"Around the time of Chinese New Year's, Wu Zhen went out to Shanxiang Street and Suzheng Street several times. Huang Mouquan disappeared under mysterious circumstances at around the same time. There aren't any of his footprints in his home, but there are shoeprints left behind by Wu Zhen," Ming Shu recounted.
He met Xiao Yu'an at the side of the road on Shanxiang Street. The two of them were walking towards Ninth Lane together.
"The probability of Huang Mouquan being the body double chosen by the Professor is extremely high," Ming Shu continued. "Ge, these are the conclusions I've drawn from the clues I have. Tell me if you notice any contradictions."
Xiao Yu'an nodded. "Mm."
"Wu Zhen took sodium cyanide to commit suicide," Ming Shu went on. "Sha Chun didn't personally kill him with her own hands. It's possible she didn't even witness the process of Wu Zhen's death. She may have only used cement to hide Wu Zhen's body after he was already deceased.
"In that case, it's very possible that Wu Zhen didn't personally kill the previous 'domino' either. Maybe he only helped hide the body. Huang Mouquan was the Professor's body double, meaning the Professor made Wu Zhen believe that Huang Mouquan's body was the body of the Professor.
"Based on the events that ensued, we can be sure that Wu Zhen was thoroughly convinced by this ruse. In order to accomplish this deception, the Professor would have had to kill Huang Mouquan in advance and disguise the corpse as his own. Then, Wu Zhen arrived as per their arrangement and disposed of Huang Mouquan's corpse—thinking it was the Professor's corpse.
"That would explain why Wu Zhen's shoeprints were in Huang Mouquan's house. After killing Huang Mouquan, the Professor erased all traces of himself and of Huang Mouquan. As a result, only Wu Zhen left tracks when he arrived later."
"Two questions," Xiao Yu'an interjected. "Were the Professor and Huang Mouquan very similar? And why did the Professor choose to commit the murder at Huang Mouquan's home?"
"They didn't necessarily look identical," Ming Shu said. "As long as the Professor had a similar body type, face shape, and hairstyle as Huang Mouquan, it would have been possible to disguise the corpse. More importantly, Wu Zhen must have been extremely nervous when he arrived to dispose of the body. When people are that nervous, their powers of observation will be negatively impacted. Furthermore, would Wu Zhen have been willing to closely study the face of a dead person?"
Xiao Yu'an paused at the mouth of the alleyway. "Their faces don't need to be a perfect match, but the body type and age should be similar. If that's true, would it be possible for us to use Huang Mouquan as a basic 'model' to conduct a search for similar men at the University of Medicine, Guangye Hospital, and the Jiulin Psychology Clinic?"
Ming Shu bowed his head and fell silent for a long moment.
"Huang Mouquan's facial features may have been completely different from the Professor's facial features," Xiao Yu'an continued. "The Professor could have come up with any excuse not to show the face of 'his' corpse to Wu Zhen. He could have told Wu Zhen that he was a disgrace for ending his life in such a way, and that he couldn't bear to face his parents in death. Wu Zhen had been so taken in by the Professor already that he would have believed anything at that point."
"Then the Professor might've simply told Wu Zhen that he would be committing suicide in Unit 4-1 of Building 4 on Ninth Lane," Ming Shu said. "Most likely, he killed 'himself' with sodium cyanide. Before 'his' death, he covered the corpse's face and forbade Wu Zhen from removing the covering. Wu Zhen made multiple trips out to the Shanxiang Street area to familiarize himself with the roads for when he would dispose of the body."
Ming Shu mulled it over for a few seconds, then shook his head. "But wouldn't Wu Zhen have had questions about why the Professor would die in a place like that? And as for your second question, I can't think of a reason to make Huang Mouquan's home the primary scene of the crime. It would have been extremely risky to commit the murder there, then have Wu Zhen move the body."
"This was the Professor's choice," Xiao Yu'an said. "That means killing Huang Mouquan at Huang Mouquan's home must have been the easiest course of action for the Professor."
Ming Shu met Xiao Yu'an's gaze and fell into thought for a while longer.
