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AN EYEWITNESS RELATES THE DISCOVERY OF A MURDER; THE JUDGE HAS A WEIRD MEETING IN AN EMPTY HOUSE


WHEN the four men were approaching the west gate, Chiao Tai remarked on the low walls and the modest twostoried gatehouse.

"I saw on the map," Magistrate Dee explained, "that this town has natural defenses. It is located three miles up a river, where it is joined by a broad creek. At the river mouth stands a large fort, manned by a strong garrison. They search all incoming and outgoing ships, and a few years ago, during our war with Korea, they prevented Korean war junks from entering the river. North of the river the coast consists of high cliffs, and down to the south there is nothing but swamps. Thus Peng-lai, being the only good harbor hereabouts, has become the center of our trade with Korea and Japan."

"In the capital I heard people say," Hoong added, "that many Koreans have settled down here, especially sailors, shipwrights and Buddhist monks. They live in a Korean quarter, on the other side of the creek east of the city, near where there is also a famous old Buddhist temple."

"So you can now try your luck with a Korean girl!" Chiao Tai said to Ma Joong. "'Then you can also buy off your sin cheaply in that temple!"

Two armed guards opened the gate, and they rode along a busy shopping street till they reached the high wall of the tribunal compound. They followed it till they came to the main gate, in the south wall, where a few guards were sitting on a bench under the big bronze gong.

The men sprang to their feet and saluted the magistrate sharply. But Hoong noticed that behind his back they gave each other a meaningful glance.

A constable took them to the chancery on the opposite side of the main courtyard. Four clerks were busily wielding their brushes under the supervision of a gaunt, elderly man with a short gray beard.

He came to meet them in a flurry and, stuttering, introduced himself as the senior scribe, Tang, temporarily in charge of the district administration.

"This person deeply regrets," he added nervously, "that your honor's arrival was not announced in advance. I could make no preparations for the welcome-dinner and-"

"I assumed," the magistrate interrupted him, "that the boundary post would have sent a messenger ahead. There must have been a mistake somewhere. But since I am here, you'd better show me the tribunal."

Tang first took them to the spacious court hall. The tiled floor was swept clean, and the high bench on the platform in the back was covered with a piece of shining red brocade. The entire wall behind the bench was covered with a curtain of faded violet silk. In its center appeared as usual the large figure of a unicorn, symbol of perspicacity, embroidered in thick gold thread.

They went through the door behind the curtain and, after having crossed a narrow corridor, entered the private office of the magistrate. This room was also well kept: there was not a speck of dust on the polished writing desk, the plaster walls were newly whitewashed. The broad couch against the back wall was of beautiful dark green brocade. After a brief glance at the archives room next to the office, Magistrate Dee walked out into the second courtyard, which faced the reception hall. The old scribe explained nervously that the reception hall had not been used after the investigator's departure; it might be possible that a chair or a table would not be standing in its proper place. The magistrate looked curiously at the awkward, stooping figure; the man seemed very ill at ease.

"You kept everything in very good order," he said reassuringly. Tang bowed deeply and stammered, "This person has been serving here for forty years, your honor, in fact ever since I entered the tribunal as an errand boy. I like things to be in their proper order. Everything always went so smoothly here. It is terrible that now, after all those years-"

His voice trailed off. He hurriedly opened the door of the reception hall.

When they were gathered round the high, beautifully carved center table, Tang respectfully handed the large square seal of the tribunal to the magistrate. He compared it with the impression in the register, then signed the receipt. Now he was officially in charge of the district Peng-lai.

Stroking his beard, he said, "The magistrate's murder shall take precedence over all routine affairs. In due time I'll receive the notables of the district and comply with the other formalities. Apart from the personnel of the tribunal, the only district officials I want to see today are the wardens of the four quarters of the city."

"There is a fifth here, your honor," Tang remarked. "The warden of the Korean settlement."

"Is he a Chinese?" Judge Dee asked.

