Wen He, thirty-seven years old that year, worked in middle management at Xinmin Manufacturing, a state-owned enterprise. He had taken guzheng lessons with Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu' from early-July to mid-July of that year. Originally, he'd purchased a three-month course of lessons, but when he was abruptly dispatched on a business trip to Europe, he'd had no choice but to postpone the rest of his sessions.
At the time of Sha Chun's death, Wen He was out of the country. He'd only returned to Dongye City a day ago, and in another week's time, he would be dispatched to Europe again.
Wen He wasn't a suspect, so Ming Shu didn't have him brought to the Serious Crimes Division. He personally paid Wen He a visit at Xinmin Manufacturing.
As middle management, Wen He had a private office of his own. The office wasn't terribly large, and there wasn't much on the table and shelves—probably because Wen He wouldn't be staying long.
Ming Shu instantly took note of the medicine sitting next to the computer monitor.
Wen He looked quite ordinary, and he was very polite. He poured them some tea and gestured for Ming Shu to have a seat. While pulling out a chair for Ming Shu, he saw the medicine as well and hastily put it away in a drawer.
Ming Shu recognized the packaging. If he remembered correctly, that medicine was used to treat clinical depression.
"You have clinical depression?" Ming Shu asked straightforwardly.
"Ah…" Wen He was just in the middle of shutting the drawer. He froze for a moment, but then he didn't hide it. "Mm, yes. But I've been receiving treatment all this time, and my condition has improved a lot since I went abroad. It doesn't affect my work. I apologize, I only just got back. My stuff is all over the place. I'm sorry you had to see that."
Ming Shu dwelled on one particular phrase: It doesn't affect my work.
Instantly, it gave him a preliminary idea of what kind of person Wen He was at work—reliable and dependable, a real go-getter. Slight inferiority complex. Concerned with how others evaluate him. At all times, he placed work above all else.
One had to exercise care and caution when questioning clinical depression patients. Fortunately, Wen He's condition didn't seem terribly severe. Ming Shu considered his own words carefully for a moment before he asked, "If it doesn't trouble you to talk about it, could you tell me how you came to be diagnosed with clinical depression?"
A slightly awkward and embarrassed look came over Wen He as he sipped his tea. "Is it that my answer would help in your investigation?"
"Yes," Ming Shu answered honestly.
Wen He drew a breath. "Okay. Okay, please give me a moment to prepare."
In his heart, Ming Shu added to his evaluation of Wen He—this was a very sincere and honest man.
"Last year, I got divorced. My wife received full custody. This was a fairly serious blow to me. Additionally, during that time, I had a setback at work. I felt depressed by basically every aspect of my life," Wen He said. "I couldn't go on, and I didn't want to talk about any of it with my friends. So I did some research online and found that I might have some sort of psychological problem."
"So you voluntarily sought out a doctor?" Ming Shu asked.
Wen He nodded. "I couldn't get myself to feel any interest in anything. No energy, no enthusiasm. I'd already messed up at work, and when my psychological problems surfaced, my work quality declined even more. I couldn't just sit around and resign myself to my fate."
"Which hospital did you visit?" Ming Shu asked. "Which doctor?"
Wen He was a little hesitant, but after a moment he took out a business card and passed it over to Ming Shu. "This one."
When Ming Shu skimmed the information on the card, he faintly furrowed his brows.
Luo Yi. Jiulin Psychology Clinic.
Jiulin Psychology Clinic was a part of Guangye Hospital. Just one block away from Dongye City's University of Medicine.
"How old is this Dr. Luo?" Ming Shu asked.
"About the same age as me," Wen He said. "Pretty impressive. Not even forty yet, and already a director."
Then this doctor was only in his thirties, while the 'university professor' Long Tianhao had spoken of was in his fifties.
Ming Shu didn't continue pursuing that line of thought. Instead he asked, "How long have you been receiving treatment at Jiulin?"
"Mm… I started going in December of last year. At first, I went every week. Then I started going just once a month," Wen He said. "I'll be visiting again while I'm here this time. I have an appointment with Dr. Luo the day after tomorrow."
"Would you mind if I had a look at your medicine?" Ming Shu asked.
