Prestigious prep schools like Jiu High boasted excellent teachers as well as very modern facilities and amenities.
Long-established high schools, middle schools, elementary schools, and colleges had one thing in common—they were located in bustling city center districts. And every inch of land in the heart of a big city was worth an astonishing sum. As an area became more and more developed, more and more schools popped up as well.
In order to keep up with the times, older schools had to renovate and expand. But when they couldn't afford to expand their original campus, they had no choice but to open auxiliary branches closer to the outskirts of the city. Many of the younger kids were sent out there for school, while the older campuses in the city center districts were devoted to third-year high school students, older college students, or post-graduate candidates.
If one were to compare a school's old campus with the same school's new auxiliary campus, the new campus would obviously have more modern, state-of-the-art equipment and facilities. But a few years ago, Jiu High had hosted the national high school basketball tournament. They had ample room at their new campus to seat the spectators, but they didn't want their original campus to fall behind and become a relic of the past.
As a result, the higher-ups decided to have Jiu High's old campus renovated by the standards of the new campus. Ultimately, the round-robin matches of the tournament were held at the new campus and the finals were held at the old campus.
From then on, Jiu High's old campus became the safest and most secure school in Dongye City. Their comprehensive security system was second to none. When a student arrived on campus, when they left—that could all be determined with just one look at the security logs.
Yu Xiaocheng alleged that he had attended evening self-study on campus on the night of August 23rd. But after Zhou Yuan and the other technical investigators looked into the surveillance tapes and records, they discovered that Yu Xiaocheng left the third years' building at around noon on the 23rd. Then he exited the campus of Jiu High through the small gate to the west. He didn't reenter the school through any of the gates that day; in fact, he didn't appear on any surveillance cameras at all for the rest of the 23rd.
Yu Xiaocheng's deskmate, Jin Shan, said she remembered that time with perfect clarity. For two days around then, Yu Xiaocheng didn't attend self-study at all. As she spoke, Jin Shan even pulled up the logs of her WeChat conversations with her friends from back then.
"Here, this is it. The 23rd and 24th. We're all really scared of Yu Xiaocheng. He's so strange. No matter how early I get to class, he's there first. And he always leaves later than I do. So, that day, when I didn't see him, I sent Shuang-ge a message right away."
Zhou Yuan accepted her phone and scrolled through her chat logs. He accidentally scrolled too far up and found a photo wedged in between all the lines of text.
The photo wasn't too crisp or clear; it had clearly been taken discreetly. The image depicted a man and a woman. The man had his back to the camera, while the woman was turned halfway, showing only her profile.
The woman looked a lot like Sha Chun.
Zhou Yuan was instantly alert. "This is?"
"Ah!" Jin Shan exclaimed. "Why did you scroll back that far?"
"My apologies," Zhou Yuan said. But he didn't hand the cell phone back to her just yet. "Where did you get this photo?"
The police officer facing her had only seemed a few years older than her. He'd looked so polite and warm, and even a little weak. That was why Jin Shan had been willing to take out her phone and hand it over. But now, Zhou Yuan's face was suddenly tense and solemn.
Jin Shan was scared stiff. She helplessly answered, "It… it was taken by Shuang-ge. We thought this jiejie was Yu Xiaocheng's girlfriend."
The one called 'Shuang-ge' was actually a girl named Qin Shuang. She was the class's arts committee member.
Third years didn't actually need an arts committee member anymore. Everyone focused solely on their studies. Music and fine arts classes were all canceled, and the arts committee members basically wound up having no responsibilities.
But Qin Shuang wasn't like Jin Shan or Yu Xiaocheng. She wasn't an ordinary student who would be getting into college through her college entrance exams alone. She was on a performing arts track; as long as a few well-known schools came to recruit her, she would be able to get in on her skill and talent with just the bare minimum entrance exam scores.
Thus, Qin Shuang spent every afternoon and evening practicing her dancing in the arts building on campus. In three months, she would make a trip to the capital to participate in a professional dance qualification exam.
The arts building was halfway across campus from the third years' school building. When Zhou Yuan rushed over, he found Qin Shuang leaning against a bannister, wiping her sweat.
