Nine years ago, the forty-year-old Qin Guoxing died unexpectedly in a laboratory on the campus of the University of Medicine. Trace evidence on the scene and nearby surveillance footage proved Qin Guoxing had been alone in the lab prior to his death. Forensics determined the cause of death to be sodium cyanide poisoning—a suicide.
To a pharmacology lecturer, obtaining sodium cyanide would be an extremely easy matter. But Qin Guoxing's death had caused quite a heated discussion back when it happened, because Qin Guoxing's appearance had changed rather drastically shortly before his death. And after death, he was even more unrecognizable.
However, DNA tests proved that there was no mistake. The person who'd died of sodium cyanide poisoning was none other than Qin Guoxing.
At the time of that case, Ming Shu had yet to come to Dongye City. It wasn't a very complicated case, either. The Dong District precinct resolved it on their own without having to escalate it to the Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Why Qin Guoxing would commit suicide became a hot topic at the University of Medicine for a while, particularly within the School of Pharmacology.
Some claimed it was because Qin Guoxing's career wasn't progressing smoothly. He had no room for advancement.
Qin Guoxing had been born in a rural village in the southeast. He'd attended a no-name medical school, but his grades were exceptional. He was able to attend Dongye City's University of Medicine for his postgraduate studies. There, he earned his master's and doctorate degrees before going on to teach first- and second-year undergraduates at the same university. His future seemed promising.
But he never advanced in his career, even when he entered his forties. Qin Guoxing was still teaching basic, introductory classes to undergrads. His published papers were few and far between. His research yielded almost no results. He couldn't get a promotion, and his superiors wouldn't award him important grants.
As he grew older and older, he saw more and more young lecturers and professors enter the university. He gradually lost his will to fight. His superiors didn't value him, his students didn't like him, and the pressure and despair in his life were building. Ultimately, he decided to commit suicide.
Others claimed Qin Guoxing's death was a result of a failure in a private experiment with psychotropic drugs.
These rumors theorized that Qin Guoxing's appearance had changed shortly before his death due to drug abuse. Qin Guoxing's autopsy report and tox screen showed that he had frequently consumed large quantities of hallucinogens in the six months prior to his death. These drugs had severely damaged his liver and kidneys.
The most plausible explanation, when following this line of thinking, would be that Qin Guoxing had been illegally experimenting on himself in the process of trying to research new drugs. His research ended in failure, and his body was starting to shut down as well. He was left with no choice but to end his own life.
Too much time had passed since that case. Nine years ago, criminal investigation techniques were nowhere near as advanced as they were now.
After reviewing the old case files and gaining a preliminary understanding of Qin Guoxing's death, Ming Shu felt his temples spasm a few times. He didn't speak for a long while.
"Luo Ganfeng's testimony and actions are quite believable. There are no glaring holes in his story," Xiao Yu'an said. "Wu Zhen wanted to convince Luo Ganfeng to join him in his plans. In order to sway him, he told Luo Ganfeng about the esteemed professor 'Qin Guoxing', who'd allegedly committed suicide. This is perfectly rational.
"This professor Qin Guoxing is one and the same as the Qin Guoxing from this old case, but the real Qin Guoxing was only a lecturer. And he committed suicide nine years ago. So who was the person who'd died at Wu Zhen's hands?"
"Before we found out Qin Guoxing had died years ago, I suspected that the professor Luo Ganfeng spoke of could be the man in the shadows," Ming Shu said. He spoke slowly, pausing every now and then for thought. "A professor from the University of Medicine, even a professor who doesn't work in psychology, could potentially influence ordinary people like Wu Zhen. Let me propose a theory—"
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Go ahead."
"When investigating the Sha Chun case, we already theorized that the 'mystery man' cast a wide net," Ming Shu said. "He waited for his 'seeds' to influence one another and sprout on their own. As long as one of his many seeds germinated, his goal would be achieved. It feels a lot like an experiment.
