Chapter 291: A Tragic 60th Birthday

Director-General Cheng stood up and asked, "Isn’t he at your table?"

"He sat for a bit but didn't eat a bite,” replied the officer. “I thought he had come around to propose a toast but it’s been more than half an hour since I last saw him and I can’t get through to his phone."

His words were like a bucket of cold water but I couldn’t resist clinging onto that bit of hope in my heart. With so many policemen here, nothing could happen, right?

Director-General Cheng stopped the festivities and instructed the officers to go around looking for Officer Ouyang. I spoke to the man sitting next to Officer Ouyang and asked if he showed any unusual behavior before leaving the table. 

"Not really,” recalled the officer. “He did hold his head all of a sudden. When I asked if he had a headache, he smiled and said it was nothing. I didn’t think much of it at the time!"

"A headache?" An inevitable sense of foreboding grew steadily.

We ran around looking for Officer Ouyang like headless chickens. Dali and Bingxin weren’t privy to Officer Niu’s death so they couldn’t fathom my apparent urgency. I uttered not a single word but underneath my taciturn manner I was desperately praying for the man’s safety in my heart.

The hotel management was soon alerted by the movements of a large group of policemen. He smiled and cautiously asked, "Officers, is there something wrong with the food? Please inform me if there’s something you’re not pleased with."

Director-General Cheng explained he was looking for someone and had just finished describing Officer Ouyang’s facial features to the manager when one of the chefs came running in a panic. Eyes squinting with apprehension, he paused as if unsure to speak. From his reaction, I knew something had happened. "What's wrong?" I asked.

"T-there’s an old man in the kitchen…” he stammered. “It’s got nothing to do with us..."

"What's wrong with him?" I raised my voice.

Perhaps the gravity of my tone frightened the chef. "He’s dead!" he exclaimed in horror.

By the time we got to the kitchen, a crowd of onlookers had already gathered around, covering their mouths in fright. Officer Ouyang’s body was contorted in a strange posture, his head submerged in a pot of boiling oil. The fire was at maximum; the crackling sounds and the smell of his flesh cooking permeated the air.

I padded my fingers with a handkerchief and quickly turned off the fire, and with the help of others, carefully lifted Officer Ouyang away from the stove and onto the ground.

His close proximity to the fire burned a huge hole in his clothes while his entire head was a deep-fried, disfigured mess.

Director-General Cheng's lips quivered in anger, tears threatening to spill from his eyes. He turned to the group of chefs and growled, "Who was in the kitchen when it happened?!"

This was the first time I had ever seen such an incensed Director-General Cheng. Perhaps the cruel situation was too much for him to bear. 

The chefs answered falteringly, narrating that they left the kitchen after a long shift that left them tired and hungry. Because the hotel enforced strict rules and regulations, the kitchen was locked whenever it was unoccupied so it was almost impossible for anyone to enter.

Xiaotao examined the lock and reported, "It was pried open!"

Ever since we entered the kitchen, Bingxin was overcome with grief, covering her mouth to drown out the sobs. I told Dali to take her out for some air but Bingxin stubbornly wiped away her tears and insisted, "I'm fine!"

The time of death was less than half an hour ago so there was no need for organ echolocation. I examined Officer Ouyang’s body and found no signs of coercion. His hands were stained with oil and his fingerprints were clearly stamped on the top of the stove. Officer Ouyang’s posture was a clear indication of his course of actions at the time–he shoved his own head into the boiling-hot oil.

In other words, he pried open the kitchen lock himself, turned the gas valve and committed suicide!

I ran my hands all over Officer Ouyang’s clothes and felt a cell phone in his pocket. There was an unsent message that read: "Cui Hao, it's your turn to pay the debt!"

Director-General Cheng did a double-take at those words. "Officer Cui is also a colleague of ours," he said.

I proceeded to grab a handful of starch flour and blew it onto the cell phone. But oddly enough, I found no fingerprints on the phone. Daily necessities such as a phone would most definitely be covered in fingerprints. "Is this Officer Ouyang's cell phone?" I asked Director-General Cheng.

"Yes!" he nodded.

"Call him."

Director-General Cheng dialled but the call didn’t connect despite the full signal shown on the screen. Instead, I tried calling Director-General Cheng with the phone. Puzzlement swept across his face as he stared at the caller ID. "It's not a number I’m familiar with," he replied.

