Word of incidents involving both teachers and students from 'Jianjia Bailu' circulated quickly. Soon enough, students began asking to quit their classes. Some teachers no longer wanted to work there, too. Shi Hanshan pleaded with them left and right, trying to get them all to stay, but she was met with no success. In fact, only more troubles came her way—she was paid a visit by her property management company and the local neighborhood's police officers.
In recent years, Dongye City had launched a new policy—businesses and inns could not be operated out of residential buildings. Although that was the policy, it wasn't strictly enforced. As long as tenants didn't go over the top, they could still remodel residential units and turn them into offices for small businesses. As long as these businesses didn't draw the disdain and ire of local residents, the property management team would turn a blind eye. And the local police wouldn't investigate such matters unless other residents filed a report.
While no murders had taken place at 'Jianjia Bailu', the police paid them numerous visits. Ghastly rumors began to circulate among local residents. They panicked every time they saw the police, and the more those rumors spread and grew, the more terrifying they became. Right away, people started filing complaints with the property management company and reports with the police.
Shi Hanshan was left with no choice but to temporarily shut down her business.
Ming Shu called a small meeting with the tech investigators and field work team. He ordered the officers who were monitoring the members of 'Jianjia Bailu' to continue monitoring those subjects. Until the real killer was discovered, they absolutely couldn't back off from any lead.
After the meeting, Ming Shu took Fang Yuanhang out to a famous luxury mall in Nan District—Mao'nian Skycity. Liu Mei was currently there, participating in a photoshoot for the mall's promotional magazine.
Summer had just become fall, but Liu Mei was already doing a photoshoot for winter fashions. She was tall and almost imposingly stylish; winter clothes were extremely flattering on her frame.
The photoshoot was taking place in the courtyard on the second floor of the mall. Ming Shu stood on a higher level and gazed down into that courtyard.
Fang Yuanhang whispered, "You're taking in the view up here, and people who are taking in the view up here are looking at you."
Ming Shu glanced at him. "Hm?"
"Chief, your outfit is kinda flashy today. People are staring at you." As he spoke, Fang Yuanhang pointedly glanced behind himself.
Ming Shu was wearing civilian clothes; it was a fall outfit Xiao Yu'an had bought with him not long ago. It wasn't actually all that flashy, but it did an extremely good job of showing off his narrow waist and long legs. When Ming Shu tried on that outfit, Xiao Yu'an had taken one look and said it was 'not bad'. Ming Shu, of course, had known right away that it wasn't bad. But he'd wanted to hear Xiao Yu'an say he looked good.
Xiao Yu'an didn't oblige until later that night, when Ming Shu had his long legs folded over and his narrow waist lifted off the bed. Through the wet sheen in his eyes, Ming Shu watched as the person who was getting him all worked up lowered his head and whispered in his ear, "In terms of seductiveness, it's really quite good."
Back in the present, Ming Shu coughed. He followed Fang Yuanhang's line of sight and gazed behind him just in time to see three boys in their early twenties scatter and scramble away.
Oh, so it was just three gay kids.
And they were bottoms.
One of them, while running, called out, "He's so hot! Did you guys see his waist? Slender but powerful, like a real stallion. I so want to try him out!"
Ming Shu was silent.
Fang Yuanhang clapped his hands together and laughed. "Stallion waist, hahahahaha! Chief, you're really something!"
Ming Shu's temples twitched a few times. "Shut your mouth!"
The mall was filled with all sorts of voices and noises. A bit of a commotion wasn't going to draw too much attention. Ming Shu continued studying Liu Mei until her photoshoot wrapped up.
Last time, Fang Yuanhang had been in charge of questioning Liu Mei. This time, Fang Yuanhang was also the first to approach her.
Liu Mei must not have expected the police to come looking for her at her workplace. She instantly froze at the sight of them. The sometimes confident, sometimes alluring look she'd worn in her eyes during the photoshoot was gone, replaced by an expression of alarm that she couldn't hide.
"Pardon the intrusion," Fang Yuanhang said. "There are a few more things we'd like to clear up with you."
Liu Mei subconsciously glanced at Ming Shu. Her gaze traveled slowly from Ming Shu's face to his style of dress. After a long moment, she said, "I still have work later today."
