Chapter 353: The Imitator

Xiaotao assigned the officers their tasks and dismissed them.

While waiting for the results of their investigation, I returned to the store. Because there weren’t as many customers in the morning, Dali had gone out to market our product. When I got there, Luo Youyou was playing Plants vs Zombies on the computer. My presence made her a little nervous since I was also considered her boss.

I waved my hand and said, "It’s alright. Continue with your game!"

“Song Yang, don’t you have any cases to solve today?" she asked.

"Even investigations require division of labor,” I explained. “My part is done. In fact, a consultant’s job is rather relaxing."

"You feel relaxed because you like the job,” Luo Youyou laughed. “I heard from Dali that solving crimes is very difficult."

I watched as she continued her game. Plants vs Zombies wasn’t a game I usually played, so many of the intermediate levels were new to me. I saw two Peashooters among her plants, one of which was grey and wasn’t shooting peas.

I asked curiously, "Is this a new plant?"

"No, this is called Imitater and its special ability is copying other plants… Oh, no, I was so engrossed in our conversation I didn’t even notice that my sunflower was eaten!"

Her words seemed to inspire an idea in my head. As I contemplated, I finished up some chores and organized the shelves. More often than not, I found doing menial tasks was helpful for brainwork.

I stayed in the store all morning and even helped sell some of our products, though lacking in eloquence. The girls laughed at my recommendations which I fumbled through with much stuttering.

When Dali came back at noon and caught me promoting a product, he seemed surprised. "Dude, how come you’re here?"

"I wanted to familiarize myself with the business,” I said. “I can’t just leave everything to you, can I? I’ll drop by when I’m not investigating cases. I’ll do whatever I can."

"Sounds great!” he grinned. “I’ll teach you what you need to know."

After spending a day at the store, I received a call from Xiaotao at about 4:00 pm. "Song Yang, we’ve found some clues. The apartment opposite of the Ding home was rented out but the landlord has never met the tenant! The landlord says a man called after seeing the advertisement and paid for 3 months’ rent through WeChat. He asked the landlord to place the key in the milk box."

"That sounds suspicious!"

"Would you like to take a look at the place?" she asked.

"Yes, I’m in the store now," I answered.

A while later, Xiaotao arrived in her car outside the store. We drove to Mr. Ding’s residential area where officers were still questioning several residents. According to reports from neighbors, the apartment seemed completely uninhabited. The tenant opened neither the windows nor the door. They didn’t even hear the sound of his toilet flushing.

On one occasion, the next-door neighbor was on the balcony in the middle of the night when he saw flames flickering on and off behind the window of that apartment. Frightened out of his wits, he immediately assumed it was a burglar. He went to the property manager only to discover that the unit was actually rented out.

The neighbor wondered if the man was a bit of a loony for standing motionless at the window in the middle of the night without any light on while smoking a cigarette. 

Xiaotao and I headed to the apartment and found the door locked. I looked into the milk box near the door and found a key which perfectly fit the lock. As soon as I opened the door, we were choked by the overwhelming odor of cigarettes and dust. God knows how long it had been since the place was ventilated.

There was a TV in the living room and countless cigarette butts and leftover food wrappers littered around the couch which was covered in newspapers and magazines. 

I picked up a cigarette butt and carefully examined it. "The man is left-handed... Wait a minute, I remember seeing this exact brand of cigarettes in Mr. Ding's home. So this man smokes the same cigarettes as Mr. Ding!” I surmised. “Xiaotao, could you go to the Dings’ home? I need to confirm something."

Xiaotao agreed and left at once. A few minutes later, her call came through. I turned on speaker and placed my phone on the TV.

Picking up the wrappers on the ground, I sniffed them one by one. "Do the Dings have the same food in their home?"

A moment later, Xiaotao’s excited voice sounded from the other end, "I found the exact same instant noodles, beer, and even peanuts. But I’m not sure about the other!"

I grabbed a magazine and read the issue number. "Do you see a World Soccer issue 128, Financial Times issue 6 and copies of last week’s Nanjiang Daily?"

After a brief pause, Xiaotao blurted, "I see all of them!"

I moved on to the TV and found that it had a recording function. Like before, I read out each channel which Xiaotao confirmed Mr. Ding also watched.

Additionally, I found hemorrhoid ointment and two artificial walnuts which Mr. Ding also possessed.

This man rented an apartment opposite Mr. Ding, smoked the same cigarettes, ate the same food, watched the same channels and read the same books. I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Imitater from Plants vs Zombies. He was imitating Mr. Ding! The suspect was an expert imitator who specialized in frame-ups.

"You can come back now!" I said.

When Xiaotao returned, I opened the Autopsy Umbrella, allowing sunlight from the window to shine through the umbrella and onto the floor covered in footprints the same size as Mr. Ding’s. The footprints showed the suspect’s gait gradually conforming to Mr. Ding’s, which suggested he was constantly adjusting his state to match Mr. Ding. 

Xiaotao sighed, "If this man switched to acting, he would’ve won an Oscar!"

"Unfortunately, he chose to be a hitman."

"Hitman?" Xiaotao stared wide-eyed at me.

"This is a very special kind of hitman. His method is to observe the target, figure out the target, then imitate him and finally transform himself into the target,” I concluded. “Then, using tools from the target's home, he commits the crimes so that all evidence points to the target."

"That's horrible!” cried Xiaotao. “Why haven’t we come across similar cases?"

"Perhaps this has been going on for some time,” I mused. “His work is so meticulous that he’s managed to pull a fast one on the police and turned innocent people into convicted criminals! We must find him and prevent this tragedy from ever happening again."

Xiaotao nodded, "Should we bag these cigarette butts and wrappers?"

"Yes, there may be DNA left on them!"

Now that we positioned the murderer as a professional hitman, the direction of our investigation turned to possible acquaintances who would hire a hitman to frame Mr. Ding. However, this was where we hit a snag.

During this period of time, besides helping out in the store, I asked Xiaotao to bring me files of the recent criminal cases in Nanjiang City. It took me quite some time and effort to go through these case files, and I paid special attention to simple, open-and-shut cases.

But what we never expected was a similar murder occurred during our investigation. And this time, it was another seemingly ordinary case of uxoricide!

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