by Pam De Voe
This week we are featuring some mystery short stories that involve fathers in honor of Father’s Day. This never before published mystery short story is the last of the group.
“A village elder just reported a suicide at the home of Master Xiao Hong-gui.” Fu-hao slicked his hair back and shook his head in disapproval. “We’ve only been here a week and we already have a suicide!”
Judge Lu, who was sitting at his desk reviewing the local tax reports–an important, but boring part of his job–perked up. He looked at his younger brother. When Lu took this position as magistrate in Jiangxi’s Ji’an prefecture, he brought along his brother as his secretary. Who could he trust more than his own blood?
“What information do we have on Master Xiao and the suicide victim?”
“Xiao’s quite wealthy and probably the most influential man in the area,” his brother said. “The woman who committed suicide worked in the Xiao household for less than a year. She was a country girl from a mountain village; quiet and moody. Master Xiao, as head of the local village, has volunteered to have the body buried, along with the proper rituals to appease her spirit.” Lu pushed back his chair and stood up, throwing off his official robe.
“Zhang Chiang, bring my riding cloak and tell Ma Jie and two guards to get ready to leave immediately,” he said calling to his private guard. “We’re going to inspect the body. Fu-hao, tell the elder to return to Master Xiao’s home. Tell him to leave everything in place; don’t move the body or disturb anything.”
When the entourage reached the Xiao home, Master Xiao stood at the gate to meet them. Lu dismounted and came forward. As he approached the robust middle-aged man, Xiao bowed, hands clasped together. “She’s in the storage room. We had begun taking care of the corpse but stopped as ordered. Let me show you the …”
“That won’t be necessary,” Lu said, “I want you and everyone in the household to remain outside.”
Master Xiao, taken aback, was about to respond when Lu added, “Please, do not take offense. This is the normal procedure. We must inspect the body and the area for the official report.”
Lu left his guards at the gate to keep both the curious and potential trouble makers away. At the storage room, he posted Zhang at the door and Ma at the open window. The early morning light flooded the room revealing sacks of grain and jars of various shapes, colors, and sizes. Several open beams marched cross the ceiling. In the middle of the room a sheet covered the body of a small form laid out on the ground. Beside the body sat a short, roughhewn, wooden stool.
Fu-hao set his table under the window and prepared to record the judge’s findings. Removing the sheet, Lu quickly inspected the corpse. There were no unusual markings on her body, although he noted she had quite a round belly for such a slender person. Next, he removed a short, narrow sash from her neck. The sash had one cut end. The girl’s exposed neck had two long marks running across it. The darkest mark revealed a definite braid-like line. The second was a smooth, shallow, and light colored line. He looked at her face. She had clearly been a beauty. Now, however, her wide open eyes and mouth seemed to cry for help. He passed his hands over her eyes, closing them. As turned her over, he noted the same patterns on the back of her neck.
Seeing nothing else of significance, he covered the body and stood up, stretching his back. He examined the overhead beam, which was a good eight feet off the ground, and the sash hanging from it. The end of the sash had been cut. He glanced at the short wooden stool near the body. “We’ll take the stool with us,” he said. “This wasn’t a suicide. She was murdered. The braid-like marks indicate she was strangled with a rope, later the smooth sash was tied around her neck. Plus, she’s quite small in stature and, even standing on the stool, she’d never be able to get that sash around the ceiling’s beam. Not suicide, but murder. The questions are why and by whom?” He shook his head. “I suspect she was pregnant. Her stomach area is quite round and firm indicating she was pretty far along. Perhaps someone in the household can give us more information. “Zhang!” he called out. His guard immediately appeared. “Bring in Master Xiao, then each Xiao family member, followed by their servants.”
With Fu-hao keeping notes, Lu questioned people through mid-afternoon, not even stopping for tea. According to the servants, it seems it was no secret the Master had been sexually abusing the girl from the time she arrived about eight months ago. Several of the maids had noticed she no longer had periods and believed she was pregnant.
After returning to the court’s compound, Lu and his staff reviewed the findings. The evidence strongly suggested Xiao was the father of her baby, but would he kill her for that? It seemed too far-fetched.
Lu sighed. He took up his brush. “You may all go to supper. I’ll call you together later.” He did not wait for a reply and bent his head over his papers.
Once alone, he gently ran his fingers over the ink-stone on his desk, a gift from his father. What would his father think if he pursued this case as a murder instead of reporting it as a suicide, which was still a possibility–although completely erroneous as he now believed?
Which would his father believe was more important: preserving good relations with the local power brokers, and thereby boosting his own career and the economic well-being of his family, or following the slippery, possibly ruinous, path to justice?
