The waiter was on pins and needles as he went to the prefectural yamen again. He scratched his head and said, “Qian Fuzi? I’m not really that familiar with Qian Fuzi… He comes to the shop often, but so does everyone in this street! I’m just an illiterate waiter; I don’t have any personal relationship with him. You’re asking me who’s on good terms with him? There’s probably none. He’s kind to others, but he also keeps his distance. It’s no surprise, though. All scholars are like this.”
“How does he treat children? Pretty good. He would buy food for the children every few days. All the children on this street like him. It’s common for them to go in and out of his house. About a year ago, a carriage that was passing through the street overturned and crushed Little Girl Chen’s foot. He was the one who gave her a piggyback to the physician. After this incident, Old Man Chen was even more grateful to him and would tell everyone he met what a good man Qian Fuzi was.”
“Why didn’t Qian Fuzi marry? How would I know? But everyone knows that he likes children, especially Caoyu. He’s even more attentive to her than the Chen household themselves. How did the Chen household treat Caoyu? This, I truly don’t know. I only know that her body is weak, and she seems to fall sick all year round. Her complexion isn’t that good, and she’s so small and skinny. Chen Ren? How would I know about Chen Ren? But his wife Zhou’s treatment of Caoyu isn’t bad. She’s always talking about her even when she’s outdoors. Everyone here knows she treats Caoyu well; she even makes clothes for her to wear when the weather gets cold.”
“Borrow money? I never borrow money. Qian Fuzi doesn’t have much money either. He has nothing in common with me; even if I want to borrow money, I wouldn’t ask from him.” The waiter shifted his body and continued, “Ah Hong? Don’t be deceived by his tender age. He’s good at making unreasonable demands and creating a scene.”
Finally, Gu Shen gestured for him to leave. When the waiter stepped through the threshold, he turned back and added, “Ah Hong often follows Qian Fuzi around. Children are innocent. Who could say if they could tell better than others? I heard Ah Hong saying that…”
Gu Shen’s gaze turned sharp.
The waiter faltered and continued, “… Qian Fuzi treats Caoyu differently. He’s closer to her than normal.” He smiled uneasily, “I used to hear that the people of Xitu has a penchant for this kind of stuff.”
“Qian Fuzi? Qian Fuzi has nothing to do with our Hong-er.” The old widow tapped her walking stick anxiously. “They have nothing to do with each other, Constable Gu! Children are slow-witted. How can you believe his nonsense?! What statement? Can you speak louder? I can’t hear you that well. Oh, my! Others must have taught him this kind of filthy words! Our Hong-er has always been reasonable; he would never say such words to others.”
“Hong-er seldom leaves the house. He has never been to Qian Fuzi’s house.”
“Hong-er does indeed play with the Chen girl. The courtyards are so close together, and we bear no grudge against the Chens. Why can’t I ask the children to play together?”
“I don’t know what person Qian Fuzi is, and we have received none of his kindness whatsoever.”
The old widow tugged Ah Hong to hide him behind her and turned more and more aggressive towards Gu Shen, almost hitting Gu Shen with her stick. She stretched out her neck and glowered, saying, “Which of you is asking for a beating?! Slandering us widow and orphan like this! How many times have I said that Qian Fuzi has nothing to do with us! Why do you need to ask Hong-er? Hong-er doesn’t know! Constable Gu, this case has been dragging for so many days. Now that the deadline is approaching, you decided to pick on the old and the weak, the women and children, haven’t you? How unreasonable! I’m not leaving today. I’ll stay here and lie on the steps of the prefectural yamen and let incorruptible officials see for themselves how you people handle the case!”
The old widow’s spit flew all over and spattered on Gu Shen’s face. The more she scolded, the more vigorous she became. She even dug out Gu Shen’s eight generations of ancestors to torment him with, not letting up until he asked for forgiveness. Feeling his head spin, Gu Shen could not help but waved his hand to get someone to see the old widow out.
He squatted down and said to Ah Hong, “I’ll ask you a few questions. Don’t be nervous. You just need to answer the questions.”
Ah Hong glanced around, wanting to find his grandmother. Gu Shen said, “If you answer me, I’ll not only let you go, but I’ll also give you candy to eat. You surely know what this place is. I can tell you that there are deities above watching you. You cannot lie.”
