MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 51: Endless (Part Eleven)

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Wu Zhen, perhaps because he was older than Sha Chun, was more of an enigma.

Ming Shu sent Xu Chun to Wu Zhen's hometown to investigate. As soon as Xu Chun arrived at Wu Zhen's old home, Wu Zhen's two sisters and brother-in-law shooed him away.

Longhe was a small city, and the Xunchuan district was even smaller. And small towns like that all had one thing in common—when something happened, even if it wasn't really something significant, the whole town found out about it in the blink of an eye.

In Xunchuan, Wu Zhen had become a 'household name'. And he was a scar the Wu family didn't wish to talk about.

More than twenty years ago, Wu Zhen had been one of the rare residents of Xunchuan to go on to college. His grades were good, and he worked hard. From elementary school to high school, he served as an example that other families used to educate their own children.

"Why don't you work harder? Just look at Wu Zhen!"

"How many points did Wu Zhen score on his finals? And how many did you score? You think you have any right to go out and play?"

"Wu Zhen went home to do homework again. When will you become as studious as him?"

After four years of college, Wu Zhen came home under a banner of glory. Before he even graduated, he held an internship at the TV station in Longhe City. His boss personally promised that a formal job would be waiting for him as soon as he graduated.

To the people of Xunchuan, working as the chief news editor in Longhe City was a prestigious thing. It was something that brought glory to the entire Wu family. Wu Zhen's mother and father praised their son to anyone who would listen, and Wu Zhen's little sisters also basked in their older brother's success.

But in the prime of his career, Wu Zhen resigned.

At first, this didn't set off much gossip in Xunchuan. Although Wu Zhen's family members were enraged, the citizens of Xunchuan didn't think it was that big of a deal. They all thought Wu Zhen was so smart and clever. As a young man, he had every right to strike out on his own and find his path to riches. If he resigned, he must have done so with a plan in mind. That plan would surely allow him to make it big, instead of settling for a stable but mediocre job.

But year after year passed, and news of Wu Zhen gradually dwindled.

Some people said they saw Wu Zhen out in another city, miserable and defeated. He didn't have a proper job, and he didn't even have a permanent place to live.

If it was one person who'd said this, most people would have ignored it. But more and more young people came back to Xunchuan with the same news—that Wu Zhen was working as a screenwriter, but no one would buy his scripts. He was destitute, half alive and half dead.

Some people believed that, and some simply didn't want to believe it.

A few people went to ask the Wu family directly, but Wu Zhen's father had a temper. Whenever the subject of Wu Zhen came up, he would explode. The curious townspeople could only stew silently in their own curiosity.

But if Wu Zhen had been doing well in the big city, then his family definitely wouldn't react this way.

That all but confirmed the rumors—Wu Zhen had become a failure. A nothing, a nobody. Poor and destitute.

Many people seemed to enjoy watching a promising person collapse into a complete wreck, especially those who had been pressured by that promising person's existence all throughout their lives.

The parents who always praised Wu Zhen as a glowing example for their own kids harbored some degree of jealousy towards the Wu family; they all secretly wished their own children would excel and succeed in grander ways than Wu Zhen. They wanted to brag about their own children as well.

And the kids who'd grown up hearing all about Wu Zhen's greatness had started hating him a long time ago.

Once people learned Wu Zhen was doing horribly after throwing away his promising future, they started to gossip. They dredged up all the details of Wu Zhen's past and even added their own twists and spins to make the story more compelling.

For a long time, the people of Xunchuan brimmed over with arrogant pride due to the news of Wu Zhen's total collapse.

Though most of them weren't highly educated, the townspeople learned words like 'writer's block' and 'burnout' to snidely discuss Wu Zhen's fate.

The Wu family simply couldn't accept the man Wu Zhen had become. To them, he was a disgrace.

Because Wu Zhen's family members were uncooperative, Xu Chun wasn't able to obtain any valuable clues from them. He was just about to pay a visit to Wu Zhen's old school when he noticed a shady middle-aged man lurking behind a tree across the street from the Wu family's house.

As soon as Xu Chun made eye contact with that man, the suspicious figure turned tail and bolted towards an alleyway.

And who was Xu Chun? None other than the most formidable member of the Serious Crimes Division's field work team. Up until a few years ago, he'd been an elite member of the Special Police Force. Ming Shu had personally poached him, leaving Lu Yanzhou rather upset for a long while.

To Xu Chun, catching up to a middle-aged man fleeing in a panic was a walk in the park.

"Ah!" the suspicious man cried out when his hands were grabbed and forced behind his back. "Let me go! What are you doing?!"

"Why were you running?" Xu Chun barked.

"I…" The man stammered for a while. "I wasn't running."

"That's the story you wanna stick to?"

"Release me first."

