The air conditioning unit had been disassembled before. The insides were already completely destroyed. A steel box held the severed hands, wrapped in a piece of black flannel.
After forensics tests were conducted, the severed hands were confirmed to have belonged to Sha Chun.
No usable prints were found on the steel box. But after a thorough investigation, the trace evidence team managed to find a smattering of prints inside the air conditioning unit.
And those fingerprints… were a match for Yu Xiaocheng's.
Yu Xiaocheng was beyond terrified. Even his eyeballs seemed to tremble in their sockets. "I didn't kill anyone! It wasn't me!"
"Then why did your fingerprints appear on the air conditioning unit at the arts building?" Ming Shu asked. "Not only that, Room 219 on the second floor hasn't been used by anyone in a very long time. The scene was preserved quite well. Your footprints were found in the dust covering the floor as well."
"But… but I really wasn't the one who killed Sha Chun!" Yu Xiaocheng's attitude seemed to have changed. Previously, he had been wholly unwilling to comply with the police investigation. Now, he seemed desperate, as though pleading, 'Please, please, please believe me!'
Ming Shu shifted in his seat. "I asked you previously, where were you on August 23rd and August 24th? What were you doing? You weren't willing to answer. I also asked you, on August 14th, why did you meet with Sha Chun in the arts building? You weren't willing to answer that question either.
"At that time, I didn't have any solid evidence in hand. If you'd truly continued refusing to talk, I wouldn't have been able to do anything else."
As he spoke, Ming Shu's tone and expression became more severe. "But now, key evidence has surfaced. Yu Xiaocheng, on the afternoon of the 23rd, you left Jiu High for no apparent reason. But now we know—you left to wait for Sha Chun at the Performing Arts Association!"
"No!" Yu Xiaocheng howled. "Sha Chun wanted me to help her, but I didn't! She wanted to die, but I didn't want to! She was in her thirties already, she had already started thinking diligence and hard work were useless. But I still want to work hard! I haven't reached my limit yet!"
Fang Yuanhang drew a sharp breath. "Sha Chun tried to 'persuade' you, but you didn't agree?"
Yu Xiaocheng fiercely shook his head. "I didn't agree to help her. I still have a future. I didn't hold the same beliefs as her!"
"Then why were you in possession of Sha Chun's severed hands?" Fang Yuanhang bellowed. "Why did you hide her hands in the air conditioning unit?"
"I… I…" Yu Xiaocheng looked like he was burning up with anxiousness. His words became more and more jumbled and distraught. "I don't know. The killer put those things in front of my apartment."
"The killer? You're still talking about the killer? You're the killer!" Fang Yuanhang snapped. "Why would the killer do something like that? And why didn't you report it to the police? Not only did you not report it, you hid the hands at your school? Can you really justify your actions?"
Ming Shu kept his gaze fixed on Yu Xiaocheng. He lifted a hand to interrupt Fang Yuanhang. "Go out and have a cigarette."
"Chief?" Fang Yuanhang didn't understand. "Why?"
"Don't get so worked up," Ming Shu said. "Look, you've already rendered our suspect incapable of speaking."
Fang Yuanhang protested, "But that shouldn't…"
Although Ming Shu's words were meant for Fang Yuanhang, he didn't remove his gaze from Yu Xiaocheng while speaking. "He already said Sha Chun tried to 'persuade' him. Now, regardless of whether or not he's the killer, I'd like to hear about how Sha Chun tried to 'persuade' him."
Yu Xiaocheng instantly lifted his head to stare blankly at Ming Shu.
The door to the interrogation room opened and closed. Yu Xiaocheng was left facing only Ming Shu and the officer in charge of recording their session.
Ming Shu lifted his chin towards Yu Xiaocheng. "Go ahead, talk. What exactly was your relationship with Sha Chun?"
Ming Shu's earlier words must have had an effect. Yu Xiaocheng fell deep into thought for a moment. He pursed his lips again and again. Finally, he began to speak:
"I thought I did pretty well at this past year's college entrance exams. I thought I would get into my law school of choice. And I'd heard classmates say that everyone who went to top colleges in the capital had lots of different talents. They didn't just have good grades. I didn't want to be left behind, so I thought I would use summer break as an opportunity to learn something new."
"And you just happened to choose the guzheng?" Ming Shu asked.
