MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 46: Endless (Part Six)

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Street food stall 'Shrimp Baobao' stayed open all night. Business boomed between the hours of 10:00 PM and 3:00 AM, and August was the perfect season for crayfish. Every year around that time, crayfish shops and stalls popped up all over the place, but very few of them achieved the same level of success as 'Shrimp Baobao'.

After leaving Jiangnan Theater on Saturday night, Ming Shu had seen the words 'Shrimp Baobao' on a sign across the street. The shop was crowded, and row after row of plastic stools were lined up outside as outdoor seating; those were all occupied by diners waiting to get in.

The time-restricted parking spaces near the restaurant were all taken. Those who couldn't find parking could only circle the block over and over again, hoping to slip into a free spot sooner rather than later. When Ming Shu passed, he just so happened to see some people arguing over parking spaces.

"Is the place really that good?" Ming Shu had asked Yi Fei, later on.

"You don't know about 'Shrimp Baobao'?" Yi Fei asked. "It's the most famous crayfish shop in Dongye City. Ai, don't you listen to the local food radio station when you drive around? They promote it almost every day."

Ming Shu didn't, in fact, listen to the food station in the car. He only ever tuned in to the news or radio reports of local traffic conditions. "Is it good just because it's promoted every day? Wouldn't they be promoted if they paid an advertising fee?"

"That shop's well-established. They've got a reputation for their delicious flavor! Other shops have to buy ads, but the food station willingly pushes 'Shrimp Baobao' because they're just that good." As he spoke, Yi Fei's mouth started to water. "I've eaten there before. Had to stand in line for over two hours."

As soon as Ming Shu heard that, he had to laugh. "How was it? Not worth waiting for two hours, right?"

In his eyes, no food—no matter how delicious—was worth waiting two hours for.

Unless he was standing in line with Xiao Yu'an.

Unless he was waiting for Xiao Yu'an's cooking.

"Wrong!" Yi Fei exclaimed. "You couldn't be more wrong! The flavor really blew me away. Two hours was nothing. Even if they'd made me wait twice as long, I would've gladly waited."

Ming Shu still harbored some doubts. "You're the vice captain of the Serious Crimes Division. Where are you finding so much time to stand in line for crayfish?"

Yi Fei pretended not to hear that part. "See, the proof is in how many people line up for the chance to eat there. If the food wasn't genuinely great, why would there be such a long line?"

Ming Shu gave that some thought and ultimately decided to find time to visit that shop with Xiao Yu'an one day.

At that time, he couldn't have imagined he would become involved with 'Shrimp Baobao' so soon.

No business owner liked being approached by criminal detectives. The owner of 'Shrimp Baobao' was a Dongye native. He'd been running his street stall for decades, and he made a killing every year when crayfish season came around. His 'connections' included important figures from both sides of the law, so when the Serious Crimes Division came around asking for surveillance tapes from late Saturday night and early Sunday morning in order to better understand the situation around the time of Sha Chun's murder, the owner staunchly refused to cooperate.

But, while the detectives tried to persuade him, he received a call from someone of some importance at the local precinct. As soon as that call came through, the owner instantly changed his tune. His uncooperative glower was replaced by a hospitable grin. He swiftly pulled up all the requested surveillance footage and even volunteered to head down to the Bureau to help with the investigation in any way he could.

The surveillance footage showed the members of the traditional instruments department arriving at 'Shrimp Baobao' at 10:49 on Saturday night. Since there were no seats inside, they sat outdoors and chatted while snacking on sunflower seeds. They waited until 1:32 AM.

"This wait time is normal," the owner said with a prideful tone. "That was a Saturday night, and we're busiest on Friday and Saturday nights. Everyone has to wait two to three hours if they want to eat."

After the troupe got into the shop, they ordered and had to wait another hour or so. It wasn't until 2:27 AM that several heaping platters of crayfish were delivered to their table.

They ordered some more, twice, and ate until four in the morning before taking their leave.

