MADNESS OF THE HEART

Chapter 57: Endless (Part Seventeen)

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City Bureau. Psychological Research Center.

Xu Yin hummed a melody that was completely out of tune. She pushed open the door of the room Lin Jiao had prepared for her, then started making her way down the bright and quiet hall.

One side of the hallway consisted of walls while the other side was completely made up of floor-to-ceiling glass. Xu Yin walked for a while, then stopped and turned to the glass, facing her own blurred reflection.

She stepped forward with her left foot first. Slowly, she approached the glass and grabbed hold of the stainless steel railing with both hands. She opened her big eyes wide, and her lips parted and shut several times.

In the surveillance footage, Xu Yin looked as though she were talking to her reflection. But her vocal cords didn't actually vibrate at all; she didn't make a single sound.

After 'speaking' to her reflection, she let out a sharp and clear laugh. Then she lifted a hand, waved at the glass, and started to hum again while skipping down the hall.

Then, suddenly, her humming stopped. And this time, she turned to face the wall.

The wall was lined with many doors to various rooms. From outside, those rooms seemed quite similar to the one from which she'd just emerged.

It was night. Most of the doors were already shut. Only the door to Room 412 was cracked open, allowing a sliver of twinkling yet ominous light to escape from within.

"Hm?" Xu Yin scooted closer to the door and leaned over to peek through the crack. There didn't seem to be anyone beyond the door. The room was totally empty, and the curtains were tightly shut. A small night-light sat on the table.

At the time, Xu Yin didn't know that there was indeed someone inside that room. And that person was looking down at her from above.

A tall, thin man was mostly hidden behind the door. He only leaned his upper body over to peer through the crack in the doorway, silently gazing down at the top of Xu Yin's head.

Xu Yin scanned the room with her gaze. She only looked left and right at first, before finally looking up and meeting the man's eyes.

In the dead of night, this was surely a chilling sight—especially to a little girl. But Xu Yin's only reaction was an instantaneous constriction of her pupils. A second later, she smiled.

"Who are you?" she asked.

The man, on the other hand, seemed more surprised. His ghastly face twitched and trembled, and he ground his teeth together, creating a faint, unpleasant sound.

Xu Yin even went so far as to lift a hand, reaching out and touching her fingertips to the door.

The man drew a sharp breath.

But the door didn't actually fall open. A chain stopped it from swinging inwards, and when the metal links were pulled taut, they created a soft sound—

Clang!

Xu Yin pouted and fixed her unblinking gaze on the man again. The man, however, seemed to be alarmed by the sound, as though he'd seen a ghost. His expression twisted into something viscerally hideous, and he pushed hard on the door with both hands.

Bang!

The door was firmly shut from inside.

Xu Yin reflexively closed her eyes at the sound. A while later, she stepped away from the door and continued on her 'journey'.

But this time, she didn't start to hum and she didn't skip. She only trudged along slowly, as though dispirited in the wake of her encounter with that man.

An inner courtyard separated the Psychological Research Center and the Special Police Force headquarters at the City Bureau. Xu Yin was on her best behavior; she didn't cross the courtyard, only gazing towards the Special Police Force's side of the building.

A tall man who wasn't wearing a police uniform stepped out of an office on that side. He caught sight of Xu Yin and turned to face her, offering her a smile.

Xu Yin hesitated for a moment when she saw this man approach her. Then, she decided to step forward to meet him halfway.

"Xu Yin."

From behind her, a familiar voice rang out. Xu Yin instantly stopped and turned around.

Lin Jiao hurriedly caught up to her and greeted her with a warm smile. "Looking for Captain Ming again?"

The other man didn't continue moving towards Xu Yin. He stopped in place and called out, "Lin-laoshi."

Lin Jiao met the man's gaze for just two seconds, as though reluctant to acknowledge him. After a moment, Lin Jiao stooped down and took Xu Yin's hand. "Captain Ming isn't at the Bureau right now. Even if you leave this place, you wouldn't be able to find him."

While Lin Jiao tried to placate Xu Yin, the other man crinkled his eyes with a smile and turned. He moved away, disappearing around a corner.

