THE JUDGE UNCOVERS AN EVIL CONSPIRACY; AN ELUSIVE PERSON IS FINALLY IDENTIFIED
IT was long past midnight when Judge Dee and his three assistants came back to the tribunal. The judge took them straight to his private office.
As he sat down behind his desk, Sergeant Hoong hurriedly went to the tea stove on the corner table and prepared a cup of strong tea for him. Judge Dee took a few sips, then leaned back in his chair and spoke.
"Our great statesman and illustrious detective, Governor Yoo Shou-chien, states in his Instructions to Magistrates that a detective must never cling stubbornly to one theory, but re-examine it repeatedly as his investigation progresses, and again and again compare it with the facts. And if he finds a new fact that doesn't seem to fit, he must not try to adapt that fact to the theory, but he must either adapt the theory to the fact, or abandon it altogether. I always thought, my friends, that this was so obvious as hardly needing to be mentioned. However, in the case of the murdered magistrate I failed conspicuously to observe this fundamental rule." He smiled wanly as he went on. "Apparently it is not as obvious as I thought!
"When the astute criminal who is at the back of this plot heard that I had applied for the post of magistrate of Peng-lai, he obligingly decided to provide something for me to put my teeth in, in order to keep me busy for a few days. The plans for his final coup, the sending to the capital of the golden statue, were nearing completion. He wanted to put me on a wrong track till the statue would have left Peng-lai. Thus he ordered Koo Meng-pin to lead me astray, and Koo spread the rumor about the arms smuggle. He got that idea from Kim Sang, who had used it already for obtaining the co-operation of the Korean girl. I fell into the trap; the arms smuggle was the basis of all my theorizing. Even after Kim Sang had revealed that it was gold that was being smuggled, I still believed that it was smuggled from China to Korea, although I wondered vaguely how there could be any profit in that. It was only this very night that I saw it was the other way round!"
Judge Dee angrily tugged at his beard. Then, looking at his three assistants, who were eagerly waiting for him to continue, he went on with a bleak smile.
"The only excuse I can adduce for my shortsightedness is that incidental occurrences such as the murder of Fall Choong, the disappearance of Mrs. Koo, and Tang's strange behavior tended to confuse the issue. Further, I concentrated too long on Yee Pen who-quite innocently-came to see me about the rumors of the arms smuggle, and whom I also suspected because of a mistake which I shall explain presently.
"It was the theatrical performance the sergeant took me to earlier tonight that showed me who the magistrate's murderer was. In the theatre piece a man indicated his murderer posthumously by leaving a message in an almond; but the message was only meant to distract the murderer's attention from the real clue, namely the almond itself! Then I suddenly understood that Magistrate Wang had purposely chosen the valuable antique box as container of his papers because the pair of golden bamboo stems on its cover pointed to Koo's double stick. Since we know that the magistrate was fond of riddles and conundrums, I even suspect that he wanted at the same time to suggest that the gold was being smuggled concealed in bamboo sticks. But that we'll never know. "Now that I knew that Koo was the murderer, I realized the sinister meaning of the words with which he dismissed Kim Sang before he took me to the crab restaurant; he said, `You can go on; you know what to do.' Evidently they had already discussed how I could be eliminated as soon as I seemed to be on the right track. And I gave them that idea by foolishly prattling away about monks of the White Cloud Temple using the deserted temple for nefarious purposes, and on top of that mentioning the statue Koo was going to send to the capital! Moreover, during our dinner I tried to make him talk about his wife by vaguely suggesting that she had inadvertently become mixed up in one of his own plans. Koo thought of course that I was giving him to understand that I suspected the truth and that I could arrest him any moment.
"As a matter of fact I then was still very far from the truth, I was worrying about how the smugglers succeeded in getting the gold from the interior to the deserted temple. However, tonight I asked myself what could be the relation between Koo and Dr. Tsao. The doctor had a cousin in the capital, a bibliophile strange to the world who could easily be utilized without suspecting anything wrong. I thought that Dr. Tsao might have helped Koo to get the gold from the capital to Peng-lai by introducing him to his cousin. At that point, at long last, the truth dawned on me, for then I suddenly remembered that Dr. Tsao had been despatching at regular intervals packages of books to the capital. Gold was being smuggled into China, and not the other way round! Thus a ring of clever criminals had assembled a large quantity of cheap gold by evading the high import and road taxes, and were enriching themselves by manipulating the market with that gold.
