Ming Shu instantly thought of Ling Xuzhi.
Why had his hand trembled when he heard Sha Chun's name? Why had he looked on, obviously nervous, while the tech investigators pulled up the teachers' information?
"But that would be even more complicated than what we just discussed," Xiao Yu'an said. "If Sha Chun's death was a homicide, then we can shrink our pool of suspects to Qu Xing and a portion of the teachers and students at Sha Chun's workshop. Nearly all homicides are motivated by strong feelings of malice.
"But if Sha Chun committed suicide, then we have a contradiction on our hands."
Ming Shu closed his eyes tight. While listening to Xiao Yu'an's analysis, he recalled every detail of Ling Xuzhi's speech and behavior.
"For ordinary people, murder is a crime. If caught, they would pay with their own life. Only a small percentage of people have the capacity for murder. Whether or not Sha Chun wanted to die, the person who strangled her has marked themselves as a killer. They'll be the one to pay the price.
"The 'assistant' in her hypothetical suicide would have to face the immense pressure of killing someone, as well as the pressure of possibly being caught and punished." Xiao Yu'an gently tapped the end of his pen against his notebook. "Even with the threat of these two pressures, this 'assistant' was willing to help Sha Chun commit suicide. Sha Chun must have been important to this person. They must have been willing to take the risk for her."
Ming Shu lifted his head. "Since Sha Chun was so important to this person, how could they kill her? And were they important to each other, or was this a one-sided obsession? Sha Chun wasn't well-liked at work, and she wasn't exceptionally talented. If she was important to this person, then this person was probably important to her as well.
"And even if they aren't caught, killers live in fear and apprehension for the rest of their lives. With her suicide, Sha Chun escaped all her problems. But this 'assistant' has to live on. Their life is ruined. If this person was so important to Sha Chun, would she have selfishly asked them to go so far for her?"
"That's exactly the contradiction I mentioned. We're missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Without that piece, this isn't logical." Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Currently, this case is leading us in two directions. It could have been a homicide, or it could have been a suicide. The clues we have point to homicide as the more likely and logical answer, but suicide…"
Ming Shu waited for a moment. "Ge, what do you want to say?"
Xiao Yu'an pinched the spot between his brows. "If we can find a logical explanation for that contradiction, I would be more inclined to believe Sha Chun orchestrated her own death."
Qu Xing owned two luxury apartments in the city. One of them was only ten minutes away from Jiangnan Theater by car.
On the night of Sha Chun's death, surveillance cameras in the neighborhood of that apartment by the theater showed Qu Xing getting home at 10:37 PM. He didn't leave again that night.
But even in these upscale, luxury apartment complexes, the surveillance cameras had their blind spots. If Qu Xing knew exactly where those blind spots were, he could have snuck back out after getting home to create the illusion of having been home all night.
Ming Shu ordered the tech investigators to keep digging into the surveillance footage from that area.
In many murder cases, surveillance footage from the time of the murder failed to provide critical evidence. But sometimes, earlier footage from the same cameras could provide insight into a suspect's daily routine.
Going through countless hours of surveillance footage was dull and boring work. Everyone looked like they wanted to fall asleep, but the tech investigators concentrated fiercely on the footage that played in fast forward.
Suddenly, Zhou Yuan slammed the pause button and shouted, "Come look! Isn't this Sha Chun?"
After the image was enlarged and enhanced, the person on camera was confirmed to be Sha Chun.
At 7:01 PM on May 29th, Sha Chun arrived at Qu Xing's apartment. She stayed for two hours before leaving. Qu Xing didn't appear on camera the whole time. He didn't come out to greet her or to send her off.
Notably, Sha Chun's condition when she arrived and her condition when she left were vastly different. When she arrived, she seemed quite calm. Perhaps even a little happy or excited. But when she left, her posture and expression all exuded gloom and despair. The cameras had even caught her dabbing at her eyes with a tissue. She seemed miserable, like she had suffered a devastating attack.
Happiness had turned to gloom. It must have had something to do with the person she met.
During the interrogations of the traditional instruments department members, no one mentioned a relationship between Qu Xing and Sha Chun. Qu Xing himself also claimed he and Sha Chun weren't very familiar with each other.
"It seems you and Sha Chun weren't as 'unfamiliar' as you claimed," Ming Shu said. He turned the tablet and showed Qu Xing the surveillance footage from May 29th.
Qu Xing looked at the tablet. Ming Shu kept his gaze fixed on Qu Xing.
Unlike most people in the traditional instruments department, Qu Xing was obviously an 'artiste'. He looked the part. He wore a black, lightweight suit with the top three buttons of his dress shirt undone. A necklace cascaded over his collarbones. His hair was longer than the average man's; it was pulled back into a loose bun with a black hair clip.
