"You don't know?" Ming Shu rapped his knuckles against the photo on the left. "Then why was your skin tissue found under her nails?"
Wang Zheng's eyes instantly widened. "My… my what?"
Ming Shu sighed. "Do you really need me to repeat myself? Your skin tissue. Under this victim's fingernails. Why else would I have brought you in?"
"I thought you wanted to talk to me about the mistakes of my past!" Wang Zheng exclaimed. "I really don't know this person! I've never even seen her before!"
People could lie. But physical evidence couldn't.
Ming Shu moved his gaze from Wang Zheng's face to Wang Zheng's arm. "Take off your shirt."
Wang Zheng froze in his seat.
"Or roll up the sleeves, that's fine too," Ming Shu said. "As long as you can show me your arms, front and back."
The fear in Wang Zheng's eyes was obvious. He hesitated for a moment before taking off the jacket from the delivery service he worked for. Then he rolled up the sleeves of his inner t-shirt.
With just one glance, Ming Shu spotted a scratch on Wang Zheng's right arm. The scratch was no longer very obvious, but it was there.
Ming Shu jerked his chin at the wound. "What is that?"
Wang Zheng looked down. "This… ah! I remember now, I was scratched by a woman!"
Ming Shu picked up the photo on the left. "This woman."
Wang Zheng instantly squeezed his eyes shut. He didn't dare look at the photo of the corpse.
The reactions Wang Zheng had exhibited since being brought to the Serious Crimes Division had already made Ming Shu start to suspect that he wasn't the killer. However, it was undeniable that Wang Zheng's skin tissue had appeared beneath the nails of one of the victims.
Wang Zheng claimed he didn't know the victims. In that case, under what circumstances could he have been scratched by one of them?
"Think back very carefully," Ming Shu said. "When did you get that scratch? Why did this woman scratch you?"
Wang Zheng fidgeted restlessly in his seat. "It was just a few days ago. We were all on a bus at the time, and it was really crowded. She stood next to me, wearing a white tracksuit. I don't know why, but the bus suddenly braked. She lost her balance and clawed at my arm. I'm a man, I'm used to rough work, so I didn't really feel any pain at the time. If you didn't point it out, I wouldn't even have known there was a scratch there."
"Wait," Ming Shu said. "A few days ago, the cold snap had yet to hit the city. But it was already too cold to be wearing t-shirts. Why were your arms exposed?"
"I'd just finished working at a construction site!" Wang Zheng said. "Aren't there surveillance cameras on buses? She and I were standing near the back door. You can check the footage if you don't believe me!"
"Which bus did you take?" Ming Shu asked. "When did you get on and off?"
"I took 308," Wang Zheng said. "I'm on the overnight shift at that construction site. I finished up at nine in the morning, and my delivery shift starts at noon. Let me think… I probably got on the bus at around nine-thirty, and I got off at ten at the latest."
Ming Shu turned to Fang Yuanhang and said, "Go. Verify his claims."
Surveillance cameras had been installed on Dongye City's buses and trains a long time ago. As Wang Zheng claimed, on October 13th, he truly had been scratched by one of the victims on a bus on Route 308.
Yi Fei had already rushed back to the Serious Crimes Division by the time this was confirmed. He reported his judgment to Ming Shu. "Although Wang Zheng is sick, he's been diligently looking for work and taking care of his aging mother. I don't think he fits the psychological profile of this killer."
Ming Shu was still watching the surveillance footage from the bus. "He isn't the murderer," Ming Shu confirmed. "But he's given us an important lead. We'll be able to identify the two victims very soon."
Buses on Route 308 drove westward from Heting Station near the south of Dongye City to the station on West Tianxing Road in the northern part of the city. The route was extremely long, and the trip was typically slow—there were at least thirty-seven stops along the way. The route passed two shopping centers, a fire station, four high schools, as well as the Zijiao Campus of the University of Dongye.
The surveillance camera at the front of the bus showed that the girl who scratched Wang Zheng had gotten on at the Zijiao Campus stop. She hand an SLR camera hanging from around her neck, and her companion was a girl wearing a red tracksuit and black sneakers.
Their outfits were just as described by the monk Wu Zeng, and judging by their ages and style of dress, it seemed likely that they were students at Zijiao Campus.
The two girls disembarked at the final stop of the route, on West Tianxing Road. Surveillance cameras in that area then captured them climbing into a red Ford sedan.
Ming Shu started assigning tasks—
"Find out if any girls from Zijiao Campus have been missing for more than four days, and find the owner of that red Ford."
The scope of their search had narrowed considerably, and the victims were very quickly identified—
Lu Chen, twenty-four years old. Native of Helian County in the jurisdiction of Dongye City.
