After Sha Chun's case was closed, the Serious Crimes Division focused the bulk of their attention and manpower on Wu Zhen's case.
Xiao Man had already determined that Wu Zhen's handwriting changed sometime in December of last year. That change in his handwriting indicated a change in his mood. During that time, Wu Zhen must have experienced some sort of huge psychological influence.
That 'mystery man' who hid in the shows, the 'university professor' Long Tianhao had spoken of, must have influenced Wu Zhen.
And based on the seemingly careless way that 'mystery man' chose potential targets for Sha Chun, it was likely that he had been just as careless with Wu Zhen. That man must have come into contact with many people besides Wu Zhen; Wu Zhen had simply been the 'seed' which saw the most successful germination.
The detectives could assume that Wu Zhen had killed a hard-working but ungifted person before approaching Sha Chun and other potential 'seeds'. He ultimately succeeded in passing the baton to Sha Chun and enticing her to help him 'commit suicide'.
So who did Wu Zhen kill?
"Sha Chun's death and Yu Xiaocheng's last-minute refusal to help her prove that this kind of domino effect is possible in theory, but not very feasible in reality. We can say that Wu Zhen successfully 'passed the baton' to Sha Chun, but did the person before him also succeed so smoothly in passing the baton to Wu Zhen?" Ming Shu mused.
Yi Fei twirled a pen between his fingers. "One possibility is that Wu Zhen was the first victim, and the other possibility is that there was at least one other victim before Wu Zhen. Director Xiao seems more inclined to believe the former. But regardless of which theory we go with, we don't have evidence to prove it."
Ming Shu furrowed his brow. "The first option is actually more complicated. If it's the latter, if Wu Zhen did kill someone, then he committed the crime between December of last year and April of this year."
"Wait!" Fang Yuanhang exclaimed. "Shouldn't it be December of last year and June of this year?"
Ming Shu shook his head. "Wu Zhen started attending classes at 'Jianjia Bailu' in April. If we use Sha Chun's case as our mold, we can presume that the 'mystery man' sent Wu Zhen to 'Jianjia Bailu' in order to let him make Sha Chun his 'target'. There's no problem with that logic, right?"
"Oh, I get it!" Fang Yuanhang instantly answered. "The 'mystery man' would have made sure Wu Zhen committed the crime first, or at least was about to commit the crime, before seeking out a target for Wu Zhen. If he acted too soon, his efforts could have all gone to waste. Since Wu Zhen started attending classes at 'Jianjia Bailu' in April, he must have killed before then."
"Mm," Ming Shu agreed. He started to pace in front of the conference table. "So, right now, besides looking into Wu Zhen's movements between December and April, we have a few other threads we can chase.
"First, there's the list of people who went missing between December of last year and April of this year. The list of unresolved homicide cases from that time period, from precincts around the city, is relevant as well.
"Second, we need to look into all the people Wu Zhen came into contact with between April of this year and the time of his death. It's actually very possible for us to find a break there. Wu Zhen spent nearly all his time holed up at his screenwriting company, writing. He rarely came into contact with new people, and his social circle was extremely small. The fact that he went out more during this period is an abnormality in and of itself.
"Third, Dongye City's University of Medicine—that's a point of interest for us too."
Yi Fei interjected there and added, "Our preliminary investigation into the University of Medicine hasn't yielded much. We've questioned students and staff about the person Long Tianhao described, but no one could remember seeing anyone like that on campus. The campus surveillance cameras have also given us nothing."
"This person is very familiar with the University of Medicine, he wouldn't have had any trouble hiding in the cameras' blind spots," Ming Shu said. "Long Tianhao did say that the portrait based on his description wasn't completely accurate. He couldn't put his finger on what looked off, but the sketch did resemble the man he remembered."
Yi Fei stroked his chin. "Which is to say… the fact that no one had any impression of the man in the portrait means that person changed his face when he met with Long Tianhao. He wore some sort of disguise, and it must have been a one-time disguise that he never used again.
"Other people must have seen him while he met with Long Tianhao, but maybe they only saw him once and didn't form a deep enough impression of him to remember him later. Or maybe our investigators just haven't found the people who'd glimpsed him yet."
