The water level of the pond was still rising, and the overflow continued to spill towards the parking garage. But no one was thinking about piling sandbags around the pond anymore.
The employees who'd first discovered the body had all been rendered speechless by fear and shock. Liu Jia had reeled backwards and collapsed on the ground, supported now by two male colleagues.
The worst of the storm had passed. The downpour started to lighten.
But rainwater continued to drizzle over that muddy pit. Soon enough, the exposed leg was once again submerged in a murky pool of water.
Someone called the police, and several squad cars arrived in short order.
Most of the employees on the scene were traumatized and scared out of their wits. The logistics department forgot to arrange a bus to send people home, and the people who had driven to work forgot all about picking up their cars and driving away. Everyone retreated to an awning to take shelter from the rain. From afar, they gazed at that muddy pit and began to gossip.
"How can there be a dead person here? A body, buried in a place like this, is just too scary!"
"That's right! I take walks by the pond all the time!"
"Was it buried a long time ago? Who could it be? A construction worker? I hear accidents happen on construction sites all the time."
"The people from the marketing department got a good look. They said the leg hadn't decomposed yet. Our building was completed half a year ago. It can't be a construction worker!"
"Oh my god, does that mean it's someone who works here? Which department? Has someone gone missing?"
Han Mingming's heart was suddenly filled by a grave sense of foreboding. She called Sha Chun one more time, but Sha Chun's phone was still off.
Earlier, Han Mingming had also joined in on the efforts to move sandbags to the pond. She had been drenched by the rain, and now she was a miserable sight.
Behind her, all members of the traditional instruments department had gone silent.
Their department was typically loud and boisterous. It was rare for them to all fall silent at once.
"Do you… do you think that person could… could be…" Yang Yan was the first to speak, but her voice remained a low, trembling whisper. She reached out and tugged lightly on Ran He's sleeve.
Ran He gave her stern look and harshly answered, "No one knows. Don't talk about that nonsense right now. The police will be here soon."
"But Sha Chun didn't come to work today, and Director Han couldn't get through to her phone," Yang Yan said. "That's too much of a coincidence, right?"
Ran He gazed out from under the awning. Police cars were already parked nearby; their flashing red and blue lights were almost blinding to the eye. The area around the pond was cordoned off, and the employees huddled nearby were separated from the crime scene by bright strips of police tape. Several officers rushed towards the pit, carrying large toolboxes.
"We'll know once they dig it up," Ran He said, turning back to Yang Yan.
"They won't make us identify the body once they dig it up, will they?" Yang Yan asked, terrified. "I don't want to look at it!"
"Shh!" Ran He suddenly pinched Yang Yan. "Come here. Listen to me."
Yang Yan rubbed the spot where she had been pinched. "What?"
"If… if that person really is Sha Chun, we might be in trouble."
Yang Yan blinked, uncomprehendingly. "What? Why? What does it have to do with us?"
Ran He looked back at the others, who were all whispering to one another. To Yang Yan, he whispered, "We bullied Sha Chun."
Yang Yan's eyes widened. "You're wrong! I didn't do anything of the sort. You were the one who always complained about Sha Chun!"
"Are you saying you weren't complicit?" Ran He grit his teeth. "Alright, just listen to me. If it isn't Sha Chun, everything will be fine. But if it is, the police are definitely going to question everyone in our department. They'll put us each in a room, separated, so we don't get a chance to talk to one another. Someone will definitely say I was on bad terms with Sha Chun, and you won't be able to escape either. They'll connect you to us too."
Yang Yan blanched. "I… but I didn't kill anyone!"
"I know!" Ran He hissed. "But after the police find out we bullied Sha Chun, people in the association will find out. One person will tell ten, and each of those ten will tell ten more. How do you think everyone will look at us, after they know?"
In a business like the Performing Arts Association, talent and skill weren't the most important things. If someone was lacking in those departments, they could still make it in that industry. But they had to be likeable; that was more important than anything else.
If nothing happened to Sha Chun, everyone would have continued to turn a blind eye to the torment she endured. The crueler ones would have even joined in on mocking her. That was the nature of their workplace.
But if something did happen to Sha Chun, everything would change.