Lin Jiao glanced up, as though by instinct alone, and looked towards that corner.

"Did he find a 'ghost'?" Xu Yin suddenly asked.

Lin Jiao stood up and led Xu Yin back inside. After a while, he softly asked, "How should I know?"

 

Ming Shu hadn't found a 'ghost', but he did shove Yu Xiaocheng into the little apartment that was cluttered with all sorts of books and study materials.

He hadn't planned on being so rough with Yu Xiaocheng. The wall Yu Xiaocheng had been shoved against was truly filthy. He came away with a layer of dust clinging to his clothes and skin, mottled with cobwebs.

It was truly disgusting.

But Yu Xiaocheng's reaction had been so fierce. As soon as he saw someone standing in front of the door to his apartment, he'd turned and fled like his life depended on it. If Ming Shu didn't subdue their person of interest at a time like that, he surely would have been mocked by his men when he returned to the Bureau.

The rental apartment was very small, just one room, ten-some square feet. The bathroom and kitchen sat on either side of the entryway, and the kitchen looked utterly unused. A layer of dust had gathered on the stove, and bugs were crawling around on a bundle of dried noodles.

After the struggle out in the corridor, Yu Xiaocheng's face had taken on an extraordinarily ugly expression. His face, his t-shirt, and his jeans were all dirty with soot from the wall. His eyes glinted as though they'd been dipped in poison; he glared at Ming Shu with equal measures of anger and gloom.

A normal third-year high school student, even burdened with the pressures of looming college entrance exams, shouldn't have reacted so hostilely and fearfully to the appearance of the police.

"Why did you run?" Ming Shu asked. His tone had completely changed. The kind, polite voice he'd used with Wang-laoshi was gone, replaced by a voice frosted with ice.

Yu Xiaocheng pursed his lips hard and balled his hands into fists. Even under the dim lights in the apartment, the bulging veins in his arms were plainly visible to the eye.

Yi Fei lifted his head and looked up at the overhead lights.

Typically, an exam prep student's living quarters were well-lit. But these overhead lights only emitted a pale, yellowish glow. There was a hanging lamp in the middle of the ceiling, as well as a row of smaller spotlights nearby, but those lights all seemed nonfunctional.

Yi Fei spotted a light switch on the wall and went over to flick it a few times, but as expected—the lighting in the room didn't change.

But the sound of the flicking switch filled Yu Xiaocheng with another burst of anger. "You guys get—get out!"

"Sure," Ming Shu said. "But you'll be coming with us. We'll get out, we'll march straight into a police car, and we'll head down to the Bureau."

Yu Xiaocheng's erratic breathing filled up the filthy little apartment. After a few seconds, he suddenly bellowed, "What do you people want with me?!"

"Sha Chun is dead," Ming Shu said.

Not even the faintest trace of surprise appeared on Yu Xiaocheng's face. His obvious anger and fear only grew stronger and stronger.

"You've known for a long time," Ming Shu continued. "Right?"

Yu Xiaocheng's frenetic fury flagged. He no longer glared at Ming Shu, instead averting his gaze. "What does that have to do with me?"

"If you're the killer," Ming Shu said, "it has everything to do with you."

"What are you saying?" Yu Xiaocheng's cheeks jolted with a violent spasm. "I didn't do anything!"

Ming Shu gave Yi Fei a meaningful look, and Yi Fei instantly caught his intended meaning. He started rummaging through the apartment right away.

"Don't touch my books!" Yu Xiaocheng roared. He tried to stop Yi Fei, but he was easily restrained by Ming Shu.

"Sit down!"

"I don't have anything to do with Sha Chun!"

"Do you think you can convince me, after your aggressive reaction just now?" Ming Shu asked. "August 23rd, Saturday night. Where were you?"

Yu Xiaocheng's whole face froze, tensing instantly. "I… I was at school. Studying."

Over summer break, soon-to-be third years weren't forced to attend evening self-study on Saturdays and Sundays. Those classes were optional, but most honors students who lived on or around campus always attended.

