Whether or not Zhan Huanxiong killed Luo Xiangfu was a question that was still up in the air. There was no conclusive evidence to prove him guilty or innocent of the crime. Zhan Huanxiong had ample motive, and he had the means as well. He'd even confessed to being present at the scene of the crime.
And yet he continued to insist he was only a witness to Luo Xiangfu's murder.
In a case with insufficient evidence, the suspect's confession was extremely important. As long as Zhan Huanxiong didn't confess to the murder, the Serious Crimes Division had to keep investigating. Even if Zhan Huanxiong did confess, there was always a chance he would retract his confession in court.
So to every member of the Serious Crimes Division, this case remained a tough uphill battle.
For now, Zhan Huanxiong continued to be detained at the Bureau.
Normally, after a certain amount of time had passed, the police would have had no choice but to release their suspect. But Zhan Huanxiong was under suspicion of illegally entering Dongye City as well. His 'for now' could stretch on almost indefinitely.
After the long and tense interrogation, Ming Shu slipped into an empty conference room and sat by himself for a while. It may have looked like he was spacing out, but in truth he was carefully replaying Zhan Huanxiong's every word and expression in his mind.
Fang Yuanhang was convinced that Zhan Huanxiong's story was all made up, and that the person in the raincoat was none other than Zhan Huanxiong himself.
Ming Shu felt the same way.
Was such a coincidence really possible? Could Zhan Huanxiong really have stumbled upon a crime committed by someone else, when he had personally targeted the same victim? It seemed preposterous.
But in a criminal investigation, whether or not a coincidence was likely to occur wasn't something that could be used to prove a suspect's guilt.
Ming Shu leaned back in his chair and closed his eyes. His brows were tightly furrowed. The light in the room seeped in through his eyelids, causing him to see spots of red floating through the dark.
Before long, those red spots flickered as though someone had drawn near. Then something blocked out the light altogether.
Ming Shu instantly opened his eyes.
"Why are you sitting here all by yourself?" Xiao Yu'an asked. He was carrying a police jacket in his hands.
It was only then that Ming Shu realized Xiao Yu'an had blocked the light earlier while trying to put a coat on him.
"Director Xiao." Ming Shu glanced at the door, which wasn't totally shut.
They'd arrested Zhan Huanxiong late at night. After a long interrogation, it was now already two in the morning. A time when most people, even night owls, tended to get sleepy.
At the Criminal Investigation Bureau, many people worked graveyard shifts. Even so, at this time of night, the halls were much quieter than they were during the day.
Ming Shu scrubbed his hands over his face, then sat up straight. "I was thinking about Zhan Huanxiong."
Xiao Yu'an pulled over a chair and sat with him. "Good. Let's analyze the details together."
Ming Shu stared at Xiao Yu'an, as though lost in thought. For a long moment, he didn't say anything.
"What is it?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu quickly looked away. "…it's nothing."
He hadn't seen much of Xiao Yu'an in a while, and when they did meet up it was only ever to talk about work. Ming Shu had spent the past few days in She Tu Village with Yi Fei and Xu Chun, which meant leading the Serious Crimes Division fell to Xiao Yu'an.
Ming Shu and Xiao Yu'an had both been kept busy. Too busy to contact each other often. Upon returning to Dongye City, Ming Shu had thrown himself into tracking down Zhan Huanxiong. This was the first time in a long time that he found himself alone with Xiao Yu'an.
Xiao Yu'an let out a low laugh. He'd understood, right away, what Ming Shu was thinking and feeling. He understood perfectly.
Ming Shu cleared his throat and affected an air of professionalism. "Let's talk about the case."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "What do you think of Zhan Huanxiong's statement?"
"Zhan Huanxiong is definitely our main suspect right now. All we lack is the key evidence to prove his guilt," Ming Shu said. "He came to Dongye City to kill Luo Xiangfu, but wound up witnessing Luo Xiangfu's murder at the hands of another. That's just too much of a coincidence."