"We won't take up too much of your time," Ming Shu said. "Before her death, Sha Chun was quite close to you. Did she ever talk about her work troubles with you?"
Liu Mei dropped her gaze to the floor. Her eyes darted left and right a few times before she answered, "No. We usually talked about things girls like to talk about."
"Things girls like to talk about?" Ming Shu asked. "For example?"
"Well…" Liu Mei continuously twisted and scratched at her fingers, and she seemed to use some force. She even scraped off a rhinestone that had been on her middle finger.
"Ah!" Liu Mei hurriedly caught the rhinestone and clasped it in one hand. "I'm so sorry, I've never had much contact with the police before. I'm a bit nervous."
Ming Shu smiled patiently. "Don't worry. We've rudely interrupted your work, and I'm very sorry for that too. But our case is still unresolved, and Sha Chun's communication records show that you were one of the people she contacted most. I'll have to ask for your cooperation in this investigation."
Liu Mei nodded awkwardly. "Of course, I understand. It's only natural."
Ming Shu crinkled the corners of his eyes with a smile. "So, what kind of things do girls like to talk about?"
Liu Mei paused for several seconds before opening her mouth again. "Movies, celebrities, makeup, clothes… my makeup skills are pretty good, and I know a lot about different cosmetics and fashion brands. Sha Chun wanted to change her image, so she often asked me for advice."
"So you were exchanging makeup tips," Ming Shu said.
"Right." Liu Mei relaxed a little. "Sha Chun's facial features were actually pretty good, but she wasn't very good at dressing or styling herself. Her clothes were very plain. Because of my work, I learned all about fashion and style a long time ago. Naturally, I have to dress up every time I step outside—even when I went to attend guzheng lessons.
"During breaks in our lessons, Sha Chun and I would make small talk. She would praise me for being so beautiful and having such a nice figure. I told her that all women can be beautiful, as long as they know how to dress themselves up."
"These days, most people like to text using various messaging apps," Ming Shu said. "Why did the two of you always like to call each other?"
Hearing that, Liu Mei's eyes flew wide open.
She was wearing extremely heavy eye makeup, so even a twitch that would have normally seemed small was magnified in Ming Shu's gaze.
"We…" The rise and fall of Liu Mei's chest visibly quickened. "I was actually fine with whatever, but Sha Chun was a bit more traditional. She felt like we could speak more clearly to each other when we called."
"Were you working on the 23rd and 24th?" Ming Shu asked.
Liu Mei hurriedly took out her cell phone. "Let me take a look… on the 23rd, yes. In the morning, I guest starred in a short video. On the 24th, I was resting at home."
"And on the night of the 23rd?"
"I was at home that night. I went to sleep at around eight."
"So early?" Ming Shu asked.
Liu Mei's cheeks took on a light flush. "My time of the month started that day, and I was feeling really unwell."
"Liu Mei can't clearly prove her whereabouts at the time of the murder," Fang Yuanhang said. "She hasn't bought a house yet, so she's temporarily living alone in a rental in a little neighborhood in Dong District. No one can confirm that she really was at home at the time of Sha Chun's death."
"But she also doesn't have a clear motive for this crime," Ming Shu said. "I do feel like she's hiding something from us, but she isn't necessarily Sha Chun's killer."
Fang Yuanhang nodded. "That's true. She's a woman, after all. She lacks a sufficient motive, and her ability to commit the crime is also dubious. Strangling someone in the middle of the night at the Performing Arts Association, and hacking off both their hands… how much mental fortitude would you have to have to do something like that? Liu Mei doesn't look like the sort with an overabundance of mental fortitude."
"Yu Xiaocheng is even weaker in that regard," Ming Shu said.
"Could he be faking it?" Fang Yuanhang asked. Hou Cheng's deception was still fresh in his mind. Every time he confronted a suspect now, Fang Yuanhang would think about whether or not there were elements of reverse psychology at play. Before the criminal even tried to pull any sort of reversal on them, Fang Yuanhang would make himself dizzy with his own wild imagination.
