Hexiang County, Wancui Village.
Autumn was coming. The air was thick with the scent of osmanthus flowers and burning charcoal.
"The Wu family, huh? They moved away ages ago." A village official stood in the courtyard of a house that had been vacated several months earlier. He pointed inside and continued, "This is where they used to live."
"They moved?" Xu Chun echoed. "When?"
"Beginning of this year, around Chinese New Year's, I think," the village official said.
Wu Tong's family consisted of three people, and Wu Tong was the only one who currently lived in Dongye City. Since her parents weren't actually at Wancui Village, where could they have gone?
And a whole family moving together during Chinese New Year's… that was beyond strange.
Instantly, Xu Chun asked, "Do you know where the Wu family moved to?"
"Of course, of course! We were all jealous as hell!" The village official chuckled and breathed out a lungful of cigarette smoke. "They've got a relative who's a big boss in a big city, and they were invited out there to help with some work. Ai, the city is so great. You can easily make thousands of yuan in just one month! Before they left, they even invited us over for a dinner party!"
Working for a relative in the city? That wasn't true!
Xu Chun reacted quickly to this information—Wu Tong really had gotten her distant relative, Liang Lu, to help her find work in the city. But Liang Lu wasn't actually a 'big boss'. She couldn't possibly have invited Wu Tong's whole family out to the city to work. Plus, Wu Tong's parents—Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia—weren't currently with Wu Tong.
There was only one possibility.
Something had happened to the Wu family.
Xu Chun immediately asked the village official to summon the village chief, and he sent his own team of detectives to go door-to-door, asking about the Wu family's circumstances. Very quickly, they learned something shocking—the Wu Tong in Dongye City wasn't the real Wu Tong.
The real Wu Tong had died when she was seven years old.
The Wu family had been farmers for several generations, and Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had had trouble conceiving. They didn't have Wu Tong—the real Wu Tong—until they were nearly in their forties.
Wu Tong had been born prematurely, and her mother had been at a relatively advanced age during her pregnancy. As a result, Wu Tong had been frail and sickly ever since her birth.
This child was precious to Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia. When Wu Tong was four years old, her parents took advice from a fortune teller—they abducted a girl who was the same age as Wu Tong and raised her as a means of 'replenishing' Wu Tong's life.
This supposed 'replenishment' was done by raising the girl like livestock. They called that girl Wu Tong as well, and they raised her as the real Wu Tong's shadow. Whenever the real Wu Tong fell ill, her parents would hire the fortune teller to 'transfer' her sickness to the 'shadow'.
The shadow had to suffer. It was only when the shadow experienced pain that the 'transfer' could be considered a success.
While performing the 'transfer', the fortune teller would often hang the girl upside down and prick her with needles, beat her with whips, and even cut into her with knives.
When the girl cried out and wailed in pain, the fortune teller would tell the real Wu Tong's parents, "The malignant spirits have left Wu Tong. They've been absorbed by her shadow."
This practice wasn't a secret in the village, and none of the other villagers considered the Wu family's actions a crime.
The 'shadow' was chained to the front of the Wu family's house, living a life that was no different from that of a dog.
Ultimately, the fortune teller's methods couldn't save the real Wu Tong's life. After the real Wu Tong passed away from illness, the 'shadow' became the Wu family's only child.
According to the fortune teller, this girl now possessed a 'shard' of Wu Tong's soul. He advised the Wu parents to treat this girl as the real Wu Tong.
While suffering the immense grief of losing his daughter, Wu Shoulian took the fortune teller's advice. He unlocked the shackles on the 'shadow' girl's wrists and ankles, and he formally began to call her Wu Tong.
All those years ago, the system for collecting information on households in places like Wancui Village was rather old and imperfect. The 'shadow' had been an undocumented resident; upon inheriting Wu Tong's name, she also inherited Wu Tong's identity.
She was Wu Tong, through and through.
Xu Chun immediately reported his findings to the Public Security Bureau in Hexiang County, then contacted Ming Shu as well.
"The Wu family doesn't have any relatives they can depend on in the city. Whatever the villagers heard was a complete and utter lie," Ming Shu said. "Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had no reason to leave Wancui Village, and now Wu Tong is living alone.
"The most likely explanation… is that Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia didn't leave Wancui Village at all. They died a long time ago."
"I agree," Xu Chun said. "We found a lot of rusted chains here at the Wu family's house, which had probably been used to lock Wu Tong up all those years ago. She was abused starting from the age of four, and at the age of seven she was forced to become a replacement for someone who'd passed away.
"If I were her, I don't know how deep my hatred for the Wu family would run."
Ming Shu leaned against a wall and paused for a few seconds before he said, "And there's no telling how twisted her mind has become."
