“Based on this deduction,” Lang Qiao, with dark circles almost as big as her eyes, said softly, “either Wu Guangchuan crawled out of the mortuary, or we misidentified the culprit in the case from all those years ago, and the real perpetrator has reemerged after more than twenty years to commit new crimes.”

“If one person successfully committed six crimes without the police even catching a glimpse of their shadow, let alone assisting them in finding a scapegoat, a normal person would feel extremely proud, not to mention a real psychopath. Would they remain quiet for so many years?” Luo Wen Zhou said. “If we really misidentified the real culprit all those years ago, they would have had enough time to kill a thousand more victims in these past twenty years.”

Lang Qiao turned her head. “Luo Team, I find your words quite disturbing.”

“I find your words equally disturbing,” Luo Wen Zhou spun the pen in his hand, “Anyway, I’ve already sent someone to stake out the Qu Tong residence and investigate the person who left the USB.”

“Let me tell you, it’s unlikely that we’ll find anything,” Lang Qiao said. “I just inquired about it. The Qu Tong family lives in an old residential area where the property management fees of thirty yuan per month are often overdue. It’s basically a state of ‘our front door is always open.’ They experienced a burglary just last month. Just think about it, if someone can take something from your home without getting caught, let alone throwing something away.”

Tao Ran asked, “What about other leads?”

“The USB is a common, cheap one that you can find hundreds of identical ones online. It has been wiped clean, not a single fingerprint,” Luo Wen Zhou paused and shook his head, “The content of the recording is being analyzed intensively by the forensic team, but the suspect shows clear counter-surveillance awareness. The results are likely not optimistic.”

The likelihood of having a lead was very low, and the possibility of the girl still being alive was also very slim.

Seventy-two golden hours had already passed, and the recording given to the girl’s parents seemed more like a self-congratulatory “summary” - “I’m still here, I’m still the victor, and you can’t catch me.”

“There’s actually another possibility,” Tao Ran pondered for a moment and said, “On the night of the incident, who would have passed by the area? We checked the surveillance cameras of several nearby scenic spots, parks, and main roads. If the person who took the girl happened to pass by in a car, it would be difficult for them not to leave any traces. But until today, we haven’t found any clues from this route. So, is it possible that this person has been following Qu Tong all along—or their target was another girl on a similar vehicle, and they coincidentally encountered the kidnapping?”

Upon hearing this, Lang Qiao understood his meaning. “You mean, following and stalking are not immediate actions!”

The students went on a field trip to the outskirts on the last day of the summer camp, but they had been active near the school in the city before. If the mysterious kidnapper had been tailing one of them, it would be much more difficult for them to hide in the city. Traffic surveillance and nearby residents would likely have noticed them!

Lang Qiao stood up immediately. “I’ll make the arrangements.”

“I’ve already taken care of it,” Luo Wen Zhou waved his hand at her. “You can stay here. After we thoroughly investigated the crime scene, and still didn’t find any suspicious individuals, I had someone retrace the steps of several girls in their class. Out of the eighteen students, eleven were girls, and six of them had similar physical features to Qu Tong. Even if we focused on these six individuals and investigated their daily activities, interactions with people, it would involve hundreds of people. From the on-site measurements, all we know is that the person wears size 42 shoes. The information is too limited, and we can’t be certain if this person is male or female, old or young. Unless they behave in a suspicious manner themselves, which is not the case so far.”

Lu Youliang listened on the side and couldn’t help but sigh. Even if he were personally in charge, he wouldn’t be able to be more thorough. But sometimes, timing and luck were indispensable.

“The abductor back then directly called the victim’s home. Now that they know we can trace calls, they’ve switched to anonymous delivery, making it even more difficult to track,” Lang Qiao sighed. “Doesn’t it feel like they’ve raised the stakes?”

Luo Wen Zhou paused for a moment and said, “I remember that the victim back then disappeared without a trace. In the end, what made us believe that Wu Guangchuan was the suspect in the serial kidnapping case? Was it simply because he had some sets of blood-stained children’s clothing in his possession?”

“No, the case wasn’t that unprofessional at the time,” Commissioner Lu said. “In addition to those sets of shredded clothing, the main reason for identifying Wu Guangchuan as the suspect was the seventh girl. She had evidence of sexual assault on her body, and after regaining consciousness, she also identified Wu Guangchuan. What was her name? It seemed to be Su… Su Xiao Lan,” Tao Ran said. “My master’s notebook mentioned it. She was a student of the suspect, Wu Guangchuan.”

“Yes, that’s it,” Commissioner Lu pondered for a while, feeling helpless, and sighed, “Ah, it’s been too long, I’m getting old, and my memory isn’t good. You guys go through the files.”

