Sodium cyanide, a chemical component, was as common as arsenic trioxide. It was highly toxic. Certain industries used large quantities of these chemicals, but even a small amount could prove fatal if ingested by a person.
The 'fast-acting' nature of sodium cyanide made it a common weapon in suicides and homicides.
"I've always thought Wu Zhen's death felt more like a suicide. All his actions on the 21st fall in line with those of someone who planned on committing suicide," Fang Yuanhang said. "But could a suicidal man pour cement on himself? That's way too savage! It makes me shudder just to think of it. He definitely had someone assisting him, and that person is a suspect in this case."
Due to the advanced decay of the body, there were some external wounds that were difficult to decipher. Plus, since the body had been encased in cement, it was impossible to pinpoint the time of death. This made the investigation much more difficult.
Zhou Yuan still firmly believed Wu Zhen had been killed between June 21st and June 22nd. The area around the vocational school wasn't completely deserted, so it was likely that the crime had been committed late at night—in the early hours of June 22nd, for example.
"Death by sodium cyanide, whether it was murder or suicide, would be quiet. But the cement mixer would create a lot of noise when activated," Ming Shu said. "Whether this other person was a murderer or an assistant, weren't they afraid of attracting attention from the people who live in the vocational school's dorms?"
After the closure of the vocational school, the staff were supposed to leave. But a few members of the staff who couldn't find suitable living arrangements temporarily stayed in the dorms. Within the past few months since the school's shutdown, all members of the teaching and administrative staff had gradually moved out. Some were still in Dongye City while others had moved out of the area entirely.
At present, only four people still lived at the dorms.
Kong Yuanqiang and Li Gong were a married couple, both with a junior high school education. Before the school's closure, Kong Yuanqiang had been a security guard. Li Gong, meanwhile, worked at a wonton shop on Yilu Street. Since the vocational school had offered lodgings to its staff, the couple lived together on campus.
"We usually never go out to the school building. It's too far away, and there's not much to see out there anyway," Kong Yuanqiang said. "Anything worth selling in there has already been sold. Anyone who comes to loot the place only gets away with some old building materials or cement. It's none of my business. We'll be moving away soon."
"Cement?" Ming Shu asked. "You're positive someone stole cement?"
"Yeah, I'm positive," Kong Yuanqiang said. "Haven't you guys seen that half-dug plot of land out by the school building? They were originally going to build a bungalow out there, for the students to use as a lab. But the school shut down before they could get it built.
"The building materials, the cement—all that stuff was left out there in a heap. The cement mixer, too. Lots of poor people live on Yilu Street, and poor people love picking up scraps like that. Some people came and just took the cement away in sacks. Some people who don't have cement mixers at home used the machine, then took the cement away after it was ready to use. If that cement mixer runs at night, it's definitely someone stealing cement again."
"You've heard the cement mixer running before, but you never went out to investigate?" Ming Shu asked.
"Like he said, it's none of our business," Li Gong interjected. "I still have a job on Yilu Street. Why should we bother with this sort of thing?"
The two other people who still lived at the dorms were named Li Meng and Gou Can. They were close in age to Kong Yuanqiang and Li Gong, and they had similar mindsets as well. They'd also heard the cement mixer running in the middle of the night, but they never thought of crossing the exercise yard to see who was stealing cement.
"On the night of June 21st," Ming Shu continued, "did you hear the mixer running? Or any other loud noises?"
Kong Yuanqiang and Li Gong exchanged a look. Eventually, Li Gong answered, "That was over two months ago. How could I remember what happened on June 21st?"
Ming Shu rephrased his question. "Then, in late June, did either of you notice anything strange going on at night? Any unusual activity?"
"No unusual activity, but it did get hot this year starting in June. If I recall correctly, there were a lot fewer people coming to steal cement," Gou Can said after thinking for a long while. "Pretty much no one came after it started heating up."
"Right, right, right," Li Gong chimed in. "I'm not a deep sleeper. The cement mixer would always wake me up. I think it's true that the thieves stopped coming in late June."
The trace investigators were still busy at the scene. Ming Shu studied the dirty cement mixer for a moment, then asked, "How long has it been since this thing was last used?"
"Probably two to three months, at least," Xiao Man said. "It doesn't really work anymore."
Ming Shu made his way to the fence surrounding the school building. The gates that used to be the main entrance to the school, before its closure, were located there, but a lock had been applied to the gates a long time ago. Whether it was thieves or Wu Zhen, anyone would have had a hard time getting past that gate.
But Kong Yuanqiang and the others all said there was a hole in the fence somewhere, which was what former students used when sneaking out to skip class. That hole had never been covered up, but it was hidden by overgrowth.
"Chief, where are you going?" Fang Yuanhang called out, rushing to catch up. "Did you find something?"