"I'm on the humanities track at school, I've always been interested in traditional culture," Yu Xiaocheng said. His cold sweat poured down his face in rivulets, sliding down his throat. "I've spent four whole years in high school already, and I never took any extracurricular courses. I've already been left behind by the real, modern world.
"I… I only vaguely knew that I wanted to learn a traditional instrument, but I didn't know where to go for classes. When I was little, whether it was special interest classes or cram school classes, I just took whatever was being advertised on fliers at the local shopping center.
"So I went to Dongxian Mall and collected some fliers for different classes. I couldn't tell which ones were good and which ones were bad, but 'Jianjia Bailu' was close to where I lived, so I decided to go there."
Yu Xiaocheng's voice became lower and lower, quieter and quieter, as he spoke. Like he was running out of air. Ming Shu reminded, "Speak up."
"Huh? Oh." Yu Xiaocheng nervously straightened his back. "I only had summer break to learn, so I wanted to find the best teacher. The instrument didn't matter, but I had to learn efficiently. They recommended Sha Chun to me, saying she was a professional guzheng instructor. They said she was the most impressive teacher at 'Jianjia Bailu'."
"Who were 'they'?" Ming Shu asked.
"Ah, just 'her', actually. There was no 'they'. I just got used to saying that," Yu Xiaocheng amended. "It was only that one person, the receptionist."
Ming Shu thought back and remembered that naive little receptionist he'd met during his first visit to 'Jianjia Bailu'—Wu Tong.
"Sha Chun really was impressive. When she heard I was studying at Jiu High, she asked me a bunch of questions about my school life," Yu Xiaocheng said. "I didn't know what she was planning at the time. Whatever she asked, I answered."
"So she slowly reached the conclusion that you're very diligent," Ming Shu said.
Yu Xiaocheng nodded several times. "She enlightened me about a lot of things, and I was grateful to her. But when the college entrance exam results came out, she just…"
At that point, Yu Xiaocheng seemed to descend into agony. He dropped his face into his hands, and his shoulders tensed to the point of trembling.
The officer in charge of recording the session looked at Ming Shu. Ming Shu said nothing.
"My scores weren't good enough to get into law school in the capital. If I'd listed a slightly worse school on my aspirations form, I obviously could have gotten in. But I repeated a year just to get into law school in the capital. Repeating a year would have been meaningless if I settled for less," Yu Xiaocheng said. "I couldn't accept it."
Ming Shu had seen this coming—Yu Xiaocheng had applied to a top school in the capital, despite knowing that he wasn't good enough to get in. And in the end, he'd failed to secure admission to his school of choice.
"And it was then that Sha Chun began preaching her ideology to you?" Ming Shu asked. "Do you still remember what she said to you?"
Yu Xiaocheng gave an answer, but not a straightforward one: "That was my darkest hour. On the one hand, I'd already decided to repeat my third year of high school again. On the other hand, I didn't know what I would do if I failed again. Sha Chun… Sha Chun dealt me a heavy blow, during that time."
"What did she do?"
"She told me about her thirty-some years of life, and everything she'd experienced. I realized… realized…" Yu Xiaocheng breathed rapidly, urgently, like a drowning man. "Her experiences and mine had way too many similarities."
Sha Chun's mother had said that Sha Chun had been a hard worker ever since she was little. But because Sha Chun wasn't exceptionally smart, and because she wasn't gifted with any innate talent, her academic scores were only ever middling at best.
"Sha Chun told me that people like us, who are born talentless and ungifted, are only wasting our time by working hard," Yu Xiaocheng mumbled. "The harder we work, the more we'll realize we can't compete with anyone else. If we don't work hard, we can at least console ourselves by saying, 'I'm not stupid, I'm just lazy.'
"She said… she said we are stupid! She even said that, because I'd yet to truly enter society, I didn't know how people in society would look down on those who were diligent but mediocre.
"Talented people who work hard are praised. People would say, 'They're so smart and they still work hard, of course they deserve to succeed.' But talentless people who work hard would be mocked. People would say, 'These useless people can only work hard to give themselves a reason for living.'"
"He…" Fang Yuanhang hadn't returned to the interrogation room. He was watching the feed of the session on the monitors next door. But even from that neighboring room, he could sense the despair in Yu Xiaocheng's words. He furrowed his brows. "Why do his words make me feel so… bad?"
Zhou Yuan had been the one who found the evidence in the arts building. At that moment, he was also watching the monitors.
