Although the leader of the detention center was clearly unhappy, he didn’t want to confront Deputy Director Yan Yi. He led the team from the city bureau to the medical room, a separate room for administrative and staff use, separating them from Li Yuxin on a different floor.

“The prisoner’s head is seriously injured. We have urgently reported and transferred her to the hospital…”

“Don’t tell me these things. I’m certain that she is related to the ongoing kidnapping case. I must find out!”

“We have our rules and regulations, especially for underage prisoners! You’re making it difficult for our detention center…”

A low but intense argument could be heard from outside, faintly seeping into the medical room filled with the scent of disinfectant through the slightly ajar wooden door.

Jiang Ting had no expression on his face as he watched his hand being repeatedly disinfected and wrapped in layers of gauze.

“Be careful not to get it wet before it heals. Change the dressing in time to prevent inflammation. And…” The middle-aged female prison doctor hesitated before continuing, “take rest and supplement nutrition.”

Jiang Ting simply nodded.

Yan Yi barged into the room, carrying a strong aura. “How is it? Is it serious?”

The female doctor wanted to say something, but Jiang Ting interrupted her, “It’s fine, no bones are broken. Li Yuxin has been taken to the hospital?”

“Damn it,” Yan Yi cursed coldly. “That girl is evading interrogation, intentionally. I have already called Director Lv and asked him to put pressure on the provincial party committee. I must bring her back to the interrogation room within two hours!”

Yan Yi grabbed Jiang Ting’s left hand, gripping his fingertips and bringing the gauze on the joints to his nose to smell.

“What are you smelling?” Jiang Ting pulled his hand back.

Yan Yi said, “Oh, I’m just sniffing. How did you disinfect this? The blood isn’t cleaned properly.”

The female doctor immediately became displeased. “I clearly…”

Jiang Ting didn’t let the senseless argument continue.

“Li Yuxin’s avoidance in the 712 kidnapping case doesn’t seem to be purely psychological, but she does have a sense of self-abandonment. Her head bumps weren’t acts, they were real self-harm. Her panic and fear were also real, resembling a desire for self-destruction when faced with great disaster.”

Jiang Ting took a deep breath and said, “Her behavior makes me somewhat suspicious.”

“Suspicious of what?” Yan Yi sat on the table, his legs stretched out. “After all the twisted things the kidnapper has done, it wouldn’t be surprising if Li Yuxin was not only a ‘witness,’ but also forced to participate in the execution process, which is why she’s so afraid of the police.”

“If the kidnapper forced her to participate in the killing of He Liang to prevent her from reporting, imprinting her fingerprints and blood on the murder weapon, and making her believe that she wouldn’t be able to explain it if He Liang’s body was found, then it’s very likely,” Jiang Ting paused and said, “But this still doesn’t explain our paradox: Why didn’t the kidnapper just kill her?”

“Is there some emotional connection between the kidnapper and Li Yuxin?” Yan Yi interjected. “I just called the Jiangyang County Police Station to screen if there are any relatives with criminal records in the Li family.”

Jiang Ting said, “There is definitely an emotional connection, but it might not be through relatives. Otherwise, the kidnapper should also be a relative of Bu Wei…”

“No,” Yan Yi interrupted him with a hint of self-satisfaction.

“…?”

“The case involving Shen Xiaoqi and Bu Wei is the second one. Serial killers often deliberately imitate or even elevate the details of the initial crime in subsequent crimes—it’s quite common. Even if the kidnapper and Bu Wei have no blood relation, Bu Wei might still receive the same treatment as Li Yuxin.”

Jiang Ting glanced at Yan Yi.

“What?” Yan Yi shrugged. “Are you the only one who understands criminal psychological analysis? I have been in charge of more than ten serial murder cases.”

However, Jiang Ting signaled for him not to think that way, then turned to the female doctor and said, “I’m sorry, could you please leave for a moment?”

His tone was light, but there was a sense of politeness, command, and non-disobedience. The female doctor, who had been captivated by the conversation, could only respond with a hesitant “Okay” before leaving embarrassedly.

