Dongye City. University of Foreign Languages.
The East 9 dormitory building had been cordoned off. Many girls, still wearing their pajamas, were clustered together in small groups outside the police tape. They all looked frightened; many were trembling, their hair disheveled and their faces either inordinately pale or inordinately red. A few were so terrified they had even started to cry.
East 9 was typically a raucous dormitory, so noisy that at times it seemed like hell on earth, but it was silent now. Three girls who were alive and well just last night had been discovered hanging out of their beds, their lifeless limbs dangling over the edges. The fresh blood that gushed forth from their carotid arteries had soaked their mattresses. It was splattered all over the yellowing walls and the ice-cold, checkered floor.
Room 509 was completely drenched in blood.
The blood had darkened to a black-red shade as it dried and hardened, like the screams that the girls hadn't been able to get out as their lives were bled away from them. Just looking at the grisly sight was enough to make most people shiver.
On the wall, several huge words had been painted in blood: They all deserve to die!
The handwriting was twisted, crooked, and ugly. Like a reflection of the writer's soul.
A trail of bloody footprints led from Room 509 to the main exit of the building. The footprints disappeared into the bushes outside, like an inexplicable natural phenomenon.
Three students had been brutally murdered in one night. This was undoubtedly a big, serious case. As soon as the Nan District precinct received the report, they called up the Criminal Investigation Bureau right away.
By nine in the morning, Xiao Yu'an had already personally led the Serious Crimes Division and Task Force One to the scene of the crime.
The trace evidence investigators were in the process of sweeping the hauntingly frightful dorm for any clues the perpetrator may have left behind. Ming Shu stood in the doorway of Room 509, studying the bloody writing on the wall with a grim, solemn expression.
Shu Yu had been the one who first discovered the bodies. Early in the morning, she had decided to head out to the community courtyard to get some exercise. As soon as she exited her own room, she saw that the door to Room 509 stood wide open. From inside, there was only an eerie silence and the overwhelming scent of blood.
She was already trembling as she approached, inching closer to have a look. Peeking inside, the first thing she saw was Jingjing's head, hanging over the side of her bed, with a gaping wound in her throat like an open, bloody mouth.
For a moment, Shu Yu's mind was utterly blank. She could only reel backwards in a daze, her feet mechanically carrying her through the door.
When she finally processed what had happened in Room 509, her whole body went limp and sent her crashing onto the floor with a hoarse scream.
By now, she had already been sent to the university's infirmary to be treated for shock.
The other girls from the dorm were also shocked to the core, unable to believe that this sort of thing that only happened in TV dramas and novels was happening to them now.
"It… it was definitely Li Hongmei! And that… and that woman, Chi Xiaomin!" Wang Jiao declared. Her hair was soaked by a cold sweat, and she seemed only capable of drawing huge, ragged breaths through her mouth. There was something strange, and almost bleakly comical, about her appearance.
But at a time like this, no one was able to laugh.
Ming Shu made his way over to her. He did his best to hold back the typical coldness in his expression as he asked, "Who is Li Hongmei? And who is Chi Xiaomin?"
As soon as he spoke those names, the demeanor of most of the girls around him shifted. Some of them cried even harder. Others drew up their shoulders defensively. And even more were overcome by anger.
"She's right! It was definitely Li Hongmei and Chi Xiaomin!"
"Li Hongmei is the worst! She gave her dorm key to some stranger, and she even used to be some kind of creepy preacher!"
"Jingjing and the others just said a few things about her, I can't believe she…"
"It's just too awful, I'm so glad she wasn't our roommate."
"The school has to take responsibility for letting this lunatic in, right?!"
"Just yesterday, the girls in 509 were saying they wanted to send Li Hongmei and that girl who had her key to the cops. It was Auntie Zhang who stopped them. If those two had been sent off to the police, then the girls in 509 would still be alive."
