Chapter 45: Endless (Part Five)

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"Time of death has been confirmed to fall between 2:00 AM and 3:30 AM on Sunday, August 24th. Cause of death was mechanical asphyxia from strangulation," Xing Mu began. As he recited details of the victim's autopsy report, he presented photos from the report using the projector in the room. "Based on the strangulation marks around the victim's throat, as well as traces of the material left behind, we can conclude the murder weapon was a hemp rope about twice as thick as a child's finger.

"This type of hemp rope is extremely common. The killer could have procured it anywhere. It'll be difficult to determine anything based on the murder weapon alone. The toxicology report is out as well. The victim wasn't drugged. She also hadn't taken any mind- or mood-altering substances before her death."

"Early Sunday morning? In other words, late Saturday night," Ming Shu said. "Sha Chun left Jiangnan Theater at 9:52 on Saturday night, and she was killed just over four hours later… what could have happened during those four years? Zhou Yuan, pull up the surveillance footage from around Jiangnan Theater again."

On the projector screen, two clips of surveillance footage began to play simultaneously, replacing the autopsy report.

The video on the left showed Sha Chun leaving the theater alone. The video on the right showed her colleagues, happily chatting and laughing in groups as they meandered through the corridors of the theater.

Fang Yuanhang, having just learned the implications of the label of 'model employee', felt a pang of sorrow in his heart.

"Sha Chun left the theater in her own clothes. A linen shirt and wide-legged pants. She wasn't wearing any makeup, and she'd pulled her hair back into a ponytail," Ming Shu noted. "Based on the surveillance footage of the troupe's arrival at the theater, this was what she was wearing when she got there. Same hair, same makeup.

"That means, after the concert, she removed her costume and her makeup backstage. So why was she wearing her costume and stage makeup when she was murdered later in the early morning? How do we explain that?"

No one in the conference room made a sound. They were all deep in thought.

"Have we finished combing through all the surveillance footage from Jiangnan Theater?" Ming Shu asked, turning to the technical investigation team.

"We've gone through all the public surveillance footage. We're still working on getting some of the footage from private businesses in the area," Zhou Yuan said. "At the moment, we don't know where Sha Chun went after leaving the theater."

Ming Shu hugged his own arms and shifted his weight from foot to foot, taking a few steps in place.

"Captain, may I continue?" Xing Mu asked, gazing out at Ming Shu from under the cold light of the projector.

Ming Shu didn't have the energy to correct Xing Mu's overly formal manner of speech. He simply nodded and said, "Continue."

"As you all know, in order to kill someone via strangulation, the assailant must possess quite a lot of strength, especially in their arms," Xing Mu said. "Killers who strangle their victims tend to be male, but of course we can't completely eliminate the possibility of a female killer. If the killer is female, then she would necessarily be quite sturdy. In the arms, at the very least."

Ming Shu nodded. "Mm."

Xing Mu used his own arm as an example as he continued, "After killing Sha Chun, the perpetrator severed both of Sha Chun's hands. The killer used an axe with an approximate edge length of 100 millimeters and an approximate head size of 150 millimeters.

"The wounds aren't clean, indicating the killer hacked several times at each wrist. But that wasn't because the ax wasn't sharp enough. The ax was made of carbon steel, which has the characteristic of being very hard and durable. It isn't easily worn down. From this information, we can theorize that the assailant was in a panicked state while committing their crime. They didn't swing the ax with a sufficient amount of force."

"They were strong enough to strangle Sha Chun, but they had problems severing her hands with a blade," Yi Fei said. "In that case, the possibility of the killer being female isn't all that small."

"We can't be sure of anything yet," Xu Chun said. He turned in his seat and mimed the act of strangling someone with a rope. "Regardless of the sex of the killer, they would use their full strength when strangling someone. Since the victim would be struggling, the killer would have to choke their victim while subduing them as well.