Ming Shu wouldn't correct this habit of his, because every front-line police detective was locked in a constant war of wits, will, and logic with the suspects who dragged them onto the playing field.
It was already noon. Fang Yuanhang's stomach gurgled loudly, and Ming Shu asked, "Hungry?"
Mao'nian Skycity was surrounded by good restaurants. Fang Yuanhang grinned and said, "Chief, let's just pick any random place and take care of lunch."
"Any random place? Sure." Ming Shu moved towards a milk tea shop and bought two cups of iced milk tea, two pineapple buns, and two egg waffles.
Fang Yuanhang reluctantly took his portion. "We're just going to have these?"
Ming Shu smiled. "Didn't you say 'any random place'? Are snack shops at the side of the road not 'random' enough? There's a 'random' fried egg pancake stall over there. Should we grab two servings of those as well?"
"No!" Fang Yuanhang took a bite out of his pineapple bun. "I didn't mean this sort of 'random'. Look at what you're wearing. Inside this mall, you could stand anywhere and look like a male model. Standing outside and nibbling on a fried pancake? Is that any sort of match for your stallion waist?"
Ming Shu kicked him. "First, I haven't nibbled on a pancake yet—but that doesn't rule out the possibility of me buying one later. Second, we're here to investigate a case, not to shop around. You're really thinking about dining at a fine restaurant? Hurry up and finish your pineapple bun, then…"
Fang Yuanhang interrupted, "Then we'll get egg pancakes?"
"Then we'll continue our investigation!" Ming Shu retorted.
Fang Yuanhang just liked messing around a bit when he was bored; he wasn't really all that desperate to eat at some fancy restaurant. Everyone in the Serious Crimes Division could endure their fair share of hardships. A meal from a 'luxury' milk tea shop was already more than good enough. Even if they'd only picked up a toasted sesame bun from a food cart, they would have scarfed it down.
After finishing his meal, Ming Shu wasn't full. The problem was mostly that his obligatory 'two dishes and a soup' had all been sweet, so he ultimately did go pick up some savory egg pancakes from across the street, with all the toppings and fillings added in. He came back with two bulging pouches.
The two men leaned against their car as they ate. Fang Yuanhang said, "Chief, you only refuted two of my points earlier."
Ming Shu couldn't even remember what he was talking about. "What two points?"
Fang Yuanhang preemptively ducked out of arm's reach. "You didn't deny the part about your stallion waist."
Ming Shu tensed for a second. "Tsk."
"Tsk?" Fang Yuanhang echoed.
"What's so bad about a stallion waist?" Ming Shu sipped his milk tea and grinned. "Do stallion waists provoke you? Do they get you going?"
"Oi!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "You're proud? Have you no shame?"
While they bantered, Ming Shu's cell phone rang. Fang Yuanhang was still standing out of hitting range and dithering on about stallion this and stallion that. Ming Shu gestured for him to shut up before he answered, "Director Xiao."
"Xing-laoshi is currently at Guangye Hospital. Go pay him a visit there," Xiao Yu'an said. "Long Tianhao's left hand is injured, and he once received treatment for that injury at Guangye Hospital. Xing-laoshi is a medical expert, but he doesn't have a grasp of the finer details of this case. Go join him, and work together to get a good understanding of Long Tianhao's medical history."
Guangye Hospital, situated in Dong District, was the auxiliary hospital of Dongye City's University of Medicine. Dongye City's University of Medicine was one of the top med schools in the nation, so naturally Guangye Hospital also had a very good reputation.
Xing Mu had been told that Ming Shu would be coming. He stood outside the outpatient services building and incessantly craned his neck around, looking to and fro.
"Xing-ge." Ming Shu had already sent Fang Yuanhang back to the Bureau. He waved at Xing Mu as he ascended the steps.
"Captain," Xing Mu greeted. "It's just you?"
"Scared?" Ming Shu asked.
Xing Mu hastily looked away and whispered, "Who would be scared of you? I used to take care of you."
Ming Shu heard every word of it, but acted like he didn't. "What's the deal with Long Tianhao's hand?"
As soon as they started talking about the case, Xing Mu stopped acting so shifty and cagey. "Long Tianhao has tenosynovitis in his left hand. Excessive friction has caused internal swelling and sharp pain. He can't even manage some everyday tasks. This sort of injury is extremely common among professional esports players, and many of them retire because of it.