"Sha Chun once visited your home and stayed for two hours," Ming Shu said. "During those two hours, what did you do?"
Qu Xing finished watching the surveillance footage, then unexpectedly smiled. "What did we do? We exchanged our thoughts about our art, of course."
"Exchanged your thoughts. In what way?" Ming Shu asked, unaffected by Qu Xing's bizarre reaction. "Seeing as you and Sha Chun were on good enough terms for her to visit your home to exchange these thoughts, you must not have been 'unfamiliar' with her. We haven't noticed any of your other colleagues visiting your home."
Qu Xing was still smiling. He folded his hands under his chin. "I've realized something."
"Go ahead and tell me," Ming Shu said.
"Sha Chun is already dead. No matter what I say now, you'll have no way of proving whether I'm telling the truth or not. Correct?" Qu Xing raised his eyebrows expectantly. "You can only choose to believe me, or choose not to believe me. And you already consider me a suspect, so no matter what I say, you definitely won't believe me."
"Watch your attitude!" Fang Yuanhang warned fiercely.
"My attitude?" Qu Xing threw back his head and laughed before gazing at Fang Yuanhang with contempt in his eyes. "An utter plebeian like you dares to warn me about my attitude?"
"I do consider you a suspect," Ming Shu confirmed. "But you and I have different amounts of information. I can't know for sure whether or not you're Sha Chun's killer, but you do know. On the matter of who killed Sha Chun, you're a more reliable source of information than I am. Your words bear more weight than my guesses.
"Furthermore, you aren't my only suspect. So why do you feel I won't believe what you say?"
When Ming Shu spoke these words, Fang Yuanhang protested with a silent scream. Qu Xing also froze. The look of unbridled disgust on his face faltered for a moment.
"There isn't much I want to learn from you," Ming Shu continued. "I only want to know, what was Sha Chun doing at your home? And what did you think of her?"
He paused and glanced around the room they were in. "Look around yourself. This is a simple questioning session, not an interrogation. I haven't called you in for a formal interrogation, because I'd like to hear what you have to say before deciding how to proceed."
Qu Xing eyed Ming Shu with suspicion. It seemed he was thinking this detective wasn't what he'd imagined.
Ming Shu didn't rush him. He waited until Qu Xing shifted in his seat before he moved. Ming Shu placed both hands on the table and asked, "You've made up your mind?"
"I invited Sha Chun to my home," Qu Xing said. "Her playing was just too awful. All her 'diligence' was useless. I just couldn't stomach it anymore."
"You planned on coaching her?" Ming Shu asked.
"You plebs like to call yourself 'diligent' and 'hardworking', but when that hard work is aimed in the wrong direction, you're just wasting your time and effort." Qu Xing flashed a cold smile. "Sha Chun was that type of person. I was struck by a sudden whim that day. I decided to give her some pointers. When I invited her, she was thrilled. Such a fool."
"It was just a whim?"
"You can believe me or not."
"Alright," Ming Shu said. "Let's say I believe you for now. How did your 'exchange' go that day?"
"Tsk, it solidified what I already knew to be true. Sha Chun was a complete waste of space." Qu Xing carded a hand through his hair with visible irritation on his face. "I shouldn't have bothered coaching her."
"You criticized her?"
"Criticized? No, I simply did her the kindness of informing her that there was no point in her working so hard in the future."
"After that day," Ming Shu continued, "did you have any other interactions with Sha Chun?"
Qu Xing shook his head. "She was too ashamed to face me again."
"After the performance on Saturday night, you didn't ask Sha Chun to meet up with you?" Ming Shu asked.
"Why would I want to meet with her again?" Qu Xing suddenly frowned. "You think I tricked Sha Chun into going to the association by promising to teach her again? You think I killed her there?"
Ming Shu didn't answer, but his eyes bored into Qu Xing's.
After a moment, Qu Xing smiled coldly again. "Didn't you say there wasn't much you wanted to learn from me? But you have quite a lot of questions. If you people think I killed Sha Chun, then go investigate and find your evidence. If you can prove it was me, punish me. If you can't… hah, then that just proves you're all fools. Just like Sha Chun."
"That guy is way too arrogant!" Fang Yuanhang exploded as soon as they left the questioning room. "He's banking on us not being able to find any evidence? Just looking at him makes me think of Hou Cheng. We found evidence of Hou Cheng's crimes in the end, didn't we?"
Yi Fei had watched the entire questioning session on a monitor outside the room. "I'm much more suspicious of Qu Xing now. Someone as bold and arrogant as him can do things that ordinary people can't even conceive of."