"Heat wouldn't be enough to stop all thieves, but a sudden obstacle would do the trick," Ming Shu said. He stopped by the fence and ripped away the wild grass that had grown out of control. He found the hole Kong Yuanqiang spoke of, but it had already been blocked off by a web of barbed wire.
"This…" Fang Yuanhang paused for a moment. "With it blocked up like this, no one would dare force their way through, right? They'd tear their skin off if they tried."
Ming Shu immediately called the trace investigators over to sweep the area.
"Did you guys block this up?" Li Meng asked the other three residents.
The other three all shook their heads.
"Then it must have been the killer," Ming Shu said to Xiao Man. "Check this area thoroughly. Don't let a single shred of evidence go undiscovered. After late June, Li Gong and the others noticed a decrease in thieves—but that wasn't because of the heat. It was because the killer blocked their entrance.
"The killer didn't want them to get in. Although the concrete block was well-hidden, it was possible that a thief would find it. This barbed wire… was the killer's 'masterpiece'."
"Captain Ming," Yi Fei called out. "Are we merging the cases?"
Ming Shu had been debating that very question for a long time now. But there were still many unknown variables at play.
And it was just then that they received new information from the Performing Arts Association.
Ran He had committed suicide.
"He's dead?" Fang Yuanhang was shocked. "Was he just driven into a corner, or was there some other conspiracy here?"
The word 'conspiracy' stimulated something in Ming Shu's mind. If Ran He's death was part of some conspiracy, then could Sha Chun's death have been part of that conspiracy as well?
The police cars raced straight from the vocational school to the Performing Arts Association.
No one who worked there could have imagined that two unnatural deaths would take place among their colleagues in such a short span of time.
"We just received word that Ran He chose to commit suicide after losing his job and his family. He couldn't see another way out," Xiao Yu'an reported as their car raced down the street. "Of course, Sha Chun's death also placed an immense pressure on him. Everyone at the association has been alarmed as of late. Quite a few stories of Sha Chun's 'ghost' have been circulating. Half the people from the traditional instruments department are on leave."
"Director Xiao, I had a thought," Ming Shu said. "We still haven't confirmed whether Sha Chun was the victim of a homicide, or if she planned her own suicide. If it's the latter, then what was her motive? It could be that she spiraled into despair after working so hard for so many years, without ever seeing a hopeful light of dawn on the horizon. Could she have killed herself, in part to get revenge on those who mocked her?"
Xiao Yu'an had clearly already thought of that possibility. "Go on."
"Committing suicide and leaving a suicide note detailing the coldness and injustice she'd faced in life could have had the same effect of shaming those who tormented her," Ming Shu said. "But in many people's eyes, suicide isn't as tragic as murder. And with a straightforward suicide, she wouldn't have been able to achieve the dramatic effect of being discovered in a torrential downpour.
"Most importantly of all, if the police declared her death a suicide, they would stop investigating. Right now, the more we investigate, the more we learn about the traditional instruments department. More and more of their dirty secrets are coming to light. Maybe that's exactly what Sha Chun hoped to achieve."
"That brings us back to the question we discussed last time. Who assisted Sha Chun in her suicide?" Xiao Yu'an prompted. He paused for a moment before continuing, "Could that person be the one spreading ghost stories at the association?"
Ming Shu pressed a thumb to his temple. "There's a bit of a contradiction."
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an glanced over at him.
"My feeling is that we can investigate Sha Chun's case and Wu Zhen's case like they're connected. These two cases don't share many similarities on the surface, but the underlying logic beneath them bears a striking resemblance," Ming Shu said. "But Wu Zhen died quietly, without a trace. If not for Sha Chun's case, we never would have started looking into Wu Zhen. His case would have remained an ordinary missing persons case.
"Wu Zhen's death didn't enable him to seek 'revenge' on anyone. Meanwhile, Sha Chun's death indirectly led to Ran He's suicide. It's thrown the Performing Arts Association into chaos. In terms of their outcome, these two cases are extremely different."
"Did Sha Chun know Ran He was cheating on his pregnant wife?" Xiao Yu'an suddenly asked.
Ming Shu shook his head. "Hard to say."
"Sha Chun might not have anticipated Ran He's suicide," Xiao Yu'an said. "Based on my understanding, the other members of the traditional instruments department didn't find out about Ran He's affair until things blew up between him and his wife Chen Qian. Since Sha Chun was more isolated from the group than anyone else, it's likely she didn't know anything about this."
"Then, Ran He's suicide wasn't something Sha Chun could have anticipated?" Ming Shu asked.
Xiao Yu'an drew a deep breath. It was clear that he was also perplexed and confused. "That depends entirely on who assisted in Sha Chun's suicide."
Before they made any significant new discoveries through their discussion, the police car arrived at the Performing Arts Association.