Jin Shan had called ahead to give Qin Shuang a heads up, and Qin Shuang had a lively and carefree disposition. When she saw Zhou Yuan, she even threw him a playful salute.
"I saw them right around here," she said. "I got a bit excited and just had to sneak a picture. I only sent Little Shan one of them. I have a few others here."
Qin Shuang found all the photos of Yu Xiaocheng and Sha Chun on her phone. "Uncle Officer, this doesn't count as invading someone's privacy, does it?"
Zhou Yuan, unaccustomed to being called 'uncle' anything, was so surprised that his hand trembled. He nearly dropped Qin Shuang's phone.
Qin Shuang laughed. "You really aren't like a police officer at all."
Zhou Yuan did his best to maintain the proper air of a police officer. "Do you know why they appeared around here?"
On the way there, Zhou Yuan had noticed that the arts building was situated in one corner of the school campus. It had a small forest to one side, and relatively few students attended class there. It wouldn't have been too much of an exaggeration to say that the building was nearly 'deserted'.
"I dunno, I also thought it was super weird. That's why I snuck a photo and talked to Little Shan about it," Qin Shuang said. "Besides the students who are preparing for their pro exams, like me, no one comes here. You can tell, right? This practice room is huge, but I'm usually the only one here. There's only a guy from the science track in the room one, two… three doors down from here.
"Truth be told, it's pretty scary here at night. If it weren't to achieve my dreams, I definitely wouldn't come here at all. Back when I saw those two, the first one I saw was Yu Xiaocheng. I was scared to death! I thought he was up to something bad. He's such a gloomy person…"
Qin Shuang stopped at that point and glanced at Zhou Yuan. "Ah, ah, ah, I'm not supposed to speak poorly of my classmates, I know. I just thought it was strange. He didn't stay in class to do practice problems that day… he came all the way out here? Why? It was only later, when I saw that jiejie, that I realized he must have been waiting for her."
Zhou Yuan asked, urgently, "Did you hear what they were saying?"
Qin Shuang shook her head. "No, not at all. But I think they were arguing about something. That jiejie pulled on Yu Xiaocheng's clothes a bunch of times, and Yu Xiaocheng had an awful expression on his face. Little Shan and I were sure they had to be a couple, though Yu Xiaocheng suddenly having a girlfriend… that's a huge shock to me."
The photos had been taken on August 14th, ten days before Sha Chun's death. And at that time, the third years were already back in school. Yu Xiaocheng had no reason to still be in contact with Sha Chun, and he especially had no reason to meet with her in secret.
Upon hearing about this, Ming Shu instantly dispatched the field work team to canvas the area around Jiu High's arts building.
Yi Fei said, "It seems very possible that Sha Chun's hands are hidden around there."
Yu Xiaocheng's apartment had already been thoroughly searched. There were no traces of Sha Chun's hands there, and a luminol test didn't reveal any bloodstains. If her hands were truly in Yu Xiaocheng's possession, they surely would have been hidden in a concealed place that he could access and control.
To Yu Xiaocheng, the safest place would definitely be the school where he'd already spent over four years. And the most remote and concealed place on that campus was surely the area around the arts building.
Ming Shu presented Qin Shuang's photos to Yu Xiaocheng. Yu Xiaocheng leaned forward to look at the photos on the table, then jolted back in his seat with his wide-eyed gaze fixed on the pictures.
The legs of his chair made a teeth-numbing screech when they grated against the floor. The officer in charge of recording the questioning session instinctively clapped his hands over his ears and muttered, "Holy fuck."
Ming Shu, on the other hand, seemed to have predicted that Yu Xiaocheng would react in such a way. His expression remained perfectly calm as he continued to scrutinize Yu Xiaocheng.
"Can't keep lying?" Ming Shu asked. "The relationship between you and Sha Chun wasn't as simple as you made it out to be, correct? August 14th. Why did Sha Chun come looking for you at your school? What did you have to discuss in the remote, deserted arts building of your school?"
Yu Xiaocheng was too tense. His whole body seemed to be pulled taut, as though he could crack and shatter at any second.
