Fang Yuanhang was the most energetic and enthusiastic member of the Serious Crimes Division. After coming into contact with Liu Mei a few times, he grew more and more incapable of letting go of that thread.
Ming Shu didn't think Liu Mei had a strong enough motive, and Yi Fei thought Liu Mei's chances of being involved in the case were low. Both the captain and vice captain of the division had their sights fixed on the bigger picture.
But Fang Yuanhang hadn't investigated as many murder cases as the two of them, and he was a bit muleheaded. After mulling over the details again and again, he decided to continue pursuing that thread.
Fang Yuanhang had originally planned on discussing his thoughts with Ming Shu, but Ming Shu was so busy that Fang Yuanhang couldn't even grab a minute of his time. Thus, the hardheaded Fang Yuanhang had gone directly to Xiao Yu'an.
Director Xiao is in charge of our division anyway, and he's on good terms with Chief, Fang Yuanhang had thought. Director Xiao has been watching over this case the whole time. Asking him for guidance is definitely the right move.
"Captain Ming is correct. Liu Mei has a hazy motive at best. Setting aside whether or not she would kill Sha Chun, there's also the issue that Sha Chun wouldn't take Liu Mei as her 'target'," Xiao Yu'an had patiently explained to the hotheaded rookie. "But your perseverance isn't misplaced. There are at least three points of suspicion on Liu Mei."
Fang Yuanhang instantly perked up. "I'm already clear on those!"
Xiao Yu'an hummed his acknowledgement and encouraged, "Go ahead and tell me."
"First," Fang Yuanhang began, "there's the fact that she and Sha Chun didn't communicate like normal people. And Liu Mei's explanation for that was extremely far-fetched. What does she mean, 'Sha Chun is more traditional, so she preferred to call.' To me, that doesn't check out!
"Even when they called, they used voice calls on messaging apps. That's a matter of habit. It has nothing to do with whether you're traditional or not. You use whatever is more convenient, and after a while, you get used to it, right? My parents are way more old-fashioned than Sha Chun, and they both use WeChat to communicate with me now."
After taking a breath, Fang Yuanhang continued, "Second, the first time I talked to Liu Mei, she claimed Sha Chun had told her that she didn't work hard enough. We're already very clear on what Sha Chun was like. She may have decided in her heart that Liu Mei wasn't 'hard-working enough', but she definitely wouldn't have said that sort of thing out loud.
"Liu Mei lied to us. That was either to cover something up, or it was something that just happened to slip out—maybe she deemed herself 'not hard-working enough' and inadvertently put her own judgment in Sha Chun's mouth. But I think it's much more likely that she was trying to conceal something.
"Third, Liu Mei said she often talked to Sha Chun about clothes and makeup. She said that she had been teaching Sha Chun how to change her image, and that Sha Chun was in pursuit of a more beautiful appearance. She claimed Sha Chun took the initiative to ask her for advice. But me and Chief… no, I mean, me and Captain Ming have visited Sha Chun's home.
"Sha Chun only kept daily skincare products. She didn't keep any makeup at home. I couldn't find any signs that she'd been learning how to do her makeup from Liu Mei. Besides, Sha Chun had placed all her time and effort on her music. Would she really spend time trying to pretty herself up?
"Besides, in her final days, Sha Chun was busy planning her own suicide. Would she really have had time to spare for changing her image? It doesn't make sense. It's a contradiction."
"Very well done. You've found all the points of suspicion," Xiao Yu'an affirmed warmly. "The possibility of Sha Chun pursuing beauty and change in the month or two before her death is low. Liu Mei has lied to us more than once. There's no problem with you wanting to keep an eye on her. But I'd like to ask, how do you plan on pursuing this thread?"
Fang Yuanhang already had a very clear, logical idea for that. "The guzheng!"
"And why that angle?" Xiao Yu'an prompted.
"Liu Mei said 'Jianjia Bailu' wasn't the only place where she'd taken lessons in traditional arts. Before she found Sha Chun, she'd gone elsewhere. The reason she gave was that the public sees her career as superficial and shallow, and she considers herself somewhat shallow as well. She wants to fix that by learning a traditional art. She thinks that'll give her some more depth," Fang Yuanhang said. "The first time I heard all that, I didn't think there was anything wrong with it. But the more I thought about it, the more problematic it seemed."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "She was dead set on traditional arts."