Xu Chun wasn't afraid of the guy taking off again, so he released his arms. "Who are you? Why were you hiding behind that tree?"

The man was so terrified that his whole face was sweaty. Instead of answering, he countered, "You're the officer who came to investigate Wu Zhen's disappearance, right?"

Xu Chun instantly became more keenly interested in the man's words. "What do you know?"

The man glanced towards the Wu family's house. Hesitation flashed through his eyes. Finally, he weakly uttered, "Come with me. I have something to tell you cops."

Xu Chun was an adept fighter, and he was armed with a gun; he wasn't afraid of walking into some trap. But the man's actions truly were too suspicious. Xu Chun was a little hesitant to follow him down the alleyway, towards his home.

The man let out an awkward laugh. "Look, it's not like I can beat you in a fight."

All the buildings in Xunchuan were short and small, and this man's house was the same. Xu Chun walked inside and watched as the man took an ID card out from a drawer.

Luo Xiu. Forty years old.

Same age as Wu Zhen.

Xu Chun took the ID and examined it. The man in the photo and the man standing in front of him looked a little different, but it was undeniably the same person.

Although he'd done many years of field work, Xu Chun had never seen someone introduce themselves by handing over their ID card before.

"I didn't have my ID on me, so nothing I said would have mattered," Luo Xiu said. "Please, have a seat. I'll get you a glass of water."

Xu Chun remained alert. "What connection do you have to the Wu family?"

"Wu Zhen and I are childhood friends." Luo Xiu sighed. "After he left this place and cut all ties with his family, I was the only person he would sometimes call. Some years ago, he would even send me letters."

Xu Chun thought back to the details of their investigation. The technical investigators had already looked into Wu Zhen's communications records, and they didn't find any hints of Wu Zhen contacting anyone from back home within the past six months.

"But in the past few years, we've talked less and less often. Before you came here, you must have already heard. He's made a mess of his life," Luo Xiu said with a gloomy look. "In June of this year, Wu Zhen suddenly called me. I was surprised."

"June?"

Wu Zhen disappeared in June!

"Mm." Luo Xiu nodded. "The call came from a number I didn't recognize. I didn't know it was Wu Zhen before I answered. He asked me how I was doing lately, then he asked me how my kids were doing at school. He usually never made small talk like that. Right away, I started thinking he might have called because he needed to tell me something important.

"And just as I expected, after I answered his questions, he waited a while… then asked me for a favor."

"What favor?" Xu Chun asked.

"He asked me to check in on his mother during New Year's every year, and he asked me to bring a wreath to her funeral, in his name, when she passed. That's our custom here. When one of our elders passes, their children are expected to make and present a flower wreath." Luo Xiu picked up his phone and found the call log. "Look, here it is."

Xu Chun took a look. The number was a landline from Dongye City, and the call had lasted six minutes and thirty-one seconds. The call had come in at 2:15 on June 21st.

"I thought it was a very strange call. Talking about taking care of his mother over the holidays, and bringing a wreath to her funeral… it sounded like something was going to happen to him," Luo Xiu said. "I asked him what was going on, I asked him if he was struggling with something. But he said there was nothing, and he told me not to overthink it.

"Before he hung up, he told me not to tell anyone about the call. Not even our family members. He asked me to just do him this favor, as brothers who grew up together."

"Are you aware that Wu Zhen is missing?" Xu Chun asked.

Luo Xiu sighed as he nodded. "Yes, the police came to investigate a while ago."

"Then why didn't you tell them the truth?" Xu Chun demanded hotly.

Luo Xiu shook his head. "I grew up with Wu Zhen. He trusted me, and I promised to keep his secret. I didn't want to sell him out."

"You thought Wu Zhen wasn't missing," Xu Chun realized. "You thought he'd done something and was on the run."

After a moment, Luo Xiu reluctantly nodded.

Xu Chun was nearly speechless. "Then why were you willing to tell me now?"

"I thought Wu Zhen would contact me again. I thought he would ask me for help, if there was anything I could do," Luo Xiu said. "But from then until now, Wu Zhen never contacted me again. I really don't know anymore. I don't know if he hurt someone, or if someone hurt him."

Xu Chun quickly sent this information back to the Serious Crimes Division. The number that had been used to call Luo Xiu was quickly traced to a little kiosk on Yilu Street in Dong District of Dongye City.

 

These days, everyone had a cell phone. Landlines were becoming more and more rare. Little kiosks were being replaced by chain convenience stores too. Even the kiosks that still existed had mostly stopped offering public phone services.

But Yilu Street sat near the outskirts of Dongye City, in a rather shabby area that had yet to be developed. Little shops and kiosks that had been built last century still stood in that neighborhood, and those shops still had a public-use phone sitting on their check-out counters.