"I dunno about that. The local police aren't good at handling this sort of thing at all. At most, they would just give Li Hongmei a lecture and tell her not to bring outsiders into the dorm anymore. With a personality like hers, if Li Hongmei wanted to kill someone, she would kill them no matter what. Wen Jingjing and the others were just too unlucky. Especially Qin Manyue! Yesterday, she even spoke up to help Li Hongmei."
Ming Shu listened in for a while. He learned that this Li Hongmei everyone was talking about had been a resident of Room 509, and that Chi Xiaomin was an outsider who had been brought to the dorm by Li Hongmei. Last night, Li Hongmei had gotten into a dispute with her roommates over the matter of inviting Chi Xiaomin into their room. At ten in the evening, she left the dorm. By lights out, only the three victims remained in the dorm room.
The rooms in East 9 each housed four students. The identities of the three victims had already been confirmed—Wen Jingjing, a local, twenty-one years old; Qin Manyue, from Feng City, twenty-two years old; and Lian Qiao, from Xinfeng County, twenty-one years old.
Currently, the most important question was this: Where was Li Hongmei?
Had those bloody footprints, leading outside, been left by Li Hongmei?
By the time the trace detection unit finished their initial sweep of the dorm, Xiao Man had an unhealthy color in his cheeks.
"Captain Ming," he said, "we collected a total of seven sets of footprints from inside, including the bloody ones. Based on the footprints and other traces we've discovered, we can conclude there was only one killer. A woman. She didn't even wear gloves while committing the crime, and the murder weapon was a blade with a straight edge. Cause of death in all three victims was a severed carotid artery and trachea."
Ming Shu glanced over at the dorm room door. "The lock shows no signs of being opened through brute force. Either the killer had a key, or was admitted by one of the victims. Xing-ge?"
"Two of the victims died in their sleep without any signs of a struggle. The third shows signs of a minor struggle," Xing Mu reported. "The killer must have come in, using a key, while the victims were sleeping.
"The third victim most likely woke while the killer attacked the other two, but by then it was too late. The wound on the third victim's throat is the deepest and messiest, and it's likely she died a painful death.
"On all three victims, the knife wound was uneven. The killer wasn't in a calm state of mind."
In the supervisory room, Zhang Chunfang—nicknamed Auntie Zhang by the students—was already being questioned.
Based on the three victims' state of rigor mortis, it was possible to estimate the time of death to be around two in the morning earlier that day.
Although it was summer break, the dormitory was still vigilantly guarded. The main gates were closed at precisely midnight, and they weren't opened again until six in the morning. If the killer was indeed an outsider, Zhang Chunfang wouldn't be able to escape blame in this matter.
"I… I don't know anything." Zhang Chunfang sat on a wooden chair, too frightened to stand.
There was no air conditioning in the supervisory room. An old fan swiveled with a constant creaking sound. When the fan faced Zhang Chunfang directly, a strong gust of air blew into her face, smearing her tears into the folds of her sagging skin and wrinkles.
"What's going on with Li Hongmei?" Ming Shu asked. "The students say you were the one who stopped the victims from reporting Li Hongmei to the local police?"
"They got into an argument last night, because Li… Li Hongmei lent… lent her key to an outsider…" Zhang Chunfang stammered and stuttered her way through a retelling of all that had happened last night.
When she finished, she added, "I felt sorry for Li Hongmei. That's why I talked the other girls out of calling the police. But I had no idea something like this would happen… and the ones who decided to let Li Hongmei go in the end were Wen Jingjing and Qin Manyue, not me! Not me!"
Ming Shu had worked on too many homicide cases, and already he had a good idea of what had transpired between the four girls. "You said Li Hongmei left the dorm at ten last night. Did she come back after that?"
Zhang Chunfang, still crying, managed to nod.
"When?" Ming Shu asked.
"Around one. She… she rang the buzzer, and I… I was the one who opened the gate for her!" Zhang Chunfang slapped the table in front of her. Her dried tears were smeared across her face in a streaky web. "I didn't know she would do something like this! If I knew, I wouldn't have let her in even if my own life depended on it! She's been doing part-time work ever since her first year, so it was normal for her to come back late, in the middle of the night. I really didn't know…"
"Do you remember when she left again?" Ming Shu asked.