Zhao Siyan, twenty-four years old. Native of Luocheng.
The were, respectively, Victim 1 and Victim 2, as assigned by Xing Mu according to their positions at the scene of the crime.
Both victims were graduate students of the School of Communications at the Zijiao Campus of the University of Dongye. They lived in the same dorm room, and they had the same mentor.
The graduate student dorms had only been built a few years ago; they were much newer and more modern than the undergraduate dorms. Only four students shared each room, and the rooms were all equipped with air conditioning, hot water, and broadband—the works.
Upon learning two of their roommates had been murdered four days ago, Yang Le and Zhan Li—the two other girls who lived in that dorm room—were both rendered speechless for a long while.
Ming Shu saw shock and terror fill up their eyes. But any traces of sadness, if there, were negligible.
"Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan hadn't returned to the dorm in four days," Ming Shu said. "Neither of you found that strange?"
"We… we really weren't that close," Zhan Li said with a pale face. "And they used to stay out all night without telling us all the time. I really didn't know they were dead."
Yang Le slowly stammered, "I… I share a room with Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan, but… but we didn't have any classes together. I didn't know them that well. I'm a chemical engineering student, and I've been sleeping in the lab these past few nights."
Ming Shu had already asked the technical investigation team to pull the surveillance footage from the cameras near the dormitory, and to check the victims' recent communications records. He'd also instructed Fang Yuanhang and a few others to map the victims' social circles, while he personally went to visit Yang Le and Zhan Li.
"You mentioned they often stayed out all night. Do you know where they would go?" Ming Shu looked towards Zhan Li. "Not only were you their roommate, you were their classmate as well, majoring in the same field. You should know more about them than Yang Le, correct?"
"They… went to bars and clubs, I guess. That sort of thing." Zhan Li's forehead was already a little shiny with sweat. "They didn't go to our school for undergrad, they were admitted from other schools."
When she said that, Zhan Li furrowed her brows with some disdain.
The University of Dongye was a top-tier university. Zhan Li had pointedly used 'our' and 'they' to distinguish herself from Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan. Ming Shu could tell right away that Zhan Li looked down on the two victims, who'd tested in from other schools.
"They went to nightclubs for fun, or…?" Ming Shu deliberately trailed off, leaving the question unfinished.
"They went to work part-time jobs," Zhan Li said.
Two graduate students, staying out all night and working part-time jobs at nightclubs… one couldn't help but jump to conclusions.
"When did they start working these jobs?" Ming Shu asked. "Which bars and clubs did they go to?"
Zhan Li shook her head. "I never asked where they were going. As for when they started, I think it was the second term of our first year of grad school."
"Were Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan very close?" Ming Shu continued.
"They were classmates in undergrad too, not like us," Zhan Li said. Once again, a haughty look of superiority crossed her face.
"Which is to say, they always stuck together and did things together. They had their own little clique," Ming Shu said. "Then, were they especially close to any of the other students here?"
Zhan Li listed out a few names, then said, "They're all people who tested in for grad school, from other universities."
Ming Shu wrote each name down, then asked, "What about outside of school? Let's focus on the past month or so. Did they have much contact with anyone from outside the school?"
Zhan Li had already calmed from the initial shock of learning her roommates had died. She seemed much more indifferent now as she answered, "I have my own schoolwork and research projects to focus on. Who they came into contact with is none of my business."
Later, Yang Le privately spoke to Ming Shu and told him that Zhan Li, Lu Chen, and Zhao Siyan used to get into a lot of conflicts with one another. Yang Le wasn't in the same field as her three roommates, so there was no need for her to compete with them over anything, but living in the same dorm as those three made for a tense time. She often felt like the filling in a brittle cookie sandwich.
"Before Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan left the school," Ming Shu prompted, "did you notice anything that you felt was out of the ordinary?"
Yang Le took a moment to think back. "The day they left, I'd pulled an all-nighter in the lab and was planning to come back to the dorm in the morning to catch up on some sleep. Classes were already in session by the time I got back, so I didn't think anyone would be in our room. But Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were both still there. They said they were going to go out, and they even invited me to go along."
"Didn't you say you didn't know them very well?" Ming Shu asked. "You said you weren't close?"
Yang Le hastily explained, "Actually, that's mostly because of Zhan Li. They aren't on good terms with Zhan Li, and Zhan Li has a very… strong personality. When Zhan Li was around, the four of us didn't talk very much."
"And when Zhan Li wasn't around, you would occasionally chat with Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan?"
"Mm," Yang Le confirmed. "Zhao Siyan even showed me her camera. She said she bought it with money from her part-time job. It was more than twenty thousand yuan. She wanted to take pictures of ginkgo leaves with it. But I was just too tired that day, so I told them to invite me along next time."
