Sha Chun's mother, Yong Huan, arrived late.
This was a dignified woman who wore a black dress suit. Her earrings and the bag she carried were black as well. She looked solemn to the extreme.
But there was a cold and refined quality to her solemnity.
Ming Shu wasn't at the Bureau when she arrived. It was Xiao Yu'an who met with her in an interrogation room.
The officers who watched her enter the interrogation room were all left somewhat stunned.
Her very own daughter had been murdered, but Yong Huan wore a face of pale makeup and had her hair neatly coiffed. Not a single strand fell out of place. There was a heaviness in her eyes, but it could hardly be called grief or sorrow.
When Xiao Yu'an looked Yong Huan over, he wasn't terribly surprised.
He'd spoken to many relatives of murder victims in the past. Some of them sobbed loudly enough for their cries to reach the heavens. Some wallowed silently in grief. Some lost their minds and flew into a rage. And some were calm, like Yong Huan; it wasn't all that rare to be met with someone like her.
At the end of the day, all parents and children eventually had to live their own lives. Some remained tightly bound to one another, while other families drifted apart with time.
Tight-knit families had their own problems, and the ones that drifted apart had their unique misfortunes as well. No one had the right to criticize the course of someone else's life.
"I don't know anything about how Sha Chun has been living her life," Yong Huan began. Her voice was a bit hoarse. That, combined with her reddened eyes, indicated she had cried not long ago. But despite any maternal grief she may have felt, she remained calm and composed. "She'd always held a grudge against me and her father. She believed it was wrong of us to divorce before she came of age.
"She moved out when she was still in high school, and she never visited over winter or summer break. When she started college, our communications became even more infrequent."
"When was the last time you saw each other?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Yong Huan must have seen this question coming. She answered, very quickly, "April, three years ago. My current husband had business in Dongye City, and I came along. His associate in the city invited us to see a traditional music performance, and Sha Chun happened to be there as well."
"It was like that?" Xiao Yu'an mused.
"It's comical, isn't it?" Yong Huan let out a bitter laugh. "The relationship I had with my daughter was extremely abnormal. She didn't like me, and I… truthfully, I didn't feel much affection for her either. I was always more concerned about my own life. Before that performance, we hadn't seen each other for over a year. And whenever we did meet, we would always part on bad terms for some reason or other.
"Sometimes, I would ask if she'd met any suitable partners. But she would always say I didn't care about her when she needed me to care, and now she no longer needed me, so what right did I have to ask her such questions?"
Yong Huan sighed, then continued, "If I'd known she would be at that performance, I probably wouldn't have gone. After the show, my husband said this was fate. He suggested having dinner with Sha Chun. But it would have been better if we hadn't had that meal at all."
"What happened?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Yong Huan shook her head. "She didn't want to see us. When our order arrived, she only took a bite or two before saying she had to be elsewhere. I asked what business she had to attend to, and she said she'd planned on practicing the erhu with a colleague of hers. Tell me, wouldn't you consider that a hurtful excuse?"
Xiao Yu'an withheld his opinion.
"She wanted to be rid of me, and I didn't try to cling to her," Yong Huan continued. "After that dinner, I never reached out to her again. But I was still her mother. I couldn't completely ignore her existence. I have some contacts in Dongye City, and I would occasionally ask them how Sha Chun was doing.
"I knew she'd bought a home, and that she never got a boyfriend. I knew she'd gotten her job at the Performing Arts Association on her own. Her salary wasn't low, but it wasn't exceptionally high either. Not enough to cover her mortgage. Recently, I heard she'd been taking on jobs outside the association to make some more money. I thought, if she was short on money, I could…"
Yong Huan fell silent for a moment before she lifted her head. She waited until the tears in her eyes retreated before she said, "I never imagined she would leave us like this."
"You said you don't know anything about how Sha Chun has been living her life," Xiao Yu'an said. "But you actually understand quite a lot."
