Chi Xiaomin was already dead? She'd been killed in an alleyway on Yisi Road?
Who exactly was Chi Xiaomin? Who was controlling her, driving her actions?
Before she died, why had Chi Xiaomin stood outside a little girl's window, like a living ghost?
When Chi Xiaomin got close to Li Hongmei, what had been her objective? Had she been instructed to do so by an external force?
Or… was all this simply a joke to Xu Yin?
There were too many questions facing Ming Shu, and he didn't have any way of analyzing these questions one by one. Because the case of the Professor was still looming before him. Before Wu Zhen, one other person had died, and there was a very good chance that this victim was the most 'innocent' one of all.
Combing through missing persons reports from December to April yielded no results. No one who'd been reported missing at any precinct or local police post fit the profile of this victim that had been presented to Wu Zhen, and there certainly weren't any cases that came up around Chinese New Year's, which was the time frame Luo Ganfeng had specified.
"When Director Xiao and I discussed this case, Director Xiao had warned me of this possibility," Ming Shu said. "The man in the shadows—the Professor, that is—could have chosen a victim with no friends or relatives. Someone who lived and died without anyone caring about them. Someone whose absence wouldn't have been noticed when they vanished, and someone who certainly wouldn't have been reported missing."
"Then a vagrant is the most likely victim," Zhou Yuan proposed. After his exchange with Yu Xiaocheng, his mood had significantly improved. But after he spoke, he still nervously glanced at the other detectives around him and shyly shrank his neck into his shoulders.
"In the past, yes. But now that isn't necessarily the case," Ming Shu said. "Last year, the Public Security Department put a new plan into motion to address the issue of people who make their living as scavengers. These people have been asked to either leave the city or join a community labor force, which is supervised by local police. Now, if one of them suddenly disappeared, no one would have to report them to the police. The police would know right away."
"The victim could have been a man in his forties or fifties who lived alone and didn't have a job," Yi Fei said. "But if that's the case, our search will be much more difficult."
Fang Yuanhang puffed up his cheeks. "There also aren't any open murder cases from that time period with a victim that matches the description of the one we're looking for. Which makes sense when I think about it. If we'd already found a body and started investigating, Wu Zhen would have known that he was related to the case. He wouldn't have been able to keep his cool.
"Wu Zhen himself is a victim too. He wasn't a psychopath like the Professor, he was just an ordinary person. His mental fortitude wouldn't have been strong enough to stay completely calm if he knew a murder relating to him was being investigated."
"Since we haven't found anything in the open missing persons cases, we can only start by focusing on the time around Chinese New Year's," Ming Shu said. "By confirming Wu Zhen's movements and activities around that time, we can narrow down the scope of our search for this earlier victim."
Fang Yuanhang's hand shot up. "Question."
Ming Shu glanced at his rookie. "Go ahead."
"We're assuming the existence of a body double right now, right?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "We're assuming the Professor faked his death? But what if that body double doesn't actually exist?"
Ming Shu lifted his left eyebrow.
"You're saying the man in the shadows influenced Wu Zhen directly, and Wu Zhen didn't actually kill anyone?" Yi Fei mused. He gave it some thought, then shook his head. "Even if we didn't have the lead from Luo Ganfeng, about Wu Zhen saying he'd killed someone named 'Professor Qin', your suggestion would be pretty far-fetched.
"First of all, this means the man in the shadows would have had to step out of the shadows to directly participate in this game of death. Secondly, if Wu Zhen didn't personally witness someone 'committing suicide', what would have motivated him to take up the baton?"
"No, no, no, that's not what I meant." Fang Yuanhang was the only one standing up in the conference room. Ming Shu hadn't been kidding when he said Fang Yuanhang was hyperactive to the max. If no higher-ups like Xiao Yu'an were present at a meeting, Fang Yuanhang wouldn't be able to sit still. He was never comfortable unless he was standing around.
"I know what you're trying to say," Ming Shu interjected, picking up that line of thought. "You believe the man in the shadows psychologically manipulated Wu Zhen and made Wu Zhen believe he'd killed 'Professor Qin', when in reality no such thing had happened. You think it's possible that no murder happened, but Wu Zhen was made to believe it had due to the influence of the man in the shadows."
Fang Yuanhang nodded and asked, "Is it possible?"