"No, your honor," Tang replied, "but he speaks our language fluently." He coughed behind his hand, then went on diffidently. "I fear this is rather an unusual situation, your honor, but the prefect has decided that these Korean settlements on the east coast here shall be semiautonomous. The warden is responsible for the maintenance of the peace there; our personnel can go in only if the warden asks for their assistance."

"That's certainly an unusual situation," the judge muttered. "I'll look into that one of these days. Well, you'll now tell the entire personnel to assemble in the court hall. In the meantime, I'll just have a look at my private quarters, and refresh myself."

Tang looked embarrassed. After some hesitation he said, "Your honor's residence is in excellent condition; the late magistrate had everything painted anew last summer, Unfortunately, however, his packed-up furniture and his luggage are still standing about there. There is no news yet from his brother, his only living relative. I don't know where all those things should be sent to. And since His Excellency Wang was a widower, he had employed only local servants, who left after his demise."

"Where then did the investigator stay when he came here?" the magistrate asked, astonished.

"His excellency slept on the couch in the private office, your honor," Tang answered unhappily. "The clerks also served his meals there. I deeply regret, all this is highly irregular, but since the magistrate's brother does not answer my letters, I It is really most unfortunate, but-"

"It doesn't matter," Judge Dee said quickly. "I hadn't planned to send for my family and servants until this murder had been solved. I'll go to my private office now and change there, and you'll show my assistants their quarters."

"Opposite the tribunal, your honor," Tang said eagerly, "there's a very good hostel. I am staying there myself with my wife, and I can assure your honor that also his assistants="

"That's highly irregular too," the judge interrupted coldly. "Why don't you live inside the tribunal compound? With your long experience you ought to know the rules!"

"I do have the upper floor of the building behind the reception hall, your honor," Tang explained hurriedly, "but since the roof needs repairing, I thought there would be no objection to my living, temporarily of course-"

"All right!" Judge Dee cut him short. "But I insist that my three assistants live inside. You'll have quarters arranged for them in the guardhouse."

Tang bowed deeply and left with Ma Joong and Chiao Tai. Hoong followed the judge to his private office. He helped him change into his ceremonial robe, and prepared a cup of tea for him. As the judge was rubbing his face with a hot towel he asked, "Can you imagine, Hoong, why that fellow is in such a state?"

"He seems a rather finicky kind of person," his old assistant replied. "I suppose that our unexpected arrival rather upset him." "I rather think," Judge Dee said pensively, "that he is very much afraid of something here in the tribunal. That's also why he moved to that hostel. Well, we'll find out in due time!"

Tang came in and announced that everybody was in the court hall. Judge Dee replaced his house bonnet by the black, winged judge's cap, and went to the hall, followed by Hoong and Tang.

He took his seat behind the high bench, and motioned Ma Joong and Chiao Tai to stand behind his chair.

The judge spoke a few appropriate words, then Tang introduced to him one by one the forty men who were kneeling on the stone floor below. Judge Dee noticed that the clerks were dressed in neat blue robes, and that the leather jackets and iron helmets of the guards and constables were polished well. On the whole they seemed a decent lot. He didn't like the cruel face of the headman of the constables, but he reflected that those headmen usually were nasty fellows who needed constant supervision. The coroner, Dr. Shen, was a dignified elderly man with an intelligent face. Tang whispered to the judge that he was the best physician in the district, and a man of noble character.

When the roll call was finished, the judge announced that Hoong Liang was appointed sergeant of the tribunal and that he would control all routine affairs of the chancery. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai would supervise the constables and the guards and be responsible for the discipline, and for the guardhouse and the jail.

Back in his private office judge Dee told Ma Joong and Chiao Tai to inspect the guardhouse and the jail. "Then," he added, "you must put the constables and the guards through a drill; that'll give you an opportunity for getting acquainted with them and to see what they are worth. Thereafter you'll go out into the town, and get an impression of things in this city. I wish I could go with you, but I'll have to devote the whole evening to getting myself orientated with regard to the magistrate's murder. Come back and report to me later in the night."

