"Yu Caixin?" Ming Shu asked, baffled. "What about her?"
"I'm quite curious about her reaction," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu still remembered that day. Lu Kun had gone berserk, slaughtering two children. Chaos had descended upon the Shu Han book cafe. Patrons and employees alike were scrambling to escape. Parents cowered, shielding their own children, and the security guards were late to arrive.
Several children whose parents weren't on the scene were in grave danger. If it weren't for Yu Caixin marching forward without fearing for her own safety, Ming Shu suspected far more than two lives would have been claimed. Her actions had bought him the critical time he'd needed to apprehend Lu Kun.
"Yu Caixin was extremely brave," Ming Shu said as he thought back on those events. "She was wearing a very professional dress suit and high heels at the time. It can't have been easy for her to move around freely. There were plenty of men in the book cafe that day, but they all fled.
"Lu Kun was in the lounge, and Yu Caixin had been sitting quite far from him. It would have been easy for her to get out of there. But she moved towards him while everyone else ran away. It was an impressive show of courage. But…"
Xiao Yu'an waited a few seconds before he asked, "But?"
After having spent a few minutes in the air-conditioned office, the fierce, dry heat that had consumed Ming Shu's body was finally starting to subside.
He pressed a hand to his forehead and calmly answered, "Let me think about it some more."
Xiao Yu'an poured him a cup of herbal tea and gave him time to think.
"Her actions, although brave, were dangerous. She didn't have a weapon, while Lu Kun had a knife. After killing two children, Lu Kun had already lost all sense of reason. Yu Caixin's gender and attire put her at a disadvantage as well. There was a high risk of her being harmed while standing in Lu Kun's way," Ming Shu said. He furrowed his brows, just a little. "The police were still on their way, and it was only coincidence that I was nearby. If I hadn't been there, if a highly-trained detective hadn't appeared, she would have been completely defenseless."
"That's right." Xiao Yu'an nodded. "I took note of her because she was unlike all the other civilians on the scene. She was the only one who dared to oppose Lu Kun."
"Doesn't that prove she has a kind, brave heart?" Ming Shu asked.
"Under normal circumstances, yes. That's exactly what it would prove. The vast majority of people, seeing this, would believe she charged in, heedless of her own safety, because it was the right thing to do," Xiao Yu'an said. He folded his hands, lacing his fingers together. "But sometimes, we have to assess the situation from an atypical standpoint. We have to look at the other side of things."
"The other side?" Ming Shu's brows furrowed even deeper. He got up and started to pace around the desk. "You suspect Yu Caixin had an ulterior motive for saving those children."
"No." Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "There's nothing questionable about her motive. If there are people like Lu Kun, who wish to hurt children, then there are also people who can't stand to see children harmed in any way. Yu Caixin is a woman, and there are a number of women who are born with maternal instincts that drive them to protect children.
"What I'm more interested in is where Yu Caixin found the courage to face Lu Kun. She had no advantages against Lu Kun. Even if she wanted to rush up and protect the children, everyone else around her had chosen to flee. Under those circumstances, what gave her the courage to march up to Lu Kun? Does she have some special background? Was she a soldier, perhaps? Has she trained in martial arts?"
Human behavior was influenced by many factors. Objective ones, subjective ones. When a person found themselves acting in the heat of the moment, they themselves may struggle to explain their actions after the fact.
Ming Shu's mind raced all over the place. He thought of the profile they had put together of the amusement park killer. He thought of the description the cobbler outside Chen Quanhan's apartment had given him. And he thought of Yu Caixin.
Suddenly, he came to a startling realization.
Yu Caixin was a near-perfect match for the killer's profile and the description provided by the cobbler!
"I've watched this surveillance footage three times," Xiao Yu'an said. "The first time, I got a strange feeling. The second time, I started to think Yu Caixin was 'too' brave. We naturally hope adults will do the right thing, but only within the limitations of their capabilities. Compared to the others in the cafe, Yu Caixin's actions were extreme.
"Again and again, I asked myself what could drive an ordinary person to act so fearlessly. Besides innate goodness, what could drive a person to put themselves at such immense risk for the sake of protecting others? When I watched the footage a third time, I realized."
"What?" Ming Shu asked.
"Death," Xiao Yu'an said. "Brushes with death can make a person extraordinarily fearless. It can make them strong even in the face of a cold-blooded murderer. This is especially true for people who had prevailed over death. People who have, in some way, conquered death."