"Right!" Fang Yuanhang was getting a little worked up. "If you want to cultivate some more 'depth' of character, is taking lessons to learn some traditional art form the only way? Even if she was fixated on music, she didn't have to choose a traditional instrument!
"Why didn't she read some books or socialize more with people who were familiar with traditional arts and culture? Why didn't she learn how to draw? Also, I've spoken to her several times now, and I didn't get a sense that she was truly trying to change at all. She only says she wants to deepen her character and broaden her horizons.
"She's definitely going to these traditional arts classes with a motive. And that motive definitely isn't to improve herself!"
"Your analysis is very reasonable," Xiao Yu'an said. "Since you've already reached this point, go ahead and continue your investigation."
Fang Yuanhang hesitated. "I'm worried Chief will say I'm not doing my real job."
"Don't worry about that. Compared to mindlessly following the orders of your superiors, Captain Ming would definitely prefer for you to think for yourself and act on your own," Xiao Yu'an said with a smile. "When he was about your age, he was just like you."
"Really?" Fang Yuanhang's eyes flashed like crystals. Then, after thinking for a moment, he realized something wasn't quite right. "Director Xiao, how do you know that?"
Xiao Yu'an expression remained perfectly natural and neutral as he said, "Every criminal detective in Serious Crimes walked a similar path to get where they are today."
After receiving the approval of his commander, Fang Yuanhang became more enthusiastic than ever. He first discovered that, starting in July of last year, Liu Mei had taken classes at four workshops similar to 'Jianjia Bailu'. The duration of her enrollment in those programs ranged from half a month to two months, and she'd studied the hulusi, pipa, and guzheng.
One of those workshops was named 'Luoshui Guofeng Tang'. And in April of that year, a hulusi teacher named Zhou Xi had disappeared from there.
The case had occurred in Nan District, and it had been handled by the local precinct and police post. To date, they had yet to close the case.
Besides Zhou Xi, the other teachers Liu Mei had studied with were Zhao Sheng of 'Tianxia Minyue Guan', Liang Chun of 'Qinzhou Xuetang', and Wang Man of 'Lu Dao'.
Fang Yuanhang discovered that all four of these instructors were much like Sha Chun. Their facial features couldn't be called gorgeous, but they were pretty in a delicate and traditional way.
"All sorts of students come here for lessons. Some genuinely want to learn a traditional instrument, while some are just chasing a star or a popular fad—last year, for example, there was a popular period drama. We had lots of little girls come here, wanting to learn the theme song from that show," said Liang Chun. She had a very deep impression of Liu Mei, and she didn't seem particularly impressed. "But I never got a sense of what Liu Mei wanted to accomplish. She didn't concentrate during her lessons. She would always ask about my family life and my feelings. The most bizarre thing she ever did was bring in a big bag of makeup, insisting on helping me dress up.
"Don't go thinking I'm just a humble pipa player. When I really dress up and do my makeup properly, I'm not any worse than a wild and unbridled model like her. In the end, I remember that she didn't finish out the courses she'd paid for. She just stopped coming."
Zhao Sheng seemed to know more than Liang Chun, but she was unwilling to talk until Fang Yuanhang reassured her time and again that the police would protect her as a witness. Only then did she reluctantly begin to speak.
"Liu Mei dropped a lot of hints. She kept implying that there were people who liked women like me, who were proficient in a traditional instrument and looked rather old-fashioned. I don't know what sort of role she holds. Maybe she was just an intermediary, or maybe she was… what do you call it, a madam?" Zhao Sheng said. "Although I'm not yet married, I've been very happy with my boyfriend, and I'm very happy with my life. I didn't want anything to do with people like Liu Mei.
"She must have gotten my meaning, because she didn't come back after I made things clear to her. She didn't keep insisting that I dress up or change my image and whatnot."
Of the three instructors, Wang Man was the one who seemed the most uneasy when speaking to the police.
"I actually regret it a lot," she said. "I almost went with Liu Mei because of the money. She told me there was a 'boss' who wanted to support me. The boss liked people who knew how to play traditional instruments. As long as I wore a traditional outfit and spent a night with him, I could make twenty thousand yuan."
A breakthrough had finally come at the end of the thread Fang Yuanhang was following. His palms began to sweat. "Who is this 'boss'?"
"I don't know." Wang Man shook her head. Her eyes had already reddened. "I needed money, so it was… it was like I was possessed. I agreed to go with Liu Mei. I was really about to go with her, but then my parents suddenly came to visit me from home. They came to celebrate my birthday with me.
