Jing Lin lifted the curtain of the sedan chair, partially revealing his face. His gaze fell on the entranceway of the Chen household. Many people were gathered here, all for the murder case.
“Could it be that the copper bell is connected to this family?” Cang Ji said from the inside of Jing Lin’s sleeve. “But this place is clearly that of a common household.”
Jing Lin leaned over to get off the sedan chair and said, “I can still sense the copper bell’s presence here. If we don’t get to the bottom of this case, I’m afraid we will not be able to find it.”
“This case is bizarre; it doesn’t seem to be done by a human.” Cang Ji recalled the scene from a few days back and said, “There are five members in his family, but a little girl is missing. I heard talks of demons from next door. Perhaps a demon had taken her for her blood.”
“If it’s a demon,” Jing Lin closed his fan and put it in his sleeve. “Hui’an and the Demarcation Division will not sit by and do nothing.”
Cang Ji had not noticed it, but Jing Lin remembered it clearly. Although the corpse in the courtyard that night had been feasted upon by the Luocha bird, it still left many traces behind. Among them, the trail of blood was the most conspicuous. The murderer had clearly tortured the person to death rather than finishing the person off in one stab.
“Investigate the case, huh.” Cang Ji rested his head on the small stone figure, crossed his legs, and said, “Can we still enter this place? Zui Shan Seng has probably set up traps everywhere, waiting for you to walk right into the ambush.”
“The Demarcation Division takes charge of everything, except for cases involving human life.” Jing Lin lifted his head. Catching a glimpse of the constables from the prefectural yamen entering and exiting the courtyard, he changed directions and moved away.
The waiter was stretching his neck to watch the show. When someone bumped into him, he immediately turned his head and fumed, “Are you blind…”
Jing Lin was splendidly dressed. His expression was arrogant, and there was a dignified air about him. Standing at the outer edge, his gaze followed the crowd to the center of the drama. He asked with great interest, “What’s up? The one who bumped into you wasn’t others, but the God of Wealth.”1
The quick-witted waiter quickly swapped the towel on his shoulder to the other side, grinning as he made way for Jing Lin. Moving closer beside Jing Lin, he said, “It’s indeed the God of Wealth! Grandpa2 looks unfamiliar, you don’t usually come here, do you? A few days ago, the prefectural yamen posted a notice announcing the death of a household. It’s just right here.”
“No wonder everyone is crowding around here.” Jing Lin glanced at the people nearby with disdain in his eyes. He pulled out a handkerchief from his sleeve to cover his nose, then asked with raised eyebrows. “Waiting to pick up a story?”
“A waiter like me depends on my mouth to get by. How would I dare to miss it?” The waiter plastered on a smile. “My shop is just over there a few steps away. Grandpa, please go and have a seat when you have the time!”
“That’s for sure.” Jing Lin said, “Who lives here?”
“This is the Chen family. Every day, Old Man Chen would take his sick wife to sell sugar figure3 on this street.” The waiter pointed it out to Jing Lin. “Just right in front of our shop; we usually come across each other. He also has a son by the name of Chen Ren. The surname of Chen Ren’s wife is Zhou. This is not the end of the story. There is still a little maiden about seven or eight years old in the family. She’s the little girl left behind by Old Man Chen’s deceased daughter. There are five people in the family, all of whom survive on the sugar figures that Old Man Chen sells every day. Where in the world would this be enough for the entire family? They are so poor that Old Woman Chen often brings along her daughter-in-law Zhou to borrow rice from others.”
“How about the son?” Jing Lin’s interest was sparked.
The waiter pursed his lips and replied, “Chen Ren fools around all day in that gambling den over there. He has amassed a big debt and has been beaten up more than once. If you ask me, the perpetrators of this case were likely those from the gambling den. Last month, I saw them chasing for repayment at the Chens’ door. Old Man Chen had to kowtow several times to get rid of them. They are all ruffians.”
Jing Lin swept a glance across the gambling den and smiled. “It’s so easy to fool those ruffians? Just a few kowtows and they’ll leave? They’re even easier to chase off than beggars.”