Ran He lay at the base of the new office building. A huge pool of blood had already seeped out from his body.
When Ming Shu saw Chen Qian, their eyes met for a brief moment. He detected a hint of strangeness in her gaze.
Previously, at the Criminal Investigation Bureau, Chen Qian had fiercely defended Ran He. She'd told everyone who would listen that Ran He was a kind and loving man, but in the end she was only a gentle wife who'd been betrayed by her husband.
When she learned of her husband's affair, Chen Qian had chosen not to forgive him. Her father had pulled some strings to have Ran He fired. These were all normal, human reactions.
Chen Qian may have hated Ran He. She may have hated him to death. But before she found out about Ran He's betrayal, she'd loved him. They'd started dating in college, and she had loved him ever since. Now, seeing Ran He dead, Chen Qian would have felt some sorrow no matter how fiercely she'd hated him.
That would have been a normal, human reaction as well.
But on Chen Qian's face, Ming Shu saw no sorrow. He only saw a sense of fear and shock.
Why did Chen Qian look so terrified? What was she afraid of?
One more familiar face was present at the scene—Ran He's mistress, Yang Yan.
The fear in Yang Yan's eyes was even more obvious than the traces of it in Chen Qian's eyes. It was as though the victim hadn't simply been her lover, but…
Someone who'd died because of her.
Many people had witnessed Ran He throwing himself off the building. The facts were clear. There was no chance of this being a homicide.
But Ming Shu keenly drew a quick conclusion. Ran He's suicide wasn't as simple as it seemed.
Fang Yuanhang ran over when Ming Shu called for him. "Chief, what's up?"
"Find out exactly who spread those stories of Sha Chun's 'ghost'," Ming Shu said. "This may have something to do with Sha Chun's death."
When she noticed Ming Shu looking at her, Chen Qian's expression suddenly changed. It was like she was doing her very best to hide her fear.
Ming Shu relayed that information to Xiao Yu'an, and Xiao Yu'an instantly narrowed his eyes. "Have the technical investigators look into Chen Qian's communication records."
The heartbreaking truth was buried under this farce of an affair.
Zhou Yuan came running to find Ming Shu with a stack of communication and bank records in hand. "Captain Ming! Starting three months ago, Chen Qian contacted Yang Yan multiple times! She also made several deposits in Yang Yan's bank account, totally 700,000 yuan!"
Chen Qian. Yang Yan. One had been Ran He's wife, and the other had been his mistress. They weren't friends. They weren't colleagues. Why would they have been in contact with each other several times throughout Ran He's affair? Why had Chen Qian transferred such a large sum to Yang Yan, in batches?
"Also, Chen Qian contacted someone named 'Wang Xuefeng' every day," Zhou Yuan continued. "I looked into it. This man is Chen Qian's colleague!"
Presented with all this evidence, Chen Qian's face paled into a ghastly white. For a long time, she didn't say a word.
Yang Yan, however, couldn't hold in her emotions. She immediately started sobbing and blurted out, "I never wanted to kill Ran He! This was never part of our plan… it's Sha Chun's fault! It's all Sha Chun's fault!"
Ming Shu hadn't expected an unrelated moral tragedy to be tangled up in this homicide case.
In their marriage, Ran He hadn't been the first to cheat. It had been Chen Qian.
Yang Yan admitted to accepting money from Chen Qian as payment for seducing Ran He. After learning of Yang Yan's confession, Chen Qian finally let out a breath and spoke:
"That's right. I arranged everything."
Chen Qian's eyes were blank and unfocused. "I fell out of love with Ran He a long time ago. Years ago, I was the one who pursued him, ignoring my parents' protests. I was determined to marry him no matter what. I wouldn't accept anyone else. He was handsome, he was talented, and he was an honest man from the countryside.
"But after all these years, I've had enough! I had enough a long time ago!" Chen Qian grit her teeth. "After our marriage, his low-class upbringing became evident. It was painted all over him. He was short-sighted, shallow, and ignorant. Everything came out.
"His family, back in the countryside, were like a bottomless, blood-sucking hole. I could never fill it up. I married one man. Why should I support his whole family too? He even wanted to move those poor relatives of his out to the city. How could he think that was possible?
"I never had a child with him, and his family always pushed us to have children sooner. He had no idea that my reason for refusing to have a child was that I regretted everything!"
As she spoke, she became more and more agitated. "If I'd listened to my parents back then, would I have lived such a miserable life?"
After a moment's pause, Chen Qian let out a dry laugh. "Last year, after growing close to Wang Xuefeng, I understood. People… people are meant to listen to their parents. They're meant to be with people who are well-suited for them. Ran He and I simply weren't from the same world."
"Last year?" Ming Shu echoed. "You weren't pregnant at the time. There was nothing stopping you from getting a divorce."