"The surveillance camera in that kiosk has been broken for ages," Fang Yuanhang reported over the phone. "But the boss has a good memory. He still remembers Wu Zhen. He said it was so rare for someone to come use the phone that he was left with a deep impression.

"After making his call, Wu Zhen bought some bottled water and cigarettes. All that was normal, but surprisingly Wu Zhen bought a bag of Lang Wei Xian crisps too. The boss at the kiosk showed me his ledger from that day. During the time after Wu Zhen's call, there really was a sale of Lang Wei Xian."

Ming Shu sat next to Zhou Yuan's desk and listened in. "Lang Wei Xian?"

"It's strange, right?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Chief, can you imagine an uncle in his forties, eating a bag of Lang Wei Xian while walking down the street? He's not a little kid."

Ming Shu instantly called Xu Chun, who was still in Xunchuan. "Luo Xiu and Wu Zhen were close friends as kids. Ask Luo Xiu what kind of snacks Wu Zhen liked when he was little."

When Luo Xiu was asked that question, he gave it a moment's thought before answering, "Lang Wei Xian."

Lang Wei Xian was a snack food that had become all the rage among children at the end of the last century. Because of its distinct taste, it quickly got a hold of the market.

Today, Lang Wei Xian could still be found in supermarkets, but the fad for them had long since passed.

"Uncle Wu never ate stuff like that, I remember perfectly well. Because once, me and Lanlan bought a couple big bags of potato chips and shared them with everyone out on the balcony. Uncle Wu scolded us." This information came from Liu Xu, another screenwriter who worked at Lightflow. Liu Xu hadn't been working there long, and still maintained a lively disposition. "Uncle Wu told us a screenwriter's most valuable asset is their brain. If their brain goes to waste, they won't be able to write anymore, and that sort of junk food is bad for your brain. That was what he said to us."

When asked about the same matter, Ou Xianghe was beyond surprised. "We cover food expenses here. If anyone wants any sort of snack, they can just tell us and we'll add it to the shopping list. They don't need to spend their own money to buy that sort of thing.

"Of course, if someone wants to go out for a walk and pick up some snacks for themselves, that's fine too. But Wu Zhen almost never ate snacks. Sometimes he would have some peanuts, but that was it. At his age, would he really eat that sort of junk food?"

"We were right to look into Wu Zhen!" Ming Shu declared. Countless clues and leads were bouncing around in his mind. The myriad threads in the fog of his head were starting to weave together. Something was taking shape.

"The last time Wu Zhen was seen, the last time he was caught on a surveillance camera, and the last time he called his old home—all that happened on June 21st," Zhou Yuan said. "On June 22nd, he practically evaporated. And June 22nd was a Sunday. Sha Chun was also killed on a Sunday."

"Let's say Wu Zhen didn't disappear," Ming Shu said. "Let's say he was killed. In that case, it's very likely he was killed on the same day of week as Sha Chun—Sunday."

"Right!" Zhou Yuan agreed.

Xing Mu suddenly interjected, "At our last meeting, Little Zhou already seemed inclined to believe Wu Zhen had been murdered."

"My professional opinion is that anyone who's still living in this world would leave behind traces of their existence," Zhou Yuan explained earnestly. "But we haven't found any traces at all of Wu Zhen's continued existence. Plus, all signs point to him disappearing suddenly between June 21st and June 22nd. I really am more inclined to believe something happened to him between those dates."

"Then did he know something was going to happen to him?" Ming Shu mused. "He used a public landline to call his friend, and he asked that friend to look after his own mother. He almost never ate food that he thought would damage his brain, but he bought a pack of Lang Wei Xian, which he loved as a child.

"When you put those two details together, no matter how you look at it, he fits the bill of someone planning to commit suicide."

"Let's look at it from another angle," Yi Fei said. "Could Wu Zhen have known that someone planned to murder him?"

Ming Shu nodded. "That's definitely possible. We've yet to fully rake through Wu Zhen's interpersonal relationships."

"On the 21st, when Wu Zhen appeared on a surveillance camera, he seemed perfectly calm. Not in a rush, not in a panic," Fang Yuanhang said. "The boss at the kiosk also said Wu Zhen didn't seem to be in a rush. If he knew someone was going to murder him, would Wu Zhen have been able to remain so calm? I still think his actions are more in line with someone planning to commit suicide."

"Regardless of whether it was homicide or suicide, based on the clues we've gathered so far, the probability of Wu Zhen being dead is much higher than the probability of him being alive. Do we all agree on this?" Ming Shu asked.

Zhou Yuan was the first to nod. "Yes!"

"Then the connection between our two cases is even stronger," Ming Shu said. He gripped a fountain pen he'd taken from Xiao Yu'an's office. "Sha Chun was definitely killed by another person, but all our clues say she may have planned her death herself. As for Wu Zhen, the actions he took before his death indicate that he could have committed suicide."