"Who can prove that for you?" Ming Shu asked.

Jiu High's self-study rooms were almost never empty; other students and teachers were sure to have been present. If Yu Xiaocheng had really been in attendance at a self-study class, there would have been far more than one person who could support his alibi.

But Yu Xiaocheng's face filled up with obvious panic. He didn't say anything for a long while.

"No one can prove you were there?" Ming Shu asked.

"If I was studying, I was studying!" Yu Xiaocheng blurted out. "I don't need anyone else to prove it!"

Those nonsensical words had obviously come from a place of fear and panic. Yi Fei turned and said, "Yu Xiaocheng, if I were you, if I really had something to do with Sha Chun's death, I would earnestly cooperate with the police in their investigation. Of course, you can try to obstruct us. But the only one who will suffer for that is you."

"You're threatening me?" Yu Xiaocheng demanded.

"We're investigating you," Ming Shu said.

Besides the bed and a plastic stool next to the writing desk, there really wasn't anywhere to sit in that rental apartment. Ming Shu didn't want to sit, anyway. He accepted a pamphlet from 'Jianjia Bailu' that Yi Fei found and passed over. While studying it, Ming Shu kept an eye on Yu Xiaocheng's expression as well.

"I'm just a normal student, taking my college entrance exams next year," Yi Xiaocheng said, refusing to look at Ming Shu. But he did sometimes glance at the pamphlet in Ming Shu's hands. "I don't know what there is to investigate."

"You're taking the college entrance exams next year?" Ming Shu echoed. "This year and last year, you took the college entrance exams as well."

Yu Xiaocheng looked as though he'd been put under an evil curse. He suddenly started to thump a hand against his own chest.

"You're very diligent. For the sake of your studies, you work harder than most other people. But even after taking the exam twice, you weren't able to achieve a good enough score," Ming Shu said. "Did Sha Chun ever tell you that the two of you were very much alike?"

Yu Xiaocheng's eyes seemed to freeze. His gaze fixated on a spot in midair and filled up with astonishment.

"It seems she did," Ming Shu mused.

"No!" Yu Xiaocheng fiercely shook his head. "What do you know? How could you possibly understand? She didn't say anything like that to me!"

Ming Shu sighed and lightly tapped the pamphlet. "If you insist on remaining this worked up, I'll have no choice but to take you back to the Bureau. We can talk more once you've calmed down."

 

Liu Mei and Long Tianhao had also been brought back to the Serious Crimes Division. Compared to Yu Xiaocheng, the reactions of those two were far more ordinary. Their mood did experience some turbulence when they were brought in, but those shifts fell within the range of what could normally be expected from anyone brought in for questioning.

Liu Mei was beautiful. She wore a light face of makeup and choked up several times when talking about Sha Chun. "Sha Chun-laoshi was wonderful, and she was very charismatic."

This was the first time Fang Yuanhang had heard anyone praise Sha Chun's charisma. He asked, "In what way?"

Liu Mei sighed for the umpteenth time since being brought in. "I'm a model. I can't possibly keep a normal nine-to-five work schedule. Sometimes, I would suddenly get a job, and I would have no choice but to reschedule with Sha Chun-laoshi. Every single time, Sha Chun-laoshi told me, 'It's no problem, work comes first.'

"I really like the guzheng, and I've taken guzheng classes at other workshops before going to 'Jianjia Bailu'. No other teacher was ever as talented and reasonable as Sha Chun-laoshi."

Before coming face to face with Liu Mei, Fang Yuanhang had already gotten a good sense of her work and personal lives.

Besides the fact that they both enjoyed the guzheng, Liu Mei and Sha Chun were essentially polar opposites. Sha Chun's most outstanding trait—her diligence—wasn't reflected in Liu Mei at all. Rationally speaking, Liu Mei didn't fit the mold of Sha Chun's target.

But there was one detail that the police couldn't ignore, and that was the fact that Liu Mei, after starting to take lessons at 'Jianjia Bailu', had been in extremely frequent contact with Sha Chun.