"Instantly, I realized that I couldn't disgrace them like that. I changed my cell phone number and quit my job. I've been hiding from Liu Mei all this time. I'm just lucky she hasn't come looking for me."
"How did the two of you normally communicate?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Did you usually call each other or use messaging apps to chat?"
"Ah!" Wang Man seemed to suddenly remember something. "The last few times we got in touch, I was afraid something would happen, so I just quietly left her voice messages."
Fang Yuanhang instantly got heated up. "Hurry, show me!"
The voice clips exchanged between Wang Man and Liu Mei clearly proved that Liu Mei was acting as an intermediary for some sort of 'sponsor'. But what concerned Fang Yuanhang the most was that Liu Mei sounded extremely anxious in those messages, as though she were in a rush to deliver Wang Man to this 'sponsor'.
What kind of pimp would be that anxious?
It felt like she thought she would be doomed if she failed to carry out her task.
"Chief, Zhou Xi disappeared in April. It's been nearly half a year now. The district precinct hasn't made any progress in that case. I suspect Zhou Xi has already been harmed," Fang Yuanhang said over the phone, while calling to inform Ming Shu of his discoveries. "This 'sponsor' must be pretty capable. He made Zhou Xi disappear without a trace. There are hardly any clues in the case of her disappearance. Plus, he's still got Liu Mei luring in other beautiful women. Even after Zhou Xi's disappearance, Liu Mei has continued her work.
"That proves this 'sponsor' is extremely arrogant, and he must come from an impressive background. He thinks he can single-handedly hide his crimes from the world! Chief, I'm almost certain this 'sponsor' is the son of an influential figure!"
"The son of an influential figure?" Ming Shu echoed. His voice was cold.
He wasn't an extremely cynical person by nature, but he felt an instinctive sort of loathing for those who rampaged through life, doing whatever they pleased while relying on the status of their family and parents to keep themselves clean.
Society as a whole had a very low opinion of the kids of influential figures. They saw these children as people who would never work an honest job, who would only ever idle about. These people were the trash that would play around with men and women, leaving it to their daddies to clean up their messes afterwards. Even if their actions caused someone's death, it would be a simple matter for their parents to cover it up.
When ordinary people came up against the child of an influential figure, they could only admit defeat.
But Ming Shu had been born to a family like that. Xiao Yu'an had the same background as well.
Ever since they were little, they had been strictly raised to be cautious of their own words and actions. Ming Shu wasn't close to his parents or grandparents; there wasn't much he could talk to them about. But he also knew that his parents were the sort of influential people that society scorned and loathed.
The Xiao family was the same. In his years with special forces, Xiao Yu'an had battled through countless life-or-death situations. Xiao Yu'an's cousins Xiao Mu'ting and Xiao Jincheng were the same. One was a captain of a special forces unit in the army, and one was a renowned narcotics detective. Which member of the Xiao family hadn't shed their blood for their country?
But because some 'sons of influential figures' ran wild in society, causing nothing but trouble, everyone who fell under that category was slapped with the same label of being lowly, morally deficient degenerates.
Of course, Ming Shu didn't hate those ordinary people who loathed all influential figures and their children. It was difficult for those people to be impartial judges on the matter. Many of them had truly experienced unfair pressure from these influential figures they hated.
The only people Ming Shu hated were the ones who were born in similar conditions as him… the ones who used their background to pressure and intimidate ordinary people!
"He thinks he can single-handedly hide his crimes?" Ming Shu echoed. "Then you go break that hand off for me!"
Ming Shu hadn't put the call on speakerphone, but just from hearing his words, Xiao Yu'an had gotten the general idea of what was going on.
"Your rookie has quite a lot of moldable talent," he said. "He's quick to get fired up, but he cools down just as quickly. He's capable of focusing on what's important and seizing critical leads."
Ming Shu thought for a moment, then suddenly furrowed his brows.
"What?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "What did you just think of?"
"Do you still remember Xu Yin?" Ming Shu asked.
"Of course," Xiao Yu'an said. "The little girl who discovered Wu Zhen's body. Because she'd lived with her parents' corpses for a week, she was especially sensitive to the scent of corpse rot."
Xiao Yu'an paused for a moment, then continued, "She also wanted to scare you. She told you she could see ghosts. She gave us a lead—a woman once appeared outside her window. That woman gazed at her, then died in the alley of Yisi Road. The Serious Crimes Division didn't have enough manpower to look into the matter, so I sent Task Force Two out there to conduct some preliminary investigations."