"It is a big coincidence," Xiao Yu'an agreed. "So you believe Zhan Huanxiong is the killer?"
"I…" Ming Shu hesitated. He rubbed the heel of his right palm against his eye, hard.
"You won't make that call so easily," Xiao Yu'an said. "You're more mature than your young apprentice."
Ming Shu lifted his head and met Xiao Yu'an's warm, caring gaze.
"My reason for coming to see you was actually to remind you not to judge too quickly even if Zhan Huanxiong seems like a good fit for the role of our killer," Xiao Yu'an said. "As soon as you make that decision in your heart and take Zhan Huanxiong as the killer, your field of vision will narrow. You'll be distracted, even if you search for this supposed killer in a raincoat.
"If Zhan Huanxiong is the killer, that isn't a problem. But if he isn't, we'll be giving the real killer a chance to breathe. To escape. Or to kill again. We once believed Luo Xiangfu's murderer could be a serial killer. If we allow ourselves to get fixated on Zhan Huanxiong, the real killer could strike again."
The faint traces of drowsiness that had crept over Ming Shu were all gone now. Small red veins were present in his eyes, but those eyes were clear and focused. "I understand. We can look into Zhan Huanxiong, but we can't let go of any other theories or leads."
"Right." Xiao Yu'an nodded his approval. "While you interrogated Zhan Huanxiong, I was watching the recording next door. He truly is a very suspicious character, but his story does make sense. His purported actions fall in line with his way of thinking."
Ming Shu had also felt that way during the interrogation. But he had been too close, too focused on Zhan Huanxiong. He hadn't been able to see things as clearly as Xiao Yu'an.
"Director Xiao, I want to hear your thoughts on the matter."
"There are a few things that caught my attention. First, Zhan Huanxiong didn't report the crime to the police," Xiao Yu'an said. "Most people who witness a murder would report it right away. Even those who don't report it to the police would tell their family and friends. But Zhan Huanxiong didn't tell anyone about the murder of Luo Xiangfu.
"That could very well be because he doesn't have anyone he trusts in Dongye City. And with his falsified identification papers, it makes sense for him to not want anything to do with the police. If he reported the crime, the police could have realized he was in the city illegally and sent him back.
"Furthermore, he was born in She Tu Village and spent many years of his life fighting in wars across the border. It might not have occurred to him to report such a thing to the police at all."
Ming Shu propped up his chin on one hand. "Zhan Huanxiong did intend to kill Luo Xiangfu, and he had even stalked him. If he reported the murder to the police, he would have exposed himself."
Xiao Yu'an nodded before he continued, "Second, Zhan Huanxiong described exactly how Luo Xiangfu was killed. He said the killer took photographs of Luo Xiangfu before assaulting him with a long, thin stick."
Ming Shu's pupils shone with intense focus. "Xing Mu determined the murder weapon to be a long, three-sided weapon that measured 1.3 centimters on one side. That's in keeping with what Zhan Huanxiong said about seeing a long, thin stick."
"There are only two possibilities now. One, Zhan Huanxiong is the killer. Two, Zhan Huanxiong witnessed the murder," Xiao Yu'an explained patiently. "Let's think about this through the process of elimination. If Zhan Huanxiong killed Luo Xiangfu, he could have snapped Luo Xiangfu's neck rather than beating him repeatedly with a flimsy stick. Correct?"
Ming Shu nodded and hummed his agreement.
"Okay. Then let's set that detail aside for now. Still assuming Zhan Huanxiong is the killer, would he have taken photos of Luo Xiangfu before killing him?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu raised his hand. "Wait, Zhan Huanxiong is the one who brought up the pictures. We have no way of proving whether or not the killer actually took photos of Luo Xiangfu before his death."
"It's possible," Xiao Yu'an said.
"How do you figure?" Ming Shu asked.