"August 23rd. You didn't attend evening self-study. On the following day, Sunday the 24th, you didn't go to your classroom either," Ming Shu continued. "You're a student who treasures time like it's gold. What would cause a student like you to leave your school for such a long time? I've already reviewed the older surveillance footage, and I've talked to your classmates and teachers. You never take breaks on Saturdays and Sundays. You only disappeared, for some reason, on the 23rd and 24th."
Yu Xiaocheng's throat spasmed several times. He mumbled, "No, that's… no…"
"Explain it to me," Ming Shu said. "Tell me what you were doing on those two days."
The technical investigators were working on checking Yu Xiaocheng's financial transaction records. But just like Sha Chun, Yu Xiaocheng didn't use any trackable method to pay for any transportation on the 23rd or 24th.
When the tech investigators compared Yu Xiaocheng's spending habits on those two days to his habits before and after that period of time, it was obvious that there was a 'break' during the 23rd and 24th—
Yu Xiaocheng had a habit of buying a late-night snack after leaving the school at night. In the morning, he also often ate rice noodles at the shop below his apartment. He typically had around twenty yuan of expenses every day, all paid with apps on his cell phone.
But on the 23rd and 24th, he spent a total of twenty-two yuan across the two days. He spent twelve yuan at the rice noodles shop on the morning of the 23rd and ten yuan at a convenience door in the afternoon of the 24th.
"I was sleeping at home," Yu Xiaocheng said.
"But not long ago, you told us you were attending self-study at school," Ming Shu said. "Buddy, you're a humanities track student. Did you never receive any lessons in logic?"
Yu Xiaocheng froze for a moment, and in the end he only said, "You people think I killed Sha Chun, but I didn't!"
"Since you didn't, tell me clearly. On the 23rd and 24th. Exactly where were you and what did you do?" Ming Shu asked. "Also, August 14th. Why did you and Sha Chun meet up?"
Yu Xiaocheng hung his head, refusing to answer.
"You're still not willing to talk," Ming Shu said. A hint of anger had already worked its way into his tone.
Sha Chun's seemingly simple case had become increasingly complex, connecting a web of perpetrators whose motives were almost unbelievable. Each layer the detectives peeled away revealed another. The Serious Crimes Division worked day and night, endlessly, tirelessly. They'd finally unearthed two critical threads.
In terms of exhaustion, Ming Shu was more exhausted than anyone. And even the calmest person in the world would have had a hard time controlling their emotions in such a beaten state. Ming Shu drew a breath and pinched the dip between his brows, doing his best to suppress his anger.
Ming Shu actually had the means to make Yu Xiaocheng talk. 'Diligent but not smart enough' was a scar upon Yu Xiaocheng's heart. If that old wound were to be poked and prodded, Yu Xiaocheng would surely burst. And once that dam burst, the rest would be easy.
But there was a condition to using that scar to provoke Yu Xiaocheng—they had to be one hundred percent sure that Yu Xiaocheng was the one who'd strangled Sha Chun.
Considering all the clues that had been unearthed, Yu Xiaocheng was the most suspicious individual involved in this matter. Everything he did and said seemed to prove that he was the killer.
But Ming Shu had encountered many baffling and bizarre cases throughout the years. Even if there was a ninety-nine percent chance that someone was the killer, there was still a one percent chance that they weren't.
Yu Xiaocheng wasn't like a normal suspect. His mental fortitude was extremely weak. He had suffered many brutal defeats already, but he still persevered. However, there was no telling when he would break. It could happen any minute now, and he might never be able to pick himself up again.
Because of that one percent chance, Ming Shu didn't want to carelessly hurt this psychologically weak young man. This person was fragile, but not yet broken; Ming Shu didn't want to break him beyond repair.
"Chief, didn't you say to hold nothing back against suspects?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Interrogating a suspect isn't child's play. We can't let ourselves feel sorry for a suspect."
"There are exceptions to every rule," Ming Shu said. He'd gone downstairs to sneak a cigarette with Fang Yuanhang while Xiao Yu'an wasn't around.
A cigarette really could beat away the exhaustion that had consumed a person. After smoking one, Ming Shu felt much more alert. "I'm going to make another trip to Jiu High."
Prep schools like Jiu High were more afraid of gruesome scandals than anything else. Incidents of bullying and violence at less influential schools could be suppressed and swept under the rug. But not at Jiu High.
