Wu Zhen's personal belongings had already been sorted and moved to the Bureau. They were being kept at the offices of the trace evidence analysis team for the time being.
Besides clothes and basic necessities, books and leatherbound notebooks were the most common items among Wu Zhen's possessions. Xiao Man had gone to look around Lightflow Media, and he found plenty of books there, all free for the screenwriters to consult. The company's stock of books included a broad range of material about modern film and TV, as well as just about every screenwriting guide imaginable.
There was no need for Wu Zhen to buy his own copies.
But Wu Zhen had personally bought, with his own money, several of the screenwriting guides and manuals provided by the company. In his personal copies, he'd scribbled large amounts of notes in blue and red ink.
"Definitely a diligent person," Xiao Man said as he flipped through those books with gloved hands.
In addition to his screenwriting books, Wu Zhen also owned an introductory guide to the guzheng.
That book had been issued by 'Jianjia Bailu'. Anyone who took a private lesson would receive a copy.
Sha Chun's fingerprints had already been found on that book, and notes in her handwriting were discovered on the first few pages. That wasn't anything out of the ordinary. Since she had taught Wu Zhen, she'd most likely flipped through the book during their lessons.
But when Xiao Man picked up one of the leatherbound notebooks, he got a strange sensation. He couldn't help but feel like he'd seen that notebook somewhere before.
It was a very ordinary notebook, easily found online for less than ten yuan. Tens of thousands of notebooks just like it could be sold online every month.
Wu Zhen had mostly written down ideas for his scripts in that notebook. There were pages about the emotions of a drama, as well as rough and detailed outlines. He'd also jotted down some musings of his own inner suffering.
The details of Wu Zhen's work as a screenwriter weren't likely to provide much help in their case, but the logs of his innermost thoughts could very well give the detectives some new insights. Xiao Man was closely scrutinizing the text in that notebook when he suddenly heard a knock at the open door.
The guys in the Serious Crimes Division weren't that polite. Knocking on an open door was something that just didn't happen in their division.
Xiao Man didn't even look up. "Can't you see I'm busy? What are you knocking for? You wanna act like you're civilized?"
His assistant slapped his arm and loudly greeted, "Director Xiao!"
Xiao Man instantly spun around and awkwardly said, "Director Xiao, ah… I didn't know it was you."
Xiao Yu'an smiled, unbothered. "I came to take a look at Wu Zhen's personal belongings."
"Everything is here." Xiao Man passed over a pair of gloves and pointed at the four leather notebooks laid out in front of him. "Wu Zhen would use these as a diary sometimes. Have a look."
Xiao Yu'an took one of the notebooks. His gaze fell upon a short passage written in a bold, daring script.
"'Why does reality always fall short of my expectations?'" Xiao Yu'an read out loud. "'Why does success elude me? Are they really more outstanding than me? No, they're only a little luckier than me. I still want to try. I've already given everything up. How can I be any worse than them?'"
"These three notebooks are completely filled up, but this fourth one is only a third full," Xiao Man said, quickly flipping to the end of the used pages in the fourth notebook. "Before his disappearance, Wu Zhen's handwriting was already showing significant signs of change."
"His once bold and daring handwriting had become a wispy, ghostly scrawl," Xiao Yu'an mused. "Changes to a person's psyche often happen slowly, over the course of a long period of time. But we can see Wu Zhen underwent a sudden, obvious change shortly before his disappearance."
As he spoke, Xiao Yu'an tapped his right hand against one of the pages.
"Do you need us to determine the general time of this change?" Xiao Man offered.
"Is that possible?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Xiao Man puffed up with confidence. "Yes!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Then please do."
"Ah, that's right. Director Xiao," Xiao Man continued. "I don't think the contents of these notebooks are the only clues here."
"What else have you discovered?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Nothing yet." Xiao Man scratched the base of his ear. "But I just have a strong feeling… I've seen a notebook like this somewhere before. Recently."
Xiao Yu'an picked up the notebook again. "It's a very ordinary notebook."