"All members of the traditional instruments department who dined at 'Shrimp Baobao' have solid alibis," Zhou Yuan confirmed. He reported in to Ming Shu as soon as he finished combing through the surveillance footage. "I've already confirmed their numbers. A total of eight members were absent from the dinner—pipa players Yang Yan and Qu Xing, guzheng player Sun Jing, guqin players Lu Hui and Ran He, and logistics department members Li Meng, Xu Gui, and Feng Guotao. I'm still looking into the whereabouts of the eight of them."

"Have we learned anything from the Jiachuang neighborhood?" Ming Shu asked.

Zhou Yuan shook his head. "We can confirm that Sha Chun didn't return to her home in the Jiachuang neighborhood before she was killed. She disappeared immediately after leaving Jiangnan Theater. We haven't seen her reappear on any surveillance footage after that."

Ming Shu pushed open the door to the interrogation room. Ran He, sitting inside, nervously jerked his head up.

This was a man who kept his hair somewhat long. He looked to be in his early thirties. In terms of aesthetics, he would likely be considered 'not ugly' by most people. If he were to be dressed in well-fitting period clothes, done up in period-appropriate makeup, and placed in front of a guqin, he could indeed captivate an audience.

But the shifty, caged look that currently filled his eyes completely tore apart any facade of composure he might have been able to don under normal circumstances.

Ming Shu sat down.

"I've already told you everything I know," Ran He blurted out. His forehead was shiny with sweat underneath the overhead lights. A few locks of his hair were plastered to his skin, wet with sweat. It was an almost comical sight. "Why won't you guys let me go? Whose boss are you?"

"We can't release you, because you lied to us." Ming Shu folded his hands together, fingers laced, and leveled a severe look at Ran He.

The police officer who'd spoken to Ran He earlier never once, from beginning to end, emitted such a threatening aura. Ran He's panic instantly spiked. "I didn't lie. What are you talking about?"

"First of all, I'd like to start by saying I don't believe you're the killer," Ming Shu began mildly. "Killing Sha Chun and burying her at the place where you work every day… I just don't believe you have that sort of courage."

Ran He's eyes grew even shiftier, flooding with immeasurable degrees of panic. In a low voice, he mumbled, "I'm not the killer…"

"But you're sitting here, refusing to tell the truth. You've misled my men, and we're unable to confirm your whereabouts at the time of Sha Chun's murder. Naturally, I have no choice but to pay attention to you." A dangerous glint flashed through Ming Shu's eyes as he crinkled them with an insincere smile. "Some killers are very good at hiding their true natures, after all. What if my initial assessment of you is incorrect?"

"No, no! I really don't have anything to do with Sha Chun's death!" Ran He insisted. He was so worked up that he practically tripped over his words. "Saturday night, I… I…"

Unhurriedly, Ming Shu prompted, "You…?"

A deeply conflicted expression came over Ran He's face. He eventually asked, "What I say here… besides you people, will anyone ever find out?"

Ming Shu pointed to the small video camera currently recording their session. "The higher-ups will occasionally check the surveillance footage to make sure we aren't torturing confessions out of anyone."

Ran He's face twisted into an even uglier mask.

"There's something you're embarrassed to admit?" Ming Shu guessed. "Something more embarrassing than being considered a suspect in this case?"

Ran He hung his head, burying his chin against his chest. He didn't speak for a long while.

"Don't waste my time," Ming Shu snapped.

That harsh demand was sharp enough to make Ran He jump. Finally, he said, "Please don't tell my father-in-law, and please don't tell my wife. I… that day, after our performance, I lied to my wife. I said our whole department would eat together, but I went to a hotel with Yang Yan."

Ming Shu recalled that Yang Yan had also been missing from the group dinner at 'Shrimp Baobao'.

"Which hotel?" he asked.

Ran He dropped his head into his hands. "Di'an."

"Alright. Whether or not you guys went to Di'an, when you arrived, and when you left. I'll be able to find out about all that very soon." Ming Shu leaned forward, just slightly. "Ran He, do you believe there's any point in your lies? Besides wasting our time, what do you think you'll accomplish? When you tell us you were on good terms with Sha Chun, do you expect your colleagues to confirm your lies?"