Ming Shu laughed. "It sounds a bit fictitious to me."
Fang Yuanhang propped both of his hands on the edge of the conference table. "Huh?"
"Logically, it's certainly a possibility," Ming Shu said. His gaze deepened with thought. "But could psychological manipulation really have such a pronounced effect?"
Xing Mu couldn't keep his silence any longer. He once again had to give his superior a cold shot of reality. "Actually, if you take a deep look into the world of psychology, there are indeed people who would be capable of such a thing."
Ming Shu shifted his gaze, turning to Xing Mu.
Xing Mu instantly tensed and sat up straight. He gulped down his saliva, and his cheeks swiftly heated up.
"There are people capable of it," Ming Shu echoed. Then, he asked, "What kind of person is capable of it? In the world of psychology, how many people would be capable of it?"
Before Xing Mu could respond, Yi Fei was already starting to nod.
"This…" Xing Mu rubbed a hand over the nape of his neck. "Of course they would all be experts at the top of their field. As for the number of people… I wouldn't know how to guess."
"Meanwhile, our suspect is a 'professor' who isn't very well-respected in his field," Ming Shu reminded unhurriedly. "The Professor is the name we've given him for now, but whether or not he's actually a professor remains to be seen. He could be a lecturer, an assistant professor, or a member of the university's administrative staff.
"What we don't need to question is that, with regards to his work, he is far from the top in his field. He doesn't have the ability to psychologically manipulate Wu Zhen to the point that Old Fang suggested."
Fang Yuanhang hurriedly retorted, "I'm not Old Fang! I'm only twenty-three!"
Xiao Man teased, "Oh, only twenty-three? I thought you were thirty-two."
"Bah!" Fang Yuanhang protested.
The atmosphere, which had been thick with tension, finally relaxed somewhat.
"No more questions?" Ming Shu asked. "If everyone's good to go, get to work on your assigned tasks. First, trace Wu Zhen's steps around the time of Chinese New Year's in detail. Second, dig deeper into the old case of Qin Guoxing's suicide from nine years ago."
Fang Yuanhang rushed out to Lightflow Media once more.
After their many recent dealings with criminal detectives, everyone at Lightflow Media—from the screenwriters to other staff members—was feeling a little anxious.
The head of the screenwriting department, Ou Xianghe, met Fang Yuanhang with an unpleasant expression on his face. "We really don't have anything to do with Wu Zhen's business," he insisted. "You guys coming and going all the time, asking us about this stuff, is having a huge impact on us."
"Until we clear up this case, we have to ask you to cooperate with us," Fang Yuanhang said. He was always playfully 'bullied' within the Serious Crimes Division, but when he went out and really got to work, he was still a bold and resolute police detective.
Ou Xianghe couldn't complain much more in the face of Fang Yuanhang's stern statement. Though he was still a little reluctant, he mumbled, "Go ahead and ask your questions, then."
"I'd like to see your work records from around Chinese New Year's of this year," Fang Yuanhang said. "Wu Zhen's work records, specifically."
Around Chinese New Year's, many businesses closed down for the holiday. Most screenwriters at Lightflow took time off to visit their family. The ones who stayed either had an important deadline that they couldn't delay, or didn't have any family to visit.
Yang Shuxing could be considered one of the former types, while Wu Zhen was the latter.
According to Lightflow's records from around the time of Chinese New Year's, only seven people stayed at the office during the New Year's break. The screenwriter Yang Shuxing had an important script for a web series that needed to be finished as soon as possible. Meanwhile, Wu Zhen was the only screenwriter who stayed behind to take charge of short videos.
Around the second week of the twelfth lunar month, Wu Zhen's work dried up. There was nothing more for him to do.
Government agencies and large businesses that often commissioned scripts for promotional videos all went on holiday. As the date drew closer and closer to Chinese New Year's, there were simply no new assignments for Wu Zhen to take. Wu Zhen should have had an extremely relaxed time at the office. There were no scripts that needed to be written, and there were no filming sessions that he needed to attend.
Yang Shuxing lived right next door to Wu Zhen in the company dorms, and he'd worked with Wu Zhen for many years. According to him, Wu Zhen didn't spend much time in his room around Chinese New Year's. This wouldn't have been strange for anyone else, but it was certainly out of the ordinary for Wu Zhen.
