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Ripe Town – Bai Yufan, Ning Li

Ripe Town is a historical suspense web drama written and directed by Wang Zheng, led by Bai Yufan, Ning Li, Xiang Hanzhi, and Liu Yitong, with special appearances by Zhang Haowei and Zeng Li, co-starring Yu Yao and Zong Juntao.

The drama tells the story of the 37th year of the Wanli era in the Ming Dynasty when a series of murders occurred in Duxian, Jiangnan. The young constable, Qu Sangeng, teams up with the county historian Song Chen, his companions Gao Shicong, Leng Guier, Feng Kezhui, and others to delve deep into the investigation. Together, they unexpectedly uncover the long-buried mystery of a case that has been unresolved for twenty years.

Details

Ripe Town

English Title: Ripe Town
Chinese Title: 繁城之下
Other Titles: 青蝇宴
Genre: Historical, Suspense, Crime, Thriller
Tag: Investigation, Ming Dynasty, Historical Fiction
Episodes: 12
Duration: 60 min.
Director: Wang Zheng
Writer: Wang Zheng
Producer: Zhang Na, Wang Yuwei, Yang Peng, Bo Bing, Ji Wenqi
Product Company: Tencent Penguin Pictures
Released Date: 2023-10-13
Broadcast Website: WeTV, TencentVideo, Viki

Cast

Synopsis

In the thirty-seventh year of the Wanli reign of the Ming dynasty, a series of murders occurred in the Du county in Jiangnan.

The dead are in different identities, unrelated to each other, their bodies are arranged in bizarre positions, and a message is left at each crime scene.

As the first victim's disciple, the young constable, Qu Sangeng, works together with his friends to start an investigation.

As the investigation progresses, people from all backgrounds emerge.

In the midst of the fog, an old case from ten years ago comes to the surface.

Who is the murderer and what is his purpose?

Recap

During the 37th year of the Wanli era of the Ming Dynasty, a bizarre murder case shocked the wheat fields of Qijia Fortress in Duxian, Jiangnan. Upon receiving the report, two constables from the county yamen (Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong) hurried to the scene. In the center of the wheat field, they found a neatly dressed scarecrow. Qu Sangeng used a wooden stick to lift the scarecrow's big straw hat, revealing a familiar face. The victim, pale-faced, was Qu Sangeng's master - Leng Wují.

The news spread rapidly, and county historian Song Chen, who was interrogating another case at the yamen, heard the tragic news of Leng Wují's murder without displaying much surprise.

The body was brought back to the county yamen, and it was discovered that Leng Wují was not tied to a wooden frame but rather impaled by a mulberry wood sedan pole, fixed on a frame. The brutality of the murderer was evident. Forensic analysis revealed that the true cause of Leng Wují's death was suffocation. Upon removing the body, a message was found carved on the pole: "My path is consistent."

Based on the available evidence, County Magistrate Wei speculated that the murderer might be a sedan chair bearer. Qu Sangeng objected, noting that sedan chair bearers are usually illiterate and rough, yet the murderer left a classical expression behind. Song Chen analyzed that the murderer might be a scholar among sedan chair bearers.

He Shiyé informed County Magistrate Wei that Duxian has a deep literary tradition, with several hundred scholars. To investigate each one would be a daunting task. Faced with this challenge, Wei sought a solution and, upon He Shiyé's suggestion, decided to report the case to the higher authorities.

Wei Magistrate finally disposed of the hot potato. Song Chen, seeking instructions, informed Wei Magistrate that with Leng Wují's demise, the fast squad had lost its head constable. According to convention, Squad Leader Yi should temporarily oversee, but Wei Magistrate, preoccupied, only instructed Song Chen to handle it according to normal procedures.

In the face of Leng Wují's corpse, Qu Sangeng was lost in thought. A year ago, due to a dispute, he and his colleague Zhang Lao San had clashed. Zhang Lao San had taken bribes, bullied widows and orphans, and Qu Sangeng, unable to tolerate it, had secretly assisted the weak. When Leng Wují found out, instead of supporting Qu Sangeng, he had helped Zhang Lao San with medical expenses. Despite Qu Sangeng's explanations, Leng Wují had only said, "Fairness is a roundabout path."

Back in the present, Qu Sangeng asked Squad Leader Yi about the investigation into Leng Wují's murder. In the fast squad, apart from Leng Wují, Qu Sangeng was essentially the second in command. Squad Leader Yi, wanting to establish authority, was indifferent to Qu Sangeng's questions. He asked about the usual investigative process, and Qu Sangeng listed them: visit the scene, talk to the victim, trace the movements, and then investigate suspects.

Squad Leader Yi replied that of those methods, Qu Sangeng's investigation was the most convenient. Unable to proceed on his own, Qu Sangeng, seeing that Squad Leader Yi was not focused on solving the case, requested at least two or three experienced constables to visit Qijia Fortress.

Annoyed by Qu Sangeng's gestures, Squad Leader Yi and Qu Sangeng argued, and it was only through the mediation of Jin Er from the fast squad that they settled down.

Leaving the fast squad, Qu Sangeng visited Leng Wují's home to interview his adoptive mother. Leng Wují's daughter, Leng Guier, welcomed him and informed him that the family could still manage. The most important thing was to find the murderer and avenge her father.

To understand the meaning of the message left on the frame, Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong went to the academy to seek the help of a teacher. Their friend Feng Kezhui happened to pass by and, seeing Qu Sangeng's confusion, tried to explain. After a long explanation, Qu Sangeng didn't grasp anything. However, it sparked some inspiration: to find the murderer, they should perhaps start with old cases handled by Leng Wují.

Checking the case files, Song Chen told Qu Sangeng that only solved cases were recorded, so there were not many clues available for investigation.

With no leads, Qu Sangeng found Leng Wují's waist token, planning to clean it and keep it. Suddenly, Gao Shicong thought that on the day of the incident, Leng Wují left the fast squad without his waist token, indicating it wasn't official business. Qu Sangeng immediately thought of a place.