"Someone switched his cell phone and placed this one into his pocket,” I deduced. “The text message is a warning for the next crime! This isn’t suicide. It's a serial killing, and Officer Cui is the next victim!"

"That’s impossible, Officer Cui died five years ago..." murmured Director-General Cheng. He suddenly looked up in a wide-eyed fluster. "Damn it! The murderer’s target is his family!"

Ascertaining the murderer’s next move, we immediately set off for Officer Cui's house.

Before we started our journey, Director-General Cheng announced to all the officers in an almost hoarse voice, "Attention. Attention everyone, this is not an exercise. I repeat, this is not an exercise. From this moment, the Nanjiang police will go into DEFCON 1! I’ll need at least one SWAT team to bring their full gear for reinforcements. Those in the criminal investigation department, follow me."

Bingxin wanted to tag along but I quickly stopped her. "Bingxin, I need your help. Go back to the station at once and give both Officer Ouyang and Officer Niu a brain CT scan to see if there’s anything out of the ordinary."

"Song Yang-gege, you must be careful!" cautioned Bingxin.

I instructed Dali to accompany her. Xiaotao hadn’t driven to the hotel so we went in Director-General Cheng's car. An officer had just opened the car door when he was suddenly pulled aside by Song Xingchen, who had appeared out of nowhere. Before the officer could react, Song Xingchen had already lowered himself onto the back seat.

"Who the hell are you?" yelled the officer.

I apologetically explained that it was my other assistant but Song Xingchen seemed too impatient to deal with the man. He turned to me, a hint of disapproval in his cold voice,  "This case is too dangerous!"

"Did you show up just to stop me again?" I frowned.

"I’m well acquainted with your temper,” Song Xingchen smirked. “So I’m here in case of an accident."

If it weren't for the solemn atmosphere, I would've retorted with, “You might as well quit being a bodyguard and be a babysitter instead!”

On our way to Officer Cui’s house, I asked Xiaotao, "Did you guys locate Officer Niu's cell phone?"

"No, we didn't realize the text would be a foreshadowing,” explained Xiaotao. “How do you think the murderer did it?"

For the first time ever, I was overwhelmed by a deep feeling of helplessness. "The two cases weren’t suicide but I haven’t yet discovered the murderer’s methods. Unless of course, the murderer is able to manipulate people into doing something against their will!"

When we neared Officer Cui’s home, Director-General Cheng ordered the other officers to lie in wait. With the SWAT team closely monitoring the situation, we were the first to test the waters. As we advanced upstairs, Director-General Cheng briefly described Officer Cui's family of four–his parents, wife and a young son.

Outside the door, I stood there trying to catch a whiff of blood but found nothing to my immense relief. Despite knocking on the door several times, we received no reply. I grabbed my lock-picking tools and successfully opened the lock. The police immediately pushed the door wide open and entered in a practiced formation.

The house was empty but I noticed a flyer on the table announcing the opening of a new restaurant. Dialling the number on the advertisement, I waited like a cat on hot bricks for the restaurant to pick up. But to my utter dismay, all I heard was a dial tone. "We have to go and see if they’re there," I blurted.

Director-General Cheng swept his eyes over the flyer. "It's just around the corner,” he said. “Let's go!"

Hence, a team of policemen rushed to the restaurant, only to be greeted by a panic-stricken group of customers who dashed out, screaming, “They’re dead! They’re all dead!"

A boy ran towards us and grabbed an officer by the hand. "Officer, please do something. The people in the restaurant are all dead! If it weren't for my fast legs... "

"Who did this?" I asked.

"No one,” the boy shuddered. “They seem to have gone mad! They all just started to commit suicide at the same time..."

Xiaotao sent someone to appease the boy and take his statement when he managed to compose himself. The metallic odor of blood emanated from the restaurant, spreading into the vicinity. What should have been a grand opening had descended into a scene out of a Hollywood gorefest. There was blood everywhere, dead bodies lying from end to end in strange positions. The entire restaurant took on a crimson hue under the illumination of bloodied light bulbs.

We were all horrified by this scene. Song Xingchen blocked me from entering with his scabbard. Right then, Xiaotao suddenly pulled out her gun and aimed in one direction, shouting, "Show yourself!"

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