"Then what do we do?" Yang Yan whispered. She was close to shedding tears.
"No matter what other people say," Ran He answered, "we have to insist we were on good terms with Sha Chun."
The officers who'd rushed to the scene were from the precinct in Nan District.
When the precinct received word from the local police post, Vice Captain Xu Qiang didn't think it was something they needed to report to the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Although the police force within Dongye City functioned as one network, there were plenty of internal struggles and disputes. Everyone at the district precincts had their own motives and ambitions. Before Xiao Yu'an was brought in, many high-ranking detectives had had their eyes on the deputy director position at the Bureau.
Xu Qiang worked under a severe, straitlaced captain at the Nan District precinct. He wasn't able to escape so easily to the Bureau. The captain of his precinct often visited the Bureau, trying to get into Director Li's good graces. Xu Qiang, meanwhile, did his best to ingratiate himself with Liang Zhao. If Liang Zhao were to be promoted at the Bureau, Xu Qiang could have used his connections to get himself a more prominent position in Nan District.
But with the arrival of Xiao Yu'an, the plans of the captain and vice captain of the Nan District precinct all fell apart.
When Xu Qiang had been cozying up to Liang Zhao, he'd sent all sorts of cases up to the Bureau. Whether they were big cases or small cases, he would report everything to Liang Zhao and allow Liang Zhao to act as the 'decision maker'.
Now, all the most important divisions at the Bureau were under Xiao Yu'an's control. Xu Qiang would no longer benefit from kissing up to Liang Zhao, but it would also be too telling to simply stop liaising with the Bureau altogether.
This was just a case of a body being washed up in a flood, though. Xu Qiang couldn't be bothered to report such a trivial matter to the Bureau. He'd decided to get together a few of his own men and take care of it himself.
But things didn't go as he'd expected.
When the trace evidence investigators and forensics experts dug out the body from the muddy pit, Xu Qiang's expression instantly changed.
The victim was a woman. There were strangulation marks around her throat, and her face was swollen with signs of cyanosis. Cause of death seemed to be mechanical asphyxia.
But the details made it obvious that this was no simple case. The victim was dressed bizarrely. Not in ordinary clothes, but in a costume with delicate embroidery. Her face was done up in exaggerated stage makeup, and her hands had been cut off at the wrists.
The wounds didn't respond to external stimuli; her hands had been severed post-mortem. This was no ordinary murder case. There was something ritualistic about the way the victim had been killed.
Xu Qiang didn't dare keep this case to himself anymore. He contacted the Criminal Investigation Bureau right away, seeking help from the Serious Crimes Division.
Due to the torrential rain, accidents had occurred on every major road running through the city. Countless cars were stuck in traffic. Although the Serious Crimes Division set out for the crime scene as soon as they received word from Xu Qiang, they were firmly lodged in traffic.
"We just saw the Performing Arts Association put on a show a few days ago. And now we're going over there to investigate a case," Fang Yuanhang said. He was sitting in the back of the first car that had been dispatched. "The victim can't be someone from the association, right?"
"There's no way to say for sure yet," Yi Fei said from the seat next to him.
He'd played sick to get out of going to the concert, but a day later, he'd gotten sick for real. He'd come down with a cold and fever, ultimately spending two days on an IV drip at the hospital. As soon as he started to recover, he'd insisted on coming back to work. He wore two layered face masks now, and his voice was low and muffled.
"I've been out to this area before. Half the place is still barren land," Yi Fei said. "All the buildings around the Performing Arts Association's office are still under construction. At night, the place is like a ghost town. Anyone could come and go undetected. It's possible neither the killer nor the victim were from the association."
Ming Shu sat in the front passenger seat. He was currently looking through the photos that Xu Qiang had sent from the crime scene.
The victim's clothes had already been so thoroughly stained by mud that the original color was indiscernible. But the delicate embroidery around the collar, sleeves, and chest was still visible.
Ming Shu recognized it instantly. It was the muslin outfit worn by one of the female performers at the concert on Saturday.
