It was not the first time Gu Shen had met Dong Lin before. He once had a chance encounter with Dong Lin in his early years. No matter who saw Dong Lin, they would not imagine him to be a renowned bandit. Because Dong Lin was a truly inconspicuous person. When Dong Lin sat all hunched over against the wall, even Gu Shen had to take a second look before he could spot him.
“So that’s him.” Cang Ji sized him up. “He’s tough to find.”
Jing Lin tapped his folding fan on his knee and said, “He didn’t bring the copper bell with him today.”
“Who cares?” Cang Ji bared his sharp teeth slightly. “If we can’t find it, we’ll eat him.”
Gu Shen sat before Dong Lin. He looked at Dong Lin for a moment before he said, “Who would expect you to end up in this state?”
“You reap what you sow.” Dong Lin took off his woolen hat, revealing his face in its entirety. He looked gaunt, barely able to open his half-drooping eyes, and only the contours of his face were still sharp. He scrutinized Gu Shen and said, “You haven’t gone home yet.”
“There has been no news for over thirty years. It’s not that easy to return to my hometown. The trafficker who abducted me is already six feet under. I don’t know how long I still need to search for.” Gu Shen raised his hand, and his subordinate brought over two jars of cold wine. He opened a jar and threw it over to Dong Lin.
At a narrow corner, both of them clank the jars of wine together, then raised their heads to drink. Gu Shen wiped his mouth, placed the jar on its side, and said, “Speak.”
“Chen Ren was addicted to gambling and owed me six gold pearls. I didn’t earn much this year, so I had to collect some debts as the year drew to an end. I called on him many times, but he repeatedly tried to fob me off. I had no choice but to go to his house late at night to ask for repayment. Who would expect his entire family to be still awake? I had a dispute with Chen Ren, and that old man wanted to report me to the yamen. How could I let him do so? On a whim, I cleaned out all four members of the family.” Dong Lin sipped cold wine and slowly exhaled. He continued, “… Just that, I didn’t know there was still a little girl in his family. I don’t touch children, so I spared her.”
“With your skill, getting out of the city is easy. Once you’re out of the town, all you need is to find a family for her and you can make your getaway. Although I’m on orders to investigate, I’ll still have to report to the higher authorities when the deadline is up. Then, I’ll have to wait three to five days for the new official orders to be issued before I can leave town to take you down.” Gu Shen said, “This is such a good opportunity. And yet you deliver yourself right into my hands?”
“As soon as he met this Dong Lin, he changes from a tiger into a cat.” Cang Ji caught hold Jing Lin’s fan and drew it closer. He asked, “His treatment of this person is so different. Aren’t the others worried that they are in cahoots with each other?”
“Fellow sufferers tend to commiserate with each other.” Jing Lin tapped Cang Ji’s head lightly with his fan and the little figure sprawled over on his back.
“The Chens deserve to die, but not Caoyu. Seeing her reminds me of my daughter. I spent my whole life in hiding, moving within the darkness. I’m not a good man.” Dong Lin raised his eyes and looked at Gu Shen with a faraway look in his gaze. “That’s why I had to suffer the heart-wrenching pain of having my flesh and blood torn away from me. There’s no turning back for me, so why drag another one down with me?”
“If you didn’t massacre her entire family, I can still tolerate those words. But you wiped out her entire household.” Gu Shen put his foot on the stool. He held himself back for a moment, then said, “She is now all alone, and she has no other family. What do you want her to do…?”
“The Chens deserve to die.” Dong Lin repeated.
“Deserve to die? You pay scant regard to the law, and you still dare to say such words.” The veins popped out on the back of Gu Shen’s hand. “Dong Lin, are you really that lawless?”
Dong Lin finished up the cold wine and lifted his hand to throw the jar away. He said to Gu Shen, “I’m already here. What are you waiting for?”
“I’m waiting for the truth.” Gu Shen abruptly stood up and said, “You said you are the murderer. Qian Weishi said he is the killer. Why are both of you fighting to be the perpetrator?”
“I don’t know that man.” Dong Lin said, confounded.
“Perhaps he recognizes you.” Gu Shen said, “Qian Weishi, do you know who he is?”
The subordinate brought Qian Weishi out. The scholar covered his face with his bound hands and used only his eyes to glance at Dong Lin. He answered, “Never seen him before.”
Dong Lin gave a scornful laugh.
“Chen Ren was always hanging around the streets, and his ability to harass others and stir up trouble was remarkable. If Qian Weishi is the culprit, he would need to have a meticulous plan. However, Fuzi is skinny, and his arms are weak, so even if he killed them, he would not be able to dismember them. Dong Lin has extraordinary talents. It is indeed a breeze for him to commit murder. But it would take quite a while to finish the time-consuming and laborious task of dismembering a corpse when there was still a need to watch after the Chen household’s little girl.” Gu Shen held the blade towards him and enunciated each word. “Unless both of you joined forces to divide the work.”