"If Qu Xing isn't the murderer, he could've simply explained things to us properly. There was no reason for him to take such a bratty attitude with us. It doesn't benefit him at all," Ming Shu said. "'If you can prove it, punish me. If you can't, you're fools.' That kind of talk basically paints him as the culprit."
After saying that, Ming Shu offered a different perspective. "But it's like you said. Someone as arrogant as him can do things that are inconceivable to ordinary people."
Yi Fei furrowed his brow. "He's playing us?"
"We can't rule out that possibility," Ming Shu said. He asked Fang Yuanhang to get him a bottle of iced honey tea, then drank more than half of it in one go. "This kind of person is extremely troublesome. We can't just analyze him through conventional means. Maybe everything he does is 'on a whim' or 'just for fun'.
"He invited Sha Chun to his home in May on a whim. Maybe he's leading us around on a wild goose chase now, as another whim of his."
Fang Yuanhang didn't completely agree with that. He insisted, "But he really is suspicious."
"That's right, he's a suspect. We can't avoid spending time and resources looking into him," Ming Shu said. He paused for a moment, then continued, "We can't ease up on the investigation into Qu Xing, but if he isn't the killer.."
Yi Fei flashed a bitter smile. "Then it'll be a complete and utter waste of our resources."
While looking into Qu Xing, the Serious Crimes Division continued to run through potential suspects from 'Jianjia Bailu'. Ming Shu paid special attention to Ling Xuzhi. Some surveillance footage surfaced, disproving Shi Hanshan's claims that Ling Xuzhi and Sha Chun didn't have much to do with each other.
Calligraphy and traditional painting classes were held in the living room. Only instruments courses had private classrooms. Sha Chun always had to pass through the living room when she came and went. Whenever she appeared, Ling Xizhu followed her with his eyes.
Because their schedules didn't line up perfectly, Ling Xizhu could only see Sha Chun on Tuesdays or Saturdays. The surveillance footage and statements from the calligraphy students proved Ling Xizhu had often taken the initiative to speak to Sha Chun.
Ling Xizhu was a student at Dongye City's University of Fine Arts. His financial records showed that he'd bought tickets to nine consecutive performances by the traditional instruments orchestra, all in May of that year.
"The tickets for these nine showings, with the seats you chose, would have cost over 660 yuan each. For nine showings, that would be a total of nearly 7000 yuan. For a student like you, this isn't a small expense, is it?" Ming Shu asked. "Ling Xizhu, you didn't go to these performances to listen to the music. You went to see Sha Chun."
"That's nonsense!" Ling Xizhu's chin and throat were both tense. His facial muscles seemed to spasm uncontrollably. He had only been brought in for questioning a short while ago, and he was already sweating profusely from the armpits and chest.
He wasn't a very tall man. He wore a cheap shirt that didn't do anything to hide the sweat pouring from his pale skin. From head to toe, inside and out, he seemed deeply distressed.
Not long ago, Qu Xing had sat in that same seat. Compared to Qu Xing, Ling Xizhu was overly nervous. Every single minute reaction of his told the detectives, I'm the killer! I regret everything! I'm scared!
"Your family isn't particularly well off. You apply for scholarships and financial aid every year," Ming Shu continued. "Before coming to work at 'Jianjia Bailu', you worked various part-time jobs at similar workshops. Your peers and professors all say you're very frugal. That's evident from the way you dress."
Ming Shu folded his hands together and leaned forward, putting a bit of pressure on Ling Xizhu with his gaze. "The only time you spent extravagantly was when you paid almost 7000 yuan to watch nine nearly identical concerts. That squandered all your hard-earned savings."
Ling Xizhu's pupils constricted, and he started to shake.
"And before that, you didn't show a particularly strong interest in traditional music. When you started working at 'Jiangjia Bailu' in March, Shi Hanshan gifted you teachers some tickets to traditional instruments concerts as a bonus. What did you do with your ticket?" Ming Shu asked rhetorically, already knowing the answer.
Ling Xizhu was unable to meet Ming Shu's gaze. He hastily looked away. His lips trembled.
"You sold it," Ming Shu said. "Then, just over a month later, you paid out of pocket to view nine traditional music concerts. How do you explain that?"
After a moment of silence, Ming Shu continued, "In April, Sha Chun started working at 'Jianjia Bailu'. You became fascinated, and you wanted to see her perform on stage. After seeing one concert, you were even more deeply enthralled. You couldn't stop, you couldn't get over her."
"No, no!" Ling Xizhu shook his head frantically. "It isn't what you think!"
