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JUDGE DEE HEARS THE REPORT ON THE LACQUER BOX; HE GOES TO VISIT A TEMPLE IN THE DEAD OF NIGHT


WHEN Ma Joong and Chiao Tai came back to the tribunal they saw a light in judge Dee's private office. They found him closeted there with Sergeant Hoong. His desk was piled with dossiers and document rolls.

The judge motioned them to sit down on the stools in front of the desk, then said, "Tonight I examined together with Hoong the magistrate's library, but we couldn't discover how the tea had been poisoned. Since the tea stove stands in front of a window, Hoong thought that perhaps the murderer had pushed a thin blowpipe through the paper window pane from outside, and had thus blown the poison powder into the pan with tea water. But when we went back to the library to verify this theory, we found that outside the window there are heavy shutters, which haven't been opened for months. That window gives onto a dark corner of the garden; therefore the dead magistrate used only the other window, in front of his writing desk.

"Just before dinner I received the four city wardens. They seemed rather decent fellows to me. The warden of the Korean settlement came also, a capable man. It seems that in his own country he is an official of some sort." The judge paused a while, glancing through the notes he had been making while talking with Hoong. "After dinner," he resumed, "I went over with Hoong the most important files in the archives here, and found that all the registers are kept carefully up to date." He pushed the file in front of him away, and asked briskly, "Well, how did it fare with you two tonight?"

"I fear we didn't de too well, magistrate," Ma Joong said ruefully. "Me and my friend will have to learn this job from the bottom up, so to speak."

"I have to learn it myself, too," Judge Dee remarked with a wan smile. "What happened?"

First Ma Joong reported what the owner of the Nine Flowers Orchard had told them about Tang and his assistant, Fan Choong. When he had finished judge Dee said, shaking his head, "I don't understand what is wrong with that fellow Tang; the man is in a terrible state. lie imagines he has seen the ghost of the dead magistrate, and that seems to have shocked him deeply. But I suspect there's something else, too. The man got on my nerves. I sent him home after I had taken my after-dinner tea.

"As to Fan Choong, we shouldn't attach too much value to what that innkeeper said. Those people are often prejudiced against the tribunal; they don't like our controlling the rice price, the enforcement of the taxes on liquor and so on. We'll form our own opinion of him when he has turned up again."

The judge took a few sips from his tea, then resumed.

"By the way, Tang told me that there's really a man-eating tiger about here. A week ago he killed a farmer. As soon as we have made some progress with the murder investigation, you two might have a try at getting that brute."

"That's a job we like, magistrate!" Ma Joong said eagerly. Then his face fell. After some hesitation he told about the murderous attack they thought they had witnessed on the bank of the canal.

Judge Dee looked worried. Pursing his lips, he said, "Let's hope the mist played you a trick. I wouldn't like to have a second murder on my hands just now! Go back there tomorrow morning and see whether you can't find out more from the people living in that neighborhood. Perhaps there is a quite normal explanation for what you saw. And we'll see whether someone is reported missing." Then Chiao Tai reported on their meeting with Yee Pen's manager, Po Kai, and gave a chastened version of their visit to the floating brothels. He said they had drunk a cup of wine there, and talked a bit with the girls.

To their relief the two friends saw that the judge seemed pleased with their reports.

"You didn't do badly at all!" he said. "You have gathered much information, and brothels are the meeting place of all the riffraff of a town. It is good that you know your way about there now. Let's see where exactly those boats are located. Sergeant, give me that map we were looking at."

Hoong unrolled a pictorial map of the city on the desk. Ma Joong rose and, bending over it, he pointed at the second bridge over the canal, east of the watergate in the southwest quarter.

"Somewhere near here," he said, "we saw that man in the litter. Then we met Po Kai in the restaurant here, and went by boat east, along the canal. We left by the other watergate."

"How did you get through there?" the judge asked. "Those watergates are always barred by heavy trellises."

"Part of that trellis is loose," Ma Joong replied. "A small boat can get through the gap."

"We'll have that mended first thing tomorrow," Judge Dee said. "But why are those brothels located on boats?"