“If I need help, why would I find a scholar?” Dong Lin placed his hands on the table and allowed himself to be restrained. He said, “Even now, I still clearly remember the entire murder and dismemberment process. First, I knocked Chen Ren unconscious in the inner chamber, then gagged his wife Zhou’s mouth. However, I saw that his old man and old woman wanted to rush out and shout for help, so I struck down Old Woman Chen with my blade first. By this time, Old Man Chen had reached before the door. I ran the blade through his chest from the back and hoisted him back. These two were old and feeble, and very much dead. When I looked back, I saw Zhou trying to climb over the wall to flee, so I grabbed her hair, dragged her into the courtyard, and ended her with a slice of my blade. When I went back inside, I stabbed Chen Ren thrice and dragged him out of the room. As I passed by the woodshed, I noticed that he was still breathing and struggling. Thus, I grabbed a bolt at random and smashed him a few times in the face, only stopping when he was all a bloody mess. Right at this time, I heard someone sucking in a breath to the left of the courtyard and saw a white-haired old woman scrambling her way back into the house in a panic before shutting the door. I wanted to silence her, but it was unwise to leave the bodies in the courtyard for too long. And I suspected she might not have seen who I was, so I turned back and continued to deal with the bodies. Initially, I didn’t want to dismember the corpses.” Dong Lin’s voice was steady. That very instant, he revealed the malice of an outlaw. “But I didn’t want to let Chen Ren off lightly. Even cutting him into pieces was not enough to vent my hatred of him. I braved the snow to steal the knife used to dismember the body from the knife shop three streets away. It was inconvenient for me to take it away with me, so I shoved it into the gap between the woodsheds and covered it up shoddily, thinking it was of no importance even if you found it. How was it? Ask him again, how did he kill them? I supposed he can’t even lift the knife.”
Not once had Qian Weishi looked at Dong Lin, but his hand trembled at every word Dong Lin said.
“No… I, I first drugged the Chens two months ago…”
“Would Chen Ren let you in? Besides, there are usually only women and children at home. You dare to enter their house openly?”1 Dong Lin’s eyes were fixed on Qian Weishi. “I don’t know why you are taking the blame for me, but you and I are strangers. I can’t afford to owe you this favor.”
Qian Weishi suddenly trembled. His tears fell as he choked and said, “You …”
“Ever since I entered the martial art fraternity, the word ‘Dong Lin’ is my trademark. To claim responsibility for my acts is to smear my reputation and rob me of my rice bowl.”2 Dong Lin’s expression was cold. “This crime is on par with the act of committing patricide. Do you want to die that much?”
Cang Ji felt Jing Lin paused when he heard the last sentence. The folding fan that he turning with his fingers slowed down for a moment and fell onto his knee again. Although that moment had passed, Cang Ji felt as if Jing Lin had been disturbed by that remark.
Do you want to die that much?
Cang Ji vaguely felt as if he had heard it before.
The folding fan obscured his face. Jing Lin looked at him sideways and asked, “Why are you staring at me?”
“You already said it, staring at you.” Cang Ji replied. “I’m looking at you.”
Jing Lin did not answer. The little stone figure intermittently jabbed Cang Ji’s back as if it was also in a low mood. Cang Ji caught the little stone figure’s finger and turned back to ask, “Why are you suddenly unhappy?”
The stone cocked its head and gave him a light kick.
Below them, Qian Weishi remained quiet, looking calm with his hands lowered. He wiped away his tears, looking gaunt. It had been only a few short days, and streaks of white hair had begun to show on his head.
“The white-haired old woman saw the incident clearly but feigned ignorance.” Dong Lin said, “The child from her household urinated at the corner of the wall and locked eyes with me. Why did he turn around and say it was someone else? Their testimonies are so conflicting, and yet the authorities still believed them?”
“Even if what you said is true, it’s also a fact that we found the clothes in Qian Weishi’s house. The neighbors all saw him and Chen Caoyu…” The subordinate disputed him.
“All those have nothing to do with me.” Dong Lin said, “I’ll only admit to my crimes.”
“If you genuinely want the best for Chen Caoyu, then you shouldn’t cover up for Qian Weishi.” Gu Shen refused to budge. “You must be acquainted with each other.”
“The future fate of Chen Caoyu is none of my business. As for what kind of person Qian Weishi is, that’s even none of my business. By dragging unrelated people into this case, are you trying to make me give false testimony so you can use me to eliminate them?” Dong Lin questioned. “If that’s really your intent, I don’t mind giving you a hand.”
“The more unreasonable you are, the more I won’t believe it.” Gu Shen said.
“It doesn’t matter whether you believe it or not.” The chains on Dong Lin’s wrist clanked as he pushed his arms forward to sprawl on the desk. He said to Gu Shen, “You have hit the deadline for this case, and the prefectural yamen will have to give an explanation to the higher-ups. A shocking massacre of an entire household has already been proven beyond doubt with irrefutable evidence. Even if you don’t believe it, the prefectural magistrate would have to believe it.”
“You sure have the time limit of the case down pat.” Understanding suddenly dawned on Gu Shen. “You have been lying low in the town for a few days, waiting for the deadline of this case to pass.”
A smile slowly emerged on Dong Lin’s face. His finger traced a circle around his neck. “Off with my head, and everyone will be satisfied.”
“I have to unravel this case.” Gu Shen said, “I must get to the bottom of the truth!”