They rushed to Cuihua Lou, where Qu Sangeng directly asked Lin Siniang for information. Lin Siniang was unaware of Leng Wují's murder. When Qu Sangeng explained the situation, Lin Siniang suddenly lost control of her emotions, sobbing uncontrollably. Qu Sangeng had no choice but to step aside for the moment.

It turned out that Lin Siniang was Leng Wují's lover, and they had an ongoing relationship. When Lin Siniang managed to control her emotions, she told Qu Sangeng that on the day of the incident, Leng Wují had indeed visited Cuihua Lou. He mentioned that Wei Magistrate, newly appointed to the county yamen, was a useless official.

Having served as a constable for over twenty years, Leng Wují had encountered various officials, and he classified them into five types: wolves, dogs, snakes, rats, and cats. Wolves were fierce and greedy; dogs were relatively incompetent; snakes were good at evasion; rats were opportunistic and parasitic, while cats were gentle, narcissistic, and liked to be praised.

Based on the information provided by Lin Siniang, Leng Wuji left Cuihua Building around the Rooster Hour and headed straight home. Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong conducted interviews along the way. A few days ago, Leng Wuji was strangled in a courtyard near the back door of Cuihua Building. There was a hole in the wall revealing a stash of silver coins. Out of curiosity, Leng Wuji leaned in, but someone inside immediately looped a rope around his neck through the hole, and shortly afterward, he was strangled.

Later, Leng Wuji's body was placed in a carriage and taken out of the county.

The hole in the wall had been filled with soil, and Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong walked past it without noticing.

Investigations and crackdowns have always been important sources of clues for the Fast Squad. "Investigations" refer to the gangs of street ruffians who specialize in various illegal activities, while "crackdowns" involve groups that gather enforcers for debt collection and kidnapping. Most illicit activities on the streets are related to them. There are five gangs in Duxian County, self-proclaimed as the "Five Waiting Mansions." The dealings of investigations and crackdowns require connections within the official government. Before the incident with Leng Wuji, he had connections with these groups.

On this day, members of the investigation gang extorted money from a farmer named Liu Laoer. Qu Sangeng exposed their scheme, angering them. Qu Sangeng questioned why they were interfering with his financial affairs, and they revealed that the "Five Waiting" had shifted their allegiance since Leng Wuji's incident and were now aligned with Squad Leader Yi from the Soap Division. Currently, the "Five Waiting" and Squad Leader Yi were drinking heavily in a bathhouse. According to the rules, people meeting in the bathhouse would be completely naked, with no weapons allowed.

As for the rules that Leng Wuji had established for the "Five Waiting," they had already been forgotten. Seeing that they had no intention of introducing him to their leader, Qu Sangeng informed them that the Fast Squad had arrested a 60-year-old undercover prostitute the previous day, who turned out to be the leader's mother.

Returning home in the evening, Qu Sangeng's mother advised him not to continue being a constable, reminding him of his father's fate who died in a fire while on duty. She emphasized that justice could not always prevail over evildoers. Qu Sangeng assured his mother that he would do his best to protect himself.

Song Chen gave Qu Sangeng a special molar with four roots, without explaining its significance. When Qu Sangeng was about to leave, Song Chen mentioned that Lin Siniang and Leng Wuji were old acquaintances. Qu Sangeng pretended to be unaware and noted down this information.

Yi Youkao was determined to weaken the prestige of the Fast Squad and thought of targeting Qu Sangeng first. He inquired about the progress of an old case, and Qu Sangeng reported the details without any flaws. He also showed Yi Youkao the molar gifted by Song Chen.

Aware of Song Chen's formidable methods in handling cases, Yi Youkao was concerned about Qu Sangeng's connection with him. Though he dared not make things difficult, he still wanted to vent his frustration. He ordered Gao Shicong to surrender his badge and leave the Fast Squad.

Gao Shicong's departure angered Qu Sangeng, who started drowning his sorrows in alcohol. Leng Guier brought Qu Sangeng home, and in the courtyard, there was a cellar with a coffin inside. Leng Wuji, being a constable, had prepared it in advance, warning his family of the possibility of an unfortunate event. When Leng Guier opened it recently, she found the coffin filled with silver coins, totaling ten thousand taels.

Qu Sangeng speculated that Leng Wuji, always meticulous, had kept the silver coins as leverage for something. Under the silver coins, there was a stack of papers recording a tragic fire that occurred twenty years ago in the Lu family. Coincidentally, Qu Sangeng's father died in that fire.

There was also a prescription from a physician named Cheng Yizhi for two patients, Lu Yuanbao and Chen Wang. Qu Sangeng asked his mother if she remembered the details of his father's death twenty years ago. She revealed that after the incident, Leng Wuji had given her a large sum of money, and only then did she learn about the close relationship between Leng Wuji and her husband.

Qu Sangeng visited neighbors who had made statements at the time, and opinions varied. When he found Cheng Yizhi, the physician informed him that the prescriptions for Lu Yuanbao and Chen Wang were for minor ailments. Cheng Yizhi then asked if his testimony from that year was still preserved, to which Qu Sangeng expressed ignorance.

After leaving Cheng Yizhi, Feng Kezhui suddenly approached Qu Sangeng, revealing that his uncle had been found hanged in Wu Leizhai early in the morning. They rushed to the scene and discovered Mr. Wang hanging upside down, holding a copper ruler in his hand, a peculiar sight.

When Qu Sangeng followed Leng Wuji to learn about handling cases, he had strong opinions on dealing with the investigation and crackdown gangs, believing that these people should be brought to justice. However, Leng Wuji told Qu Sangeng that arresting these individuals would only lead to others taking their place. Furthermore, the Fast Squad often relied on them for providing clues, and the existence of this gray area had its significance. If Qu Sangeng couldn't stand it, he could privately gather evidence of their wrongdoing. It was suggested to thoroughly investigate the money they collected and, if necessary, take action against them.

