"Qu Xing and Ling Xuzhi are both significant suspects. One of them is extremely arrogant, and one of them suffers an extreme inferiority complex. They both exhibit ways of thinking that can't be considered 'ordinary'. And neither of them have a solid alibi."
Ming Shu slapped his notebook down on the table in front of him and lifted a hand to thumb open the button at the top of his dress shirt.
"But if it was a homicide, Ling Xuzhi probably wouldn't have had any way of coercing Sha Chun into meeting him at the association at night. They weren't close. To Sha Chun, he was just a normal colleague who'd said hi to her a few times. Pretty much everyone else Sha Chun knew from the workshop was closer to her."
The Serious Crimes Division had already combed through Sha Chun's interpersonal relationships from 'Jianjia Bailu'—
Since she started teaching the guzheng in April, Sha Chun had taken a total of thirty-seven students. There were both children and adults among her students. Some still attended school, some were already working. Some took private lessons with her, and some took group classes. In terms of who she was closest to, Sha Chun was naturally closer to the students who took private lessons with her.
She had only given private lessons to ten students, and only two of them had still been taking lessons with her at the time of her death.
"Liu Mei, a model. Claims she started learning the guzheng in her free time because of a love of traditional arts. Wang Dan, a junior high school student. She's only taken two classes with Sha Chun so far. Both of their cell phones contained selfies with Sha Chun," Ming Shu recited. "Next, the eight private lessons students who'd already completed their courses with her…"
"Was one of them called 'Wu Zhen'?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu looked up. "Ge, how did you know?"
"This person named 'Wu Zhen' disappeared in late June of this year," Xiao Yu'an said. "The local police went to 'Jianjia Bailu' to investigate."
The information provided by Shi Hanshan and the information Xiao Yu'an had received through their internal network were completely different.
Shi Hanshan said Wu Zhen had left Dongye City for work, so he'd temporarily stopped taking lessons at their establishment. The field work team hadn't expected Shi Hanshan to boldly lie about something like that. They'd moved on to verifying the circumstances of the other students without digging deeper into Wu Zhen, so Ming Shu had yet to learn of Wu Zhen's disappearance.
Xiao Yu'an had already transferred Wu Zhen's case to them. Ming Shu rushed to take a look at the files.
Wu Zhen, originally a resident of Xunchuan in Longhe City, was forty years old. In his youth, he worked as a chief news editor at the city's television network in Longhe. Then, riding the entertainment renaissance, he pivoted and entered the film and television industry. Before coming to Dongye City, he'd already interviewed in several large cities and worked as an assistant screenwriter on several movie and drama sets.
As the film industry boomed, it became more chaotic as well. Assistant screenwriters typically worked with celebrities and investors to write scripts on the fly, often deleting critical scenes and replacing them with bizarre sequences to please the higher-ups.
Nine years ago, Wu Zhen arrived in Dongye City and joined Lightflow Arts & Culture Media as a professional screenwriter.
He worked for that company until his disappearance. When he suddenly couldn't be reached and failed to turn in a script in time, his manager had reported him missing.
In the eyes of Wu Zhen's family members, his job as a news editor had been a stable way of making a living. The entertainment industry, on the other hand, was full of unethical actors and celebrities. When he'd insisted on quitting in order to pursue a career as a screenwriter, he'd fought fiercely with his family and cut all ties with them.
Back in June, the local police had gotten in touch with Wu Zhen's family and discovered he hadn't visited in over ten years since he left his hometown. Wu Zhen's father had passed away three years ago, and his mother was supported by her two daughters.
"To us, he isn't a gege at all. He has no conscience! He didn't come back when our father passed away, and in all these years he's never once sent any money home. My little sister and I have been taking care of everything," said Wu Lin in a rage. She was the older of Wu Zhen's two sisters. "If he's disappeared, then he's disappeared. It has nothing to do with our family! If he dies somewhere on his own, that would be perfect. We don't want anything to do with his corpse!"
Due to a lack of leads, that case had hit a dead end. And Dongye City saw countless missing persons cases every year. They were handled by local police posts or district precincts; usually, there was no need to escalate these cases to the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
"Wu Zhen disappeared in June, and Sha Chun was killed in August…" Ming Shu muttered to himself while hugging his arms. "What was the connection between them?"
"It could be a coincidence," Xiao Yu'an said. "Perhaps Wu Zhen just happened to be Sha Chun's student."
Ming Shu hastily turned around. "Ge, if you really believed that, you wouldn't have transferred Wu Zhen's case to us."
"I can't unilaterally decide there's a connection between these two cases, but these two cases involving people from the same workshop did take place in a span of less than three months. Both cases are still currently unresolved, and the victim in one was the student of the victim in the other, in private lessons. So I also can't ignore the possibility of a connection," Xiao Yu'an said. "Based on the case files from Dong District, my idea of Wu Zhen is still very hazy. I need to get a clearer idea of what this person was like."
