"Even though we know this is someone dressing up and playing ghost, it looks way too creepy from this angle!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. He jumped in place a few times, bouncing on the balls of his feet as though to shake all the goosebumps off his arms. "It was at night, and none of the cameras closest to the bathrooms caught anything. It was a camera farther away that caught a reflection in the glass of the windows—
"This is seriously a classic horror movie scene! A ghost that you can't see with the naked eye… one that only appears as a reflection! God, seriously, fuck my life. It's a good thing we're just investigating a case here."
No one could fault Fang Yuanhang for overreacting. The image of the 'ghost' drifting past the window, almost as though 'floating', was indeed a haunting sight.
Who would be dressed like that in the middle of the night? And the 'ghost' had very long hair. Her head was half-lowered, with a veil of silken black hair mostly obscuring her face. The only slivers of skin that were exposed were a pale, ghastly white.
Ming Shu asked Zhou Yuan to enlarge and enhance the footage. But due to the bad angle and the distortion of the reflection in the glass, no amount of work on the image could make it sharp enough to identify the person depicted on screen.
Fang Yuanhang practically had his face plastered against the computer monitor. "This person is obviously pretending to be Sha Chun, right? Lu Xin only heard the sound of her crying. If she actually saw this 'ghost', she probably would've fainted on this spot. This woman playing the part of the imposter is way too cruel."
"It isn't necessarily a woman," Xiao Yu'an said. "Look carefully. There's no woman this tall in the traditional instruments department. And their hair is too long. At that length, it's very likely to be a wig."
"What about other departments in the association?" Ming Shu asked. "Sha Chun didn't have any friends in the traditional instruments department. Someone is definitely doing this for their own good."
"At this point, it's difficult to confirm whether or not this is even someone from the Performing Arts Association," Xiao Yu'an said, hugging his arms around himself. "Our earlier hypothesis was that the person spreading ghost stories is also the person who helped Sha Chun commit 'suicide'.
"Does that mean the person on this surveillance footage is definitely Sha Chun's colleague? Not necessarily. We can't see this person's face clearly, and their clothes don't tell us much. It's incredibly easy for outsiders to get on the premises during the night, and they could even slip into the association's office building. It wouldn't have been difficult to procure a light muslin costume like this either."
Ming Shu drew a slow breath. He propped his chin up on his hands and didn't say anything else.
"But solely based on this person's actions, I believe there's a high chance of them being an employee of the traditional instruments department." Xiao Yu'an pressed one hand to the table, and he set his other hand on the back of Ming Shu's chair as he rewatched the surveillance footage several more times. "There are quite a lot of security cameras on this floor, but this person was able to avoid them all. That proves they're familiar with the locations of the cameras in this area.
"Having their reflection captured through the window was something they couldn't anticipate. Ordinary people wouldn't take their shadows and reflections into account while making a plan like this. But if this were an outsider, they would have had a hard time learning all the blind spots of the cameras in this area."
Xiao Yu'an paused for a moment, then continued, "Let's consider the other employees of the Performing Arts Association. The layout of every floor in this building is different. The surveillance blind spots on the floors above and below this one aren't necessarily the same as the blind spots on this floor. If this imposter came from another department to familiarize themselves with the security cameras on this floor, they would run a high risk of exposing themselves."
"But let's say it is someone from the traditional instruments department," Ming Shu mused to himself. "Who could it be?"
The performance clothes for the traditional instruments department were located in a room to the side of a small rehearsal hall. Ming Shu decided, "Let's check to see if any costumes are missing first. Even if nothing is missing, this person must have left some traces of their presence if they took a costume at all."
After taking stock of the costumes, it was confirmed that one was indeed missing. And it was a costume that no one had ever worn before, in the largest size.
Ming Shu found Han Mingming and asked why they'd ordered a woman's costume in a size that didn't fit any of the women in the traditional instruments department.
"We actually ordered this for one of the male performers," Han Mingming said absently. Exhaustion was clearly written all over her face, as though she'd been weathering an ongoing storm for several days.
Fang Yuanhang asked, curiously, "Do men still play women's roles in your department?"
