The woman's name was Shi Hanshan. She was a self-proclaimed lover of traditional arts and culture. Earlier that year, in March, she and a few friends put together their savings and opened 'Jianjia Bailu' as a hub for spreading their love of traditional arts.
When she told Ming Shu all this about herself, she spoke without much genuine enthusiasm or confidence. Ming Shu could tell right away that she didn't harbor any real 'love' for traditional arts at all. She simply wanted to ride the wave of interest in these arts and earn some money while she could.
There wasn't actually anything wrong with that. Ming Shu hadn't come to 'Jianjia Bailu' to critique the quality of their service.
"How did you meet Sha Chun?" Ming Shu asked. "When did she start working here?"
"My friends and I agreed our workshop would highlight the guzheng, because the guzheng is the most popular traditional instrument these days. For most ordinary people, the guzheng is the most appealing instrument," Shi Hanshan said. "For a small organization like ours, hiring teachers is easy. But hiring professionals is more of a challenge.
"Before we opened, I asked around at the conservatory and the Performing Arts Association, but no one was interested in working for us. We couldn't pay all that much, either.
"Later, in April, our business started taking off. We had lots of people interested in learning the guzheng, but our teachers were all amateurs. They could only teach the basics. I thought that was unacceptable. We advertise the guzheng as our speciality, so I was convinced we needed a professional for those courses."
"So you went to the Performing Arts Association again?" Ming Shu asked.
"Yes, and this time I got lucky. I just happened to meet Sha Chun," Shi Hanshan said. "I told her we were in desperate need of a professional guzheng instructor. I said she could name her price, and as long as we could afford it, we would pay her anything. As much as she wanted.
"She accepted without much hesitation, and she didn't ask for an exorbitant salary either. She came in two evenings per week, and she taught day classes once a week—either on Saturdays or Sundays, her choice. I only had to pay her a little under eight thousand yuan per month."
Abruptly, Ming Shu asked, "Who was the gentleman teaching calligraphy outside just now?"
Shi Hanshan looked surprised. "His name is Ling Xuzhi, a second-year in college. What about him?"
"This Ling Xuzhi… was he especially close to Sha Chun?"
"No, not at all. He and Sha Chun didn't have much overlap in their teaching schedules. I haven't really seen them speak to each other."
Ming Shu nodded and made a mental note to check their surveillance footage later. "Was Sha Chun involved in any unusual incidents while she worked here?"
"No, she was polite and extremely professional," Shi Hanshan said. "She didn't just teach her students. She would sometimes help our other guzheng instructors as well. Everybody liked her."
Ming Shu fell deep into thought.
If Shi Hanshan was telling the truth, then Sha Chun had vastly different experiences at her main job and her side job.
Her colleagues at 'Jianjia Bailu' liked her, while her colleagues at the Performing Arts Association looked down on her.
Ming Shu could guess the reason from what he knew. At the Performing Arts Association, Sha Chun was considered relatively unskilled. But at 'Jianjia Bailu', she was the most skilled and professional teacher around.
Sha Chun could have been said to have no friends at all among her peers at the Performing Arts Association. There, she lived under constant pressure. But perhaps, at 'Jianjia Bailu', she'd found an environment where she could relax.
Once she relaxed, she may have made friends. And after spending prolonged periods of time with these nicer colleagues, she could have developed feelings of trust and dependency.
Before Sha Chun was killed, she'd made her way out to the Performing Arts Association of her own accord. She didn't seem to be afraid or alarmed. There was no indication that she was being manipulated or controlled.
That meant she must have known the person she was meeting at the Performing Arts Association. She must have trusted them. She listened to their instructions, avoiding surveillance cameras and paying her cab fare in cash. Everything she did helped that person maintain their anonymity.
"I need a list of Sha Chun's students," Ming Shu said. "As well as a list of the rest of your staff."
Shi Hanshan was shocked. "It couldn't possibly be one of our teachers who hurt her."
"If you aren't involved in this case," Ming Shu said, "you have no means of personally exonerating anyone else."
The technical investigation team rushed to the scene. They pulled the surveillance footage, as well as lists of Sha Chun's students and fellow teachers.
The receptionist was probably too innocent and naive for her own good. It seemed she still didn't realize something had happened to Sha Chun. Ling Xuzhi, on the other hand, seemed to have sensed that something was wrong. He repeatedly snuck glances at the tech investigators while they worked.
His subtle movements didn't escape Ming Shu's notice.
Upon returning to the Bureau, Ming Shu headed straight for Xiao Yu'an's office.
Xiao Yu'an handed him a boxed lunch as soon as he arrived. Before Ming Shu could speak, he advised, "Don't rush yourself. Eat first."