Only when they were the only two left in the medical room did Jiang Ting speak up, explaining, “I didn’t mean to doubt your abilities. On the contrary, your recent speculation makes sense. But I have a suspicion that contradicts your hypothesis regarding why the kidnapper demanded one million in the He Liang case and two billion in the Shen Xiaoqi case.”

“Hmm?”

Jiang Ting sat across from Yan Yi, resting his elbows on the armrests on either side, leaning slightly against the back of the chair. This posture caused him to lift his chin slightly, giving off an air of quiet contemplation. After a while, he said, “Perhaps the ransom was not based on the boy’s family background, but on the girl’s.”

“What?” Yan Yi asked.

“…”

“Girl?” Yan Yi was genuinely surprised. “Based on the girl’s appearance?”

-Bu Wei’s stunning face was indeed unforgettable.

To his surprise, Jiang Ting didn’t answer immediately. Instead, he fell silent for a long time.

The surroundings were unusually quiet. In the early morning medical room, the pale walls and beds, along with the faintly glowing metal frames and medical equipment, were painted with large patches of cool-toned light in the dawn.

“… In my over ten years as a police officer, I have approached many cases from the perspective of the criminals, imagining and even empathizing, in order to find investigative leads. But as a law enforcer, I have always avoided understanding the role of the criminal too much, to prevent emotional and behavioral deviations due to empathy.”

Jiang Ting took a deep breath and gently shook his head.

“It’s just that this case seems to constantly entice me to explore the inner world of the criminal, making me constantly ponder what they want to do, why they are doing it, or what kind of inner expression they want to achieve. This constant exploration feels like being pulled into a whirlpool, making me very uncomfortable.”

His words seemed like a form of confession, but at the same time, they gave Yan Yi a strange feeling, as if something was subtly implied.

“… It’s not that serious, Jiang Ting.” After hesitating for a moment, Yan Yi finally said, “Criminal investigators often overthink, it’s a common phenomenon. But in reality, criminals wouldn’t intentionally manipulate the psychological induction of the investigating police to such a degree. Otherwise, this type of crime would be too advanced…”

Jiang Ting said, “No, you don’t understand.”

He didn’t explain what Yan Yi didn’t understand, only stared at the faint specks of dust in the air, his eyes distinct black and white, with a chilling gaze. Suddenly, he said:

“Based solely on appearances, they are both fifteen or sixteen-year-old girls. It’s unlikely for Bu Wei to surpass Li Yuxin by hundreds of times. Unless the two girls have some other distinguishing traits, the imagery conveyed by the bloodstains of the upper garments, stained with chicken and eagle blood, seems to suggest this.”

Yan Yi furrowed his brow.

“But…,” Jiang Ting muttered, “… what are those distinguishing traits?”

·

Early morning in the mountains.

Birds chirped from all directions, and intermittent cicada songs filled the air. The first ray of morning light shone through the dense treetops, reflecting on the exquisitely beautiful eyelashes of the girl, resembling an elaborate traditional painting. Her dark feathers trembled for a moment, and finally, she struggled to open her eyes.

“… Shen Xiaoqi…”

Bu Wei’s lips moved, and bloodstains appeared at the corners of her cracked lips due to dehydration. But she paid no attention to the pain and staggered to her feet from under the tree. “Shen Xiaoqi!”

Not far away, Shen Xiaoqi curled up in a pile of fallen leaves. His right arm was mangled and at an odd angle, obviously broken. It was barely held together by two branches, and his face was burning red, his forehead hot to the touch.

“Wake up, wake up…” Bu Wei weakly shook him, although she herself was weak and extremely feeble. It took a long time for Shen Xiaoqi to regain consciousness from his semi-comatose state, coughing a few times and barely opening his eyes. “Bu Wei…”

Countless grass and leaves clung to the girl’s hair, and her fair face and hands were marked with several bloodstains from the tree branches. But due to dehydration, even tears couldn’t flow.