The scholar Feng Kezhui buried his uncle, Mr. Wang, in the backyard of Wu Leizhai and creatively planted a plum tree on the grave. Qu Sangeng brought the forensic autopsy results, revealing that the back of Mr. Wang's head had been forcefully struck, and a headless chick had been stuffed into his mouth.

County Magistrate Wei believed that both strange deaths were likely the work of the same perpetrator but was hesitant to inquire further. He wrote a memorandum seeking guidance from higher authorities.

Faced with a piece of classical Chinese text left by the killer at Wu Leizhai, neither Qu Sangeng nor Feng Kezhui could decipher it. Gao Shicong, who helped bury Mr. Wang, speculated that the killer might have been disciplined with Mr. Wang's ruler in childhood, and later, when wronged by Head Constable Leng, sought revenge. Qu Sangeng didn't dismiss this possibility despite it being speculative.

Feng Kezhui, unwilling to accept the situation, asked Qu Sangeng to let him investigate his uncle's case.

Song Chen visited Cuihua Building for entertainment and often favored the courtesan Chun Xing. When he went to settle the bill, he was informed that someone had already paid. Outside, a middle-aged man named Zhang Jizu was waiting, claiming to be the steward of Scholar Xue.

Zhang Jizu expressed an interest in buying the courtyard behind Cuihua Building. Song Chen informed him that it had already been acquired by a merchant but remained unoccupied temporarily. Zhang Jizu persisted, revealing that despite no one living there, the courtyard had acquired several new items.

After parting ways, Zhang Jizu met a mysterious man in straw clothes and a bamboo hat by the river. The man told Zhang Jizu that revealing some clues was harmless, as Lu Zhi would never appear again.

Qu Sangeng soon found the yard where Leng Wuji had met his demise and speculated on the events leading to his murder based on the items found there. However, he couldn't locate the killer. To restrain the investigation and crackdown gangs, Qu Sangeng decided to sell them a favor. He handed over the evidence of their ill-gotten gains to Squad Leader Yi. Yi was pleased and agreed to Qu Sangeng's request, allowing Gao Shicong to continue serving in the Fast Squad.

Yi Youkao, armed with the accounts of the investigation and crackdown gangs, extorted five hundred taels per month from them. Unable to bear the heavy taxes, they asked Qu Sangeng for assistance.

Qu Sangeng had a plan. He persuaded the "Five Waiting Mansions" to have Yi Youkao deliver silver to Song Chen. Yi Youkao could profit from this, and if Song Chen accepted, the "Five Waiting Mansions" would have a stronger supporter. Yi Youkao, seeing the opportunity, went to seek Song Chen's favor. However, Song Chen rejected him outright, harshly reprimanding Yi Youkao. Additionally, Song Chen removed Yi Youkao from his position as head of the Fast Squad.

Qu Sangeng, using newly acquired millstones as evidence, found the seller and brought him to the yamen. Faced with Song Chen's torture devices, the seller confessed. The buyer was a man with a long beard and slender fingers, always wearing a bamboo hat, making his face indistinguishable.

Qu Sangeng handed over the financial records of the "Five Waiting Mansions" to Song Chen. At the same time, he disclosed that it was his idea for Yi Youkao to deliver silver to Song Chen. Impressed, Song Chen invited Qu Sangeng to be his right-hand man. Qu Sangeng immediately made a request: disband the investigation and crackdown gangs.

For the sake of investigating his uncle's death, Feng Kezhui started to reorganize the students and reopen the school. After dismissing the students, he selectively kept one behind each day, attempting to find some clues. One day, a student left behind attacked Feng Kezhui with a copper ruler when questioned about Mr. Wang's practices. The student revealed that Mr. Wang often demanded students use the ruler to hit him and prohibited them from informing their parents. If word got out, students were not allowed to continue their studies.

Feng Kezhui realized that his uncle never charged poor students for tuition, earning him respect. However, the revelation of students hitting him with rulers was something Feng Kezhui had never heard of before. Both he and Qu Sangeng couldn't help but feel that they didn't truly understand the people close to them.

In the seventeenth year of the Wanli era, the Lu Mansion was the wealthiest yet most desolate estate in Du County. It lacked women and children, only a few servants following Lu Yuanbao, a prominent local figure. Lu Yuanbao adopted an orphan, a boy named Lu Zhi, whom he had been raising at home. Lu Zhi, in his earlier years, stayed close to the estate manager, Lu Zhong, and as he grew older, he became increasingly intelligent. Lu Yuanbao liked him very much and kept him as a book boy.

Chen Wang was responsible for the procurement at Lu Mansion but was addicted to gambling. Often, during night shifts, he would secretly use a ladder to climb over the wall and gamble, losing all his money. Once, he even gambled away the money meant for his mother's medicine. Learning of this, Lu Zhi used his own money to buy the medicine for Chen Wang, and they became close.

Lu Zhi, being exceptionally bright, was sent to study under Master Wang at Wu Leizhai, and he became one of the most intelligent students, earning Master Wang's favor. Over time, Lu Zhi discovered a secret about Master Wang.

One night, Lu Zhi left his inkstone at Wu Leizhai and returned to fetch it. While trying to enter, he heard someone inside moaning in pain. Peeking through the window, he saw Master Wang with his back exposed, being whipped on the shoulders by a student with a ruler. After some time, the student left, and Master Wang came out, going to a corner of the courtyard to worship a stone statue, praying for divine intervention and no more troubling dreams.

After Master Wang returned to his room, Lu Zhi went to the statue and dug out a wooden box containing the skeletal remains of a monkey. Lu Zhi found it amusing and kept this incident in his memory.

Lu Yuanbao had a hobby of competing in calligraphy with Zhao, another local figure, and two other wealthy individuals. Although Zhao excelled in regular script calligraphy, each competition involved creating large characters on a placard, seemingly favoring Lu Yuanbao.