"I can't imagine what he was going out to do," Yang Shuxing said. "He wasn't the type of person to 'hit the streets' to find inspiration. He basically liked to stay cooped up at the office regardless of whether or not he had scripts to write. Once, he even told me that reading books to learn how other screenwriters crafted their scripts was better than going people-watching to get inspiration."
"Then do you know where he went?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"I think it was Suzheng Street," Yang Shuxing said with a smile.
Suzheng Street was located at the northeast of Bei District. It was pretty far from the busy commercial center of Bei District, and there wasn't really anything special about it.
And Suzheng Street was right next to Shanxiang Street, which was an incredibly old street with a mishmash of random shops. It couldn't have been considered the safest or cleanest place, to say the least.
Fang Yuanhang mentally reviewed that whole area, then asked, "Wu Zhen told you he was going there?"
"I guessed," Yang Shuxing said, smiling again. "I write suspense scripts more than anything, so I'm in the habit of observing people when I have nothing better to do. Not many people stayed at the office over Chinese New Year's, and besides Wu Zhen, everyone else was busy with work.
"But no matter how busy you are, you still have to celebrate the new year, right? On the third night of the New Year, Chen Hua and I—ah, Chen Hua is one of the other screenwriters—suggested that everyone take a night off and get together for a hot pot."
"And Wu Zhen wasn't there for that?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"Mm, not when we planned it." Yang Shuxing nodded. "We reached out to him and told him about our plans to have dinner together that night."
"Did he come back in time for the dinner?"
"He did, and he brought us a big bag of mahua."
"Mahua?" Fang Yuanhang furrowed his brow.
Mahua was a type of fried dough snack, and it wasn't a specialty in Dongye City. Although there were shops that sold it, there weren't many.
The most famous shop that sold mahua, in all of Dongye City, was called 'Mahua Flood'. Someone from out of town had started up that business over ten years ago.
And 'Mahua Flood' was located on Suzheng Street!
Instantly, Fang Yuanhang asked, "Wu Zhen brought them back from 'Mahua Flood'?"
"Right, I saw the store's packaging," Yang Shuxing said. "So I figured he must have been on or around Suzheng Street when we contacted him about the dinner. Wu Zhen… Wu-laoshi was the type of person who never took advantage of others. He knew we'd already prepared all the ingredients for hot pot, so he took it upon himself to bring us some mahua to snack on."
Suzheng Street was extremely far from Lightflow Media. Why would Wu Zhen head out there for no reason?
Fang Yuanhang's heart was racing. He felt like he'd reached out through a dense fog and finally wrapped his fingers around something sturdy, something solid.
"There's something else I remember very clearly," Yang Shuxing added. "You guys are police officers, I'm sure your analytical ability is way stronger than mine. I'll just tell you the facts, not what I make of them—that night, over hot pot, I had a drink with Wu Zhen and casually asked what he was doing on Suzheng Street. I asked if he was collecting research material, or something like that.
"And Wu Zhen suddenly tensed up when I asked. First he said he hadn't gone out to Suzheng Street. I said 'Mahua Flood' only had one location, and it was on Suzheng Street, and that was when he said he went out there specifically to buy the mahua."
As soon as Fang Yuanhang finished listening, he said, "Wu Zhen didn't expect his purchase at 'Mahua Flood' to expose his movements, and he didn't want you to know he'd been to Suzheng Street."
Yang Shuxing rubbed his hands together, then took out his phone with a somewhat crafty smile. "That's all I know. Detective Fang, let's add each other on WeChat."
"Huh?" Fang Yuanhang blinked, surprised.
While investigating a case, he often ran into people who were nervous or afraid when confronted by police officers. Many were uncooperative, many were just anxious. But what kind of person asked for a police officer's contact information of their own volition?
"If the information I've provided can be of some help, that would be fantastic," Yang Shuxing said. "I would hope that, in the future, you guys may be able to help me find some 'inspiration' in return."
Fang Yuanhang understood, finally, that this suspense screenwriter wanted to get close to him so that he could hear all the gory details about various cases from Fang Yuanhang, then write them into his future scripts.
That obviously wasn't okay!
