THE CONFESSION OF A DISILLUSIONED LOVER; THE DISAPPEARANCE OF A KOREAN ARTISAN
WHEN Ma Joong had brought the peasant's daughter home, her aunt, a jovial old lady, had insisted that he take- a bowl of gruel there. Chiao T'ai had waited for him in the guard house for some time, then ate his rice there together with the headman. But as soon as Ma Joong came back, they rode out together. Outside in the street Ma Joong asked Chiao Tai, "You know what that girl Soo-niang said to me when I left there?"
"That you were a splendid fellow," Chiao T'ai said indifferently. "You don't know a thing about women, brother," Ma Joong said condescendingly. "That's of course what she was thinking, but women don't say those things, you know, at least not at the beginning. No, she said I was kind."
"Almighty heaven!" Chiao Tai shouted, aghast. "You-and kind! The poor, stupid wench! But then, I needn't worry, you don't have a chance. You haven't got a piece of land, have you? You heard her say that's what she wants."
"I have got other things," Ma Joong said smugly.
"I wish you would take your mind off the skirts, brother," Chiao Tai grunted. "The headman told me a lot about that fellow Ah Kwang. We needn't look for him inside the city; he only comes here occasionally, far drinking or gambling; he doesn't belong here. We must find him somewhere upcountry, that's where he knows his way about."
"Seeing that he's a country bumpkin," Ma Joong said, "I don't think he'll have left the district. He'll have taken to the woods west of the town."
"Why should he?" Chiao T'ai asked. "As far as he knows, there's nothing to connect him with the murder. If I were in his place, I would lie low in some place nearby for a few days, and see which way the wind was blowing."
"In that case," Ma Joong said, "we might kill two birds with one stone if we begin by searching that deserted temple."
"You are right for once," Chiao Tai said wryly. "Let's go there." They left the city by the west gate, and rode along the highway to the guardhouse at the crossing. They left their horses there, then walked to the temple, keeping to the left side of the road, where they were covered by the trees.
"The headman told me," Chiao Tai whispered when they had come to the ruined gatehouse, "that Ah Kwang is stupid in everything except woodcraft and fighting. He also has a mean way with a knife. So we had better go about this job seriously and approach that temple without his spotting us-if he is there."
Ma Joong nodded and crept into the undergrowth beside the gate, followed by Chiao T'ai.
After they had struggled through the dense shrubbery for a while, Ma Joong raised his hand. Carefully parting the branches, he nodded to his friend. Together they scrutinized the high building of weatherbeaten stone that rose on the other side of a mossovergrown court. A flight of broken stone steps led up the main entrance, just a dark opening; the doors had disappeared long ago. A couple of white butterflies fluttered about among the high-grown weeds. Apart from that nothing was stirring.
Ma Joong picked up a small stone and threw it against the wall. It clattered down the stone steps. They waited, their eyes glued on the dark entrance.
"I saw something moving inside!" Chiao Tai whispered.
"I'll slip inside there," Ma Joong said, "while you circle the temple and get in by a side gate. W'e'll whistle if we find something."
Chiao Tai moved away in the undergrowth on his right, Ma Joong crept in the opposite direction. When he estimated he was near the left corner of the building, he came out and stood with his back against the wall. So he moved along cautiously till he had arrived at the steps. He listened. Everything was quiet. He quickly ran up the steps, entered and stood with his back against the wall next to the door.
When his eyes had adapted themselves to the semiobscurity he saw that the large, high hall was empty but for an old altar table against the back wall. Four thick center pillars supported the roof, connected with each other near the ceiling by heavy crossbeams.
Ma Joong left his coign of vantage and made for the door opening next to the altar. When he was passing the pillars a faint sound above his head made him look up quickly and step aside. A large dark shape came hurtling down and hit his left shoulder.
The impact threw Ma Joong on the floor with a crash that jarred every bone in his body. The large man who had tried to break his back had also fallen on the floor but he was on his feet again before Ma Joong and jumped over to him, reaching for his throat.
Ma Joong put both his feet in the man's stomach and heaved him over his head. When Ma Joong was scrambling up the other came for him again. Ma Joong aimed a kick at his groin but he side-stepped quick as lightning, went straight on and locked Ma Joong's torso in a powerful hug.