Ming Shu had been too busy as of late. He'd completely forgotten that Xiao Yu'an had already told him about sending people out to investigate that lead. Now that he remembered, he hurriedly asked, "Have they found anything?"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "Not yet."
"Xiao Man found large swaths of bloodstains on Yisi Road. A murder could have happened there, just as Xu Yin said. A young woman had her stomach slashed open, then mysteriously disappeared…" Ming Shu mused. "Zhou Yi has been missing for half a year. Her case has been reported to the local police post, which means her DNA would be in the missing persons database. When Xiao Man ran a DNA test with the blood he found, he didn't get any matches. So the woman in the alleyway on Yisi Road couldn't have been Zhou Xi.
"But the two were both young women. One died 'cleanly', and one disappeared 'cleanly'. Both without leaving many traces. It's possible there's a connection."
"If there's a connection, that makes our investigation much easier," Xiao Yu'an said. "Based on Liu Mei's actions, we can tell that this 'sponsor' has a massive appetite. He's hurt more than one woman. As long as their looks and temperament suit his tastes, they could become his 'target'."
The word 'target' was one that Ming Shu had already heard numerous times that day. He'd said it, Xiao Yu'an had said it. They'd talked about Sha Chun's 'targets', and now Liu Mei's 'sponsor' had 'targets' as well.
All these 'targets' were, at their core, victims.
Long Tianhao, Wen He, and Yu Xiaocheng had been trapped in the vast sea between their dreams and their reality. No matter how hard they worked or how much they struggled, they couldn't get free. Some of them had come close to giving up on their lives. They had been targeted by someone hiding in the shadows—chosen, used. That alone was despicable enough.
If Yu Xiaocheng wasn't Sha Chun's killer, but was labeled the killer by the mountain of evidence against him, then that would be an even more despicable outcome. It would be a failure on the part of the police.
Starting from not long ago, their case had hit a dead end. No matter how they looked at it, Yu Xiaocheng was the killer.
But Yu Xiaocheng refused to confess his guilt. And he could only rely on an alibi which could be easily overturned.
This call from Fang Yuanhang suddenly reminded Ming Shu of himself from several years ago.
Back then, Liang Zhao had still been the captain of the Serious Crimes Division. Everyone who was a captain had to keep the big picture in mind. They had to be capable of assigning their team members to the appropriate tasks; they couldn't fixate on only one detail of any case.
Ming Shu, at that time, had been young and inexperienced. He hadn't been able to consider matters from Liang Zhao's point of view. Whenever Ming Shu found a point of suspicion back then, he would dig into it like his life depended on it—much like Fang Yuanhang did now.
Liang Zhao had repeatedly spoken to Ming Shu about that habit of his, and in the end even Director Li had stepped in to address it. They both wanted to encourage Ming Shu to cultivate an ability to see the big picture.
Over the years, after accumulating more experience by working on more cases, Ming Shu really had changed quite a lot. He was able to think more broadly now, keeping the big picture in mind even while digging into minute details.
But just now, when faced with a dead end, his mood was still somewhat affected.
Within the Serious Crimes Division, a chorus of voices were already starting to rise—
The evidence is right there. It's obvious. Yu Xiaocheng is the only one who won't admit his own guilt. If he isn't the killer, who is?
Fang Yuanhang had helped steel Ming Shu's resolve.
He'd confirmed that there was something wrong with Liu Mei, and that this was a thread worth following.
Ming Shu needed to do the same thing. He had to follow up on his own hunch.
If he wasn't completely certain that Yu Xiaocheng was the killer, he had to find the one who'd really killed Sha Chun! He couldn't allow an innocent person to be wronged!
Xiao Yu'an watched Ming Shu. The corners of his lips quirked into a smile.
"Director Xiao, what are you smiling at?" Ming Shu asked.
"I'm smiling at our Captain Ming, who has been inspired to fight on by a call from his rookie," Xiao Yu'an said. "You've thought of something new?"
"Yes, but it's still sort of hazy." Ming Shu hugged his own arms and started to pace. "I'm currently working under the assumption that Yu Xiaocheng isn't Sha Chun's killer—Sha Chun told him she'd found someone else to help her 'commit suicide', and she asked Yu Xiaocheng to help her hide her hands at Jiu High.