"If Wu Zhen was Qin Guoxing's first 'seed' that sprouted, Qin Guoxing must have carefully cultivated him. And how would he do that? He would of course have to approach Wu Zhen in person, personally directing and manipulating his way of thinking. And his ultimate goal would have been to convince Wu Zhen to enter their death pact.
"With that, Wu Zhen would become the first 'seed' to sprout. Wu Zhen would then go on to influence other people while Qin Guoxing hid in the shadows, pushing targets like Sha Chun and Wang Ying into Wu Zhen's life. After Wu Zhen made his choice and passed the baton to Sha Chun, Qin Guoxing provided Sha Chun with new 'seeds'—Long Tianhao, Yu Xiaocheng, Wen He.
"If Yu Xiaocheng hadn't changed his mind halfway through the plan, if Xiao Chun hadn't interfered… this experiment might have continued."
"According to your theory, Qin Guoxing faked his death for Wu Zhen," Xiao Yu'an said. "Wu Zhen died of sodium cyanide poisoning, and Xiao Chun alleged that Sha Chun didn't kill Wu Zhen—Wu Zhen killed himself. The dead can't testify, so for now there's no harm in believing Xiao Chun's allegations.
"If we follow that logic back some more, then we can say there's a very high probability that Wu Zhen also didn't kill Qin Guoxing. Just like Sha Chun, he only helped dispose of Qin Guoxing's body."
"And the Qin Guoxing he met wasn't genuinely a 'desperate' person at the end of their rope," Ming Shu said.
"So the body that Wu Zhen saw and helped dispose of had only been made to look like Qin Guoxing's corpse." Xiao Yu'an lightly tapped his fingers against a folder. "Qin Guoxing killed a man who looked like him, in order to use the corpse in his experiments. Wu Zhen only thought Qin Guoxing was dead. In reality, Qin Guoxing was still alive and well, searching for his next targets from the shadows."
Ming Shu was silent for a moment. "Director Xiao, are there any obvious holes in my theory?"
Xiao Yu'an shook his head. "The biggest question facing us is whether the 'victim' before Wu Zhen was truly a victim, or whether that person was the man in the shadows. Truth be told, before we heard about Qin Guoxing from Luo Ganfeng, I'd already started to suspect that the person Wu Zhen 'killed' was the person pulling the strings. This kind of 'death pact' is too difficult to maintain. It would have been extremely hard for the chain to continue beyond two, three people.
"Since the 'victim' who came before Wu Zhen was a professor at the University of Medicine, that all but proves it—that person is the man in the shadows, the mastermind.
"There's also a trend here. Have you noticed? Sha Chun tried to influence those who were younger than her, those who had fewer life experiences—like Yu Xiaocheng. Wu Zhen also influenced people younger and less worldly than him. He targeted Sha Chun and Luo Ganfeng."
As he spoke, Xiao Yu'an drew a line through the air with his left hand, moving to the right. "They would have had a hard time influencing people who were more highly educated and more enlightened than them. That's also the reason the 'dominoes' would have eventually stopped falling.
"If we trace this pattern back and assume Qin Guoxing isn't the mastermind, then Qin Guoxing would have been influenced by someone with a higher education than him, someone with more life experiences. But Qin Guoxing was already a 'professor' at the University of Medicine. The pool of people who could consider themselves 'better' than him would be quite small."
Ming Shu nodded. "Which means before we found out that the 'professor' Qin Guoxing was actually the long-dead lecturer Qin Guoxing, my theory held water."
"But that discovery has presented us with a problem," Xiao Yu'an confirmed. He looked at the photo of Qin Guoxing, the lecturer, that was displayed on his computer monitor. "Our supposed 'mastermind' died nine years ago, and under suspicious circumstances to boot."
"The murkiness of that case is old business, let's set it aside for now," Ming Shu said, furrowing his brows as he spoke. "I…"
Before he could finish, he glanced over and saw Xiao Yu'an smiling.