“Why persist?” Dong Lin sat up straight. “Gu Shen, why can’t you admit it? This case is clear for all to see.” His eyes drifted away again as he mumbled. “Send me on my way quickly so I can catch up with my Nan-nan.”3
Gu Shen was filled with pent up anger with nowhere to vent, but he just had to hear Qian Weishi speak up right at this moment. Qian Weishi bent over forward and pushed apart the messy hair out of his face. With this movement, he met Dong Lin’s eyes for the first time that day.
“… I want to seek redress for a grievance.”4 Qian Weishi said in a trembling voice.
“You owe Qian Weishi money! Your aged mother had a sudden medical emergency, and you did not have enough money, so you plead with Qian Weishi. He lent you fifty copper pearls, but he didn’t put it down on paper.” Gu Shen frowned and interrogated the waiter. “Is that right or not?!”
The waiter was so terrified his face was ashen.
“There is no written evidence, so if anything happens to him, you would not have to return the money.” Gu Shen urgently tapped his fingers on the desk. “What was that you said to me? ‘I never borrow money’. If he hadn’t lent you these fifty pearls, what would you have used to save your mother?!”
“I…” The waiter stammered, inarticulate. “For, for the sake of the case…”
“My ass!” Gu Shen said, “Do you want me to repeat what you have been scheming?”
“I, I wouldn’t dare!” The waiter dropped to his knees hurriedly and panicked. “I, I did indeed borrow money from him… but, but I didn’t want him to die! How would I dare to fabricate tales when the prefectural yamen is investigating the case? He… he, he does often bring along Chen Cao, Caoyu… if he didn’t have any ulterior motives, how would have the prefectural yamen found all those evidences?!”
“You gave false testimony to obscure the facts.” Gu Shen pointed a finger between the waiter’s eyebrows. “You’re fucking dead!”
Panicking, the waiter hugged Gu Shen’s leg and pleaded. “I really have nothing to do with this case! Gu, Gu Dage! Gu Dage is wise! Ah, I’m just afraid, afraid of being involved in this case, then my, my mother…”
“At the very least, he saved your mother once.” Gu Shen looked down at him and said, “And you repay him with lies?”
“Money can be returned, repaid!” The waiter tightened his grip on Gu Shen. He was so agitated he burst into tears. “But if I’m implicated and end up in prison… then… then…”
Gu Shen kicked him away, finding it hard to swallow.
Dong Lin was brought to trial by the prefectural yamen and thrown into prison. The case was then closed as he awaited execution. Qian Weishi suffered for several days in prison, yet he was able to leave unharmed. When he stepped out of the yamen, he saw Gu Shen.
Gu Shen did not have that high of an authority, so he was not involved in all the subsequent investigations. Being a constable might look imposing, but in actuality, he was not as favored as the one who cleared the magistrate’s chamber pot. He had been squatting there since early morning just to wait for Qian Weishi.
“I saw Chen Caoyu last night. There’s something I still want to ask Fuzi.” Gu Shen said.
Qian Weishi slowly returned his greeting, looking as if he was all ears.
“If Dong Lin had not given himself up, you won’t be able to escape being beheaded.” Gu Shen stepped through the snow and approached. His old coat had been worn short, with some cotton fillings spilling out from the elbow area. Actually, he had something in common with Qian Weishi—the air of solitude emanating from their slovenly appearances. He said, “After contemplating it, I find you an intriguing person. There are at least a dozen children on this street, and yet you have to set your sights on Chen Caoyu. Why? If you have a secret fetish, you shouldn’t be finding a girl with such a plain face. After turning it over in my mind, I thought about it in reverse, and I think I can understand some of what’s true and false.”
Gu Shen exhaled a puff of hot air, covering his face behind a veil of haze. He said, “The reason the child is so thin, is not because of sickness, but hunger. Ah Hong said that you fought with Chen Ren. Yet it was not because of what you did to Chen Caoyu, but because you knew of what Chen Ren did to the child. Qian Fuzi—exactly what did the Chen Household do to her?”
Qian Weishi clutched his thin sleeves. His fingers hurt as he clenched the sweat-stained sleeves. Several times, he wanted to speak but could not get it out because of his trembling.
“… Death is too lenient a punishment for the Chens.” Qian Weishi whispered in a hoarse voice.
- In those days, it wasn’t really proper for a man to have physical or close contact with a woman unrelated to him, especially alone. (男女授受不亲). In this case, they might have invited scandals if Qian Weishi had openly gone to their house when there was only a woman at home, especially a married one. Reputation in those days was a pretty big thing, especially for women and scholars.
- 饭碗 literally rice bowl. It’s used to refer to one’s own job or livelihood.
- 囡囡 Nan-nan. The words itself actually meant “little darling” or “baby” although Dong Lin apparently used it for his daughter’s name. Whenever he says “my Nannan” he’s also saying “my little baby”, etc.
Just a tidbit. In the past, when someone wants to report an injustice or demand redress for a grievance at the yamen, they would beat the drum outside the court yelling or crying “seeking redress for a grievance” (or equivalent) before being allowed in to voice their grievances before the magistrate.