"The night of Sha Chun's murder, Yu Xiaocheng bid her farewell at Jiangnan Theater. The next day, a package containing Sha Chun's severed hands appeared on his doorstep.
"Assuming all this is true, the real killer must have had a very clear understanding of everything that had happened between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng. They knew what Yu Xiaocheng was like. They knew that Yu Xiaocheng would agree to help Sha Chun take care of her hands, even if it troubled him. Because Yu Xiaocheng wouldn't have allowed anything to disturb his studies."
Ming Shu didn't speak too quickly, and he would occasionally pause, because these weren't thoughts he'd prepared in advance. He was thinking through his reasoning while he spoke. "They weren't Sha Chun's target," he continued. "They could probably be considered an outsider. So why would they understand the situation so clearly? Why did they get involved?"
"We can set aside their motive for the time being. Sometimes the thought process of a killer is absolutely unfathomable. No matter how many cases you and I investigate, we may never be able to get into the minds of some killers," Xiao Yu'an said. "However, thinking of who could possibly grasp the connection between Sha Chun and Yu Xiaocheng… from that, we can circle out a pool of suspects."
"The other teachers and staff members at 'Jianjia Bailu'," Ming Shu said.
"Based on Yu Xiaocheng's testimony and the dire conditions Sha Chun lived in prior to her death, we can determine that Sha Chun had been in an almost frenzied state," Xiao Yu'an said. "She had been involved in Wu Zhen's death. Regardless of whether Wu Zhen took the sodium cyanide by himself or not, Sha Chun was definitely the one who hid his body in cement.
"To an ordinary woman, this would definitely become a terrifying memory. Moreover, the traditional instruments department had started isolating Sha Chun more than ever. They'd even started to ostracize her on stage. She Chun must have been at rock bottom. She must have wanted to die as quickly as possible."
"But Yu Xiaocheng let her down…" Ming Shu moved to the window. "She could only search for someone else to become the next 'domino'."
"However, within a short span of time, she wasn't able to find anyone," Xiao Yu'an said. "That mysterious person facilitating things from the dark wasn't able to find anyone for her either."
Ming Shu turned from where he was standing by the window. "Ge, if it were you, what would you do?"
"It's very simple. When a person can't handle their present conditions anymore, they would most likely lower their expectations," Xiao Yu'an said. "Or they would simply resort to killing themselves."
"Sha Chun didn't kill herself." Ming Shu drew a slow breath. "Her death was the same as Wu Zhen's. There was something deceptive about it. She either succeeded in finding her next 'domino', or she found a fake 'domino'."
"Yu Xiaocheng rejected Sha Chun's proposal in early August, and Sha Chun died on August 24th," Xiao Yu'an said. "Could she have found a new 'successor' in such a short span of time? Also, we've already talked about the fact that the person who killed her tried to divert the blame to someone else. They tried to frame Yu Xiaocheng. Their motives were impure."
"Ling Xuzhi, the calligraphy teacher," Ming Shu said. "He had a fanatical sort of obsession with Sha Chun. He stalked her, he attended many of her performances. He could have eavesdropped on Sha Chun's conversations with Yu Xiaocheng!"
"If this person is emotionally unstable…" Xiao Yu'an trailed off and paused for a moment. "Upon learning of Sha Chun's wishes, he could have conceivably decided to 'help' her fulfill those wishes. And he could have tried to shift the blame to Yu Xiaocheng as a form of revenge. Plus, in death, he could forever possess Sha Chun. However…"
"'However' what?" Ming Shu asked.
"However, Ling Xuzhi isn't the only suspect," Xiao Yu'an said. "We still have a 'blind spot' at 'Jianjia Bailu'."
Ming Shu understood that Xiao Yu'an wasn't talking about a literal 'blind spot' in the surveillance cameras in the area. He was talking about a blind spot in their investigation, a corner they'd yet to shine a light on.
But what was that corner?
"Later, make the arrangements and send a team to the University of Medicine. Follow up on the lead of that 'university professor'," Xiao Yu'an said. "And on the other side, follow up on your own reasoning here. Go 'crack' that 'blind spot' that we've been overlooking thus far."
After receiving Ming Shu's support, Fang Yuanhang felt steadier than ever. He instantly rushed to Liu Mei's home. But he didn't find her. And Liu Mei's cell phone had also been disconnected.
It was as though she'd suddenly evaporated into thin air.