Serious Crimes Division. Interrogation room.
Liu Mei sat with her head hanging low. Medicine had been applied to the swelling on her face. The patches of purple and green were especially pronounced underneath the harsh overhead lights, making her look almost like a clown.
Fang Yuanhang watched her from across the table.
Originally, this interrogation wouldn't have taken place there.
A few hours ago, Liu Mei had been rushed to the hospital. Her condition stabilized while she was there. She didn't have any life-threatening injuries. Fang Yuanhang's initial assessment had been correct; most of her wounds were from a whip or an open palm. Her condition was likely the result of an abusive relationship.
The doctors suggested that Liu Mei be hospitalized for observation. But when Liu Mei woke, she cried and desperately begged Fang Yuanhang to take her to the police station.
"I can't stay here, he'll kill me! Please, please, take me away and lock me up. Anywhere is fine! Any police station! Or send me to jail! I'd rather go to jail!"
"I've done as you requested," Fang Yuanhang said, in the interrogation room. "You're very safe right now, so why won't you talk? Are you still trying to protect that 'sponsor' who made Zhou Xi disappear? If I'm not mistaken, he's the one who hurt you, isn't that right?"
Liu Mei lifted her head. Her reddened eyes were full of tears. "I'll talk, I'll talk… actually, I've been looking forward to this day for a very long time. I could only ever escape those evil clutches if you police investigated the matter."
Presently, Fang Yuanhang was most concerned about Zhou Xi. If Zhou Xi was still alive, Liu Mei would definitely know where she was.
However, as soon as Liu Mei uttered that name, her tears instantly began to fall.
"She's already dead."
Fang Yuanhang drew in a breath.
Zhou Xi's death was something they had predicted long ago. When a person disappeared for that long, they were either willfully hiding or no longer a part of that world.
But upon hearing Liu Mei confirm Zhou Xi's death, Fang Yuanhang still felt a pang of remorse.
Liu Mei's voice was choked with sobs. "Zhou Xi was killed by Chu Can, he messed around with her too much. I was the one who brought her to Chu Can. I'm guilty… the one who was supposed to die next was Sha Chun, but I never imagined something would happen to Sha Chun first."
Chu Can. This name was completely unfamiliar to the members of the Serious Crimes Division. However, the surname 'Chu' became familiar to anyone who spent a considerable amount of time in Dongye City.
That was the surname of some of the richest and wealthiest people in all of Dongye City.
Xinghuan Entertainment, the agency Liu Mei belonged to, just so happened to be one of the businesses operated under the Chu clan's name.
But if Chu Can was really a son of the Chu clan, then his living conditions were far too shabby—the Baixuan Guiyuan neighborhood was now only suitable for washed up officials who were past their glory days, ones who were no longer taken seriously by the truly powerful people in the city.
If Chu Can used a place like that as his and Liu Mei's love nest… was it because he didn't think Liu Mei deserved any better? Or was it because he was unable to provide any better?
"Who is Chu Can?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "What is your relationship to Chu Can?"
"Do you know of Chu Linxiong?" Liu Mei asked.
"The boss of the Chu Group," Fang Yuanhang confirmed. "Chu Can is his…"
Liu Mei nodded. "His illegitimate son."
The private lives of the rich and famous were always a point of interest for common folk, and the personal affairs of the boss of the Chu Group were hot topics for gossip. Just about everyone knew a little something about that.
Fang Yuanhang didn't pay much mind to those things, but even he'd heard a bit of that gossip.
Liu Mei haltingly gave her confession, speaking with intermittent starts and stops. Her sobs continued to fill up the interrogation room.
Liu Mei had never received much of an education. When she was around seventeen or eighteen, she became addicted to the internet. That was where she was lured in by her special interests. She was a self-professed masochist, and she engaged in various 'online relationships' with men. Later, when 'online relationships' were no longer enough to satisfy her, she took her affairs offline.
It was then that she met Chu Can.
The first few times they met, Chu Can was extremely poised and dignified. He treated Liu Mei gently and warmly. He even invited Liu Mei to come to Dongye City, promising he would secure her a bright and dazzling job.