"The process would use up a lot of strength and energy. After making sure Sha Chun was dead, the killer could have been exhausted. Their arms could have been left weak and sore. They might have even trembled when hefting their ax. Expecting the killer to hack off Sha Chun's wrists with one swing, in that condition, isn't all that reasonable."

Yi Fei nodded. "You have a point. Xing-laoshi, what are the ways in which someone could procure an ax like this?"

"That…" Xing Mu smiled and looked over at Xiao Man, who sat not far away. "Little Xiao knows a bit more about that than I do."

"This sort of ax," Xiao Man started, "is commonly used by firefighters, construction workers, and military engineers running field operations."

Fang Yuanhang's eyes flashed with a bolt of light. "Which is to say, it isn't easy for ordinary people to get their hands on an ax like that?"

Xiao Man shook his head. "Anyone could buy one online."

Fang Yuanhang blinked. "Huh?"

"There's no need to be surprised," Ming Shu said. "This type of ax hasn't been exclusive to specialized occupations for a long time. In some places, people brawl with these axes as weapons. In rural areas, farmers might use these axes to chop wood."

"That's exactly right," Xiao Man said.

Ming Shu nodded once at Xing Mu. "Continue."

"We're still looking into the origins of the ax. For now, I'd like to analyze the murderer's reasons for cutting off Sha Chun's hands." Xing Mu curled both his hands into loose fists and brought them to his neck, as though hooking his fingers under an invisible rope. "While the killer strangled Sha Chun, she most likely struggled like this. She would have tried to tear the rope away, and it's very possible she scratched the killer in the process. She could have clawed at the killer's skin, or their clothes.

"If she managed to scratch the killer's skin, then the killer's blood or skin tissue would be found under Sha Chun's nails. If she got the killer's clothes, we could use the traces of fabric under her nails to narrow our search. In order to keep us from obtaining their DNA or finding out what kind of clothes they wore, the killer removed Sha Chun's hands."

Xiao Man raised his hand and added, "We didn't find any traces of foreign DNA on Sha Chun's body. It's very possible the killer only left traces of their DNA on the victim's hands."

"No," Ming Shu suddenly stated. "There's a contradiction here."

"Um…" Xing Mu dithered for a moment. "What's the contradiction?"

"If the killer brought an ax with them, why didn't they use the ax to kill Sha Chun?" Ming Shu asked. "Using an ax to commit the murder would have been much easier than using hemp rope. Sha Chun wasn't drunk or drugged, which means she was alert and conscious at the time of the attack. She had the ability to fight back. Wasn't the killer worried about the risk of using rope?"

"The killer might have thought using the ax would be too messy," Xing Mu said. "Maybe they thought strangulation would save them the trouble of cleaning up so much blood?"

"Then why did the killer bring an ax with them in the first place?" Ming Shu stood still now, no longer pacing in place. "Did they simply predict they would be scratched by Sha Chun and bring the ax along to cut off her hands?"

"Captain Ming has a point," Yi Fei said. "It is pretty strange that the killer prepared an ax but used a rope to strangle Sha Chun. The killer's reason for bringing an ax is directly related to their reason for cutting off Sha Chun's hands."

Xing Mu was a forensics expert, and he was good at his job. But there were times in which he couldn't keep up with Ming Shu and Yi Fei during the actual process of an investigation. "So the killer didn't cut off Sha Chun's hands because of the evidence that could have gotten caught under her fingernails?"

"That's a very likely explanation, but it isn't the only possible explanation," Ming Shu said. "If the killer's only concern was that their blood or skin tissue could be discovered under Sha Chun's nails, they could have only cut off part of her fingers. They could have just sliced off her nails.

"Cutting someone's hands off at the wrists isn't a simple or easy feat. You wouldn't be able to do it with an ordinary knife. You would need an ax or something like a hunting knife. And that brings us back to our previous question.

"Did the killer predict they would leave their DNA under Sha Chun's nails? If so, they could have prepared a less cumbersome weapon. They could have brought a smaller knife and simply cut off her nails or fingertips. Why did it have to be an ax?"