She and Sha Chun had added each other on WeChat. They sent each other texts and voice messages all the time, and they'd even called each other numerous times.

In Sha Chun's communications records, Liu Mei was one of the most prominent names.

The police could easily read through Sha Chun's WeChat conversation logs, but the contents of their phone calls were harder to determine.

"What did you two usually talk about?" Fang Yuanhang asked.

Liu Mei said, "The guzheng, mostly. We talked about other traditional instruments too. Sha Chun-laoshi wasn't just a guzheng player. She knew how to play other instruments as well, and she had a deep understanding of traditional arts and culture.

"You know, my line of work is quite superficial. I started learning to play the guzheng because I didn't want to be a superficial person. By talking to Sha Chun-laoshi, I benefited greatly."

There seemed to be no reason to doubt her words. They spun a flawless tale. But that flawlessness in and of itself was cause for suspicion.

Liu Mei didn't seem like the type to say such things, and her delivery was stiff and somewhat awkward, like she was reading off a script.

Fang Yuanhang mulled it over for a while, then asked, "Did Sha Chun ever praise you for your diligence?"

Liu Mei's eyebrows jumped up. "Diligence?"

"You prioritize your modeling work, then use all your free time to study the guzheng and other traditional arts," Fang Yuanhang said. He smiled, almost as though he were cracking a joke. "I wouldn't be able to do it. After work, I can't be bothered to do anything."

Liu Mei shook her head. "How could I possibly compare myself to Sha Chun-laoshi and you police officers? My job isn't very tiring at all, unlike yours. But since you mentioned 'diligence', I would say that Sha Chun-laoshi was the most diligent person I'd ever met. She often told me that I didn't work hard enough."

"She said that to you?" Fang Yuanhang asked.

Liu Mei suddenly opened her mouth, awkwardly closing it again without saying anything. After a moment, she tried again: "…mm, yes. She urged me to take life more seriously."

 

"Liu Mei is lying," Fang Yuanhang said to Ming Shu over the phone while walking briskly. "Judging by what we know of Sha Chun's character, she definitely wouldn't be able to say 'you're not working hard enough' to someone else. It feels like Liu Mei made those claims because she knew the reason behind Sha Chun's death, and she's intentionally distancing herself from the case!"

Out of all of Sha Chun's one-on-one students, Ming Shu was most suspicious of Yu Xiaocheng. But the others, while seemingly not as diligent, may have been more complex than they appeared on the surface.

Liu Mei was a person of interest, and Long Tianhao was another.

"What's it matter to you whether or not I was learning to play the guzheng? Am I not allowed to enjoy traditional culture?" Long Tianhao asked. He had put on a brash and insolent attitude as soon as he was led into the questioning room. Once in a while, the fingers of his left hand trembled.

Professional esports players like Long Tianhao started working early, and their careers were typically short. They started to play in competitions in their teens, and they were considered 'veterans' by their early twenties. The lucky ones could continue to play for a few years, while those who suffered injuries or illnesses were forced into early retirement.

Long Tianhao was only twenty-two years old. He had already lost his career as a professional esports player. Now, he worked as a contracted streamer for a certain streaming platform. That was how he made his living.

The esports industry had grown explosively in recent years. Those who stood at the apex of the pyramid enjoyed honor, glory, adoration, and an astonishingly large salary. But those players were the minority; most people in the industry filled up the middle and base of the pyramid.

For example, Long Tianhao.

Last year, when Long Tianhao announced his retirement from professional esports, he hadn't even managed to send a ripple across the still waters of the industry. Only a handful of fans sent him off with their best wishes.

Long Tianhao's own explanation for his retirement was that he was too old, and it was time for him to resume an ordinary life.

That sort of explanation was both valid and not so valid.

Twenty-two wasn't young for an esports player, but it wasn't an age where a professional player would absolutely have to quit either. And an 'ordinary' life, by most people's standards, would be a job with a steady salary, a stable nine-to-five work schedule, a wife and kids…

Becoming a streamer certainly didn't fall under the typical definition of 'ordinary'.