Finally, Yong Huan had to wipe the corners of her eyes with a tissue. "The helplessness and hopelessness others in my situation describe feels to me like punches thrown against a cotton pad. That's what my grief feels like. I suppose I'm not overly distraught, but there's a sorrow bottled up within me. I don't know how to let it out.
"There really isn't much I can do to help with your investigation. I can only ask you to find her killer and allow me to lay her to rest. As a mother, I'm a complete and utter failure. This is the very last thing I can do for her. I want to do it well."
"No, there's definitely a lot you can do to help us. For example, giving us a more complete picture of Sha Chun," Xiao Yu'an said. "Has Sha Chun been a hard worker ever since she was young?"
Yong Huan looked a little confused at that. "Hard worker?"
"Rather," Xiao Yu'an amended, "please talk about what kind of student Sha Chun was."
Yong Huan lowered her head and began to think back. "I suppose she was a very hardworking child, that can't be denied," she began. "Truthfully, Sha Chun wasn't particularly bright. Her teachers only ever praised her for being 'diligent'. You know, when a teacher evaluates a student, the first word they use is always the student's best quality. Throughout her life, Sha Chun's teachers always judged her as hardworking, diligent, and assiduous."
"But never 'smart'," Xiao Yu'an said.
"That's right. When she was in middle school, she had some extremely intelligent classmates. She put in several times more effort than those other students, but still couldn't match their test scores," Yong Huan said. "I didn't put much pressure on her. Even if her grades weren't spectacular, her father and I would have been able to send her overseas with our connections.
"But she was eager to excel. Whenever she scored poorly in a subject, she would study like her life depended on it to do better on her next exam. She didn't like relying on us, I understood that part. But her enthusiasm and diligence were genuine."
"Like her life depended on it," Xiao Yu'an echoed slowly.
"Yes," Yong Huan said. "She was never willing to admit that she lacked talent."
"You mentioned Sha Chun was making money outside the association," Xiao Yu'an said, changing the subject. "Do you know what she was doing?"
Yong Huan nodded. "She was teaching at a training school, 'Jianjia Bailu'. She didn't need many qualifications to get the job."
After leaving the Performing Arts Association, Ming Shu headed straight for Sha Chun's home in the Jiachuang neighborhood.
Real estate prices in Dongye City had soared in recent years. It was likely that Sha Chun was struggling to make ends meet. Her two bedroom, one living room apartment was decorated very, very sparsely. She didn't even have a sofa or coffee table in her living room. There was only a table and a few plastic stools. The whole place looked only half-furnished.
There was no bed in the bedroom. Instead, a camping tent had been set up. Inside the tent, Ming Shu found a thin futon, a bamboo sleeping mat, and some bedcovers. Outside the tent, two identical wardrobes stood against the wall.
"This is weird," Fang Yuanhang said. "This kind of tent isn't actually cheap. It might even be more expensive than a bed. If Sha Chun was strapped for cash, she could have bought a simple bed frame and mattress. This tent is way more troublesome, and she couldn't have saved much money either."
"She may not have chosen to sleep in a tent for the sake of saving money," Ming Shu said.
"Then why?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "You can tell just by looking around this place that Sha Chun didn't have much cash."
"You just said this tent isn't cheap," Ming Shu said. He stooped down in front of the tent and peered at the fairy lights and small bookshelf inside. "Sha Chun clearly put up a tent like this because she liked it. She enjoyed lying inside. To her, this was like a small, enclosed haven. It was her peaceful, romantic little world."
Fang Yuanhang broke out in goosebumps. "Chief, you're a grown, one-point-eight-something meter man…"
Ming Shu got up. "Hm?"
"What kind of princessy fantasies are you having!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed.
Ming Shu kicked him.
The other bedroom had been soundproofed and converted into a rehearsal space. Various instruments—including a guzheng, guqin, erhu, and pipa—lay around the room, and audiovisual recording equipment was present as well.