"Yu Caixin 'conquered' death?" Ming Shu asked, sharply spinning around to face Xiao Yu'an.
"I've encountered many merciless killers in my time. Most of them have one thing in common," Xiao Yu'an said. He spoke slowly, unhurriedly. "Their eyes. In their eyes, they possess an immense, unreasonable sort of self-confidence. That confidence can make them appear, at times, extremely powerful and aggressive. As I watched the surveillance footage, I noticed that same confidence in Yu Caixin's eyes."
Ming Shu marched back up to Xiao Yu'an's desk and fixed his gaze on the computer monitor. He grabbed the mouse and started to scroll through the video with his brows furrowed into a deep vee.
He couldn't deny that Xiao Yu'an's theory provided a logical explanation to many things that had previously seemed irrational or inexplicable. But, in truth, Ming Shu didn't want to believe it. He didn't want to believe that the only person who'd stood up against the killer at that time… had a homicide case staining her own hands red.
"The vast majority of killers have impulsive natures," Xiao Yu'an said. "Those who commit crimes of passion are prime examples of that fact. Even the killers who are very careful and meticulous can at times succumb to impulsiveness. The killer in the Luo and Chen cases possesses an extremely abnormal psyche. She's extremely good at suppressing and hiding her impulsive nature, and she's very good at hiding her very existence as well. But that impulsiveness does exist within her.
"Returning our attention to the Lu Kun case, even the staff chose to flee at that time. Only you and Yu Caixin chose to directly confront Lu Kun."
"I'm a detective," Ming Shu said.
"Yes, you're a police detective. You had a responsibility, as well as the ability, to stand against Lu Kun. You have an extremely rational and objective awareness of your own capabilities," Xiao Yu'an continued. "But what about Yu Caixin? Her actions were undeniably impulsive. And there are the points we touched on earlier—she has an urge to protect children, and she's excessively brave. I couldn't not take note of her."
Ming Shu drained his cup of herbal tea and slammed the cup back down on the table, failing to consider his own strength in that moment. The cup hit the table with a crisp and alarmingly loud sound.
"Fuck!" Ming Shu quickly lifted it again, but fortunately it hadn't cracked.
"Let's make a supposition," Xiao Yu'an said. "Yu Caixin is the killer we're looking for. When she rushed in to confront Lu Kun, how did she feel, in her heart, about Lu Kun? How did she judge him and his actions?"
"She must have despised him," Ming Shu said. "A man who takes out his rage on defenseless children. She would definitely see that sort of man as weak, cowardly, useless. Not someone who deserves to be feared, so…"
"So she faced him, fearlessly." Xiao Yu'an turned back to the computer monitor once more. "Her behavior is logical, to her."
Ming Shu sat back down and drummed his fingers against the surface of the desk. After half a minute or so, he asked, "Ge, do you know what Yu Caixin does for a living?"
"She's an associate at a headhunting firm," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Right!" Ming Shu's voice was taut with tension. "Her occupation requires her to possess conversational skills that are far more advanced than those of an ordinary person!"
"In other words," Xiao Yu'an said, "her ability to 'coerce' others is strong. She can make people trust her, and to a certain extent she can make them do as she wishes."
Ming Shu whispered, "So Luo Xiangfu and Chen Quanhan listened to her and went to the old amusement park because…"
Xiao Yu'an gave Ming Shu a whack on the back of the hand. Not too hard, not too light. "As I mentioned during our last meeting, Luo Xiangfu's death occurred very soon after the Shu Han book cafe murders. The killer must have been surveilling Luo Xiangfu for a long time. She must have known Kang Yu was out of town, and she must have known that was the optimal time to attack Luo Xiangfu.
"But that doesn't eliminate the possibility that she was provoked or inspired by Lu Kun's crimes. Think about it. Wasn't Yu Caixin the bystander who had the most contact with Lu Kun? Furthermore, Yu Caixin gave a statement at the Bei District precinct. Her understanding of Lu Kun's case is second only to ours."
Ming Shu massaged his temples. "Ge, I just remembered something."
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"When I was at the Bei District precinct, I briefly spoke to Yu Caixin. At the time, I thought she seemed dispirited. But that felt like a normal reaction to me. The adrenaline of a dangerous situation had passed, leaving her shocked and scared in the aftermath," Ming Shu said. "But now there's a new possibility for us to consider. A different explanation. Perhaps she'd realized the consequences of her interference in Lu Kun's actions. Maybe she wasn't scared as a result of confronting Lu Kun. Maybe she was afraid of becoming entangled with the police."