Wen He instantly took out his medicine again. "I've changed my medication a few times already. I haven't been on this one for too long. Dr. Luo changed my prescription after improvements in my condition."
Ming Shu studied it for a while before setting the medicine down on the desk. "Besides taking medication, did Dr. Luo suggest that you do anything else?"
This was a very pointed question, but Wen He didn't seem to realize that. He thought for a moment before he said, "Oh, that's right. I went to 'Jianjia Bailu' to study the guzheng at Dr. Luo's suggestion."
Ming Shu's gaze instantly sharpened. "Dr. Luo advised you to seek out Sha Chun?"
Faced with Ming Shu's intense gaze, Wen He felt another wave of unease. He let out an awkward laugh before he amended, "No, no. Dr. Luo doesn't know Sha Chun. I was the one who chose Sha Chun's class. It didn't have anything to do with Dr. Luo."
There was a contradiction in Wen He's first answer and his second. Ming Shu couldn't let that go. He persisted, "But you did just say that Dr. Luo was the one who suggested that you go to 'Jianjia Bailu'."
"I didn't express myself well, I'm sorry," Wen He explained. "Dr. Luo suggested that I adopt a hobby outside of work. Like playing an instrument, or practicing a fine art, or playing a sport. He said that would help in my treatment."
"So you chose the guzheng?" Ming Shu asked.
"Actually, I didn't choose it on my own either," Wen He said. "I've never had many hobbies ever since I was little. I only knew to do my homework and study for tests. Before, when I was in school, my male classmates liked to play soccer or basketball. Girls liked to listen to music. I wasn't interested in any of it. I thought it was all a waste of time."
Ming Shu thought, He's another Yu Xiaocheng?
"When I first went to Jiulin, Dr. Luo advised me to make time to relax outside of work and develop a hobby. I didn't take his advice back then. After taking a lot of medicine, my condition didn't improve much. Dr. Luo repeated his suggestions to me a few times, before I finally started to consider picking up a hobby," Wen He said. "It was… near the end of June, I think. While leaving Jiulin, I ran into a kid handing out promotional pamphlets."
"Pamphlets for 'Jianjia Bailu'?" Ming Shu asked.
"Right," Wen He said. "Although I wasn't all that interested in music, I would often hear traditional music on TV. That sort of music gave me a feeling of comfort, so I thought that might be a good choice. After going to 'Jianjia Bailu' to take a look, I found everything pretty satisfactory, so I signed up for classes."
"The person who gave you the pamphlet was a kid?" Ming Shu asked.
"Mm, a little kid." Wen He had never had any dealings with criminal police in the past. He didn't understand why Ming Shu's questions were all so strange.
"How little of a kid?"
"Just… this tall." Wen He gestured in midair, demonstrating a height. "Seven or eight years old, I would guess. Definitely no older than ten."
Ming Shu fell silent for a while, then turned the subject of conversation onto Wen He's family and background.
Wen He had been born in the countryside. He'd gotten into a college in Dongye City, and from then on settled there.
Wen He's family situation actually bore many similarities to Ran He's. They both came from impoverished families and had several older sisters.
The difference between them was that Ran He had come to depend on his wife and father-in-law. Wen He, on the other hand, had truly become independent and capable of supporting himself. He'd advanced step by step through life, finally earning himself a middle management position at a state-owned business.
As a student, Wen He hadn't dated at all. He focused solely on his studies. He'd met his ex-wife through a marriage interview when he already had a steady job. They couldn't exactly say they loved each other, but they both had a need to get married; so five years ago, they'd tied the knot.
The ex-wife's family conditions couldn't be considered extremely good, but her parents did both work in the city. Her parents looked down on Wen He, and thus Wen He and his ex-wife experienced no shortage of friction throughout their marriage. In the vast majority of disputes, Wen He was the one who compromised and caved to his ex-wife's expectations.
Last year, in the total absence of passion in their marriage, Wen He's ex-wife had brought up the matter of divorce. Her parents had strongly insisted that she claim custody of their child who had just turned three.