Compared to the almost barren living room and bedroom, this rehearsal room was nothing short of extravagant.
"She was recording her own practices?" Ming Shu mused as he lightly nudged the guzheng.
Fang Yuanhang opened a simple closet in the other room. "Chief, there are tons of performance costumes in here."
While instructing the technical investigators to look into Sha Chun's computer, Ming Shu headed back into the other bedroom to meet up with Fang Yuanhang. One of the wardrobes in that room contained everyday clothes, while the other was solely dedicated to performance outfits.
"Generally speaking, performance clothes would be left at the office," Ming Shu mused as he took out one outfit. "Unless the performer would be leaving for another show from home."
"But there's way too much here," Fang Yuanhang said. "It's like she bought these herself."
Long before Ming Shu and the others arrived, Xiao Man and the trace evidence detection team had thoroughly swept the house. Besides Sha Chun, no one had left any footprints, fingerprints, or hairs in the apartment.
"Sha Chun led a completely solitary, undisturbed life. After work, she sank into her own private world," Ming Shu said. He moved into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator, which was very clean and tidy. No malodorous scents drifted out. Inside, Ming Shu saw yogurt, milk, cider, apples, and an unopened set of Lancôme skin care products. "She enjoyed this sort of solitude."
Fang Yuanhang took out the milk and yogurt to have a closer look. "Chief, the date of production was August 22nd."
"Before she was killed, Sha Chun bought groceries," Ming Shu said. He suddenly got the feeling a contradiction had arisen in their investigation. "It seemed she was still planning her future, without any awareness of the danger that awaited her. But her actions on the night of her murder were extremely strange, like she was creating a cover for her killer.
"Why did she willingly meet with her killer? Was the killer someone she knew very well? Did she not expect that person to harm her?"
One of the tech investigators called out from the other room, "Captain Ming, Sha Chun was a content creator."
"What?" Ming Shu was so engrossed in his own thoughts that he didn't hear the first time.
"Content creators upload their work to the internet," Fang Yuanhang said. "They make videos for video hosting sites, or music for music streaming platforms."
Ming Shu was familiar with the concept. He returned to the rehearsal room, where a tech investigator had already loaded up one of Sha Chun's videos.
Sha Chun didn't show her face in that video. She played the guzheng while wearing a light, white muslin outfit that looked almost ethereal.
"Sha Chun couldn't have been feuding with someone online, right?" Fang Yuanhang mused.
"Killed over an online grudge?" Ming Shu asked.
In recent years, murders over online grudges had become increasingly common. But compared to revenge killings over real world grudges, murders over online disputes were still rare. These cases of internet vengeance were simply placed under a microscope, causing them to receive a lot of public attention. In the eyes of the public, a misconception had been born—people tended to think internet grudge killings were far more common than they actually were.
In reality, murders over online grudges were limited by many factors. For one thing, obtaining a target's personal information was often no easy matter. For another, location was typically a prohibiting factor. If a killer and victim were in the same city, then that made things easy for the killer. But if one was located in the northeast while the other was located in the southwest, with a whole country between them, traveling to seek revenge wouldn't be something any ordinary person could do.
Fang Yuanhang watched the video for a while longer. "Sha Chun never showed her face," he observed. "And we already know that no one visited her home. Unless she revealed it of her own accord, it's likely no one could have identified her."
Ming Shu paid even closer attention than Fang Yuanhang. "Online grudges typically fall into one of two broad categories," he said. "One, both parties dislike each other and frequently argue. These feuds are common within gaming circles and political circles. Two, one person is targeted by someone who envies or hates them one-sidedly. These sorts of malicious intentions are often directed towards someone with a certain degree of visibility or fame.
"Now, let's consider Sha Chun. She's a content creator, but look at her latest video—it was uploaded this January. More than half a year has passed, and she's only gotten thirty hits. Not a single comment. No bullet comments, either."