After a beat, Zhou Yuan whispered very softly, "I understand him, because I'm the same. I don't have any innate talents. I'm not gifted. I just work very, very, very hard."
In the interrogation room, Yu Xiaocheng continued, "Sha Chun said she understood me. She said she could tell that I was just like the her from the past. The harder I tried, the more despair I felt. She said I would become just like her…
"She said… people like us should stop trying so hard for nothing. The harder we work, the more people will mock us." Yu Xiaocheng lifted his head, refusing to let the tears in his eyes fall. His voice was tense with a choked-back sob as he continued, "She asked me why others could easily get into the top two universities in the capital, while I couldn't get into my school of choice even after repeating my third year of high school. She asked what choice I had, besides admitting that I'm just a mediocre person?"
"And so she asked if you wanted to shed your mediocrity? She asked if you wanted to take the spotlight? If you wanted to escape from your hopeless struggles?" Ming Shu's gaze was as keen as the edge of a sharpened blade. "Your diligence caused you to become a laughingstock to others. So why not sever your ties with this world, with everything, in a blaze of glory?"
Yu Xiaocheng stared at Ming Shu in shock. His throat bobbed several times.
"Is that what she said to you?" Ming Shu asked.
A few minutes later, Yu Xiaocheng finally continued, "It was something like that. She said that people like us had to stick together and help one another. She said that we had to rebel against this malicious world that scorned 'diligent but mediocre people'."
"Stick together?" Ming Shu asked. "Do you know of her accomplices?"
Yu Xiaocheng nodded. "Sha Chun wanted me to help her by killing her, just like she killed her 'friend'."
In the other room, Fang Yuanhang got worked up. "Here it is!"
"Which 'friend'?" Ming Shu asked.
Yu Xiaocheng lowered his head again. He fell silent for a long while.
"You've already told us this much," Ming Shu said. "Is there any point in you hiding the rest?"
Yu Xiaocheng hastily explained, "I… I'm not trying to hide anything. I just really don't know exactly who that person was. Sha Chun only told me that that person and I were the same. We'd worked hard our whole lives, and that person didn't realize until they were in their forties, that hard work only begets humiliation for the diligent."
"Hard work," Ming Shu echoed, pausing between each word. "Only begets. Humiliation. For the diligent."
Hard work typically exemplified an active, energetic outlook on life. Diligence was typically considered a virtue.
But when it came to Wu Zhen, Sha Chun, and Yu Xiaocheng, hard work had only earned them humiliation.
Yu Xiaocheng shook his head with a bitter smile. "Sha Chun said I hadn't entered society yet, so I didn't understand the type of malice and contempt I would encounter once I did. But how could I not understand? I got into Jiu High as one of the top ten students in my county. I was so full of myself.
"But when I got into high school, during our first mock exam in our first week of our first year… I ranked at the bottom of our whole class. That was when I realized everyone at Jiu High was an outstanding student. A top ten student from my county was nothing next to them."
"So after that mock exam, you stopped participating in extracurricular activities and focused single-mindedly on your studies," Ming Shu said. "You essentially exiled yourself from society."
"I had no choice." Yu Xiaocheng was still shaking his head nonstop. "I also wanted to play soccer or basketball. I also wanted to go to net cafes and play video games over the weekends. I also wanted to participate in class tournaments and bring glory to my peers—those boys who win school tournaments are always surrounded by girls.
"But I couldn't do any of that. If I didn't spend all my time studying, I would stay at the bottom of my class. Honestly. Please, believe me."
Ming Shu sighed. "I believe you."
Yu Xiaocheng's expression grew even more pained as he continued, "I could only work hard. Like my life depended on it. That was the only way I could be an 'average' student. But those guys who were smarter than me… they could go on dates with their girlfriends, they could participate in school events, they could sleep in class. And they would still rank in the top twenty of our year. I really… I really envied them."
In the monitoring room next door, Zhou Yuan had subconsciously balled both his hands into fists.
"My teacher tried to tell me, subtly, that the three years of high school weren't all about studying," Yu Xiaocheng said. "Participating in other activities and events was important too. My classmates called me 'Diligent Cheng', because I would constantly be studying when I was awake. Even when I ate, I would listen to tapes to practice my English comprehension skills.