The office was silent for a moment. Finally, Xiao Yu'an said, "Yu Caixin has had plastic surgery."
"Plastic surgery?" Ming Shu thought back and recalled that Yu Caixin had had a beautiful, dignified face. "You already looked into her?"
"Not exactly," Xiao Yu'an said. "But if you look at the bridge of her nose, her chin, and her eyes, you can see obvious traces of her operations."
"What does that prove?" Ming Shu asked.
"Your question is too broad," Xiao Yu'an said. "I can only tell you the conclusion my mind instinctively drew—she was dissatisfied with her original appearance."
"Strange," Ming Shu mused. "I only had a brief conversation with Yu Caixin, but she gave me the impression that she was a very confident woman. Generally speaking, women are more deeply affected by their looks than men. If Yu Caixin were dissatisfied with her looks, it's very likely she wouldn't be as confident."
After a few seconds, Ming Shu added, "But that doesn't rule out the possibility that she was putting on an act."
"Mm." Xiao Yu'an nodded in agreement. "It's worth investigating this angle. If she was dissatisfied with the way she looked, why? There are a few possibilities. One, she believes she's unattractive and has held this belief for a long time. She's preoccupied with her own appearance even when others do not call attention to it. This sort of belief is often developed at a very young age, and often appears in people who genuinely aren't conventionally attractive. Li Hongmei is one example.
"Two, an external force—another person—made Yu Caixin suddenly aware of her own lack of beauty. Psychologically speaking, everyone's perception of their own physical attractiveness is a reflection of judgments placed upon them by the world around them."
"So you think someone made Yu Caixin believe she wasn't attractive enough?" Ming Shu mused. He suddenly remembered their visit to Huayun Center, during which they had seen more than one person walking back and forth in front of the street photographers. Hoping to enter their lens, hoping to catch their attention, and ultimately failing.
"Let's look into Yu Caixin," Xiao Yu'an said. His tone made these words sound less like a suggestion, and more like a command. "Look into her recent activities and her background, with an emphasis on the past two years of her life. Find out exactly when she had plastic surgery. I suspect it wasn't too long ago that she had her surgery, or her features would have settled back into a more natural state by now.
"That's something we must dig into. She's an associate at a headhunting firm, and her speech and manner both indicate she's brimming with confidence. That confidence seems to stem from both her capabilities and her looks, which indicates she's been satisfied with her appearance for quite a while.
"If that's the case, where did her sudden dissatisfaction with her appearance come from? Was she influenced by something that happened in her life?"
"Ge," Ming Shu suddenly blurted out. "How do you know so much about women?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "It isn't that I know a lot about women. This is simply an important case that faces us. I have to deeply consider every possibility."
Of course, Ming Shu was still reluctant to paint Yu Caixin as a suspect.
For one to fight against injustice while at a serious disadvantage was a heroic, romantic act. He didn't want to destroy that image of Yu Caixin.
Could the woman who'd so bravely protected those children be the same person who'd committed two murders herself?
But Xiao Yu'an's analysis was perfectly logical. Romantic notions crumbled in the face of such startling, bone-chilling rationality.
As soon as the Serious Crimes Division was given a task, they moved quickly and efficiently. Within half a day, Ming Shu had a comprehensive report on Yu Caixin.
"Yu Caixin, thirty-two years old. Native of Yizi City, moved to Dongye City eight years ago. Started as a consultant at the headhunting firm Fei Chi, then struck out on her own four years ago and founded the headhunting firm Xin Xiang with a partner, Cao Xiang," Yi Fei recited. "Xin Xiang's offices are just across the street from Huayun Center."
Before continuing, Yi Fei placed several photos on the table in front of Ming Shu. "Director Xiao's assessment was correct. Yu Caixin has had plastic surgery, and it wasn't too long ago. Her first operation was last March. She had her nose done. And her most recent operation was March of this year. She had a microblading procedure done on her eyebrows."
The photos Yi Fei laid out had all been taken before Yu Xincai modified her face. Ming Shu examined them closely. After a while, he said, "She wasn't unattractive before she had plastic surgery. I think there isn't actually much of a difference."
Fang Yuanhang scooted over to take a look. "Holy shit, I thought people who got plastic surgery changed so much that their own mothers wouldn't even recognize them anymore!"
Ming Shu pushed his little rookie aside.