"It's not that." Han Mingming shook her head. "We have a few men's costumes for our female performers as well. Sometimes we don't have the right number of performers available, so the men occasionally dress as women and the women occasionally dress as men."
Instantly, Ming Shu asked, "Which of the male performers makes the most convincing woman?"
He had a reason for asking that question.
Although the reflection in the window that had been captured on the surveillance camera was blurry, it was obvious judging by the person's gait and posture that they knew how to exude a sort of feminine charm.
Anyone could put on a woman's costume, but looking feminine and giving off a womanly air wasn't something every man could accomplish.
When the detectives first watched that security clip, they nearly all believed right away that the person they saw was a woman. That wasn't due to a lack of observational skill. It was purely because the person on camera made a very convincing woman. Their stride, their aura—it was all exactly like that of a woman.
Even if Ming Shu himself donned a woman's costume and a wig, he wouldn't have been able to make such a convincing woman who seemed to have just stepped out of a historical drama.
"The most convincing?" Han Mingming lowered her head and thought for a while. "In our line of work, we all have to practice our postures and whatnot… if you're asking about the most convincing performer, I suppose that would be Qu Xing."
Ming Shu tightly furrowed his brow.
Qu Xing, again.
Last time, when they'd questioned Qu Xing, the man had been quite arrogant. He practically flaunted his guilt, stopping just short of boldly declaring himself the killer.
But since there hadn't been enough evidence to hold him, the Serious Crimes Division had no choice but to release him when their time came up. Since then, Qu Xing had already returned to work at the Performing Arts Association.
Ming Shu found Lu Xin again and asked her if Qu Xing had already left work when she heard the sound of someone crying in the bathroom.
Lu Xin answered with absolute certainty. She said that the traditional instruments department's performances had been canceled after Sha Chun's death, so many of the performers had taken a leave to stay home. The ones who did come to work all worked listlessly, distractedly. And there really wasn't much for them to do.
Only the administrative staff had to keep coming on time, clocking in and out every day. That night, besides Lu Xin, only two other members of the administrative staff had remained at the building to work overtime.
Ming Shu quickly went back to Zhou Yuan and had him load up the security footage from the open-air and underground parking lots at the association.
The Performing Arts Association's new offices were far away from the heart of the city, and Qu Xing had never taken the buses arranged by the association to work. He always drove his own car to and from the office. If Qu Xing had stayed late at the association that day, his car might have been present as well.
Sure enough, Qu Xing's flashy blue sports car was parked in the garage. And at 11:04 PM, Qu Xing appeared on a surveillance camera, making his way to his car.
Qu Xing's private practice room was extremely large. It was the most lavish room available to the traditional instruments department.
In that practice room, Fang Yuanhang found the extra-large costume that had gone missing.
"That's right, I was the one who spread the ghost stories," Qu Xing admitted freely when he was brought in for questioning again. He was still arrogant, still haughty. He sat with one leg crossed over the other and continued, "What crime do you plan to charge me with? Disturbing the peace? Fraud? My apologies, I'm not particularly well-versed in these legal terms of yours. I don't understand the fancy jargon you fling around. Why don't you explain it to me in layman's terms?"
Ming Shu didn't have any time to waste on bantering with him. He plainly stated, "It looks like you felt the need to avenge Sha Chun."
Qu Xing frowned, as though falling into thought. After a moment, he echoed, "Me? Avenge her?"
Ming Shu scoffed. "You dressed up as a woman—no, as a female ghost—and slipped into the restroom to scare your female colleagues, and you fabricated all sorts of ghost stories to make Sha Chun's tormentors panic. Isn't that your way of avenging Sha Chun for the injustices committed against her during her life?"
Qu Xing's throat bobbed as he swallowed thickly. A mocking sneer spread across his face. "Tsk—I told you to explain what crime I committed, what wrong I did. Yet you insist on forcing the conversation in this direction."
Ming Shu was standing. He examined Qu Xing with a cold, scrutinizing gaze.
Qu Xing's behavior did paint him as a colleague who wanted to help Sha Chun seek revenge, but he didn't act like a person who could have helped her commit suicide—if such a 'helper' did in fact exist.