Ming Shu instantly understood what needed to be done. "I'll look into it!"
Lightflow Media, where Wu Zhen had worked up until his disappearance, was located in a middle-class residential neighborhood. That neighborhood was half office buildings, half tightly packed residential townhouses. The layout was quite bizarre.
"Do all companies like having their offices in residential neighborhoods these days?" Fang Yuanhang wondered. "Renting a townhouse isn't much cheaper than renting space in a proper office building."
"It would be even more expensive than a cheap office space, but it's far cheaper than a luxury office building in the heart of the city," Ming Shu said. He'd already spotted the sign for Lightflow Media as they approached. "For some companies, a place like this is both more affordable and more suitable. Besides, in a proper office building, the office can only be an office. Here, the office can double as a dormitory."
As soon as they entered the house which had been converted into an office, Fang Yuanhang swore under his breath. "Holy fuck."
The outside of the house was gorgeous, and the main office was beautifully decorated. But beyond that, all other offices were crowded and disorganized. The third floor had been remodeled into a group dormitory. Each room was small, and most were windowless. Some of the employees who'd stayed overnight were still sleeping. Others were already typing away at their computers, wearing vests and shorts. They occasionally looked up, with fatigue and disorientation flashing through their eyes.
All these employees were screenwriters employed by Lightflow Media. Unless absolutely necessary, they practically never left their workstations from morning to night.
The man in charge of greeting guests was named Ou Xianghe. He was in his thirties, and he claimed he was the head of the screenwriting department. But as soon as Ming Shu showed his credentials as a detective, the man panicked and practically tripped over himself in his haste to make a phone call.
It was obvious from just one glance that this office was in violation of numerous regulations. That was what made Ou Xianghe panic.
"I'm not interested in your company's business practices," Ming Shu said. "I'm here to understand the situation regarding your missing employee, Wu Zhen."
Ou Xianghe's eyes were full of distrust. "Didn't you guys look into that a long time ago?"
"Has Wu Zhen come back to work?" Ming Shu retorted.
Ou Xianghe blinked, bewildered. "No."
"Then that's why we're here, isn't it?" Ming Shu said. "A missing person. No one has seen him or his corpse. Why would we not continue to investigate?"
Anxiety clouded Ou Xianghe's face. "But I've already told you everything I know. I handed over all the information I had last time. Wu Zhen was just one of our screenwriters. I really don't know why he would suddenly disappear."
According to Ou Xianghe, although Lightflow Media was officially called Lightflow Arts & Culture Media, they were really only a small company that mass-produced scripts.
There were at least fifty companies like this in Dongye City. They took in young and inexperienced people hoping to break into screenwriting, and they promised free room and board, with lavish bonuses for good performance. Then they put their recruits to work, making them churn out script after script, writing and editing from day to night.
And when those scripts were eventually made into TV dramas, the writers' names definitely wouldn't be in the credits.
The script would be credited to some well-known screenwriter or a reputable studio.
In the screenwriting industry, people were divided into 'classes' as soon as they entered the field.
The newcomers with esteemed mentors were first-class. They were offered promising jobs as soon as they joined the industry, and they could put their own name on their work right away. Their mentors were veteran screenwriters who were already well-established in the industry, with plenty of resources and connections of their own.
To put it plainly, these mentors dedicated all their own resources to fostering their apprentices' careers. And those apprentices were all either well-connected people or exceptional talents.
The second-class screenwriters were the ones affiliated with a proper studio. They took a set amount of work every month. In the end, their name might or might not appear in the credits, but they would always receive a rather substantial bonus for their work. Although they never became as prestigious as those first-class screenwriters, they could make a living and maintain a healthy, dignified lifestyle.
And the last class was composed of people like Wu Zhen. They were corralled by inferior screenwriting companies and made to write nonstop. The lucky ones received bonuses, and the others could only live off their base salary. Much of their work was discarded, never to see the light of day, and their names never made it into the credits of any drama or movie.
"How tragic," Fang Yuanhang said. "They never even get to put their name on their work. What's the point of doing this sort of work?"
Ming Shu flipped through the work logs provided by Ou Xianghe. He quickly discovered that Wu Zhen hadn't written television or movie scripts since last September. For the past year or so, he'd been working exclusively on promotional scripts for government agencies, schools, and various companies.
"It's like this," Ou Xianghe said. "People say film and TV scripts sell like hotcakes these days, but funding is limited. Once you enter this agency, you realize you still have to have talent for this work, even if there's a huge demand for these scripts.
"Wu Zhen has been with our company for many years, and he's on the older side. Most of our screenwriters are under thirty. Some have only just come of age. Wu Zhen was always extremely dedicated, but he just lacked the natural talent and feeling that good screenwriters need. He was ambitious, though. He wanted to write his own screenplay and get it made. But how could he accomplish that?