"There were copious amounts of sweat and saliva staining the front of Luo Xiangfu's t-shirt," Xiao Yu'an said. "The sweat is easy to explain. It's hot during the summer, and people sweat from the chest and abdomen. But what could cause that much saliva to gather at the front of his shirt?"
Ming Shu had already leapt to his feet and paced over to the open window. After a moment, he spun around and exclaimed, "The killer lifted up Luo Xiangfu's shirt to cover his face! They took photos of his exposed body! Luo Xiangfu, terrified, started to sweat. He must have sweat from his face, too. And in his terror, he bit his shirt!"
"Then that falls in line with Zhan Huanxiong's testimony," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Let me think about it some more," Ming Shu said.
They could only be sure of the description of the murder weapon. There was still no way to definitively prove whether or not Luo Xiangfu had had his picture taken before his death.
Zhan Huanxiong's description of the killer taking photographs could have been a complete fabrication. Or it could have been something he personally witnessed. Or he could have been the one who'd taken the photos.
Ming Shu ruled out the third option for now. He considered the first two. If Zhan Huanxiong was making up a story, why make up a story about the killer taking pictures of Luo Xiangfu? Why not include some other detail?
The second option was the most likely one!
"You've thought it through?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu was visibly excited. "Yes!"
"Okay. Then I'll tell you the third thing that caught my attention," Xiao Yu'an said. "If Zhan Huanxiong is the killer, then the way in which he disposed of the body was too careless."
Ming Shu could still remember when he'd first arrived on the scene. He had also thought it was odd for the body to be buried under just a few centimeters of dirt and gravel.
There were better places to hide a body in that old amusement park. If a killer truly wanted to conceal their crime, it would have been no easy matter for the police to find a body there. But Luo Xiangfu's killer had only buried him in a shallow grave; the body would have inevitably been discovered in a week or two.
It was like this killer was playing a game with the police.
"Zhan Huanxiong wouldn't play games with us," Ming Shu said. "If he'd killed Luo Xiangfu and disposed of the body in a place he thought was secure, how could it have been so easily discovered?"
"And it seems to me he really does want to stay in Dongye City," Xiao Yu'an said. "If that's the case, it would have been even more important for him to dispose of the body well. We haven't made this case public, but many people in Xi District have heard about the body at the amusement park.
"Zhan Huanxiong works at a popular bar in Xi District, so he must hear a lot of local chatter. He must have known Luo Xiangfu's body had already been found. Would he, if he were the killer, dare to stay in Dongye City under those circumstances?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "Even if he likes it here, he would have fled for the time being."
Xiao Yu'an folded his hands together. "So I believe this improbable coincidence is in fact quite possible. Zhan Huanxiong came to Dongye City seeking revenge, but happened to witness someone else's crime."
Ming Shu stuck his hands into the pockets of his uniform pants one second, then took them out the next. He looked both perplexed and excited. These conflicting emotions were plainly visible on his face. A bead of sweat formed just below his hairline.
"If Zhan Huanxiong isn't the killer, we've wasted our time pursuing him," he said. "We're back where we started in this case. I…"
"It wasn't a waste," Xiao Yu'an said. He stood up and approached Ming Shu. "We have a key eyewitness now. One we wouldn't have discovered if not for your trip to She Tu Village."
Ming Shu took a deep breath. A power, an energy unique to experienced police detectives surged through him.
"Zhan Huanxiong has confirmed one of our earlier theories for us," Xiao Yu'an continued. "The killer didn't just take pictures of Luo Xiangfu. The killer lifted up his shirt and took pictures of his exposed body. This essentially confirms that Luo Xiangfu's activities as a street photographer led to his death."
Fang Yuanhang hadn't participated in their discussion. He still firmly believed Zhan Huanxiong was the killer.
He rushed out to Black Thorns to question Xian Zi. After staring dumbly at Fang Yuanhong for a while, Xian Zi answered, "Xiong-ge really did call me that day. He wanted to switch shifts again, but I was already getting ready to go to work. Of course I didn't want to switch back. It would have been such a hassle."