"I don't think she was unattractive either," Yi Fei said. He flipped through the photos some more as well. "Seriously, she wasn't ugly!"
"So why would someone who's not ugly get work done?" Fang Yuanhang asked, scratching his head in confusion. "And she's an executive at her company. If she got plastic surgery, even if she only got minor operations, wouldn't everyone at the office know it right away? Her employees would definitely gossip about her behind her back. That can't be good for her career advancement. Honestly, if Chief went out and got plastic surgery one day, I would definitely make fun of him, hahaha!"
Ming Shu flashed a cold, unamused smile. "Me? Plastic surgery?"
Fang Yuanhang hurriedly ran and hid behind Yi Fei. "Chief, you don't need plastic surgery! You're already super handsome! I'm the one who needs plastic surgery. Me! It's me!"
Ming Shu grabbed a box of chewing gum and chucked it at Fang Yuanhang's head.
Yi Fei laughed and remarked, "I feel like Fang Yuanhang has been learning how to use his brain these days."
Fang Yuanhang caught the box of gum and popped two pieces into his mouth.
"It is strange that Yu Caixin started frequenting beauty salons and having multiple plastic surgery operations all of a sudden," Yi Fei said. "Yuanhang's analysis was pretty reasonable."
"Her desire to become more beautiful outweighed all the potential downsides to adjusting her appearance," Ming Shu said. "She felt she had no choice but to have plastic surgery."
Yi Fei instantly realized that was a critical piece of information. "Where did such a strong desire come from?"
Ming Shu narrowed his eyes. Slowly, he said, "That's something we'll have to ask her."
Xi District. Starlight Clinic.
Every plastic surgery clinic had an obligation to protect its patients' privacy. But when the police came on official business, these clinics had no choice but to cooperate with their investigation.
"Yu Caixin has been a patient of ours since last year. She's had four minor operations, and she comes in for regular beauty treatments. I believe she's a VIP member at several other beauty salons as well." The vice chairwoman of the clinic, Wang Linxiang, seemed somewhat anxious as she spoke. "We just serve our patients. We really don't know much about their personal lives."
Ming Shu kept his demeanor calm and warm. He didn't pressure the other party at all. "We'll be looking into Yu Caixin's personal life through other channels. Today, we're just here to hear about your opinion on her plastic surgery operations."
Wang Linxiang gradually began to relax. "Of course. I'll tell you everything I know."
Ming Shu took out a photo of Yu Caixin from before her operations. "Dr. Wang, in your opinion, did Yu Caixin need plastic surgery?"
"That…" Wang Linxiang thought about it for a long while. "I think you may have a bias against plastic surgery. You may think only people who are extremely unattractive would choose to have plastic surgery. In reality, that isn't true. A woman may be dissatisfied with a certain aspect of her features. Even if she isn't unattractive, even if her friends all consider her beautiful, she may elect to undergo a procedure to make herself even more beautiful."
"Then allow me to ask a different question," Ming Shu amended. "When Yu Caixin came to your clinic for the first time, what did she ask for? How did she phrase her wishes?"
"She asked to have her nose done," Wang Linxiang said. After a beat, she added, "Oh, that's right. Her mood at the time seemed a little unstable, like…"
Ming Shu gave her some time, but seeing that she was unable to find the right words to continue, he prompted, "Like she was very nervous? She was desperate. She needed the surgery urgently."
"Right!" Wang Linxiang exclaimed. "Truthfully, a lot of the women who come to us are a little emotional when they arrive. But this was especially pronounced in Yu Caixin's case. She acted like she couldn't show her face in public without having the surgery done."
She couldn't be seen in public without the surgery?
Ming Shu pondered those words for a moment.
An extremely unattractive person, or a person who had been disfigured, might have felt that way. That wouldn't have been anything out of the ordinary.
But Yu Caixin shouldn't have been so desperate.
A person's words and actions directly reflected their state of mind. Last March, Yu Caixin had already been distressed. Back then, she had already been unstable.
"The bridge of her nose wasn't especially well-sculpted, but it wasn't bad either. After the surgery, she asked my assistants and I over and over again, 'Does my nose look better now? Am I still ugly?'" Wang Linxiang sighed. "To be perfectly frank, her features were quite good to begin with. She just wasn't outstandingly stunning.
"How do I put it… she's the type of woman who doesn't have any obvious flaws. If you saw her out and about, you might think she's a beauty. But in the lens of a camera, she might look somewhat mediocre. She just wasn't photogenic."