"At that point, however, I struck a difficulty. The gold scheme could work only if the ring disposed of a tremendous quantity of gold. It is true that it Was bought cheap in Korea, but it had to be paid for there, which meant a considerable capital outlay. In order to make really great profits they had to be able to influence the market in the capital, and for that a few score thin staves smuggled in hollow staffs and book packages could never be sufficient. Moreover, by the time I arrived here they apparently no longer used the route I had traced, for Dr. Tsao had already despatched nearly his entire library to the capital. Then I understood the reason for the terrible hurry the criminals were in. Namely that in the very near future a colossal amount of gold was going to be forwarded to the capital. How could that be done? Koo's copy of the statue, to be conveyed to the capital by a government escort, was the obvious answer.
"The supreme effrontery of this audacious plan was worthy of the mastermind who was directing the scheme. At last I understood the meaning of the weird incident Ma Joong and Chiao Tai had witnessed in the mist, on the bank of the canal. I consulted the city map, and saw that Koo's mansion was located near the first bridge. I realized that in the mist you two must have misjudged the distance you covered, and thought it was near the second bridge that you had witnessed the incident. And it was there that the next day you made your inquiries. Yee Pen lives near there, and that strengthened for a while my suspicions of that unscrupulous but innocent businessman. But apart from that, your eyes hadn't played a trick on you. Only Koo's men didn't club a living man, they broke to pieces the clay model of the statue that Koo had secretly made for casting the mold of the golden statue! It was that mold that Koo sent to the unsuspecting abbot of the White Cloud Temple in the rosewood box. Hui-pen opened the box, and used the cremation of the body of the almoner as pretext for making the blazing fire needed for melting the assembled gold bars and casting the golden statue. I saw with my own eyes the rosewood box, and I wondered about so great a fire being necessary for cremating a body. But I suspected nothing. Well, half an hour ago, when we proceeded from the temple to Koo's mansion and searched it, we found the cedarwood statue made by Master Fang neatly sawn asunder in a dozen or so pieces. Those Koo planned to send to the capital, to be put together there again and offered to the White Horse Temple, while the golden statue would be brought to the leader of the scheme. The clay model could easily be disposed of. It was broken to pieces and dumped into the canal. Ma Joong stepped on the pieces, with the paper coating still attached to them."
"Well," Ma Joong said, "I am glad to know that I still can trust my own eyes. I was getting a bit worried about my having mistaken a basket with garbage for a sitting man!"
"Why did Dr. Tsao join that criminal scheme, your honor?" the sergeant asked. "After all, he is a man of letters, and-"
"Dr. Tsao loved luxury," the judge interrupted. "He couldn't get over the loss of his money, which forced him to leave the city and live in that old tower. Everything was false about that doctor, even his beard! When Koo approached him and promised him a large share in the profits, he couldn't resist the temptation. The staff the almoner Tzu-hai. was carrying that night when he met Mrs. Koo and Po Kai contained a bar of gold, part of the doctor's share he was receiving regularly. Koo made a bad mistake when he let his desire for Miss Tsao prevail over his caution, and ordered Dr. Tsao to marry her to him. That proved to me that there was a connection between those two men."
Judge Dee sighed. He emptied his teacup, then resumed.
"Koo Meng-pin was an utterly ruthless, greedy man, but he was not the leader of the ring; he had only been acting on orders. But I couldn't let him name his employer. For that man could have other agents here, who would have warned him. This very nightor rather this very morning!-I shall send posthaste to the capital the platoon of mounted military police you saw waiting outside in the courtyard, to forward my accusation of that man to the president of the Metropolitan Court. By the way, their corporal informed me just now that the military police have caught that fellow Woo, Fan's servant, when he was trying to sell the two horses. He had indeed discovered the murder just after Ah Kwang had left the farm. Woo was afraid he would be suspected of having committed the crime, and fled with the cash box and the horses, exactly as we had surmised."
