Upon learning of those two critical clues, Fang Yuanhang broke out in goosebumps. "Sha Chun, of all people, was capable of killing someone? And she was bold enough to use cement to seal up the corpse? June was when the traditional instruments department moved from their old building to the new one. Sha Chun would have had more free time on her hands, and she…"
Fang Yuanhang took a deep breath. "When we saw her perform, we were looking at a murderer! Chief…"
Ming Shu knew what Fang Yuanhang wanted to say.
When he took note of Sha Chun back then, it hadn't been because he'd detected the scent of a homicide case rising from her form. It was purely because he, as a layman who knew nothing about music, had been enthralled by Sha Chun's performance on the guzheng.
"Sha Chun may not have killed Wu Zhen with her own hands," Xiao Yu'an said. "Sodium cyanide poisoning and strangulation are two very different methods of death. Self-inflicted hanging and strangulation have been ruled out by forensics. We know for a fact that someone else strangled Sha Chun.
"But sodium cyanide wouldn't necessarily be fed to a victim by another person. However, we can be sure that Sha Chun was the one who took care of the 'aftermath' for Wu Zhen.
"We can also be sure of Sha Chun's time of death. It was a Sunday. Wu Zhen's exact time of death is difficult to determine from his autopsy alone, but Little Zhou is confident that he died between the 21st and 22nd."
Zhou Yuan nodded. "Right!"
"I feel the same way. Saturday and Sunday would have been rest days for them. There's a message in their times of death," Xiao Yu'an continued. "They lived from Monday to Friday, but they didn't survive Saturday and Sunday—they failed to have a weekend. They couldn't have any time off."
Zhou Yuan had been thinking along the same lines. The short, typically reserved detective suddenly couldn't help but become invigorated. He eagerly said, "There are two implied meanings—as diligent people, they didn't ever have a weekend. They never gave themselves a day off. So they didn't have rest days. Dying on the weekend symbolized the fact that they didn't have rest days!"
"That's the ritualistic significance of their times of death," Xiao Yu'an agreed. "These two cases also exhibit many similarities in their process. Captain Ming, please tell us about your analysis."
Ming Shu took over from there. "Sha Chun died at the Performing Arts Association. There are two possible reasons for this. One, that area was only half-developed. The lack of an ample security system makes it difficult for police to investigate. Two, Sha Chun may have wanted to frighten her colleagues at the association. Even if Qu Xing hadn't put on that act as her ghost, the people of the traditional instruments department would have been alarmed.
"Wu Zhen, on the other hand, seemed to choose that vocational school simply because it was a desolate, deserted location. We've yet to find anyone he might have wanted to seek revenge against. Wu Zhen's circle of friends and acquaintances was extremely small. He'd basically cut all ties with everyone from Xunchuan, his hometown.
"Plus, he turned over all his work to Lightflow Media. Lightflow was in charge of meeting with other companies in an attempt to sell his work. Wu Zhen spent all those long, tireless years in his own little room. He rarely had the chance to interact with anyone outside of work. As for being sealed in cement…"
Fang Yuanhang raised his hand. "Chief, I had a thought."
Ming Shu glanced over at him. "Mm, go ahead."
"You said one of Sha Chun's motivations for choosing the Performing Arts Association was to scare her colleagues who'd tormented her. It was a form of revenge," Fang Yuanhang said. "I feel like there was an element of revenge in Wu Zhen's choices too, and he managed to get back at a much wider range of people. A dead body encased in cement… isn't it horrifying, just to hear about it? Wu Zhen could have been trying to terrify society as a whole."
Ming Shu thought about it, then smiled. "Your mind is getting sharper and sharper."
"In all previous cases with bodies encased in cement, the killer put the body there to hide their crime from the police," Fang Yuanhang said. "But in this case, Wu Zhen was his own killer. He had no reason to hide his own crime."
"Wu Zhen died of sodium cyanide poisoning. The fact that his body was encased in cement was the only thing that pointed towards homicide right away. It could be that the cement tomb was meant to mislead us into thinking he was murdered, but there's another possibility as well," Ming Shu said. "Wu Zhen was in pursuit of 'immortality'. His works were of no interest to anyone, but he could achieve 'immortality' by entombing his body in cement."