After Fang Yuanhang denied his request, Yang Shuxing didn't seem particularly perturbed. He remained calm and said it was helpful enough, for him, to be involved in a case like this at all. This had already given him some creative inspiration.
While Fang Yuanhang visited Lightflow Media, the technical investigation team was also hard at work.
Zhou Yuan discovered that, on the 27th of the twelfth lunar month, Wu Zhen had used his cell phone to pay a twenty-nine yuan bill at a restaurant called 'Wanwan Cuisine' on Shanxiang Street.
Shanxiang Street was just to the west of Suzheng Street, and Wu Zhen had clearly visited these two places both before and after Chinese New Year's. This place, far in the northeast of Bei District, wasn't one of Wu Zhen's usual haunts, and none of his clients were located there either.
"The northeast of Bei District could be where the body double lived before his death, and it could very well be the scene of the crime," Ming Shu mused. He'd already dispatched a team to canvas Shanxiang Street and Suzheng Street, but there weren't enough units in the Serious Crimes Division to cover everything quickly. He'd had to seek assistance from the local police posts and the Bei District precinct as well.
This request for additional manpower had resulted in a small incident—the vice captain of the Bei District precinct, Wang Hao, was on relatively bad terms with Ming Shu. They'd been at odds to begin with, and Wang Hao's grudge against Ming Shu had grown more hateful than ever after the Lu Kun case.
As soon as Wang Hao heard the Serious Crimes Division was probing around in their district and requesting assistance, he became immeasurably displeased. He insisted he couldn't help because his men were busy with cases too, and he simply couldn't spare anyone to assist Ming Shu.
Ming Shu couldn't be bothered to have it out with the Bei District precinct, and he especially didn't want to sink to the level of someone like Wang Hao. But Wu Zhen's case was at an extremely critical point, and they'd just found an extremely important clue. How could they not make haste and chase this lead as quickly as possible?
"You can't spare anyone?" Ming Shu questioned, right to Wang Hao's face. "To me, it looks like Vice Captain Wang has quite a lot of free time on his hands. No field work, no reports to write. Could it be that Vice Captain Wang's idea of being 'busy' is sipping tea at the precinct and thinking up ways of how to deal with me?"
"You—!" Wang Hao clearly hadn't expected Ming Shu to be so blunt with him. He couldn't figure out how to react right away.
"Me?" Ming Shu let out a cold laugh. "I've come to ask Vice Captain Wang's team to assist the Criminal Investigation Bureau's Serious Crimes Division in an investigation. If Vice Captain Wang truly can't spare any team members, then he can personally hit the streets and assist in the investigation. Although you're just one person, one person is better than none. Right?"
As he spoke, Ming Shu crinkled the corners of his eyes with a sly smile. It was exactly the sort of look that Wang Hao hated.
Ming Shu had deliberately stressed the words 'Criminal Investigation Bureau', emphasizing the fact that he didn't only come from the Serious Crimes Division, but that he came with orders from the all-important Criminal Investigation Bureau.
The district precincts all reported to the Criminal Investigation Bureau. Even if Wang Hao was bold enough to mess with Ming Shu, he certainly wasn't bold enough to oppose the Bureau itself. In the end, he had no choice but to get together a team of his men and head out to help canvas Suzheng Street.
"The primary crime scene may have been around here, but the body double's movements might not have been limited to this area, right?" Fang Yuanhang asked as he rushed out to Wanwan Cuisine with Ming Shu. "If we can find the body, then that'll make things a lot easier. Although it won't be easy to identify the body, it'd be better than not having a body at all. My biggest worry right now is that we won't even find a body."
Ming Shu suddenly stopped. "Old Fang."
Fang Yuanhang gulped and irritably thought, Old Fang, Old Fang. Have you gotten addicted to calling me that? Are you not going to be satisfied until I call you Little Ming?
But Old Fang wasn't bold enough to say any of that out loud. He obediently answered, "Chief?"
"It's fine even if we don't find a body," Ming Shu said. "This is definitely the area in which the body double was active. As long as we're thorough in our investigation, we'll definitely find new clues."
Fang Yuanhang didn't fully buy it yet. "Couldn't the body double have been lured over here by the Professor?"
"The possibility of that is very low," Ming Shu said. "Luring someone from a place where they're comfortable to another place entirely carries a lot of risks and variables. If I were the Professor, I wouldn't take those risks."