Sitting atop the beam of the building, Jing Lin’s eyelid twitched. Cang Ji somersaulted out of his sleeve and climbed onto his shoulder with the little stone figure.
Gu Shen asked, “Does Fuzi often take Chen Caoyu out to play?”
Ah Hong clutched the hem of his clothes as he glanced around and nodded his head.
“Does he often take Caoyu home?”
This time, Ah Hong nodded heavily and said, “Takes her home, gives her new clothes and food.”
“He only gives to Caoyu?”
Ah Hong inhaled and revealed a look of exasperation as he clenched his shirt and yelled, “Only to her! He even read poems to her.” Ah Hong wrung his shirt until it was wrinkled. “Fuzi let her sit on his lap.”
“Sit on his lap.” The subordinate asked gently. “Was his behavior towards Caoyu… intimate?”
“He kissed her on the face.” Ah Hong became more excited the more he spoke. “Take off her clothes. I saw, saw him touch her…”
Everyone around him sucked in a breath. Only Gu Shen stared fixedly into Ah Hong’s eyes.
The crowd’s reactions were like encouragement to Ah Hong. He gradually loosened his grip on his shirt and animatedly said, “Fuzi also hid her clothes. He hid many of them!”
“The Chens didn’t notice?” The subordinate asked, stunned.
“Second Uncle Chen.” Ah Hong did not swallow his saliva in time and choked for a moment before continuing impatiently. “Second Uncle Chen hates Fuzi and told Fuzi to scram. But Fuzi didn’t. Second Uncle Chen said Fuzi is a bad person! They fought, right in the courtyard. Fuzi was hit until he fell into the water jar.”1
The subordinate took a quick glance at Gu Shen and asked, “When did this happen?”
Ah Hong said, “The last time when Fuzi bought cakes for the little bitch.”
“This kid is so incoherent.” Cang Ji sprawled beside Jing Lin’s ear. “Does his words stand?”
“If the details match, then it stands.” Jing Lin was slightly tickled by his breath. His shoulder tilted imperceptibly.
“That’s too bad.” Cang Ji said, “It’s hard to tell the truth from lies from everyone’s words.”
Below them, Ah Hong was still reliving his memories. When he said “the blood came flowing like a river”, Gu Shen’s expression finally changed.
“How were you able to see it?” Gu Shen asked. “Why weren’t you sleeping in the middle of the night?”
A bubble of snot popped out from Ah Hong’s nose. He wiped it away and began to glance around again. He heard his grandmother cursing outside. He continued. “The little bitch was being beaten. Her cries woke grandmother up. Grandmother went out to see and told me, told me not to look.”
“You saw Qian Fuzi?”
Ah Hong nodded without hesitation this time and grabbed Gu Shen’s sleeve to ingratiate himself with him. He said, “Qian Fuzi was dragging someone…”
What a thrill it was. In the snowy night, the usually mild and amiable Fuzi turned into a murderer, killing and dismembering all the people in the courtyard. The courtyard was awash in blood as the corpses were dragged out of the house and exposed in the pitch-black night with their heads raised, presenting a savage view. The only survivor was truly an innocent to be deceived into being toyed by the wolf in sheep’s clothing because of her young age. From the hints gleaned from just a few words, everyone could surmise the truth behind this case of family extermination. The typically overbearing Chen Ren discovered Qian Weishi’s crime, so he beat him up and swore at him. Because of this, Qian Weishi held a grudge against him, the animosity festering to a point until it ended in tragedy days later.
“What an inhumane beast.” The subordinate slammed on the desk with righteous indignation. “How dare he do this? He is not fit to be a scholar! Toying with those in the three contemptible trades2 in the brothel is one thing. But he even dared to lay his hands on his neighbors! Chen Caoyu is only seven years old… this beast!”
Cang Ji chuckled and pondered. “How strange. Who is he referring to as those in the ‘three contemptible trades’? Why do these people deserve to be ’toyed’ with? Aren’t they human too? Why do humans segregate themselves so clearly that even the rules vary from person to person? If that’s the case, then what’s the use of having rules?”
Jing Lin looked as if he had recalled something. His eyes were calm. “Do you think demons can escape such rules too? All spirits in Heaven and Earth are bound by the rules.”