"But who was the archcriminal who led the smuggling scheme, your honor?" Sergeant Hoong asked.
"Of course that treacherous scoundrel Po Kai!" Ma Joong shouted.
Judge Dee smiled.
"As to the sergeant's question," he said, "I really can't answer that, because I don't know who that criminal is. I am waiting for Po Kai to supply me with his name. As a matter of fact, I am wondering why Po Kai hasn't shown up yet. I expected him to come here immediately after our return from the temple."
As his three assistants burst out in astonished questions, there came a knock on the door. The headman rushed inside and reported that Po Kai had calmly walked in through the main gate of the tribunal. The guards had arrested him at once.
"Show him in," the judge said in an even voice. "Without the guards, mind you."
When Po Kai came in the judge quickly rose and bowed. "Please be seated, Mr. Wang," he said to him politely. "I have been looking forward to this meeting, sir!"
"So have I!" the visitor replied placidly. "Permit me, before we get down to business, to clean myself up a bit!"
Ignoring the three men who were staring at him dumbfounded, he walked over to the tea stove, took a towel from the hot water basin and carefully rubbed his face. When he turned round, the purple spots that gave his face its bloated appearance and the red nosetip had vanished, and his eyebrows were now thin and straight. He took a round piece of black plaster from his sleeve and stuck that on his left cheek.
Ma Joong and Chiao Tai gasped. That was the face they had seen in the They both exclaimed at the same time. "The dead magistrate!"
"His twin brother," Judge Dee corrected them, "Mr. Wang Yuan-te, senior secretary of the Board of Finance." To Wang he continued, "That birthmark must have saved you and your brother much embarrassment, sir, not to speak of your parents!"
"It has indeed," Wang answered. "Apart from that, we were as much alike as two peas in a pod. After we had grown up it didn't matter any more, though, for then my poor brother was serving in the provinces, while I always remained in the Board of Finance. Not many people knew indeed that we were twins. But that is neither here nor there. I came to thank you, magistrate, for your brilliant solution of my brother's murder, and for supplying me with the data I needed for righting the false accusation his murderer brought forward against me in the capital. I was present at the gathering in the temple tonight, disguised as a monk, and heard how you have successfully unraveled this complicated plot, while I never got further than vague suspicions."
"I suppose," Judge Dee asked eagerly, "that Koo's employer is a high official in the capital?"
Wang shook his head.
"No," he replied. "It is a fairly young man, but very old in depravity. A junior secretary in the Metropolitan Court called Hou, the nephew of our secretary-general, Hou Kwang."
The judge grew pale.
"Secretary Hou?" he exclaimed. "He is one of my friends!" Wang shrugged his shoulders.
"Often," he remarked, "one makes mistakes in judging one's closest friends. Young Hou is a gifted man. In due course he would certainly have risen high in official life. But he thought he could find a short cut to wealth and influence by swindling and deceiving, and when he saw that he had been discovered, he did not hesitate to commit a base murder. He was very favorably placed for evolving his evil schemes. For through his uncle he knew every-thing about the affairs of our Board of Finance, while as a secretary of the Court he had access to all documents there. It was he who was the leader of the plot."
Judge Dee passed his hand over his eyes. Now he understood why Hou, when six days before he had seen him off in the Pavilion of Joy and Sadness, had insisted so much on his giving up the plan of proceeding to Peng-lai. He remembered the look of entreaty he had seen in Hou's eyes. At least Hou's friendship for him had not been entirely feigned. And now it was he who had brought about Hou's downfall. This thought took away all the elation he had felt about his solution of the case. He asked Wang in a toneless voice, "How did you obtain the first clue to this plot?"