"I'm not hungry," Ming Shu claimed, though he still opened the lid of the takeout container as he spoke.
He'd spent all morning running around nonstop, visiting three places of interest. So it wasn't that he wasn't hungry. He was just so hungry that he could barely feel it anymore.
Previously, when he got into such a state, he would continue forgetting to eat. He couldn't be bothered to get himself a proper meal, so if he did eat, he would just pick up some bread. But now Xiao Yu'an was here. If Ming Shu didn't take good care of his body, Xiao Yu'an would make him take good care of it.
"Ai, it's like I have a naggy parent watching over me," Ming Shu muttered as he lifted a piece of fish with his chopsticks. His lunch contained three dishes and a serving of rice. It had clearly been ordered from a proper restaurant.
"Not 'like'," Xiao Yu'an corrected.
Ming Shu glanced up. "Sure, sure, sure. You are my parent."
He ate quickly. While throwing out the emptied box in the hallway, Ming Shu caught sight of himself in a mirror and saw that his face was a bit dirty. He hastily rushed off to wash his face. Water sluiced down his neck, wetting the collar and front of his shirt.
Xiao Yu'an passed him a towel when he returned. "What did you find?"
Ming Shu gave his chest a cursory wipe, then draped the towel over his shoulders. "There are too many clues and suspicious details. I need to organize my thoughts."
"Take your time," Xiao Yu'an said. "Unpack what you've learned, one thing at a time. I've already received a brief of your investigation thus far. It's true that Sha Chun's decision to go to the Performing Arts Association on Saturday night and enter through the desolate door to the west was bizarre."
"Right. On my way back, I kept asking myself, why would she do that?" Ming Shu said. "First possibility, the killer instructed her to act that way. And the killer was someone she trusted. Otherwise, a woman wouldn't have gone to such a dangerous place by herself, in the middle of the night.
"In that case, the question becomes… just who did she trust? How did that person convince Sha Chun to listen to their demands? If this theory proves true, then the chances of the killer being from the Performing Arts Association are low. It's more likely Sha Chun met this person somewhere else, like…"
"You're overlooking one possibility," Xiao Yu'an interrupted.
"This person doesn't necessarily have to be someone Sha Chun trusted," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu frowned and gave that some thought. "They could have used music to 'trick' Sha Chun?"
"Exactly." Xiao Yu'an picked up his tablet and loaded up the footage of Yong Huan's interrogation. "Sha Chun's mother said that Sha Chun has been 'ungifted' since she was a child. Sha Chun worked to achieve greatness like her life depended on it, and that was her most outstanding trait. Sha Chun valued progress and improvement above all else.
"Imagine this for a moment. Let's say one of Sha Chun's colleagues asked her if she had free time on Saturday evening. Let's say they asked to practice a new arrangement with her. What do you think Sha Chun would say?"
"You mean Sha Chun's killer is Qu Xing, Sun Jing, or Lu Hui? One of these three?" Ming Shu asked. "If we rule out the people from the logistics team, these three are the only ones who don't currently have an alibi."
"I'm just presenting a possibility which falls in line with your line of thinking," Xiao Yu'an said. "You were nearly prepared to rule out every member of the Performing Arts Association as suspects.
"We just received word from the tech investigators that Lu Hui went to a bar with friends after the concert on Saturday night. There's ample surveillance footage to prove this, so Lu Hui does have an alibi. As for Qu Xing and Sun Jing, they both said they were tired after the concert and went straight home. But so far, there's no one who can corroborate their stories."
Ming Shu instantly pulled up their files on Qu Xing and Sun Jing.
Qu Xing. Male. Thirty-three years old. Pipa player.
Sun Jing. Female. Twenty-nine years old. Guzheng player.
Sun Jing and Sha Chun were both primarily guzheng players. In any workplace, colleagues who fulfilled the same role were often compared to each other. It was common for them to compete with each other as well.
In the traditional instruments department, Sun Jing wasn't considered an exceptionally talented guzheng player either. In their ensemble, the one widely known as a gifted guzheng player was Fu Zheng, who did have an alibi for the time of the murder.
Compared to Sha Chun, Sun Jing was far more conniving. She did a much better job of fitting in at the association. Whenever Ran He mocked Sha Chun, Sun Jing would chime in with a few vicious words of agreement.
Qu Xing, on the other hand, was a different type.
Ji Yue had said that the association sometimes hired 'outstanding' candidates with solid recommendations. Qu Xing was one such candidate. He was the most talented musician in the traditional instruments department.