Well, in truth, it couldn't really be called a smile. It was just an upwards twitch of the corners of his lips.
But that was enough to distract and disrupt Ming Shu.
"Director Xiao, what are you thinking?"
"You've finally learned to set something aside," Xiao Yu'an said. "Don't just stare at me. Go on, keep talking."
Ming Shu gave him a stern glare. "Who was the one who distracted me first? Isn't this the culprit blaming the innocent?"
Xiao Yu'an smiled and conceded, "My apologies, Captain Ming."
"Ai…" Ming Shu couldn't help but smile as well. "You give in and apologize way too quickly."
"Mm, I haven't allowed you to enjoy the thrill of the argument yet, have I?"
Ming Shu scrunched up his nose. That was an expression he would only make in front of Xiao Yu'an. Afterwards, he cleared his throat and continued, "Your Captain Ming is going to focus on the case now."
"Please do so, my Captain Ming," Xiao Yu'an encouraged indulgently.
"There may be something suspicious about Qin Guoxing's death nine years ago, but the main issue is in the assumption that our Qin Guoxing is the same as this deceased Qin Guoxing," Ming Shu said. "A person who died nine years ago can't possibly cross space and time to run experiments in the future. The man behind the shadows must be using the real Qin Guoxing's identity to set up this chain of events."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Then who do you believe is using the identity of a deceased person to execute their own plans?"
Ming Shu patted the back of his head a few times, then grabbed his own notebook and flipped it open, messily scrawling down a few names.
In the first row: Wu Zhen.
The second row: Sha Chun, Luo Ganfeng, Wang Ying.
And the third: Yu Xiaocheng, Long Tianhao, Wen He.
Seven names. Besides Luo Ganfeng and Yu Xiaocheng, all the others had been reeled in by this man in the shadows.
"Luo Ganfeng and Yu Xiaocheng might not have been 'hooked' by the man in the shadows," Ming Shu said. "They may have come into contact with Wu Zhen and Sha Chun organically, after which they were influenced. Wang Ying, Long Tianhao, and Wen He were definitely 'pushed' towards Wu Zhen and Sha Chun. And these three people all have a clear link to the University of Medicine.
"As for Wu Zhen and Sha Chun, they don't seem to have much of a connection to the University of Medicine. Based on this information, we can say for certain that the man in the shadows mainly operates around this university, and he's very familiar with the university. However, that doesn't mean his targets are limited to people associated with the campus.
"My current theory is that he's a staff member at the University of Medicine. Someone who has something to do with the deceased Qin Guoxing, and—this is important—someone who has a lot of free time on his hands."
"He could only find all these 'seeds' and guide people towards their death if he had a lot of free time," Xiao Yu'an said. "The fact that he reeled in Wu Zhen and Sha Chun could give us a breakthrough in this case. Wu Zhen and Sha Chun don't have much to do with the university, so how did this man in the shadows find them?"
"Wu Zhen's social network and Sha Chun's social network are both very basic," Ming Shu said. He tapped the pen in his hand against his chin, then started to sketch out a timeline of events in his notebook. "Wu Zhen was targeted by Qin… no, by the 'mystery man' sometime before December of last year. To Wu Zhen, the 'mystery man' introduced himself as 'Professor Qin'. For short, let's just call him the Professor.
"Then, in December of last year, Wu Zhen's handwriting started to change. That must have been when the Professor told Wu Zhen about his plans. Wu Zhen was shocked at first, but after a long period of influence, he started to accept the Professor's way of thinking. Then, around Chinese New Year's this year, the Professor staged his death for Wu Zhen, and Wu Zhen subsequently took the baton."
Xiao Yu'an had moved to Ming Shu's side. He peered at Ming Shu's notebook and said, "This means someone who looked like a professor died around Chinese New Year's, and that person became the Professor's 'body double'. But it seems a victim fitting this description hasn't appeared on our radar yet."