Wen He had treated his marriage as a business engagement, and he knew his ex-wife had been dissatisfied with him in many regards. Before his ex-wife decided on divorce, Wen He had been planning to invest in a family outing. He had been planning to take his ex-wife and her parents on a trip.
To Wen He, failure in marriage wasn't much different from failure in work.
It was all because he lacked the ability to make things work.
After his divorce, Wen He became rather isolated.
"It's a good thing I went to see a doctor," Wen He said. "My condition now is much better than it was last year. Learning the guzheng and going on business trips both helped me, I think. I just never imagined something would happen to Sha Chun. She was extremely kind and understanding. It's really a shame."
'Kind' wasn't the important part, but 'understanding' was critical.
"What do you mean when you say she was 'understanding'?" Ming Shu asked.
It was apparent that Wen He felt genuine pity for Sha Chun. "Every time I took a class with her, we would chat. I told her about my experiences, and she told me about hers. Dr. Luo said I needed to get used to communicating with other people. When I talked to Sha Chun, I felt pretty relaxed."
"Because the two of you were similar?" Ming Shu asked.
Wen He didn't shy away from that subject. "Yes, our experiences in school were very similar. We could sympathize with each other as soon as we started talking. We both worked very hard after joining the workforce as well. We were both determined to make it to the top of our fields.
"We put too much pressure on ourselves. That's actually how my condition arose. But I was luckier than her in one regard. My colleagues were extremely kind to me. I was able to go to Europe this time because my superior was looking out for me, giving me this chance to go out there and learn while clearing my head."
As a clinical depression patient who was still on medication, Wen He's condition was already very good. There was a very good chance that, before long, he could stop taking his medication. It was obvious that a person's environment had a big effect on their mental state.
Ming Shu sorted through all this new information, and he soon gained a better understanding of how Wen He's superiors and colleagues felt about him as well. They considered him a very diligent person with above-average capabilities. They saw him as someone who was always eager to be the first to tackle a job.
But Wen He did have one problem which limited his advancement at work and in life. His field of vision was too narrow.
Between this year and last year, all the hurdles that Wen He encountered at work arose from his lack of vision. If he'd remained an ordinary employee rather than advancing to middle management, he would have been perfectly capable of becoming an outstanding employee in his field. But once he rose into management, his weakness became more apparent. His inability to think big made his other abilities seem less impressive as well.
To Wen He, middle management was the ceiling. He couldn't go any higher.
Criminal Investigation Bureau. Serious Crimes Division.
"Long Tianhao's words do have some measure of credibility," Ming Shu said, holding a copy of some medical records. "He can't possibly be Sha Chun's killer. The injury in his left hand would prohibit him from strangling someone. He told us that he once met a 'university professor' on the campus of the University of Medicine, and that 'professor' told him to take guzheng lessons from Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu'. For the time being, I believe him."
Xiao Yu'an nodded his agreement. "In this regard, there really isn't any need for Long Tianhao to lie."
"There aren't any obvious contradictions in Wen He's story either. The only little snag was that, on the matter of why he went to 'Jianjia Bailu', he gave two different answers." Ming Shu relayed the specifics of his conversation with Wen He to Xiao Yu'an. "I feel like his explanation checks out. Ordinary people who are suddenly pulled into a murder case, especially when facing the police, tend to get nervous. They could slip up and speak inaccurately."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "So you've already sorted out your thoughts. You've realized that Long Tianhao's words and Wen He's words can be used as important leads."
Ming Shu lightly popped his lips and looked around. Seeing that they were alone, he whooshed over to Xiao Yu'an's side and bent at the waist to whisper in Xiao Yu'an's ear, "Hey, Director Xiao."
Between the two of them, one was sitting and one was standing. The one standing had a hand in his pocket; his dress shirt and suit pants were extremely flattering on his figure.
"Mm?" Xiao Yu'an prompted. "Can I help you?"
Ming Shu's brain suddenly seemed to lag. He completely forgot what he'd zoomed over to say. When he straightened up, he still couldn't remember.
Xiao Yu'an patted him on the lower waist. "Don't think too hard about it. I'm sure you were about to say some nonsense just now."