"That's a good point," Fang Yuanhang said to Yi Fei. "Homicide cases are extremely common in areas that are still under development. Criminals are getting smarter and smarter these days. They know that these areas don't have much security, and that surveillance cameras have yet to be installed. They always come to these places to commit their crimes."
"No." Ming Shu lifted his gaze and furrowed his brows. "It's very likely the victim was a member of the Performing Arts Association."
"Hm?" Yi Fei glanced over at the tablet in Ming Shu's hands. "Let me see."
Ming Shu passed the tablet to the back row. "And we may have seen the victim before."
Fang Yuanhang scooted closer to Yi Fei so they could both examine the pictures on the tablet. "These clothes…"
"They're the same outfits we saw at the performance at Jiangnan Theater," Ming Shu said.
By the time the Serious Crimes Division arrived at the Performing Arts Association, the rain had well and truly stopped. A searchlight shone down on the body, which had been laid out on a low, makeshift platform constructed by the trace investigators. The victim's eyes were bulging out; it was already impossible to ascertain their true color.
The appearances of strangulation victims changed significantly after death. Ming Shu stooped down to get a closer look at the marks around the victim's throat.
Suicide by hanging and homicide by strangulation both left similar marks around the neck, but there were distinct differences which forensics experts could use to determine whether a victim was killed by another or by their own hands.
Ming Shu's gaze swept upwards, and he suddenly noticed the red stud earring in the victim's ear.
"So it was her?" he mused.
Traditional music performances stressed the importance of immersion. The musicians had to present a visual aesthetic which matched the music they played. All performers in a traditional instruments troupe were expected to don traditional clothing for their recitals, and even their accessories were supposed to feel somewhat historical.
But that woman who played the guzheng had worn a very modern and strikingly red earring.
That earring was typically covered up by the performer's long hair, but Ming Shu had sharp eyes. He'd placed his focus on studying the musicians during the second half of the concert, and so he had taken note of that bright stud.
"Is was who?" Yi Fei asked.
Ming Shu straightened up. His eyes grew a shade darker. "I believe the victim may be a guzheng player from the traditional instruments department of the Performing Arts Association."
Just then, a member of the association's logistics team rushed over to Xu Qiang, claiming they had new information for the police.
Xu Qiang was already feeling like his head could explode at any minute. He planned on having his men deal with this employee, but the employee suddenly blurted out, "A woman has gone missing from the traditional instruments department!"
Half an hour later, the victim was conclusively identified as Sha Chun of the traditional instruments department.
"Sha Chun. Resident of Ke Fu Town in Dongye City. Thirty-one years old," Yi Fei reported back at the Bureau. "Graduate of the Dongye City Conservatory of Music. Joined the Performing Arts Association nine years ago, transferred from the orchestra to the traditional instruments department four years ago. Her primary instrument is the guzheng, but she also plays the bamboo flute, pipa, and hulusi.
"She lived alone in the Jiachuang neighborhood of Dong District. She took out a loan three years ago and bought her house. Based on our preliminary investigation, we can conclude she wasn't close with her colleagues in the traditional instruments department. She kept to herself and had a habit of coming and going on her own. She often worked overtime to rehearse, and for that she gained a nickname—'model employee'."
"'Model employee'?" Fang Yuanhang echoed. As a young detective, and a member of the younger generation, he continued, "That sort of nickname feels pretty outdated. Is it supposed to be a good thing or a bad thing?"
"Yes, 'model employee'," the considerably older Xu Chun confirmed. "When I was a kid, this was definitely a positive thing. All my elders vied for the chance to be considered the model employee at their factory. If they could win that title, they would tell everyone in the family. It was something to be proud of.
"But now, 'model employee' has gained a negative connotation. In many cases, it's used to ridicule and deride others.
Ming Shu leaned against a nearby wall and listened to the others discuss. As he fell deep into thought, he caught the tip of his tongue between his teeth.
Just ten minutes earlier, he had taken a statement from Han Mingming, who'd been one of the first to suspect Sha Chun was missing.
Han Mingming was in her forties. As the deputy director of the traditional instruments department, she was considered middle management.
Most of the musicians in the traditional instruments department were in their twenties and thirties. There were some in their forties as well, but a much smaller number fell in that age range. Han Mingming used to play the pipa in their troupe; she'd only been promoted to deputy director last year.