Ming Shu lifted his gaze. "It's already been half a year since Chinese New Year's. No body has turned up, so this person must have been reported missing by his friends or family if he hasn't been seen alive either. We might find something if we look into missing persons cases from that time period. But… a while ago, I already looked through all the missing persons cases from December of last year to April of this year. Nothing came up."
"You have to prepare yourself," Xiao Yu'an said, "for the possibility that you'll come up empty, even after thoroughly searching through the records of every district precinct and local police post."
Ming Shu naturally understood why he needed to be prepared. "It's possible that no one reported this person missing. The Professor's ideal 'replacement' would have been a man in his forties or fifties, one without many friends or relatives, and one whose DNA wasn't in the police system already. The less involved in society this victim was, the higher the chances of the Professor's plan succeeding."
"Right," Xiao Yu'an said. "To the Professor, the best outcome is that no one would report his victim missing. But we do still have to look through the open missing persons cases again. Right now, we're thinking of the worst case scenario. It's possible that reality won't be so bad."
Ming Shu tossed his notebook onto the coffee table and sank back against the couch and throw pillows. He lifted his right hand and pressed it to his temple. After a moment, he said, "I feel like I've already 'sketched' an image of the Professor in my mind. He's a teacher in a fairly overlooked field at the university, one whose many years of work and research have gone unnoticed. He has severe psychological issues, and he's fallen into despair.
"He wanted to conduct some sort of revolutionary experiment, but he didn't have any resources, and his students didn't acknowledge him. In this regard, he's similar to the deceased Qin Guoxing. The Professor might even have been influenced by Qin Guoxing. Some rumors say that Qin Guoxing was running illegal experiments before his death, right?"
Ming Shu paused for a few seconds and closed his eyes. His mind was spinning, firing on all cylinders. "Qin Guoxing experimented on himself, and the Professor is experimenting on innocent people. He desperately thirsts for success. He devotes all his time to observing others and seeking out 'seeds' for his experiment. He fully dedicated himself to presenting those 'seeds' to Wu Zhen and Sha Chun."
"Even if you're a professor or lecturer in a neglected field of study, would you really have that much free time on your hands?" Xiao Yu'an suddenly asked.
"Hm?" Ming Shu opened his eyes and straightened up.
"This person definitely has something to do with Dongye City's University of Medicine," Xiao Yu'an said. "But he seems to have almost too much free time on his hands. Most lecturers and professors wouldn't be so idle."
Ming Shu rubbed at one of his own earlobes. "That's true. If he isn't a teacher, then he's a member of the administrative staff? But wouldn't that go against our earlier line of thinking? If he were an administrative staff member, he might not be 'highly educated' enough to influence someone like Wu Zhen. And there wouldn't be any real need for him to carry out an experiment like this either."
"That's hard to say," Xiao Yu'an said. "Nearly every campus has a legend of a 'Sweeper Monk' these days."
Ming Shu mulled it over for a moment. "I'll go check the missing persons cases from around Chinese New Year's this year, right away."
"Wait." Xiao Yu'an lifted a hand and beckoned him back. "Why did the Professor use Qin Guoxing's name?"
"Because Qin Guoxing was already dead?" Ming Shu guessed. "It must be easier to steal the identity of a dead man than a living one."
"Isn't there another possibility?" Xiao Yu'an asked. "You mentioned it earlier. The Professor could have been influenced by the real Qin Guoxing."
Ming Shu suddenly realized what Xiao Yu'an was getting at. "So I should look into Qin Guoxing's case again. We could find something there! Qin Guoxing died of sodium cyanide poisoning, and Wu Zhen died of the same thing."
Xiao Yu'an smiled. "Our Captain Ming was finally willing to set something aside, but in the end, this isn't something that can be set aside just yet."
