In the darkness of the night, after hurriedly exchanging information with his colleagues, Lu Junchi rushed into the alley. It was already 10:05 PM.
He knew that this time he might be too late again. He didn’t like the feeling of giving his all and still not being able to save someone, but he had to accept it. Life wasn’t just about winning; there would be losses too. He had to face this reality—they couldn’t save everyone.
Only by catching the killer could he bring solace to the departed souls.
Xia Mingxi’s voice came through his earpiece, “Captain Lu… The live broadcast has ended this time. The next one will be in an hour.”
It was the time during the break between live broadcasts.
The night grew darker, and Lu Junchi stopped to catch his breath. The intense physical activity made him feel like his lungs were about to explode when he breathed. His heart pounded rapidly, and the sweat on his forehead dripped down along his hair.
Even someone who exercised regularly like him felt his limbs growing weak at this moment. His muscles ached, and he felt like he was nearing his limit.
Lu Junchi wiped away his sweat and looked up. In the dark night, the surroundings were eerily quiet. There were very few residents in this area. It consisted of a few dilapidated houses awaiting demolition, resembling haunted houses.
A light suddenly turned on in one of the second-floor windows, emitting a faint glow like a firefly in the dark night.
Qi Zhengyang stuck his head out from the makeshift second floor and shouted to him with a muffled voice, “Captain Lu, we found it.”
Lu Junchi had already anticipated the answer in his heart, but he still raised his head and asked, “What is it?”
Qi Zhengyang replied, his voice muffled, “A corpse, hanged. We can confirm the death.” He paused and asked again, “Should we wait for the forensic team or take a look ourselves?”
“I’ll take a look first. Did you see the killer?”
“When we arrived here, the lights were off, and there was no one. There was only a dead body inside the room.”
Qi Zhengyang had searched room by room, bringing Wang Xunan along. As soon as they entered this building, they heard a noise upstairs. Upon further investigation, they found it much colder inside than outside and noticed the hanging body in the room’s window.
Although the building had two floors, it was particularly low, and each room was small, barely accommodating a double bed. Lu Junchi quickly climbed the stairs in three steps, saying, “The next live broadcast will be in an hour.”
Rundown buildings, demolition houses, in a city as big as Wanhucheng, they still didn’t know where the next live broadcast would take place. Once the live broadcast started, it would be another chase.
Qi Zhengyang led Lu Junchi into the room and pointed at something.
As soon as Lu Junchi entered the room, he felt a gust of cold wind hitting his face. Surprisingly, in this dilapidated house, there was an old, cheap air conditioner that only provided cooling. It made a loud noise that was hard to ignore.
Perhaps because it was too old, the air conditioner hadn’t been removed. What was strange was that it was currently running, and the cooling effect was quite good.
Lu Junchi glanced at the air conditioner on the wall. The displayed temperature was 18°C. Clearly, the air conditioner was set to a very low temperature.
He turned to Qi Zhengyang and asked, “Was it like this when you entered?”
Qi Zhengyang replied, “Nothing has changed. When we first entered, the door was closed, and the temperature inside was even lower than it is now. We didn’t find the remote control either.”
Wang Xunan was also in the room, and when he saw Lu Junchi entering, he quickly stepped aside. He had seen very few corpses and didn’t dare to approach from a distance.
This was an empty residential house, narrow and poorly lit. It had probably been used as a shared rental or cramped living space for a family. There were still children’s doodles left on the walls, drawn with pencils.
Most of the furniture had been removed from the room, with only some miscellaneous items left in the corners. Fortunately, the electricity was still on.
Under the dim light, the indoor environment resembled the previous live streaming room.
At this moment, the body of a young man was hanging from the curtain rod inside the room. He was wearing the high school uniform of Wanhucheng No. 1 Middle School—a white shirt and black pants. His eyes were covered by a black cloth, and his mouth was taped shut. He hung limply with his limbs dangling. He looked identical to the person in the video.
The body was a result of hanging. There was a thick mountaineering rope around the neck. Despite the air conditioning, the smell of the deceased mixed with the musty odor left by the previous owner.