Fang Yuanhang scratched a hand through his hair.
"Wu Zhen typically pays for things in cash, but at this shop he used WeChat to pay," Ming Shu said. He slapped Fang Yuanhang on the back. "Let's go ask around and see if the people there still remember Wu Zhen."
Peak dining hours had already passed; there were no customers in Wanwan Cuisine. When Fang Yuanhang showed Wu Zhen's photo to the boss there, the boss studied it for a long moment, furrowed his brow, and ultimately shook his head.
"Never seen him before."
Fang Yuanhang lifted his head to check for a surveillance system. There was indeed a camera installed, and it was functional, but footage from six months ago definitely would have been deleted by now.
"Let me take a look?" the boss's wife asked, scooching over to peer at the photo.
Wanwan Cuisine was an extremely cheap and small restaurant. Only three people were working in the shop at that point—the boss, the boss's wife, and a young man who'd only been hired a month ago.
The boss's wife eyed the photo for a while, then suddenly said, "I know him!"
Fang Yuanhang quickly asked, "He ate here around Chinese New Year's. You still remember what happened half a year ago so clearly?"
"Because he was the only person who refused to pay with his cell phone that day," the boss's wife said. She pointed to the QR code plastered on the wall. "I usually have a lot of change on hand, but we ran out that day. He wanted to pay with a one hundred yuan bill, but I couldn't break it for him, so I told him to pay with his cell phone. He didn't want to, and he told me to go get change from some other shop. We had a big argument about it."
"You didn't go get change?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"I couldn't!" the boss's wife said. "Besides, I asked him if he could pay with his cell phone or not, and he said he could. He just wasn't used to it, he said. Hah, that pissed me right off. He was perfectly capable of paying with his phone, and he still wanted me to go get change from someone else? Why should I go to the trouble?"
"Do you remember anything else?" Ming Shu asked.
"He…" The boss's wife was just about to say something else when the boss suddenly coughed.
The boss's wife was very strong-willed. She shot her husband a glare and asked, "Oh, what are you so afraid of? If the police come on official business and we don't know anything, then we don't know anything. But if we know something and don't help, what kind of people would we be?"
Ming Shu smiled.
"I saw him again afterwards," the boss's wife continued, turning back to Ming Shu. "We were open for business even over the New Year's break. I saw him around more than once."
"Which day?" Fang Yuanhang asked.
"I really can't remember that much," the boss's wife said.
"Was he by himself, or was he with someone?"
"Just him, by himself."
Ming Shu mulled it over for a few seconds before his eyes suddenly sharpened. "Oh, that's right. You just said you were open over the break? On Chinese New Year's?"
The boss's wife proudly jutted out her chin. "Our son has gotten into college in the capital!"
"Huh?" Fang Yuanhang couldn't figure out why they were suddenly on the subject of this couple's son.
"Your son's grades must have been pretty good to get into a university in the capital," Ming Shu said. "You stayed open on Chinese New Year's to continue saving up for his tuition, is that right?"
"Yes, yes!" the boss's wife confirmed, smiling from ear to ear.
"But on Chinese New Year's, most people visit family or reserve large banquet rooms to celebrate. Business probably wasn't very good at a small shop like yours," Ming Shu said. "When you had free time, without any customers, you must have sat by the door and observed people on the street—like you were doing just a while ago, when we arrived."
The boss's wife was swept along by Ming Shu's words, enthusiastically nodding her head in agreement.
Ming Shu crinkled his eyes with a smile. "Then did you notice anyone missing from this street, after New Year's?"
At that, the boss's wife glanced at the boss. "Are we missing anyone around here?"
The boss shook his head. "If you don't know, how should I know?"
"Please give it some more thought," Ming Shu said. "It would have been a middle-aged gentleman, in his forties or fifties. Someone who lived alone and mostly kept to himself. No family, no friends…"
Without waiting for Ming Shu to finish speaking, the boss's wife suddenly slapped a nearby table and blurted out, "Oh, you're talking about that person!"
Fang Yuanhang instantly probed, "There really was someone like that?"
The boss's wife turned to the boss again. "Why, we were just talking about it, weren't we? We were just saying it's been ages since we've seen Old Huang selling his fifty-cent skewers at the end of the alley!"