Fang Yuanhang furrowed his brows, falling deep into thought. "We know for a fact that the killer hacked off Sha Chun's hands with an ax. So the question is, if the killer wasn't trying to keep us from finding their DNA, what was their goal?"

"First possibility, to complete some sort of ritual," Ming Shu said. "That falls in line, in a way, with how Sha Chun was dressed in her stage costume and wearing her stage makeup at her time of death. But there's no way to guess what kind of 'ritual' this might have been.

"Second possibility, it had something to do with Sha Chun. It was personal."

"Personal?" Xing Mu whispered.

"Sha Chun's primary instrument was the guzheng. Although she played other instruments as well, she was the best at the guzheng," Ming Shu said. "And what's the most important thing to a guzheng player? Wouldn't it be their hands?"

Fang Yuanhang suddenly felt a chill race down his spine. "By taking Sha Chun's hands… the killer took away what was most important to her."

"There are many ways to interpret something like this. I'll list out the first ideas that come to me, and you guys can extrapolate from there," Ming Shu said. "The murderer hated Sha Chun. They weren't satisfied after killing her, so they had to take her hands as well.

"The killer believed Sha Chun was too average, too mediocre. They thought she wasn't good enough to play the guzheng. On Sha Chun, those hands were a waste. The killer was jealous of Sha Chun, or perhaps the killer liked Sha Chun…"

"Wait, wait!" Fang Yuanhang interrupted. "I understand your first few ideas, but jealousy and 'like' are unlikely motivators, right? Didn't everyone in the traditional instruments department say that Sha Chun was talentless, and that she only knew how to work hard? What reason would anyone have to be jealous of her?"

"You're not thinking broadly enough," Ming Shu said. "The members of the traditional instruments department consider Sha Chun talentless, but that's only the commonly accepted opinion within their group. What about outside their department?

"During the concert on Saturday, Sha Chun caught my attention. Why? Because, as an outsider to the industry, I thought she was very professional. I thought she was fascinating.

"Furthermore, I just spoke with Han Mingming, the deputy director of their department. She told me that there are plenty of 'talentless' people in the traditional instruments department. Sha Chun was simply the only one who stuck out. She refused to remain mediocre, so she worked harder than anyone else."

Due to his inexperience, Fang Yuanhang wasn't always able to see the big picture as clearly as Ming Shu. But Fang Yuanhang's strength was in his adaptability. As soon as Ming Shu brought something up, Fang Yuanhang caught on quickly.

"In that case," Fang Yuanhang said, "the killer could be unstable. They could be someone who admired Sha Chun, someone who specifically admired these hands that could play such beautiful music. So…"

"So Sha Chun's hands could still be preserved somewhere," Ming Shu finished. "But if one of our other theories is correct, then it's more likely Sha Chun's hands have already been destroyed."

Fang Yuanhang stood up. "I suddenly have an idea."

Ming Shu looked at him. "Speak."

"The traditional instruments department told us Sha Chun didn't have a gift for music," Fang Yuanhang said. "But could that be a cover-up?"

That was a huge leap in logic. It even took Ming Shu a second to catch up.

"Some gay guys, in order to cover up the fact that they're gay, take every opportunity to claim they're straight. They even go so far as to act homophobic," Fang Yuanhang said. "Among the members of the traditional instruments department, could there be people who actually respect and even admire Sha Chun?

"I think everyone wants to improve themselves and their skills, right? Sha Chun may not have had much natural talent, but she was diligent. Someone like her definitely improved bit by bit. Maybe she improved at a snail's pace, but after so many arduous years of practice, she must have improved more than someone who didn't put in any effort, right?

"The people in the traditional instruments department who aren't talented, but also don't work hard… what must they think of Sha Chun? They don't work hard, and they look down on the people who do. They might envy Sha Chun, and they might be afraid of her progress. Some of them might only pretend to look down on her.

"Among them, someone might have wanted to work as hard as Sha Chun. But couldn't, for fear of being ostracized as well."