Lu Junchi had been running for a long time and had engaged in intense physical activity moments ago. Feeling a bit exhausted, the blast of cold wind and the unpleasant smell made him feel nauseous. He forcefully suppressed that feeling and frowned, asking, “Can we confirm the identity of the victim?”
Qi Zhengyang shook the flashlight he held above the young man’s head and said, “I compared it with the photos, and it should be Tao Yingxu without a doubt. To confirm the identity, we’ll have to wait for the forensic analysis.”
Lu Junchi furrowed his brow and said, “I asked the gang members who were blocking the alley. Guess who instructed them to stand guard here?”
Qi Zhengyang was momentarily stunned. He made an unexpected guess, pointing his flashlight upward and said, “It can’t be… him, right?”
Lu Junchi nodded.
Qi Zhengyang’s brow also furrowed tightly. The victim had prevented the police from entering by blocking the alley? This situation seemed too bizarre. “Is there any possibility of a mistake?”
Lu Junchi had considered many possibilities before. The gang member might be lying, or perhaps tonight’s live-streamed killings were staged. But these answers seemed disconnected, and some details were contradictory.
“That blond guy said he communicated with Tao Yingxu online. Maybe… someone used his account?” Lu Junchi spoke as he reached out and touched the ankle of the corpse. However, he instantly froze.
Qi Zhengyang noticed that Lu Junchi’s expression was off and reached out to touch it as well.
The body was slightly cold and already stiff.
Without waiting for the forensic team, they could make a preliminary judgment. This kind of corpse was obviously not left behind by the live stream just a few minutes ago. The stiffness of the body indicated that the person had been dead for several hours or more.
Lu Junchi quickly took several photos of the scene and stored them on his phone. He told Qi Zhengyang, “Call the forensic team and the evidence collection unit.” Then, without reporting to Director Tan, he dialed Su Hui’s number. He was eager to confirm this information with him.
Su Hui was about to leave his
office when he received Lu Junchi’s call.
“I’ve discovered something here.”
“I have something to tell you…”
Both of them spoke simultaneously.
Su Hui spoke first, “You go ahead.”
Lu Junchi then recounted the process of discovering the body in the building scheduled for demolition. He said, “I find this whole thing strange now. What could be the purpose behind the killer’s actions?”
Su Hui pondered for a moment and said, “It might be a diversionary tactic.”
“What do you mean?” Lu Junchi asked.
Su Hui analyzed, “Compared to death by burning or drowning, hanging is easier to disguise. In the live-stream video we just watched, the killer may have tampered with it. He wants you to believe that the person who died during the live stream was Tao Yingxu.”
“How did the killer accomplish that?” Lu Junchi furrowed his brow. He had been rushing and didn’t see the complete video.
“Tao Yingxu may have died here several hours ago, and during the live stream, someone impersonated him. In the third live stream, the victim had his eyes covered and mouth taped shut. At that time, it was easy for us to identify him as Tao Yingxu based on his hairstyle and birthmark on his forehead. But birthmarks can be easily disguised. Find a guy of similar age, height, body type, and hairstyle, and draw a birthmark on his forehead. That would be enough to confuse people.”
The video was a live stream, so it couldn’t have been edited or prerecorded.
The problem lies in the brief blackout that lasted less than a minute.
This means that during that short period, someone used the blind spot of the camera to switch the bodies.
Lu Junchi carefully examined the forehead of the deceased, and there was a red birthmark. They initially identified Tao Yingxu based on the birthmark on his forehead in the live stream.
If this corpse is Tao Yingxu, then who was the person in the live stream just now?
Lu Junchi suddenly understood why someone was guarding the entrance and preventing them from entering. It was to ensure the smooth progress of the live stream.
The longer they were delayed, the later the police would discover this information, leading to misleading conclusions.
Coupled with the continuously running air conditioning, it could potentially mislead the forensic examiner regarding the time of death.
The killer wanted to confuse them and conceal the truth.
Su Hui analyzed further, “During the execution phase, the killer used the black screen and camera angle switches to switch to the real body. He probably didn’t expect you to find the live stream location so early and discover Tao Yingxu’s body.”
He coughed twice and continued, “If the police hadn’t arrived so soon and it had been delayed until tonight, with the video and the running air conditioning slowing down the decomposition of the body, there would have been a high chance of misjudging the time and mistaking that location as the crime scene of the third case. This is probably one of the killer’s objectives.”