Panting heavily, each tried to get the other in a stranglehold. The fellow was as tall and strong as Ma Joong, but he was not a trained wrestler. Slowly Ma Joong forced him back toward the high altar table, making it appear as if he was unable to free his arms from the other's hold. When he had him with the small of his back against the edge of the table, Ma Joong suddenly freed his arms, passed them under those of his opponent and locked them over his throat. Raising himself on his toes, he bent the other's torso backward with the throat lock, and as the man's hands let go of him he threw his entire body weight into a powerful push. There was a sickening snapping sound, and the man's body went limp.
Ma Joong loosened his grip and let his opponent down to the floor. Panting, he stood looking down at him. The man lay quite still, his eyes closed.
Suddenly he moved his arms in a queer, futile gesture. His eyes opened. Ma Joong squatted down by his side. He knew the man was done for.
The fallen man looked at Ma Joong with small, cruel eyes. His lean, swarthy face twitched. He muttered, "I can't move my legs!"
"Don't blame me!" Ma Joong said. "Well, judging by your condition we shan't enjoy a long acquaintance, but I may as well tell you that I am an officer of the tribunal. You are Ah Kwang, aren't you?"
"You can rot in hell!" the man said. Then he started groaning. Ma Joong went to the door, whistled on his fingers and resumed his position by Ah Kwang's side.
As Chiao Tai came running inside, Ah Kwang started to curse. Then he muttered, "That stone-throwing trick is one of the oldest in the trade."
"Your trying to jump on my neck from the roof beam isn't so new either," Ma Joong replied dryly. To Chiao Tai he added, "He won't last long."
"At least I killed that bitch Soo-niang!" the man grunted. "Sleeping with a new fellow, and that in the master's bed! For me the hay in the loft was good enough!"
"You made a slight mistake in the dark," Ma Joong said, "but I won't bother you with that now. The Black judge in the nether world will doubtless explain everything nicely to you."
Ah Kwang closed his eyes and groaned; his breath came in gasps when he said, "I am strong. I won't die! And there was no mistake. Brother, that sickle cleft her throat till it struck the bone."
"You are a handy fellow with a sickle," Chiao Tai remarked. "Who was the fellow she was sleeping with?"
"I don't know and I don't care," Ah Kwang muttered through his clenched teeth. "But he got his too. The blood spouted from his throat, all over her too. Served the bitch right!" He began to grin but suddenly a long tremor shook his broad torso and his face went livid.
"Who was the other fellow who hung around there?" Ma Joong asked casually.
"There was nobody there but me, you stupid bastard," Ah Kwang muttered. Suddenly he looked up at Ma Joong, panic in his small eyes. "I don't want to die! I am afraid!" he said.
The two friends looked at him in respectful silence.
His face contorted in a lopsided smile. His arms twitched; then he lay still.
"The fellow is gone," Ma Joong said hoarsely. Rising, he went on. "He nearly got me, though. He was lying in wait for me, stretched out f'iat on one of those beams between the pillars, high up near the ceiling there. But before letting himself drop down he made a sound, and I could twist aside a bit. Just in time too. If he had landed on my neck the way he planned, he would have broken my back!"
"And now you have broken his, so that score is even," Chiao Tai said. "Let's search this temple; those are the magistrate's orders." They went through the central and the back courtyard, and also searched the empty cells of the monks, and the wooded patch behind the temple compound. But except for some frightened field mice, they found nothing.
Back in the front hall Chiao Tai looked thoughtfully at the altar table.
"Don't you remember," he asked, "that there is often a cavity behind those things where the monks hide their silver candles and incense burners in times of trouble?"
Ma Joong nodded. "We might as well have a look," he said. They pushed the heavy table aside. In the brick wall behind it there was indeed a low, deep niche. Ma Joong stooped and looked inside. He cursed.
"The whole place is chock-full of old, broken monks' staffs," he said disgustedly.
The two friends walked out by the main gate and strolled back to the guardhouse. After they had given the corporal in charge there the necessary instructions for conveying Ah Kwang's body to the tribunal, they mounted their horses and rode back. When they passed through the west city gate, it was already dark.
They met Sergeant Hoong in front of the tribunal. He told them that he had just come back from the shipyard, where the judge was having his evening meal with Koo Meng-pin.
"I was lucky today," Ma Joong remarked. "Therefore I'll treat the two of you to a good meal in the Nine Flowers Orchard." When they entered the restaurant they saw Po Kai and Kim Sang sitting together at a corner table. Two large wine jugs were standing in front of them. Po Kai's cap was tilted far back; he seemed in an affable mood.