"Bodies encased in cement would still decay," Xing Mu interjected. As a forensic scientist, he was extraordinarily particular about these little details. When he snuck a glance at Ming Shu, he found Ming Shu looking back and quickly ducked his head again.
"I know," Ming Shu said. He wasn't completely clueless when it came to forensics; there was no need for Xing Mu to bring up such an obvious fact. "What I meant was that Wu Zhen may have believed he could 'immortalize' himself in history, in this way."
"Let's set aside the reason for sealing his corpse in cement for now," Yi Fei said. "We can talk about it all we want, but this is a case of 'Schrödinger's cement'. The only two people who knew the truth are dead. Who knows if the goal was to achieve 'immortality', or to seek revenge against society, or simply to mislead us into considering this a homicide?
"Right now, the most important thing is finding the person who helped Sha Chun commit 'suicide'. This person is the same 'kind' as Sha Chun. Doesn't that mean they're currently looking for someone to help them commit 'suicide'? If our analysis is correct, or even close to the truth, these victims are like dominoes of despair. When one falls, it'll knock down the next."
"We don't just need to find the person who assisted in Sha Chun's death," Xiao Yu'an corrected. "We also need to go farther back. We need to find out who Wu Zhen killed."
The conference room descended into silence, until Fang Yuanhang murmured, "That's right. If Wu Zhen wasn't the 'origin', then there definitely had to be another 'suicide' victim before him. And before that 'suicide' victim, there could have been another. And before them, another…"
Yi Fei sighed. "That's enough. Quit it with the 'another and another'."
Ming Shu looked towards Xiao Yu'an. "Director Xiao, are you sure Wu Zhen isn't the 'origin'?"
"I'm not," Xiao Yu'an said.
The other team members began to whisper amongst themselves.
"Wu Zhen was forty years old," Xiao Yu'an continued. "He experienced a lot of hardships throughout his life, and he endured much more than Sha Chun. It wouldn't be strange for twisted, convoluted thoughts to be born in his mind. And he read broadly. He consumed large amounts of books and other works regarding society, ethics, psychology, and crime. He could very well be the 'origin' of this chain."
Xiao Yu'an paused there, then continued, "But that doesn't eliminate the possibility of him being influenced by someone else. Earlier, I said these two cases had many similarities in their process. But there are huge differences as well. The Performing Arts Association was a good place to commit a murder, but the pond where Sha Chun's body was found definitely wasn't a good place to dispose of a corpse. That shows that, unlike Wu Zhen, Sha Chun was hoping to be discovered quickly."
"Which means," Ming Shu said, "if Wu Zhen killed someone, that person's body could be even more well-hidden? We might have an even harder time finding them?"
Xu Chun had already hurried back from Xunchuan. He lowered his voice and whispered to Xiao Man, "That makes it rough. The longer a homicide case drags on, the harder it becomes to solve."
Xiao Man was just about to nod when he heard Xiao Yu'an call out his name.
"Wu Zhen's fourth notebook wasn't completely filled up," Xiao Yu'an said. "And in that notebook, his handwriting underwent significant changes. Little Xiao, have you determined the approximate time of this change?"
Xiao Man hurriedly stood up. "I compared Wu Zhen's writing in his notebook to his writing at work. His handwriting showed obvious changes starting in December of last year."
"Wu Zhen changed his focus at work and stopped writing screenplays in September of last year," Ming Shu mused. "Wu Zhen's manager said that Wu Zhen started earning more money after he made that change, but he wasn't any happier. He was still depressed."
"We should focus our investigation on this period of time," Xiao Yu'an said. "If Wu Zhen had been influenced by someone else, then it's very likely that he was influenced during that period. Also, the concerns Yuanhang expressed just now are beside the point."
Fang Yuanhang jerked his head up. "Huh?"