"What do I think?" Ming Shu countered.
Ling Xizhu's eyes were streaked with red. The tendons in his neck bulged out, like they could explode at any second.
"You watched nine of Sha Chun's performances," Ming Shu said. "Did Sha Chun know?"
Ling Xizhu started shaking his head, then changed his mind and fiercely nodded instead.
"No, Sha Chun didn't know," Ming Shu said. "Sha Chun didn't know someone paid to see her perform nine times, and she didn't know you adored her. You secretly watched her and admired her from afar, where she wouldn't notice you. Let me take a guess as to why."
"Stop! You don't have to say anything else!" Ling Xizhu suddenly bellowed. "You don't understand at all!"
Ming Shu nodded. "Okay, I don't understand. Then would you care to explain?"
Ling Xizhu fell silent again.
"You have low self-esteem. You thought, because you come from a poor background, you had no right to pursue Sha Chun. If you confessed, she would definitely reject you," Ming Shu said. "Every time you met her at 'Jianjia Bailu', you tried to talk to her. But you only ever exchanged casual greetings as colleagues."
Ling Xizhu clasped his hands tightly over the table. His sweat stains grew bigger.
"The more you longed for Sha Chun, the more you believed you weren't good enough for her. She was a dazzling goddess of the stage, and she had a steady job. She owned an apartment. You, on the other hand, are just a student who relies on scholarships and financial aid to stay in school." Ming Shu began to speak more quickly, and his eyes grew sharper. "Suddenly, you understood. Because of this distance between you, you would never be with Sha Chun!
"But you couldn't accept that Sha Chun might be claimed by someone else, so you came up with a plan—you decided to make her belong to you in death!"
"No!" Ling Xizhu rorared. "It wasn't me! I didn't kill Sha Chun! You people are framing an innocent man!"
Ming Shu swiped across the tablet in front of him, flipping through a set of photos. Sha Chun was pictured in every one.
The field work team had found a box under the bed in Ling Xizhu's dorm room. That box was full of printed photos, all featuring Sha Chun. They all seemed to be candid shots, and judging by the backgrounds, Ling Xizhu had secretly followed Sha Chun home from work several times.
Furthermore, in Ling Xizhu's art studio, the field work team discovered many hidden sketches of Sha Chun.
Ling Xizhu was extremely talented. He was an expert calligrapher, and he was a good artist as well. When he created works of art with Sha Chun's name, his calligraphy was akin to a blooming flower swaying in a springtime breeze.
"You can prove me wrong," Ming Shu said, spreading his hands and inviting Ling Xizhu to speak. "Tell me once more. When I went to 'Jianjia Bailu' for the first time, why were you so nervous?"
"I only stalked her!" Ling Xizhu declared, his voice trembling. "The worst I ever did was stalk her, okay? I never harassed her, I never let her know I liked her. How could I possibly have hurt her?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "Liking someone and wanting to hurt them aren't mutually exclusive feelings."
After a moment, he continued, "Where were you on Saturday night?"
"I was at school…"
"You weren't at 'Jianjia Bailu', and you weren't at the University of Fine Arts," Ming Shu interrupted. "We've already checked. Don't waste your time on these lies."
Ling Xizhu swallowed back whatever he was about to say. He stewed in silence for a while before finally admitting, "I was near Jiangnan Theater. I knew the traditional instruments department was putting on a performance, but they weren't selling tickets to the public for that showing. I wanted to see Sha Chun."
He stammered and stuttered as he spoke, taking a moment before he continued, "But from the time their department arrived to the time they left, I didn't see Sha Chun."
"And then?" Ming Shu asked.
"I was in a bad mood, so I didn't go back to my university for a while."
"You must have gone somewhere."
"I just walked around…"
Ming Shu lightly furrowed his brow. "You still haven't explained why you were nervous when I mentioned Sha Chun."
"I thought Sha Chun knew I was stalking her and called the cops!" Tears suddenly started to fall from Ling Xizhu's eyes. "I didn't… I didn't know until later that she had been killed!"
After saying that, Ling Xizhu gripped his face tightly. The room filled up with his sobs.
At the same time, Xiao Yu'an received some news from their internal network. Earlier that year, in June, the Hulin police post in Dong District had gone to 'Jianjia Bailu' to investigate a missing persons case.
The case concerned a man named Wu Zhen. Forty years old. He'd studied at 'Jianjia Bailu' in April and May, then left because he was dissatisfied with the courses.
The local police hadn't really expected 'Jianjia Bailu' to have anything to do with Wu Zhen's disappearance. They'd only gone to ask around as a formality.
And that missing persons case was still unresolved.