Compared to the director of the department, Han Mingming had a much better understanding of Sha Chun. She also had a better understanding of the dynamics within the band.
"Sha Chun was one of the performers when we held a concert at Jiangnan Theater three nights ago," Han Mingming said. Perhaps it was her first time speaking to the police. She sounded extremely nervous; her voice trembled and broke, and she couldn't seem to keep her eyes fixed to one spot. "After the performance, everyone wanted to go have dinner together. But Sha Chun didn't come along. She left first, by herself."
Ming Shu had already obtained the relevant surveillance footage from Jiangnan Theater and the surrounding area.
The footage showed Sha Chun leaving the backstage dressing area at 9:41 in the evening. At 9:52, she exited through the door to the west of the theater. After that, she didn't appear on any public surveillance cameras.
At 10:02, Sha Chun's colleagues started to make their way through the theater's corridors in small groups. At 10:23, the last group of performers left through the western door.
Between 9:41 and 10:23, Sha Chun was the only person who appeared on camera alone. Everyone else moved in groups.
"I never saw Sha Chun again after that," Han Mingming said. "Our department was off yesterday and the day before that. We only assembled for rehearsals again today. I realized this afternoon that Sha Chun hadn't come in, and her phone was off when I called. I never thought she'd already…"
Han Mingming trailed off. She bowed her head and dabbed at the corners of her eyes with a tissue.
Sha Chun's phone had already been found. It had been buried next to her, tightly sealed in a plastic bag.
Strangely enough, the bag didn't just contain Sha Chun's cell phone. Her ID card and three bank cards were present as well, tucked away in the same bag. And on those items, only Sha Chun's own fingerprints and sweat stains were found.
Sha Chun had definitely been the victim of a homicide. In order to hide their identity, the killer could have wiped their own fingerprints off Sha Chun's belongings. But did Sha Chun touch those same belongings afterwards? It didn't make sense.
Then was it Sha Chun who'd wiped off all fingerprints but her own? What reason could she have had for doing something like that?
There were too many questions laid out in front of the detectives now. They had to analyze each and every clue, one by one. And they would have to start with Sha Chun.
"What kind of person was Sha Chun?" Ming Shu asked.
"That…" Han Mingming hesitated for ten seconds, then sighed. "Should I speak honestly?"
"Sha Chun is the victim of a homicide case," Ming Shu said. "She was murdered."
Han Mingming nodded. "I know, I know."
"I need to understand every aspect of her life," Ming Shu said. "Director Han, if you know anything, I hope you won't hide it."
"Sha Chun was very unpopular," Han Mingming finally admitted. "I'm her direct supervisor right now, but I used to be her colleague. I never knew her very well, but I knew her for a long time. I know a little bit about her personality and her interpersonal relationships. She never had any close friends. Not in the orchestra, and not in our traditional instruments department."
"Why?" Ming Shu asked. In that moment, he instinctively thought of Li Hongmei.
Han Mingming shifted, looking a bit embarrassed. "Because she… she wasn't very talented. And she was… too hardworking."
Ming Shu found that somewhat surprising. "Because she wasn't gifted, and because she worked hard, she was ostracized by her peers?"
"I never bullied her, and I never intentionally isolated her," Han Mingming hastily declared, absolving herself of guilt. "She just didn't get along with most of us. We didn't really have any way of befriending her. After a while, she just seemed to drift farther and farther away from us."
"You just said Sha Chun lacked talent," Ming Shu said. "How is 'talent' defined in your traditional instruments department? I saw your performance on Saturday night, at Jiangnan Theater."
Hearing that, Han Mingming anxiously fussed with her hair. "Ah, you've seen us play…"
"Sha Chun played the guzheng, correct?" Ming Shu asked. "She was immersed in her performance. She clearly loved music, and she clearly loved the guzheng. And she had an important role in several of the pieces that were performed. I wouldn't have been able to tell that she was 'talentless'."
Han Mingming looked up with surprise in her eyes. "You noticed her?"
"A habit born of my profession," Ming Shu explained. "At that time, I had no way of knowing she would be harmed. Director Han, you haven't answered my question. What does your department consider to be 'talent'?"