"It was already late when she got back. Once I let her in, I went back to my room and fell asleep," Zhang Chunfang sobbed. "The gate only prevents people from coming in, not going out. Anyone can open it from inside."
From the gate control button in the supervisory room, Xiao Man collected Li Hongmei's fingerprint.
Ming Shu stood up. As soon as he turned around, he saw Xiao Yu'an briskly making his way towards the supervisory room.
"Director Xiao," he called out, lifting a hand.
Xiao Yu'an had yet to put on a police outfit, still wearing a dress shirt and suit pants. His shirt was tucked in, giving him a strong and reliable look.
"Li Hongmei is our prime suspect, and it's very likely her mental state is unstable. She could be on the path to kill again. We need to find her as soon as possible." Xiao Yu'an lifted his wrist and checked his watch. "I'm turning the investigation over to Task Force One as of right now. You focus on finding Li Hongmei and Chi Xiaomin."
There were no surveillance cameras within the dormitory gates, but there were plenty of them in the public areas of the university campus. The tech investigation team was quick to load up the footage, which showed that, at 2:31 AM, Li Hongmei appeared near the closest dining hall to the East 9 dorm with a knife in her hand. Afterwards, she followed the main road through the eastern quarter and left the campus.
The last time she was caught on camera was outside the east gate of the University of Foreign Languages, where she was spotted heading into an inn called the Old Fellows Tavern.
At the inn, Yi Fei flashed his badge. The front desk was being manned by a middle-aged woman who had never seen so many police officers in one place. She swiftly turned off the soap opera she had been watching on her computer, anxiously getting up and leading the detectives into a room on the third floor.
To say the inn was shabby would have been an understatement. The walls were mottled with mold, and all the handrails were rusted and corroded. It seemed they had only branded themselves as a 'Tavern' to make themselves sound more modern and unique, but they were still the cheapest hotel in the vicinity, charging only fifty yuan per night for a room.
The receptionist unlocked the door with a trembling hand. "The person you're looking for is… is just inside. I'm just running a business here. I don't know anything about what she does."
Knowing they were only tracking down a college student, the detectives were reluctant to wield guns as they entered the room. But the tragic scene they had witnessed in Room 509 reminded them that, beyond that door, there could be a crazed, heartless murderer waiting for them.
The door opened inwards. It creaked on its rusted hinges, emitting an awful sound that made everyone's teeth go numb.
It was a sound effect that was commonly used in horror films.
Inside the room, there was only one narrow window for ventilation. The glass was coated by foggy stains that had accumulated over countless years. Barely any light filtered in from outside. The lights inside the room were switched off. Darkness and a musty, moldy scent surged out to envelop the detectives.
Ming Shu's gun just so happened to point directly at the forehead of a young woman, two meters away.
It was Li Hongmei.
She was sitting on a bed that was only padded with a thin straw mat. She wore a yellow t-shirt, capri jeans, and a pair of Crocs that looked old and cheap.
On her photo ID, Li Hongmei's eyes had been expressionless and almost lifeless. Her facial features were stiff and unflattering. In person, she was even uglier and more miserable-looking. Small eyes, a drooping nose, upturned nostrils, broad lips, a wide face, and a large forehead. Her cheeks and forehead were both pocked with acne, and her thinning hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.
People were visual creatures who instinctively felt a bias towards what they perceived to be beautiful. One could easily imagine that Li Hongmei had been bullied and ostracized ever since childhood for her looks. And the reason for her suffering continued to plague her all throughout her life.
When she saw the police, Li Hongmei didn't seem to be startled or scared. Her empty eyes traveled absently over each detective's face, before finally coming to rest on the gun pointed at her head.
Slowly, Ming Shu lowered his gun. Out of the corner of his eye, he caught a glimpse of some clothes laid out at the foot of the bed.
Those clothes were still stained by blood that couldn't be washed out.