"Then I'll stay here for the time being and help the Hexiang County Bureau investigate this case," Xu Chun said. "I'll report back to you right away if there are any new developments."
"Thanks for your hard work," Ming Shu said.
Wu Tong sat in an interrogation room, softly humming a tune under her breath. Her face truly was sweet and innocent. When she cocked her head and fixed her naive gaze on someone, she could so easily melt anyone's heart.
"Sha Chun and Wu Tong were very similar, weren't they?" Ming Shu started.
The humming abruptly stopped. Wu Tong froze, not moving a muscle. She gazed at Ming Shu like she was a delicate porcelain doll.
For a long while now, Ming Shu had thought that Wu Tong reminded him of something. But he'd never been able to find the right words to describe it.
Now, after learning of the circumstances of the Wu family, a word suddenly took shape inside his mind.
Wu Tong was like a mannequin. She had a name and an identity, but she lacked a soul of her own.
Light flashed through Wu Tong's big eyes. In an incredibly bizarre tone, she echoed, "Wu… Tong?"
Ming Shu saw the doubt that surfaced in Wu Tong's eyes. But this doubt was, surprisingly enough, unlike the naivety she wore. This doubt was genuine.
"I'm Wu Tong," she said.
"Then who are Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia?" Ming Shu asked.
Upon hearing those two names, Wu Tong's expression instantly twisted with fierce disgust. "They're my parents."
"And where are they right now?"
Wu Tong lowered her head. "They're in my hometown, of course."
"But there's no one there. There's no one at your home, in your hometown."
Wu Tong was silent.
After letting that silence drag on for a moment, Ming Shu said, "Around Chinese New Year's of this year, the Wu family told their neighbors that they would be coming to the city to meet up with their relatives. Why is it that you were the only one to arrive? Where are your parents?"
"They…" Wu Tong was clearly uneasy. "I don't know."
"No, you do know," Ming Shu corrected. "Besides you, no one knows where your parents are."
Wu Tong's chest rose sharply with a harsh inhale. The disgust on her face contorted into a hateful scowl. "What exactly do you want to ask me?"
Ming Shu leveled a solemn look at her. His voice was powerful and clear as he declared, "I'm asking if you killed Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia. I'm asking if you killed Sha Chun, who was so like the real Wu Tong!"
Wu Tong's jaw was slack. Half a minute later, her lips curled with a twisted smile. "I didn't. I'm Wu Tong. I have an ID. Do you want to see it?"
"If I can find your parents," Ming Shu began suddenly, "would you want to see them?"
Wu Tong's smile froze on her face. Her delicate face trembled slightly. "I…"
"You can take your time to think about that." Ming Shu stood up and slid his chair back in, under the table. "The truth comes to light in every case I investigate."
Wu Tong was the killer. There was no doubt about that anymore. But their chain of evidence was still incomplete. The investigation would have to continue.
Ming Shu rushed out to Wu Tong's apartment again. Once again, he noticed that rectangular rug at the entrance to her bedroom.
"The clothes Wu Tong wore while committing the crime are our most important piece of evidence. There would definitely be key traces of evidence left on those articles of clothing. If Wu Tong has disposed of them, that makes things a lot more difficult for us," Xiao Man said. "But the disposal of those clothes in and of itself counts as a piece of indirect evidence."
Ming Shu stooped down and put on a pair of gloves. He asked Xiao Man for a large evidence bag and slipped the rug inside.
Wu Tong, Meng Xue, and Li Tianyue were all in the habit of wearing their shoes in the living room. They treated that as a public area. Their indoor slippers were placed inside their own bedrooms.
"Take this rug back for a detailed analysis," Ming Shu said. "Wu Tong had to have passed this rug on her way back. Even if she disposed of the clothes she wore while committing the crime, she didn't dispose of this rug. That was an oversight on her part."
Xiao Man instantly understood Ming Shu's meaning. "The soil on the soles of her shoes would have gotten onto the rug!"
After visiting Wu Tong's home, Ming Shu instantly rushed out to the precinct in Nan District, where he asked for the public surveillance footage from August 24th.
According to Li Tianyue, Wu Tong returned to their apartment early in the morning on the 24th. That meant that after killing Sha Chun and disposing of the body, Wu Tong most likely hid out at the Performing Arts Association before taking a cab or bus back to Dong District.
Every public transport station was equipped with monitoring equipment, which meant it was unlikely that Wu Tong took a bus home. But any car or cab that drove down Nanye Boulevard, where the Performing Arts Association was located, could have picked Wu Tong up.
Investigating this lead would take a lot of manpower. The detectives at the Nan District precinct were all eager to offer their help, and Ming Shu knew exactly why that was—by taking the Chu Can case off their hands, Xiao Yu'an had drastically reduced the pressure on them.