“I dreamed that I died…” Shen Xiaoqi hoarsely said, his eyes devoid of vitality, looking up at the top of his head—although they were deep in the mountains, covered by countless towering ancient trees, the crisscrossing branches and aerial roots prevented them from seeing even a glimpse of the sky. “I dreamed that I killed you too. If it weren’t for me… If you hadn’t desperately protected me…”

Bu Wei gasped for breath and said, “You won’t die, I won’t let you die!”

The frail girl gritted her teeth and exerted all her remaining strength, using every ounce of her energy. She managed to support Shen Xiaoqi, who was much taller and heavier than herself, and unsteadily walked forward.

“We will survive, we will get out of here, we will…”

Eight o’clock in the morning.

The vast primitive forests stretched out as if it were a colossal black abyss between heaven and earth, quickly swallowing their tiny figures.

·

Jiangyang County People’s Hospital. As the doors of the inpatient department elevator opened, Yan Yi took the lead and walked through the corridor. He reached for his phone, showing the director of the detention center, who had an unpleasant expression outside the ward, a handwritten note from Liu, the head of the Provincial Committee.

Yan Yi pointed to Li Yuxin inside the ward through the glass window. “Can I go in now?”

“Haha, your city bureau is indeed overbearing!” The director snorted heavily through his nose. “I finally realized today, in this remote place, that this is what they mean by ’the higher authorities can crush people’!”

Yan Yi didn’t hesitate to interrupt him. “Our entire detachment has been working continuously for thirty hours. If your prisoner doesn’t confess, someone will really die tonight at eight minutes past eight. I won’t waste any more time talking. I’m going into the ward.”

Jiang Ting followed Yan Yi low-key, wearing sunglasses and a baseball cap. Unexpectedly, the director of the detention center called out, “Hey, hey! What’s going on? Didn’t the note say that only the deputy detachment leader should go in? You, you, you, what are you doing…”

Yan Yi pulled Jiang Ting’s arm and faced the director, “What are you blabbering about? This person is a criminal investigation expert specially hired from the Public Security University. His appearance fee is three thousand per hour. Whether it’s my money or yours that’s wasted, who do you think should pay?”

“…,” The director immediately became timid, turned his face aside, and muttered, “It’s just that your Jingning City Bureau is rich. Pah.”

The wound on Li Yuxin’s head had already been treated, wrapped in thick bandages. Bloodstains were still visible at the edges, accentuating her unusually pale face.

Perhaps due to the lingering fear from the madness, the police officers from the detention center handcuffed both of her hands to the iron frame at the edge of the bed. They even took away all sharp objects from the bedside, not even leaving a single ballpoint pen. Only a bare tabletop remained, which starkly contrasted with her lifeless face, evoking a sigh of pity.

Yan Yi gestured for the nurse to leave the room. Only when there were just the three of them left did he close the door with a click. “Li Yuxin.”

The young girl’s gaze was unfocused, staring into space.

“Do you think all police officers are as useless as they are portrayed on TV, and that only when they get expelled can they solve cases?”

“…”

“Let me tell you a story.” Yan Yi pulled out a chair and gestured for Jiang Ting to sit down. He himself sat on a neighboring vacant hospital bed, crossing his legs. He said, “A true case, which may have some similarities to your case. Several years ago, a wealthy businessman was kidnapped along with his driver. The kidnappers killed the useless driver, but in order to completely control the wealthy businessman, they forced him to use a weapon to decapitate the driver. Then they let the businessman go home to get the money. The kidnappers thought that the wealthy businessman, who became an accomplice to the murder, wouldn’t have the courage to report to the police. However, to their surprise, the businessman immediately turned himself in after he left. Guess how this case was ultimately judged?”

Li Yuxin’s mouth remained tightly closed, but anyone with eyes could easily see the subtle and complex changes in her expression, which could be described as fear.

“The wealthy businessman was found not guilty and, out of humanitarianism, compensated the victim’s family with a sum of money. Do you know why it was judged that way?”

“…”

The girl’s teeth were still clenched tightly, but Yan Yi paid no attention.