"He just wasn't skilled enough. Since he couldn't write anything good, it's been… awkward. His salary has never been high," Ou Xianghe continued. "We could afford to keep paying him, and he did keep producing work, so it wasn't a problem. But last year, he suddenly approached me and asked to stop writing drama and movie scripts for a while. He wanted to write something that could make him some money, fast.
"The fastest way to make money here is to write promotional scripts for the government. These are all short videos, just a few minutes long, and the clients are easily satisfied. Plus, they pay quickly."
Ou Xianghe paused and sighed. "But I don't think Wu Zhen was very happy making that money. People who work as screenwriters all hope to have their work made into movies or TV dramas. Wu Zhen has been trying to make it in this field for such a long time. At his age, he had to face the truth and compromise."
Wu Zhen's room had been in a corner on the third floor. It was tiny, and he ate, slept, and worked there. Of course, shortly after he disappeared, the company had hired someone new, and that room had become the newcomer's room. There were already no more traces of Wu Zhen's presence left in there.
Ou Xianghe also mentioned that Wu Zhen's belongings were now stored in the basement. The detectives were told they could check them or take them away as they pleased.
Fang Yuanhang rushed down to the basement.
Ming Shu spoke with Ou Xianghe some more. When he asked about Wu Zhen picking up the guzheng, Ou Xianghe looked shocked. Ou Xianghe later guessed that Wu Zhen might have wanted to write a historical drama, and thus had sought out a professional to get some advice.
"Old Wu is a very hardworking person," Ou Xianghe concluded. "It's just too bad. He's too stubborn. I heard he used to be a news editor at a TV station. Even though editing is a part of screenwriting too, these two careers are incredibly different. Old Wu… he just didn't have the talent or the luck to make it in this industry. If I were him, I would have sought out a new career path a long time ago."
"Hardworking and talentless, again!" Fang Yuanhang later exclaimed, when this information was shared. "Chief, Wu Zhen and Sha Chun had something in common!"
"Two hardworking people who seemed to be working at all the wrong things. One has been killed, and the other has been missing for two months," Ming Shu mused. A heavy cloud of contemplation hung over him. "When someone is missing for that long of a time, they've either been killed or they're in hiding. If Wu Zhen has also been killed, then could this be a serial killer targeting diligent people?"
Fang Yuanhang grit his teeth. "If that's really the case, then this killer is too vile!"
"If Wu Zhen is still alive…" Ming Shu murmured to himself, under his breath. "What connection would he have to Sha Chun's death? The situation at 'Jianjia Bailu' might be even more complicated than we'd imagined."
Criminal Investigation Bureau. Serious Crimes Division.
"'Jianjia Bailu' has a total of three investors. Shi Hanshan, Liang Lu, and Li Ke," Xu Chun reported. "We've looked into all three of them already. Nothing suspicious. Shi Hanshan comes from a pretty well-off family. Her parents gave her the money to start 'Jianjia Bailu'. Before this, she'd opened a women's shoe store, a beauty salon, a cubbyhole marketplace, and an inn. She took a loss on most of those places, but 'Jianjia Bailu' is currently turning a profit.
"As for Liang Lu and Li Ke, these two are Shi Hanshan's friends. They were talked into investing, but they don't have anything to do with the day-to-day operations of the place," Xu Chun continued. "Liang Lu was someone Shi Hanshan met while they chased the same idol, and Li Ke operates a home application company. He has a wife and kids, and he has an 'improper' relationship with Shi Hanshan."
Hearing that, Fang Yuanhang instantly perked up. "Could it be that Sha Chun and Wu Zhen found out about the affair between Li Ke and Shi Hanshan, and…"
"You're overthinking it. The affair isn't a secret at 'Jianjia Bailu'," Xu Chun said. He lifted the file in his hand and smacked the top of Fang Yuanhang's head. "Li Ke's marriage is a marriage in name only. He and his wife both have their own fun outside their marriage. They don't interfere with each other."
"Which is to say, none of the three investors have a clear motive to commit this crime. Based on their personalities and life experiences, they don't seem like the type capable of murder, either." Ming Shu leaned back in his big office chair. "There are a lot of clues in Sha Chun's case, each leading us in a different direction. Now, we have Wu Zhen in the mix as well. If we pursue the wrong lead, we could start making one mistake after another."
"That's what I'm concerned about too," Yi Fei said. "We still need to discuss whether or not we should really be investigating Sha Chun's case and Wu Zhen's case as though they're related. They're only similar in two ways. One, they were both extremely hardworking and poured their souls into their work. Two, Wu Zhen once studied the guzheng with Sha Chun. Specifically, he took a one-on-one course with her. That means they had plenty of time to interact, privately.