"I knew they looked down on me. The people who tried to convince me to relax… they just didn't get it. If I relaxed, I would fall straight to the bottom of my class."
Fang Yuanhang took note of Zhou Yuan's reaction. "Hey, what's the matter with you? You're being taken in by his words?"
Zhou Yuan blanched. He knew he'd lost his composure, and he hastily shook his head. "When you hear Yu Xiaocheng say these things… are you completely unaffected?"
Fang Yuanhang considered it for a moment. "I feel a bit bad, but I don't think I'd say I'm 'affected'."
Zhou Yuan massaged his temples. "You haven't experienced the same things as him, so you can't sympathize. But I have, and I can."
A sudden realization struck Fang Yuanhang. He murmured to himself, "So people like them can influence each other so easily."
"I could feel their malice," Yu Xiaocheng continued in the interrogation room, with his head hanging low. "They looked down on me for working hard, especially when the results of our monthly exams came out. I would often hear other people saying, 'Yu Xiaocheng works so hard, but his scores aren't any better than so-and-so's.'
"People like us can only be understood by other people like us. The person Sha Chun killed was a screenwriter, but I don't know which one. I don't have time to watch TV dramas."
"She even told you that much," Ming Shu remarked.
"She wanted to prove to me that my efforts really would be in vain," Yu Xiaocheng said. His mood continued to plummet. "But… but… I still don't want to give up!"
"You refused her?"
"I couldn't do it. She wanted me to kill her, then tell the 'next' person about our pain and suffering to get someone else to 'end' me. But I still want to live!"
"When Sha Chun went to Jiu High," Ming Shu said, "she wanted to convince you to reconsider?"
"Yes. I didn't want anyone else to see, so I went to the arts building with her," Yu Xiaocheng said. "That time I made it clear to her. I wouldn't have anything to do with this thing. I would prepare for my entrance exams. I asked her to please not bother me again."
Ming Shu was silent for half a minute. Then he suddenly said, "Impossible."
Yu Xiaocheng froze. "What?"
"Sha Chun even told you that she killed a screenwriter. How could she give up on you so easily?" Ming Shu asked. "The two of you were already in the same boat. She told you about the screenwriter not because she wanted to convince you, but because she wanted to make sure you couldn't get off that boat. She left you with no other choice. You had to help her!"
Yu Xiaocheng opened his mouth. His pupils instantly constricted.
"The night of August 23rd," Ming Shu stated forcefully. "Where were you?"
Yu Xiaocheng was silent and tense for a moment. Then he slowly, slowly leaned over and slumped onto the interrogation table, burying his head in his arms.
Soon, a dull and muffled voice came out: "Sha Chun said… I had to at least help her with something. At the time, I didn't know… I didn't have any idea she was trying to hurt me…"
"What kind of 'help' did she want?" Ming Shu asked.
"She said she'd already found someone else who was willing to help her. She said she would be free, very soon," Yu Xiaocheng said. "She loved her hands, so she wanted to leave her hands in what her heart considered the cleanest and purest place."
"The purest place?" Ming Shu asked. "A school?"
"Mm," Yu Xiaocheng confirmed. "I had no choice. I had to help her. I'll be taking my entrance exams again in less than a year. I couldn't afford to have any distractions or disturbances in my life. She told me… she promised me that everything would be settled between us if I helped her with just this one thing."
"Liar!" Fang Yuanghang raged in the neighboring room.
"On the 23rd, I saw Sha Chun at Jiangnan Theater. She told me she was going to be free. She asked to see me one last time," Yu Xiaocheng said. "She suddenly became so warm and gentle. She patted me on the shoulder, and she told me to keep working hard if that was what I wanted. But she made me swear to fulfill her final wish.
"I watched her get into a car, and I felt all lost. I didn't want to go home, and I didn't want to study. I thought of my classmates who would go play video games every weekend, and I suddenly wanted to see what it felt like to play video games myself."
"You went to a net cafe?" Ming Shu asked. "Which one?"
"One near Jiu High. I can't remember the name anymore."
"You need to swipe your ID to get into a net cafe, but there's no record of your ID being used to get online."
Yu Xiaocheng awkwardly averted his gaze. "I didn't dare use my ID. The place was too close to my school. The boss said he could swipe his ID on my behalf, as long as I paid him an extra five yuan."
"You didn't use your phone to pay?"
"I happened to have enough change on me."