Jiu High constantly existed in the public eye, subjected to close scrutiny. Any blemish that appeared on the school's reputation was magnified and broadcast to the world. Now, huge numbers of police officers were questioning students and sweeping the arts building. The school's higher-ups were all panicking. The vice principal even personally paid a visit to the city to 'greet' the police, and to ask that they keep a lower profile during their search.
But a simple 'greeting' couldn't resolve a matter like this. When the Serious Crimes Division needed to investigate a case, the vast majority of facilities and institutions could only give them the green light to do as they pleased.
Fortunately, only third-year high school students still studied on the old campus of Jiu High. And the arts building was quite far from the third years' dedicated school building. For the time being, the search of the arts building hadn't created too much of a commotion.
Ming Shu stood in the hall of the fifth floor of the arts building. In those halls, he sensed a thick, heavy shroud of gloom.
Long Tianhao had already been released; the detectives didn't have enough evidence to hold him. He went straight home and started to stream.
For the first time ever, Xiao Yu'an's office filled up with the loud and intense sound effects of a video game. On his computer screen, Long Tianhao's livestream was playing.
There weren't too many people in Long Tianhao's streaming room; his stream certainly wouldn't top any popularity charts. After watching carefully for a while, Xiao Yu'an realized this didn't have much to do with Long Tianhao's gameplay. It was simply that he didn't talk much in his streams. He just focused on his on-screen battles.
He didn't really act like a streamer who would be offered a contract.
In one of his streams from back in June, Long Tianhao had talked slightly more than usual. It seemed that day had been Long Tianhao's birthday. Quite a few of his old fans, from his pro days, had visited him in his streaming room.
"I've been learning the guzheng lately. Bet you didn't expect that, huh?" Long Tianhao's tone, in this stream from June, was more relaxed than his usual tone of voice. When Xiao Yu'an listened closely, he could even detect a hint of joy. One of his fans had just asked why he had been streaming less, and Long Tianhao patiently continued to explain, "I'm a total beginner when it comes to the guzheng. After my first class, I came away not even understanding what I was taught. I didn't even know how to start practicing on my own, so I had to cut back on my gaming hours to figure it out."
His fans asked, Why are you suddenly learning the guzheng? Can't picture it.
Long Tianhao didn't answer that question directly, but he smiled and said, "What do you mean you can't picture it? Your Long-ge can do anything. Once I get better at playing, I'll perform for you guys."
The fans laughed in the chat and added, Then go practice every day! Stop gaming for a while!
"Can't do that, gaming is more important," Long Tianhao said. "My teacher is pretty good. She's kind and patient, and she's good at teaching too. As long as I squeeze in some practice time every day, I should see some results."
One fan in the bullet comments asked, Results?
But that comment may have gone unnoticed, because many other fans wrote things along the lines of, Long-ge has fallen in love? With that kind and patient beauty?
Long Tianhao laughed. "What nonsense are you guys spewing? That's my teacher, you know. My teacher."
Before that stream ended, Long Tianhao said something quite ambiguous:
"Wait for me a while longer. I'll definitely come back!"
Xiao Yu'an thought back to the evaluation of Sha Chun that Long Tianhao had given during his questioning session—
Her teaching was just average.
Obviously, there was a contradiction in what he'd said about Sha Chun in his stream and what he'd said about her in the questioning room.
After that streaming session in June, Long Tianhao would occasionally bring up his guzheng lessons. But his tone became worse and worse when he spoke of the matter. Eventually, when a fan asked if he was still taking guzheng lessons, he harshly snapped, "Shut the fuck up."
For that, Long Tianhao had been reported. The platform had penalized him as well.
Nowadays, none of the people who watched Long Tianhao's livestreams asked about his guzheng lessons.
Xiao Yu'an paid a visit to the Serious Crimes Division. Fang Yuanhang just happened to be rushing into the office at that moment, and he blurted out, "Ah! Monkey—"
"Hm?" Xiao Yu'an uttered.
Fang Yuanhang wanted to strangle himself for that inadvertent slip of the tongue. He hastily amended, "Director Xiao, are you looking for my chief? He just went out to Jiu High."