Liu Mei had been born and raised in a small county. Her common sense and ability to judge others were lacking. She left her home behind at the age of twenty and came to Dongye City to seek shelter with Chu Can.
And Chu Can kept his promise. He arranged to have Liu Mei work with his family's entertainment agency.
Liu Mei thought she would live the rest of her life enjoying riches and comfort. She'd never imagined she would be entering a hellish life in which there was no progress and no end.
Chu Can's poise and gentle nature were all facades. His true nature was that of a twisted, crazed, and perverted animal.
Chu Linxiong had four well-known and respectable male heirs, as well as countless other illegitimate children he raised outside the family.
Even among those illegitimate children, Chu Can was the one who Chu Linxiong paid the least attention to. The Chu family had always looked down on Chu Can. His ego was huge, but he had a strong inferiority complex as well. All of the hateful feelings he'd repressed exploded onto Liu Mei.
Liu Mei didn't actually enjoy pain. Her foray into BDSM had only been spurred on by the curiosity and ignorance of youth. When she was treated so kindly by Chu Can, she'd assumed that was what awaited her in the future as well. It was only when the vicious beatings began that she realized she'd been fooled.
But by then it was too late.
Chu Can had no status to speak of within the Chu family, but he was more than capable of taking in a girl from a small county. Outside, Liu Mei lived as a graceful and beautiful model. But at Chu Can's side, she was nothing more than a dog.
Liu Mei had once tried to commit suicide, but she was saved. And afterwards, she had been fiercely beaten. Chu Can threatened her family after that as well, saying he would kill them all if Liu Mei didn't behave.
Liu Mei knew very well how much power the Chu family held. She could only wait for Chu Can to grow tired of her and let her go.
But when Chu Can really did get tired of her, she found herself pushed into an even darker abyss.
Chu Can had been struck by a wave of 'traditional fever'. He ordered Liu Mei to lure in and trick pure, traditional women who had a classical sort of beauty. And he promised that he would set her free once she'd lured in ten such women.
If Liu Mei failed, she would be forced to endure even harsher abuse than anything she'd experienced before.
Liu Mei knew that if she helped Chu Can deceive innocent women, she would be implicated in his crimes.
But if she disobeyed, Chu Can would torment her until she died.
Liu Mei couldn't bear that torture. She started going to university campuses to try to find women for Chu Can, but she got no results there. Last year, more and more workshops offering classes in traditional arts began to pop up. That was when Liu Mei got an idea.
There had to be women who would satisfy Chu Can at those workshops!
Zhou Xi had been the first woman Liu Mei managed to trick into going to Chu Can.
Zhou Xi's background was quite similar to Liu Mei's. She didn't have much of a formal education, and she desired money. She didn't mind selling her body to a stranger for a large sum.
Since it was her first time luring someone in like this, Liu Mei couldn't help but feel apprehensive. When she brought Zhou Xi to the place Chu Can had decided on, Liu Mei suddenly found her conscience. She couldn't stop herself from warning Zhou Xi that this 'sponsor' had 'that' kind of interest.
But Zhou Xi didn't care about any of that anymore.
After delivering Zhou Xi to the right place, Liu Mei left. She told herself over and over again—
I'm not the evildoer here. I'm a victim too. I don't have a choice. I'm just a powerless insect. If I don't do as Chu Can says, he'll kill me and my whole family.
Three days later, Liu Mei was called back out by Chu Can. And what she found was Zhou Xi's corpse.
The once pure and innocent beauty who'd exuded a classical aura was now covered in wounds. Cuts and bruises littered her whole body, and her face had long since swollen beyond recognition.
"You're involved in this too," Chu Can said as he stood beside the body. He darkly declared, "You were the one who brought this innocent girl to me. You were the one who killed her!"
Liu Mei was shocked and terrified beyond belief. She frantically shook her head. "No, it's… it has nothing to do with me, I only…"
"I'm mentally ill!" Chu Can formed the shape of a gun with one hand and pointed it at his own temple. His whole expression contorted, and his eyes bulged out in a terrifying manner. "Dr. Luo can write up a document declaring that for me. Then even the police won't be able to touch me! But what about you? You're a normal person. Just to get on my good side, you lied to an innocent girl and brought her into a psychopath's bed!"