"There were no traces of blood detected in the apartment, and there were no signs of a struggle," Xiao Yu'an stated as he gazed up at the old, darkened building. "There may have been a struggle that was covered up later, but I don't believe the victim and assailant fought. The soundproofing in this building is so bad that any fight would have been heard by the neighbors, even during the festivities of Chinese New Year's."
"The lock on the door wasn't broken either," Ming Shu said. "So the Professor just knocked and walked into Huang Mouquan's home? No, that's not right…"
"Which part do you feel isn't right?" Xiao Yu'an asked.
"Huang Mouquan was the Professor's body double, right?" Ming Shu confirmed. "The Professor may have searched all of Dongye City before deeming Huang Mouquan the most suitable double, so the Professor knew of him. But Huang Mouquan didn't know the Professor. Why would he let him into his home?"
"How can you be sure Huang Mouquan didn't know the Professor?" Xiao Yu'an lifted his eyebrows just a little. "There were eight dishes in the refrigerator, full of various cooked foods. When a person is living frugally, it's common for them to save leftovers from one meal for later. But eight dishes is quite a lot for one person who lives alone. Possibly even too much, no?"
Ming Shu instantly realized what Xiao Yu'an was getting at. "Those dishes weren't Huang Mouquan's leftovers. He made them in advance to entertain a guest?"
"And the Professor was that guest," Xiao Yu'an continued. "Not only did he and Huang Mouquan know each other, they were close enough to spend Chinese New Year's together. And so, to the Professor, it would have been more convenient to make his move at Huang Mouquan's house rather than anywhere else. He didn't have to worry about disposing of the body, since Wu Zhen would be taking care of that for him."
Ming Shu balled his right hand into a fist and slammed it against the open palm of his left hand. "Then we need to look into Huang Mouquan's social connections!"
Huang Mouquan, fifty-three years old. A native of Hulu Village. Over ten years ago, he and his wife had divorced, and Huang Mouquan had come to Dongye City alone. He'd moved into a home that his late daughter had purchased for a low price prior to her death.
Huang Mouquan's ex-wife, Kang Guohua, still lived in Hulu Village to that day. She'd remarried, and she currently lived with her new husband Zhu Qiang.
Compared to Huang Mouquan's living conditions, Kang Guohua's home in Hulu Village was far more spacious. There was no way to compare her current life to the bitter life a man in his fifties had lived in the slums of the big city.
Upon learning Huang Mouquan had been missing for over six months, Kang Guohua's mood remained perfectly calm and tranquil. "If he's missing, he's missing. It has nothing to do with me. Mouquan and I divorced so many years ago, and I have a new family now. I lost contact with him a long time ago. You guys came all the way out here to question me, but it would be better for you to spend your time questioning his current friends."
"Please don't misunderstand, we aren't here to interrogate you," Xu Chun said. "We'd just like for you to help us understand who Huang Mouquan was. You were married to him, after all. The information you provide will help us solve this case."
Kang Guohua shook her head. "I only know the Huang Mouquan from over ten years ago. So much time has passed. I don't even know what he looks like these days. You people should really ask his friends in the city."
"Based on what we know, Huang Mouquan had no friends," Xu Chun said.
Kang Guohua's eyes finally widened with surprise.
"Huang Mouquan has been missing for half a year, but no one reported him missing to the police," Xu Chun continued. "The clues and information we have are extremely scarce. That's why we've come to trouble you for your help."
Kang Guohua brought her hands together and anxiously fussed with her fingers. She whispered, "How is that possible?"
"You think it's strange that Huang Mouquan didn't have friends in Dongye City?" Xu Chun asked.
Kang Guohua hesitated for a moment before she said, "Huang Mouquan had a fantastic disposition, he was very friendly. Whenever someone did him a favor, he would do them a hundred favors in return. Before we divorced, he had quite a lot of friends here in our little village. I never imagined…"
"Do you mind," Xu Chun said, "if I ask about the reason for your divorce?"
Time must have healed old wounds. Not much sadness crossed Kang Guohua's face when she heard that question. After a moment, she sighed deeply and said, "Because of our daughter."