Yi Fei hummed when Fang Yuanhang reported his findings back at the Bureau. "So whether or not Zhan Huanxiong worked that night, whether or not he had the opportunity to go to the old amusement park… that was all dependent on Xian Zi."
"Hey, hey, hey! Don't jump to any conclusions!" Fang Yuanhang protested fiercely. "Zhan Huanxiong might have known Xian Zi wouldn't want to trade shifts again. Maybe that was why he called Xian Zi, so Xian Zi could vouch for him.
"Just think about it. Imagine I have a day off today, and Captain Ming has a day off tomorrow. Now imagine Captain Ming calls me and asks me to switch with him, so I get ready to go to work today. I push all my plans for today to tomorrow. Then, when I'm just about to head out the door and head to work, Captain Ming calls me again and tells me to switch back with him.
"Doesn't that mean all my plans are messed up now? Of course I wouldn't want to switch back. No one would want to switch back. This is psychological manipulation! Zhan Huanxiong knew Xian Zi wouldn't agree to give him his shift back, which would leave him free to commit the crime!"
Ming Shu smiled and tsked, shaking his head.
"Chief, what's with that smile?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Am I wrong?"
"No, you're right," Ming Shu said. "You're challenging an assumption and using examples to back up your logic. That's worthy of praise."
Fang Yuanhang's eyes lit up. "Then…"
"But this time," Ming Shu added, "Zhan Huanxiong truly might not be the killer."
Zhan Huanxiong was brought into the interrogation room once more. Wen Li sat across from him, tense and alert.
In the hours since his last interrogation, Zhan Huanxiong had calmed down. He eyed Ming Shu warily and asked, "What do you want to ask me now?"
"You said you saw the killer," Ming Shu said. "They were wearing a raincoat, with the hood up. Did they have any other distinguishing features?"
Zhan Huanxiong fell silent for a long moment.
Wen Li was starting to think he hadn't understood the question. Just as she got ready to translate for him, Ming Shu lifted a hand and stopped her.
Ming Shu was good at reading people. He could tell that Zhan Huanxiong had understood. The man was simply taking his time to think.
As for what he was thinking about…
Suddenly, a huge grin broke out across Zhan Huanxiong's face. "You people want me to help you find the killer?"
Ming Shu answered with a cold smile of his own. "You want to make a deal with me?"
"Yes!" Zhan Huanxiong was clearly getting excited. He spoke Mandarin with plenty of his local dialect mixed in.
Wen Li started to translate: "He said he can help you, but once you catch the killer, you can't send him back to She Tu Village. He wants you to let him continue living in Dongye City."
"You think you're in any position to make demands?" Ming Shu crossed his arms and swept his gaze over Zhan Huanxiong. His eyes were cold and dismissive.
Although he and Xiao Yu'an had grown up together, in the same environment, their temperaments couldn't have been more different. Xiao Yu'an was kind and dignified, while Ming Shu had a temper. Ming Shu usually did a good job of hiding that temper of his, but sometimes it would burst out in front of criminals or suspects.
Zhan Huanxiong clearly hadn't expected the delicate, refined detective standing before him to look at with such arrogance and disdain. He was startled enough to stumble over his words. Instinctively, he tried to reassure himself that this cop was only putting on a brave front.
But he still remembered that it was this same delicate-looking cop who had chased him down last night.
This detective was a fearsome foe.
Zhan Huanxiong swallowed thickly, shrinking back in his seat. "What are you planning?"
"Listen well," Ming Shu said. "Your actions in She Tu Village are out of my jurisdiction, but there are those who can bring you to justice for your unlawful acts. Have you heard of the special operations team of the Ministry of Public Security?"
Zhan Huanxiong instantly broke out in a cold sweat.
"You're in my jurisdiction now," Ming Shu continued. "You have no right to set your own terms. If I ask you a question, you answer. Do you understand?"
Wen Li had never heard Ming Shu speak like that before. Even she was starting to feel nervous.