"Welcome, my friends!" he shouted jovially. "Come and join us! Kim Sang has only just arrived; you can help him try to catch up with me!"
Ma Joong walked up to him and said sternly, "Last night you were drunk as an ape. You gravely insulted me and my friend, and you disturbed the peace by squealing obscene songs. I sentence you to paying for the wine! The food is on me!"
All laughed. The owner brought a simple but tasty meal, and the five men drank several rounds of wine. When Po Kai ordered a new jug, Sergeant Hoong rose and said, "We had better return to the tribunal; our judge will be back by now."
"August heaven!" Ma Joong shouted. "Of course! I must report about that temple!"
"Have you two at last seen the light?" Po Kai inquired incredulously. "Tell me, what temple has the advantage of your prayers?"
"We caught Ah Kwang in the deserted temple," Ma Joong said. "That temple is certainly deserted now; there's nothing left but a heap of broken staffs!"
"A very, very important clue!" Kim Sang said, laughing. "Your boss will like that!"
Po Kai wanted to see the three men off to the tribunal, but Kim Sang went on. "Let's stay awhile in this hospitable place, Po Kai, and drink a few more rounds."
Po Kai hesitated. Then he sat down again, saying, "All right, one tiny little last nip then. Remember that I disapprove of insobriety."
"If there is no other work for us," Ma Joong said, "we'll drop in again later in the night, just to see how you take that last nip!" The three men found judge Dee sitting alone in his private office. Sergeant Hoong noticed that he was looking wan and tired. But he brightened up when he heard Ma Joong's report about the discovery of Ah Kwang.
"So my theory about the murder by mistake was right," he said. "But we still have the problem of the woman. Ah Kwang left immediately after the murder, without even taking the cashbox; he knew nothing about what happened after he had fled. That thieving servant Woo might have caught a glimpse of the third person who is certainly involved in this affair. We'll learn that in due time when he has been caught."
"We made a thorough search of the entire temple and the strip of wood around it," Ma Joong said, "but we found no dead woman there. We only found behind the altar table a heap of broken staffs, like the monks are wont to carry."
The judge sat up straight in his chair. "Monks' staffs?" he exclaimed incredulously.
"Only old, discarded ones, magistrate," Chaio Tai put in. "All of them were broken."
"What a curious find!" Judge Dee said slowly. lie thought deeply. Then he roused himself and said to Ma Joong and Chiao Tai, "You two had quite a day; you better retire now arid take a good night's rest. I'll stay here and talk a bit with Hoong."
After the two stalwarts had taken their leave, judge Dee settled back in his chair and told the sergeant about the loosened board in the White Cloud Temple. "I repeat," he concluded, "that it was a deliberate attempt at killing me."
Hoong gave his master an anxious look.
"On the other hand," he said, "that board may indeed have been worrneaten. When your honor put his weight on it-"
"I didn't!" the judge said curtly. "I just tapped it with my foot to test it." Seeing Hoong's uncomprehending look, he added quickly, "Just when I was about to step on it, I saw the ghost of the dead magistrate."
The crash of a door slamming shut somewhere in the building resounded in the room.
Judge Dee sat up abruptly.
"I told Tang to have that door mended!" he burst out angrily. With a quick look at Hoong's pale face, he took up his teacup and brought it to his lips. But he didn't drink. He stared fixedly at the small gray particles that were floating on the surface of the tea. Slowly putting the cup down again, he said tensely, "Look, Hoong, somebody has put something in my tea."
The two men looked silently at the gray powder that was slowlv dissolving in the hot tea. Suddenly Judge Dee rubbed his finger over the tabletop. Then his drawn face relaxed in a wan smile.
"I am getting nervous, Hoong," he remarked wryly. "That slamming door made some plaster drop down from the ceiling. That's all.
Sergeant Hoong heaved a sigh of relief. He went to the tea table and poured out a new cup for the judge. Sitting down again, he remarked, "Perhaps after all the loose board has a natural explanation too, your honor. I can't imagine that the man who murdered the magistrate would dare to attack your honor! We haven't the slightest clue to his identity and-"
"But he doesn't know that, Hoong," the judge interrupted. "He doesn't know what suggestions the investigator may have made to me; he may think I am not proceeding against him only because I am biding my time. That unknown criminal is doubtless following all I do with close attention, and something I did or said may have given him the idea that I am on his track." The judge tugged slowly at his mustache. Then he continued. "I'll try now to expose myself as much as possible, so as to tempt him to make another try. Then he'll perhaps betray himself."