Ming Shu gave the matter some thought. "Luo Yi of Jiulin Psychology would have been capable of disguising himself."
"I'm also very suspicious of Luo Yi," Yi Fei said. "He gave me the impression of being extremely mysterious and impenetrable. When he was questioned, he was completely calm. And it didn't feel like he was feigning that calm at all."
"Luo Yi is Chu Can's psychiatrist," Fang Yuanhang said. "And Chu Can is still dead set on insisting that Luo Yi was using him to get close to the Chu family. That would be a deep game to play. If Luo Yi were really trying to get into the Chu family's good graces, he wouldn't have time to play some game of 'dominoes', right?"
"Luo Yi is an extremely rational person, and the person hiding in the shadows of this case seems crazed. Based on that line of thinking, it would seem Luo Yi isn't a suspect at all." Yi Fei set down the pen in his hands. "But I still can't put him in the clear so easily."
When Chu Can's name came up, Ming Shu thought of Zhou Xi.
Chu Can had already confessed, and all the evidence was there. Chu Can was unquestionably Zhou Xi's killer.
Chu Can had also said that Zhou Xi's body had been burned at a factory on the outskirts of Nan District. Zhou Xi's body was nowhere to be found now. She'd died without leaving behind any hint of a trace.
There were similarities between her case and the case of the woman Xu Yin had spoken of.
"Captain Ming?" Yi Fei called out.
Ming Shu came back to his senses. "I'll keep an eye on Luo Yi. For now, start looking into the three threads I named earlier. Sha Chun's case has been solved. Everyone, just hang in there for a while longer and give this your all. As soon as we break this case, I'll ask Director Xiao to give you all a few days off."
Joining the Serious Crimes Division was a two-way ordeal—the division had to want you, and you had to want the division. The Serious Crimes Division always recruited outstanding people, but not every outstanding person wanted to join the Serious Crimes Division.
The reason was simple. The members of the Serious Crimes Division were constantly busy, and the pressure on them was always crushingly intense.
Without a drive to work hard, even the most outstanding detectives wouldn't choose the Serious Crimes Division. Once in a while, someone would join with a blazingly hot spirit, only to be broken after a case or two—beaten into an early retirement.
All the people who were left in the Serious Crimes Division now were extremely strong-willed. They were driven by their sense of justice and honor. Even if Ming Shu hadn't promised them a vacation, they would have charged into this case and given it all they had.
But Ming Shu was the captain, after all, and Xing Mu had been calling him 'boss this' and 'boss that' for years. Ming Shu had to at least say a little something to give his teammates some encouragement.
After that meeting, Xu Chun grabbed Ming Shu for a talk.
Ming Shu guessed right away that Xu Chun wanted to talk to him about Xiao Chun, the 'shadow' that had replaced Wu Tong.
"There's no Xiao family in Hongning Village, and no one ever lost a four-year-old girl named 'Xiao Chun'," Xu Chun said. "Xiao Chun said her parents were named Xiao Hu and Long Lianglian, but these two people don't exist. With regards to her origins… Xiao Chun is lying."
Ming Shu had anticipated that possibility. Xiao Chun could allegedly remember her own birth name, her own birthdate, her parents' names, and her hometown—and she'd seemed desperate to meet her birth parents.
If all that were true, then why hadn't Xiao Chun simply gone looking for her birth parents on her own?
Xiao Chun was a murderer, and her psychological state was distorted to say the least. If she had been too ashamed to face her parents, that would have been understandable. But since she wanted to see them so badly, she could have at least snuck out to peek at them from afar, right?
But Xiao Chun had left Wancui Village and gone straight to Dongye City without making any effort to find her real parents once she was free. Now, she seemed to be hoping that the police would find her real parents for her. The logic didn't quite track.
"Her official documents are a mess. Xiao Chun—let's just keep calling her Xiao Chun for now, whether or not that's her real name. When she was around four years old, she was abducted and brought to Wancui Village. But now, Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia are both dead. Unless Xiao Chun tells us the truth, it'll be next to impossible for us to determine her true identity," Xu Chun said, scratching at his head. "I really can't figure this out."