Luo Wen Zhou kicked Lang Qiao, who was lacking in energy, with the tip of his foot. Lang Qiao realized and quickly responded, hurrying to handle the procedures.

Commissioner Lu personally mentioned it, and the old case files were retrieved quickly. The more detailed and objective records, which were even more thorough than Yang’s old notebook, finally brushed away the dust of twenty years and exposed themselves to the broad daylight once again.

“Yes, this should be the girl,” Commissioner Lu pulled out one of the photos.

Because the person involved was still alive and probably didn’t want to be disturbed, her photo wasn’t preserved in Yang’s private notes.

The seventh victim, Su Xiao Lan, was a very pretty young girl with almond-shaped eyes, a long eye corner, and a raised chin. In the photo, she had applied a bit of makeup, making her lips rosy and teeth white. Resting her cheek against her hand, she exuded a peculiar sense of maturity.

“Su Xiao Lan was a student at Jinxiu Middle School and was in her second year of junior high when the incident occurred.”

Lang Qiao asked curiously, “Didn’t they say that the girl came from a poor family and her parents didn’t know she was missing for several days? How could they afford to send her to a private school at that time?”

“She was a dance prodigy, and the teacher of the elementary school dance team liked her a lot, so she directly recommended her to Jinxiu. At that time, Jinxiu offered exemptions from miscellaneous fees to talented students. However, due to the difference in family background and the constant training of the dance team, Su Xiao Lan frequently missed classes. Over time, she never fit in with her peers at school, had no friends, and Wu Guangchuan was her homeroom teacher in her first year. He took advantage of this and repeatedly deceived and coerced the girl, committing acts of violation against her.”

“That’s strange,” Tao Ran couldn’t help but interject, “If Wu Guangchuan kidnapped and killed six girls, why did he let this girl live?”

“At that time, I had just started working, and I mostly did errands in the task force. I didn’t participate much,” Commissioner Lu recollected for a moment. “The killer was already dead, so it was impossible to question his motives. All the information we have was deduced by our predecessors when they wrote their summaries afterward. There are probably two reasons—first, the close relationship between Su Xiao Lan and Wu Guangchuan was known by many people. Once something happened to Su Xiao Lan, the police could easily find their way to him. So, for the killer, Su Xiao Lan was a high-risk target. There was even a theory proposed by a senior officer at that time, suggesting that the other six girls were likely substitutes for Su Xiao Lan.”

“The second reason is purely speculation on our part—unlike the other victims, Su Xiao Lan had a unique family situation. The killer couldn’t torment her family through phone calls. If making phone calls had some special meaning or purpose for the killer, they couldn’t obtain that satisfaction from Su Xiao Lan.”

The whole process seemed to have no problems. There was evidence from eyewitnesses and physical evidence, and the logic and psychological motivation were also reasonable. The only question was, since the culprit of the old case from twenty years ago had already passed away, who took Qu Tong away?

Who else would know about the details of the pencil case and the little bell?

Perhaps only the relatives of the victim in the Guo Fei case… and the old detective who handled the case back then, including Commissioner Lu.

In the small meeting room, everyone fell silent in front of Commissioner Lu. Instead, he remained calm and took the initiative to break the silence. He stood up, patted Luo Wen Zhou’s shoulder, and said, “You should take care of this matter. If there are any problems, report to Old Zeng. For the time being, I’ll avoid suspicion. I’ll write down my whereabouts for the past few days, and it won’t be easy to investigate the people who handled other cases. I’ll give you a heads-up in advance, so it won’t look bad on your face if they don’t cooperate.”

“We also need to ask the relatives of the victim in the Lianhua Mountain case. It’s possible that they had conversations with someone,” Luo Wen Zhou casually brushed off this awkward topic, “And there’s Su Xiao Lan. She spent the most time with Wu Guangchuan and probably knows something. Let’s divide our efforts. Tao Ran, you continue tracking the movements of those eighteen kids before the incident. Just to be safe, don’t overlook the boys. Xiao Lang, you’re in charge of investigating the area near Qu Tong’s house. Don’t miss any surveillance footage from the surrounding miscellaneous shops. I’ll figure out the rest.”

What was left was likely to offend people—whether it was the older seniors in the investigative system or visiting the victims from back then.

Tao Ran wanted to say something, but Luo Wen Zhou raised his hand to interrupt. “Go quickly, enough with the talk. It’s been over twenty years, evidence has been destroyed, and witnesses are gone. There’s very little hope of getting results. Your investigation is of utmost importance. What if the child is still alive?”