Ming Shu's eyes flickered to Xiao Yu'an. "Your Captain Ming has enough energy to rival Fang Yuanhang. If I need to look into this, I'll look into it. Not a problem."
Upon hearing Fang Yuanhang's name, Xiao Yu'an lifted his brows just a little.
Ming Shu noticed the slight shift in his expression and asked, "What is it?"
"Your little rookie…" Xiao Yu'an paused, even though he clearly still wanted to say something.
Ming Shu's curiosity had been piqued. "What about Fang Yuanhang? Is he bothering you? He wouldn't, right? He's just hyperactive to the max."
"He's spent a lot of time secretly observing you lately," Xiao Yu'an said. "You haven't noticed?"
Ming Shu blinked. "Tsk, I thought it was something serious. It's just that he was observing me? He hasn't been observing me for just a day or two, you know. He even copies the way I interrogate people. I'm his 'chief', so it isn't enough for him to learn from my words. He should learn from my actions too. It's a good thing that he's observing me."
Xiao Yu'an smiled and sighed. "You…"
"What about me?" Ming Shu asked. "Director Xiao, it's not good to leave things half-unspoken!"
"It's nothing." Xiao Yu'an patted Ming Shu on the waist. "It's fine as long as you think it's fine."
Ming Shu headed for the door, then remembered another matter. "That's right, has Xu Yin come to see me?"
They'd put all their energy and attention into this case. It was only then that Xiao Yu'an remembered. "She asked me if you found the female victim she mentioned."
Ming Shu's complexion paled somewhat. If he'd had any extra time at all, he definitely would have launched a thorough investigation into what had happened on Yisi Road already.
"This little girl is very persistent. It's likely this will result in one of two outcomes. Either she'll become a nuisance, or she'll provide us with some important clues," Xiao Yu'an said. "I've asked Xu Chun to show her some photos from recent missing persons cases. It's possible that there's someone there that she's seen."
"What did she say?" Ming Shu asked.
"You think results would come that quickly?" Xiao Yu'an teased. "Don't let this distract you for now. Focus on the case at hand."
Ming Shu returned to the Serious Crimes Division and called everyone into a conference room to hand out their new assignments. Fang Yuanhang listened intently; he stared at Ming Shu so fiercely that it seemed almost like electricity was crackling in his eyes.
Ming Shu had been good-looking ever since he was a kid. He was used to people looking at him, and it didn't usually make him restless or uneasy. It was only when he'd pursued Xiao Yu'an that his heart fluttered and raced every time Xiao Yu'an so much as looked his way.
Fang Yuanhang had always looked at Ming Shu with those big, puppy dog eyes of his, filled with a thirst for knowledge, with intense focus, with limitless curiosity. Ming Shu had never paid it much mind before, and he'd certainly never read too deeply into it.
But after hearing Xiao Yu'an remark on the way Fang Yuanhang had been observing Ming Shu recently, Ming Shu couldn't help but take note of Fang Yuanhang.
After the meeting, Fang Yuanhang didn't leave right away. He earnestly asked Ming Shu a few serious questions about the case. Ming Shu answered them one by one. Then, after he was finished, he abruptly grabbed Fang Yuanhang's collar.
Fang Yuanhang froze. "Chief? What's good?"
Ming Shu laughed and echoed, "'What's good?'"
"Learned it from Yu Dalong," Fang Yuanhang explained. As soon as he mentioned Yu Dalong, he thought of that description of someone's 'stallion waist', and he thought of Yu Dalong's request to meet his 'idol', and he thought of the revelation that his own chief was gay.
Then he saw the look in Ming Shu's eyes change.
Ming Shu was extremely good at reading microexpressions. How could Fang Yuanhang hide the shifts in his own eyes from Ming Shu?
"Come here. Sit down." Ming Shu pointed to a desk chair next to them.
Fang Yuanhang was still confused. He didn't move for quite a while.
"Sit," Ming Shu ordered.