Lu Yuanbao often patronized Cuihua Building and had an affair with Lin Siniang. Once chosen by Lu Yuanbao, others dared not approach her. Whenever Lin Siniang went to Lu Mansion, she was escorted by a follower named Xiaobao. Xiaobao and Lu Zhi were of similar ages, often slipping away to play while Lin Siniang was at Lu Mansion.

The old estate manager, Lu Zhong, was a mute. When communicating with Lu Yuanbao, he used a form of sign language different from the common gestures. Lu Zhong was meticulous and shrewd, serving as Lu Yuanbao's confidant and performing many tasks on his behalf.

Lu Zhi had heard Lu Yuanbao mention why Lu Zhong became mute – his stepmother soaked his throat in salt, damaging his voice. Lu Zhi confirmed this with Lu Zhong, who smiled but remained silent.

Although Lin Siniang was kept by Lu Yuanbao, she secretly had an affair with Head Constable Leng Wuji. One day, when Lin Siniang was sent to Lu Mansion, Xiaobao secretly delivered a letter to Leng Wuji. Discovered by Lu Zhi, Lin Siniang came out of Lu Yuanbao's room at night, meeting Leng Wuji in the courtyard. Caught by Lu Zhi, he hid nearby, overhearing Leng Wuji asking Lin Siniang if she had been beaten severely. Accidentally knocking over a lantern, Lu Zhi was caught by Leng Wuji.

To prevent more people from knowing about their affair, Leng Wuji planned to deal with Lu Zhi. However, he was intercepted by the night watchman Qu Tianming, who discovered Lu Zhi on the way. Lu Zhi, eloquent and sharp-witted, analyzed the pros and cons of Leng Wuji killing him. He promised not to reveal Leng Wuji's affair with Lin Siniang and narrowly escaped death. To gain Leng Wuji's trust, Lu Zhi disclosed his own secret – he also admired Lin Siniang.

After this incident, Leng Wuji no longer distrusted Lu Zhi. Every time Xiaobao escorted Lin Siniang to Lu Mansion, Lu Zhi secretly hid in the sedan chair, and Lu Zhi and Xiaobao drove the carriage together, keeping each other's secrets.

After the Wei County magistrate's two requests, the county government finally began to take the recent string of murders seriously, dispatching Head Constable Xia to investigate in Du County. Upon taking office, Xia immediately reprimanded all the constables for their lack of progress. Beyond punishing them for the lack of breakthroughs, it was more important for Xia to establish his authority. Faced with Xia's dominance, Magistrate Wei remained silent.

Hearing that Qu Sangeng was continuously investigating the murder of Leng Wuji, Xia approached to inquire about any leads. Qu Sangeng mentioned a man named Chen Wang, a former servant at the Lu Mansion, who had hung himself outside the city a few days ago with no further clues. Xia mocked Qu Sangeng, considering him the favored disciple of Leng Wuji. Despite the incident occurring some time ago, Xia believed that even with basic inquiries, there should have been more findings. Without hesitation, Qu Sangeng responded that he had already disbanded the local inquiries, saving a considerable amount of time for Head Constable Xia.

As an outsider, Xia had originally planned to start with local inquiries. Learning that Qu Sangeng had disbanded the "Five Halls Division," he was furious and questioned Song Chen about the permission. Song Chen, surprisingly, directly pulled out a tooth root for Xia to examine, implying that not only did he approve the disbandment of local inquiries, but he had also interrogated the suspects, and the case was now transferred to the county government.

Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong went to Wuleizhai to find Feng Kezhui and discovered her preparing a special pigment. Feng Kezhui informed them that applying the pigment to a painting could make the paper appear aged, similar to an ancient masterpiece. Qu Sangeng was puzzled, questioning the authenticity, as color could be added to paper, but the strokes wouldn't lie. Feng Kezhui assured them that, apart from her uncle's calligraphy in the entire county, no one surpassed her skills, and copying was beneath her.

Suddenly inspired, Qu Sangeng decided to use Feng Kezhui to forge a prescription from Wang Master's preserved "Shanghan Lun," imitating Cheng Yizhi's handwriting. When he presented it to Cheng Yizhi, the latter was initially surprised but then explained that he had never written such a prescription. Cheng Yizhi clarified that even a small amount of Thunder Vine was enough to cause instant death, and a pharmacy wouldn't randomly dispense such a dangerous concoction.

Qu Sangeng directly asked if Cheng Yizhi knew about Lu Yuanbao's death, to which Cheng Yizhi denied any knowledge. According to Cheng Yizhi, Lu Yuanbao was poisoned to death by his brothers, and the case had long been closed by the authorities. After a moment, Cheng Yizhi seemed to change his perspective, refusing to let Qu Sangeng interrogate further and stating that, even if the magistrate fell ill, he himself would be the one to diagnose, not taking orders from a mere constable.

Having served for only a month, Xia, eager to solve the case quickly, assigned old cases to each constable, leaving Qu Sangeng isolated by not participating in local inquiries. As expected, several constables, fearing they couldn't complete the task within Xia's timeframe, surrounded Qu Sangeng, but Song Chen intervened, helping Qu Sangeng out of the predicament.

Seeing Qu Sangeng's predicament in the constable division, Leng Guier offered assistance, asserting that they couldn't let Xia bully him. To turn the situation around, they needed to exploit Xia's weakness, which was his concern about not solving the case on time. Qu Sangeng suddenly got an idea – Xia's greatest strength was his stability and experience, and that could also be his fatal flaw.

In another investigation, Gao Shicong's team was looking into a theft of jewelry at the Wang family. After verifying with local pawn shops, they discovered that Wang Master intentionally pawned the jewelry for a neighbor in need. This revelation left Gao Shicong both amused and frustrated.

Song Chen called Zhang Jizu to the yamen, intending to inquire about the Lu family's massacre. When Zhang Jizu arrived, Song Chen was in the middle of interrogating a villager involved in a land seizure case. After applying some force, the truth came out. Song Chen deliberately designed this scenario for Zhang Jizu to witness.