“I don’t believe it.” Cang Ji said, “If anyone treats me this way, I’ll certainly treat him the same.”
Jing Lin paused for a moment, then raised a finger to press down on the back of Cang Ji’s head and said, “You want to eat me, does that mean I want to eat you too?”
“If you can, feel free to. Life and death are neither decided by heaven nor by man.” Cang Ji said, “They are decided by ourselves.”
Their conversations were once again interrupted. The subordinate was furious and wanted to arrest Qian Weishi to bring him to justice. Gu Shen, however, still had some misgivings. He was skeptical of some of Ah Hong’s words. First of all, how could Qian Weishi take down four people? Even if two of them were elderly, the power of their resistance at the critical moment of life and death should not be underestimated, unless, all four of them were caught unaware when the crime happened. Second, it would be tough to convince the public that they had caught the perpetrator simply based on a few words from Ah Hong.
Just then, Ah Hong stood on tiptoes and whispered into Gu Shen’s ear, “Give me three copper pearls, and I’ll tell you… I, I saw Fuzi hid the knife.”
The knife was not your average knife; it was the type used by the butcher shop in town. It was wide and heavy. Even bones could not withstand a blow from it, let alone flesh. The blood-stained knife was hidden behind the adjoining woodsheds in the Chens’ and the old widow’s courtyards. It had been thrust firmly into a crack, and so it went undetected when the yamen conducted their search.
When Gu Shen knocked on Qian Weishi’s door again, the Fuzi seemed prepared. He folded an old white handkerchief and placed it into his bosom, then looked on calmly as the constables searched his courtyard and dug out pieces of girls’ clothing in a small chest. There were not only clothes but also shoes and little toys. It was apparent that Chen Caoyu did not wear much. Most of the outfits were brand new, but they had been put aside for so long that moths had already damaged some of them. He had lured an ignorant little girl with such cheap and crude stuff. And because he knew the truth, all the subordinate could think of when he looked at Qian Weishi’s face was how filthy this person was.
“How could you bear to lay your hands on her?” The subordinate was in the prime of youth. When he arrested Qian Weishi, he was so rough that Qian Weishi fell to his knees and slammed into the pavement. He gave Qian Weishi a heavy kick again, although it did nothing to relieve his anger, so he could only curse. “You are worse than an animal!”
Qian Weishi gasped heavily with his face stuck to the ground. He gritted his teeth as he was dragged out. He was set upon by the public before he was taken to the yamen. By the time he was shoved before Gu Shen, he was so beaten up he was barely recognizable.
“Qian Weishi.” Gu Shen approached him. “Did you killed the Chens?”
Qian Weishi squeezed out a little smile from his bruised and swollen face. This had finally worn down his gentleness and civility to nothingness. He said to Gu Shen with hatred and bitterness, “Shouldn’t the Chens die? I’m telling you, they all deserve to die!”
“I don’t believe you.” Gu Shen yanked him off the ground. “You did it? The way you are, you can’t even move one of Chen Ren’s fingers. You duped me first, and now you want to obstruct me from investigating the case? Who do you think I am? Do you think I’ll believe you? Bah!”
Qian Weishi’s feet left the ground. His throat tightened, and he choked on the blood that had risen in his throat due to his injuries.
“I… drugged them.” His throat rattled. “An unconscious Chen Ren was mere poultry waiting to be slaughtered! Whether you believe it or not… is none of my business! The corpses were dismembered, and can’t be pieced whole again, the coroner can’t… can’t distinguish between them!”
“You have no grudge or enmity with him, why kill him?!”
“I…” Qian Weishi suddenly choked up. He bit his lower lip, looking devastated. “I had taken a fancy to… the little girl. That hateful, hateful Chen Ren… he got into my way… humiliated me… I couldn’t bear it, I couldn’t bear it! I’m worse than a beast!”
Gu Shen was about to continue speaking when his subordinate rushed through the door.
“What’s the matter?!” Gu Shen snapped.
The subordinate looked lost and stammered, “Dage, that, that Dong Lin… has come to give himself up.”
Stunned, Gu Shen released his grip.
“He said he killed four members of the Chen household that night five days ago. Chen Caoyu is now in his hands.”