Ran He suddenly started to sob. "I was just confused. When you people confirmed that the victim was Sha Chun, Yang Yan and I talked about it and…"

"You agreed to claim that the two of you never targeted Sha Chun, and that she was only ever bullied by others," Ming Shu said.

Ran He nodded weakly while wiping at his tears.

The man he'd become in this moment was nothing like the man who'd mocked Sha Chun on their company bus. He'd practically turned into a different person.

Some cowards could only put on the cloak of a brave heart when bullying the weak. Once that cloak was stripped away, all that remained was a shallow, weak, and ugly soul.

"Then you probably didn't expect this," Ming Shu continued. "In the neighboring room, Yang Yan has already been questioned. She admitted a long time ago that most people in your department have, at one point or another, bullied Sha Chun. And she told us you, Ran He, typically led the charge."

Ran He's eyes went wide with shock. An incredulous look passed over his face. "She said that?"

Ming Shu stood up. "It seems my initial assessment of you wasn't wrong," he stated coldly. "You aren't the killer. You're simply a morally bankrupt scoundrel."

The Di'an hotel confirmed that Ran He and Yang Yan had checked in at 11:04 on Saturday night. They entered a room and didn't reemerge until 5:32 on Sunday morning, at which point Ran He left first.

And the reason Ran He had been afraid to reveal his whereabouts on that night also became apparent.

Ran He was born in a fairly behind-the-times village that fell under the jurisdiction of Dongye City. He had four older sisters, and the more children their family had, the poorer they became. All his sisters only obtained an elementary school education before leaving the village to join the workforce. Only Ran He was able to finish high school, after which he got into the Dongye City Conservatory of Music.

It was commonly said that children of poor families needed to learn technical skills, rather than artistic ones. But Ran He had grown up spoiled, and he was determined to study music no matter what. His mother and father forced their daughters to send money so they could support Ran He through college.

Due to his reasonably good looks, his talent with traditional instruments, and his seemingly simple and straightforward personality, Ran He was fairly popular on campus. He met his current wife, Chen Qian, while studying.

Chen Qian's father held a position at the city prosecutor's office; he was quite well-connected. The Chen family as a whole was quite well-off and respected in Dongye City. Chen Qian loved Ran He fiercely, refusing to marry anyone but him. Although her parents didn't think much of Ran He, they only had one daughter and ultimately had no choice but to give their reluctant blessings.

It was only thanks to the connections of Chen Qian's father that Ran He managed to secure a position within the Performing Arts Association after graduating from the conservatory. Throughout the year, Ran He's cars, houses, and promotions had all been paid for by Chen Qian's father. Even the money Ran He sent home to support his folks was provided by the Chen family.

Now, Chen Qian was pregnant. And Ran He had cheated.

"This guy is just a leech!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. He was seething after the truth about Ran He came out, and he didn't hold back from spitting out a few disdainful lines. "He has no ability to accomplish anything on his own. He relied on his wife for everything. And after all that, he bullied people at work and even cheated! If I were his wife, I would fucking sue him for everything he owns!"

The sun was already rising again. After learning Ran He was being questioned at the Bureau, Chen Qian had waddled out with her bulging belly and spent the whole night waiting for her husband to be released. She'd called her parents, pulling all the strings they had under their control to get Ran He released as soon as possible.

"My husband is an honest man. He's only passionate about music. He definitely doesn't have anything to do with the case you're investigating," she said. "His health hasn't been good lately. He can't take being cooped up in your interrogation room for so long. Please, I'm begging you to let me take him home. I swear to you, he's a good man."

But reality was far more grim.

Chen Qian's father, at his daughter's behest, had called in every favor he could in order to find out what was happening with Ran He. And he soon learned the truth about his seemingly polite and mild-mannered son-in-law, entering a hotel with a female colleague.

When Ran He stepped out of the interrogation room, he was instantly slapped across the face by Chen Qian's father. He fell to the ground, spitting out one bloody tooth that had been knocked loose.

Chen Qian stood between the two men, shocked into silence at first. Then she broke down, letting out a stream of ear-piercing, heart-shattering wails.