"I know." Xiao Man nodded. "But it's just a feeling I can't shake."
"Then take your time and think on it," Xiao Yu'an said. "Don't let go of any potential leads."
The men they borrowed from Task Force One accompanied Yi Fei out to Yilu Street. Ming Shu, meanwhile, paid Sha Chun's home in Jiachuang another visit.
Sha Chun's home remained untouched. The food in her refrigerator had yet to go bad. Yong Huan mentioned wanting to take care of some things at Sha Chun's place, but it was still too soon for that.
Ming Shu sat beside the guzheng in Sha Chun's home rehearsal room. He gazed at the stand across from the guzheng, which could be used to hold a cell phone.
When Sha Chun sat here and practiced, recording herself, what was it that she thought of? What went through her head?
This time, I'll succeed.
This time, the video will be perfect. People will definitely watch.
I just have to keep going. Just a little more. I can't give up…
Suddenly, Ming Shu's phone vibrated in his pocket. He came back to his senses and found that Xiao Yu'an had sent him a message.
The new message was just a photo, depicting a black, leatherbound notebook.
On the screen, Ming Shu could see that the other party was still typing.
Before long, Xiao Yu'an sent over a voice message instead: "Does this notebook look at all familiar to you?"
Ming Shu zoomed in on the photo and thought about it for a while. Then he suddenly bolted to his feet and ran over to the nearby bookshelf.
The last time he was here, he'd seen a thick, leatherbound notebook. There had been other matters to attend to during that visit, so they hadn't taken the notebook back to the Bureau with them.
Sha Chun didn't have too many books on her bookshelf, and most of the books she did have were related to music. Ming Shu picked up the leatherbound notebook and flipped it open.
It was completely blank. Not a single word was written inside.
It was a brand new, never-used notebook.
"Ge, where did you see the notebook in the photo you sent?" Ming Shu asked when he called back.
"The trace investigators had it. It was one of Wu Zhen's possessions," Xiao Yu'an said. "Xiao Man thought the notebook looked familiar, but he couldn't remember why. The Performing Arts Association and Sha Chun's home—these are the places he's recently been with some relevance to the case. Since you just so happened to be at Sha Chun's home, I thought I'd have you take a look."
Ming Shu instantly put the notebook he found in an evidence bag. He checked the bookshelf again and found several other notebooks, though not in the same style. "Wu Zhen and Sha Chun had the same kind of notebook… ge, Sha Chun's other notebooks are all light in color. The sort that women like."
As he spoke, Ming Shu packed away all the notebooks he found, then swiftly moved into the bedroom.
He remembered seeing a small, hardcover notebook in Sha Chun's tent as well. It had little cartoon characters on the outside and inside; it was pretty cute.
These days, young people used those sorts of books as diaries.
Compared to Sha Chun's little diary, those thick, leatherbound notebooks were clearly a different type.
"This one might not belong to Sha Chun," Ming Shu said, referring back to the first notebook he'd picked up. "But if it belonged to Wu Zhen, why are is it here at Sha Chun's place?"
"Bring it back," Xiao Yu'an said. "We'll have the trace investigation team examine it first."
Summer was nearly over. But the last heatwave of the year still made people suffer when they ran around outdoors.
When Wu Zhen first disappeared, the local police post hadn't received that lead from Luo Xiu. Thus, they had been unable to trace Wu Zhen's movements to Yilu Street. The Serious Crimes Division was now on the scene, but the optimal time for investigating the case had already passed. The team had no choice but to canvas the area thoroughly, going door-to-door to ask around about Wu Zhen.
It was inefficient and far from ideal.
School would soon be back in session, and kids were taking advantage of the end of their break to run wild through the streets. The area around Yilu Street was filled with old houses, and the alleyways were particularly narrow. The ground was paved with decades-old bluestone that was already starting to crack.