"No, I'm not looking for him. You'll do," Xiao Yu'an said. "Look into the records of Long Tianhao's medical treatments from the past year."
"Medical treatments?" Fang Yuanhang echoed. What did that have to do with anything?
"It's very possible that Long Tianhao was forced into retirement because of an injury to his left hand. He wants to return to the professional field. He isn't satisfied with being 'only' a streamer at all," Xiao Yu'an said. "He only streams to make a living. This whole time, he's been searching for a way to heal his left hand. He most likely believed practicing the guzheng would speed up that healing process."
"He had no common sense," Xing Mu, from the forensics department, interjected. He just so happened to be in the office at the time. Although he was terrified of his superiors, he was always eager to correct the scientific inaccuracies that came out of their mouths. "Esports players put a huge strain on their hands. Lots of them develop hand injuries or conditions. Some can heal their injuries through surgery, and others can only take preventative measures.
"But regardless of the condition, playing the guzheng would be useless. When you think about the basics of it, playing the guzheng places a stress on your hands too. Using the guzheng to try to heal a hand injury… it could only produce the opposite of the desired effect."
Fang Yuanhang really wished he could say to Xing Mu, Xing-laoshi, what's gotten into you? Out of all the people you could argue with… you choose the boss of our boss?
But Xiao Yu'an wasn't offended by the interruption at all. He smiled and said, "This is why I'd like to look into it. Long Tianhao may have gone to 'Jianjia Bailu' as a last resort. He may have been at the end of his rope. But there's also the possibility that someone enticed him to take lessons from Sha Chun."
Fang Yuanhang was extremely clever; he understood what Xiao Yu'an was getting at right away. "That person could have wanted to hurt Long Tianhao, or they may have just wanted Long Tianhao and Sha Chun to meet!"
"Wait, wait, wait!" Xing Mu had just delivered such an impassioned speech, but now he sounded beyond confused. "What would be the point in having Long Tianhao and Sha Chun meet?"
A faint, new idea was surfacing in Xiao Yu'an's mind, but he saw no need to give voice to it just yet. To Xing Mu, he said, "Xing-laoshi."
Xing Mu instantly straightened. His handsome face turned into a curtain of red.
Most of the people in the Serious Crimes Division called him Xing-laoshi. Ming Shu called him Xing-ge. So Xing Mu had gotten used to hearing those two forms of address. But being addressed that way by Xiao Yu'an made him incredibly embarrassed, and incredibly nervous as well.
"Present!" Xing Mu barked.
"Pfft—" Fang Yuanhang couldn't hold back a laugh.
Xiao Yu'an continued, "Xing-laoshi, go ahead and follow this lead. Get a clear idea of Luo Tianhao's medical treatments and condition as of late."
"Never thought there'd be a place like this at a high school," Xu Chun said as he ran up to Ming Shu. "It's way too spooky, and there's no telling what this building was used for in the past. I'm having some fucked up luck as of late. I keep having to come out to creepy places like this."
"You mean Yisi Road?" Ming Shu guessed.
"Exactly!" Xu Chun shook his head. "Have you been out to Yisi Road? I got goosebumps just from standing there, and Xiao Man even made me help him get some mud and dirt into an evidence bag."
The intuition of a criminal detective was a very mysterious thing. One could say it meant nothing, but it could very well mean something.
Ming Shu gave it some thought. There wasn't any definitive connection between Yisi Road and Jiu High. But there really could be some explanation for the eeriness that the arts building currently exuded. An explanation that, as of yet, wasn't apparent to the police.
When Jiu High remodeled its old campus for the basketball nationals some time ago, the arts building was the only one that had been neglected.
And among all the students at Jiu High, only Yu Xiaocheng knew of this. Because the current third years—who hadn't repeated any years—had started high school two years ago, after the renovations of the old campus.
More and more points of doubt were arising, but the clues they had seemed to be leading to a more and more distinct point as well.
"Let's go take a look outside," Ming Shu said.
The police hadn't cordoned off the arts building, but many students knew the police were searching the area. Some students watched on from afar, but no one drew too near.
As Ming Shu glanced towards those curious students, his cell phone started to ring.
"Captain Ming! In the air conditioning unit in the second-floor dance room… we found a severed pair of hands!"