Han Mingming fell silent for a long moment. "Sha Chun never really demonstrated an intuition for the feeling of a piece of music. To put it plainly, she didn't play with feeling. In this industry, you can't go far without that 'feeling'.
"Sha Chun didn't have much originality or creativity either, and she was a slow learner. Ever since joining the association, she basically just followed others. She imitated them. But you're right. I also noticed that she truly loves the guzheng, as well as other traditional instruments.
"But her passion wasn't enough. She didn't have enough talent to support that passion of hers."
Ming Shu pressed his thumb to his chin as he mulled over those words; he couldn't bring himself to agree with Han Mingming.
If a person's talent couldn't support their passion, were they supposed to give up on their passion?
Did talent dictate what a person could and couldn't be passionate about?
That mindset was just too shallow, too utilitarian.
"She really did have quite a lot of parts during the concert on Saturday. But do you know why?" Han Mingming continued. "Sha Chun asked for those parts. She was given those parts not because she was impressive, but because she learned and rehearsed those pieces. Others didn't.
"We're only running previews now. The performers aren't finalized. Even if nothing had happened to Sha Chun, she would have had to give some of those parts away before our official concerts began."
"To whom?" Ming Shu asked. "Who else plays the guzheng in your troupe?"
Han Mingming froze for a moment. Her voice was taut with tension when she asked, "You think they had something to do with Sha Chun's murder?"
Ming Shu didn't give her a direct answer. "I need to gain a basic understanding of every member of your band."
Han Mingming gave them six names, and the officer in charge of recording the interrogation session diligently wrote down each one.
Afterwards, Ming Shu continued, "We've already talked about talent. Then, what about your definition of 'hard work'? Give me an example of how hardworking Sha Chun really was."
Han Mingming thought about that for a moment before answering. "She often volunteers to work overtime of her own accord. When everyone gets together to practice a new piece, she's always the last to leave. Sometimes she would even ask us to stay behind and rehearse with her.
"Truthfully, that caused a lot of people to dislike her. For most people, work is just work. Not some sort of dream. If work cuts into our personal lives once in a while, that's fine. But no one can handle that sort of thing happening all the time."
"She wouldn't force you to stay and practice with her, would she?" Ming Shu asked.
"No, of course not. She didn't have that sort of power. But…" Han Mingming paused briefly. "But upper management would notice, and they would wonder why Sha Chun was the only one working overtime. They would wonder where everyone else had gone. By doing all that, Sha Chun threw the rest of us under the bus.
"Imagine an unmarried doctor who devoted all their time to work. That would make all other doctors at their hospital, who were incapable of spending that much time at work, look bad. Honestly, this sort of thing isn't fair."
Ming Shu could see that Han Mingming had very strong personal opinions about this matter.
After she finished speaking, Han Mingming seemed to realize she'd gotten a little too worked up. She hastily explained, "A lot of us feel that way. I'm not the only one."
Ming Shu nodded, then asked, "In the traditional instruments department, was Sha Chun the only member who wasn't 'talented' enough?"
"I wouldn't say that," Han Mingming said.
Ming Shu gave her a deeply meaningful look.
Han Mingming recognized it as a prompt to continue, so she quickly added, "In truth, we only have a few people who are truly gifted. Those who aren't gifted don't draw much attention to themselves as long as they don't try to claim the spotlight. Sha Chun's problem was that she had no talent, but still worked hard and put a lot of effort into standing out. She wasn't content to be just average, like the others who lacked natural talent."
"I understand," Ming Shu said. "People who lack talent should be satisfied with being mediocre. They shouldn't work hard, and they shouldn't strive to improve. Is that right? When they work too hard, they become strange and bizarre in the eyes of their colleagues. Correct?"
Han Mingming parted her lips, but didn't manage to say anything else for a long moment.
In the conference room, the Serious Crimes Division was already debating the facts of the case. Ming Shu came back to his senses, pulling himself out of his memories of the interrogation with Han Mingming. Just as he was about to speak, he saw Xing Mu dart into the room.
"Captain, the autopsy report is out."