There was actually nothing wrong with Fang Yuanhang's line of thinking. But hearing him suddenly blurt out 'gay guys' this and 'gay guys' that, Ming Shu couldn't suppress a cough.

The conference room quickly became noisy. Now that everyone's field of vision had broadened, they all rushed to give their own opinions and present their own theories.

Xing Mu raised his hand several times, but was ignored time and again because his voice simply wasn't loud enough to catch anyone's attention.

Ming Shu clapped his hands. "Quiet down. Xing-ge isn't done yet."

Xing Mu's face reddened instantaneously. "There's just one more detail," he said. "I'm almost done. Zhou Yuan, can you please assist me?"

Zhou Yuan froze when his name was suddenly called out. "Me?"

"Yes, you're small. Your height is more suitable," Xing Mu said as he took out a length of rope. "I can't strangle these other guys."

"Xing-laoshi is going to give us a demonstration of the crime, huh?" Fang Yuanhang mused to himself.

Just as Xing Mu wrapped the hemp rope around Zhou Yuan's throat, Ming Shu understood what Xing Mu wanted to show them.

The ensnared Zhou Yuan had a somewhat blank and vacant look on his face; it was the expression he usually wore. He grabbed onto the rope with both hands, but it was just for show, and he only weakly kicked his legs a bit.

This 'demonstration' was so comical that a few members of the division couldn't suppress a laugh.

Xing Mu didn't use much pressure, but he said, "You have to struggle."

Zhou Yuan obliged and started to put up a fight. He twisted from the waist at first, then flailed a bit harder, bumping his back against Xing Mu's chest.

These two were well-known in the Serious Crimes Division. One was notoriously shy, and the other harbored a debilitating fear of his superiors. Watching the two of them put on this act got more and more detectives laughing.

Ming Shu didn't laugh. He didn't even smile. "Xing-ge, are you trying to say there were no traces of a struggle on Sha Chun's body?"

"Yes." Xing Mu released Zhou Yuan. As he pulled away the rope, he whispered a complaint: "That wasn't a real struggle."

Zhou Yuan thought he'd done nothing wrong. "You didn't really choke me. How was I supposed to really struggle?"

Someone laughed again.

"Alright," Ming Shu said. "If you have jokes, crack them later. Xing-ge, get to the point."

"Victims of strangulation go into respiratory arrest, then finally cardiac arrest, in anywhere from a few minutes to ten minutes. During that time, if the victim is conscious and unrestrained, they will definitely struggle," Xing Mu said. "But the traces of a struggle on Sha Chun's body aren't obvious at all."

"So she didn't struggle much?" Yi Fei asked.

"More accurately, she didn't struggle much in the pre-asphyxiation stage of the attack," Xing Mu said. "Before she died, she did struggle with all her might. And I thought that was very strange. Anyone who's seized by the neck should start struggling right away, but Sha Chun didn't start struggling until much later. That was probably due to her survival instincts kicking in.

"So, what about before that? She barely struggled at first, or she didn't struggle at all. I've only thought of a few possibilities. First, she was poisoned and couldn't control her limbs. Second, the killer used a method other than poison to manipulate her and control her actions. Third, she was asleep while she was attacked, and she didn't wake right away when her assailant began to choke her."

After drawing a breath, Xing Mu continued, "We can already rule out the first possibility for now, because the tox screen didn't return any hints of poison."

"No, we can't completely eliminate the first possibility," Yi Fei said. "We've had these sorts of cases before. A new drug that just came out wouldn't be picked up by the tox screen. For example, if a new hallucinogen had just appeared, with a new and unique composition, we wouldn't be able to detect it."

Xing Mu nodded. "That's true."

"But compared to the first possibility, the second is definitely more likely," Yi Fei continued. "There was something ritualistic about Sha Chun's death, after all."

"Then could this be a cult-related killing?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "First they brainwash or manipulate her, then they kill her. And, finally, they cut off her hands and take them away as some sort of sacred object."