Lu Junchi finally understood, “So you mean the killer had to fake Tao Yingxu’s death in the previous video because he needed everyone to believe that Tao Yingxu died during the live stream. The person who pretended to be Tao Yingxu at the beginning of the live stream might not be dead!”
It turned out that this time, they weren’t too late; the case had already happened. With this realization, Lu Junchi felt a lot less frustrated.
This case was too complex, and it felt like peeling an onion layer by layer to uncover the truth. At this point, they still didn’t know the motive behind the killer’s crimes.
“Has the forensic examiner arrived yet?” Su Hui suddenly remembered something and asked.
Lu Junchi said, “It will take some time for the forensic team to arrive. Time is running short today. Tell me, let me see if I can take a look first.”
While following Qiao Ze downstairs, Su Hui made a phone call and said, “Okay, describe the body to me.”
Lu Junchi glanced at the hanging body and replied, “The body is male, death by hanging, with visible ligature marks on the neck. It has already become cold and stiff.”
Su Hui focused on organizing the facts and said, “Based on the timeline, he is not the victim of the third live broadcast. He is the first victim.”
Lu Junchi nodded, “Yes, the timeline has been reset by a visual illusion.”
Su Hui cleared his throat and asked, “Take a look at the shoulders, abdomen, and waist of the body, see if there are any marks from ropes.” Many deductions can only be made by examining the body.
Lu Junchi climbed onto the windowsill and carefully unbuttoned the victim’s clothes, revealing the pale skin.
He carefully examined the body and indeed found some faint red marks on the torso, just as Su Hui had described. He said to Su Hui, “There are some marks, what do these marks represent?”
Su Hui explained, “Those are marks from the rope, there is a hanging method that makes it appear as if the person was hanged, but in reality, the weight is supported by the waist. They must have practiced this process repeatedly.”
The amount of information was overwhelming, and Lu Junchi furrowed his brows as he pondered Su Hui’s words. “I think I’ve seen this method in movies and TV shows before. So, the killer initially deceived him, making him believe that this hanging method was safe, but during the experiment, the killer changed the way the rope was tied, causing him to be hanged?”
“The killer took advantage of this and ultimately paralyzed him, leading to his death by hanging.” Su Hui coughed a few times and continued, “I suspect that the students were deceived. From start to finish, they were all cooperating in a performance. In the original plan, tonight was probably meant to be a prank. They didn’t know they would actually be killed.”
Lu Junchi stood on the windowsill and carefully observed, “There are some wiped-off dust marks on the curtain rod, indicating that the rope was moved.”
The clue suddenly aligned. During the one-minute blackout, the killer used the opportunity to manipulate the rope and perform a switch.
Su Hui said, “The killer probably promised the teenagers that it was an act of justice, that everything in the live broadcast was fake, and they wouldn’t be in any real danger. That’s why those kids willingly participated in the performance. The kidnappers may not even exist. The children had already entered those rooms in advance, waiting for the host’s appearance. They cooperated in the performance, so before their deaths, they didn’t experience pain or show any expressions of fear.”
Lu Junchi sighed and jumped down from the windowsill. “Unfortunately, the killer had already killed Tao Yingxu long ago and secretly replaced the props. The fire was real, and so was the drowning. They would only discover the truth at the moment of death, but by then, it would be too late.”
Su Hui added, “However, some of these are just our speculations. You still need to find evidence.”
Lu Junchi said, “I understand…”
He understood clearly that although Su Hui’s story was cruel and bizarre, it was likely the truth.
Continuing his train of thought, Lu Junchi said,
“Based on the current evidence, Tao Yingxu might have been the original planner of this live broadcast. By killing him in advance, the killer was able to carry out the plan according to his own intentions, turning all illusions into reality. According to the killer’s plan, as the police investigate, they may eventually discover that Tao Yingxu was the mastermind, even though Tao Yingxu is already dead. The killer wants to escape the responsibility of being the main culprit…”
At the entrance of Wanhu No.1 High School, the police car that was supposed to pick them up finally arrived. Su Hui and Lu Junchi said, “I’ll go to the hospital first to meet Mo Xiuxiu and find out her actual situation.”
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