Qu Xing had taken measures to cover his own tracks, but there were holes in his cover. He knew to stick to the blind spots of the surveillance cameras, keeping himself hidden as he slipped into the women's bathroom. But he forgot that his own car had been parked in the garage.
His most egregious mistake was not returning the borrowed costume to the storage room as soon as he finished executing his plan.
Qu Xing had exposed himself to the police so easily. That didn't fall in line with the profile of Sha Chun's killer, who had so meticulously covered their tracks.
But some people were, of course, capable of deliberately creating a contradiction to mislead the police. A short while ago, during the investigation of the Entombed Heart case, Hou Cheng had presented himself as one such person.
Ming Shu wouldn't lightly let go of any potential lead. He continued, "Did Sha Chun ask you to help her?"
The arrogance on Qu Xing's face gathered at the tight dip between his brows. "What kind of person do you take me for? You think I'm the type of person who would listen to Sha Chun like a good, obedient boy?"
"Not at all," Ming Shu said. "So, you tell me. What's your reason for doing all this? You looked down on Sha Chun, but then you disguised yourself as her 'ghost' after her death and shed tears for her in the women's bathroom. That isn't logical, Qu-laoshi."
Qu Xing probably wasn't used to having to lift his head and look up at anyone. He also rose to his feet and gazed directly into Ming Shu's eyes.
After a short pause, Qu Xing asked, "You still haven't changed. You'll still believe my words, like last time?"
Ming Shu smiled. "Who says I believe you?"
The corners of Qu Xing's mouth twitched, then went taut.
Ming Shu narrowed his eyes and ruthlessly ordered, "You talk, I'll listen. I don't simply 'believe' anyone's words. I only believe in evidence, and my own judgment."
Qu Xing blinked a few times, then suddenly broke out in raucous laughter. Once he calmed, he said, "You… you're more interesting than any cop I've ever met."
"Then why don't you tell this interesting cop about your line of thinking?" Ming Shu suggested.
"Sure, but it's like I told you last time. I only have my words. I don't have any evidence. If you want to believe me, fine. If not, go find the evidence to judge me yourself. And if you can't find any evidence, it just proves you're all fools."
Qu Xing's tone remained light and relaxed, as though he were cracking a joke.
"Dongye City is so large," he continued. "Yet Sha Chun died at the Performing Arts Association. Why do you think that is?"
Ming Shu pretended not to know what he was implying. "Why?"
"You really don't know?" Qu Xing asked.
"I really don't know," Ming Shu echoed.
Fang Yuanhang, who was watching the recording of the questioning session from a neighboring room, couldn't help but blurt out, "Are you two putting on a comedy routine?!"
Qu Xing shook his head. "You're trying to trick me into saying something—"
Ming Shu smiled serenely.
Qu Xing scoffed. "Fine. I'll let you have your way."
Ming Shu lightly patted the table. "Aren't you tired of standing? Have a seat and tell me what you want to say."
"I'm the sort of person… who believes in fate," Qu Xing began. "I believe Sha Chun died at the Performing Arts Association for a reason. Tell me, don't you think she would have liked to seek revenge on the idiots of the traditional instruments department? Maybe she wanted to give them a scare. They bullied her and tormented her in the past, after all.
"For better or worse, Sha Chun and I were colleagues. To put it bluntly, she was naive. But I did admire her diligence. I'm a diligent person too, would you believe…"
"Wait," Ming Shu interrupted, with a hint of mockery in his tone. "You're casually excluding yourself from your department, just like that? Aren't you also a member of the traditional instruments department? Didn't you also bully and torment Sha Chun?"
Qu Xing answered, earnestly, "I didn't. Don't lump me in with those morons."
Ming Shu let out a dry laugh. "Oh?"
"I was harsh with Sha Chun, but my intentions weren't bad. She didn't have the talent to make her dreams come true. It was quite pitiful. With her level of innate skill, she should have simply treated the guzheng as a casual hobby.
