“Only half of Qian Weishi’s words can be believed.”
Gu Shen spread out the files, circled the table, and said, “This man is strange. He looks flustered as he spoke, and he keeps averting his eyes. It’s as if he’s afraid that I wouldn’t doubt him.”
“Dage, maybe he has something to hide, that’s why he’s afraid when he sees you.” His subordinate stuffed several steamed buns into his mouth and said.
“He’s afraid of me?” Gu Shen rapped on the table and scoffed. “He’s not afraid at all. He just wants you to think he is afraid. This man is crafty. He must be hiding something.”
“But all the neighbors are full of praises for him. There are five households in this alley; there’s not one who has not received his kindness. Even beyond the alley on that street, others would still respectfully address him as ‘Qian Fuzi’.” The subordinate drank cold tea to swallow down the bun and continued, “Besides, his arms are so skinny. It would be difficult for him to murder and dismember four people overnight.”
“Is he from Jingzhen?”
“No. He is a native of Xitu. Five years ago, there was a great drought in Xitu. He fled the famine and came here to settle down. Several affluent families in the town wanted to hire him as a private teacher, but he rejected them all and continued to live in the alley.” The subordinate also found it strange at this point. “He obviously could not get along with Chen Ren, and yet he was unwilling to move out. Moreover, Chen Ren had extorted money from him several times as he was penniless due to his debt.”
“How did he get along with the rest of the Chen household?”
“According to the neighbors’ replies, Qian Weishi was amiable and approachable. Apart from Chen Ren, if the others from the Chen household had any requests, he would do his best to help.” The subordinate flipped through the statements and continued, “He was especially good to the little girl of the Chen family, that seven-year-old Chen Caoyu.”
Gu Shen closed the file and asked, “Then, how did the Chen household treat Chen Caoyu?”
“Naturally, they treated her well.” The grizzled old widow leaned against her crutches and walked falteringly as she told Jing Lin, “Caoyu’s mother was adored by her parents ever since she was a child. When she was young, Old Man Chen often took her out with him. Although they were poor, he was never stingy with his daughter’s clothes and snacks. They had prepared her dowry early, and the young man who asked for her hand was about to marry her. But that maiden somehow gave herself to someone in secret. Oh my, she got pregnant even before she had the wedding ceremony.”
As Jing Lin helped her down the stairs, the old widow lamented.” The lad ran away, so they could not marry the maiden off. She passed away just a few days after the child was born. Old Man Chen lost his baby, so naturally, he would treat his little granddaughter as the apple of his eye.”
“I heard that the little girl’s uncle was a good-for-nothing. How did he usually treat her?”
“Good.” The old widow grabbed Jing Lin’s wrist and said, “Don’t let Chen Ren’s reputation make you misunderstand his treatment of Caoyu. Although Chen Ren was nothing good, he was devoted to his niece. He married early, but he had no children. The physician looked at him for a few days and said it was untreatable. From then on, his wife Zhou often told the young ladies in this area that Chen Ren wanted to choose a day to let Caoyu take his own name so he can raise her as his own daughter.”
“This is truly regrettable.” Jing Lin took the old widow to the door and said, “This alley is deep. I’m afraid it’s inconvenient for an elderly like you to live here.”
“I’ve stayed here for so many years.” The old widow took the vegetables from him and said amiably to him, “Our Hong-er is sensible. He doesn’t give me any worries at all.”
As she was saying this, a seven or eight-year-old child came running out of the house. The child was plump, tender, and round. When he saw Jing Lin, he immediately showed his white teeth.
Jing Lin was exchanging civilities with them when he heard Cang Ji whispered in his sleeve. “He’s fat and tender. He should taste good. Jing Lin…”
The little stone figure conked Cang Ji on the head with a fist. Cang Ji dodged it and said, “It’s just a thought!”
Jing Lin entered their courtyard. The old widow’s courtyard was smaller than the Chens’ and walled up. A few stones were placed under the low wall, likely because the young child would often sprawl over the wall to look next door.
“Hong-er often plays with Caoyu. When they are free, they will lean over the top of the wall to chat.” The old widow saw Jing Lin looking at the stones and explained.
“Alright.” Jing Lin smiled politely. “Then I’ll take my leave. I should report to the yamen earlier, or else, dage will get anxious waiting.”
“Take care. Be safe.” The old widow saw him out.
It was only after Jing Lin stepped out of the door that Cang Ji said, “This case is a mess. First, Dong Lin took the copper bell. When he realized that we were chasing after him, he hid here and vanished without a trace. Later, the Luocha bird showed up, and an entire household died. The Ghost Guards unexpectedly set their sights on us, drawing Zui Shan Seng to us. I wouldn’t believe it if you tell me now that this case has nothing to do with Dong Lin. But as much as he seems involved, this case also doesn’t seem to have anything to do with him.”