Elsewhere, Hexiang County had already launched an investigation into Wancui Village.
Xu Chun spoke to many, many villagers to confirm that the Wu family had hosted a dinner party on the twelfth of the first lunar month. And to confirm that, at that dinner party, Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had been alive.
"Actually, I didn't see much of Wu Shoulian or Wang Aixia around New Year's," said Ou Chunxiang, a neighbor of the Wu family. "It was Wu Tong who came to my house and said they were going to move, and she was the one who invited me over for a meal."
"You didn't actually see either Wu Shoulian or Wang Aixia during the dinner party?" Xu Chun asked.
"I…" Ou Chunxiang scratched his head. "I can't remember. I probably saw them, right? They were hosting a party at their house, so of course they had to be home."
Many other villagers gave answers similar to Ou Chunxiang's.
A possibility instantly occurred to Xu Chun—at the time of the Wu family's banquet, Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had already been killed. Wu Tong had told everyone their family would be moving, and had even hosted a dinner party, all to create the pretense that her parents were still alive.
Chinese New Year's was a very convenient time for her to act. Every family was busy with their own celebrations. At a dinner party, with all the food set out for the guests, everyone would simply eat to their heart's content. If anyone asked where Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia were, their absence could easily have been covered up with various excuses, like—
They're cooking in the back.
They're having drinks with Uncle Wang and Uncle Li.
"I went out of my way to look for Aixia that day. We've been friends for countless years, after all. But I didn't see her at all," said one of the villagers, Chen Qicui, with a miserable expression.
"Then why did you believe Wang Aixia was home the day the Wu family had that dinner party?" Xu Chun asked.
"I…" Chen Qicui gave that some thought before answering, "I heard Wu Tong call out for her mom."
Xu Chun finally came to a critical realization.
People were very easily fooled by appearances. They could easily be bamboozled by staged pretenses.
When Wu Tong told the villagers that she and her parents would be going into the city to seek the support of their wealthy relatives, the villagers had believed her. Then, during the Wu family's dinner party, even if Wu Tong was the only one chatting with guests in the courtyard, she could simply shout back into the house a few times—"Mom, is the chicken ready?" or "Dad, we're running out of beer!"—to give visitors the impression that Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia were home.
This was obviously a risky move, but Wu Tong had succeeded. Half a year had passed, and no one in Wancui Village knew that Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia were long dead.
The police from Hexiang County were efficient. The same day Xu Chun contacted them, they found traces of the crime in the Wu family's home—the floorboards in the living room were marred with many scars from a knife, and small bloodstains remained in those cracks.
Furthermore, practically the whole floor reacted to a luminol test.
Captain Liu, who was in charge of the case, said to Xu Chun, "This is very likely the scene of the murder."
"All these scratch marks… there are so many. She probably chopped up the bodies here," Xu Chun mused.
When he thought back to Wu Tong's innocent face, he found it hard to believe that a girl like that would be capable of a gruesome thing like this. But then, when he thought of all the suffering she'd endured as a child, he realized it wasn't that impossible after all.
Wu Tong only looked naive. In truth, there was no trace of humanity left within her.
And because there was no humanity, all that remained was an empty shell. That was what enabled Wu Tong to put on that innocent, airheaded act. That was what allowed her to fool everyone.
That night, police dogs found a pile of buried body parts in the northern corner of Wancui Village.
The corpse parts were badly decomposed, but they could be roughly assembled into two complete bodies.
However, the forensic investigators determined, from the decay of the legs, that the killer had scraped off some flesh from the legs while cutting up the bodies.
The corpses had been cut up, and the pieces were badly decayed. It wasn't easy to determine a cause of death. But based on a preliminary examination of wounds around the throat, the forensic investigators were fairly sure strangulation was the most probable cause of death.
There was one thing that stumped Xu Chun. Strangulation was no easy feat. If Wu Tong wanted to kill Wu Shoulian, Wang Aixia, and Sha Chun, she could have chosen from many methods. Why strangulation?
Sha Chun had also died of mechanical asphyxiation, inflicted by strangulation.
What was the reason for Wu Tong's obsession with strangulation?
"You guys found the chains used to bind Wu Tong in the Wu family's yard, right?" Ming Shu closed his eyes and thought for a while after receiving Xu Chun's latest report. "The real Wu Tong died such a long time ago, and there was no need for the 'current' Wu Tong to be chained up after that. So why were the chains still at the Wu family's house? Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had no reason to keep them."
"Then it was Wu Tong?" Xu Chun asked. "Wu Tong was the one who deliberately kept the chains?"
"It's very hard for outsiders to imagine the extent of Wu Tong's childhood suffering. She was chained up, and she was whipped. She could very well have a phobia of rope-like objects, such as chains and whips," Ming Shu said. "And they're associated with her most hated memories.