And Long Tianhao hadn't actually turned away from the games that had led him 'astray' early in life. He'd only changed direction; he was still making his living in the gaming industry.

Ming Shu had a feeling that Long Tianhao's left hand held an important secret.

No one really cared about the truth behind a little-known esports player's retirement. But seeing as Long Tianhao was peripherally involved in a murder case, the police necessarily had to get to the bottom of this.

"What inspired you to take guzheng lessons?" Ming Shu asked. "You don't look like the type that would be interested in the guzheng."

"Do all police officers judge people by their outer appearances?" Long Tianhao sneered. It was an unnatural look on his face. "I have money, and I have time. I can learn whatever the fuck I want!"

Video game streamers did indeed have money. As for time…

Ming Shu nudged his own earpiece. Zhou Yuan's voice came from the other side: "Captain Ming, Long Tianhao spends a lot of time on his gaming account. An average of fifteen hours per day. And he spends a lot of time streaming too…"

Did a person who gamed for fifteen hours a day really have time to learn to play the guzheng?

To those who didn't understand the world of esports, gaming seemed like nothing more than a way to kill time. But to professional players and streamers in the industry, 'gaming' was work.

Long Tianhao was a retired pro player who now devoted most of his days to streaming. It couldn't be said that he wasn't diligent.

"Besides the guzheng," Ming Shu started, "what did you and Sha Chun talk about?"

"We didn't talk about anything at all," Long Tianhao asserted. His attitude still plainly stated that he wasn't willing to cooperate. "Her teaching was just average. I didn't have much to say to her."

"Then, during your lessons, did the subject of 'diligence' ever come up?"

Hearing that, Long Tianhao finally lifted his head. An immensely strange look passed through his eyes.

The word 'diligence' was like a spark that had ignited something in those eyes.

"No, no. Never came up." Long Tianhao only answered after half a minute, and he averted his gaze after he spoke. He seemed more gloomy, more ashen all of a sudden. "I haven't taken classes with Sha Chun in a long time, and we were never close. If you guys don't need anything else, just let me go. I still have to stream tonight."

Ming Shu glanced at Long Tianhao's left hand again. Suddenly, a theory floated to the forefront of his mind.

 

In the room at the other end of the hall, Yu Jiaocheng was still agitated. His anger and irritation remained evident.

Xiao Yu'an had already returned from dinner with Director Li. Ming Shu found him in the hall and said, "You're right on time. Something just came up. I wanted to discuss it with you."

"The matter of Yisi Road?" Xiao Yu'an asked.

Ming Shu had been so busy all day that he was practically feeling dizzy now. "You already know?"

"Xiao Man told me," Xiao Yu'an said. He was carrying the DNA report that he'd received from Xiao Man.

"Let me see!" Ming Shu grabbed the report and suddenly complained, "Why did Xiao Man report directly to you? He didn't even go through me, his captain?"

Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Are you forgetting that you asked Xiao Man to follow that lead on Wu Zhen?"

"Huh?"

"Xiao Man doesn't have three heads and six arms. You had him working on Wu Zhen's case, then you sent him out to Yisi Road with Xu Chun. He couldn't juggle all that."

Ming Shu smacked himself in the forehead with the DNA report. "My bad. I'll find him later."

"We can't believe everything Xu Yin says, but she really has given us an important lead," Xiao Yu'an continued. "The blood sample taken from the alley in Yisi Road didn't match any of the records in our DNA database, and for the time being we haven't found any other clues.

"If this was what you wanted to discuss with me, my suggestion would be for the Serious Crimes Division to set the matter aside for now. Focus on Sha Chun's case."

Ming Shu had planned on doing exactly that. "Will you send another team to follow up?"

"Of course," Xiao Yu'an said.

Ming Shu let out a sigh of relief and recounted all the recent developments in their case to Xiao Yu'an.

Once Ming Shu was finished with his summary, Xiao Yu'an said, "This Long Tianhao seems like a rather lax person, but he's poured his blood and sweat into his profession. His willingness to take guzheng lessons might very well be a sign that he has yet to give up on his dream of staying in the esports industry."

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