“He is bound to slip up and leave clues behind.” Jing Lin said, “There is no perfect crime in this world.”
“Humans are truly cunning.” Cang Ji said, “I can see that they are all saying one thing but meaning a different thing. Only this old woman is somewhat sincere.”
“Listen to only one side of the story, and you’ll remain in the dark.”1 Jing Lin said, “Humans not only speak contrary to what they think, but they are also especially good at pretending.”
Cang Ji was about to continue when he suddenly fell silent.
Jing Lin took a few steps forward. As expected, he heard footsteps behind him. As he was about to leave the alley, someone grabbed his sleeve. Jing Lin looked back, his face void of emotions.
“You are also from the yamen investigating this case, right?” Ah Hong,2 whom they had just met earlier, took a few steps forward and hugged Jing Lin’s leg. Looking up, he said with naivety, “If you buy me candy, I’ll tell you a secret.”
Jing Lin led Ah Hong by the hand and bought him a lot of food. Cang Ji gnashed his teeth in hatred and anger. He coldly sized Ah Hong up, feeling that this fat kid deserved to be eaten. Because Jing Lin had never held his hand this way to lead him when he was a young child.
“He is so fat he has become a ball, and he still can’t walk on his own?”
The little stone figure sat on one side and took off the grass crown off the top of its head to rearrange. When it heard this, it gestured to Cang Ji, implying you were also once as fat as a ball.
Cang Ji retorted, “Am I the same as him? In your eyes, am I like him?”
The little stone figure blinked and pretended not to understand.
Cang Ji said, “You and Jing Lin…”
The little stone figure placed the grass crown on Cang Ji’s head, causing Cang Ji to be at a loss for words. This grass crown was precious because this stone could not bear to take it off even when Zongyin was overturning the mountain. Cang Ji had always been one who was amenable to coaxing but not coercion. So, with the grass crown on his head, he could only steel himself and said fiercely to the little stone figure, “He is ugly, while I look good fat, okay?”
Jing Lin raised his eyebrows slightly and turned to look at Ah Hong. This was likely not the first time Ah Hong had made demands of others, pointing out the things he wanted with familiarity. The child was clearly so young, and yet he had exhibited the traits of an opportunist so prematurely.
“What secret did you want to tell me?”
Ah Hong sucked his finger and glanced around.
“Go ahead and tell me what else you want to eat or play.” Jing Lin said.
Ah Hong stood on tiptoe to look at the food stands. After glancing around for a moment, he said, “I want to eat sugar figure.”3
No one else on this street sold sugar figure except for Old Man Chen, so Jing Lin did not respond to him. After waiting for a while, Ah Hong tugged at Jing Lin’s sleeve anxiously and cried, “Sugar figure. If you don’t give it to me, I won’t tell you!”
“Then I won’t listen.” Jing Lin swung his sleeves to leave.
Ah Hong instantly wailed. He grabbed Jing Lin by the sleeve and trailed behind on the ground bawling.
“If you don’t give it to me!” Ah Hong said, “I’ll tell my grandmother you’re going to kidnap me! You’re going to abduct me!”
Cang Ji said coldly. “Not only that. I can also eat you.”
Ah Hong thought Jing Lin was the one who said those words. He could see through this kind of people, and so he was not afraid; he simply saw it as a threat from Jing Lin. Throwing a tantrum, he rolled on the ground and howled incessantly, attracting a fair bit of giggling spectators.
It was inconvenient for Jing Lin to be the focus of attention; thus, he lifted Ah Hong by the rear collar and stepped past the crowd. Ah Hong clung onto his arm, but before he could get a firm grip, he was thrown to the ground. He fell so hard his ass hurt, and tears streamed down his cheeks again.
“What secret were you going to tell me?” Jing Lin looked at him.
Ah Hong still wanted to cry, but he felt cold all over and could not help shivering. He kicked his feet in annoyance and glared at Jing Lin with puffed up cheeks.
“Tell me honestly.” Jing Lin softened his voice. He grabbed Cang Ji from his sleeve and waved him in front of Ah Hong. “And I’ll give you a ragdoll to play with.”
Cang Ji was caught unawares. He remained still in the air, not daring to move. His eyes caught a glimpse of Ah Hong’s palm that was sticky with snot, and he nearly climbed back into Jing Lin’s sleeve. Fortunately, Jing Lin only shook him and did not hand him over to Ah Hong.