"I was thinking the same thing as Director Xiao," Ming Shu said, sitting up straight in his chair. "When a domino falls, it knocks down all the others lined up in front of it. But is killing a person that easy? All the dominoes in a set are more or less identical, while each person is vastly different from the next. Everyone has different ideals and different wishes.
"Wu Zhen's body remained hidden for more than two months. This was likely the result of many factors. We can't forget that Wu Zhen and Sha Chun were both people with wishes that they wanted to realize through their deaths. Otherwise, they would have simply killed themselves.
"Moreover, there are many people in the world who work hard and never amount to much. But it would be exceedingly rare for one of these people to be turned into the same 'kind' of person as Wu Zhen and Sha Chun, and for them to be driven to the point of being killed by another person of the same 'kind'.
"So it's certainly possible that countless victims came before Wu Zhen, but I don't believe that's the case. For now, it's enough for us to divide our focus between the two biggest pieces of our puzzle—Wu Zhen and Sha Chun."
Once he finished speaking, Ming Shu glanced over at Xiao Yu'an. Xiao Yu'an gave him a small nod of approval.
Ming Shu continued, "Sha Chun's social network was broader than Wu Zhen's, but it wasn't exactly expansive. The only people she came into contact with were her colleagues at the Performing Arts Association and the other teachers at 'Jianjia Bailu'.
"This accomplice, this person who's the same 'kind' as them, must belong to one of those groups. As for Wu Zhen, it's as Director Xiao said—we need to focus on his movements in December of last year. We need to find out who he came in contact with during that time.
"One more thing. Sodium cyanide isn't rare, but it isn't something that any ordinary person could easily get their hands on. Did Wu Zhen procure it for himself, somehow? Or was it something left to him by the 'domino' that fell before him?"
Two distinct paths were laid out in front of them now. Fang Yuanhang enthusiastically scribbled down notes on everything that was said.
At that point in the case, the dense clouds obscuring the truth had at least started to thin. All the outrageously baffling ties between Sha Chun and Wu Zhen were starting to make some real, logical sense.
But it was as Yi Fei had said. They were two pieces in a set of dominoes of despair. Their deaths were their final, desperate struggles.
After the case analysis meeting, everyone was inevitably left feeling heavy and gloomy.
"There's actually something I've been stuck on," Ming Shu said. All their other teammates had disbanded, leaving him and Xiao Yu'an alone in the conference room. Ming Shu sat with his cheek propped up on one hand. "Let's forget about who came before Wu Zhen and who may come after Sha Chun for now. Focusing only on them, how did Wu Zhen set his sights on Sha Chun?
"Wu Zhen's colleagues said he wanted to learn the guzheng as preparation for writing a period piece. After switching tracks at work, Wu Zhen did start earning more, so he could afford those guzheng lessons. But I feel like it's too much of a coincidence.
"Did Wu Zhen go to 'Jianjia Bailu' and set his sights on Sha Chun? Or had he already set his sights on Sha Chun, which motivated him to go to 'Jianjia Bailu'? Which was the cause, and which was the effect? It's critically important for us to answer that question."
"You're digging into the minor details again." Xiao Yu'an smiled. His tone was noticeably different from the one he'd used during the meeting. It was less dignified and poised, more gentle and warm. Even when he scolded Ming Shu, he did so with a touch of indulgence. "How many times have I told you? That's a habit you need to break."
Ming Shu huffed, unswayed. "There's nothing wrong with digging into the details. Vital clues are always hidden in the details, especially in cases like this. If we don't dig and investigate every crevice, there's no way to solve this case."
"But you need to target the right details to dig into," Xiao Yu'an said. "You took note of Qu Xing's hands and the contents of Sha Chun's refrigerator. These details were worthy of further investigation."
Ming Shu pursed his lips. In his opinion, the process of how Wu Zhen and Sha Chun came to know each other was also worthy of further investigation.
"But now you're getting yourself tangled up in a question that won't be answered, no matter how tangled you allow yourself to become," Xiao Yu'an said. When Ming Shu didn't argue, he continued, "Because these two people have both died. Yi Fei called the cement block 'Schrödinger's cement', and the connection you want to investigate can be called 'Schrödinger's connection'. Your rookie has clearly been influenced by you as well."