“Grandpa, you are wise!” The man flattered him, then added cheekily, “They are hard to deal with because Dong Lin was often seen hanging around the Chens’ house after that incident. It’s probably because the gambling den could not swallow their anger and got Dong Lin to wait for the chance to take revenge.”
“Dong Lin?” Jing Lin asked.
“That’s right.” The waiter grinned and whispered. “He’s famous in the martial arts fraternity! He has great skills and comes and goes without a trace. The yamen has put out wanted notices of him everywhere, but so far, no one has caught him yet. However, waiters like us keep our ears open. I heard that he lives in the town. Can you guess where he always stays?” The waiter made eyes at Jing Lin. “In the brothel on the East Lane. It’s said that he’s on good terms with a woman named Huadi.”
Jing Lin had yet to notice it, but Cang Ji abruptly sat up inside Jing Lin’s sleeve.
Jing Lin asked again, “What does this person do?”
The waiter whispered. “The Great Bandit of Jiang Yang. He has a hand in many major cases.”
“Bandit.” Cang Ji spat out the word through clenched teeth and gave the small stone figure a cold laugh. “I knew it. That’s why there was a familiar scent in that house.”
The waiter had more to say, but someone lifted him up from behind. He staggered with a cry of “oof!” and shouted, “Which God of Wealth is it this time?”
The waiter looked back and saw a familiar face. All at once, his knees turned weak. He fawned on the person even more than he had Jing Lin. “Constable Gu! Are you here to handle the case?”
Gu Shen was holding on to a blade in one hand. He was not young, and his eyes were exceptionally sharp. He pulled the waiter up to him, although he was sizing Jing Lin up from the corners of his eyes. He said, “What you said is plausible and logical. Go straight to the yamen and get your statement taken.”
“What has this got to do with me?” Startled, the waiter stammered, “Anyone you find at random on this street would know better than me! That, that Qian Fuzi, Qian Fuzi. Doesn’t he live next door to Old Man Chen? Go look for him?!”
“I’ve been there earlier this morning.” Gu Shen handed the waiter to the subordinate behind him. The tablet4 on his waist swung as he wiped his hands. Then he raised his chin to Jing Lin and threw him a boorish smile. “You look unfamiliar.”
This man had such a pair of sharp eyes that even ordinary demons would not dare to look into them.
Jing Lin’s handkerchief remained where it was, still masking his nose and mouth. His eyes narrowed, then smiled in apparent recklessness and licentiousness.
“I’m afraid Your Honor ought to find law-abiding citizens like me unfamiliar.”
Gu Shen laughed, turned to look at the alley, and said, “Is Young Master also interested in this murder case?”
“Naturally.” Jing Lin answered, “I’ve never encountered such cases before. It’s all very novel.”
“This is a case where the victims had been silenced. The body parts are scattered all over. It’s brutal and tragic beyond compare.” Gu Shen tapped his finger at the hilt of the blade and said, “Shouldn’t the average person be afraid?”
“What’s there to be afraid of?” Jing Lin countered him. “Why would mere hearsay make me tremble in fear? Rumor has it that three men make a tiger.5 So I’ll just have to wait for Your Honor to find out the truth.”
Gu Shen rubbed the stubble on his chin and said, “If Young Master is curious, why not ask me about it? This case is now in my hands. What I know is more than what the waiter knows.”
Jing Lin kept away his handkerchief and tilted his head slightly, his expression turning several shades paler. He asked, “How many pearls does Your Honor want? There’s no need to beat about the bush. Just speak your mind.”
The yamen constables were not like the rest of the other hired hands. They worked themselves to death all year round for only twenty silver pearls, and this was just expanses for their meals. The yamen did not pay them a monthly salary, and this had led to repeated cases of extortion by local constables taking advantage of their positions.
Gu Shen was taken aback, then he raised his head and burst out laughing. Waving his hand, he said, “Isn’t Young Master’s opinion of me a little too low? What are a few pearls? Please don’t ruin my reputation. I’m sorry, I was rude earlier.”