At that point, Yang Le's shoulders started to tremble. A look of fear descended upon her face. "If I'd gone with them… would I have been killed too?"
"Have you ever gotten on anyone's bad side, or had anyone stalk or harass you?" Ming Shu asked.
Yang Le quickly shook her head. "I spend most of my time on campus, and I'm on good terms with all my classmates and mentors. I basically don't have any contact with people outside the school."
"Were Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan being harassed by anyone?"
"I… I don't know."
"Then let me ask you a different question," Ming Shu said. "When Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan left, did they seem excited about their autumn outing?"
"Yes," Yang Le answered earnestly.
At noon, Ming Shu called a meeting with the rest of the team to comb through the details of the case.
"We've found the bar where Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan worked part-time," Xu Chun said. "It's a place in Nan District's nightlife block, called Linsen Jianlu. Looks like a perfectly ordinary bar, with a drink minimum of one hundred and twenty yuan per person. Whether or not there's any hidden problems with the bar, and whether or not the victims encountered or caused any problems there—we're still looking into those things."
"Communications records and surveillance?" Ming Shu prompted, turning to Zhou Yuan.
"On the day of their deaths, and the three days prior, Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan only contacted family members and friends from out of town," Zhou Yuan reported. "Lu Chen did receive three calls from unknown numbers on her phone, but we've already confirmed that these calls were from delivery services. The surveillance cameras outside the dorm captured their movements every day. Nothing seemed to be out of the ordinary about their behavior when they left on October 13th."
"Which is to say they didn't contact anyone suspicious recently," Ming Shu mused. "What about farther back?"
Zhou Yuan's look grew more severe. "Over a month ago, Zhao Siyan had frequent contact with one number in particular. When we looked it up, we found it belonged to a man named He Yi. Thirty-four years old. Civil servant working for the city's Cultural Bureau."
"A month ago?" Ming Shu echoed. "And there's been no recent contact between them?"
Zhou Yuan shook his head. "Zhao Siyan blocked him."
"Blocked?" Ming Shu said. "Then we have to find this person."
Zhou Yuan nodded. "Understood."
Ming Shu thought it over for a while, then turned to Yi Fei and Fang Yuanhang. "How's it going on your end?"
Fang Yuanhang spoke first. "Lu Chen was very well-liked at the School of Communications. Grad schools don't have that many student events or organizations, and a lot of graduate students don't like to participate anyway. But Lu Chen liked to take part in everything, she was super outgoing. Even though she didn't attend the University of Dongye for her undergraduate degree, she got to know most of her classmates really soon after starting her grad program there."
"Does that 'most' include the students who attended the University of Dongye for their undergraduate degrees?" Ming Shu asked.
"Yeah," Fang Yuanhang said.
Ming Shu was scribbling notes in his notepad. The victims' roommate Zhan Li had only listed a few names when asked who Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were close to among their peers. What Fang Yuanhang had learned, that they were friendly with just about everyone, clearly contradicted what Zhan Li had said.
So who was lying? Zhan Li? Or the other students at the School of Communications?
Ming Shu's pen paused next to Zhan Li's name on his notepad. He jotted down a checkmark next to her name.
"Lu Chen's grades were great, and her mentor spoke highly of her," Fang Yuanhang continued. "Zhao Siyan wasn't as outstanding. In the comprehensive assessment from their first year, to track their professional development, she ranked near the middle of the bottom half of her class.
"Let me put it this way. If we use our last case as a reference, Lu Chen was the 'gifted' sort. Even without studying too much, she got good grades. Zhao Siyan, on the other hand, was more 'mediocre'. She wasn't all that diligent either. She mostly just went along with whatever Lu Chen suggested. Lu Chen was the one who got her into that part-time job, too."
"Their family conditions are quite good," Yi Fei chimed in. "Zhao Siyan comes from a middle-class family in Luocheng. Her parents are both in business, and she's their only child. Lu Chen was born out in the countryside, but she grew up in big cities. Her parents are in business as well. She has one older sister, already married."
"Then, neither of them actually had to work part-time at a nightclub to make ends meet," Ming Shu said.
"My feeling is that they just saw it as something fresh and new to do," Yi Fei said. "Or maybe they wanted to be financially independent."
Ming Shu scrutinized his notes for a long moment before he said, "As of right now, the victims' social circles seem fairly simple. And based on what we currently know, it seems they decided to go on a trip on October 13th on a whim. It's likely they weren't influenced by anyone. They didn't show any signs of knowing they were being watched or followed. They probably didn't know their killer."
"Could it have been a random act of violence?" Xu Chun asked. "A murderous psychopath with twisted sexual needs, preying on two random girls to commit this crime?"