The two stalwarts left, and Tang came in followed by a clerk carrying two candlesticks. Judge Dee told Tang to sit down on the stool in front of his desk, next to Sergeant Hoong. The clerk placed the candles on the desk and noiselessly went out.

"Just now," the judge said to Tang, "I noticed that the chief clerk, listed on the roll as Fan Choong, was not there. Is he ill?" Tang clapped his hand to his forehead. He stammered, "I had meant to speak about that, your honor. I am really greatly worried about Fan. On the first of this month he left for Pien-foo, the prefectural capital, on his yearly holiday. He was due back here yesterday morning. When he didn't appear, I sent a constable to the small farm Fan has west of the city. His tenant farmer there said Fan and his servant had arrived there yesterday, and left at noon. It's most annoying. Fan is an excellent man, a capable officer, always very punctual. I can't understand what has happened to him, he-"

"Perhaps he was devoured by a tiger," Judge Dee interrupted impatiently.

"No, your honor!" Tang cried out. "No, not that!" His face had suddenly turned ashen; the light of the candles shone in his wide, startled eyes.

"Don't be so nervous, man!" the judge said, irritated. "I quite understand that you are upset about the murder of your former chief, but that happened two weeks ago. What are you afraid of now?"

Tang wiped the sweat from his brow.

"I beg your honor's pardon," he muttered. "Last week a farmer was found in the woods, with torn throat and badly mauled. There must be a man-eater about. I am not sleeping well of late, your honor. I offer my humble excuses and-"

"Well," Judge Dee said, "my two assistants are experienced hunters; one of these days I'll send them out to kill that tiger. Get me a cup of hot tea, and let's get down to business."

When Tang had poured out a cup for the judge, he eagerly took a few sips, then settled back in his armchair.

"I want to hear from you exactly," he said, "how the murder was discovered."

Plucking at his beard, Tang began diffidently.

"Your honor's predecessor was a gentleman of considerable charm and culture. Perhaps a bit easygoing at times and impatient about details, but very precise in all things that really mattered, very precise indeed. He was about fifty years old, and he had a long and varied experience. An able magistrate, your honor."

"Did he," Judge Dee asked, "have any enemies here?"

"Not one, your honor!" Tang exclaimed. "He was a shrewd and just judge, well liked by the people. I may say, your honor, that he was popular in this district, very popular indeed."

As the judge nodded he went on.

"Two weeks ago, when the time of the morning session was approaching, his house steward came to see me in the chancery and reported that his master had not slept in his bedroom, and that the door of his library was locked on the inside. I knew that he often read and wrote in his library till deep in the night, and I presumed that he had fallen asleep over his books. So I knocked on the door insistently. When there came no sound from within, I feared that he might have had a stroke. I called the headman and had the door broken open."

Tang swallowed; his mouth twitched. After a while he went on. "Magistrate Wang was lying on the floor in front of the tea stove, his unseeing eyes staring up at the ceiling. A teacup was lying on the mats near his outstretched right hand. I felt his body; it was stiff and cold. I immediately summoned our coroner, he stated that the magistrate must have died about midnight. He took a sample of the tea left in the teapot and-"

"Where stood that teapot?" Judge Dee interrupted.

"On the cupboard in the left corner, your honor," Tang replied, "next to the copper tea stove for boiling the water. The teapot was nearly full. Dr. Shen fed the sample to a dog, and it died at once. He heated the tea, and by the smell identified the poison. He could not test the water in the pan on the tea stove, because it had boiled dry."

"Who used to bring the tea water?" the judge asked.

"The magistrate himself," Tang answered promptly. As the judge lifted his eyebrows he explained quickly, "He was an enthusiastic devotee of the tea cult, your honor, and most particular about all its details. He always insisted on fetching the water himself from the well in his garden, and he also boiled it himself on the tea stove in his library. His teapot, cups and caddy are all valuable antiques. He kept them locked away in the cupboard under the tea stove. On my instructions the coroner also made experiments with the tea leaves found in the caddy, but those proved to be quite harmless."