Upon emerging from one house in the neighborhood, Yi Fei grabbed his water bottle. He was melting in the heat, and he badly needed a drink of water. But just as he brought his thermos to his lips, a pair of kids ran into him, colliding with his hip. Not only was he unable to get a drink of water, he even clipped his teeth on the edge of his thermos.
Even the usually calm and civilized vice captain of the Serious Crimes Division had to explode. He looked up, only to see that the kids who'd run into him were about seven or eight years old. The kids were wearing imitation military helmets. With water bottles strapped around their waist, they ran towards a decrepit set of steps leading down to the street.
Yi Fei suddenly remembered a Xi District case from not long ago, a baffling one that made people want to laugh and cry in equal measure—seven kids had gotten together to run away and go on an adventure. They'd been pretty well-equipped, with compasses, heavy-duty shovels, tents, and infrared binoculars. Everything they could think of, they packed. Two of the kids had even packed a parachute.
The parents of the seven kids were all worried out of their minds. They searched the whole city for their missing kids. The local police, district police, city police, and Special Police Force were all mobilized, eventually finding the kids in a cave near the outskirts of the city.
Due to the heavy rains at the time, the river had risen rapidly. The seven 'adventurers' had taken refuge in that cave, but if the rain had persisted for a while longer, they could have lost their lives before the police found them.
After that case, the Bureau held a special meeting and ordered the district precincts and local police posts to increase their patrols in their respective areas. If any kids were 'adventuring' alone, they were to be stopped immediately and brought back to their parents.
The Serious Crimes Division had nothing to do with these sorts of public security matters, but Yi Fei was a police officer before all else. He still sent one of his team members after those two kids who'd bumped into him.
Before long, the team member Yi Fei sent after the kids called out to them through their team's radio frequency: "These two weren't running away from home to explore, they were going after a body! A corpse! What's up with the kids of today? I wouldn't have had the balls to do something like that before I joined this team!"
Three kilometers from the residential neighborhood on Yilu Street, there was a vocational school. The school had shut down half a year ago due to insufficient funding, and the school building had been left empty. But previous staff members still lived in the on-campus dorms.
The dormitory and school building were separated by an exercise playground. Originally, the gates to the school were the main entrance to the campus, but those had been sealed after the school shut down. The smaller gate to the dormitory was the main entrance now.
With that change, the school building had been well and truly deserted. It was like it had fallen into a hidden abyss.
Before its closure, the vocational school had planned on constructing a new building on one side of its campus. Thus, tons of construction material and waste were piled up behind the existing school building. A cement mixer had also been left out there.
That was the intended destination of those two adventurous kids.
As soon as he arrived on the scene, Yi Fei detected a not too strong but immensely familiar scent—corpse rot.
The origin of the scent was a spot not too far away. It came from a bizarrely shaped cement block.
The school had been located in a remote area to begin with, and basically no one approached the campus after its closure. With that block buried under rotting wood and rocky debris, it was incredibly unlikely that it would have drawn any attention anytime soon.
Over the past few days of immense heat, cracks had started to appear in that cement block. The stench of corpse rot had thus started to seep out.
When he received the news, Ming Shu was rushing back to the Bureau in his car. He instantly spun around before even hanging up. Yi Fei's voice flowed through the car:
"We've already opened up the block. The body was placed inside a plastic bag. It's already severely decayed. Judging by the clothes and figure, the victim was male. And guess what we found in the pants pocket?"
"Don't beat around the bush!" Ming Shu snapped.
Once the cement block was split open, the stench came pouring out. It was bad enough to make Yi Fei dizzy. He could barely keep his eyes open as he answered, "A bag of Lang Wei Xian!"
The two kids were named Zhou Li and Xu Yin. They were both eight years old. Xu Yin looked like a little boy, but was actually a girl.
When Ming Shu questioned them, the two confessed everything they knew.
Zhou Li and Xu Yin were neighbors, and Xu Yin's parents had both already passed away. She lived alone with her deaf grandfather. Although Zhou Li's parents were alive, they both worked abroad and sometimes didn't even visit once a year. Zhou Li only lived with his elderly maternal grandparents.