"Two diligent but talentless people who never found success in their careers…" Yi Fei looked over at Ming Shu. "If we can confirm that Wu Zhen has been killed, we can definitely investigate these cases as one."

"Yilu Street and the residential neighborhood to the east of Yilu Street. We need to focus our attention there," Ming Shu said. "Wu Zhen was last seen there. It's very possible there are other eyewitnesses to his presence. And that area is far from where his daily life normally took him. He must have had a reason for going out there."

Yi Fei looked conflicted. "Xu Chun is still in Xunchuan, and we can't stop investigating Sha Chun's case. There's a limit to how many people we can devote to canvassing Yilu Street."

Ming Shu gave it some thought. "I'll meet with Director Xiao later and see if we can borrow some manpower from Task Force One."

 

While the Serious Crimes Division rushed about, investigating these two cases, the Performing Arts Association was gradually dragged into the spotlight.

A deceased woman had been discovered at their newly constructed office campus, with both her hands severed at the wrists. And that woman had been a member of the association. That alone would have been enough to propel the Performing Arts Association into the center of the public eye.

Due to the control over information disseminated through mainstream media, the details of Sha Chun's case were not disclosed through any major news networks. Only a vague police alert was put out.

However, before long, rumors began to spread. People whispered that Sha Chun, of the traditional instruments department, had been bullied and subjected to verbal abuse for many years. The reason for these constant attacks against her was that she didn't have a family to attend to, and could therefore take the initiative to work overtime. That had offended many of the other performers who did have families, and thus weren't able to put in the same amount of extra work.

Moreover, the director and deputy director of the traditional instruments department had both been aware of Sha Chun's plight. But neither had lifted a finger to help. Instead, they'd simply allowed Sha Chun to be bullied by her peers.

The source of the rumor could no longer be pinned down. Similar cases existed in many other departments at the Performing Arts Association, but Sha Chun had died. And the deceased were to be respected. In an instant, the world within the association turned against the traditional instruments department. Their members were fiercely denounced for their treatment of Sha Chun.

Han Mingming had a horrible time. There was no way for her to return to her normal life and schedule. Every day, she was called in by the higher-ups and HR department to talk about what had happened.

Meanwhile, Ran He had derailed his own marriage. He became the target of everyone's snide insults for his infidelity, and rumor had it his father-in-law was already negotiating with the association to have Ran He fired.

At the same time, superstitious fears spread like wildfire through the association.

Nobody dared go to the pond anymore. Someone spread a claim that the wind was colder near the place where Sha Chun's body had been found. Someone else claimed to have heard the sounds of a woman crying in the bathrooms of the traditional instruments department, even when all the stalls were empty. And along with those ghostly sobs, a woman's voice wailed—

Am I still not working hard enough?

Of course, the vast majority of young people in the association were atheists who didn't believe in ghosts or a higher power. And all these eerie rumors started the same way: "I heard someone say…"

Under normal circumstances, these sorts of ghost stories wouldn't have been enough to scare many people. But Sha Chun being bullied by her department was a fact. Her body being ditched in the pond was a fact. On the day of the storm, many people had even seen a human limb protruding from the mud pit.

The murder had hit close to home. A few days before the incident, many members of the association had even personally seen the victim. There was no way they could remain calm in the wake of Sha Chun's death.

The members of the traditional instruments department were more shaken up than anyone. Sun Jing passed Sha Chun's old rehearsal space one day. She peered inside and stumbled backwards, falling onto the floor and screaming out in shock.

A crowd quickly gathered around her. She stayed on the ground, pointing into the rehearsal room and shouting, "She's in there! She's right there, by the window! I saw her!"

There was no one in the rehearsal room. Next to the window, there was only a tall shelf of potted plants, with a cactus at the very top. Perhaps the wind had whipped up the curtains, and perhaps the curtains had gotten caught on the spikes of the cactus, giving off the impression of a woman's head.

News of this incident spread to other departments as well. The story became exaggerated as it was told again and again, and soon everyone was talking about Sun Jing seeing Sha Chun's ghost.

The rumors that spread online were even more wild and outlandish. Former employees of the Performing Arts Association spoke out as well, condemning the association's HR department. These former employees claimed it was only a matter of time before Sha Chun died. And if she didn't die, some other hardworking employee would have been driven to their doom in the future.

These former employees even said it was good that Sha Chun had died at the association, so her evil colleagues would never know another day of peace!

As the rumors and gossip continued to spread, Ran He lost his job after cheating on his pregnant wife. The stories of Sha Chun's ghost terrified him. On the day he was fired, he leapt from the window of Sha Chun's old rehearsal room and instantly died upon impact.

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