"But she was determined to make a mark as a guzheng player. She tried to forcibly drag herself to greater heights. For example, she wanted to reach my level. Does that sound realistic to you?" Qu Xing paused, then continued, "I told her to give up. Although I didn't pretty up my words, my intent was good and rational. On a moral level, I'm not anything like Ran He and those others who simply looked down on Sha Chun from a place of cold, cruel arrogance."
Ming Shu lifted one eyebrow. After a short moment, he nodded. "Continue."
"My conscience is clear." Qu Xing shrugged. "You can take my act of pretending to be a ghost as a whim of mine. Tsk, last time, I called Sha Chun over to my place to give her special instruction on a whim too. This time, my whim led me to help her seek a little bit of revenge.
"Those idiot colleagues of mine were addicted to running their mouths and demeaning Sha Chun. When she was alive, there was no curing them. But now, after her death, I was sure I could at least give them a scare."
"Did you consider," Ming Shu prompted, "that you wouldn't be able to continue working at the Performing Arts Association after creating a mess like this?"
"I don't care." Qu Xing casually ran a hand through his hair. "I told you last time. If you believe I'm the killer, you can put me on trial. If the law finds me guilty and puts me in prison, perhaps I'll end up thanking you. Inspiration comes from life, and I've already had all sorts of life experiences.
"But I've never been to prison. If you send me to jail, perhaps I'll be able to create grander, greater works of art than anything I've achieved in the past."
"This… this… this…" Next door, Fang Yuanhang was speechless. "Is this guy just childish, or is he totally sick in the head?!"
In a short span of time, Yi Fei had come in contact with two people who weren't quite ordinary in their ways of thinking. One was Xu Yin, who loved the stench of a rotting corpse. And one was Qu Xing, who longed for the experience of rotting in a jail cell.
Yi Fei could only helplessly shake his head. "I'm too ordinary. I can't understand any of this. Maybe your chief, Little Ming, can understand."
"I caught that on tape," Fang Yuanhang declared. "You just said Little Ming is a weirdo."
Yi Fei was silent for a moment. "…does your chief know you call him Little Ming? And I didn't say anything about your chief being weird, you said it yourself."
The questioning room was silent for a few minutes. Ming Shu lowered his head and set his gaze on Qu Xing's hands.
Qu Xing's fingers were long and slender, with well-defined knuckles. If one ignored the scars and calluses from many long years of playing the pipa, they could call those hands extraordinarily beautiful.
Qu Xing's neck and ears were both adorned with glittering accessories. They were so flashy that they didn't seem to suit a pipa performer at all, but he wore no accessories whatsoever on his hands. His fingernails were neatly manicured—beautiful, but plain.
Qu Xing embodied elements of grandiosity as well as elements of simplicity.
When Qu Xing noticed Ming Shu looking at his hands, he subconsciously curved his right hand over his left. A somewhat defensive look came into his eyes.
Ming Shu suddenly approached and grabbed hold of Qu Xing's wrists.
Qu Xing was shocked. He struggled and tried to break free, but a first-rate police detective was his opponent.
"What are you doing?!"
When he shouted those words, Qu Xing's previous calm and arrogance totally disappeared. His face was overcome with fear. It was like someone had taken his life into their hands.
Ming Shu increased the pressure of his grip and gazed intently into Qu Xing's eyes.
Qu Xing had instantly broken out in a cold sweat. His voice trembled as he demanded, "You… you let go of me, you…"
"What the hell is my chief doing now?" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed from the neighboring room.
Yi Fei propped his chin up on one hand and calmly said, "It's a test."
A minute later, Ming Shu had apparently had enough of the strange game he was playing. He released his grip on Qu Xing and gave the man a light push.
Qu Xing hurriedly covered his hands, staring indignantly at Ming Shu. His eyes had reddened, even taking on a watery sheen.
"That genius can't go a day without stirring up some trouble," Ming Shu said. He stood in front of Xiao Yu'an with both hands in his pockets, reporting his latest discoveries. "Qu Xing helped Sha Chun exact revenge, but he can't possibly be the one who killed her."
Xiao Yu'an understood his logic right away. "Qu Xing is too precious about his own hands."