A scene like that inevitably played out in the halls of the Serious Crimes Division every so often. It wasn't the first time, and it wouldn't be the last.

When the cafeteria at the Bureau started serving breakfast, Ming Shu grabbed a bite and asked, "When will Sha Chun's family be arriving?"

"We contacted them last night," Yi Fei said. "Sha Chun's parents divorced when she was in high school. Her father moved out of the country, and her mother remarried as well. Neither of them are in Dongye City. It'll take them until this afternoon to get here."

Ming Shu set down his spoon in a bowl of congee. "The Performing Arts Association isn't like a normal company. Most people who work there got in through connections, like Ran He. Did Sha Chun interview and earn her job on her own? Or did she use her parents' connections? That's something we'll need to look into."

"I'd wager she got in on her own," Yi Fei said. "She didn't use her mother's connections, at least."

"You've already found something?" Ming Shu asked.

"Not exactly." Yi Fei shook his head. "But Sha Chun's mother, Yong Huan, has an attitude that's… ah, well, you'll see this afternoon."

Ming Shu furrowed his brows. "When she learned of her own daughter's death, she was perfectly calm?"

Yi Fei tore open a steamed bun and stuffed in some bacon and zhacai, creating a baffling sort of East-meets-West cuisine. "Yeah, she was pretty calm. Like the victim was just someone she happened to know."

Ming Shu mulled that over for a few seconds. "Let's split up later," he said. "We have too many leads that we need to chase, and we can't let any of them slide. You stay at the Bureau. I'll pay the Performing Arts Association another visit."

 

After the torrential downpour, the association's offices were exceptionally quiet. Two trees, just planted earlier that year, had been uprooted during the storm. One of them had smashed several cars parked in the vicinity.

But everyone knew this eerie quiet hadn't been brought on by the storm.

The police cordon around the pond had yet to be removed. Employees still came to the office as usual, but no one's heart was focused on their work.

Gossip always traveled the quickest around offices that were more lax. In just one night, news of the traditional instruments department's bullying of Sha Chun spread throughout the whole association. Everyone learned of Ran He cheating on his pregnant wife with Yang Yan as well.

"As far as I know, Sha Chun joined the association by interviewing for her position," said Ji Yue. As the administrative vice president of the Performing Arts Association, she was the only woman who could be considered upper management within the whole organization. "When she interviewed, I was still the head of Human Resources. It was a pretty unique case, so it left a deep impression on me."

"What made it unique to you?" Ming Shu asked. He sat in Ji Yue's bright and spacious office. The space was decorated elegantly, with touches of art and culture all around. Ming Shu continued, plainly, "Your association rarely hires through traditional means. Even when you invite people to interview for a position, the job typically goes to someone with connections in the industry. Correct?"

Ji Yue didn't avoid the subject or try to deny it. "You're right. Our company can hardly take in all the young people with strong connections. Besides the truly outstanding candidates with solid recommendations, we essentially only accept newcomers with connections. It's just as you say."

Ming Shu understood her meaning. "And Sha Chun wasn't one of those 'outstanding' candidates, was she?"

"That's why I said her case was unique," Ji Yue answered. "The year she was hired, every department was going through a period of rapid growth. They all had a huge demand for entry-level personnel. And our requirements were simply for candidates to have a certain level of professional ability, and to give this job their all.

"I was the one who interviewed Sha Chun. As soon as she arrived, she gave off a bright and diligent energy. I had a very good feeling about her. During the technical evaluation, her skills on the guzheng weren't actually up to par with our standards. But she also knew how to play several other traditional instruments, so we admitted her.

"Her probationary period lasted six months. During that time, she worked harder than anyone else. Several other new hires even quit halfway through that training period. So, in the end, we kept her."

Just as Ming Shu left Ji Yue's office, he received a call from Xu Chun:

"Captain Ming, we found something on the surveillance footage!"

 

The security presence and the surveillance system around the Performing Arts Association's new office building were both lacking. The building had been constructed to the east of the association's plot of land, and there were two doors on the east side of the building. Both doors were locked at night, and they were guarded by security during the day; those doors seemed perfectly safe and secure.