Ming Shu folded his arms. "Hm?"
"Well, why would Xiao Chun tell a lie like this?" Xu Chun asked. "I kept getting distracted by this question during the meeting earlier. What is Xiao Chun trying to accomplish by telling a lie like that? Is she just messing with us for fun? She killed three people. The evidence against her is all laid out in front of us. A lie like this wouldn't get her off the hook. Telling this lie doesn't do her or us any good. It's just too weird."
Ming Shu lowered his head and looked at the notebook in his hand. He sank into thought for a while before he said, "Maybe she didn't deceive us on purpose."
Xu Chun shook his head. "Lying is lying. Does it matter whether she did it on purpose or not?"
"Xiao Chun was abducted at the age of four. Kids that young don't usually have extremely clear memories, but she remembered her parents' names and the name of her hometown with perfect clarity," Ming Shu said. "There's one possibility—maybe Xiao Chun has forgotten her own birth name and identity a long time ago. She said so herself, didn't she? She sometimes believed she was the real Wu Tong."
"She forgot her true identity. She used her imagination to give herself a name, parents, and a home. All to give herself some peace of mind."
Upon learning the police were unable to find her parents, Xiao Chun looked disappointed at first. Then a little angry, then stunned. Finally, she simply shook her head.
"Xiao Chun isn't your real name," Ming Shu said. "And Hongning Village isn't your real hometown. Xiao Hu and Long Lianglian aren't your real parents, either. These are all figments of your imagination, aren't they?"
After a long while, Xiao Chun nodded. "I'm sorry. Sometimes I can't distinguish between fiction and reality. I only really remember that my name had a character pronounced 'chun' in it, and my mom would often call me 'Chunchun'… but I don't know if it's the 'chun' that means pure or the 'chun' from sweet wine. Maybe it's another character altogether. Maybe I'm remembering that wrong too…"
Xiao Chun paused again before taking a breath. "I'm an unregistered resident through and through, aren't I? I have no past, and I have no future. My real parents can't find me, and I can't remember them."
Finding the parents of a person who had killed three people wasn't the Serious Crimes Division's job, and Ming Shu didn't have time to devote to Xiao Chun. But when he was faced with such a hateful and pitiful person, he couldn't leave right away.
"I thought you wouldn't actually try to help me," Xiao Chun said, suddenly smiling. "I'm a killer, and I didn't kill just one person. Your job is to catch me. Finding my parents isn't important at all, but you guys still tried to help me find them. Even though… even though it was all for nothing."
"What are you trying to say?" Ming Shu asked.
"The result isn't important. If you can't find them, just forget it. But at least you looked," Xiao Chun said. "Thank you for helping me. In return, I want to help you with something."
"Wu Zhen?" Ming Shu asked.
Xiao Chun nodded. "Yes."
A camera was pointed at Xiao Chun, recording every single one of her words and every shift in her expression as she spoke.
"After I bugged Sha Chun's classroom, I learned of the secret she and Wu Zhen shared. I was pretty familiar with Sha Chun. I knew she was a member of the Performing Arts Association. But I basically didn't know anything about Wu Zhen," Xiao Chun said. "When Wu Zhen first asked Sha Chun to help him kill himself, I was honestly shocked. I killed Wu Shoulian and Wang Aixia because they deserved to die, because that was my revenge. But what was Wu Zhen trying to accomplish? Isn't it crazy for him to ask someone else to kill him, and to expect that person to find someone else to continue the chain?"
"So you became intensely interested in Wu Zhen," Ming Shu said. "You wanted to understand him?"
"Yes," Xiao Chun said. "Back then, I only knew that Wu Zhen was a screenwriter. I didn't know much else. So I looked into him, and I followed him."
Ming Shu's eyes gradually darkened.
It wasn't terribly easy to find out where a person had gone and who they'd spoken to half a year ago, especially since Wu Zhen and Sha Chun were both dead. Whatever Xiao Chun had to say could play a critical role in their case.