“In police investigations, besides testimonies, we also need a complete chain of evidence. For a murder case, there must be motives, physical evidence, documentary evidence, investigation, identification, and other complete links, which logically interconnect and cannot be refuted, in order to be accepted by the prosecutor’s office. In the case of the wealthy businessman’s driver being killed, the forensic examiner was able to clearly determine that there were many hesitation wounds on the victim’s neck, which didn’t match the typical characteristics of a murderer. It indirectly proved that the wealthy businessman was indeed coerced. Moreover, the severed trachea didn’t show any signs of spasms, and the wound didn’t show any signs of vital reactions, indicating that the victim was already dead when beheaded. I was one of the detectives handling this case at the time. We fought for several months to gather evidence for this case, using various investigative methods that you can’t even imagine. In the end, we saved the innocent person from the defendant’s seat.”

Yan Yi leaned forward, his hoarse voice from staying up late sounding deep and powerful. “If we can save him, we can also save you. No matter what you’ve done, at the crime scene, as long as something has happened, there will inevitably be traces left behind. And what we, the police, need to do is to use these traces to completely reconstruct every detail of the incident, make the guilty pay the price, and vindicate the wronged.”

He paused and asked, “Do you want justice to be served?”

No one uttered a word as time ticked away. Li Yuxin seemed to be asleep with her eyes open, her frail body immersed in a hidden nightmare.

Yan Yi patiently waited, his peripheral vision catching a glimpse of Jiang Ting. Unexpectedly, as their eyes met, the latter subtly avoided his gaze.

“?” Yan Yi felt a hint of doubt rising in his heart, but before he could see clearly, Li Yuxin’s faint voice sounded, “I don’t need anything…”

Both Yan Yi and Jiang Ting suddenly turned their heads towards her.

“I just want to be alone,” Li Yuxin’s face, paler than paper, was filled with numbness. Her lips were slightly parted, barely forming any shape when she spoke, without any fluctuations in tone. “Just let me be alone… let me be alone.”

She slowly curled up her feet and buried her head in her knees, motionless.

It was as if this posture was enough for her fragile body to resist the whole world.

Yan Yi was stunned, momentarily unsure of how to react.

“Li Yuxin?” He furrowed his brow. “What are you thinking?”

The girl was like an egg—fragile, helpless, foolishly and firmly guarding that small space, maintaining a silence that left people at a loss.

Yan Yi’s mouth was filled with a sweet and bloody taste of anger. He glanced at his watch—it was half-past nine in the morning, and all the blood rushed to his head. “Miss, at least think about the two innocent children who were kidnapped…”

“Let me handle this,” Jiang Ting suddenly interrupted him.

Yan Yi looked up and saw Jiang Ting standing up.

“You…”

“Let us have some time alone, Yan Yi.” Jiang Ting’s voice was very gentle, possessing a strange power that could calm people down. “I will talk to her.”

There were only a little over ten hours left before the execution time mentioned by the kidnappers. Yan Yi took a deep breath, feeling the hot air filling his nostrils. He managed to maintain his composure and stood up, suddenly hooking Jiang Ting’s shoulder and pulling him into his embrace, giving him a tight hug.

“Be careful, call for help if there’s any situation. I’ll be outside.”

Without waiting for Jiang Ting’s response, Yan Yi turned around and walked quickly out of the ward.

“… " Jiang Ting involuntarily watched Yan Yi leave. It was only after his figure disappeared outside the door that he turned his head to look at the hospital bed.

Li Yuxin seemed completely unaware of everything happening around her. She neither listened nor looked, using her closed senses and thoughts to stubbornly resist the outside world, erecting an invisible wall in front of everyone.

But Jiang Ting looked down at her with pity, and with just one sentence, the intangible barrier instantly crumbled:

“—What does it feel like to kill?”

Li Yuxin was struck as if by lightning, her entire body stiffened!

Jiang Ting used his fingertips to lift her cold face inch by inch, making the violent trembling of her pupils impossible to hide.

He asked softly, one word at a time, “How did he persuade you to kill He Liang?”