"If that's the case, then the killer will probably… no, the kill will definitely strike again," Yi Fei said with worry creasing his brow. "And judging by the way in which Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were killed and posed, the murderer is 'skilled'. He—I'm currently assuming he's a man—may have murdered other women before the 1013 Case as well."
"We have quite a few clues now," Ming Shu said. He tossed his notepad onto the table and stood up.
He was in the habit of taking thorough notes, but after scribbling everything down, he also liked to set his notes aside and analyze the details of the case that remained lodged in his mind.
"Linsen Jianlu is one important lead," Ming Shu said. "The bar and the university are the places where Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan spent the most time and interacted with the most people. Compared to the university, the bar is a much more complicated place. There are bound to be good and bad folks there. Could the killer have set their sights on Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan at Linsen Jianlu?
"That civil servant named He Yi could very well have been a customer at Linsen Jianlu."
"I'll follow that lead," Xu Chun said.
"Mm," Ming Shu confirmed. Then, he continued, "The victims died tragically. But the strongest feeling the killer expressed through his actions wasn't necessarily 'hate'. It may have been 'admiration'."
Yi Fei nodded and voiced his agreement. "That's right. If this had been a crime of anger and loathing, the killer most likely would have destroyed the bodies. But if we think about it as an act of 'admiration', I have to wonder if the killer was part of their social circle at all. It's possible that he wasn't."
"We'll know the answer to that question once we thoroughly investigate their social connections," Ming Shu said.
Fang Yuanhang raised his hand. "In this case, wouldn't Wu Zeng from Haijing Temple have a motive? If he's twisted enough, he would be capable of anything."
Ming Shu flashed his rookie a smile. "If you can't let go of that lead, go follow up on it. Just like in our last case."
Fang Yuanhang squared his shoulders and whispered, "I'm your capable right-hand man now, aren't I?"
Ming Shu turned to Xiao Man next. He asked, "Have we been able to determine where those ten nails were manufactured? Where they were sold?"
"They were all just standard building materials. Judging by how rusted they were, the nails themselves were at least ten years old," Xiao Man said. "We took them to hardware stores and construction sites to ask around, but everyone said that these nails weren't really in use anymore. They aren't even sold at regular hardware stores these days."
"Then how did the killer get these nails?" Fang Yuanhang asked. "Wait! If these nails are so old, maybe they've been used by lots of different people?"
Xiao Man shook his head. "We've carefully inspected each and every one of those nails. The only DNA we found on them was the DNA of the victims."
Ming Shu turned to Zhou Yuan once more and asked, "Is it possible to track and pinpoint the locations of Lu Chen's and Zhao Siyan's cell phones?"
"No," Zhou Yuan answered. "The killer has already destroyed the phones."
Ming Shu planted both hands on the conference table. It was a pose that made his gaze look especially harsh.
"This is a murder in which young women were targeted," Ming Shu began. "The killer is capable of stabbing through the victims' temporal bones while the victims are conscious. We can already determine that the killer is extremely cruel, and extremely skilled.
"Captain Yi is correct. A person like this has most likely committed similar crimes in the past. Possibly elsewhere, possibly right here in Dongye City. And the victims from these previous crimes were never discovered.
"If we don't capture him this time, before long, he'll definitely kill again.
"One team will check all missing persons cases and look for missing women similar to Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan in age. Focus on college students who stand out, in terms of appearance, and graduate students. Meanwhile, we'll also…"
Ming Shu paused for a moment, then continued, "I'll pull files on all similar cases from across the nation. But Lu Chen and Zhao Siyan were killed in Dongye City. That means finding the killer is our responsibility.
"The break is over, our autumn outing is a bust. But I need you all to get your spirits up and work hard. We must find this killer before he strikes again!"
The team in charge of tracking down the red Ford worked with the traffic police and confirmed the owner's identity.
The car belonged to Xiong Hanqiang, forty-five years old. Resident of Shouquan, the town near Mount Qiyue.
While the police began rushing towards Shouquan, Xiong Hanqiang's house was in an uproar. His wife was sobbing and shrieking, "Xiong Hanqiang, do you want to throw this family away?!"
Criminal Investigation Bureau.
Ming Shu considered reaching out to special ops on his own, but after thinking it over, he decided to leave it to Xiao Yu'an after all.
When Ming Shu made his way upstairs, he saw Liang Zhao once more. But this time, Liang Zhao didn't see him.
Liang Zhao's expression was extremely dark. He was holding two opaque bags and hurriedly making his way towards the other flight of stairs.
Ming Shu instinctively ducked into the shadows. He didn't emerge again until Liang Zhao was gone.
A soft noise sounded out behind him. Ming Shu spun around in an instant—
Only to see Director Li standing just a few steps away from him, smiling.
"Captain Ming, what are you looking at so intently?"