Xiao Chun stopped for a moment, then suddenly said, "I don't know if you'll believe me or not. I'm not telling you these things to earn goodwill from you or the police. It's just because you helped me. When someone deserves my vengeance, I take revenge. When someone shows me kindness, I pay back the favor. I don't want to owe you anything."
Ming Shu met her gaze. "Just tell me the truth."
Xiao Chun nodded. "I discovered Wu Zhen was actually a pretty articulate person. He looked really wooden and dull, but he wasn't like that. He talked to Sha Chun at 'Jianjia Bailu', and he met with other people in other places as well."
"Which other people? Which other places?" Ming Shu asked.
"A female student at the University of Medicine here in Dongye City. She was a second year back then, but she should be a third year by now. Her surname is Wang. I don't know her full name. She was a journalism major."
Ming Shu raised his eyebrows. "Journalism major? At the University of Medicine?"
"Yes, she was majoring in journalism," Xiao Chun confirmed. "I thought it was strange too. Why does a University of Medicine have a journalism major?"
But that wasn't the point that had caught Ming Shu's attention.
Xiao Chun may not have been overly familiar with the state of the universities in the country, but Ming Shu had a general understanding of their structure.
At highly specialized universities like the University of Medicine, most people who majored in seemingly random and insignificant subjects were people who had failed to get into their desired field of choice. They'd had no choice but to take up a different major, in order to attend the school they'd set their sights on.
Studying journalism at the University of Medicine fit that mold. This student with the surname Wang most likely applied to a more competitive major, but didn't score well enough on her entrance exams to get into that field.
Compared to other students at the same university, she may have felt more like Wu Zhen and Sha Chun. That may have painted her as a viable 'target' for Wu Zhen, provided by the mystery man in the shadows.
After confirming that detail, Ming Shu asked, "Besides this Wang student, who else did Wu Zhen meet with?"
"An employee at 'Beautiful Homes'. I do know this person's name," Xiao Chun said. "Luo Ganfeng."
"Which 'Beautiful Homes'?" Ming Shu asked.
'Beautiful Homes' was a real estate company with offices all over the nation. In Dongye City alone, they had more than ten locations.
"The one on Caiye Street," Xiao Chun said.
Instantly, a new revelation came to Ming Shu—last year, after struggling fruitlessly with his work for many years, Wu Zhen had shifted his focus from writing film and television scripts. He'd started focusing on writing short promotional scripts for government and publicity agencies instead.
Many of these short, commercial sketches required the screenwriter to be on set while filming, in case changes needed to be made in the process. Wu Zhen could very well have met Luo Ganfeng and this Wang student while working.
Did that 'mystery man' have the ability to influence the direction of Wu Zhen's work?
"That's all I can remember," Xiao Chun said with a shrug. "If you want to believe me, a murderer, then you can go check it out. If not, just treat my words as nonsense."
"Wait, I still have a question," Ming Shu said. "Did Wu Zhen ever say anything about sodium cyanide?"
Xiao Chun furrowed her brows for a moment, then shook her head.
"Alright." Ming Shu got up. "Thank you for the lead."
Xiao Chun opened her mouth for a moment, then suddenly laughed. "I never imagined anyone would thank me at a time like this."
After leaving the interrogation room, Ming Shu adjusted some of his orders to the team members working on this case. He dispatched a group to the University of Medicine to search for a third-year student with the surname Wang, while he personally went out to the 'Beautiful Homes' office on Caiye Street.
"You're looking for Luo Ganfeng?" asked the manager, whose surname was also Luo. "He quit in May of this year."
Luo Ganfeng's phone number and address were listed in his employee records. Ming Shu jotted them down, then asked, "Why did Luo Ganfeng resign?"
"That…" Manager Luo seemed a little reluctant to answer.
Ming Shu noticed a wall full of photos recognizing highly accomplished employees. Among the star employees of the first quarter of that year was Luo Ganfeng.
"It couldn't have been due to substandard work performance, right?" Ming Shu asked, turning back to the manager.
Manager Luo sighed. "If Little Luo was substandard, then none of us would meet that standard either. He… ah, his expectations were just too high. He was too hard on himself!"