Ming Shu's gaze sharpened. "In the lens of a camera?"
"Right," Wang Linxiang confirmed. "There's just a certain aesthetic quality that people need to be a good subject for photography. Before coming to our clinic, Yu Caixin lacked that quality. She knew that, too. She brought in plenty of photos of other women, taken by street photographers, to show us the aesthetic she wanted to achieve.
"Her operations were all very successful. They were extremely minor surgeries, so they had little impact on her work and her everyday life. But with just those minor adjustments, she looked completely different in photographs. She became like a brilliant flash of light."
Gradually, the pieces of the puzzle started to come together.
Luo Xiangfu had gotten into street photography two years ago. For the past two years, he only photographed bright and beautiful women or average-looking women who had exceptionally cute children. Before her plastic surgery operations, Yu Caixin wouldn't have been chosen as his model.
The same was even more true when it came to Chen Quanhan.
And Yu Caixin had started getting plastic surgery a year ago.
She was single, with an extremely successful and impressive career. Before thirty, she'd never operated on her face. After thirty, she suddenly began to seek a high number of plastic surgery operations. It was very likely that something had triggered her desire to become 'more beautiful'.
Had Luo Xiangfu and Chen Quanhan ever 'rejected' Yu Caixin?
Did that 'rejection' cause Yu Caixin's self-confidence to collapse?
Perhaps she had been under a great deal of pressure before this 'rejection'. Perhaps this 'rejection' was the last straw.
Ming Shu rushed out to the offices of the Xin Xiang headhunting firm while Xiao Yu'an brought a photo of Yu Caixin, from before her operations, to Hui Chengxian.
"Sir," Xiao Yu'an prompted. "Do you have any recollection of having seen this woman?"
Hui Chengxian looked at the photo and nodded after a moment. "Yes. I've seen her here before."
'Here' just so happened to be Huayun Center.
"Have you ever asked her to model for you?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Hui Chengxian shook his head.
Warmly, Xiao Yu'an continued, "Is that because she wasn't photogenic?"
"She was quite ordinary, I suppose," Hui Chengxian said.
"But she left an impression on you," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Ah, that's because…" Hui Chengxian sighed. "I remember her because she walked in front of me several times one day. I got the feeling she really wanted me to take her picture."
"But you didn't take her picture," Xiao Yu'an guessed.
"Right, I didn't. But I regretted it." Hui Chengxian flashed a somewhat melancholy smile. "She was probably the sort of person who needed the approval of others to feel confident. I could have taken her photo with just the push of a button. It wouldn't have been any trouble for me at all, so in hindsight I feel like I should have just taken her picture."
"Allow me to ask you another question," Xiao Yu'an said. "You encountered Chen Quanhan at Huayun Center several times. Did you ever see this woman approach Chen Quanhan?"
Hui Chengxian seemed to detect something in that question. His eyebrows furrowed. "Are you saying… this woman has something to do with Old Chen's death?"
Xiao Yu'an didn't answer that question. Instead, he prompted, "You've seen them interact?"
"Back then…" A faint tremble entered Hui Chengxian's voice. "That time I saw her, Old Chen was with me."
"So that's to say, when she passed in front of you several times, she passed in front of Chen Quanhan as well?"
Xiao Yu'an studied Hui Chengxian for a moment before he suddenly said, "Sir, I believe there's something else you wish to say."
Hui Chengxian seemed extremely hesitant to continue. A long while later, he mumbled, "Old Chen has passed away. We mustn't speak ill of the dead."
"You're right, we mustn't speak ill of the dead," Xiao Yu'an echoed. "It's traditional to respect the deceased, but you should understand that the greatest respect we can pay Chen Quanhan is bringing his killer to justice."
After another long pause, Hui Chengxian finally sighed. "What I look for in a model isn't quite the same as what Old Chen looked for. He only ever took pictures of beautiful women who instantly caught the eye. I preferred taking pictures of more casual, laid-back people.
"This young woman… if Old Chen hadn't been there that day, I would have taken her picture. At the time, I was actually ready to ask her if I could photograph her, but Old Chen pulled me back. He told me she was unattractive, he told me there wasn't anything special about her at all. He urged me not to take her picture.
"Old Chen really wasn't saying very pleasant things. If I didn't leave quickly, I was afraid he would have said something even worse."
"This woman," Xiao Yu'an said. "She heard what he said?"
Hui Chengxian's eyes darkened. "She heard it all."