"I can see ghosts," Xu Yin repeated.
Ming Shu was a rationalist, through and through. He had never believed in the existence of anything like ghosts. The little girl's claim made him feel somewhat unsettled, but it certainly wasn't anything that would frighten him.
Ming Shu leaned forward just a little and asked, "Oh? What kind of ghosts?"
Xu Yin tilted her head. "You aren't scared?"
Ming Shu smiled. "What's so scary about ghosts? Did you insist on seeing me just to tell me about this?"
Xu Yin's upturned lips suddenly turned into a frown. A gloom gradually descended upon her eyes. "I've seen a ghost, but she's already dead."
The child in front of Ming Shu wasn't an ordinary child. Ming Shu mulled over her curt declarations. Ghosts weren't real, but the death Xu Yin spoke of could very well be real. Xu Yin was extremely perceptive to the scent of corpse rot. She'd already found Wu Zhen's body. She could have easily made another discovery while playing her game of finding dead bodies.
"Who is 'she'?" Ming Shu asked.
"A jiejie." Xu Yin undid her pigtail braids and retied her hair into a single ponytail. "Her hair was like this. One night, she was standing outside my window. Looking at me. And I looked at her."
Outside the window at Xu Yin's house…
Ming Shu painted the scene in his mind.
The Yilu Street neighborhood was lined with old houses. They were so old, in fact, that they could have been considered historical landmarks. The narrow streets were paved with uneven slabs of bluestone, and the stairs and walkways were layered with creaky wooden planks. The windows of each and every house were faulty, unable to be closed and latched. At night, those streets were poorly lit; some corners were submerged in total darkness.
At that point, in the scene unfolding in Ming Shu's mind, a woman with her hair tied back in a ponytail appeared. She stood outside a ramshackle house in total silence. Her gaze oozed across the building until it reached Xu Yin's window and found Xu Yin's eyes.
It was a good thing Xu Yin wasn't afraid of ghosts. Otherwise, a moment like that could have scared her into a dead faint.
"Why would she stand outside your window?" Ming Shu asked. "Did you know her?"
Xu Yin shook her head. "No. But I know she came to 'replace' me."
"She wanted to turn me into her."
Ming Shu studied Xu Yin again. The little girl didn't seem to be lying, but her words were incredibly bizarre. Even Ming Shu had trouble deciphering her true meaning.
Suddenly, Xu Yin grinned again. "But she was already dead. She couldn't 'replace' me."
This could very well be a lead on a case which involved a fatality. Ming Shu played along with Xu Yin and asked, "You said she was a ghost. How could a ghost die?"
"Why can't a ghost die?" A look of genuine confusion flashed across Xu Yin's face before she smiled once more. "I just know, anyway. She died."
"You're sure?" Ming Shu asked. "Then where did you see her body?"
Xu Yin could only really play on Yilu Street and the area surrounding Yilu Street. If she truly had found a body besides Wu Zhen's, she would most likely have found it in that neighborhood.
"Yisi Road" Xu Yin said. "I saw. Her tummy was broken open. There was lots of blood. But she wasn't dead yet!"
Dead one second, alive the next. The little girl was contradicting herself.
Ming Shu knew perfectly well what the environment around Yilu Street was like—
Yilu Street was overall an old neighborhood, but there was a distinction between old and new in that area. Xu Yin lived on the narrow little Yi'er Road, which was densely populated. It was quite a lively area during the day. Yisi Road, on the other hand, had been the central hub of the Yilu Street neighborhood some decades ago. The houses there were the most decrepit, and most had been abandoned long ago. For at least five years, Yisi Road had been completely deserted.
A little girl, all by herself, had found a woman on a deserted road—with her stomach slashed open, but alive?
"When did you see this?" Ming Shu asked. "What happened afterwards?"
Xu Yin furrowed her brows tightly, as though trying her best to think back. "Afterwards, I just went home."
Ming Shu's eyes widened, just a little.
Suppose a horrendous murder really had occurred in a nook of Yisi Road. A little girl shouldn't be the only one who knew of it. What happened to the victim's body?
"The middle of the next night, I went to see her again," Xu Yin continued. She hugged her own arms and shivered twice in an almost comically exaggerated way. "But she wasn't there anymore. She bled a lot, though. So she definitely died."
Ming Shu took a few steps closer. "You aren't lying to me?"