Song Chen initially brought up Zhang Jizu's recent inquiries about purchasing property in Yanzhi Alley. Zhang Jizu understood Song Chen's intent, questioning whether Song Chen wanted information about another property, implying Lu Mansion. Song Chen no longer avoided the topic, and Zhang Jizu informed him that he had no knowledge about Lu Yuanbao's case. Moreover, as the steward for Zhao, he wouldn't be interrogated like an ordinary person by Song Chen.

Leng Wuji's son, Leng Rui, got into a fight with Liu the Carpenter's son. Leng Guier cautioned Qu Sangeng not to interfere in children's affairs. Qu Sangeng promised to explain the situation to Liu the Carpenter. Gao Shicong advised Qu Sangeng to act quickly since people were avoiding monkey demons, locking their doors early in the evening.

According to local legends in Du County, one year, a monkey performer arrived from another county and quickly attracted the locals. All the students from Wuleizhai also ran to the streets to watch the show. Concerned about their neglect of studies, Wang Master went to the streets to bring back his students, leading to a commotion. The audience dispersed, and no one rewarded the performer. Wang Master asked for donations from a few wealthy young men, only to be ridiculed. Enraged, Wang Master severely beat the instigator, Shi Liu of Zhaofeng Lane.

Soon after, Leng Wuji arrested the monkey performer, revealing that he trained monkeys to steal from people's homes. After a severe beating in the yamen, he died shortly afterward. Rumors spread that the monkeys he trained were monkey demons, and the tragic deaths of Wang Master and Leng Wuji were due to the demons seeking revenge.

Zhang Jizu and the mysterious middle-aged man discussed the next target of the murderer. From Constable Leng Wuji, Teacher Wang, to the hanging of Chen Wang's remains, these three individuals had maintained the same identities for twenty years. To unravel the connections between them, it was necessary to go back twenty years to find answers. Two of them had a situation similar to the unfortunate deaths of the other three. Zhang Jizu expressed his intention to focus on them. The mysterious man inquired if Zhang Jizu was still skilled in his former profession, to which Zhang Jizu replied, "Qu Sangeng extinguishes the lamp at three, unheard are the roosters at five."

Head Constable Xia, following rumors, prepared to investigate several murder cases starting with the monkey demons. Magistrate Wei summoned a semi-immortal who sold talismans to suppress monkey demons in the market. Originally a bizarre rumor, the semi-immortal earned a meager living with this, but Magistrate Wei took it seriously. The semi-immortal found it amusing, concocting even more fantastical stories. Unable to find clues, Magistrate Wei planned to use torture to extract a confession. The semi-immortal finally revealed what he believed to be the truth.

The prevalent monkey demons were mostly affiliated with the Wukong Sect, a branch under the Banner of the Eternal Mother of the White Lotus Sect. Those performing monkey shows in the martial world belonged to this sect, possessing extraordinary skills such as high-flying and grabbing objects from a distance. Posing as monkeys to commit thefts was merely a supernatural act. If a person was caught stealing, they would be reported to the authorities. However, if a spirit monkey was seen, it would be considered a strange tale, causing fear and avoiding further investigation.

Physician Cheng Yizhi found Zhang Jizu, inquiring if he had reported his affairs to Master Xue. Zhang Jizu advised Cheng Yizhi not to casually associate his matters with Master Xue. Cheng Yizhi, worried that Qu Sangeng might discover the secret in the prescription, expressed concern despite his pharmacy being seamless. Zhang Jizu reassured Cheng Yizhi, stating that the city filled with talismans was the final answer, and there was no need to worry excessively.

At the designated time set by Head Constable Xia, the constable division still had no progress in solving the case. Each constable received a beating, and Xia pressured Qu Sangeng, attempting to provoke hostility. Qu Sangeng had no choice but to comply. After the constables were beaten, Xia ordered Qu Sangeng to personally strike Gao Shicong. Qu Sangeng exerted force, delivering a heavy blow to Xia's leg.

Xia ordered a flogging of Qu Sangeng, and Song Chen happened to pass by, proposing to handle it according to procedures. Qu Sangeng was first detained.

Seeing Song Chen opposing him, Xia inquired with Master Xie about Song Chen's background. Master Xie recounted Song Chen's past.

Originally named Song Zhongqiu, Song Chen was a renowned scholar in Jiangnan over a decade ago. His calligraphy and painting were highly valued, and he gained a reputation as a child prodigy. At sixteen, he passed the district-level examination, and at nineteen, he ranked first in the provincial examination, becoming the top scholar. At twenty-eight, he went to the capital for the imperial examination, achieving the top rank again in the preliminary round. However, during the final round, he became a victim of political struggles due to having met the chief examiner earlier. Accused of corruption, he was sent to prison, where he endured various torments. Later, the chief examiner who once framed him was disgraced, leading to Song Chen's exoneration. The Emperor offered him various positions, but Song Chen chose to be a historian. Unknown to Master Xie, after his release, Song Chen ordered someone to stab his eye with a fierce and cruel animal symbolizing revenge.

Upon learning about Song Chen's past, Xia dared not continue the confrontation and just wanted to solve the case quickly to provide an explanation to Master Nie.

Song Chen still sought solace in Cuihua Tower when feeling depressed. Spring Apricot did not understand Song Chen's predicament and could only accompany him in drinking. After getting heavily intoxicated, Song Chen, who loved practicing calligraphy, revealed his two-fingered right hand. At the yamen, he often wrote with his left hand due to his right hand's limitation. However, in front of Spring Apricot, Song Chen rolled up his sleeves, using his right thumb to write, displaying unparalleled calligraphy.

Zhang Jizu informed the mysterious man that the monkey demon had recently appeared frequently in the surveillance locations, as if preemptively aware of their plans. Having done thorough research, Lü San set up multiple traps and finally captured the monkey demon.