But to the west of the building, there lay only undeveloped land. Anyone could come and go as they pleased. And there was nothing separating the building in the east from the wasteland in the west.

"The security cameras on the east of the building didn't pick anything up, but a public surveillance camera on the street to the west caught sight of Sha Chun!" Xu Chun announced excitedly as he pointed to the computer monitor. "Look, right here."

At 11:24 on Saturday night, Sha Chun was seen climbing out of a taxi, wearing her linen shirt and wide-legged pants. She hurriedly crossed the street and entered the Performing Arts Association's building from one of the doors to the west.

Ming Shu propped his chin up on one hand and asked the tech investigators to enlarge and enhance the video. He watched it over and over again.

"This is way too fucking weird. It looks like she came here by herself." Xu Chun paced back and forth. "We've checked all the cameras on the association's property. Only the camera on the east side, closest to the wasteland on the west, captured her."

And even that camera still only caught Sha Chun, alone.

It showed Sha Chun at 11:37 PM. She was still rushing along, carrying a bag on her back. She looked like she was in a hurry. Like she had to do something, or like she had to meet someone.

"The killer must have been hiding in a blind spot. It's very likely that the spot where we discovered the body was the primary crime scene as well," Ming Shu mused. He closed his eyes and fell into thought.

If Sha Chun had been lured to the association that night, how? What did her killer use to lure her? Nothing strange stood out in her communication records, and she didn't seem to be distraught when she appeared on these surveillance cameras. If she was being compelled to move against her will, she didn't show it.

The Performing Arts Association's office was located at the very edge of Nan District. Judging by her clothes, it was likely Sha Chun had gone there directly after leaving Jiangnan Theater.

"Find the cab driver," Ming Shu said.

The cab driver was a man with the surname Li. He was in his fifties, and he looked to be a simple and honest man. Since he'd just worked a night shift, he looked a little dispirited when he was brought in.

"I remember her," Mr. Li said. "She got into my cab on Huacai Zhong Road at around 10:40 in the evening. She wanted to go to the Performing Arts Association's new building, and originally I didn't want to take her. There's nothing out there. I wouldn't have been able to find a passenger for the return trip.

"But she said she would pay double my standard fare. That was when I agreed to take her."

"During the trip, did she do anything that you felt was particularly unusual?" Ming Shu asked.

Mr. Li thought about it for a while, then answered, "Not really. She sat in the back and didn't talk much. Every time I looked back through the rearview mirror, I saw her looking out the window. I've driven this cab for over ten years now, so I've had countless passengers just like her. Nothing special about it.

"But she was extremely generous. A one-way trip from Huacai Zhong Road to the Performing Arts Association's building would've run about ninety yuan. Even if she doubled it, that would be around one-eighty. She gave me two hundred, and just as I was starting to fetch her change, she told me to keep it."

After Mr. Li departed, Ming Shu pulled up a map. "It only takes around twenty minutes to get from Jiangnan Theater to Huacai Zhong Road on foot," Ming Shu said. "But Sha Chun left through the theater's west door at 9:52, and she didn't get into the cab at Huacai Zhong Road until 10:40 or so. That's almost an hour. Where did she go? What was she doing?"

"There are plenty of surveillance cameras in the area around Jiangnan Theater," Xu Chun said. "But not a single one caught sight of her. Was she deliberately avoiding the surveillance cameras?

"Some demolition projects are currently going on around Huacai Zhong Road. It's the only place near Jiangnan Theater where there aren't many cameras. If Sha Chun wanted to get to Huacai Zhong Road, leaving from the north of the theater would have been the shortest route. But she left through the west. Did she want to circle around?

"And when she got off the cab at the Performing Arts Association, she didn't get off near their main door to the east. She took the entrance to the west, on the undeveloped side of the plot. Plus, she paid the cab fare in cash. We checked her financial records, and she usually pays for everything with WeChat."

Xu Chun paused there for a moment before he added, "It's just too weird."

Ming Shu's expression darkened. "Everything she did… feels like an attempt to cover up for the killer."

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