Xu Yin's smile became even more innocent. "Guess?"
When Ming Shu emerged from that room, he rubbed at his temples and found himself badly craving a cigarette.
But smoking was prohibited on the grounds of the Psychological Research Center.
"Captain Ming," Lin Jiao said. "You don't look so good."
Ming Shu clapped Lin Jiao on the shoulder. "You work hard, man."
Lin Jiao was puzzled.
"Communicating with them all the time. It's hard work, isn't it?" Ming Shu explained, gesturing back at the door behind him. "I have to take a breather."
"Oh, so that's what you mean." Lin Jiao flashed a helpless smile. "You criminal detectives are inclined to use logic to solve your problems, but logic is ineffective when applied to people like them."
"Take good care of Xu Yin for me." Ming Shu didn't plan on staying there for long. "If you can get her to open up to you, that would be best. But if you can't, it's fine. Just don't let her run off again."
"Don't worry. We have the Special Police Force right outside," Lin Jiao said. "Oh, that's right. About the corpse…"
"I don't have any answers yet," Ming Shu said. "If something comes up, I'll contact you."
After receiving Ming Shu's call, Xu Chun and Xiao Man instantly rushed out to Yisi Road.
Xiao Man had been to the Yilu Street area just a short while ago. He was already familiar with the neighborhood. But Xu Chun took in their surroundings and asked, "Isn't this place way too shabby?"
"It's too remote. If it were closer to the heart of Dong District, it would have been renovated a long time ago," Xiao Man said. He set his reconnaissance toolbox down on the ground and chatted with Xu Chun while getting to work.
Yisi Road wasn't very long, but it had lots of twists and bends that made it look deeper than it actually was. According to Xu Yin's description, the female corpse had been abandoned in the middle of the road. The streets there were full of cracks. It wouldn't matter how many times it rained or how carefully the killer cleaned up their mess. If a body had once lay there, trace evidence would surely remain.
"Did you find something?" Xu Chun asked when he saw Xiao Man take out his tools.
"Conducting a preliminary bloodstain test," Xiao Man reported. "Big Xu, grab an evidence kit for me. Help me take a sample of the mud in these cracks."
"You found traces of blood in a large area?" Ming Shu asked over the phone. "Any match for the DNA?"
"Not yet," Xiao Man answered. "Captain, what do you want us to do next?"
Ming Shu was currently hurrying towards Yu Xiaocheng's home. Yu Xiaocheng was one of the ten students who had taken one-on-one lessons with Sha Chun.
He swiftly compartmentalized and prioritized, then made his decision: "You and Xu Chun head back and conduct the DNA test first. See if you can confirm the identity of the person who left those bloodstains. The rest can wait until I get back."
After hanging up, Ming Shu frowned and gazed out the window.
It seemed a savage murder had been committed on Yisi Road. The victim was a female 'ghost', according to Xu Yin. And Xu Yin had been just in time to witness this 'ghost's' final moments. The day after that, the body of the 'ghost' had disappeared without a trace.
If Xu Yin wasn't lying about any of this, then what kind of case would this become?
The window of the car was half-open. Hot summer winds billowed in. Ming Shu scrubbed a hand over his face and dragged his focus back onto Sha Chun's case.
The technical investigation team had already thoroughly combed through Sha Chun's internet and communications records. They didn't find any suspicious communications with unknown persons, which all but guaranteed that Sha Chun's 'assistant' was someone she had face-to-face contact with.
Among the ten students who'd taken private lessons with Sha Chun, Wu Zhen was dead and Zhou Lan had left the country a month ago. That left eight students.
Liu Mei was a twenty-four-year-old model signed with an entertainment industry. She was 1.74 meters tall—not the exceptionally delicate sort, but rather quite strong.
Wang Dan was a middle school student who'd just started to take guzheng lessons. She attended school at the elite Shi'er Middle. As a skinny little girl of just 1.5 meters, she wasn't physically capable of strangling a grown woman to death.
Long Tianhao, male. Retired esports player. He had fought in the minor leagues for a long while, and he was now a games streamer contracted to a certain streaming platform. He took classes with Sha Chun for a little over a month. In early July, his courses ended, and he didn't return to 'Jianjia Bailu' after that.
Liang Xiyue, female. She was even younger than Wang Dan. Her parents had forced her to take three months of guzheng lessons, after which she switched over to drawing classes. She was even more incapable of committing the crime.