"Tang told me, your honor," Hoong put in, "that some years ago a magistrate was serving here who didn't want any brothels inside the city. Thus they had to move to boats, moored in the creek outside the east city wall. After that prudish magistrate had been transferred they stayed there, because the sailors found it convenient. They could go there directly from their ships, without having to pass the guards at the city gates."

Judge Dee nodded. Caressing his side whiskers, he observed,

"That Po Kai sounds an 'interesting fellow, I'd like to meet him sometime."

"He may be a poet," Chiao Tai said, "but he's a clever customer all the same. He placed us at a glance as ex-highwaymen, and on the boat he was the only one who noticed they were beating up that girl."

"Beating up a girl?" Judge Dee asked, astonished.

Chiao Tai hit his fist on his knee. "The package!" he exclaimed. "What a fool I am! I had forgotten all about it! That Korean girl gave me a package that Magistrate Wang had entrusted to her." The judge sat up in his chair.

"That may prove our first clue!" he said eagerly. "But why did the magistrate give it to a common prostitute?"

"Well," Chiao Tai replied, "she says Magistrate Wang met her once when she had been hired to liven up a party in a restaurant, and the old scoundrel took a liking to her. He could not of course visit her on the boat, but he often had her spend the night with him here in his own house. One day, about one month ago, when she was about to leave in the morning, he gave her a package, saying that the most unlikely place was always the best for hiding something. He told her to keep it for him, and not to tell anybody about it; he would ask for it back when he needed it. She asked what was in it, but he just laughed and said it didn't matter. Then he grew serious again, and told her that in case something should happen to him, she was to hand it over to his successor:"

"Why then didn't she bring it to the tribunal after the magistrate had been murdered?" Judge Dee asked.

"Those girls," Chiao Tai replied with a shrug, "stand in deadly terror of the tribunal. She preferred to wait till someone from there would visit the boat, and I was the first who happened to come along. Here it is."

He took the flat package from his sleeve and gave it to the judge.

Judge Dee turned it around in his hands, then said excitedly, "Let's see what is inside!"

He broke the seal and quickly tore off the wrapping paper. They saw a flat box of black lacquer. The lid was decorated with a design of two bamboo stems and a cluster of leaves, beautifully molded in raised gold lacquer, and surrounded by an ornamental frame, inlaid with mother-of-pearl.

"This box is a valuable antique," Judge Dee said as he lifted the lid. Then he uttered a cry of dismay. The box was empty. "Somebody tampered with it!" he exclaimed angrily. He quickly took up the torn paper. "I have indeed much to learn," he added peevishly. "Of course I should have examined the seal carefully before I tore off the paper! Now it's too late."

He leaned back in his chair, knitting his eyebrows. Sergeant Hoong curiously examined the laquer box.

"Judging by its size and shape," he said, "I would think that it was used for keeping documents in."

Judge Dee nodded.

"Well," he said with a sigh, "it's better than nothing. The dead magistrate must have put some important papers in it, more important than those he kept in the drawer of his desk. Where did the girl keep it, Chiao Tai?"

"In her cabin, in the space between her bed and the wall," Chiao Tai answered promptly.

Judge Dee gave him a shrewd look. "I see," he said dryly.

"She assured me," Chiao Tai went on quickly, to cover his embarrassment, "that she had never talked about it or shown it to anybody. But she added that when she was away the other girls used her cabin, and the servants and the guests went in and out there freely."

"That means," the judge said, "that even if your girl told the truth, practically anybody could have got at the package! Another dead end." He thought for a while, then shrugged his shoulders and went on. "Well, when I went over the books in the magistrate's library, I found a notebook. Have a look whether you can make anything of it."

He opened his drawer and gave the notebook to Ma Joong. He leafed it through, Chiao Tai looking over his shoulder. The tall fellow shook his head and gave it back to the judge.

"Couldn't we arrest some violent rogue for you, magistrate?" he asked hopefully. "My friend and me aren't too good at brain work, but we know all about the rough stuff."

"I must first identify the criminal before I can have him arrested," the judge replied with a bleak smile. "But don't worry, I have some special work for you, this very night.