"Qu Xing and Sun Jing both have conceivable motives," Xiao Yu'an said, flipping open a notebook. There were a few words scribbled across the pages, but most of the space was taken up by sketches. "During your last meeting, you guys theorized that the killer could have envied Sha Chun's diligence. This killer may have wanted to be as diligent as Sha Chun, but was unable to reach her level. They may have feared that Sha Chun would leave them in the dust.
"Sun Jing would fit the mold of that killer. She and Sha Chun both played the guzheng. The better Sha Chun got, the worse Sun Jing would appear in comparison. Sun Jing hated Sha Chun, and when Sha Chun became more skilled through her hard work and diligence, Sun Jing's hatred grew out of control."
Ming Shu studied Xiao Yu'an's notebook from a distance.
He knew that notebook.
When Xiao Yu'an contemplated a case, he could cast a wide net and refocus on the important details. It was an investigative skill that could only have been forged through experience and natural talent. He 'mapped' his thoughts in that notebook and carried it with him at all times. That was a habit Ming Shu had learned from Xiao Yu'an.
"Now let's look at Qu Xing," Xiao Yu'an continued. "Qu Xing can't possibly envy Sha Chun, but he could harbor an even more twisted sort of hate. There's no question that he's a prodigy when it comes to the pipa. A prodigy who looks down on an ordinary person could be driven by one of two feelings—pity or contempt. Qu Xing could have felt sorry for Sha Chun, or he could have detested the fact that a talentless person like Sha Chun was playing the guzheng, thus desecrating the music he loved."
"Cutting off her hands…" Ming Shu thought about that for a moment. "They both could have been driven to take her hands. One to prevent her from practicing more, and one to prevent her from 'desecrating' the guzheng."
"But practically speaking, between the two of them, it's much more likely for Qu Xing to be the perpetrator. I mentioned this earlier—the possibility that the killer lured Sha Chun out in the middle of the night through music. Qu Xing has that power," Xiao Yu'an said. "I've watched all the tapes from the interrogation sessions with the people from the association. More than one person mentioned that Qu Xing is arrogant, and at times unpredictable. Sometimes he's gentle, and sometimes he's vicious.
"But since he has an 'outstanding' talent, and since he's always been professional, no one has ever expressed any dissatisfaction towards him. If Sha Chun had received his invitation to meet up, I suspect she would have leapt at the chance. Not only would she have gone, she would have done everything he asked."
"No suspicious communications were found on Sha Chun's phone or in her internet records," Ming Shu said. "That means the killer must have spoken to her in person. Qu Xing would have had the opportunity to speak with her, face to face. Plus, after leaving Jiangnan Theater, Sha Chun was delayed for nearly an hour before she got into a cab.
"Before, I just couldn't understand what held her up for so long. Even if she wanted to avoid being seen by surveillance cameras, it wouldn't have taken that long for her to find a cab. But if she was following Qu Xing's instructions, then it would all make sense—Qu Xing was at the performance on Saturday night.
"At 10:17, Qu Xing and three other people left Jiangnan Theater together. They were the first group to leave after Sha Chun, and they took the same route. Qu Xing couldn't have Sha Chun arrive at the Performing Arts Association before him, so he made her wait!"
"Mm." Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Qu Xing fits one idea of our killer, but he isn't our only suspect. Just now, you said the killer is probably someone Sha Chun trusts. Someone she would be willing to meet late at night. That would be someone she met at 'Jianjia Bailu', correct?"
Ming Shu hurriedly got back on the subject of his own theories. "To Sha Chun, 'Jianjia Bailu' had a much better atmosphere than the Performing Arts Association. She was their primary guzheng teacher, and in a month of part-time work, she made less than eight thousand yuan. For her profession, that sum falls in the mid-to-low range of what she should expect to make.
"But Sha Chun was willing to continue working there. The pressure of her mortgage could have been one reason, but I suspect she also stayed because she was comfortable there."
"We can most likely consider her mortgage a secondary motivation," Xiao Yu'an said. "If she was really desperate to make ends meet, she could have named a higher price."
"That's what I was thinking too," Ming Shu agreed. "We have to look into everyone at 'Jianjia Bailu' who was in contact with Sha Chun. I suspect the killer could very well be one of her students. There's also a calligraphy teacher named Ling Xuzhi whose reaction to our presence was strange. When I mentioned Sha Chun, he froze."
"Alright. That narrows down the scope of our search." Xiao Yu'an lifted his chin at Ming Shu. "That was your first theory. What was your second?"
Ming Shu fell silent for a moment, then shook his head. "The second is a bit of a stretch, and I've already found some evidence that would disprove it."
"You believe," Xiao Yu'an prompted, "that Sha Chun was the one who orchestrated her 'murder'. The killer was only a tool in her suicide?"