"But merging these cases now still feels a bit rash. The social circles of Wu Zhen and Sha Chun don't have much overlap. If they were killed by the same assailant, why would their killer target the two of them? If the missing Wu Zhen was the one who killed Sha Chun… that's even more bizarre. Why would one hardworking person kill another?"
Ming Shu suddenly said, "That's a good way of looking at it."
"Hm?" Yi Fei asked.
"One hardworking person killing another. Because that kind of killer, who's hardworking themselves, understands that this hard work won't ever yield any results," Ming Shu said. "In Wu Zhen's eyes, Sha Chun was like a mirror. She reflected his own diligence back at him, showing him everything he didn't want to see. She was a copy of his failures.
"How many years did Wu Zhen suffer and toil in the screenwriting industry, trying to make it big? He had already been crushed and defeated by reality. Physically and emotionally, he was exhausted. By taking on short promo scripts starting last year, he may have finally admitted to himself that his hard work was all for naught.
"Sha Chun's existence reminded him of his own futile struggles. He was a joke. And Sha Chun was one too."
"If that's what Wu Zhen was thinking, he's beyond twisted," Yi Fei said.
Ming Shu picked up the tablet on the table and flipped through a few photos. "Come take a look. This was where Wu Zhen lived and worked."
It was a small and cramped space with books and papers piled up all over the place. A thick layer of dust had accumulated over the window. And in the background of many of those photos, the other workers' dead, wooden eyes could be seen.
Yi Fei sighed. "Living in an environment like that for a long period of time can indeed drive someone crazy."
"Not only that," Ming Shu said. "In order to pursue this dream, Wu Zhen gave up a comfortable job. He gave up his family. He worked day in and day out for years, trying to find a path to achieve his goals, only to discover in the end that no such path existed. Only to discover he'd become a failure of a middle-aged man.
"Assuming he's the killer, he may have believed he was helping Sha Chun by killing her. He may have thought he was freeing her. Sha Chun was only in her early thirties, and Wu Zhen was already forty. Maybe he thought he was sparing her the indignity of continuing a miserable life until her forties."
"It doesn't quite check out," Xiao Yu'an suddenly interjected. It was only then that everyone realized he'd been listening in for a while.
Xiao Man hurriedly put out his cigarette. He even glanced over at Ming Shu, as though to say, See? I'm so well-behaved.
Ming Shu stood up. "Director Xiao."
"If we go along with Captain Ming's hypothesis and assume Wu Zhen killed Sha Chun, how should we explain his disappearance? Has he been laying low for the past two months to make us believe he's missing?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "After remaining missing for two months, how did Wu Zhen contact Sha Chun? How did he compel her to meet him at the Performing Arts Association?"
Ming Shu furrowed his brow.
"Let's all think about it," Xiao Yu'an continued. "If Wu Zhen planned on killing Sha Chun, didn't he create a problem for himself by disappearing early? The police would definitely search for a missing person. That means he positioned himself as a person of interest before even committing his crime. How could he commit his crime after drawing attention from the police? Did he pretend to go missing for no reason?"
"Then," Ming Shu prompted, "what do you think of all this, Director Xiao?"
"Of the two points Captain Yi mentioned earlier, if only the latter point were true—that Wu Zhen took classes from Sha Chun—I wouldn't believe we had the grounds to consider these two cases related," Xiao Yu'an said. "But both victims being 'talentless' people who worked hard to change their lives… that's something I can't let go."
Yi Fei nodded thoughtfully.
"We have a lot of unanswered questions laid out in front of us. With the clues we have now, we can only forge some rational theories. But no matter how rational they are, speculation will only ever be speculation. There's always a chance our speculation will lead us farther from the truth.
"Sometimes, reality is irrational." Xiao Yu'an lightly knocked his fingers against the edge of the table, then continued, "The case of Wu Zhen's disappearance is still open. If we find him, we may also find some new information relating to Sha Chun's death. Or we may at least be able to eliminate some of the possibilities that are currently misleading us."
The Serious Crimes Division split up after that, investigating Sha Chun's case and Wu Zhen's case in tandem.
The technical investigators worked overtime, combing through vast quantities of surveillance footage and internet and communications records to verify that the last time Wu Zhen was pictured on a surveillance camera was June 21st.
And Lightflow Media had reported him missing four days later, on the 25th.
The last time Wu Zhen used his cell phone was also June 21st.
"Huh?" Zhou Yuan rubbed his reddened eyes. Muttering to himself, he mused, "He was seen on the 21st, so he disappeared on the night of the 21st or early in the morning of the 22nd?"
He picked up the milk tea that Ming Shu had brought over and slurped down a gulp. "If he was killed, then wasn't he just like Sha Chun? Killed… on a Sunday?"