Huang Dongyan, the daughter of Kang Guohua and Huang Mouquan, had left home at the age of sixteen to find work in Dongye City.
Dongye City was the nearest city to Hulu Village, but that wasn't why Huang Dongyan chose to move there. She and the city both possessed the character 'Dong' in their names, and thus she believed it was her destiny to find her way to that big metropolis.
But that girl, with romantic notions in her heart, didn't find an idyllic life in Dongye City. She was largely uneducated, which made it difficult for her to find a job in the city. She tirelessly worked herself to the bone, and at the age of twenty, when the housing prices in Dongye City had yet to skyrocket, she'd bought a cheap apartment with her own savings and fifty thousand yuan from her parents.
That apartment was Unit 4-1 in Building 4 on Ninth Lane.
That same year, Huang Dongyan was mugged one night after a late shift. She was stabbed nine times and left to die in an alley three blocks from her home.
The murderer was apprehended very quickly; he was an old man who'd just been released from prison. When he failed to reintegrate into society, he went mad.
That old man was sentenced to death. At the time, the internet wasn't widely used, and the case was soon forgotten.
But the Huang family fell into irreparable despair.
Both Huang Mouquan and Kang Guohua were in their forties at the time; it would have been a struggle for them to have any more children. Kang Guohua spent her days sobbing. Huang Mouquan made several trips to Dongye City, suggesting that they leave Hulu Village and go live in the city of their daughter's dreams.
"Are you crazy?" Kang Guohua demanded. "We've lived as farmers for our whole lives. How could we possibly make a living in the big city?"
But Huang Mouquan was dead set on moving to Dongye City. He insisted on living in the apartment left behind by their daughter. He said that was the only way they would be able to feel their daughter's presence.
Kang Guohua was helpless to stop him, but she couldn't go with him either. Eventually, they'd had no choice but to split up.
"I'm not clear on how he's been living all these years," Kang Guohua said with her head bowed. "But him not having any friends… that's something I never would have expected."
Xu Chun had been dispatched to Hulu Village on Ming Shu's orders. Although the tragic story of the Huang family was sobering, Xu Chun had no choice but to continue with his questions.
"You said Huang Mouquan had a good disposition before Huang Dongyan passed," Xu Chun prompted. "He had many friends? Did any of those friends go to Dongye City after him?"
After recounting the story of her daughter's death, Kang Guohua's eyes had already reddened with the threat of tears.
She thought about that question for a long while before nodding. "There were two people."
One was Cao Furen, age sixty. He'd moved his family out to Dongye City seven years ago, and he now ran a breakfast restaurant in Xi District.
The other was Wang Zhong, fifty-five years old. After his wife died of illness three years ago, his son and daughter-in-law had invited him out to live with them in Dongye City.
"No, that's not right," Ming Shu said after Xu Chun reported his findings. "Neither of them could be the Professor."
"Tell Xu Chun that we aren't necessarily looking for one of Huang Mouquan's old friends," Xiao Yu'an said. "Huang Mouquan's former wife said he was a friendly person, didn't she? If he liked making friends, then he may have given anyone from his hometown a warm greeting upon running into them in the city. They may not have been friends in the past. Anyone in their forties or fifties, who'd moved from Hulu Village to Dongye City, could be the person we're looking for."
Xu Chun and the other field work team members spoke to just about everyone in Hulu Village, then finally sent over a full list of persons of interest to Ming Shu.
In addition to Cao Furen and Wang Zhong, there were seven other men in their forties or fifties who'd moved from Hulu Village to Dongye City.
Meanwhile, Yi Fei made a discovery at Guangye Hospital. After asking around, he learned that there was a security guard at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic who'd moved to Dongye City several years ago—Hao Lu, forty-eight years old.
And on the list of nine people Xu Chun sent back from Hulu Village—
Hao Lu was one of them!
Ming Shu instantly ordered, "Find him! Now!"
Many ginkgo trees were planted all around Jiulin Psychology. It was early autumn; some of the ginkgo leaves had already yellowed. When a breeze blew past, many of those leaves would come loose and flutter down to the ground.