Orders from his chief were not to be ignored. Fang Yuanhang hurriedly sat down and asked, "Chief, what is it?"
Fang Yuanhang had asked for a heart-to-heart after they cracked the case. But the case wasn't cracked yet, was it?
Ming Shu sat on the table and crossed his arms in front of his chest. He swayed his long legs, and in that moment he didn't look at all like the captain of the Serious Crimes Division.
"Why have you been looking at me so much lately?"
Fang Yuanhang's eyes flew wide open in shock.
Fuck! He caught me trying to figure out if he was gay?!
Ming Shu could tell right away that his little rookie's reaction was too dramatic. Now, if Fang Yuanhang claimed it was nothing, there was no way Ming Shu would believe him.
"Speak." Ming Shu looked down on Fang Yuanhang. "What are you always staring at me for?"
Fang Yuanhang's guilty conscience was written all over his face. His eyes darted around shiftily, and he weakly protested, "I'm not. I don't."
Ming Shu was almost amused enough to start laughing.
Fang Yuanhang never showed any signs of weakness. Whether he was interrogating a suspect or getting rowdy with Yi Fei, Xu Chun, and the others, he was always the loudest and most spirited guy in a room. Now he'd completely deflated. The difference was really too huge.
"What are you hiding from me, huh?" Ming Shu didn't really believe Fang Yuanhang had done anything to betray the division or the law. Fang Yuanhang's sense of righteousness and justice was bone-deep. There was no need to be concerned about him doing anything genuinely bad at all.
Fang Yuanhang lifted his gaze and cast a sidelong glance at Ming Shu. Under his breath, he muttered, "I'm not hiding anything. You're the one hiding something from your precious teammates."
Ming Shu didn't really have time to beat around the bush. He continued, "Who's Yu Dalong? Your friend?"
Fang Yuanhang properly lifted his head now. "The one who called you 'stallion waist'."
Ming Shu had all but forgotten about that person. He grinned and said, "Oh, him. How did you two get to know each other?"
Fang Yuanhang recounted the events that had transpired while they were looking for Liu Mei. At that time, Ming Shu had been focusing all his attention on Sha Chun's case. He hadn't been able to pay much attention to the investigation into Liu Mei.
After hearing Fang Yuanhang's story, he said, "This person sounds pretty clever."
Of course he's clever, Fang Yuanhang thought. He could tell you were gay after meeting you once! How could he not be clever?!
Ming Shu had been ready to let this go and take his leave. When he saw Fang Yuanhang's expression change again, he stopped once more.
"Hang on," Ming Shu said. "You really are hiding something from me. Don't even think about leaving here today without telling me."
Fang Yuanhang took a deep, sharp breath. He was starting to feel like he really wouldn't be able to escape this time.
He looked left and right, confirming no one else was around. Then he lowered his voice and whispered, "Chief, you're actually…"
"Captain Ming! Captain Ming?"
At just that moment, a voice rang out from the hallway, cruelly interrupting Fang Yuanhang.
It was Xu Chun.
"What is it?" Ming Shu asked.
"Come on, you'll see!" Xu Chun said.
In another room, Xu Yin was staring at a woman on a computer monitor. She slowly turned and smiled at Ming Shu when he entered.
The woman's face, Xu Yin's smile, and the ghostly glow that the computer screen cast over Xu Yin's face—it all gave Ming Shu a chilling, eerie sensation.
Fang Yuanhang, who'd come along with them, was stunned by the sight on the monitor. "This is…"
"The person who stood outside your window one night," Ming Shu started in a cold voice, gazing straight at Xu Yin. "The person you saw dying in an alley on Yisi Road. This is her?"
Xu Yin nodded vigorously. In a sweet and innocent tone, she said, "It was this jiejie."
The person on the screen was the 'ghost' who had disappeared after Li Hongmei brutally killed her three roommates.
It was Chi Xiaomin.