"I'd considered this point the last time we questioned Qu Xing," Ming Shu said. "Qu Xing is the sort of person who's obsessed with taking care of his own hands. He only ever uses those hands to play the pipa or his other instruments, and to take care of the most basic necessities in life.
"Sha Chun was strangled, and she struggled before her death. Using a rope to strangle a grown woman would require quite a lot of strength and force. The assailant's hands would unavoidably be damaged.
"Qu Xing may have a motive, and he doesn't have a solid alibi. But he definitely wouldn't have used strangulation as a means of killing Sha Chun."
"Qu Xing is a distraction," Xiao Yu'an said. "Let's refocus on the core of the two cases before us. Do you remember what I said last time? About the contradiction in Sha Chun planning her own suicide?"
Ming Shu nodded. "I remember. The person who helped her commit suicide would definitely be someone Sha Chun trusted, someone important to Sha Chun. And the reverse would be true as well. So how could Sha Chun bring herself to drag this important person into a murder case, irreversibly changing that person's life?"
"After we looked into Wu Zhen's case, I discovered a possibility that could eliminate this contradiction," Xiao Yu'an said. He flipped open the autopsy report he'd gotten from Xing Mu. After pausing for a moment, he continued, "The person who helped Sha Chun commit 'suicide' might not have been someone extremely important to her. They could have been someone who suffered from the same plight as Sha Chun. Just like Sha Chun and Wu Zhen."
Ming Shu pulled back a chair and sat down, staring at the autopsy report.
Xiao Yu'an's words didn't actually come as a huge surprise to him. In truth, Ming Shu had already thought of the same possibility. But he'd been distracted by the interruptions of Ran He's suicide and the ghost stories spreading through the Performing Arts Association. He hadn't gotten a chance to follow that spark of an idea through to the end.
"Wu Zhen and Sha Chun were clearly the same type of person," Xiao Yu'an continued. "They both lacked talent and believed they could make up for that with hard work. They stubbornly pursued their goals, never wavering. In the end, after suffering countless setbacks and attacks, they were finally forced to confront the truth—that they couldn't make it to the top.
"To stubborn, diligent people like them, this sort of realization could be devastating. It could cause them to lose the will to live. They came to the point of wanting to end their lives, but they weren't willing to commit suicide. Perhaps, in their eyes, suicide was the coward's way out."
"A suicide wouldn't make waves," Ming Shu mused. He tapped his fists together again and again. "Homicide would be different. For a while, they would become the center of attention. Wu Zhen was a screenwriter, and Sha Chun was a guzheng player. Neither of them had ordinary jobs. They both needed exposure to succeed.
"They thirsted for an audience, for attention. Especially Sha Chun, or else she wouldn't have tirelessly uploaded all those videos of her practices to the internet."
"With that, it becomes quite apparent," Xiao Yu'an said. "Prior to their deaths, both victims behaved in ways which indicated they were planning their suicides. But when their cases reached us, they appeared as homicides. Moreover, one of Wu Zhen's notebooks ended up in Sha Chun's possession, like an inheritance.
"If the person who assisted Wu Zhen in his 'suicide' was Sha Chun, and the person who assisted Sha Chun was someone else like them… the contradiction disappears, and the logic checks out."
Ming Shu took a deep, slow breath. "That means the thing most important to Sha Chun—her hands—are being kept by the person who assisted her. And that person is now seeking someone else like them."
At just that time, a flurry of footsteps sounded in the hall. Xiao Man panted as he burst into the room. His face was flushed a deep, unnatural shade of red.
"Captain Ming! Director Xiao!"
Ming Shu reached out and accepted the thick pile of reports in Xiao Man's hands. He flipped directly to the last page.
"We collected tracks and evidence from the area near the barbed wire that had been installed in the fence of the old vocational school, and… and it's a match! It's a perfect match to Sha Chun's tracks!" Xiao Man wiped the sweat from his forehead. "And—and there's more! We found traces of blood on the barbed wire, and the DNA matches Sha Chun's too!
"The person who killed Wu Zhen, the person who sealed him in cement… it was probably Sha Chun!"