The two kids had grown up together, and they loved watching wilderness exploration shows and haunted house programs and whatnot. They'd always wanted to go out and explore in the wild, but Zhou Li's grandparents kept a close eye on them. As a result, they could only explore their nearby surroundings.
One week earlier, Xu Yin had discovered the rising stench of corpse rot behind the vocational school building. She told Zhou Li, and the two of them agreed to fetch their best adventuring gear and go off in search of the body.
"Wait!" Ming Shu looked at Xu Yin. "How did you know it was corpse rot?"
Before the concrete block was busted open, the scent of corpse rot really could be detected in the air, but it wasn't obvious. Forget about a little eight-year-old girl. Even a grown adult might not have been able to notice the strange scent.
Plus, with the heat in the air, the rotting trash and vegetation behind the school filled the air with a scent that would have mostly covered up the odor of decay.
A strange expression suddenly passed through Xu Yin's eyes. It was Zhou Li who declared, "Because she lived with her parents' corpses for a week!"
Fang Yuanhang was shocked. "What?"
"I can just tell." Xu Yin smiled, but that sort of smile on a child's face wasn't cute at all. It was downright horrifying. "I can tell, with my nose. I know what a dead person smells like."
Ming Shu instantly sent Fang Yuanhang to investigate her living conditions, and he contacted the Bureau as well. They would have to get in touch with a child psychologist; regardless of whether or not this girl had anything to do with the case, she clearly had grave issues that needed to be treated.
How could a normal child recognize the scent of corpse rot and calmly make a date with her friend to find the body?
Since the body had been preserved in concrete, its deterioration was slightly slower than it normally would have been. Xing Mu conducted a preliminary examination of the body on the scene, then shook his head.
"There are no wounds that are clearly fatal. I'll need to conduct a full autopsy before I can provide a definitive cause of death."
Ming Shu studied the clothes on the body. Although the clothes were already filthy and tattered, it was clearly the outfit Wu Zhen had been wearing on June 21st, when he was last captured on surveillance cameras. That outfit, in addition to the Lang Wei Xian bag in the pants pocket, practically proved this was Wu Zhen's body.
The scene had already been completely sealed off. Xing Mu transported the body back to the Bureau to conduct an autopsy and DNA test. The trace investigation team stayed in the area to gather evidence.
Ming Shu backed away from the scene step by step, carefully looking around, glancing between the cement mixer and the school building. "Wu Zhen's actions on June 21st pointed to suicide, but the body we found here was clearly a victim of homicide. The killer went out of their way to hide the body in cement, in this desolate place. If we'd continued investigating this as a normal missing persons case, we might not have found any leads in a year or more."
Before the autopsy results came out, Fang Yuanhang returned with a clear report of what was going on in Xu Yin's home life.
Xu Yin's parents used to work as day laborers in coastal cities. Two years ago, Xu Yin had been taken away to live with her parents over summer break. During that short summer, something terrible happened—
Xu Yin's mother had an affair with a worker at the construction site where they were employed, and Xu Yin's father found out. The two of them broke out in a fierce fight in their rental apartment, during which Xu Yin's mother killed Xu Yin's father. Then, terrified, she killed herself.
When Xu Yin witnessed her mother's suicide, she fainted in shock and fear. She wanted to leave as soon as she came to, but found the door had been locked a long time ago. There was no way she could break it down.
And so, in the sweltering summer, Xu Yin spent several days locked in a one-room apartment with her parents' corpses. She wasn't freed until the police broke down the door.
Coastal summers were hot and humid. The stench of the two rapidly decaying bodies would have been unbearable to most people. After the case was solved, Xu Yin was sent back to Dongye City. She received some psychological treatment upon her return, but by now she'd gone back to living her everyday life.
She continued to insist that she liked corpses and the stench they gave off. When she smelled that odor, she felt happy and at peace. She felt like she was still living with her parents.
"It's heartbreaking," Fang Yuanhang said. "If she can't fix her psychological problems, what will her life be like when she grows up?"