Ming Shu hummed absently. "Fang Yuanhang thinks too much, but that's better than not thinking enough. The worst thing a young police detective could be is slow-witted, waiting for others to feed them clues."
"That's true. Fang Yuanhang can chase any leads he wants, but you can't," Xiao Yu'an stated resolutely. "You're the captain of the Serious Crimes Division. You need to keep the big picture in mind. You can have your little rookie dig into all the little details. The more he digs, the better. But there's no need for you to personally spend so much time and energy on these things."
Ming Shu slapped his own forehead a few times before grumbling, "That's such a double standard!"
Xiao Yu'an smiled again. "People who aren't subject to 'double standards' don't exist."
Ming Shu lifted his gaze. "Really? Then, give me another example?"
"I get the feeling you're a little too clever," Xiao Yu'an said.
Ming Shu played dumb. "Really? I'm just asking you to give me an example."
"You want another example of what makes you special?" Xiao Yu'an sighed. "You just want to hear me praise you, don't you?"
This time, Ming Shu answered honestly right away. "Mm. Go ahead, praise me."
Xiao Yu'an lifted a hand. "Come here."
Ming Shu hastily scooted over. But in the end, he didn't get to hear any sweet words of praise. He didn't get a kiss, either. Instead, he had his cheek pinched.
"You—!" Ming Shu huffed. Although his cheek didn't hurt at all, Ming Shu didn't think Xiao Yu'an would play such a dirty trick on him. "You're too much, Director Xiao."
Xiao Yu'an started gathering up his things from the desk. He paused to give Ming Shu a pat on the head, smiling as he said, "Go focus on the case."
Ming Shu turned back to him. "Director Xiao, where are you going?"
"I have something to do," Xiao Yu'an said.
"What thing?" Ming Shu asked. It wasn't appropriate for a subordinate to ask a question like that. But as a family member, as a partner, it was nothing out of the ordinary at all.
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "There's a dinner."
"Oi!" Ming Shu lifted his brows up high. "We're still locked in a case, and you, as our superior, are already thinking about going out to dinner? Come on, come on. Tell your hard-working subordinate who's still fighting on the front lines the truth. What kind of monkey are you going out to dinner with?"
Fang Yuanhang had left his lighter in the conference room. He was just rushing back to fetch it when he heard his chief questioning their boss about some sort of 'monkey' dinner. He instantly hit the brakes and ground to a halt outside the door.
"It's Director Li," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Pfft—" Fang Yuanhang couldn't fully suppress a laugh.
Ming Shu jumped. "Who's there?"
Fang Yuanhang knew he couldn't stay hidden. He stuck half his body in through the door and said, "Chief, Director Xiao. It's me. But I didn't hear anything."
Ming Shu grabbed the lighter on the table and chucked it at him. "Don't run your mouth."
Fang Yuanhang nodded hurriedly. "I definitely won't tell anyone you called Director Li a monkey. I'll keep it bottled up right in my stomach."
Ming Shu was silent.
Xiao Yu'an couldn't be bothered to get involved in this chief-rookie banter. He patted Ming Shu's shoulder, then patted Fang Yuanhang's shoulder as well, before taking his leave without another word.
Fang Yuanhang waited half a moment before he said, "Chief, what does Director Xiao mean by that?"
Ming Shu started making his way back to the Serious Crimes Division's offices. "What does he mean by what?"
"Director Xiao, he… he left without saying anything!"
"Who says he has to say something before leaving?"
Fang Yuanhang gulped. "You called Director Li a monkey just now."
Ming Shu rolled his eyes. "Didn't you just say you were going to keep that bottled up in your stomach? Why is it popping out already?"
"No, that's not—!" Fang Yuanhang shook his head and continued, "Chief, when did your relationship with Director Xiao get so good? He let you get away with calling Director Li a monkey behind his back!"
Ming Shu stopped in the hall and glanced at Fang Yuanhang out of the corner of his eye.
"I think I sort of understand Xing-laoshi now," Fang Yuanhang said.