He Junchao and He Xiuting were cousins, both seventeen years old. They could have easily taken a class together, but had insisted on taking separate one-on-one lessons. The He family was a middle-class family, and both cousins were attending an international school with programs that would prepare them to go overseas after graduation. Their parents didn't have high expectations for them when it came to cultural arts classes.
Wen He, male. Thirty-seven years old. Divorced with one child. Middle management at a government-owned enterprise. Currently overseas on business.
And Yu Xiaocheng, nineteen years old. Student of Jiu High, a prep school. He'd failed his college entrance exams two years in a row. That year had been his second attempt. After his most recent entrance exams attempt, he started taking guzheng lessons with Sha Chun. High school third years started school in August, so he'd had to ultimately give up on his course before attending his last two classes.
Ming Shu didn't ask his team to bring Yu Xiaocheng into the Bureau for questioning. Instead, he personally drove out to Yu Xiaocheng's rental apartment by the north gates of Jiu High.
Jui High was an old school with a long-established reputation for excellence. Their elite teachers made them one of the top three high schools in Dongye City. The Olympiad students from that school could all set their sights on universities in the nation's Top 10, and even students with slightly lower scores performed much better than the national average.
The houses in the residential neighborhood to the north of Jiu High had been constructed around forty years ago. They weren't terribly new or terribly old. They weren't extremely modern or luxurious, but due to their close proximity to Jiu High, the rent in that area was incredibly high.
All students in their final year of high school rented a place there, as long as their families could afford the cost. It made for a quiet, convenient place to study near the school.
Outsiders rarely visited that neighborhood, and to any outsiders who did wander in, the whole neighborhood felt like the dorms of Jiu High.
Evening self-study classes had yet to conclude. Ming Shu and Yi Fei had some rice noodles at a food stall outside the school while they waited.
Although the Serious Crimes Division had yet to come into contact with Yu Xiaocheng, Ming Shu already had quite a good idea of Yu Xiaocheng's situation.
"Out of all of Sha Chun's students, Yu Xiaocheng is the one with the highest chance of being 'targeted' by her," Ming Shu said. He'd been starving since much earlier that day. As soon as their rice noodles were served up, he started shoveling them into his mouth. The first bite was hot enough to make him hiss.
If Xiao Yu'an had been with him, he definitely would have cautioned Ming Shu to slow down. But Yi Fei was the one sitting with him, and Yi Fei was even hungrier than Ming Shu. He wound up scalding his mouth too.
"Yu Xiaocheng is a humanities student. His goal is Jingzheng University. Unfortunately, his scores on the last two entrance exams fell just short of passing." Ming Shu hailed down the owner of the food stall and asked for two extra bowls. He set one down in front of himself, and one in front of Yi Fei. "Yu Xiaocheng's home is in Linxi County. Single-parent household. In middle school, he ranked in the top ten of his county and got into Jiu High as an honors student."
Yi Fei moved a portion of his rice noodles into the extra bowl to let them cool off. "But after entering that honors course, Yu Xiaocheng's grades weren't good 'enough'. He never once cracked the top twenty in his three years of high school."
Ming Shu stirred his noodles a few times. "Fuck."
Yi Fei looked up. "Fuck what?"
"Not being in the top twenty is considered not good enough?" Ming Shu echoed. "This is Jiu High. Just getting in is an accomplishment."
"I know it's Jiu High," Yi Fei said. "But in the hearts of students like Yu Xiaocheng, not making it into the top twenty means they're not good enough."
Ming Shu poured some vinegar into his bowl. "Self-study for third years goes until ten in the evening. I'm going to have a look around the school first. You go stand guard by Yu Xiaocheng's place."
"Sure," Yi Fei said. He was already busy stuffing his face again.
The high school campus at night had a quiet sort of tranquility that was rare in the big city. Evening self-study was already in progress. In the building dedicated to third years, most students were silently scribbling away at practice problems. Only the most advanced science and mathematics classes still had teachers lecturing in their rooms.
Ming Shu reached the building where Class 28, the honors humanities class, was located. He heard the endless sound of turning pages drifting out from inside.
A slightly plump middle-aged teacher walked out from Class 28, tensing with surprise when she spotted Ming Shu. "You are…?"
The third years' building at any elite prep school was strictly guarded. It wasn't the sort of place where any random person could wander in and loiter.
