The twists and turns of a probe into a fatal stabbing in Hubei have Internet users hooked.
For lawyers Xia Lin and Xia Nan, their 20-hour train journey from Hubei province to Beijing last week was both a relief and a frustration. "At least we get to have dinner with our colleagues," Xia Nan said in transit. "Sadly, it won't be a celebration dinner."
The pair was on their way back to their Huayi Law Firm from the city of Enshi, where they had planned to defend Deng Yujiao, the young hotel worker who stabbed an official to death on May 10.
In this file photo, Zhang Shumei , the mother of Deng Yujiao, who fatally stabbed an official in Badong county, Hubei province, holds a picture of her daughter. [China Daily]
Dubbed "heroes" by the hundreds of thousands of Chinese netizens paying close attention to the high-profile case, Xia Lin had been keeping an Internet blog to update the net-savvy public on every new development.
But their involvement came to an abrupt end on May 23, when they were sacked and excluded from proceedings by the suspect's mother, Zhang Shumei.
It was another twist in this intriguing case, which started when Deng Yujiao, 21, killed Deng Guida (no relation) and injured Huang Dezhi, both township officials, with a fruit knife at the Xiongfeng Hotel's leisure center in Yesanguan, a township in Badong county.
A third official, Deng Zhongjia, 45, the vice-director of the office of business delegations for Yesanguan, was also present during the fatal stabbing. He was cleared of any involvement by the police, but was later fired from his job.
A report from the Enshi public security bureau this week said Deng Yujiao had refused to have a bath with the men, who then pushed, shoved and verbally insulted her, and said the stabbings were an act of self-defense with "excessive force".
The woman surrendered to police and was initially detained on suspicion of "voluntary manslaughter". She was then admitted for psychiatric observation at Youfu Hospital in Enshi after investigators found "anti-insomia" medication in her bag at the scene, the public security bureau said.
Xia Lin and Xia Nan, who are not related, became involved in the case on May 21, when they visited Deng in detention and met her mother, Zhang.
Two days later their contract was terminated.
As well as the lawyers, Badong has also attracted dozens of Internet users determined to uncover the truth, with some even trying to launch a netizen investigation team, such as the one set up in February this year to probe the death of Li Qiaoming, who was beaten to death in detention in Yunnan province during a game of "hide and seek".
Blogs and online forums have been overwhelmed with comments calling for justice. But some netizens have gone beyond that.
After seeing footage of Deng Yujiao strapped to a bed, screaming "Dad, they beat me" on Enshi Prefecture TV, Wu Gan, a Wuhan blogger on Sina.com, visited Youfu Hospital and gained access to Deng after telling staff he was there to find out if the girl had been tortured.
After meeting her, he published a photograph of Deng online on May 19 sitting in bed, her wrists unbound, looking calm and composed.
Xia Lin and Xia Nan prepared a bill of indictment against Huang, 41, another vice-director at the office of business delegates, who was sacked and stripped of the Communist Party of China membership, accusing him of sexually assaulting Deng.
But when they went to submit it to Badong county police on May 25, accompanied by camera-carrying journalists and netizens, they claim officers avoided them before it was finally accepted.
It was just one many things during the case that seemed to upset Internet users.
On May 23, the government announced the mother had sacked Xia Lin and Xia Nan because they had "denied the obvious" and "claimed Deng was raped".
At 9 am, Zhang vigorously denied the claim. But at 4 pm she issued a statement that read "almost word for word" with the government's, said Xia Lin, adding that he has been unable to contact her since.