"Maybe she kept the chains so that she would never forget her hatred or the suffering she endured. Maybe they were her reminder to, one day, seek revenge."
"I get it." Xu Chun was smoking. He squinted against the smoke that filled the air before his eyes. "Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia used chains to imprison her. She wanted to use something similar to kill them."
"That would also explain why Sha Chun was killed by strangulation," Ming Shu said.
Xu Chun let out a long sigh. "How are things going with the investigation on your end? I'll head back right away."
Ming Shu was still at the precinct in Nan District. "Don't worry. Our chain of evidence will soon be complete."
Xiao Man's investigative prowess couldn't match up to Ming Shu's, but he was more adept in various technical aspects of their field. After a thorough analysis, he was able to find a key piece of evidence in the rug from Wu Tong's home—the rug in front of Wu Tong's bedroom was stained by mud that was identical to the mud surrounding the place where Sha Chun's body had been discovered.
Soon after that analysis report came out, the Nan District police managed to find, through careful scrutiny of the relevant security footage, a driver named Yang Qiuyong.
Yang Qiuyong was an unlicensed cab driver in Nan District. He'd already modified his car to look just like a taxi on the inside. There was a partition between the front and back seats, and he'd installed a camera in the car as well.
The camera captured the exact moments of Wu Tong getting in and out of the car.
On August 24th, at 5:49 in the morning, she boarded Yang Qiuyong's car from a street corner while wearing a black t-shirt, dark blue jeans, and a backpack. She sat on the right side in the back. At 6:27, she paid in cash and disembarked at Xingzhao Road in Dong District.
Xingzhao Road was approximately four kilometers away from Wu Tong's apartment. It would have been difficult for the police to track her there.
Ming Shu faced Wu Tong once more.
After her feigned naivety faded, Wu Tong was surprisingly even more beautiful than before. But there was no anger in her beauty. She seemed to be nothing more than a pale, hollow shell.
"The police from Hexiang County have already found your parents…" Ming Shu paused and seemed to reconsider his words. "They found the bodies of Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia, and they've confirmed that the Wu family's home was the primary scene of the crime."
Wu Tong blinked a few times, but she didn't speak.
"They died of mechanical asphyxiation. You used the chains that once imprisoned you to complete your revenge." Ming Shu's tone was warm and gentle. It didn't sound like he was speaking to someone who had murdered three people at all. "Wu Tong, are you satisfied?"
Still, Wu Tong didn't respond.
Ming Shu watched her for a moment. "No, you aren't."
Wu Tong's expression finally changed. It was like she wanted to say something, but she still didn't open her mouth right away.
"How could you possibly be satisfied?" Ming Shu continued. "How could you be satisfied before seeking revenge on the person who caused your lifetime of suffering?"
Wu Tong's long, slender neck grew slightly more tense.
"You were living happily with your family when you were snatched away at a young age. Then you were tormented and treated inhumanely until you were seven. After that, you were treated better, but the real you had already died," Ming Shu said. "You were used as a shadow to 'replenish' someone else, and then you were used as that person's replacement.
"In your heart, the vilest person isn't that old fortune teller. It isn't Wu Shoulian or Wang Aixia. It's the real Wu Tong, isn't it?"
Wu Tong suddenly sucked in a sharp breath, then started to tremble.
Ming Shu continued, "But she's already dead. You had no way of seeking revenge against her. This year, around Chinese New Year's, you killed Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia. You thought, with that, you would be able to excise your anger and start a new life.
"Your plans were nearly perfect, to the point that no one in Wancui Village even realized Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia had died. But when you started your new life, you realized—you had no way of letting go of the past. If you didn't kill Wu Tong with your own hands, you would never be able to let go."
Wu Tong lowered her head and pursed her lips before slurring some incomprehensible words.
"You took some pleasure in dismembering Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia," Ming Shu said. "So you chased that thrill by butchering chickens, and even killing stray dogs from your neighborhood. They were all substitutes for the real Wu Tong.
"But the sensation of killing small animals couldn't match up to the sensation of killing a human being. So when you discovered the secret Sha Chun had shared with Yu Xiaocheng, Sha Chun became your target. Your substitute."
Wu Tong finally opened her mouth and said, "Yes. I killed Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia. I also killed Sha Chun."
After saying those words, Wu Tong suddenly fell silent again.
Ming Shu waited for her to continue.
It was a long while before Wu Tong's eyebrows twitched, almost imperceptibly. A peculiar light filled her eyes.
"You said you would help me find my parents," she murmured. "I confess my guilt. I'll admit to everything. Can you really allow me to see my parents once, before I die?"