Zhang Jizu informed the mysterious man that the monkey demon was highly skilled, likely the mastermind behind the murders. The mysterious man disagreed, suggesting that if the monkey demon was merely a decoy, the speculation about the two victims would be invalid, leaving him exposed. Zhang Jizu felt hesitant; the murderer lurked in the shadows, knowing his every move.

Head Constable Xia returned to the Nie Tai yamen with the captured monkey demon. Song Chen had previously interrogated the creature, holding a statement. However, Song Chen speculated that Xia, during further interrogation, would obtain a different statement that favored his case.

Song Chen handed Qu Sangeng a list of antiques stolen by the monkey demon. Worth mentioning was that the owners of the lost items had all been questioned by Song Chen. They claimed the items sold weren't genuine antiques but were brought by wandering sellers who insisted the objects were valuable. These sellers, using Tai Ping Kitchen, sold the list to the monkey demon. In other words, the mastermind behind these antique dealers intentionally lured the monkey demon, placing it in their prearranged locations.

The next day, Cheng Yizhi was found dead in front of his door, submerged in his medicinal vat. Upon forensic examination, Cheng Yizhi's lips were blackened, indicating poisoning. A stack of prescriptions was left beside him, and the vat contained the drugs listed in the prescriptions. There was also a note: "This person has such an ailment." It suggested that a doctor would be killed by his own prescribed medicine, fitting the situation precisely.

Qu Sangeng then presented two prescriptions found in Leng Wuji's cellar to another physician. The physician stated that the combination had no effect on Chen Wang's condition but was a deadly concoction for Lu Yuanbao, fatal within half a year.

Twenty years ago, after Cheng Yizhi diagnosed Lu Yuanbao, his condition worsened. Every time Cheng Yizhi prescribed medicine, Lu Zhi, in charge of fetching herbs and brewing, noticed a flaw in Cheng Yizhi—petty theft. Lu Zhi placed some less valuable items in Cheng Yizhi's resting room, and each time, Cheng Yizhi secretly took them away. Lu Zhi took note of the items and only confided in Lu Zhong.

Another puzzle troubled Lu Zhi. During a playtime with a child, he heard about someone named Qiao Gou'er, a friend of the child who often burned offerings for him at Cuihua Tower. As the child grew up in Cuihua Tower, Qiao Gou'er was the only one who didn't look down on him. Qiao Gou'er followed Teacher Wang in Wuleizhai, sharing his knowledge with the child. Qiao Gou'er was later murdered, with his body missing the head. Lu Zhi then recalled the box he dug up at Wuleizhai, containing Qiao Gou'er's skull.

Discovering this secret, Lu Zhi reported to Leng Wuji. Leng Wuji analyzed that Lu Zhi, being a lowly maid, might not get justice against a respected teacher. Therefore, it was better not to complicate things. Lu Zhi shared all these matters with Lu Zhong, whom she had followed for five years, revealing everything in her heart.

Lu Yuanbao and Magistrate Zhao jointly established the Hongshun Weaving Bureau. Magistrate Zhao arranged his trusted aides to manage the accounts, embezzling a considerable sum. Lu Yuanbao invested heavily and also planted his spy, knowing about Magistrate Zhao's shady dealings. Lu Yuanbao, seeing Magistrate Zhao getting arrogant, had the chef bring a dish, revealing a pair of pigeons loved by Magistrate Zhao.

Magistrate Zhao finally understood. Lu Yuanbao taking a living creature from his home was effortless. Continuing to be forceful, his life could be exposed at any moment. Thus, Magistrate Zhao capitulated to Lu Yuanbao. The one who took the pigeons from Magistrate Zhao's house was the protector Zhang Gui, who was now Zhang Jizu, one of the top three protectors in the Lu family along with Bao Sheng and Zhao Liang. One day, Zhang Gui's senior brother, the crafty pickpocket Liu Seventeen, was injured and sought refuge at the Lu mansion. Concerned about leaks and having no other options, Zhang Gui sought Lu Zhi's help.

Upon learning about Liu Seventeen and Zhang Gui's special bond, being expelled disciples who treated each other like family, Lu Zhi was worried about Liu Seventeen's money-making ventures, involving collecting fees and taking lives. With numerous cases pending against him, Lu Zhi feared discovery by the wealthy outsider Lu. She wanted to keep it a secret temporarily but was eventually discovered by Lu Zhong.

Upon seeing that Zhang Gui had concealed Liu Seventeen, Lu Zhong immediately had an idea. He signaled Bao Sheng to watch over Liu Seventeen, who was lying on the sickbed, and Zhao Liang, who had fainted. Lu Zhong promptly snapped Zhao Liang's neck. Upon witnessing this, Zhang Gui hurriedly assisted in resolving Bao Sheng. Lu Zhi witnessed the entire incident.

When the news of Cheng Yi's tragic death reached the prefecture, Xia, the head constable, was exposed for using questionable methods involving the Monkey Demon. Judge Nie was furious and demoted Xia to a constable, sending him back to Duxian County. The constables, seeing Xia's fall from grace, were eager to seek revenge and surrounded him with sticks. However, Lu San intervened, explaining that beating Xia to death and facing a lawsuit was not worth it. He suggested they should take a long-term approach and slowly retaliate. Jin Er agreed and counted the number of blows Xia should receive. Lu San then proposed to Xia that they convert the blows into silver coins, and the constables gladly accepted the money, leaving both sides content.

Xia had no choice but to agree, realizing that his recent activities had been part of Lu San's plan. He couldn't decide whether to feel happy or worried. Seeing that the relationship between the three had improved, Song Chen indicated to Xia that he no longer needed to do regular tasks and could follow him. Lv San was assigned to tail Zhang Jizu.