"For certain reasons I must examine the back hall of the White Cloud Temple, without anybody knowing about it. Have a look again at this map, and tell me how it can be done."

Ma Joong and Chiao Tai put their heads together over the map. Pointing with his forefinger, judge Dee said, "You see that the temple lies east of the city, on the opposite bank of the creek and south of the Korean quarter. Tang told me that the back hall of the temple is right under the wall. The hill behind it is covered by a dense forest."

"Walls can be scaled," Ma Joong remarked. "The point is, how to get behind the temple without attracting attention. There can't be many people on the road this time of the night; the guards at the east gate won't be able to keep their mouths shut when they have seen us about there so late."

Chiao Tai looked up from the map and said, "We could rent a boat behind that restaurant where we met Po Kai. Ma Joong is a good boatman, he could row us through the canal, through the gap in the watergate and then across the creek. From there on we must trust to our luck."

"That sounds like a good idea," Judge Dee said. "I'll just put on my hunting dress, then we'll go."


The four men left the tribunal by the side gate, and walked south along a main street. The weather had improved, a brilliant moon was in the sky. They found a boat moored behind the restaurant and rented it, paying a deposit.

Ma Joong proved indeed a skilled boatman. He sculled the small craft expertly to the watergate. He found the loose section in the trellis. After they had passed through, he made for the floating brothels, and brought up alongside the last boat of the row. Then he suddenly turned east, and quickly rowed across.

He selected a spot on the opposite bank where there was thick undergrowth. When the judge and Sergeant Hoong had stepped out, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai pulled the boat on land and pushed it under the shrubbery.

"We'd better leave old Hoong here, magistrate," Ma Joong said. "We can't leave the boat unattended, and there may be rough going ahead."

Judge Dee nodded and followed Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, who crept through the undergrowth. Arrived at the roadside, Ma Joong held up his hand. Parting the branches, he pointed to the thickly wooded mountain slope on the opposite side of the road. On the left they saw in the distance the marble gatehouse of the White Cloud Temple.

"I don't see anyone around," Ma Joong said. "Let's run across." Under the trees on the other side it was pitch dark. Ma Joong took judge Dee's hand, and helped him to get through the dense undergrowth. Chiao Tai was already ahead of them, higher up among the trees; he made hardly any noise. It was a stiff climb. From time to time judge Dee's guides utilized steep, narrow trails, then again pushed their way through the trees. Soon the judge had lost all sense of direction, but the two men were past masters in woodcraft and they went steadily ahead.

Suddenly Judge Dee found Chiao Tai by his side. He whispered, "We are being followed."

"I heard it too," Ma Joong said softly.

The three men stood close together, motionless. Now the judge heard also the faint, swishing sounds, and a low grunting. It seemed to come from somewhere down below on his left.

Ma Joong tugged at judge Dee's sleeve, and lay down flat on his belly. The judge and Chiao Tai followed his example. They crept up on a low ridge. Ma Joong carefully parted the branches a little. He started to curse under his breath.

Judge Dee looked down into the shallow ravine below them. In the moonlight he saw a dark shape loping through the high sword grass.

"That must be the tiger!" Ma Joong whispered excitedly. "Pity we haven't got a crossbow. Don't worry, he won't attack three people."

"Shut up," Chiao Tai said through his teeth. He peered intently at the dark shape that moved swiftly through the grass. It jumped on a rock, then slid away under the trees.

"That isn't an ordinary beast!" Chiao Tai hissed. "When he jumped, I caught a glimpse of a white, clawlike hand. It's a weretiger!"

A long, uncanny howl tore the silence. Its nearly human sound sent a cold shiver down judge Dee's spine.

"He has smelled us," Chiao Tai said hoarsely. "Let's run for the temple; it must be right down this slope!"

He sprang to his feet, grabbing judge Dee's arm. The two men made their way down the slope as quickly as they could, dragging the judge with them. His brain was numbed, that awful howl still resounded in his ears. He fell over a root, was pulled up again and stumbled further, the branches tearing his robes. A wild panic took hold of him; any moment he expected to feel a crushing weight falling on his back and sharp claws tearing at his throat.