The tech investigator quickly navigated back to the homepage of Sha Chun's channel, where all her videos were clearly displayed. She'd uploaded her first video three years ago, and had uploaded over two hundred videos since then. She only had seven followers, and her most popular video only had seventy-two hits.
"This seems to be a self-indulgent hobby of hers. Who would envy her enough to wish her harm?" Ming Shu asked. "Her audience would have a hard time seeing her even if they wanted to."
Fang Yuanhang frowned and gave that some thought. "Just a minute ago, I was wondering if Sha Chun might be some sort of super popular content creator," he said. "Her equipment is all so professional, and she even has a closet full of performance clothes. But she barely has any hits. It's hard to believe she kept it up for three years. Does this prove she really doesn't have much natural talent?"
Although the chances of Sha Chun being harmed over an online grudge weren't high, Ming Shu couldn't turn a blind eye to this detail. Since they'd discovered her activities as a content creator, he ordered the technical investigation team to look into all communications from her various social media accounts.
Then, at just that time, Xiao Yu'an called.
"Director Xiao," Ming Shu greeted. With so many onlookers nearby, he adopted a proper and professional tone.
"Where are you?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Jiachuang neighborhood," Ming Shu answered forthrightly. "We found something that may or may not qualify as a clue."
"Alright. Let's talk about it together when you get back," Xiao Yu'an said. "Head out to 'Jianjia Bailu' for now. Use your GPS, it isn't far from Jiachuang."
Ming Shu understood right away. "That's where Sha Chun was moonlighting?"
"Yes. Act as you see fit when you get there."
The full name of 'Jianjia Bailu' was 'The Jianjia Bailu Traditional Culture Learning Center'. The name sounded quite formal, but it was actually just a series of workshops run out of a residential building.
In recent years, traditional culture had become something of a fad among young people. Traditional music frequently went viral online. Many hanfu societies, etiquette classes, and traditional instruments workshops had popped up during the craze. The organizations with better funding could rent space in a proper office building, but most simply rented a room in a residential building and put out a sign to advertise their classes. Even these slapdash workshops could attract a fair number of students.
When Ming Shu arrived at 'Jianjia Bailu', three middle school students were taking calligraphy lessons from a young man. Farther inside, a clamor of discordant pipa and erhu music rang out.
The receptionist mistook Ming Shu as a prospective student and greeted him warmly, serving up a cup of herbal tea. "Are you here for lessons, sir? Or are you looking into some classes for your girlfriend?"
"Girlfriend?" Ming Shu asked curiously.
The receptionist smiled. "Most of our students are women."
Ming Shu was in no rush to reveal his true identity. "Oh? What kind of classes do you offer?"
"So you are asking for your girlfriend, then?" the receptionist confirmed. "The best classes for girls are the pipa, guzheng, bamboo flute, and…"
Ming Shu interrupted her there. "No, I'm interested in taking lessons myself."
The receptionist's eyes brightened. "Ah, of course. What kind of instrument are you interested in, sir?"
Ming Shu strolled towards the room where the music seemed to be coming from. "Can I take a look around?"
"Oh, of course." The receptionist hurriedly caught up to lead the way.
The apartment had been constructed as a residential abode. The entryway and living room were tiled, while the inner rooms and hallways had hardwood floors. The receptionist's high heels clacked dully against the floorboards as she walked along.
Ming Shu subconsciously looked up at the ceiling. It seemed plenty of people came and went from this place every day. If their downstairs neighbors couldn't take the disturbance of such heavy foot traffic, they likely would have lodged a complaint with property management by now.
The sound of music coming out of each room must have been a nuisance as well.
Before coming up to this apartment, Ming Shu had done his research on the building. Most people who lived there were residents. It wasn't the sort of apartment building that had already been converted into a working space.
"This is our pipa classroom," the receptionist said as she pushed open one door. A teacher who looked to be in her twenties was currently having a one-on-one lesson with a ponytailed girl.