At this point, Tao Ran couldn’t afford to delay any longer and had to leave with Lang Qiao following closely behind.

Lu Youliang tore open the packaging of a new pack of cigarettes and threw it to Luo Wenzhou on the table. “Keep this honorable and arduous task for yourself. You’re doing a good job with your style.”

Luo Wenzhou responded, “If I go, at most, I’ll just get pushed around. But those two, it’s possible they’ll end up fighting each other—of course, whether they can find results after being pushed around, that would depend on your influence, sir.”

“Those old guys from back then, some are gone, some are still here. Most of them have retired, and even Old Zhang has been transferred,” Commissioner Lu said, feeling somewhat melancholic. “I’m the only one left, leading you bunch of brats. It won’t be for many more years.”

“Isn’t retirement good?” Luo Wenzhou smiled at him. “I dream of retiring. Sleeping until I wake up naturally, going wherever I want, enjoying a monthly salary, traveling the world with my spouse every day, taking the subway where those grandsons would have to give up their seats for me.”

Lu Youliang was very intent on grooming him. Although Luo Wenzhou was a bit too young, it was fortunate that he, as an old man, wasn’t retiring immediately. With a few more years left, a little encouragement might not be ineffective in helping him grow. But after hearing his absurd remarks, Lu Youliang was furious. He pointed at Luo Wenzhou and said, “You don’t even have a ‘spouse,’ so shut up. If you don’t speak properly, get out.”

Luo Wenzhou took a cigarette, picked up the old case file, and prepared to leave as requested. But when he reached the door, Commissioner Lu called out to him.

“Do you have a rough idea about this case?”

Luo Wenzhou, with one hand on the door handle of the meeting room, paused. “There were two unresolved questions from back then. First, where did the bodies of the missing girls go? Second, what was Wu Guangchuan’s motive for calling the victims’ homes? I talked to someone about this case, and a friend said it doesn’t sound like the killer was targeting the children but rather the adults—this doesn’t fit the typical psychological profile of a pedophile… Also, I always feel that although the two cases are connected, it’s not necessarily the work of one person.”

“What do you mean?”

Luo Wenzhou replied, “Making a phone call and personally going to the victims’ homes are two different things. One is hiding behind the scenes, while the other is unable to resist appearing on stage. The latter carries much greater risks, and the perpetrator would be more audacious. It’s not just as simple as anti-surveillance, as Lang Qiao mentioned.”

The entire Yan City was like a river. After decades of pollution control, the sediment at the bottom of the river could be seen at a glance. It seemed clear and safe, but there were always turbulent areas, hidden undercurrents.

The chance of Qu Tong, the missing girl, being found alive was becoming increasingly slim. And for countless peers of hers, this was just an ordinary summer vacation, filled with mundane cram classes and interest classes, accompanied by the sickly chirping of cicadas, waiting for the drowsy period of adolescence.

Carrying a portfolio, Chen Chen waited near the back gate of the Youth Palace for her tardy parent. Bored, she took out her tablet to play. Suddenly, a shadow blocked her view. Chen Chen looked up and saw a hunched old blind man near her, deliberately or unintentionally turning his face toward her.

Chen Chen inexplicably felt a bit uneasy and remembered what the big brother who treated her to cream puffs said. She quickly moved a few steps to the side, closer to the crowd waiting for the bus, while secretly keeping an eye on the man.

Just then, the bus arrived at the station, and the people who had been crowded in line rushed onto the bus. The area near the bus stop became empty, with only her and the old “blind man” remaining.

Suddenly, the old blind man tapped the ground and started walking toward her. Chen Chen’s hair stood on end in an instant, and she turned and ran toward the Youth Palace. In a moment of carelessness, she bumped into someone at the corner, and the person exclaimed, dropping something onto the ground.

It was a girl who looked slightly older than her, wearing a floral dress and twin braids.

Chen Chen quickly apologized, “I’m sorry.”

The girl glanced at her but wasn’t angry. As she squatted down to pick up her book, she asked, “Why were you running?”

Chen Chen hurriedly helped, “There was a strange person over there, and I got scared.”

After hearing this, the girl looked in the direction Chen Chen pointed. “I don’t see anyone. Where?”

Chen Chen turned her head, and the bus stop was empty, with no one around.

The girl looked at Chen Chen and said, “What grade are you in?”

“I’m going into sixth grade.”

“Oh, I’m a year older than you.” The girl held her book with one hand and naturally pulled Chen Chen closer. “If you’re scared, shall I wait with you for a while?”

Chen Chen couldn’t ask for more.

“I’m here for a summer photography class,” the girl said, her long eyelashes lowered as she smiled at Chen Chen. “My name is Su Luozhan.”