The dam had burst; the rest of the conversation would flow smoothly.
"Isn't that the ideal employee type for middle management like you?" Ming Shu asked.
"On a personal level, I really appreciated him. But he worked too hard. It was over the top," Manager Luo said. "We're not in a great area here, our business is only ever so-so. Even if Little Luo worked like his life depended on it, there was a limit to what he could accomplish.
"I've talked to him about it several times. I told him again and again to just relax a little, to ease up on his expectations for himself. He always said he would, but he never actually changed. He still believed he was useless."
Ming Shu murmured under his breath, "Believed he was useless…"
That meant he did indeed fall into the same category as Wu Zhen and Sha Chun.
"In order to help him lighten up a bit, I gave him the job of getting a promotional video shot for us," Manager Luo continued. "But I don't know what happened. After getting the video shot, he seemed to become even more depressed. And not long after that, he quit."
"Who did he work with?" Ming Shu instantly asked.
Manager Luo didn't seem to know off the top of his head. He had to look into their records before he answered, "A company called Lightflow Media."
Ming Shu looked through their records as well, and he saw that Luo Ganfeng's contact at Lightflow was the screenwriter Wu Zhen.
After making that discovery, Ming Shu instantly called Luo Ganfeng, but his cell phone had been disconnected a long time ago. When Fang Yuanhang rushed out to Luo Ganfeng's address, he learned from the landlord that Luo Ganfeng had moved out much earlier—in the first half of that year.
Luo Ganfeng hadn't even given the landlord any warning. He'd simply disappeared without asking for his security deposit or the two extra months of rent he'd paid.
At almost the exact same time, the team that had been sent to the University of Medicine found the only female journalism major with the surname Wang—a young woman named Wang Ying.
"I know Mr. Wu," Wang Ying said when questioned by the police. She seemed a little shifty and evasive as she faced them. "In my second year, the university's publicity department asked me to make a short film about campus life. We worked with Lightflow Media, and I met with Mr. Wu a few times."
Judging by Wang Ying's reaction, she didn't yet know that Wu Zhen had died.
"What did you guys talk about?" Yi Fei asked.
"Talk… talk about…" Wang Ying echoed, stammering a little. As the vice president of the campus publicity department, she shouldn't have had so much trouble speaking. "We just talked about the script. Our journalism and writing departments work together closely, so we could say we're more or less in the same field as Wu-laoshi."
Yi Fei studied Wang Ying for a moment before he suddenly said, "It wasn't just that, was it?"
Wang Ying could barely bring herself to meet Yi Fei's gaze. She ducked her head, and her eyes darted this way or that. "It really was just that."
Yi Fei had already reviewed her academic history and entrance exam results. As Ming Shu had expected, Wang Ying had indeed been shuffled off into the journalism department after failing to get into her desired major. Her entrance exam scores fell more than twenty points short of qualifying her for the pharmaceutical major she'd wanted, and the university's journalism major was the one with the lowest entrance exam score requirement.
But even in a major like that, Wang Ying's grades weren't stellar. She still hovered in the middle and lower levels of her class rank.
"Wu Zhen said to you," Yi Fei continued, "that a person without talent has nothing. And hard work only makes a person who has nothing… lose even more."
Wang Ying jerked her head up and stared at Yi Fei with an incredulous look on her face. Her mouth opened and closed several times before she finally said, "You… how did you know?"
Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Xu Yin once again 'escaped' from the Psychological Research Center and ran over to the Serious Crimes Division.
Xiao Yu'an stood before her, gazing down at her.
Xu Yin warily took two steps back, but she didn't evade Xiao Yu'an's gaze. "Who are you?"
Xiao Yu'an knew this was the girl who loved the stench of corpse rot. But he still echoed, "Who are you?"
Xu Yin gulped and quietly whispered, "I want to see Ming Shu."
"Oh?" Xiao Yu'an hummed patiently. "Captain Ming isn't here. What do you want to see him about?"
Xu Yin stood there, frozen for a few seconds, before she said, "I want to ask him… has he found the jiejie who died yet?"