Those were the clothes Li Hongmei had worn while committing her crime.
Yi Fei moved first. He strode up to the bed and collected the still-damp shirt and straight-cut jeans, sealing them inside a large evidence bag.
"Are you here to arrest me?" Li Hongmei asked. She only uttered that one short sentence, but her strange accent was evident.
She had a grating voice. Even speaking at a normal volume, her voice seemed harsh.
It instantly reminded Fang Yuanhang of the women in rural villages who screamed themselves hoarse, swearing at passersby in the street.
"Were you the one who killed the three residents of Room 509?" Ming Shu asked.
Li Hongmei didn't answer. Instead, she slowly bent from the waist and reached under the bed, feeling around for a short while before pulling out a worn, old cardboard box.
"Watch out!" Yi Fei barked.
Ming Shu didn't duck away. When he saw the contents of the cardboard box, his eyebrows furrowed deeply with a fierce frown.
There was a bloodstained knife inside!
"It was me," Li Hongmei said as she took out the knife. "Wen Jingjing and the others were all killed by me, because they all deserved to die!"
They all deserve to die.
That was the phrase that had been painted in blood on the walls of Room 509.
"Let me take another shower," Li Hongmei said. She stood up and crossed the room, lifting aside a wooden plank that served as a door. "After that, I'll go with you. I have bad body odor. Everyone finds it intolerable. You people will be the same."
Criminal Investigation Bureau. Serious Crimes Division.
An examination identified the blood on Li Hongmei's knife as that of the three victims, and the handle of the blade was littered with Li Hongmei's fingerprints. The footprints at the scene of the crime and the surveillance camera footage from nearby all pointed to Li Hongmei as the guilty party. Plus, she had given her confession as well.
In the case of these horrific dormitory murders, there was no doubt Li Hongmei was the perpetrator.
Ming Shu gazed at her from the other side of the one-way mirror in the interrogation room. A ball of rage was growing like a wildfire in his chest, blazing out of control.
Xiao Yu'an approached and gave him a light pat on the shoulder.
"You people only know I killed them, but do you know about how they've been killing me? I'm the one who was killed by them!" Li Hongmei declared. She was surprisingly calm while facing Yi Fei, Fang Yuanhang, and a female officer from Task Force One. "All of them were monsters. I've been tormented by them for three years. They wanted to ridicule me to death. Why is it that no one ever came to save me?"
"What did they do to you?" the female officer asked.
Li Hongmei pursed her lips and fell deep into thought for a long moment. In the end, she shook her head with a humorless laugh. "How could you people who have never experienced any suffering understand? How could you believe me? When you look at me, you're probably thinking—
"'This woman is making it all up, right? How could there be anyone as miserable as her? Those girls were college students. How could they have been as bad as this woman is saying?'"
"Whatever your reasons," the female officer said, "they aren't excuses to brutally murder your peers."
"Then the fact that I'm ugly, that I smell, that my family is poor, and that I have no parents—are these good enough excuses for them to torment me?" Li Hongmei shot back. She clasped her hands together, interlocking her ten fingers tightly. "You people who are born beautiful and superior treat the misfortune of others like something fantastical that could never happen in real life.
"You think you're so kind? Hah! Doubting the victims of such suffering, mocking their hardships, lecturing them from your high-and-mighty perch… you think that's kindness? It's not. It's not kindness, it's not acceptable. It's poison!"
The female officer's face was flushed with anger by now. "You…"
"Speechless?" Li Hongmei sneered. Her usually wooden, stilted speech had transformed with her fervor. When she got worked up, it seemed she could speak quite fluently.
She continued, "You're so beautiful. You must have been pursued by lots of people when you were a student, no? And now you're a police officer, surrounded by men. Not like us foreign language students, where everywhere we look it's just other girls.
"You have every luxury in life, and there's no privilege you don't enjoy. No matter what I tell you, you'll say it isn't an excuse for my crime. So let me ask you, what right do you have to ask me anything? Have you experienced everything I've experienced? You probably can't even imagine what I've been through."