"What measures did you take thereafter?" Judge Dee asked.

"I at once sent a special messenger to the prefect in Pien-foo, and I had the body placed in a temporary coffin, put up in the hall of the magistrate's private residence. Then I sealed the library. On the third day his excellency the court investigator arrived from the capital. He ordered the commander of the fort to place six secret agents of the military police at his disposal, and instituted a thorough investigation. He interrogated all the servants and he-"

"I know," Judge Dee said impatiently. "I read his report. It was clearly established that no one could have tampered with the tea, and that no one entered the library after the magistrate had retired there. When did the investigator leave exactly?"

"On the morning of the fourth day," Tang replied slowly, "the investigator summoned me and ordered me to have the coffin removed to the White Cloud Temple outside the east gate, pending the decision of the deceased's brother as to the final burying place. Then he sent the agents back to the fort, told me that he was taking all the magistrate's private papers along with him and departed." Tang looked uncomfortable. Glancing anxiously at the judge, he added, "I presume that he explained to your honor the reason for his sudden departure?"

"He said," Judge Dee improvised quickly, "that the investigation had reached a stage where it could profitably be continued by the new magistrate."

Tang seemed relieved. He asked, "I trust his excellency is in good health?"

"He has already departed for the south, on a new assignment," the judge replied. Rising, he continued. "I'll now go and have a look at the library. While I am gone you'll discuss with Sergeant Hoong what matters must be dealt with during the session tomorrow morning."

The judge took up one of the candlesticks and left. The door of the magistrate's residence, located on the other side of a small garden behind the reception hall, was standing ajar. The rain had stopped, but a mist was hanging among the trees and over the cleverly arranged flower beds. Judge Dee pushed the door open and entered the deserted house.

He knew from the floor plan attached to the reports that the library was located at the end of the main corridor, which he found without difficulty, Walking through it he noticed two side passages, but in the limited light circle of his candle he could not see where they led to. Suddenly he halted in his steps. The light of the candle fell on a thin man who had just come out of the passage directly ahead, nearly colliding with him.

The man stood very still; he fixed the judge with a queer, vacant stare. His rather regular face was disfigured by a birthmark on his left cheek, as large as a copper coin. The judge saw to his amazement that he wore na cap; his graying hair was done up in a topknot. He saw vaguely that the man was clad in a gray house robe with a black sash.

As Judge Dee opened his mouth to ask who he was, the man suddenly stepped noiselessly back into the dark passage. The judge quickly raised the candle, but the sudden movement extinguished the flame. It was pitch dark.

"Hey there, come here!" Judge Dee shouted. Only the echo answered him. He waited a moment. There was only the deep silence of the empty house.

"The impudent rascal!" Judge Dee muttered angrily. Feeling along the wall, he found his way back to the garden, and quickly went back to the office.

Tang was showing Sergeant Hoong a bulky dossier.

"I want to have it understood once and for all," Judge Dee peevishly addressed Tang, "that none of the personnel shall walk about in this tribunal in undress, not even at night and when off duty. Just now I came upon a fellow wearing only a house robe, and not even a cap on his head! And the insolent yokel didn't even bother to answer me when I challenged him. Go and get him. I'll give him a good talking to!"

Tang had started to tremble all over; he looked fixedly at the judge in abject fright. Judge Dee suddenly felt sorry for him; after all, the man had been doing his best. He went on in a calmer voice. "Well, such slips will happen now and then. Who is the fellow anyway? The night watchman, I suppose?"

Tang shot a frightened look at the open door behind the judge. He stuttered, "Did did he wear a gray robe?"

"He did," Judge Dee replied.

"And did he have a birthmark on his left cheek?"

"He had," the judge said curtly. "But stop fidgeting, man! Speak up, who is he?"

Tang bent his head. He replied in a toneless voice, "It was the dead magistrate, your honor."

Somewhere in the compound a door slammed shut with a resounding crash.


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