He was about to continue when he heard someone behind him prompting him. “Dage, we found Liu Shirong.”
Gu Shen cupped his hands as a gesture of farewell. Jing Lin nodded and watched as Gu Shen turned around and walked away.
“This man isn’t easy to fool.” Cang Ji said, “Can a human be this sharp? His hand hardly left the blade. Jing Lin. He was trying to bait you.”
Jing Lin was still staring at Gu Shen’s back and said. “The case is complicated and complex. We still need him to be on the frontline looking for clues. What were you saying earlier in the sleeve?”
“The thief who stole the copper bell is Dong Lin. As expected, he is involved in this case.” Cang Ji held his arms. “Why did he kill the Chen household? The family is so poor they have to beg for food. I doubt they can give him money.”
“Maybe someone asked him to do it.” Jing Lin said, “Money makes the world go round. It’s not impossible for the gambling den to hire him for murder.”
“But he took the little girl?” Cang Ji rebutted. “Why not silence her?”
Jing Lin pondered in silence and finally said, “It’s hard to get the full picture from just one side of the story. There’s someone else involved.”
Qian Weishi’s hands shook as he kept wiping his palms. The water in the basin was as clear as ever, but it was as if he had filth on him that could never be wiped clean. He scrubbed them harder and harder until his skin turned red.
There was a sudden knock on the door. Qian Weishi abruptly stood up and knocked the basin over to the ground. He quickly tidied it up in apprehension, and asked softly at the door, “Who is it?”
“Qian Fuzi, I’m sorry to impose on you.” Gu Shen waved his waist tag between the crack of the door.
Clenching his fists warily, Qian Weishi propped himself against the door and peeped out from the crack. He said, “I’ve already told Your Honor everything I know. What else can I do for Your Honor?”
Gu Shen only smiled and said in a coarse voice, “There are some things I need to hear again from Fuzi.”
Qian Weishi gulped under Gu Shen’s gaze. He removed the latch and opened the door. Gu Shen stepped through the door and let his eyes roved over the courtyard. He said, “I didn’t notice it in the morning. Fuzi’s courtyard wall isn’t that high. It is easy to attract the attention of thieves.”
Qian Weishi’s courtyard was very close to the Chens’. In actuality, the wall separating the courtyards was not that high. A person with just about the right height only had to stand slightly on tiptoes to take a clear look into their neighbors’ courtyards. The Chens’ house was nestled on the inside of the alley. Staying further down was an old widow with her grandson, while Qian Weishi’s house was on the other side of the Chens’ house, on the outside of the alley.
Qian Weishi followed Gu Shen and said, “Lives have been lost. There is indeed a need to increase the height.”
Gu Shen added, “You washed your hands? Haven’t you take your meal yet?”
Qian Weishi forced himself to look at him and said, “I just had a look at the corpse with Your Honor. I’m afraid I won’t be able to eat anything these few days.”
“I have handled numerous cases, and this is the first time I have encountered such brutality. Murder and dismemberment, how shocking.”
Qian Weishi motioned for Gu Shen to have a seat. Gu Shen sat down unreservedly and said, “Let’s cut to the chase. Go through the statement you have given the yamen with me again.”
Qian Weishi sat cautiously with his back straight. His tone was amiable when he spoke. This teacher was nearly forty of age, but he was still smooth-skinned, which suggested that he hardly encountered hardships in his life. He was on the skinny side. Compared to Gu Shen, he was like a woman too feeble to truss a chicken.
“That night, I slept more soundly than usual after returning early from school and drinking some wine. In the first half of the night, all I heard was the din made by the wind. It was so cold I could barely sleep. Shocked to realize that the window had not been closed, I put on my clothes and rose. As I was closing the window, I heard a ruckus from the Chens’ courtyard. I thought Chen Ren had returned home.” Qian Weishi’s furrowed his brows subconsciously, “Chen Ren loved to gamble. He would even grab his parents’ pension to gamble. He would remain away from home for a long time, and if he returns, it’s always for money. This person has the habit of physically and verbally abusing his parents and wife. So every time he returns, he would make a racket. I was drunk and annoyed at the constant cursing, so I stuffed my ears.” He covered his face and choked with sobs. “How would I know they would lose their lives later that night? Poor Caoyu. Someone actually abducted her. She is only seven years old. Who knows what the murderer intends to do?”