According to Yu Xiaocheng's confession, he'd left Jiangnan Theater and spent all night 'wandering' back to Jiu High. On the way, he stopped by a food stall at the side of the road to have some barbecue. Then he went down to the river to kill some time, to have a couple drinks. He spent all night at the net cafe, playing straight through to nearly noon of the next day. On his way home, he bought a pack of cigarettes for ten yuan at a convenience store.
Once he got home, he slept through the afternoon and didn't wake up until he heard a knock at his door that night. When he opened the door, there was no one outside. Just a box on the ground in front of his door.
Wrapped up inside that box… a bloody pair of severed hands.
"Yu Xiaocheng's storytelling skills are seriously awful. His tale is strange and borderline absurd. Every part of it sounds like a lie. But…" Ming Shu was stretched out across the couch in the deputy director's office. His posture was extremely relaxed and haphazard. He counted up the points of Yu Xiaocheng's story on his fingers, mumbling to himself, "But… ah, fuck it."
Xiao Yu'an glanced down at him. "But besides the fact that his story sounds absurd, you haven't found any major holes in it."
Ming Shu abruptly flipped himself into a sitting position. "As soon as Yu Xiaocheng started talking about how he knew Sha Chun, I got the sense that he was lying. But from start to finish, his story had no holes whatsoever. Some people do act in strange, absurd ways. No matter how you think about it, their actions seem unbelievable, but it really is what they did."
"The field work team has already confirmed that Yu Xiaocheng entered Shangxue Net Cafe at three in the morning on August 24th," Xiao Yu'an said. "That's a very awkward time for our investigation. Yu Xiaocheng could very well have killed Sha Chun, then rushed back to Jiu High. He had enough time. But he didn't have a method of transportation. He would have had to take a cab from the Performing Arts Association to Jiu High, and at that time of night, around the Performing Arts Association, it wouldn't have been easy to hail a cab."
Ming Shu grabbed a cushion and hugged it to his chest. "We can look through roadside surveillance footage to confirm that."
"If Yu Xiaocheng isn't lying, then the killer is someone else," Xiao Yu'an said. "Sha Chun failed to 'persuade' Yu Xiaocheng, so she turned to someone else. And that person's motivations were extremely impure."
Ming Shu hugged the cushion even tighter. "None of their motives were pure."
"No, Wu Zhen wasn't 'pure', but he didn't deliberately frame someone else for his death. Wu Zhen's final notebook wound up in Sha Chun's home. That couldn't have been hidden there by someone else, right?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "But before Sha Chun 'committed suicide', she made Yu Xiaocheng to swear that he would help her hide her hands. What was her intent?"
Ming Shu had thought about that while questioning Yu Xiaocheng earlier. "Yu Xiaocheng knew Sha Chun's secret, Sha Chun felt more secure knowing he would help, so… wait, no!"
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "You've discovered the problem. Sha Chun asked Yu Xiaocheng to promise he would hide her hands after her death. She may have felt uneasy because Yu Xiaocheng knew her secret, and he could have exposed her after her death. But after her death, did she really need to worry about that? There's a contradiction here."
"So this request didn't originate from Sha Chun, but from the person who helped Sha Chun end her life?" Ming Shu repeatedly thumped a fist against the cushion in his arms. "They sent Sha Chun to threaten Yu Xiaocheng, and Yu Xiaocheng was preoccupied with his upcoming entrance exams. He didn't want any trouble, so he could only agree when pressured.
"With that, all the evidence would point towards Yu Xiaocheng. The police would have a hard time finding the person who actually helped Sha Chun?"
"We can't rule out that possibility," Xiao Yu'an said. "In this case, our dominoes of despair would hit a gap. Because this person who helped Sha Chun isn't actually the 'same' as Wu Zhen or Sha Chun. This person had a different motive."
People in despair killing each other, one after another. Tragedy would repeat itself, over and over again, endlessly. That was a sort of perpetual cycle that only worked in theory. In reality, there were too many unknown factors. Wu Zhen had successfully 'passed the baton' to Sha Chun; that in and of itself was already a rare 'accomplishment'.
"This theory does make more sense," Ming Shu said.
"But if we look only at our material evidence, there is still a ninety percent chance that Yu Xiaocheng is the killer," Xiao Yu'an said. He picked up his vibrating cell phone. Before taking the call, he said, "After all, his 'story' is very hard to believe."