"Heaven has granted me a special sense for figures," Wang replied. "It is to that gift that I owe my quick promotion in the Board. One month ago I began to notice discrepancies in the statements on our gold market drawn up regularly by the Board. I suspected that cheap gold was entering the country illegally. I started an investigation of my own, but unfortunately my clerk must have been a spy for Hou. Since Hou knew that my brother was magistrate here in Peng-lai, the source of his smuggled gold, he-quite wrongly-concluded that my brother and I were working together on exposing him. As a matter of fact, my brother had written me only once about some suspicions of his that Peng-lai was a center of smuggling, I had not connected that vague information with the gold manipulations in the capital. But Hou made the mistake of many criminals, he assumed too soon that he had been discovered, and took precipitate action. He ordered Koo to murder my brother, and he had the clerk killed. He took thirty bars of gold from the Treasury, and had his uncle accuse me of those crimes. I succeeded in fleeing before I was arrested, and came to Peng-lai disguised as Po Kai, in order to discover evidence of Hou's scheme and thus avenge my brother's murder, and at the same time clear myself of the false accusation.
"Your arrival here placed me in a difficult position. I would have liked to co-operate with you but could not reveal my identity, for then it would of course have been your duty to arrest me at once and forward me to the capital. But I did what I could in an indirect way. I approached your two assistants and took them to the floating brothels in order to interest them in Kim Sang and the Korean girl, whom I suspected. In that I succeeded fairly well." He gave Chiao Tai a quick glance. The tall fellow hastily buried his face in his teacup. "I also tried to draw their attention to the Buddhist crowd-but in that I was less successful. I suspected that the monks were concerned in the gold smuggle, but couldn't discover any clues. I kept a close watch on the White Cloud Temple; the floating brothels were a useful observation post. I saw the almoner Tzu-hai leave the temple in a stealthy way and followed him, but unfortunately he died before I could interrogate him about what he was going to do in the deserted temple.
"I questioned Kim Sang a bit too closely and he became suspicious of me. That is why he did not oppose my coming along on the boat trip; he thought he might as well kill me too." Turning to Ma Joong, he said, "During the fight on the barge they made the mistake of concentrating on you. They considered me a negligible quantity, and planned to finish me off later at leisure. But I am rather handy with a knife, and stuck it in the back of the man who grabbed you from behind when the fight started."
"That certainly was a timely gesture!" Ma Joong said gratefully. "When I had heard Kim Sang's last words," Wang pursued, "and thus knew that my suspicions about the gold smuggle were correct, I took the dinghy and hurried back at once to get my box which contained amongst other notes those on Hou's trumped-up charge against me and on his market manipulations-before Kim Sang's accomplices would steal them from my room in Yee Pen's house. Since they suspected To Kai, I decided to drop that disguise, and adopted that of an itinerant monk."
"Seeing all the wine we have swilled together," Ma Joong growled, "you could at least have said a few words of explanation before leaving the barge."
"A few words wouldn't have sufficed," Wang replied dryly. To Judge Dee he remarked, "Those two are a useful pair, if somewhat rough-mannered. Are they in your permanent service?"
"They certainly are," the judge replied.
Ma Joong's face lit up. Nudging Chiao Tai, he said, "The marching with frozen toes up and down the northern frontier is off, brother!"
"I chose the disguise of Po Kai," Wang continued, "because I knew that if I posed as a dissolute poet and fervent Buddhist, I would sooner or later come into contact with the same persons my brother had associated with. And as an eccentric drunkard I could roam over the city all times of day and night without arousing suspicion."
"The part you acted was well chosen," Judge Dee said. "I shall now draw up the charge against Hou, and a platoon of the military police shall bring it at once to the capital. Since the murder of a magistrate is a crime against the state, I can bypass the prefect and the governor and address it directly to the president of the Metropolitan Court. Ile'll have Hou arrested at once. Tomorrow I shall hear Koo, Tsao, Hui-pen and the monks involved in the plot, and as soon as possible send the full report on the case to the capital. As a matter of form I shall have to keep you under detention here in the tribunal, sir, pending the official notice that the charges against you have been withdrawn. This will give me the opportunity for profiting by your advice on the financial technicalities of the case, while I also hope to consult you on an eventual simplification of the land taxes in this district. I studied the dossier on that subject and it struck me that the tax burden of the small peasants is unduly heavy."