Gu Shen said nothing.
Qian Weishi made a slight rectification. When he looked up, his eyes were red. He said, “Chen Ren is a scoundrel! He is the scourge of the family. This man is guilty of monstrous crimes, and his death is not worth lamenting over. But it is regrettable that he still takes others with him. It really saddens me.”
“I heard from the waiter that Chen Ren owes the gambling den a lot of money.”
“Sixteen gold pearls.” Qian Weishi wiped his eyes. “Even if he sells Caoyu, he won’t be able to repay it!”
Chen Caoyu was the little girl of the Chen household.
“The case is vicious. Before it is solved, Fuzi should be careful. Don’t leave the house to teach these few days. The yamen may come for you any time.” Gu Shen stood up. As he was leaving, he suddenly turned around and handed Qian Weishi a handkerchief. “Fuzi, wipe the sweat behind your neck.”
Qian Weishi’s consternation almost instantly turned into fear. It took him a moment to react. Taking the handkerchief, he hurriedly nodded and said, “Thank you. Thank you.”
Gu Shen cupped his hands to bid him farewell and stepped out of the door to leave. As soon as he left, Qian Weishi calmed down. His brows were tightly furrowed as he stared at the handkerchief in his hand for a moment. He had finally noticed something off.
Since when did a brash Gu Shen speak of “imposing” on others when knocking on doors? The prefectural yamen had recorded his statement clearly. If Gu Shen wanted to, he could look at it any time, why did he have to make another trip down? He was originally a suspect in this case, but Gu Shen still needed to make a special trip to call on him and tell him not to leave the house?
Qian Weishi broke out in a cold sweat. His hair stood on end.
If the person who came was not Gu Shen, then who was he?!
When “Gu Shen” stepped out of the alley, he brushed past the street vendors. As if emerging from a cocoon, he instantaneously grew taller and revealed a pair of sensual peach blossom eyes.
Jing Lin pinched his throat and fastened his collar while he was at it.
Cang Ji gossiped to the little stone figure, “Look at him. He’s so skilled at deceiving others. He’s evidently more impressive than me.”
The little stone figure made a funny face at him, surprisingly looking somewhat smug.
- 财神爷 Cai Shen Ye, literally, God of Wealth. He’s a mythological figure worshiped in the Chinese folk religion and Taoism. Also used to refer to someone who is very rich and generous with his money. Jing Lin is referring to himself as the “God of Wealth” here.
- The waiter calls him Yeye (爷爷) here. A single “ye” (爷) is also used as “Master”. It was customary for waiters or shopkeepers to address their male patrons as Surname+(Lao/Shao) Ye, which means “(Old/Young) Master Surname”. Ye is also affixed behind titles to turn it into an honorific form of address. Jing Lin called himself the “God of Wealth” i.e. Cai Shen Ye (财神爷). So the waiter called him Ye Ye (爷爷). However, Yeye also literally means Grandpa. I’m just going to take it as he’s calling Jing Lin ‘grandpa’ as a form of respect for an ‘(slightly) older, super-rich man of a higher social status’ LOL.
糖人; sugar figure is a traditional Chinese form of folk art using hot, liquid sugar, or sugar syrup, to create three-dimensional figures that come in a variety of shapes from animals to objects. A dragon sugar figure is shown in the picture above.
腰牌 literally waist tablet, it’s a small tablet hung at the waist to prove one’s identity, especially for people in governmental posts or acting in an official capacity.
- 三人成虎, literally three men make a tiger. i.e., three people spreading reports of a tiger would make one believe that there is really one around. Basically, a repeated rumor becomes a fact.