The female officer stood up, turned to the door, and marched out of the room.
Yi Fei and Fang Yuanhang shared a look. They would need to suspend the interrogation and wait for another female officer to come in.
"Oh? You can't continue with just the two of you?" Li Hongmei challenged. "Why does there have to be a woman here to question me? Is that to shame and humiliate me?"
Fang Yuanhang couldn't understand her logic at all. "Those are the rules, miss."
"Then find a replacement who's as ugly as me," Li Hongmei demanded. When she brought up the word 'ugly', her tone grew so indifferent that it sounded almost mournful. "I don't want to talk to a beautiful woman."
Naturally, that was a difficult request.
There were, of course, some women in the Bureau whose appearances were rather plain. But there wasn't a single one who could be called ugly, especially not to the same extent as Li Hongmei.
Li Hongmei's facial features would be considered repulsive by anyone who laid eyes on her.
"You can't think of anyone?" Li Hongmei laughed. "Then, forget it. I won't talk anymore. Talking to you is pointless anyway, none of you can understand me…"
In another interrogation room on the same floor, Zhang Chunfang had calmed down enough to make a statement of everything she knew.
Li Hongmei wasn't a native of Dongye City. She had come to the university from a rural fishing village along the coast—Xia Ben Village. Both her parents were deceased, and she had no other close relatives.
Because she grew up in poverty, because she was ugly, and because she had a severe body odor condition that she had no money to seek treatment for, she had been targeted by everyone in her dorm and her classes ever since she entered the university.
Her peers had even given her a derogatory nickname: Saosao.
Not the sao from feng sao, a flattering compliment, but the sao from sao chou, meaning smelly. Stinky. Reeking of urine.
When the dorms had been assigned, Wen Jingjing requested that Li Hongmei be given her own room, with the reason that Li Hongmei simply smelled too bad.
But there were no extra dorm rooms available, and for another thing, Li Hongmei wouldn't have been able to afford the fee for a private room anyway.
Li Hongmei knew she was disliked by her peers. She rarely went back to her dorm room except to sleep, and when she wasn't in class, she was working off campus.
Wen Jingjing was a Dongye native, born to an upper-middle-class family. She had grown up with the privilege of never having to want for anything, and at first she had simply looked down on Li Hongmei. It was only when her name brand perfume disappeared from her room, without a trace, that she really turned against Li Hongmei and began to suspect she was a thief.
"It wasn't me," Li Hongmei had claimed, with an apprehensive look about her, when Wen Jingjing confronted her in their room. "I didn't take your perfume."
"Who else could it have been?" Wen Jingjing snapped. "You stink! I just bought the perfume and used it in front of you once, and you wanted it, didn't you? I've told you, your bromhidrosis is a condition, and you need actual medical treatment! You work all day, so why haven't you used that money to get rid of that foul smell? If you really can't save up enough, we'll crowdfund the rest for you!"
Wen Jingjing had an aggressive personality, and she had a tendency to be loud. With her lecturing Li Hongmei at the top of her lungs, it was no time at all before all the girls on the fifth floor of the building had come rushing over to check out the commotion.
Li Hongmei continued to try to explain herself, but she could only repeat the same few lines: "It wasn't me who took it. I didn't even know you had a bottle of perfume."
That only made Wen Jingjing's rage flare hotter.
"You're still arguing with me? Then you tell me, who took my perfume? There's only the four of us in this room. Don't tell me you're trying to blame it on Manyue or Qiaoqiao! They both have their own perfume, why the hell would they steal mine?"
Qin Manyue was widely acknowledged as the most beautiful goddess in the English department. She was tall, and she normally affected a cool, calm demeanor. Currently, she stood to the side, taking in the argument without saying a word.
Lian Qiao, on the other hand, wouldn't stand for such an implication. She immediately rushed to back Wen Jingjing up. "Me, stealing perfume? Li Hongmei, you're really too much! You can't seriously be trying to get me dirty with your filth."