Suddenly the two men let go of him and hurried ahead. When the judge had scrambled through the undergrowth, he saw a brick wall about ten feet high in front of him. Chiao Tai was already crouching against it. Ma Joong leapt lightly on his shoulders, reached for the top of the wall and pulled himself up. When he sat straddling it he bent forward and motioned to judge Dee. Chiao T'ai helped him. The judge grabbed Ma Joong's hands and he was pulled up. "Jump down!" Ma Joong snapped.

Judge Dee swung himself over the wall till he hung by his arms, then let himself go. He fell on a heap of rubbish. When he was getting up, Ma Joong and Chiao Tai jumped down by his side. In the forest beyond the wall they again heard the long drawn-out howl. Then all was silent.

They were in a small garden. Facing them was a high hall, built on a broad brick terrace, raised about four feet above the ground. "Well, magistrate, there's your back hall!" Ma Joong said gruffly. His heavy face was haggard in the moonlight. Chiao Tai silently inspected some tears in his robe.

Judge Dee was panting heavily; sweat poured down his face and body. With an effort he controlled his voice and said, "We'll get up on that terrace, and walk round to the entrance of the hall."

Arrived on the front side, they saw the temple complex across a large, square courtyard, paved with marble slabs. Everything was quiet as the grave.

The judge stood surveying the peaceful scene for a while, then turned and tried the heavy double door of the hall. It swung open and they saw a spacious room, dimly lit by the moonlight filtering inside through the high paper windows. It was empty but for a row of dark, oblong boxes. A faint, sickening odor of decay hung in the close air.

Chiao Tai cursed.

"Those arc coffins!" he muttered.

"That's what I came for," Judge Dee said curtly. He took a candle from his sleeve and told Ma Joong to hand him his tinderbox. When he had lighted the candle, the judge crept among the coffins, reading the inscriptions on the paper labels pasted on their front sides. He halted by the side of the fourth. He rose and felt along the lid.

"It's nailed on only loosely," he whispered. "Take it down." He waited impatiently while the two men inserted their daggers under the lid and wrenched it loose. They lifted it up and let it down on the floor. A nauseating smell rose up from the dark inside. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai shrank back with oaths.

Judge Dee hurriedly covered his mouth and nose with his neckcloth. He lifted the candle, and peered down on the face of the corpse. Ma Joong and Chiao Tai looked over his shoulder, curiosity overcoming their awe. 'The judge saw that this was indeed the man he had seen in the corridor: the face had the same rather haughty expression, the eyebrows were thin and straight, the nose fine, and on the left cheek there was the large birthmark. The only difference was that ugly blue spots disfigured the hollow cheeks and that the sunken eyes were closed. The judge felt a sickening hollow feeling in the pit of his stomach. The resemblance was perfect; it had been no hoax. He had met a ghost in the empty house.

He stepped back and motioned to Ma Joong and Chiao Tai to replace the lid. Then he blew out the candle.

"We had better not go back the way we came," he said dryly. "Let's follow the outer wall, and climb over it on the front side of the temple, near the gatehouse. We risk being seen, but the risk in the wood is worse!"

The two men grunted their assent.

They circled the temple compound, walking in the shadow of the wall, till they saw the gatehouse ahead. They climbed over the wall and followed the road, keeping close to the trees. They saw no one. Quickly they crossed the road, and went into the wooded patch that separated them from the creek.

Sergeant Hoong was lying on the bottom of the boat, fast asleep. Judge Dee woke him up, then helped Ma Joong and Chiao T'ai to push the boat into the water.

Just as he was about to step inside, Ma Joong halted. A shrill voice came to them over the dark water. A falsetto sang, "Moon, oh silvery moon-"

A small boat was being sculled toward the Watergate. The singer sat in the stern, slowly waving his arms up and down to the rhythm of his song.

"That's our drunken poet, Po Kai, going home at last!" Ma Joong growled. "Better give him time to get in ahead of us."

As the piercing voice began again, he added grimly, "At first I thought it awful. But believe me, after that howl we heard in the wood, his song sounds pretty good to me!"


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