Ming Shu obviously couldn't be a parent, and he definitely didn't look like a teacher or a member of the administrative staff. It was no wonder that Wang-laoshi, the homeroom teacher, became alert as soon as she spotted him.
"Hello, ma'am." Ming Shu lowered his voice to a polite whisper and flashed his badge.
Wang-laoshi took a look, but the alarm in her eyes only intensified. "You…"
"Let's talk elsewhere," Ming Shu said.
The third years' teachers all worked hard. When the students worked late into the night, the teachers stayed up with them as well. The teachers' office wouldn't be a good place for a private chat. All sorts of people came and went even at that late hour, including teachers as well as students who had questions for their teachers.
Wang-laoshi took Ming Shu to a small, unused classroom and anxiously asked, "Did something happen involving a student in one of our classes?"
It wasn't unreasonable for Wang-laoshi to be nervous. College entrance exams were an extremely stressful thing for third-year students. Practically every year in Dongye City, there were third years who hurt themselves, killed themselves, or vented their frustrations by harming their peers.
Ming Shu flashed a reassuring smile and mimicked Xiao Yu'an's soothing tone as he spoke: "I'd like to gain a better understanding of your student Yu Xiaocheng."
A subtle shift came over Wang-laoshi's expression. Before she answered, she let out a sigh. "Did something happen within his family?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "Wang-laoshi, I'm afraid I can't divulge too many details at this time. Please understand. My goal in coming to speak to you today is primarily to hear your thoughts on what Yu Xiaocheng is like as a student. This is his third time taking the college entrance exams, after all. And you've been his homeroom teacher for three years, with this being the fourth year. I'm sure there's no other teacher at Jiu High who understands him better than you do."
Wang-laoshi was a highly qualified English teacher. After sending Yu Xiaocheng and her other students off a year ago, she'd taken over as the second-year honors literature teacher. Thus, Yu Xiaocheng hadn't been her student when he repeated his third year for the first time. Afterwards, when he repeated his third year again, Wang-laoshi had resumed her post as his homeroom teacher.
"Yu Xiaocheng, that boy…" Wang-laoshi stopped for a long while after she began.
Ming Shu could see that her expression was deeply conflicted and troubled. She seemed even somewhat remorseful.
"Please allow me to ask a different question," Ming Shu said. "Was Yu Xiaocheng not smart enough for the honors class?"
Wang-laoshi gave Ming Shu a long, hesitant look, but ultimately nodded. "In truth, I didn't think it was the best choice for Yu Xiaocheng to repeat a year. He's too… spiteful. When he entered my class again this year, I could tell he was disturbed."
"In what way?"
"Yu Xiaocheng's expectations for himself are far grander than his actual abilities," Wang-laoshi said after silently mulling over her words for another long moment. "Teachers shouldn't judge students solely based on their grades, but in the honors track of an elite prep school, competition is fierce. Not a single student can escape the pressure of that atmosphere."
Ming Shu nodded. "Mm."
"Yu Xiaocheng was an outstanding student in middle school. His grades always stayed in the top ten of his county. But every single student at our school was outstanding in their county or hometown," Wang-laoshi said. "Yu Xiaocheng is extremely diligent, I can tell. He wants to close the gap between himself and the top…"
"Diligent?" Ming Shu echoed. "Could you give me an idea of the ways in which Yu Xiaocheng is diligent?"
"All of the students in our classes are diligent, but Yu Xiaocheng is exceptional in that regard," Wang-laoshi said. "He won't participate in any extracurricular activities. Sports competitions, special interest clubs, school festivals… he skips them all. He feels they only interfere with his studies.
"The dorms have a strict lights out time, so Yu Xiaocheng has been living off campus since the second term of his first year. Just to increase the time he has to study. His family is actually quite ordinary, and his rent isn't cheap. I've spoken to his mother at parent-teacher meetings, and she admitted his rent is a huge financial burden on their family."
"Based on what you're saying, Yu Xiaocheng didn't interact much with his peers?" Ming Shu asked.
"You could say that. In our class, he's a bit like an 'invisible man'." Wang-laoshi sighed again. "Even though he works so hard, his grades don't improve. I'm not saying he isn't an outstanding student. It's just that at Jiu High, there are too many outstanding students. Yu Xiaocheng only excels in his diligence. He works harder than anyone else, but his grades have always remained average. It's really a little tragic."