In the end, even after their fight, the incident remained unresolved. Li Hongmei continued to insist that she didn't steal anything, but no one believed her. News of the alleged theft spread from the dorm throughout the university, and even a few guys had started calling Li Hongmei derogatory nicknames like 'Uggo' and 'Stinky' and 'Thief'.
By the next school term, Wen Jingjing had already rallied their whole class against Li Hongmei. From then on, Li Hongmei was completely ostracized.
The students in the English department practiced conversing with each other in English every day, but no one would partner up with Li Hongmei. When everyone in her class had paired off to practice together, Li Hongmei sat alone in a corner, mumbling vocabulary words to herself.
Scathing insults and sarcasm became commonplace in Li Hongmei's life. She had no choice but to grow accustomed to such treatment.
In their second year, Wei Jingjing's torment intensified. She found some guy, not even a student at their school, and brought him into the dorm to harass Li Hongmei. She sent the man into the bathroom while Li Hongmei was showering. When he forced open the door, waiting spectators were already pointing cameras and cell phones at Li Hongmei.
Li Hongmei struggled and fought, but to no avail. The man ensnared her and held her in a vice-like grip, all without uttering a single word. She cried and screamed as she tried to pull herself free, but there was nothing she could do to stop the sounds of cameras clicking all around her.
But the nude photographs were never circulated outside the school. Wen Jingjing wasn't that brave.
After that, Wen Jingjing, Lian Qiao, and Qin Manyue grew even more bold and confident in their harassment. They could tell Li Hongmei had no way of fighting back, and everyone in their class was on their side.
Li Hongmei continued to be harassed, over and over again. Countless times, she found bloody sanitary napkins inside her lunchboxes or water bottles.
"Nobody at the school did anything to stop this?" asked one of the detectives once Zhang Chunfang finished relaying the details.
"Do? What could we do?" Zhang Chunfang said. "Li Hongmei was the most unfortunate student in the English department. The ones who bullied her were mostly children of politicians or important businessmen, and the large majority were locals. Li Hongmei was all by herself, seeking an education far away from home… she couldn't afford to do anything to provoke those bullies."
Zhang Chunfang sighed. "In her first and second year, Li Hongmei did seek help from a faculty member, but no one cared. The student council turned a blind eye to it all, too. Wen Jingjing herself was the vice-chairwoman of the student council, after all.
"In her third year, Li Hongmei seemed to understand her position. She didn't make any more reports. She just tried to stay away from her classmates as much as possible. She made friends outside the school, but she didn't make the right friends. Last year, she met a missionary. When they came back to the dorm together for a drink of water, Li Hongmei was scolded harshly by Wen Jingjing and the others.
"I pitied her, and I tried to give her advice before. I told her to just bear it until graduation, and she said she understood. I'm just a dorm supervisor. There was nothing else I could do to help her. All I could do… all I could do for her was open the gates when she came back late from work!"
A handful of Li Hongmei's peers stepped forward to confirm everything Zhang Chunfang had said, but the vast majority remained completely silent on the matter.
The university was frantically scrambling to do damage control and prevent their school's public image from being blown to pieces. Li Hongmei's faculty advisor staunchly denied that Li Hongmei had suffered such humiliation for three whole years.
On Wen Jingjing's laptop, Xiao Man discovered the nude photographs that had been forcibly taken of Li Hongmei while she was in the shower.
There was irrefutable proof of the bullying Li Hongmei had suffered.
Li Hongmei remained calm and unrepentant, like this crime of hers was no big deal at all. Shaking her head with a bitter smile, she said, "I really should have killed them a long time ago. I was too nice to them. I gave them a merciful end, letting them die in their sleep. They were so much crueler. They hurt me again and again for three years. I suffered so much more than them…"
By the time the long interrogations ended, night had fallen. Ming Shu poured himself a cup of herbal tea, rubbed at his tired and swollen eyes, and grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.
Li Hongmei had confessed, but it was too soon to call the case closed.
Where was the woman called Chi Xiaomin?