"Divorce?" Chen Qian pulled a face, like she'd heard a particularly funny joke. "Could I leave him? The Ran family has already coiled themselves around me. Ran He and those destitute relatives of his wanted to suck out every last drop of my blood!
"I cheated. I cheated while married. Those people from the countryside don't understand anything. They wouldn't have listened to reason. They wouldn't have agreed to a divorce, and they would have dragged my name through the mud!"
Chen Qian shook her head. "And my parents couldn't afford to lose face by seeing me fall from grace. I already disappointed them once by marrying Ran He. I couldn't allow my troubles with him to cause any more problems for my parents."
"So you decided to paint yourself as the moral, virtuous party, while Ran He would be exposed as the cheater?" Ming Shu asked.
"Who told him to succumb to temptation?" Chen Qian shot back contemptuously. "I became pregnant—the baby isn't his, of course. I had to accelerate our divorce, and he wasn't happy in our marriage either. I found that woman Yang Yan. Nothing mattered to her more than money.
"I gave her a bag and told her to seduce Ran He. I agreed to pay one million yuan after she succeeded. She agreed, and she was even happy about it. Not surprising, I suppose. Ran He was passably attractive. It wouldn't have been a chore for Yang Yan to sleep with him. It's just too bad…"
Chen Qian lowered her head. Half a minute passed before she continued, "I planned on exposing him after a while longer. I didn't count on this Sha Chun incident getting in the way."
"That day at the Bureau," Ming Shu said. "Your 'performance' was quite good."
Chen Qian's expression suddenly grew darker. "I practiced for a long time. I simply didn't expect that I would have to put on that act in front of you detectives. I never meant to kill him. I just wanted to divorce him. I wanted to have him exiled from Dongye City so that he would never cast a shadow over my life again.
"If you have to blame someone for this, blame Sha Chun. If she hadn't died in such an outlandish way, the people at the Performing Arts Association never would have found out about Ran He bullying her. He… he wouldn't have killed himself."
Ming Shu sighed. "In your heart, Ran He is still a kind man."
Chen Qian was shocked. "What do you mean?"
"You believe Ran He felt remorse over Sha Chun's death. Isn't that because you believe him to be a kind person?" Ming Shu asked. "But you're wrong. His remorse over Sha Chun's death was basically negligible.
"He jumped because he'd lost his job and his family. He'd worked hard to escape his rural life and make a new life for himself here in the city. He changed his fate and his family's fate—that made him more proud than anything else.
"But then, everything was ruined. Shattered to pieces. He went from having everything to having nothing. He couldn't accept it, and that was why he chose to commit suicide."
Chen Qian's eyes flew wide open.
"Perhaps you did think Ran He would die," Ming Shu said, standing up. "But you didn't care."
"I didn't…" Chen Qiao gripped her head tightly, and her voice became a hoarse rasp. "I didn't!"
Finding the source of any rumor was often a difficult task, especially when the rumor was something completely bizarre like sightings of Sha Chun's 'ghost'. The entire traditional instruments department, and even the entire Performing Arts Association, was abuzz with chatter about this subject.
"I really heard someone crying," said Lu Xin, an administrative assistant from the traditional instruments department. A few nights ago, she had worked overtime at the office. Besides her, only two other administrative personnel had been in the building that night. "It was in our restroom. It scared me half to death. I was way too frightened to step outside."
Many people in the traditional instruments department believed it was Sha Chun's ghost that had cried in the bathroom, but the Serious Crimes Division definitely wouldn't believe such a thing.
Ming Shu immediately asked his team to check the surveillance footage. But in the time before and after Lu Xin entered the restroom, no suspicious figures appeared on the camera closest to the bathroom or the camera a little farther away.
"Chief," Fang Yuanhang said. "Their surveillance system has blind spots. As long as you know where the blind spots are, you'll be able to avoid them."
"Mm." Ming Shu stared at the surveillance footage for a moment, then turned to study the blueprints of the building floor. "Check the other cameras. This person went out of their way to remain undetected. They knew to stay in the blind spots of these cameras. But they might not have known that the cameras closest to the bathroom weren't the only ones that could have captured their image."
"Captain Ming!" Zhou Yuan suddenly called out. "Come look at this!"
The new office building of the Performing Arts Association had been designed in a unique style. Its architecture was quite artistic, using mirrors and glass windows to create the effect of a wide and well-lit working space.
The floor-to-ceiling windows captured by Camera 4 in the corridor near the bathroom had all turned into mirrors in the pitch black night. Those windows reflected the image of a woman in a light muslin outfit, slowly shambling down the hall and making her way towards the bathroom shortly before Lu Xin entered.
That light outfit was exactly what Sha Chun had been wearing during her final performance.