Normally, this would have been a beautiful, peaceful sight. But things at the Jiulin Psychology Clinic were rather tense at that moment.
In the security guards' break room, two old uncles wearing security uniforms exchanged a look with each other. One of them said, "Hao… Hao Lu had some sort of family incident, an emergency. He took time off a long time ago and went back. I was sent here to fill in for him."
"Where does Hao Lu live?" Yi Fei instantly asked.
"Right here, right around here…"
Hao Lu had rented a place in a little neighborhood near the University of Medicine. It was a one-bedroom apartment that was unusually clean. It didn't look like anyone had ever lived there at all.
Ming Shu stooped down near one corner of the apartment. He opened the door to a cupboard and found a mahjong tile inside.
"Seven dots?" Yi Fei mused as he peered at the tile. "Hao Lu had a hobby of playing mahjong?"
Ming Shu ventured, "When you line up mahjong tiles and push them over, what do you have?"
"That would just make them dominoes, wouldn't it?" Yi Fei suddenly grit his teeth. "Is Hao Lu on the run from the law?"
The head of the HR department at Jiulin Psychology ran through their records and reported, "Hao Lu went on leave as soon as the new school year at the University of Medicine began. Take a look, September 3rd."
Ming Shu took the work schedule logs and furrowed his brow tightly.
Sha Chun had been killed early in the morning on August 24th. The police began to investigate the case three days later. Hao Lu vanished in early September, and his current whereabouts were unknown.
Out in Hulu Village, Xu Chun had already confirmed that Hao Lu had never been married. His parents were dead, and he had no family left in Hulu Village.
Why did Hao Lu suddenly leave his job? Was it because he knew his game of 'dominoes' had fallen apart? Or did he go on the run preemptively, knowing the police would trace these crimes back to him one day?
They'd finally zeroed in on a suspect, but that suspect was long gone. That was a significant blow to morale.
Fang Yuanhang swore up and down when he found out. Ming Shu glared at him and stated, "This is a major break in the case. What are you getting all worked up for?"
"We were still a step too late," Fang Yuanhang said, shaking his head. "If we'd been just a little faster, we could have arrested him and brought him in for questioning."
"We weren't one step too late, we were several steps too late," Ming Shu said. Then, he actually managed to laugh. "He fled on September 3rd. And how long did it take us to get here? We couldn't have stopped him even if we'd been faster."
"But what? What's more difficult? Uncovering the existence of the Professor from the scraps of clues in Sha Chun's case? Or finding a missing security guard?"
Fang Yuanhang instantly answered, "Obviously finding out about the Professor was harder! Tsk, he was way too well-hidden!"
"As long as you're clear on that," Ming Shu said. He gave his rookie a pat on the shoulder. "Hao Lu left Jiulin Psychology on September 3rd. It's difficult to determine whether or not he's still in Dongye City at this point. You go help the technical investigators track Hao Lu's movements from September 3rd onwards. Back then, he hadn't been exposed yet, and he surely knew that. So he might not have been as wary about surveillance cameras."
Once he finished speaking, Ming Shu spotted a familiar figure.
Even in the presence of so many police officers, Luo Yi seemed completely unfazed. He greeted the detectives with a slight nod, then walked into his office as though he were completely disinterested in what was happening.
Yi Fei walked over to Ming Shu. "Does Luo Yi really have nothing at all to do with this case?"
Ming Shu was silent for a while. "I'm going to talk to Long Tianhao."
Long Tianhao studied a photograph of Hao Lu. "This isn't the person who spoke to me."
"Look very closely," Ming Shu said.
"It really isn't!" Long Tianhao insisted.
After Sha Chun's case was resolved, both Long Tianhao and Yu Xiaocheng had sorted out their thoughts and given up on their plans to kill themselves. Long Tianhao had accepted the fact that he wasn't an esports prodigy, and he'd started earnestly looking for a new job.
Ming Shu had saved his life when he'd been ready to jump, and for that Long Tianhao was immensely grateful to him. He was desperate to help Ming Shu find the person who had 'inspired' him to go to 'Jianjia Bailu' for guzheng lessons. He wanted to do his part.