With Cheng Yi's death, all leads were cut off, and it was only certain that the deaths of the three were related to the massacre at the Lu family's residence. The whereabouts of the Lu family's wealth and several servants were unknown. Leng Guier analyzed that aside from Chen Wang, who had been thrown into the river, Lu Zhi, Zhang Gui, and the chef You Er should still be in Duxian County, albeit hidden or using different identities. To find clues, Leng Guier devised a plan: a high reward.

Feng Kezhui set up the reward at Wu Lei Zhai, and the townspeople rushed to provide clues. Gao Shicong's father also queued up to claim the reward. They provided valuable information about You Er, the former Lu family chef, who used to order meat from his pork stall. He had disappeared after the Lu family's fire, only to reappear five years later as the owner of the Jade Pavilion, using the name Niu Buyan.

Zhang Jizu and the mysterious man were fishing by the river, discussing who the next bait would be. Later, they went to the Jade Pavilion to find Niu Buyan. The waiter there informed them that Niu Buyan had gone to the Cuihua Pavilion, and Zhang Jizu promptly left, with Lv San following closely.

Niu Buyan tapped Lin Siniang and remarked that if it weren't for the massive fire twenty years ago, they wouldn't be living in wealth and prosperity today. Lin Siniang argued that she had no connection to the fire, as she hadn't left the Cuihua Pavilion at that time. Niu Buyan reminded her that Lu Jinyou, the second son of the Lu family, had left the Cuihua Pavilion with Lin Siniang after getting drunk, making it difficult to place blame. He advised Lin Siniang not to harbor any illusions, and she had no choice but to accept her fate.

Niu Buyan warned Lin Siniang that the deaths of Leng Wujie, Wang Fuzi, Cheng Yi, and the Lu family were all connected. Their relationship with the river thrower Chen Wang, in particular, put them at risk of becoming the killers' targets.

Niu Buyan's analysis led him to inquire about any additional information that Leng Wujie might have shared with Lin Siniang when he solved the Lu family case. Lin Siniang stated that Leng Wujie had never mentioned it, and this was the first time she had heard such things from Niu Buyan.

The reward for finding the missing persons created a sensation in the entire county. Song Chen also listened nearby, and Yue Banxian, who had previously provided clues to capture the Monkey Demon, came to claim his reward. He asked Feng Kezhui how much he would get if he knew about the fourth person involved in the Lu family massacre, aside from Lu Zhi, Zhang Gui, and You Er. Feng Kezhui offered a reward of a thousand taels of silver for credible evidence but excluded information from unknown sources. Yue Banxian grinned mysteriously.

Lv San saw Zhang Jizu taking Niu Buyan into the home of Xue Jurén, and Leng Guier suspected that Xue Jurén might be Lu Zhi.

The next day, Yue Banxian posted a unique missing person notice throughout the streets, a hidden message for an old acquaintance to meet at the designated place at midnight. At the appointed time, Qu Sangeng and Gao Shicong lay in ambush, waiting for any surviving members of the Lu family to appear. Meanwhile, a beautiful woman in the Jade Pavilion had her throat slit.

The beautiful woman found dead in the Jade Pavilion was Lin Siniang. Before the incident, Leng Guier had visited Lin Siniang at the Jade Pavilion.

The first time Leng Guier met Lin Siniang, she couldn't help but inquire about the past between her father and Lin Siniang. She had known about their relationship for a long time, and her mother was aware of it too. Finally, with the opportunity to meet, Leng Guier wanted to learn more about Leng Wujie's experiences.

In her early years, Lin Siniang lost her parents and, at the age of eleven, was sold by her uncle to the Cuihua Pavilion. Initially, due to her young age, she only learned some artistic skills like painting and playing musical instruments. However, as she reached fifteen, she began to have her monthly period, which meant she had to serve clients. This frightened Lin Siniang, so she seized an opportunity to escape from the Cuihua Pavilion.

After running for a while on her own, it was getting late. A drunk man on the street was about to assault Lin Siniang. At that moment, Constable Leng Wujie was on duty and helped chase the drunkard away. He inquired about the reasons for Lin Siniang's wandering in the streets and later bought her a hot meal, sharing all the money he had on him.

With no place to go, fearing that she would be beaten to death if she returned to the Cuihua Pavilion, Leng Wujie respected Lin Siniang's wishes and fabricated a lie to deceive the head madam of the Cuihua Pavilion. He safely sent Lin Siniang back. Afterward, Lin Siniang began serving clients, and Leng Wujie always spent his savings to meet her. Lin Siniang didn't want Leng Wujie to spend his money on her, so she revealed the secret back entrance of the Cuihua Pavilion to him, and they often met secretly in the courtyard of that alley.

Later, Leng Wujie tried various ways to buy Lin Siniang's freedom, but she knew she couldn't bear children and didn't want to hold Leng Wujie back from living his life. It was only after Leng Wujie married and had children that they still continued to meet.

Learning about Leng Wujie and Lin Siniang's history, Leng Guier no longer held any grudge against Lin Siniang. She realized that Lin Siniang, too, had led a difficult life. So, she, along with Qu Sangeng, burned joss paper for Lin Siniang.

A few days later, Zhao Youren was found dead in his own yard. He was the same Zhao Youren who, twenty years ago, had partnered with Lu Yuanbao to run the Hongshun Weaving Mill. In recent years, his fortunes had declined, and he spent his days raising pigeons. When he died, he was dressed in women's attire, and he had been killed the same way as Lin Siniang, with his throat cut. A white flag left a message: "He who doesn't belong but is offered in sacrifice."

Twenty years ago, since receiving treatment from Cheng Yi, Lu Yuanbao's health had deteriorated. He struggled to sleep and was haunted by nightmares, often dreaming of people who had already died. Sometimes he would suddenly wake from these dreams, urgently call Lu Zhong, and instruct him to kill someone, only to realize later that it was all just a dream.