Liu Mei couldn't stop shaking her head. "No! No!"
"No?" Chu Can let out a sinister laugh. "Didn't you notice when you came here? The surveillance cameras are pointed directly at your face!"
Liu Mei froze like she'd been struck by lightning.
"But how could I ever hurt you? My little puppy." Chu Can's expression and tone suddenly changed on a dime, as though a different soul were now inhabiting his body. A kinder, warmer soul.
Liu Mei, however, had already experienced this man's 'kindness' a long time ago. Seeing that affectionate look on him only made her more terrified.
"As long as you listen to me, I'll always protect you," Chu Can said, smiling. "Go on now. Continue finding me women like Zhou Xi. She was delicious. I enjoyed her immensely."
After Zhou Xi, Liu Mei was unable to find any more women who satisfied Chu Can's conditions. She had no choice but to endure Chu Can's violence again and again.
Chu Can finally gave her an ultimatum. If she couldn't find him some suitable 'prey', he would satisfy himself by abusing her to death.
In August of that year, Liu Mei set her sights on Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu'. She repeatedly tried to coerce Sha Chun into going along with her. Just as Liu Mei thought success was in sight, Sha Chun suddenly died.
Upon learning of Sha Chun's death, Liu Mei's first reaction had been that Chu Can must have gotten to her.
Because just a few days before Sha Chun's death, Liu Mei had shown Chu Can a video of Sha Chun playing the guzheng. Chu Can had been immensely satisfied. He'd said that if Liu Mei could bring Sha Chun to him, he would count her as three people.
"I swear, everything I'm saying is true. I have the records of my communications with Chu Can," Liu Mei insisted, wiping away her tears. Her face was still swollen to the point that she looked pitiful and almost morbidly comical, regardless of what expression she pulled. "I can never make things right with Zhou Xi. I'll take responsibility for Zhou Xi's death! I…"
Suddenly, Liu Mei dropped her head into her hands and covered her face, seemingly unable to say anything else.
"What do you want to say?" Fang Yuanhang prompted.
In a trembling voice, Liu Mei continued, "I'm begging you to bring Chu Can to justice. Please. Can you do it?"
Those words were filled with boundless waves of misery and despair.
At that juncture, only hopeless speculation filled Liu Mei's mind—she could only imagine the Chu family would use their money to sweep everything under the rug. Chu Can would remain unfettered, and she would be taken as a scapegoat. Her family would be tormented by Chu Can. While the vilest creatures walked free, she—as Chu Can's accomplice—would be thrown into hell in his stead.
Fang Yuanhang stood up, exuding a cold and impressive air. "You think nothing of yourself, and you think nothing of the police. In your eyes, anyone with money can rampage through society without suffering any consequences."
Liu Mei dazedly lifted her head. "Isn't that the case?"
"Of course not!" Fang Yuanhang roared.
Liu Mei was stunned into a momentary silence. Then she started laughing. It was a wild, crazed laugh that sounded both strange and tragic. "If I'd gone to the police from the start, could I have avoided ending up in this place?"
The video recording of her interrogation was sent directly to Xiao Yu'an's office. Whether Liu Mei was telling the truth or putting on an act was still something that had to be investigated. Xiao Yu'an scrolled through the video, stopping at a certain moment and murmuring to himself, "Dr. Luo? Luo Yi?"
Dong District. Chunchao Shopping Center.
The internet-famous 'Hua Rong' milk tea shop was open for business. A long, serpentine line of young customers winded out from the door. Young women who worked for 'Hua Rong' made their way up and down the line, offering taste tests of the shop's signature drink to the people in the queue.
Most of the young women were petite and agile, easily ducking and weaving between the people in the crowd. Wu Tong, however, was a head taller than most of her colleagues. She was wearing high-heeled shoes, too. Although her smile was sweet and pretty, she was a step slower than everyone else.
Suddenly, a piercing cry of alarm shot through the air. Wu Tong had somehow managed to drop the tray in her hands, spilling the last little paper cup of milk tea onto a customer's shoes.