Ah Hong did not forget to wipe his snot during this time. He wiped away his tears and stammered. “I… I know who… the killer is.”
Jing Lin prompted him with an “uh-huh.”
Ah Hong sobbed. “I, I saw it. I’ll tell you… you… you buy me candy again. I’m scared… you… don’t tell anyone. Qian, Qian Fuzi killed someone!”
He peeked at Jing Lin. Children were far more sensitive to a person’s emotions compared to adults. But he did not understand why such a horrible incident did not frighten Jing Lin.
So Ah Hong yelled shrilly at Jing Lin, “Qian Fuzi ! Killed someone! So much blood! Red blood, flowing! Right in the courtyard.”
Jing Lin crouched down, raised his index finger, and motioned for him to be quiet. Ah Hong gasped for breath. He was mad that he did not get the reaction he expected. He glared at Jing Lin and grabbed a handful of soil, but he did not dare to throw it at Jing Lin.
“Tell me.” Jing Lin probed, “Are you and Chen Caoyu playmates?”
“No!” Ah Hong said resentfully. “No! She stinks to death.” Without waiting for Jing Lin to continue, Ah Hong scrambled to say, “She is a slut! Her mother is a whore! She’s dirty and smelly. I don’t want to play with her. She also cheated Qian Fuzi of his candy. She loves to lie the most! I saw her run into Qian Fuzi’s courtyard. She ran into Qian Fuzi’s room. They hugged, and Qian Fuzi even kissed her.”
Jing Lin’s eyes sharpened as he heard Ah Hong utter obscenities far beyond his age in a childish voice full of malice and disgust.
“Little harlot.” Ah Hong almost puked out the words. “Little hussy!”
Jing Lin abruptly stood up. Cang Ji noticed his peculiar mood. Jing Lin’s expression was somber and grim as he stared fixedly at Ah Hong.
Ah Hong shrank back and nodded with his might. He spat at a corner and said, “Disgusting! They took off their clothes…”
“You.” Jing Lin towered over him. “When did you see it?”
Ah Hong was shocked. He was so scared that he began to cry. However, Jing Lin firmly trapped his body under him. Ah Hong shook his head. “I don’t remember. I don’t remember! Many times, too many times…”
Cang Ji did not understand. What’s ‘too many times’? What’s so disgusting? Why take off their clothes? What did Qian Weishi do to Chen Caoyu to make Jing Lin look so severe to the extent that his murderous intent had even permeated the air?
Gu Shen went through the files in the middle of the night. His subordinate repeatedly yawned as he tapped on the desk and murmured, “Dage, tell me. Why did he take Chen Caoyu away after killing people? He would only expose his whereabouts with a seven-year-old girl following beside him. Neither Dong Lin nor Qian Weishi has the reason to do so.”
Gu Shen was so sleep-deprived, his eyes were red. He said, “How do I know?” After another pause, he continued, “… Kidnappings are rife in recent years. It’s also possible she was taken away to sell. But if that was the case, then the perpetrator is definitely not Dong Lin.
“Why not? Isn’t he a bandit himself? Or does he only steal objects and not people?”
Gu Shen put the file aside and raised his head to say, “Because Dong Lin’s little girl was abducted. He has been running around all these years looking for his daughter. This kind of person would only have nothing but intense hatred for human traffickers.”
The subordinate thought of something and glanced at Gu Shen in embarrassment.
Gu Shen wiped his weathered face and said with scorn, “Why do I understand him? Because I was abducted and sold myself.”
The subordinate was not in a position to comment, so he could only bury his head in the pile of statements. His eyes flitted across a sentence, prompting him to sit upright with a “huh”.
“Dage.” He said, “Why is there still a statement here? I’m sure I didn’t see this yesterday while logging it in.”
Gu Shen reached out to extract it from the pile. Understanding dawned on him. “Just coaxing a child…” His voice faltered. He suddenly sat up and concentrated on the words in the statement.
“Does Qian Weishi often take Chen Caoyu home?”
The subordinate nodded and said, “Not only does he take her home, he was often seen leading her out of the house too.”
Gu Shen tightened his grip on the paper, crumpling it. His face was ashen as he cursed, “… Fuck.”
- From the idiom, 兼听则明，偏信则暗. Listen to both sides, and you will see the light; heed only one side, and you will remain in the dark. Basically saying one needs to listen to both sides of the stories to be enlightened.
- 阿鸿 Ah Hong is the same child as 鸿儿 Hong-er mentioned earlier. They just addressed him differently. The “Ah” is a prefix used before monosyllabic names to indicate kinship and/or familiarity while the “Er” (which also means ‘son’) is a suffix normally used as a term of endearment.
Recap: 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.