, and there hadn’t been any major issues between them for so many years.

Yan Yi didn’t know why Fang Zhenghong had changed his temperament after recovering from his illness. He had picked on him several times before, and today, he was at it again. But what he knew was that the Jianning Criminal Investigation Detachment, with its deputy provincial-level establishment, was half a level higher than the Narcotics Division in terms of status. In theory, he and Fang Zhenghong were equal. If he was still being pointed at and scolded by Fang Zhenghong on his own turf, then his position as the deputy brigade leader would lose its authority.

“Captain Fang,” Yan Yi took a deep breath, crossed his hands in front of him, and smiled slightly as he asked, “Is this an inquiry from Director Lv or Deputy Director Wei? Which one are you carrying out their will?”

“You—”

“I admit that I didn’t handle this matter properly, but it happened suddenly, and there was no other way. If Director Lv or Deputy Director Wei has any objections, I accept their criticism and will be more careful in the future.”

Fang Zhenghong’s pale face, which had just recovered from his recent illness, turned flushed. “Don’t bring up Director Lv and them in every sentence. You know very well how many things you’ve covered up! Let’s not go too far. In the last drug manufacturing case, everyone watched as you slipped away from the scene…”

“I was going after the sniper and apprehending the shooter. I also explained everything to the two directors afterward.” Yan Yi coldly interrupted him. “Maybe Captain Fang hasn’t participated in operations for too long and has forgotten the meaning of ’take charge in emergencies.’”

Fang Zhenghong raised his voice sharply, “Take charge in emergencies? I’m afraid it’s you, in the Deputy Support Brigade Office, who’s hiding something!”

Yan Yi didn’t back down at all, but his inner self momentarily froze.

What did he mean?

Does he know something?

Yan Yi retracted his gaze and let out a sneer. When he raised his head again, he quickly glanced at the door of his own office not far away.

—He knew that Jiang Ting was standing behind the one-way transparent glass door, and their eyes met in an instant.

“Look at how you say that,” Yan Yi smiled sarcastically, “If someone who doesn’t know hears that, they might think I have a little lover hidden in my office.”

Fang Zhenghong couldn’t stand his appearance, and his anger surged. “Let me tell you, Yan Yi, the wheels of justice turn slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine. You—”

Suddenly, a calm and familiar female voice came from behind the crowd, “There are only twenty hours left in the kidnapping case. Why are you all standing around here instead of reviewing the case files?”

Everyone turned around in unison, and Yan Yi’s eyes lit up.

At the entrance of the Criminal Investigation Detachment, a female police officer in her fifties stood with her hands behind her back. She had short hair, a slender figure, and a calm face. As her gaze swept across the room, everyone involuntarily lowered their eyes. There was a buzzing discussion in the office.

Judging by Fang Zhenghong’s expression, he was extremely surprised, and then his sparse eyebrows furrowed as if he suspected he had made a mistake. “Captain Yu?”

Yan Yi was about to step forward, but before he could take a step, Yu waved her hand to stop him.

“Captain Fang is absolutely right. The younger generation nowadays lacks stability. They dare to chase after criminals on their own and don’t take their own safety seriously.” Yu walked into the office amidst the crowd’s avoidance. She raised her hand and gestured towards Yan Yi without physical contact, her expression somewhat severe. “You must be more careful in the future!”

Yan Yi nodded in response.

“However, since the time for the kidnapping case is running out, we, as the older generation, should prioritize the overall situation. Let’s not distract the young people and disperse their energy in criminal investigations for now.” Captain Yu’s tone softened, and she smiled at Fang Zhenghong. “Don’t you agree, Captain Fang?”

In the empty air, an invisible string seemed to be gradually tightening, and no one dared to breathe heavily.

The flush on Fang Zhenghong’s face gradually faded, returning to his pale, bluish complexion. He looked up and down at Captain Yu and seemed to be contemplating something. After a while, he grunted ambiguously, “Alright, it is what it is.”

Captain Yu nodded approvingly with a warm smile.

Fang Zhenghong turned and walked away. When he reached the door, he paused for a moment. He turned his head in the sight of everyone, gazing meaningfully at Captain Yu, and asked, “However, the energy indeed needs to be focused on the main tasks, right, Captain Yu?”

Before she could answer, he brushed past, leaving the Criminal Investigation Detachment’s office directly.

Only then did the tension in the air suddenly dissipate, and the heavy pressure lightened.

“What are you all standing around for? Get to work! What time is it, huh?” Yan Yi’s roar echoed through the office, and the police officers quickly gathered their case files and scurried off, rushing to their respective seats to frantically search through them.

“Youthful hostages! Social relationships! Eight o’clock and nine minutes! Find every kidnapping, missing person, and suspected fraud case from the past three years! Don’t just stand there, hurry up!!”

The entire Criminal Investigation Detachment trembled under Yan Yi’s shouting, and everyone wished they could instantly master the art of teleportation. It wasn’t until the surroundings were empty that Yan Yi’s expression changed in an instant. He hurriedly approached, “Captain Yu, I heard about your heart bypass surgery… Why are you here today?”

Captain Yu, the head of the Jianning City Public Security Bureau Criminal Investigation Detachment, in her fifties, raised her frail hand and pressed against her left chest, smiling. “Getting old, finally running out of oil.”

Yan Yi’s pupils contracted.

Captain Yu patted his shoulder. “I came to the Bureau today to discuss my retirement with Director Lv.”