As Lu Zhong grew a little older, he became more adept at managing the household accounts, still known as the young master in the Lu family. Lu Yuanbao was always cautious and once invited Lu Zhong to drink with him, during which he questioned Lu Zhong about recent financial transactions. Lu Zhong reported them one by one, while Lu Yuanbao secretly pulled out a note from his sleeve, periodically checking it. Even though Lu Zhong was drinking, he noticed all of Lu Yuanbao's actions.

Lu Zhong expressed his feelings to Lu Yuanbao, saying that if Lu Yuanbao hadn't taken him in, he would have starved to death on the streets long ago. Now, he had acquired some knowledge and was willing to be dutiful and respectful. He wanted to consider Lu Yuanbao as his father and take care of him in his old age.

Lu Yuanbao initially thought he would accept Lu Zhong's sincere feelings. However, unexpectedly, Lu Yuanbao suddenly turned hostile and kicked Lu Zhong, accusing him of coveting the family fortune and indulging in delusions. If he wanted to be recognized as a father, he should kneel and bow to each and every laborer on the Lu family estate to see who would be willing to be his father.

Chen Wang, who had received a lot of help from Lu Zhong, couldn't bear to see this and knelt alongside Lu Zhong to bow to the workers. They were mocked, and no one dared to stand up for Lu Zhong, not even Lu Zhong himself. Later, Lu Zhong was driven out of the Lu family estate and sent to the countryside to do farm work.

After some time, Lu Yuanbao remembered Lu Zhong and asked Lu Zhong about his recent situation. Lu Zhong reported that Lu Zhong had been working diligently with no unusual behavior. However, Lu Yuanbao remained suspicious of Lu Zhong, who had previously managed the accounts. According to the family's tradition, anyone who left the Lu estate needed to be quietly disposed of. Additionally, Lu Zhong had suffered severe humiliation and had a strong sense of pride. There was a fear that he might pose a hidden threat. Therefore, Lu Yuanbao sent Lu Zhong to the countryside and instructed Lu Zhong to kill him.

Lu Zhong found Lu Zhi and, to his surprise, Lu Zhi began to speak. When he was a child, Lu Zhong indeed had damaged his throat, but he soon recovered. He discovered that pretending to be mute was a clever way to survive. Since others didn't know he couldn't speak, they had no reason to be cautious around him. So, Lu Zhong decided to continue pretending to be mute. After revealing Lu Yuanbao's entire plan, Lu Zhi was taken aback by Lu Zhong's openness. He had no power to resist and had to submit.

Lu Zhong explained that killing Lu Zhi was part of Lu Yuanbao's plan and was not his own intention. Originally, Lu Zhong planned to bring Lu Zhi back first and then find an opportunity to collaborate with him on a big deal.

Lu Zhong also shared with Lu Zhi the story of how Lu Yuanbao became wealthy. Several years ago, they engaged in activities like robbery, murder, and smuggling. Lu Yuanbao was the leader, and they never left any witnesses when they robbed people. During their last robbery, they targeted an old returning official. Lu Yuanbao intended to retire but didn't want to share the wealth with his dozen or so brothers. So, when his brothers were drunk, he ordered Lu Zhong to eliminate them. After all of this, Lu Yuanbao and Lu Zhong gained significant wealth and became prosperous merchants in Duxian County. This was why Lu Yuanbao was mocked by Zhao Youren as a loner.

Lu Zhi quickly understood Lu Zhong's meaning. He asked if killing Lu Yuanbao would be difficult. Lu Zhong explained that the challenge was not killing but making it appear like an ordinary death. Then, Lu Zhi, as an adopted son, could inherit the family estate.

Returning to Duxian County, Lu Zhi was assigned to stay in the most rudimentary room. However, he didn't mind the conditions. Chen Wang and Zhang Guilu, both seventeen years old, had received Lu Zhi's help and remained loyal to him. Lu Zhi explained his plan to the three of them: to kill Lu Yuanbao and divide the family fortune. The four of them swore a blood oath and became brothers.

Lu Zhi and Zhang Guilu first found Wang Fuzi and presented the dog skull of Jiao Gou'er that Wang Fuzi had buried in his yard. Wang Fuzi understood that he couldn't hide the truth and confessed to the events surrounding the murder of Jiao Gou'er.

Jiao Gou'er had stolen a pen from Wang Fuzi, which initially wasn't a big issue. When Wang Fuzi discovered it, he scolded Jiao Gou'er and demanded the pen back, resolving the matter. However, Jiao Gou'er wanted to give the pen to Xiaobaozi and asked Wang Fuzi to beat him as a condition for not pursuing the pen. Wang Fuzi didn't understand Jiao Gou'er's intentions and sarcastically remarked on Jiao Gou'er's desire to take advantage. This touched a sensitive nerve in the child who had grown up in the brothel, and Jiao Gou'er began to fight back. The two of them engaged in a scuffle, and Wang Fuzi used a ruler to hit Jiao Gou'er on the head. After some time, he realized that Jiao Gou'er had stopped moving and knew he had gone too far. There were marks from the ruler on Jiao Gou'er's neck. To clear himself of suspicion, Wang Fuzi decided to decapitate Jiao Gou'er and bury him in the yard.

This incident became the leverage that Lu Zhi could use against Wang Fuzi. Wang Fuzi was particularly concerned about his reputation, and he promised that he would do anything as long as Lu Zhi didn't expose the truth.

With the stolen list and a written marriage agreement, Lu Zhi had completely controlled Cheng Zhiyi's lifeline. He asked Cheng Zhiyi to increase the dosage of the medication for Lu Yuanbao. To prevent any suspicion, Cheng Zhiyi provided two prescriptions, one for Chen Wang and one for Lu Yuanbao. Each prescription alone had a curative effect. However, combining the two prescriptions would have an adverse effect.

When Lu Zhi forced Wang Fuzi, under threat, to write a farewell letter mimicking Lu Yuanbao's handwriting, Cheng Zhiyi handed the prescriptions to Lu Zhong. Lu Zhi, along with his four sworn brothers, stopped communicating with the outside world, waiting for the day when Lu Yuanbao would breathe his last.

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