"I am completely at your service," Wang said. "By the way, how did you identify me? I thought I would have to explain everything to you."
"When I met you in the corridor of your brother's house," Judge Dee replied, "I suspected that you were the murderer, who had disguised himself as his victim's ghost in order to be able to search undisturbed for incriminating material the dead magistrate might have left, So strong was that suspicion that the same night I paid a secret visit to the White Cloud Temple, and had a look at your brother's corpse. But then I saw that the likeness was too perfect ever to be achieved by artificial means. Thus I was convinced I had really seen the dead magistrate's ghost.
"It was only tonight that I hit on the truth. I saw a theatre piece about twin brothers who could be told apart only by the missing forefinger of one of them. That made me doubt the reality of the ghost, for I reflected that if the dead man had had a twin brother, he could easily have posed as his ghost, perhaps by sticking or painting a birthmark on his cheek, if that were necessary. And 'rang told me that the dead man's only living relative was a brother, who had as yet failed to get in touch with the tribunal. `Po Kai' was the only man who could qualify: he had arrived here directly after the magistrate's murder, he was interested in the case, and Miss Tsao and an observant waiter had made me suspect that he was acting a part.
"If, sir, your name hadn't happened to be Wang-together with Li and Djang occurring most frequently among our people-I might have placed you earlier. For at the time when I was leaving the capital, your alleged crimes and your disappearance were creating quite a stir there. As it was, To Kai's' remarkable skill in financial matters finally supplied the clue. It made me think that he might be connected with the Board of Finance, and then it struck me at last that both the murdcred magistrate and the ab sconding secretary of the Board bore the same surname, Wang." The judge heaved a sigh. He pensively caressed his side whiskers for a while, then resumed.
"A more experienced magistrate would doubtless have unraveled this case sooner, sir. But this is my first post, I am only a beginner." Opening his drawer, he took out the notebook and handed it to Wang, saying, "Even now I don't understand the meaning of the notes your brother made here."
Wang slowly leafed through the notebook, and studied the figures. Then he said, "I didn't approve of my brother's slack morals, but it can't be denied that he could be very shrewd when he chose. This is a detailed record of the incoming ships of Koo's firm, with the amounts of harbor ducs, import taxes and the head taxes of the passengers he paid. My brother must have found out that the import taxes were so low that Koo could hardly have imported sufficient cargo to cover his costs, while the head taxes were so high that his ships must have carried an abnormally large quantity of passengers. That excited his suspicion and made him think of smuggling. My brother was lazy by nature, but if he happened to meet with something that tickled his curiosity, he would study it wholeheartedly and shun no labor to find the solution. He was already that way when he was a boy. W'e11, this was the last puzzle my poor brother solved."
"Thank you," Judge Dee said. "That disposes of my last problem. And you also solved for me the problem of the ghostly apparition.
"I knew that if I acted the part of my dead brother's ghost," Wang remarked, "I could make investigations in the tribunal without anybody daring to challenge me if I was discovered. I could go freely in and out there, because shortly before his demise my brother sent me a key to the back door of his residence. Apparently he had a foreboding about his impending death, as proved also by his entrusting the lacquer box to that Korean girl. The investigator surprised me when i was searching my- brother's library, and the old scribe saw me when I was looking for my brother's private papers in this office. You I also met quite by accident when I was examining my brother's luggage. Allow me to off er you my sincere apologies for my rude behavior on that occasion!"
Judge Dee smiled bleakly.
"They are gladly accepted!" he replied. "All the more so since last night in the White Cloud Temple, when you appeared before me the second time in your ghostly disguise, you saved my life. I must say, though, that on that second occasion you did indeed frighten me very much, your hand looked quite transparent, and you seemed to dissolve suddenly into the mist. How did you achieve that macabre effect?"
Wang had been listening to the judge with mounting astonishment. Now he spoke perplexedly
"You say I appeared before you a second time? You must be mistaken! I never went to the temple as my dead brother's ghost." In the deep silence that followed these words there came from somewhere in the building the faint sound of a door being closed, this time very softly.