Xiao Man gave Fang Yuanhang a skeptical look. "Isn't that a bit of a reach? Our current investigation hasn't led us to any hints that a cult could be involved. It certainly is strange that Sha Chun had her hands removed, but she was a guzheng player. Even if her killer had simply been motivated by a personal grudge, they might have decided to cut off her hands.

"The vast majority of homicides are committed by people who are acquainted with the victim. We haven't finished looking into Sha Chun's background and interpersonal relationships yet, and you're already trying to make connections to some mysterious cult? Little Student Fang, what are you thinking?"

Fang Yuanhang rubbed the back of his head sheepishly, feeling like he may indeed have gotten a bit carried away.

Xiao Man's words left the conference room in silence for a moment.

Picking up where Xing Mu and Yi Fei had left off, Ming Shu said, "The third possibility Xing-ge proposed would be dependent on where the crime was committed. If Sha Chun was asleep, where was she sleeping? Why was she wearing her stage costume and makeup while sleeping? Was the place she was buried the scene of the crime or not?"

For the time being, no one had any answers for those questions.

Ming Shu rapped his knuckles against the conference table. "Xiao Man is right. At the moment, our first priority is to look into Sha Chun's interpersonal relationships. Her colleagues, the people who frequently watched her perform, her family, her friends. Also, there's one more thread we need to investigate—the people from the traditional instruments department said Sha Chun took private jobs after work. We need to figure out what kind of 'private jobs' she took."

It was going to be another sleepless night.


When it was nearly dawn again, Fang Yuanhang raced down the halls shouting, "Chief! Chief!"

Ming Shu had just come out of an interrogation room and stepped onto the balcony for some air. He leaned against the railing with a can of Red Bull in one hand.

In a big city like Dongye City, there wasn't really ever a time when the sky was completely dark.

Many people worked through the night. The streets would always start to fill up with pedestrians before daybreak. The resplendent neon lights of the city were eternal.

Criminal detectives weren't the only people who frequented the dark.

"CHIIIEEEEEEF!" Fang Yuanhang bellowed, his voice drawing nearer.

Ming Shu downed his last gulp of Red Bull, flattened the can, and tossed it into a nearby trash can. "I'm coming."

"After our preliminary investigations, this Ran He person seems the most suspicious," Fang Yuanhang reported. He flipped through a file and tapped on a certain photograph. "I was in charge of questioning him. From beginning to end, he kept insisting he and Sha Chun were on good terms. He said they weren't quite friends, but they would often talk about music and their performances and whatnot.

"When I asked him how he felt about Sha Chun being ostracized in their group, he first said he didn't think she'd been ostracized at all. Then he changed his tune and said some of their colleagues had a problem with Sha Chun working overtime so often, but he personally never targeted Sha Chun and even helped Sha Chun when he was able."

Before listening to anything else, Ming Shu said, "This sort of person shouldn't exist within an orchestra."

"Exactly! He's lying!" Fang Yuanhang said. "Everyone else in their department said Ran He was the one who bullied Sha Chun the most! They gave us one other detail, too. The day their department moved to the new offices, Sha Chun delayed their bus a bit. On the trip across town, Ran He mocked and ridiculed her the whole time!"

Ming Shu flashed a cold smile. "And everyone else was an accomplice, correct?"

"It's ironic," Fang Yuanhang said. "No one would admit their own guilt, but when you put all their testimonies together, it's clear that Ran He was the one who incited anger against Sha Chun. Then half the people on the bus joined in, voicing their own complaints about how Sha Chun caused them to be delayed."

Ming Shu leaned against the wall and slanted a glance at the door to the interrogation room across the hall.

Ran He sat inside.

A short while ago, Ming Shu had already learned something from Han Mingming's testimony and the surveillance footage they'd collected. On Saturday night, after the concert, the vast majority of the performers convened at 'Shrimp Baobao', a night food stall near Jiangnan Theater.

Ran He was one of the few people who didn't attend, claiming he had to take care of something at home.

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