But the man in this photo really wasn't the person who'd spoken to him.
"You guys have the wrong person," Long Tianhao said with absolute certainty. "I'm not blind. I definitely didn't speak to this guy."
"We had a theory, earlier, that the Professor may have disguised himself before approaching Long Tianhao and the others. He may have dressed up like any ordinary professor," Xiao Yu'an said. He had already been briefed on all the new updates in the case. To Ming Shu, he continued, "I have another theory now—Hao Lu may have committed suicide already."
Ming Shu's heart clenched. "Hao Lu went on the lam because he thought the police would find him sooner or later, and he didn't want to pay the price for his crimes. But if he killed himself, he would indeed be paying that price. Why would he run, so soon after Sha Chun's death, if he was only going to kill himself?"
"Let's think about what kind of person Hao Lu is," Xiao Yu'an said. He loaded up the photo of Hao Lu that had been provided to them by Jiulin Psychology. It had been taken at the beginning of that year.
"Throughout his early life, he worked as a farmer in Hulu Village. Just like Huang Mouquan. A few years ago, he moved to Dongye City. Exactly when he moved, we still don't know. We need to find out, and we also need to find out what he was doing before he started working as a security guard at Jiulin Psychology," Xiao Yu'an said. "Starting from the beginning of this year—no, perhaps even earlier—he started to experiment on 'diligent but mediocre' people.
"This year, his experiment succeeded once. But the second time, there were problems. A sociopath like this, currently missing… the chances of him having committed suicide are actually fifty-fifty."
Ming Shu thought about that for a long time. "I don't want him to have committed suicide. I want to catch him and bring him to justice."
"That's the outcome I hope for as well," Xiao Yu'an said. "But I did have to bring up the possibility of the worst case scenario."
Ming Shu walked up and stopped behind Xiao Yu'an, studying the computer monitor. "What would cause a farmer to come to Dongye City and start experimenting with human lives?"
"Is Xu Chun still in Hulu Village?" Xiao Yu'an suddenly asked.
Ming Shu nodded. "Yeah."
"The technical investigation team has yet to pin down Hao Lu's whereabouts," Xiao Yu'an said. "He may still be hiding somewhere in Dongye City, or he may have left long ago. If he's the perpetrator in these crimes, it's very likely that he'll still be in Dongye City, secretly observing our investigation and waiting for an opportunity to move.
"But we can't rule out another possibility—the possibility that he's already left Dongye City. If he left, where would he go? Where would he most likely go?"
"Home? You think Hao Lu went back to Hulu Village?" Ming Shu asked. "But it's not like Xu Chun didn't check out Hao Lu's old house there. It's been deserted for a long time."
"Naturally, Hao Lu wouldn't allow anyone else to notice his presence," Xiao Yu'an said. "But imagine a person who left home many years ago and ran into some trouble. Would that person be tempted to go home for a while?"
Ming Shu put himself in Hao Lu's shoes and said, "I probably wouldn't want to."
"You're not that old yet," Xiao Yu'an said. He patted his desk and made a decision. "Go out to Hulu Village yourself."
Ming Shu lifted his gaze. "Me?"
"Yes, you." Xiao Yu'an possessed a unique sort of charisma when issuing orders. "My theory could be wrong. It's very possible that Hao Lu isn't in Hulu Village, but it's still worth checking out his past. Why has he remained single his whole life? Why did he go crazy after leaving Hulu Village?
"Finding the answers to these questions will definitely help us steer our investigation, even if we don't find Hao Lu himself in Hulu Village."
Ming Shu stood in place for a moment. His eyes were bright and full of determination. "Yessir, Director Xiao!"
After Ming Shu took his leave, Xiao Yu'an turned his gaze back to his computer monitor. Then he loaded up the photo of Qin Guoxing, the University of Medicine's pharmacology lecturer who had committed suicide nine years ago.
He placed that photo next to the photo of Hao Lu on his screen.
A close examination of the facial features of the two men revealed…
There were actually many similarities.