Ming Shu drew a deep breath. "Sha Chun stalled for time, evaded all the surveillance cameras on her way, and entered through the deserted west side of the building… when I take all her actions into consideration, I can't help but wonder.
"Plus, ge, there's an extremely subjective detail I haven't told anyone about yet—on Saturday, during the performance, Sha Chun held my attention the whole time. I sensed a sort of sorrow from her. Now that I think back, I have to wonder if that sorrow came from the knowledge that she would die in the near future? Maybe she couldn't help feeling sad and scared."
"That isn't unreasonable," Xiao Yu'an said. He stood up and fetched Sha Chun's autopsy report. "During your meeting yesterday, Xing Mu brought it up, didn't he? Sha Chun barely struggled before her survival instincts kicked in. It was only later in the attack that she began to fight back. If she'd planned her own death, she wouldn't have struggled when she was strangled. Her instincts would only cause her to reflexively resist when she was already near death."
"I've also been considering her potential reasons for suicide," Ming Shu said. "Maybe after working tirelessly her whole life, Sha Chun was finally forced to accept that she was mediocre. To an ambitious person who'd worked so hard, that sort of realization could be devastating. Even fatal.
"And Sha Chun's home doesn't look like a home at all. She only has a few basic wardrobes. She doesn't have a couch, TV, or coffee table in the living room. None of the things an ordinary household would have. She spent all her money on her practice room. It's been three years since she moved into that place, and it was also three years ago that she started uploading videos of her music to the internet."
Although Xiao Yu'an hadn't gone to Sha Chun's apartment, he'd already watched those videos.
"The tech investigators are currently looking into Sha Chun's internet presence," Ming Shu continued. "So far, they haven't found any evidence of her having fought with anyone before. Besides browsing some music-related sites, she only ever used the internet to upload her own videos.
"Why did Sha Chun upload all those videos? What was she expecting to gain? We have no way of asking her these questions now. But if we consider the ordinary person, they definitely wouldn't diligently upload so many videos just for their own self-satisfaction. They must be seeking the approval of their viewers."
"If she received approval online, she could in a way make up for the lack of support she received from her real life colleagues," Xiao Yu'an mused. He sighed. "But even on the internet, her diligence earned her no applause."
"That's why I think Sha Chun could have fallen into a state of utter despair. She gradually realized her efforts were in vain. 'Talent' had decided the course of her life a long time ago." Ming Shu scrubbed his hands over his face, then continued, "But then I found myself thinking this doesn't actually make sense.
"Ge, Sha Chun didn't have a bed in her room. She had a tent, which was carefully decorated. This tells us she was a sensitive, romantic person. And before her death, Sha Chun went out and bought milk and yogurt. We found them in her refrigerator. When we consider all those facts, she doesn't seem like a person who'd given up on life at all."
"What if she'd done that on purpose?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu froze. "What?"
"A romantic nature and suicidal tendencies aren't mutually exclusive," Xiao Yu'an said. "People with strong notions of romanticism often struggle to accept a cruel, harsh reality. So we may be able to set aside the matter of the tent for now. You did discover milk and yogurt in her refrigerator, but did you only discover milk and yogurt in her refrigerator?"
Ming Shu's pupils suddenly shrank.
The refrigerator hadn't contained only milk and yogurt. There were also apples, cider, and cosmetics.
All the contents had one thing in common—they wouldn't go bad in a short span of time.
"I've seen the pictures. The milk has a shelf life of twenty-seven days, and the yogurt a shelf life of fifteen," Xiao Yu'an said. "Which is to say, they wouldn't have gone bad too quickly. Cider and cosmetics could also be left in the refrigerator for a year or more without spoiling. As for apples, they're one of the easiest fruits to keep for a long time. They wouldn't start to go bad for at least ten to fifteen days."
"It would've taken at least ten days for any of these things to start emitting a bad smell!" Ming Shu exclaimed, suddenly putting the pieces together. "Sha Chun used these things to give herself the appearance of someone who was content with her life. Her body most likely would have been discovered before ten days had passed, so the police would search her place and find this 'evidence' of her will to live.
"She didn't want her place to emit a vile stench when we searched it, so she chose to stock the refrigerator with things that had a long shelf life. She avoided the summer fruits that rot easily. Grapes, peaches, watermelon…"
"If she planned on disguising her suicide as a homicide, she naturally would have gone out of her way to make sure it was a solid disguise. She would want to make sure we don't question her will to continue living," Xiao Yu'an said. Then, with a slight shift in his voice, he mused, "But who could have aided her in her 'suicide'?"