"Long Tianhao started playing professionally in his teens. He must not have paid attention to his injury when it first arose. Later, it developed to the point that he could only retire."
Ming Shu briskly made his way towards the orthopedics department. "Who was the doctor in charge of Long Tianhao?"
"Lei Qiangjun, the deputy director of the orthopedics department," Xing Mu said. "It isn't easy for normal patients to get into Guangye Hospital, and it's even harder to see an outpatient specialist. Long Tianhao received treatment from Lei Qiangjun for a while, then went to 'Jianjia Bailu'."
Ming Shu suddenly stopped walking. "A doctor would suggest something like that?"
"I don't think so." Xing Mu shook his head. "Presently, there's no completely effective way to treat tenosynovitis in professional esports players. Their constant use of their hands puts intense pressure on their hands. Even if their condition is cured, it's very easy for it to return. They can receive treatment and live their everyday lives without issue, but if they want to continue playing professionally and in peak performance… that would be too difficult."
Lei Qiangjun just happened to be on his break. He was getting a head start on some reports in a consultation room. When Ming Shu came in, the doctor mistook him for a patient and impatiently waved a hand to shoo him out. "Wait until your number is called."
Ming Shu presented his identification, and Lei Qiangjun froze.
Ming Shu huffed a laugh and pulled out a chair for himself without waiting to be invited. "Sorry to disturb you during your lunch break."
Lei Qiangjun furrowed his brows defensively, already on high alert. He looked at Ming Shu, then at Xing Mu. "Do you need something?"
"Long Tianhao," Ming Shu said. "Do you have any impression of this patient?"
Lei Qiangjun shook his head. "I see a lot of patients every day. I can't remember every person."
"He suffers severe tenosynovitis in his left hand," Ming Shu said, squeezing his own left hand as though to demonstrate. "A young esports player. If you really can't remember him, go ahead and have a look through your records."
Lei Qiangjun's expression shifted ever-so-slightly. "You mean him…"
"It looks like you do have an impression of him," Ming Shu said.
Lei Qiangjun let out an unhappy snort. "That patient was very troublesome. From start to finish, he wouldn't listen to any of my medical advice. In the end, he even complained that there was something wrong with my abilities as a doctor. He even threatened me…"
At that point, Lei Qiangjun's pupils constricted, as though he'd suddenly realized something. "You people aren't looking for me because he… killed a doctor at another hospital, right?"
Xing Mu jumped in surprise. "No, no, no. Why would you think something like that?"
Lei Qiangjun had even started to sweat. He nervously took a tissue and wiped at the shiny gleam on his forehead. "Because he threatened me! He said I couldn't fix his hand, he said his condition got worse and worse as I treated him. There's absolutely nothing wrong with my methods. He's the one who wouldn't cooperate with me.
"During his treatment, he would still insist on using his hands and putting stress on them. How could he possibly expect to be cured like that? He kept saying his hands were for esports, and he still planned on playing competitively in the future.
"I told him clearly, his left hand's condition was already extremely serious. Surgery would be the most effective treatment. But he refused to accept that. He said surgery was too risky, and he wouldn't follow any of the other treatment plans I set out for him either. He disparaged my medical abilities and ethics, and he said if his hands became useless… he would come back and hack me to death!"
"Something like that happened between you?" Ming Shu asked.
"Yes!" Lei Qiangjun got more and more worked up as he spoke. "At the time, I even called in our security guards. I originally wanted to report it to the police, but then decided to forget about it."
"When a patient causes problems like this, you really are supposed to report it to the police," Ming Shu said. "Why did you choose to forget about it?"
"I didn't want to make it into too big of a deal." Lei Qiangjun shook his head. "Patients are pitiful people. Forcing them into a dead end is akin to forcing yourself into a dead end."
Ming Shu nodded. "When did this happen? Did Long Tianhao come to see you again after causing that disturbance?"
Lei Qiangjun had already pulled up the old medical files. As he skimmed through them, he said, "Long Tianhao came in for an exam for the first time on October 11th of last year. Before coming to my hospital, he'd already been examined at three other hospitals. No results from any of them.