The stain wasn't too visible, and the customer was wearing leather shoes; the mess could have easily been wiped away with a paper towel. But this was a place of business. A clumsy, ditzy girl was a stain on any famous shop's reputation.
After making such a mistake, it was almost guaranteed that Wu Tong would be fired. The other girls who worked at the shop huddled to the side and watched her. Some looked on in sympathy, while others took pleasure in her imminent suffering.
The customer whose shoes had been dirtied was a woman in her twenties. When she saw that Wu Tong was practically on the verge of tears, she quickly reassured, "It's fine, it's fine."
Wu Tong wanted to stoop down to wipe her shoes for her, but the woman hastily took over the paper towels and stooped down to clean her own shoes.
Hearing the commotion, the store manager rushed out and hurriedly apologized to the customer. Wu Tong stood to the side, pitifully wiping away the tears in her eyes.
The manager shot Wu Tong a stern look and ordered her to get behind the counter, where she could help make drinks.
Wu Tong bowed to the customer, then hastily jogged back into the shop. Her retreating back looked perfectly innocent and harmless.
"She isn't going to be fired?" another girl asked. "This isn't the first time Wu Tong has been clumsy, and she even got a customer's shoes dirty today. But she still isn't fired? What is Wang-ge thinking?"
"You still don't get it? Wang-ge is probably just super nice and lenient towards girls, especially pretty and naive ones like Wu Tong," another girl said. "Wu Tong's looks and personality make it really easy for people to feel sorry for her. She's kind of simple, and when she looks at you with those big eyes… ah, forget anyone else, even I can't bring myself to get mad at her."
"But she's an idiot!"
"There are lots of idiots in the world, but not many of them are this sweet."
"That's all it takes for her to get by?"
"Forget it, forget it. If Wang-ge wants to keep her, then there's nothing we can do. Let's cut the unnecessary gossip, or other people will say we're jealous. She looks so sweet and innocent, but we don't. If anyone tries to pit us against her, we're the ones who are going to be seen as the bad guys."
After being sent behind the counter to help with the drinks, Wu Tong wasn't able to do much. She was ultimately sent back out to distribute fliers. Her sweet and innocent look charmed many young men into joining the serpentine line outside the shop.
That afternoon, when her shift ended, Wu Tong changed into her own clothes. Before she made her way out the shop door, she heard someone call out her name.
It was Ming Shu, holding a pink-red cup of strawberry peach tea.
The moment she saw Ming Shu, Wu Tong's expression instantly stiffened.
From the instant her shift started that morning, until that moment, Wu Tong had worn a somewhat foolish but sweet look on her face. When she smiled, people couldn't help but sigh and adore her. When she took on an aggrieved look, people couldn't bring themselves to blame her for anything.
But when her eyes met Ming Shu's, that foolish look on her face instantly disappeared. A genuine wave of shock spread through Wu Tong's eyes instead.
That subtle change in her expression didn't escape Ming Shu's notice.
"You're working here now?" Ming Shu asked as he approached Wu Tong, flashing a slight smile.
"Ah… are you here to see me?" Wu Tong's eyes were open wide, and her pupils were bright and clear.
People often said the eyes were the windows to the soul.
But the eyes didn't necessarily reflect the soul—as long as you were good at acting.
At small businesses like 'Jianjia Bailu', people were rarely hired through a very normal or strenuous process. When it came to the teachers, Shi Hanshan would still personally meet with them to make sure they were suitable for their roles. But when it came to smaller positions like the receptionist's job, anyone would do as long as they were pretty.
Shi Hanshan herself had already forgotten how Wu Tong started working there. It was only after being asked about it that she thought back and remembered Wu Tong was a distant relative of Liang Lu, one of the other investors.
Although they were distant relatives in name, Liang Lu didn't actually know much about Wu Tong.
"Their family is out in a little county, we haven't had much contact with them in many years," Liang Lu explained when asked. "After Chinese New Year's this year, my mom called me and said a little mei was going to be coming to Dongye City. She asked me to help the girl find a job, if it was convenient for me.