Zhan Huanxiong's mouth hung open for a long moment before he finally said, "I… I'll cooperate."
Ming Shu leaned back in his chair. "Tell me everything you remember about the killer."
According to Zhan Huanxiong, the killer was between 1.62 and 1.65 meters in height. Because the killer had worn a baggy raincoat with the hood up, it had been impossible to make out their face or determine their gender. The raincoat had been especially loose around the chest, revealing nothing about the figure beneath. But the coat had been tight around the shoulders.
The killer's shoulders were relatively thin, which once more pointed towards a female suspect.
"That's in keeping with our earlier theory," Yi Fei said as he passed out boxed meals to everyone. When he got to himself, there was only one box left.
In the Serious Crimes Division, everyone from the captain to the vice captain to the rookies had astonishing appetites. They could eat their fill at the Bureau's cafeteria, but when they ordered takeout, one serving per person was nowhere near enough.
Ming Shu, wanting to spoil everyone a little, had ordered boxed meals from a local braised pork restaurant. But they must have gotten the wrong number of servings; they were one box short.
Yi Fei didn't say anything, but Ming Shu took one look at him and passed over his own second serving.
"You can have it," Yi Fei said, "One serving is enough for me."
"'Enough' my ass. Who's the one who lost our last test of skills because he was too hungry?" Ming Shu countered with a commanding air about him. "Stop dithering. Just take it."
Yi Fei grinned. "What about you? One box isn't enough for you either, is it?"
"I'll worry about that when I get hungry," Ming Shu said. He returned to his seat and ate while listening to the rest of his team discuss the case.
"I don't think we can rely too heavily on our first impressions," Fang Yuanhang said. "If we decide the killer is a woman, then what if—and I'm just saying what if—the killer is a man? That would cause a lot of trouble for us. We can't completely rule out all male suspects, right? There are men under 1.65 meters in height. There are skinny men."
"But the bone structure would be different," Xing Mu said. "The shoulders on a man, even a very thin man, are wider than the shoulders on a woman."
"Well, just look at Zhou Yuan. He's really thin," Fang Yuanhang said. "If you look at them from behind, even the pretty lady from the Special Police Force is broader than him. And we can't trust everything Zhan Huanxiong says, anyway. His description could be biased."
Ming Shu smiled. "You have a point."
Fang Yuanhang beamed, obviously excited. "Chief, you're the best!"
"We've been getting more and more information lately. It's good to continue thinking critically and questioning everything," Ming Shu said. But then he continued, "Zhan Huanxiong said the murderer stood above Luo Xiangfu with their legs parted, one foot on either side of Luo Xiangfu's waist. I asked Little Yun and Zhou Yuan to demonstrate that same pose in front of Zhan Huanxiong, and Zhan Huanxiong said Little Yun's posture was a better match for the killer he saw."
Little Yun was a tall and beautiful member of the Special Police Force.
Fang Yuanhang hesitated, a wave of doubt washing over his face. "That…"
"There are many differences between the male and female form," Ming Shu said. "Some of those differences arise from daily habits, physical strength, and body type. Some of those differences are due to bone structure. They're all small differences, but sometimes they're enough to influence important judgments."
After wolfing down their meals, everyone got back to work. Early in the evening, around the time most people with ordinary office jobs would pack up and go home, Xiao Yu'an suddenly paid a visit to the Serious Crimes Division.
Ming Shu, thinking they were about to be called into another meeting, hurriedly said, "Director Xiao, just give me a minute. I'm…"
Xiao Yu'an walked up to him and kept his voice very low. He whispered, "It's not a meeting. Don't work overtime tonight. I'll take you somewhere."
"Huh?" Ming Shu blinked, surprised.
No overtime? They just made some real progress in their case, and now he was being told not to work overtime?
He'd already decided to sleep at the Bureau that night.
"Where are we going?" Ming Shu asked.
To which Xiao Yu'an replied: "On a date."