Ming Shu thought back to Wang-laoshi's earlier words. He asked, "You said you felt that Yu Xiaocheng was 'disturbed' when he entered your class this year. Was that something that manifested in his behavior?"
"He used to ask the teachers a lot of questions, and he would often discuss difficult problems with the students around him even though his social life wasn't exactly robust," Wang-laoshi said. "But now, he doesn't talk to anyone. He just sits in the classroom all day. He won't ask any questions. He'll try to figure everything out on his own.
"The students who sit near him have spoken to me several times about him. They all say they don't want to sit next to him, because the look in his eyes is too terrifying, just like that Liu…"
Wang-laoshi cut herself off there. Ming Shu caught the flash of regret that crossed her face.
It only took a moment's thought for Ming Shu to guess what Wang-laoshi nearly said—
Just like that Liu Huizhi.
Liu Huizhi. A very special, memorable homicide case.
Over ten years ago, Liu Huizhi had attended an elite prep school in the capital. His grades were exceptional, and he was outstanding in every way. Barring any unforeseen circumstances, he would have surely made it into one of the top two universities in the country.
But in the second term of his third year, Liu Huizhi somehow obtained a machete and murdered five of his dormmates. Then he charged into the third years' school building and killed eight more people with his blade, wounding fourteen others.
By the time the police arrived on the scene, Liu Huizhi had been subdued by his teachers and classmates. But the scent of fresh blood and the sound of bitter tears filled the halls. It was a grisly sight.
During his trial, Liu Huizhi claimed he'd been under too much pressure at school, which drove him to commit this unforgivable crime.
Back then, campus violence wasn't as much of a major talking point as it was now. No school in the country had experienced such a tragic calamity. Even after the media attention faded away, Liu Huizhi's case left a lasting mark on society. Liu Huizhi, outwardly a somewhat delicate and fair young man, became a nightmare for many third-year high school students.
Even now, more than ten years later, there were students who whispered and feared that their neighboring classmate could become another 'Liu Huizhi'.
"My guess," Ming Shu began, "is that Yu Xiaocheng was unwilling to ask his teachers and students for help because his self-confidence had plummeted. Correct?"
Wang-laoshi nodded. "This year, he's a third year for the third time. All his classmates are younger than him, and all his teachers have taught him before. A while back, we had a mock exam for the third years, and his scores were still average.
"That was a huge blow to him—just think about it. He's already taken his third-year classes twice, and he still lags behind his younger peers. I've been a teacher for many, many years. I truly do understand the struggles of an ordinary student who works hard but just can't catch up with their peers."
Wu Zhen, Sha Chun, Yu Xiaocheng…
Different people living different lives, but facing the same challenges.
Before Ming Shu left Jiu High, he peered into Class 28. Yu Xiaocheng was sitting in the middle of the room, close to the back. His head was bowed over his desk as he worked intently on a booklet of practice problems.
Perhaps he felt a set of eyes on him. Yu Xiaocheng suddenly turned around. His gloomy gaze flickered to the small window on the door at the back of the room.
Ming Shu met his gaze and instantly identified despair and anguish in his eyes.
Anyone outside that little window could see clearly into the classroom, but those in the classroom couldn't make out the faces of the people outside.
Yu Xiaocheng didn't know who was standing outside the door. After a moment, he turned back to his desk and continued to work on his practice problems.
An hour later, the third years were dismissed. Ming Shu followed Yu Xiaocheng from afar, taking the same route back to his cramped little apartment.
At the door to unit 7-3, Yi Fei saw a youth turn the corner and appear from the stairwell. He called out, "Yu Xiaocheng."
Yu Xiaocheng froze on the spot. Alarm and defensiveness rose in his eyes. The sound of footsteps from downstairs rang out below him. He turned in an instant, trying to barrel past the person behind him in an attempt to flee.
But the person behind him was Ming Shu.
Yu Xiaocheng was 1.76 meters tall. He was somewhat frail, but his explosive, adrenaline-fueled strength couldn't be underestimated. Just as Yi Fei rushed to the stairs, Yu Xiaocheng forcefully slammed his shoulder into Ming Shu with a look of hateful malice in his eyes.
Ming Shu reacted quickly. He dodged to the side in a flash and used his momentum to grab Yu Xiaocheng's wrist, firmly slamming the youth against the wall. His voice was grim and stern—
"Why are you running?"