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Novice Forensic Scientist

1

The Body Hung on the Tree

38

Monday, September 27, 2010


Qindao City.


Qidong County.


It was raining.


Raindrops pounded on the concrete ground, occasionally splashing up some sand.


Zhou Ning hurried into a two-story building covered in green vines. He shook off the sand and rainwater from his shoes, and when he saw someone coming down the stairs, he quickly stepped aside and nodded with a smile, even though he didn't recognize the person.


He walked to the east side of the second floor and unlocked a dilapidated office. As the door closed, Zhou Ning's smile faded.


He glanced at the mop by the door, then looked out the window at the rain. He turned on the air conditioner and sat down at the desk in the corner.


He opened the book "Bone Age Identification - Chinese Adolescent Skeletal X-ray Image Library" on the large monitor. A copy of "Grave Notes" was sandwiched inside. He found the place he had been reading and sighed in relief.


Zhou Ning was a new forensic scientist in Qidong County.


He was tall and handsome with a graduate degree.


Everyone said that Zhou Ning was lucky.


After all, this was the first year that the civil service exam was being implemented, and he had been recruited into the Qidong County Criminal Police Brigade's forensic science laboratory, becoming a civil servant that everyone envied.


But...


Little did anyone know that Zhou Ning's academic performance was quite dismal. He had barely managed to scrape by, failing two courses every year until he finally graduated.


It wasn't until he witnessed something he shouldn't have that his thesis advisor, fearing repercussions, reluctantly agreed to sign off on his subpar thesis.


As for his civil service exam, he had given up on getting a job in a major city and had been aimlessly wandering around for a year. When his second uncle mentioned that Qidong County was recruiting a forensic scientist and that he was the only one with the right qualifications, he decided to take the exam, albeit without much hope. He somehow managed to pass.


The so-called "forensic science laboratory" of the criminal police brigade consisted of only two people: Zhou Ning and his mentor, Liu Yongxin, also known as "Old Liu."


In the half month or so since he had joined, Zhou Ning hadn't even seen a single hair from a corpse.


Zhou Ning's mentor, Old Liu, was a kind man, but he was getting old and not in good health. He was often in and out of the hospital.


In the afternoons, Zhou Ning would be left alone in the office. There hadn't been any cases lately, but he wondered why Old Liu hadn't come in today.


Pushing up his glasses, he sighed softly, his expression filled with worry. He couldn't focus on his book.


There was something he hadn't told anyone. Whenever he raised his hand to push up his glasses, a transparent screen would appear in front of him with a line of green text that read, "System Loading 99%."


This had been happening since the day he graduated. At first, the text had read "System Loading 1%," and it had taken over a year for it to reach 99%.


Zhou Ning couldn't figure out what this thing was.

He had tried changing his glasses or wearing contact lenses, but the display would still appear whenever he moved his hand near his head or made a gesture to push up his glasses. And no one else could see it.


From his initial panic and sleepless nights, Zhou Ning had now come to accept the existence of this thing, even with a hint of anticipation. After all, he had no idea what it was.


Just then, the landline on the desk rang.


Startled, Zhou Ning quickly picked up the phone.


"Hello, this is the forensics lab."


"Hello? Is that... Xiao Zhou? Where's Dr. Liu?"


Zhou Ning recognized the voice. It was Xu Dayuan, the captain of the Qidong County Criminal Investigation Brigade. He had met him once during the reporting process, and his booming voice was hard to forget.


"Captain Xu, Dr. Liu isn't here yet. Should I call his cell phone and see?"


Xu Dayuan paused on the other end.


"Never mind, his phone is off. Come downstairs, we have a case. Follow me to the scene."


With that, the phone call ended. Zhou Ning felt a mix of excitement and nervousness.


Finally, after half a month, he had a case to work on.


Pocketing his phone, he grabbed his investigation kit and a DSLR camera from the cabinet and rushed out of his office.


As soon as he reached the ground floor, he saw Xu Dayuan standing in the courtyard, waving at a few police officers.


"Get in the car, we're going straight to the scene. Dr. Zhou, you're with me."


Everyone got into the car. Zhou Ning, clutching his investigation kit, sat in the passenger seat next to Xu Dayuan. With the siren wailing, the car made a sharp turn and sped off.