Since he was already there, Ming Shu decided to simply sit on the desk. "I'm busy analyzing the case. How could I possibly talk nonsense now? I haven't even said anything yet, and you've already decided it would be nonsense?"
"I can tell just by looking at that expression of yours," Xiao Yu'an said. "And even now, you haven't remembered what you wanted to say. It certainly can't have been anything important. Our Captain Ming is such an outstanding and brilliant police detective. If he really wanted to say something relating to the case, he definitely wouldn't suddenly let it slip from his mind."
"Oi, this compliment…" Ming Shu grinned. "Does your old face never take on a blush?"
Unhurriedly, Xiao Yu'an retorted, "Yours is the one that's taken on a blush."
Ming Shu's eyes widened. He swiftly realized that Xiao Yu'an was teasing him, and he hastily voiced a protest. "Stop, stop! Truce!"
Xiao Yu'an laughed and said, "Mm, go ahead and continue your line of thought."
This was one of the best things about his family's Little Ming Shu. Sometimes, he would get the urge to stir up some trouble, but he understood propriety. When it was time to get serious, he got serious in an instant.
"We've been focusing on our investigation on the ten students with whom Sha Chun had one-on-one lessons," Ming Shu said. "After eliminating Wu Zhen, there are nine students left. Among them, we haven't been able to contact Zhou Lan at all. She was the first of Sha Chun's students to come to 'Jianjia Bailu'. She took her lessons before Wu Zhen had his. For the time being, we can rule her out."
Ming Shu had his legs crossed at the ankles. He swung them lightly as he sat on the desk. "Of the other eight, we can split them into groups. Liu Mei, who doesn't seem extraordinarily diligent. The He cousins. And the two little girls who don't possess the physical ability to commit the crime. These five can be grouped into a category of students who stumbled upon 'Jianjia Bailu' by chance and of their own volition. No external forces sent them there. Now, Wen He and…"
"Wait a minute," Xiao Yu'an interrupted. "Eliminate Liu Mei from that list."
"Hm?" Ming Shu blinked. "You have another lead on her?"
"Liu Mei's words and actions are somewhat suspect. Your little rookie can't let it go. He already reported to me that he's still following up on her," Xiao Yu'an said.
"Huh?" Ming Shu gave it some thought. There really were quite a few problems with Liu Mei's responses. It was a good thing that Fang Yuanhang had taken the initiative to follow up on that.
Xiao Yu'an continued, "Wen He, Long Tianhao, and Yu Xiaocheng. These three are extraordinarily diligent. So they go into their own group?"
"At the very least, Wen He and Long Tianhao need to go into the same group," Ming Shu said. "Long Tianhao was influenced by a 'university professor'. That was the only reason he went to 'Jianjia Bailu'. The purpose was extremely clear. And Wen He was also pushed towards 'Jianjia Bailu' by an external force. The doctor at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic had the ability to influence him.
"However, the 'professor' Long Tianhao encountered was in his fifties. Luo Yi is only thirty-something. It's more or less impossible for the two of them to be the same person.
"Now, Wen He said he received his promotional pamphlet from a child. Most of the people who hand out fliers on the street are young people working part-time jobs or older people who have already retired. Why would there be a seven- or eight-year-old child doing this?
"We can be pretty sure that the little kid received instructions from someone else. Someone told the kid to give the 'Jianjia Bailu' pamphlet to Wen He."
After a beat, Ming Shu continued, "As for Yu Xiaocheng, there are two possibilities. One is that he also received some sort of external influence that led him towards 'Jianjia Bailu', but he didn't realize he'd been influenced—just like Wen He. The other possibility is that he really did choose 'Jianjia Bailu' by chance.
"Yu Xiaocheng is different from Wen He and Long Tianhao in several ways. Right now, most of our evidence points towards Yu Xiaocheng as the guilty party. He had the time and means to commit the crime, and he fits our profile of the killer. The suspicion on him is extremely high. We can practically confirm that he's the killer, and we certainly can't be sure that his words are believable."
"Of the evidence we have in hand, the only thing that helps put Yu Xiaocheng in the clear is the surveillance records from the net cafe he went to," Xiao Yu'an said. "But that isn't enough to definitively prove that Yu Xiaocheng didn't have the means to commit the crime."