The receptionist called it a 'classroom', but it was really just a small bedroom.
Ming Shu smiled and hummed his acknowledgement.
The receptionist opened another door. "This is our erhu class. If you'd like to pick up an instrument, I would recommend the erhu."
"Why is that?" Ming Shu asked.
"There are quite a lot of boys learning the erhu," she answered.
Ming Shu detected a hint of unnaturalness in her eyes. "Is that the only reason?"
"Well…" The receptionist shifted, seemingly embarrassed. "In truth, we've only been open for a few months. We advertise classes for all traditional instruments, but we don't have quite enough instructors. The guqin and the xiao, for example. We haven't found a teacher for these instruments yet."
Ming Shu folded his arms. "I see."
Sensing that her 'customer' was losing interest, the receptionist quickly added, "But our pipa and erhu teachers really can't be beat! The pipa is great for girls, and the erhu is perfect for boys. Sir, why don't you give the erhu a shot?"
The receptionist was in her early twenties. Tall, with a pretty face. But she wasn't the strongest conversationalist and seemed prone to pouting and batting her eyes at male customers.
Ming Shu took a step back. "I saw a decorative guzheng out in the lobby," he said. "And your advertisement outside highlights your guzheng course as well. I'm guessing this is your speciality?"
"Sir, you're so smart!" the receptionist praised, batting her eyes.
"I'd like to enroll in the guzheng course," Ming Shu said. "Is there a teacher you would recommend?"
"Ah, that…" The receptionist faltered again. Her chin trembled. "Actually, the guzheng doesn't suit men at all."
The image of Xiao Yu'an playing the guzheng drifted through Ming Shu's mind. He smiled and insisted, "But I'd like to learn the guzheng."
"I… I'll look that up." The receptionist hurried back to her computer. She moved her mouse and clacked at her keyboard for a bit before she reluctantly said, "I'm very sorry, sir. But none of our guzheng teachers are available at this time."
"What a shame," Ming Shu said. "I heard there was a guzheng teacher named 'Sha Chun' who worked here…"
Before he even finished speaking, Ming Shu saw something out of the corner of his eye. The right hand of the young man teaching calligraphy in the living room suddenly froze.
It was an extremely small tell, but it just so happened to fall in Ming Shu's line of sight.
A drop of ink fell from the tip of the teacher's brush and splattered against a sheet of paper. The teacher quickly ripped that sheet away and balled it up.
One of his students innocently pointed out, "Ling-laoshi, your hand is shaking too!"
The teacher shot Ming Shu a nervous look, only to find Ming Shu looking back at him. He quickly averted the gaze and quietly told the student, "Laoshi just got a bit distracted."
"My friend said," Ming Shu continued, picking up where he'd left off, "that Sha Chun is a professional musician with the Performing Arts Association. I came because I thought that was quite impressive."
The receptionist clearly didn't seem to know anything about Sha Chun's murder. "Sha Chun-laoshi is indeed our best guzheng instructor," she answered honestly. "But she's very busy, and she can't come in every day. She had a class last night, actually, but she didn't show up. For you, sir, I would still recommend…"
Just then, a flurry of hurried footsteps sounded out in the corridor. A woman in her thirties rushed in.
Ming Shu stepped out of her way.
The woman who'd just arrived instantly started talking to the receptionist. "Contact everyone who was taking lessons from Sha Chun," she said. "Tell them Sha Chun has left the country to study abroad. We'll arrange a substitute instructor for her students."
"Huh?" The receptionist was too stunned to react right away. She subconsciously looked at Ming Shu. "This gentleman just asked about…"
"Are you the boss here?" Ming Shu asked.
The woman's expression was quite imposing. "You are?"
Ming Shu took out his badge.
The woman inhaled sharply.
"Since you're in such a rush to assign Sha Chun's students to a new teacher, I presume you already know what's happened," Ming Shu said. "Let's find an empty room and have a chat, shall we?"