He rose and strode into the adjacent hall leading to his private quarters and to the altar he’d set up to honor his ancestors. He placed three incense sticks in a carved copper vase in front of his father’s image. After kowtowing three times, he remained supine on the floor. He let unedited thoughts about the case run through his mind. He needed direction. His decision would impact him and his entire family, even to his cousins and uncles because they were one in the eyes of the government. If he made a mistake, all would suffer. But, another voice nagged, what about justice for the girl, vulnerable and without family to fight for her?
He laid on the hard stone floor until exhaustion overtook him. In the shadowed corner of the room a vague figure moved forward. His father. Lu started to kowtow again. His father raised a hand, stopping him. Then, as if coming from inside his own head, a quiet, familiar voice said, “Remember your teachings: ‘Toward the humble, no arrogance;
toward the strong, no compromise.’” Pointing a finger at the pile of papers Fu-hao had laid on Lu’s desk for review, he added, “The goal of the superior man is truth. Food is not his goal.” With that, his form faded away.
Lu remained on the cold floor, head down, eyes closed for some time. His father had spoken. Lu knew what to do. He returned to his office and prepared a formal invitation for this evening’s dinner and had it delivered to Xiao. He called in Fu-hao, Zhang, and Ma. “Master Xiao will share dinner with me tonight. I’ll discuss the murder with him. Fu-hao, you’ll remain behind the screen at the end of the room to record whatever occurs. Zhang and Ma, I want you two to guard each door. Now, take positions, he’ll be here shortly.”
Lu entered the banquet room in time for his servant to announce Xiao’s arrival. Entering, Master Xiao bowed low and after they shared courtesies, took a seat at the table. They ate and drank without mentioning the day’s affair. Instead, the judge discussed general, non-threatening topics. He encouraged Xiao to drink, while he only pretended to match him cup for cup. Finally, Lu brought up the girl’s death. “Murdered. How awful,” Xiao said, eyes on his wine cup. Then he stared up at Lu. “Do you have any idea why such a thing would happen?”
“I’ll tell you, but don’t tell anyone else.” The judge paused.
“You can trust me.”
“She was pregnant.”
Xiao went white. “No.” He passed a hand over his eyes. “How did you find out?” Then, “Will my household be held responsible?”
“As her master, her behavior certainly reflects on you. But, she was a country girl…”
“Yes,” Xiao anxiously interjected. “And, you know how those girls are: loose morals. Vixens. Ready to entrap any healthy man.”
The judge took up his cup and pressed it to his lips. “Hmm.”
Taking that as a sign of agreement, Xiao nodded and continued, “Such girls turn into trouble.”
“Couldn’t they be taken in as a concubine?” Lu asked.
“That’s common enough.”
“Bah. Then they become a long-term burden. And if the child lives, they can demand a share of the inheritance. It’s a nightmare.” He threw back another cup of wine. “Besides, even a concubine should have some measure of sophistication.”
“She was quite a beauty,” Lu offered.
“A rare beauty, it’s true, but what of it?” Xiao sneered. “I am old enough to know how quickly such enchanting beauty is lost. Especially after a child is born and the woman’s place is secured.”
“So you think she was …”
“Using her pregnancy as a one-way ticket to nirvana.” He laughed.
“It turned out to really be a one-way ticket to nirvana.”
“The thing is,” Lu said, his eyes on Xiao; his voice neutral, “rumor has it that there was only one person she was involved with.” He reached out and filled Xiao’s cup.
Xiao paused and then downed half of his wine. “We’re men of the world, Lu. I understand what you want. I’ve been here before. Your esteemed predecessor had similar needs. This office is expensive; you have costly responsibilities. I can help you.”
“And in return?”
“A report on the death being a suicide, of course. It’s not that difficult.” He finished his wine and said, as if talking to himself, “Yes, such women cause no end of trouble. They must be exterminated.”
“Exterminated? Isn’t that harsh?”
“Is that why she had to be stopped?” Judge Lu asked softly, filling Xiao’s cup once again.
“Why you had to kill her?”
“Yes. I knew you’d understand,” Xiao said with a nod.
“And the suicide?”
Xiao laughed. “Getting rid of a body isn’t always possible. Faking a suicide is easy. Who would question it?” Bleary eyed, he glanced at Lu. “Except you. You’re darn observant. You’ll make a lot of money as a magistrate, that I can tell you.” He finished off his wine and with unsteady hands, pushed himself up. “Don’t worry about my appreciation.” He winked. “I’ll have my servant bring a welcome gift to you tomorrow.”
Judge Lu stood at the same time. “You don’t have to bother with the welcome gift, Master Xiao.” He turned toward the screen and called to Fu-hao. As Fu-hao appeared with his papers and brush, Xiao staggered backward, falling into a half sitting position.
“I’m lost,” he said, dropping his head and covering his eyes with his hands.
“Zhang! Ma! Come and escort Master Xiao to the jail cell. He’ll be staying with us.”
Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & more Father related mystery short stories in our mystery section.