"The last time he came here was May 19th of this year. I'm a reasonable man, I treat every patient the same. But other patients only want to be able to live a normal life, unaffected by their injury. Long Tianhao's request was to continue playing intensely in professional esports. So I worked even harder on him, I did everything I could!
"Last year, when he came to me, he couldn't even curl the fingers of his left hand. The swelling was intense, and his pain was extreme as well. My treatment has already allowed him to resume living an ordinary life, and he can even play some low-intensity games now. I did everything right by him!"
"Then it seems Long Tianhao's condition was gradually improving," Ming Shu said. "Why did he suddenly threaten to 'hack you to death'?"
"He was impatient! He couldn't wait any longer!" Lei Qiangjun said. "I don't know all the details. I have far too many patients. I can't possibly dedicate all my time and attention to him. I can treat his hand, but I can't treat his psychological problems!"
Seeing as the doctor's break was due to end soon, Ming Shu asked, "Did Long Tianhao ever mention the guzheng to you?"
"Guzheng?" Lei Qiangjun echoed blankly. "No. He was playing the guzheng?"
Ming Shu studied Lei Qiangjun for a while, then got up as he said, "We've troubled you today, thank you for your time. If we need your cooperation in the future, we'll be back."
Lei Qiangjun still wore a confused look as he absently agreed, "Sure, sure."
Upon leaving the orthopedics department, Ming Shu instantly asked for the surveillance footage from May 19th.
In the footage, Long Tianhao made an explosive exit. He was in hysterics. He said his hand was ruined, crippled. And he said it was all that quack doctor's fault. He said he would never forgive Lei Qiangjun, even in death.
The outpatient services building was overcrowded, and people soon gathered in the halls of the orthopedics department to check out the commotion. Long Tianhao was taken away by security before long; the whole exchange lasted seven minutes.
"Everyone there knew of Long Tianhao's serious hand condition," Ming Shu mused, falling deep into thought. "Reasonably, anyone could have told him that playing the guzheng would help with his recovery."
Xing Mu wasn't able to think that broadly. "But why would any of them do that?"
Ming Shu shifted his gaze away from the screen displaying the surveillance footage. He calmly sorted through his thoughts for a moment, not daring to jump to any immediate conclusions.
"Let's go," he said in the end. "Come with me. We'll pay Long Tianhao's home a visit."
Fewer and fewer viewers were showing up to watch Long Tianhao's streams, and his home was growing colder and colder. Long Tianhao finished playing a random match; he hadn't spoken into the mic in a long while.
A fan mocked him and wrote, What kind of streamer are you? Are you mute? And you even have a contract with the platform. Can't you say a few words?
Long Tianhao was already in such a bad mood that he instantly started feuding with that fan.
Both sides fought relentlessly. Someone reported the incident, and moderators from the platform soon intervened. Long Tianhao's streaming room was temporarily shut down.
"Fuck!" Long Tianhao swore. He was distraught. After a few minutes, he dropped his head into his hands and slumped over his desk, as still as death.
He'd rented a shitty old apartment that had been built over thirty years ago. Nothing was modern about it. Drunkards knocked at his door in the evenings, and in the middle of the night he would often hear moans coming from the apartment upstairs.
Long Tianhao had cut ties with his parents when he decided to pursue a career in professional esports. In the first few years of his career, he couldn't make much money at all. Later, when he finally began to earn more, his hand failed him. This year of medical treatment had eaten up all his savings, and he was now only scraping by with meager payments from streaming.
The only noise in the apartment was the whirring of the computer. It seemed otherwise completely devoid of life.
After a long while, Long Tianhao opened his eyes. He suddenly let out a stifled sob. Tears began to flow.
He bit down on the index finger of his left hand, hard enough to draw blood.
The coppery scent of blood instantly filled the air.
A few minutes later, he stood up and turned off the computer. He switched off the main circuit breaker in the apartment too, then left home empty-handed. He made his way up to the flat roof of the building.
Many old buildings had unrestricted roof access. Long Tianhao approached the railing and looked down. He let out a sigh. Trembling, he began to climb over the rail.