Zhou Ning's body lurched, and he quickly grabbed the handle above the car door to steady himself. The urgency of the situation sent a shiver down his spine.


"Captain Xu, what's the case?" Zhou Ning asked.


Xu Dayuan glanced at him but didn't answer his question.


"Dr. Zhou, did you ever handle any cases during your internship?"


Zhou Ning cleared his throat, trying to calm himself down.


"During my internship, I assisted in three cases. One was a dismemberment case that took three months to solve, and another was..."


Before Zhou Ning could finish his recollection, Xu Dayuan cut him off.


"Alright, if you've handled a dismemberment case, that's not bad. You must have good mental fortitude. When we get to the scene, take a look around and see what you can make of it. The traffic police said they found a body by the side of the road and are currently reviewing surveillance footage."


"Huh?"


Zhou Ning was taken aback.


A sudden sense of foreboding washed over him. Had he overstated his experience just now?


"Um, Captain Xu, shouldn't we wait for my master?"


"The case can't wait. We need to deal with it quickly. There's a big crowd of onlookers."


Zhou Ning's heart pounded.


Xu Dayuan's words implied a lot. A large crowd of onlookers meant the incident didn't happen in a remote area. The urgency of the case suggested a gruesome scene that required immediate attention.


Lost in his thoughts, Zhou Ning barely noticed the car had come to a halt.


The intersection was cordoned off with yellow police tape, and a dense crowd of onlookers had gathered beyond the barrier.


As a local, Zhou Ning quickly identified the scene. It was an intersection near the North Outer Ring Road overpass, with an industrial park on one side of the highway and a rural village on the other.


Xu Dayuan had already alighted from the vehicle. Zhou Ning knew it was too late to back out. With a deep breath, he grabbed his investigation kit and followed suit.


Xu Dayuan waved at the police officers behind him, his brow furrowed as he barked orders:


"Hurry up, clear the onlookers from the scene! What's the matter? Don't you know how to preserve the scene?"


His booming voice had the desired effect.


The crowd of onlookers, eager for a spectacle, dispersed by half. Those who remained retreated a dozen meters or more, or simply stood on various high points across the street, watching from afar.


"Dr. Zhou, do you have any masks? Hand them out to them."


Realizing his mistake, Zhou Ning quickly opened his investigation kit and handed a pack of masks to an approaching police officer, who then distributed them to the crowd.


Zhou Ning looked up again. The intersection was now clear of onlookers, but he still couldn't see the body. He wondered what all these people were here to see.


He put on his mask and latex gloves, trying to calm his racing heart. Taking a deep breath, he lifted the yellow tape with his investigation kit and walked over to Xu Dayuan.


"Captain Xu, where's the body?"


Xu Dayuan placed his hand on Zhou Ning's shoulder and pointed towards a Buttonwood (wútóngshù) tree nearby.


"See that? The body's hanging from the tree," Xu Dayuan explained, pointing towards a nearby Buttonwood tree.


Zhou Ning took two steps forward and peered in the direction Xu Dayuan was pointing. There, on a main branch of the Buttonwood tree about a meter and a half above the ground, hung a slender white leg.


From this angle, he could only see the victim's leg – a slender ankle, a straight calf, clad in a pair of dark blue Converse sneakers. The white socks were stained with purplish-black blood.


Zhou Ning felt frozen to the spot, his breath caught in his throat.


It wasn't fear, but the sheer visual impact that had momentarily overwhelmed him, leaving him with a suffocating sensation in his chest.


He raised his hand and adjusted his glasses.


At that moment, the transparent screen in front of him reappeared, but the loading progress bar was now at 100%. A voice filled his ears.


"Beep, system loading complete. Starting up."


Several lines of text appeared on the screen.


Forensic Scientist Training System


Bound User: Zhou Ning


Age: 26


Forensic Scientist Level: -2


Overall Evaluation: ...


Issued Task: Approach the body and perform an external body examination.


Completion Reward: Random reward based on completion quality.


Zhou Ning was stunned. After more than a year of loading, he never expected this thing to finally load the moment he saw the body. But what did the -2 forensic scientist level mean?


"Did it think that I'm a lousy apprentice?"


Zhou Ning gritted his teeth. Well, that was pretty objective. It wasn't an exaggeration or an understatement, but what the heck were those six dots in the overall evaluation?


Speechless?


Am I being mocked by a system...

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