"Your honor shouldn't take that awful risk!" Hoong exclaimed, aghast. "We know he is a ruthless and ingenious scoundrel. Heaven knows what new evil scheme he is preparing now! And we don't even know-"
Judge Dee had not been listening. Suddenly he rose. Taking up the candle, he said curtly, "Come along, Hoong!"
Sergeant Hoong followed the judge as he quickly crossed the main courtyard and went to the magistrate's private residence. He entered and silently walked through the dark corridor to the library. Standing in the door, he lifted the candle and surveyed the room. It was exactly as he had left it after his former visit. Stepping up to the tea stove, he ordered Hoong, "Drag that armchair over here, sergeant!"
When Hoong had placed it in front of the tea cupboard, the judge stepped up on the seat. Lifting the candle, he scrutinized the red-lacquered roof beam.
"Give me your knife and a sheet of paper!" he said excitedly. "And hold the candle for me."
Judge Dee spread the paper out on the palm of his left hand, and with his right scraped with the tip of the knife at the surface of the beam.
Stepping down, he carefully wiped the point of the knife clean on the paper. He gave the knife back to Hoong, the paper he folded up and put in his sleeve. Then he asked Hoong "Is Tang still in the chancery?"
"I think I saw him sitting at his desk when I came back, your honor," the sergeant replied.
The judge quickly left the library and walked over to the chancery. Two candles were burning on Tang's desk. He sat hunched in his chair, staring straight ahead of him. When he saw the two men enter he hurriedly got up.
Seeing his haggard face, judge Dee said, not unkindly, "The murder of your assistant must have been a great shock to you, Tang. You better go back home and go to bed early. First, however, I want some information from you. Tell me, were there any repairs done in Magistrate Wang's library shortly before his death?"
Tang wrinkled his forehead. Then he replied, "No, your honor, not shortly before his death. But about two weeks earlier, Magistrate Wang told me that one of his visitors had remarked on a discolored spot on the ceiling, and promised to send along a lacquer worker to repair it. He ordered me to let that workman in when he would come to do his work."
"Who was that visitor?" Judge Dee asked tensely. Tang shook his head.
"I really don't know, your honor. The magistrate was very popular among the notables here. Most of them used to visit him in his library after the morning session, for a cup of tea and a chat. The magistrate would make tea for them himself. The abbot, the prior Hui-pen, the shipowners Yee and Koo, Dr. Tsao and-"
"I suppose that artisan can be traced," Judge Dee interrupted impatiently. "The lacquer tree doesn't grow in these parts; there can't be many lacquer workers here in this district."
"That's why the magistrate was grateful for his friend's offer," Tang said. "We hadn't known there was a 'lacquer worker available here."
"Go and ask the guards," the judge ordered. "They must at least have seen that artisan! Report to me in my private office."
When he was seated again behind his desk the judge said eagerly to Sergeant Hoong, "The dust dropping in my tea supplied me with the solution. When the murderer noticed that dark spot on the ceiling, caused by the hot steam of the tea water, he realized that the magistrate always left the copper tea stove on that same spot on the cupboard, and that fact suggested to him his diabolical plan! He had an accomplice act the part of a lacquer worker. Feigning to work on the discolored spot, he drilled a small hole in the roof beam, straight above the tea stove. He put one or more small wax pills inside the hole, and those pills contained the poison powder. That was all he needed to do! He knew that the magistrate when he was engrossed in his reading would often let the tea water go on boiling some time before he rose and poured it from the pan into the teapot. Sooner or later the hot steam would melt the wax, and the pills would drop down into the boiling water. They would dissolve immediately and become invisible. Simple and effective, Hoong! Just now I found that hole in the roof beam, in the center of the discolored spot. A small quantity of wax was still sticking to its rim. So that was how the murder was committed!"
Tang came in. He said, "Two of the guards did remember the artisan, your honor. The man came to the tribunal once about ten days before the magistrate's death, when his excellency was presiding over the afternoon session. He was a Korean from one of the ships in the harbor, and could speak only a few words of Chinese. Since I had instructed the guards that they could let him in, they brought him to the library. They stayed with him there to see that he didn't pinch something. They say that the man worked for a time on the roof beam, then he climbed down his ladder and muttered something about the damage being so bad that he would have to lacquer the entire ceiling anew. He left and was never seen again."
Judge Dee leaned back in his chair. "Another dead end!" he said disconsolately.