"Right," Ming Shu agreed. Grimly, he continued, "Ge, I think we need to adjust the trajectory of our investigation. We used to think that Wu Zhen's case and Sha Chun's case were both instances of people in 'despair' planning their own deaths, independently. But now, it seems very possible that this 'university professor' is orchestrating this string of deaths from the dark. This 'professor' could have been ushering people like Wu Zhen and Sha Chun to 'Jianjia Bailu', so that Sha Chun could pick from them!"
Xiao Yu'an stood up. "During our last meeting, I thought of that possibility. I didn't bring it up at the time because I couldn't think of a motive for this person to act in such a way, and I didn't have any evidence to support that theory back then. Now, Long Tianhao has directly confirmed this person's existence."
"We originally thought these were murder cases. Then they appeared to be suicides. Now, it seems they could very well be homicides again," Ming Shu said. He radiated a dignified aura. "Long Tianhao once sought treatment from the University of Medicine's auxiliary hospital, and Wen He received treatment from the Jiulin Psychology Center, which is a part of Guangye Hospital.
"It all comes back to the University of Medicine in the end. This 'mystery man' has already surfaced, but what his motives and reasons are… for the time being, I can't conceive of them either."
"If Long Tianhao, Wen He, and Yu Xiaocheng were all influenced by this 'mystery man' to attend classes at 'Jianjia Bailu', then his methods of selecting his targets are far too random. It's like he's randomly scattering 'seeds' to the wind while thinking at least one will germinate." Xiao Yu'an glanced at the sketch of the 'university professor' that had been created based on Long Tianhao's description. "He amassed all these potential targets while keeping himself completely detached from these people who have fallen into 'despair'. He lets them choose among themselves…
"If that's his method, then Sha Chun was one of the 'seeds' he prepared for Wu Zhen. One of many."
"Then what about the other 'seeds' provided to Wu Zhen?" Ming Shu mused. "All the people Wu Zhen encountered after his handwriting changed could have been 'seeds' provided by this 'mystery man', right? And the one who was ultimately persuaded by Wu Zhen was Sha Chun? That gives us a new line of investigation… then, what about before Wu Zhen?"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Before Wu Zhen, there may have been only the 'mystery man' himself."
Ming Shu's pupils constricted. "Wu Zhen didn't kill anyone? He was directly influenced by the 'mystery man', becoming the first 'domino' to fall? That doesn't quite check out."
"Wu Zhen's case dates back to before Sha Chun's, and we haven't made any breakthroughs there," Xiao Yu'an said. "Let's return our attention to Sha Chun for now. She tried to influence Yu Xiaocheng, Long Tianhao, and Wen He. She tried to turn one of them into the next 'domino' in the sequence. Although Wen He had clinical depression, he had both ups and downs in life. His psychological state could be said to be relatively good.
"More importantly, Wen He only took lessons with Sha Chun for a short time before he was sent to Europe. So Sha Chun didn't get the chance to get to the heart of the matter with him."
"Long Tianhao…" Ming Shu crossed his arms and furrowed his brow deeply, sinking into thought. "Sha Chun might not have trusted him. Or she might have given up on him for some other reason. She set her sights on Yu Xiaocheng instead. Then, with that, it seems like we have the final nail in Yu Xiaocheng's coffin.
"Sha Chun only had these three people who she could have influenced. Long and Wen can both be eliminated. Besides Yu Xiaocheng, who else is left?"
The room fell into silence.
A few seconds later, Ming Shu prompted, "Director Xiao?"
Xiao Yu'an's eyes reflected the depth of his thoughts. "I'm thinking… if we use Long Tianhao, Wen He, Yu Xiaocheng, Sha Chun, and Wu Zhen as our points of reference, then the net cast by this 'mystery man' is far too wide and random. He just needs one 'seed' to germinate. For him to do all this, I can only think of one similar example."
Ming Shu came to a sudden realization. "He's conducting an experiment?"
The cell phone on the table vibrated. Ming Shu picked it up. From the other end of the line, Fang Yuanhang shouted, "Chief! Liu Mei might have something to do with the case of a missing woman!"