Xing Mu saw all his superiors as a threatening storm, a calamity waiting to happen. He never provoked his higher-ups when he could avoid it.
"Because all you higher-ups are a little mysterious," Fang Yuanhang concluded.
Ming Shu was just about to tell him to get lost when a clamor came from downstairs.
"Captain Ming? Is Captain Ming here?"
The voice reached them before the owner of the voice. Ming Shu instantly recognized this as the deputy director of the Bureau's Psychological Research Center—Lin Jiao.
The Psychological Research Center was a new department that had only been officially established a few years ago. Prior to the formation of this department, the Bureau didn't have any psychological experts on staff. When the need for a psychological evaluation arose in certain cases, the Bureau would have to consult experts from around the city.
Most times, it was a harmonious collaboration. But working with psychologists outside the criminal investigation field inevitably resulted in conflicting viewpoints once in a while, and problems tended to arise particularly during investigations into complicated, thorny cases.
The establishment of the Psychological Research Center was a big help to detectives, particularly criminal detectives and the Special Police Force.
Lin Jiao was the bright young genius of the Psychological Research Center, only a few years older than Ming Shu. He had a fairly strong relationship with the Serious Crimes Division. After Yi Fei brought Xu Yin back, he'd sent her straight to Lin Jiao.
"Lin-laoshi." Ming Shu stopped by the stairs. "Is something wrong?"
Lin Jiao never wore a police uniform or a doctor's coat. When the weather was warm, he wore a dress shirt and slacks. When it was cold, he put on an overcoat as well. He always gave off a rather dignified, classy aura.
"The one you sent over, Xu Yin," he said. "She ran away."
"What?" Ming Shu furrowed his brow. The Psychological Research Center was located in the same building as the Special Police Force's offices. There was some distance between them and the Serious Crimes Division. "How could you let her run away?"
"Don't worry, we already got her back," Lin Jiao said before Ming Shu could interrogate him further. "But the little girl won't cooperate with us at all. She insists on seeing you."
Ming Shu knew that Xu Yin's psychological problems were severe, but he had no way of making time to have a heart-to-heart with her now. Besides, he was a criminal detective. Although he'd taken classes on criminal psychology, he was far from an expert. He was no match for the professionals at the Psychological Research Center, like Lin Jiao.
"How am I supposed to make time now?" Ming Shu asked.
Lin Jiao calmly explained, "Xu Yin says she found another body before she smelled the corpse at the vocational school."
"Fuck!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "That's not possible, is it?"
"Captain Ming, Xu Yin escaped from our office today in order to find you," Lin Jiao said. "She won't tell me much. She only wants to talk to you."
Fang Yuanhang turned to Ming Shu. "Chief?"
Ming Shu deliberated for a moment, then said, "Give Yi Fei a heads up. I'll make a quick trip to the Center. It won't take long."
Although the Psychological Research Center was located in the same building as the Special Police Force, the atmosphere in their offices was completely different. They were a much quieter bunch.
Lin Jiao gripped the door handle with his right hand and whispered, "She's just inside. If you need anything from me, just holler."
Before the door opened, Ming Shu thought the curtains inside would be tightly drawn. Many people suffering psychological problems preferred to stay out of the light, after all.
But the room was actually brightly lit, and quite spacious as well. Xu Yin was sitting on the carpet, looking up at Ming Shu with big eyes and a bright smile.
Xu Yin was actually a pretty cute kid, but as soon as he remembered that this was a child who loved the scent of corpses and the adventure of finding dead bodies, Ming Shu felt a chill run down his spine.
"You came." Xu Yin stood up and ran over to Ming Shu.
Ming Shu looked down and gazed into the girl's light brown pupils. After a moment, he asked, "Li-laoshi says you have something to tell me?"
Xu Yin nodded.
"What is it?" Ming Shu asked patiently.
Xu Yin laughed. The sound of her laughter, even in that brightly lit room, was somewhat chilling.
Once her laughter subsided, she spoke in the sweet and soft voice that only children possessed:
"I can see ghosts."