"Since we're family, it wouldn't have been good for me to not help at all. Wu Tong was still in elementary school the last time I saw her, so I really didn't have any impression of her at all anymore. But when I saw that she'd grown up into a pretty young woman, I figured she would be great as the receptionist at the business Hanshan and I were planning to launch.
"Hanshan was the one in charge of her, though. I'm only an investor, I don't get involved in the day-to-day operations of the business."
Shi Hanshan had started Wu Tong on a salary of around three thousand yuan. For a receptionist, this wasn't actually low, but it wasn't astronomically high either.
The cost of living in Dongye City was high, and rent was especially pricey. Wu Tong was renting an apartment in an old neighborhood along with a girl from a hair salon and an assistant manager from a manicure parlor. When she lost her job at 'Jianjia Bailu', Wu Tong had come away with a severance package. And with her pretty face, she'd very quickly found her next job at a milk tea shop.
Ming Shu had quickly discovered that she could very well be the 'blind spot' at 'Jianjia Bailu'.
During the preliminary stages of their investigation, the field work team had done some digging into Wu Tong. But they hadn't dug very deep. At the time, no one was clear on the motives of Sha Chun's killer, and Wu Tong looked so innocent and naive, to the point that she seemed a bit dumb. No one would have been able to imagine she could have anything to do with Sha Chun's death.
Even now, Ming Shu couldn't imagine what her motive might be.
But that instantaneous change in Wu Tong's expression did bring some suspicion to Ming Shu's mind. He wondered if that naive nature of hers was all an act.
"You guys haven't solved the case yet?" Wu Tong asked. "But I don't know anything, y'know."
"Do you mind if I pay you a visit at your home?" Ming Shu asked.
"Ah…" Wu Tong's face suddenly reddened. She lowered her voice to a delicate whisper and said, "Um, you're a man."
Ming Shu narrowed his eyes, and his expression grew more severe. "When it comes to investigations, gender doesn't matter."
A flash of what looked like fear crossed Wu Tong's face. Reluctantly, she said, "Then… then… okay."
Wu Tong's rental apartment was very close to 'Jianjia Bailu', located just two streets away. It was only fifteen minutes away on foot.
The old building didn't have an elevator, and the hallways were a little dark. As Ming Shu followed Wu Tong down the halls, he noticed a point of abnormality.
Wu Tong was a chatty girl who liked to talk a lot and smile a lot. That was how the people at 'Jianjia Bailu' described her, and that was the impression she'd left on Ming Shu after he met her for the first time during his investigation.
But on this trip back to her apartment, she rarely took the initiative to talk. She seemed to space out quite frequently, and her smile also seemed a little forced.
It felt like she'd been caught off-guard. Like she was trying to figure out how she was supposed to act.
While opening the door to her place, Wu Tong hesitated.
"What is it?" Ming Shu asked.
Wu Tong hurriedly shook her head. "It's just a little messy in there. I'll get changed in the bedroom first. Can you wait in the living room for me?"
"You change into your pajamas as soon as you get home?" Ming Shu asked.
"Pajamas are more comfortable, aren't they?"
As she spoke, the door opened. The sounds of an argument drifted out from inside. Upon closer inspection, Ming Shu discovered the noises were coming from someone's cell phone, which was playing a dramatic soap opera.
Meng Xue got up from the couch. She'd planned on waving to Wu Tong, but when she saw Ming Shu, she was so surprised that she covered her own mouth with her hand. "Tongtong, your boyfriend?"
"No, no!" Wu Tong hastily ducked into a bedroom on the left side of the apartment. Right before closing the door, she called back, "Just sit for a while, okay?"
Ming Shu couldn't exactly follow her into her room, so he took a look around the living room instead.
Meng Xue was the roommate who worked at a manicure parlor. It was her day off, and she'd stayed home. Their other roommate, Li Tianyue, was currently working at the hair salon where she was employed.
Ming Shu didn't take a seat. Instead, he strolled out onto the balcony.
The apartment was a three-bedroom unit with an open balcony. There were no plants out on the balcony; random articles of junk were piled up all over the place.
Ming Shu squatted down at one corner and brushed a finger over a stain on the wall.
That stain… looked like a splash of blood that had spurted up from below.