Ming Shu didn't have time to dwell over the life of a little girl. There were too many other tasks that needed his attention.
The autopsy and DNA test were already in progress.
After Wu Zhen's disappearance, the local police post had collected his DNA from his personal belongings. That DNA would be vital in determining if this corpse belonged to Wu Zhen.
Xiao Man rushed over from the trace investigators' offices, holding the notebook that Ming Shu had brought back from Sha Chun's place. "Captain Ming! This is definitely Wu Zhen's notebook. I found his fingerprints!"
It wasn't strange for Sha Chun's fingerprints and handwriting to be on Wu Zhen's guzheng guide. But why would Wu Zhen's fingerprints be on a notebook found at Sha Chun's house?
"The relationship between Wu Zhen and Sha Chun is definitely closer than we previously thought," Ming Shu said. He was pacing in front of Xiao Yu'an. "Wu Zhen was registered for guzheng classes through early July, but the last time he attended was June 13th. The reason he cited was that he was dissatisfied with the course. But in these private, one-on-one lessons… dissatisfaction with the course means dissatisfaction with the teacher."
"Wu Zhen didn't seem to be dissatisfied with Sha Chun," Xiao Yu'an said. "Let's give this some more thought. How did this notebook come to be in Sha Chun's possession?"
"There are five notebooks in total. The tech investigators have looked into Wu Zhen's online shopping records, and they've confirmed that Wu Zhen bought a set of five notebooks three years ago," Ming Shu said. "Before his disappearance, he used three and got started on the fourth. The fifth and final notebook had yet to be touched."
"Many screenwriters and authors carry a notebook with them everywhere they go, in case inspiration strikes," Xiao Yu'an said. "Wu Zhen most likely did this as well. But he had no reason to carry an unused notebook with him."
"Which is to say, if Sha Chun didn't go to Wu Zhen's place of residence, she shouldn't have ever come in contact with this fifth notebook." Ming Shu balled his right hand into a fist and lightly rested it against his chin. "But according to the surveillance footage at Lightflow Media, as well as the testimony of Wu Zhen's colleagues, Sha Chun never visited Wu Zhen's room. If Sha Chun didn't ask Wu Zhen for this notebook, it must have been something he gave to her himself."
"Why would Wu Zhen do that?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "That…"
"Perhaps he gave it to Sha Chun as a way to remember him," Xiao Yu'an said. "I looked at the contents of his used notebooks when I paid a visit to the trace investigation team. Wu Zhen poured his heart and soul, so to speak, onto those pages. All his story and character ideas, all his outlines, all his settings were documented there, and he also wrote down how he felt while writing his scripts.
"There's no doubt that these notebooks were extremely important to him."
"Wu Zhen knew he wouldn't get a chance to use the final notebook, so he gave it to Sha Chun?" Ming Shu guessed. "Then, in Wu Zhen's heart, Sha Chun was an extremely important person? That would obviously contradict the idea of him being 'dissatisfied' with Sha Chun as a teacher.
"Plus, Sha Chun accepted the notebook and kept it at her home this whole time. That proves there must have been some sort of friendship between the two of them. But after Wu Zhen's disappearance, Sha Chun didn't do anything. It was like a stranger had disappeared.
"I looked through the investigation reports from back then. When the local police went to 'Jianjia Bailu' to ask about Wu Zhen, they spoke to Sha Chun. She claimed she didn't know anything."
"She deliberately hid the truth from the police, just like Luo Xiu," Xiao Yu'an said. "Sha Chun may have known the truth behind Wu Zhen's disappearance."
Ming Shu thumped his fist down on the edge of the table. "But she's dead, and the dead can't tell us anything."
The DNA test results came out before the full autopsy report. The corpse did, indeed, belong to Wu Zhen, who had gone missing two months prior.
A short while later, Xing Mu called Ming Shu into the forensics department and announced the cause of death:
"The victim died of sodium cyanide poisoning."