by P.A. De Voe
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“They beat me and knocked me down.” His thin hands shook, although whether in anger or fear at remembering the confrontation, Judge Lu couldn’t say.
“When I fell, their leader laughed and pressed his foot on my neck. As I lay spread out on the ground, he threatened to kill me, taunting me, making me grovel like a dog,” the complainant said, shaking even more.
“And then?” Lu encouraged him to continue.
“After striping me down to my leggings, they bound me, knocked me unconscious, and left me there on the road.” The more he talked the more crimson his face became. He brushed a handkerchief across his forehead.
“So, you say you were coming to town to sell a load of sorghum and they accosted you outside the city. How many were there? Do you think you could recognize the brigands?” the judge asked.
“There were at least four or more men, your honor!” the merchant said in a high pitched voice. “They took everything. Everything. That sorghum would have fetched a good price. The grain was excellent and I already had a buyer. It would have made the best whiskey. I was counting on that money to see me through until next year. I am ruined. Ruined. ” He hung his head as if counting his losses.
“And the men? What did they look like?” The judge asked again in a firm, even tone. The merchant appeared to be in shock. Lu didn’t want to push him too much more, but he needed a description for his soldiers to use when he sent them out to hunt for the criminals. Maintaining peace and preventing highway robbery were at the top of his list of responsibilities as magistrate in the area.
“They were all big fellows. And mean,” the merchant said.
Lu sighed. “Be more –.”
“Your Honor, Your Honor, please excuse this interruption.” A tall, younger version of the judge, wearing in a long black robe, had entered from the back of the court, behind the magistrate’s desk. He moved quickly to the judge’s side, keeping his head low. Urgency caused his words to run together.
Lu, surprised at this interruption by his brother and personal secretary Lu Fu-hao, leaned toward him to catch every word.
“Chu Xiao-ren, the local security team leader, brought in a man accused of killing his neighbor.”
Shaking his head, Lu frowned. What was happening to his province? Highway robbers, murderers? The emperor will certainly think he’s incapable. The weight of his formal gown with its large, square badge of office embroidered on front, oppressed him; his black magistrate’s hat, with its generous wings standing out on each side, sat uncomfortably on his head.
The judge looked over at his court recorder and said, “Secretary Lu Fu-hao will finish the interview with merchant Gao. To Fu-hao he said, “Take merchant Gao to the office for the rest of his complaint, then come back to court. Ma, bring in the security team’s leader,” he ordered his personal guard, who stood nearby against the side wall.
In short order, a rather rotund, middle aged man wearing leggings and a short coat stomped through the substantial double doors directly opposite Lu.
“Your Honor,” he said, the note of pride unmistakable in his voice, “We have captured Farmer Song. He murdered his neighbor, Farmer Feng. Although Song tried to escape, we were able to seize him without loss to our team.”
Judge Lu’s eyes widened. He stared hard at the village security team’s leader. “Did you make a formal report to the court secretary?”
The man’s shoulders dropped. “Not yet, your honor. I wanted to let you, as Father of this province, know as soon as possible. I will attend to the report immediately after leaving Your Honor’s presence.”
“See to it. A report must always be filed before seeking admittance to court. I will excuse you this time, but follow the rules in the future.
“Is the body secure and left as you found it?” Lu asked.
Ducking his head at the reprimand, Chu said, “Feng’s brother, Feng Da Jiao, demanded that he be allowed to move the body inside. He said leaving his brother on the ground showed disrespect to his spirit.”
Lu’s frown deepened and he glared at the security leader. “You know the law. I must view the site and the body. How dare you allow the body to be moved?” He was exasperated with the sloppiness he found in the province. To carry out justice, the law must be followed. Trying to hiding his frustration, he thrust out his hand to indicate that security team’s leader should proceed.
Chu continued in a subdued tone, “My men are holding the murderer, Farmer Song, outside the gate. At your command we will bring him before the court.”
At that, Chu pressed his hands together in front of his chest and backed out of the court. Within minutes he returned with three men pulling a bound and scuffed-up man. Once in front of Lu, they pressed the prisoner to his knees and stood aside at attention.
“Your Honor, this man, known as Farmer Song, is accused of murdering his neighbor Farmer Feng.”
“Why are you accusing Farmer Song of the murder? What evidence do you have against him? Has he confessed?”
Chu straightened his shoulders and held his head higher. “Farmer Feng’s brother found him dead near his shed. He alerted us and accused Song of the murder.”
“Did Feng Da Jiao see Song murder his brother? Why is he accusing him?”
“Farmer Song has a long history of conflict with his neighbor. Song’s boar has escaped many times and each time decimated Feng’s garden. Yesterday, Song had a heated argument with Feng again. He pushed Feng and threatened him. Da Jiao had to intervene because Song had become violent.”
“Where was this?”
“On the street in front of Feng’s home.”
“Did anyone else see this altercation?”
“Many people, Your Honor.”
Judge Lu pointed at the man cringing on the floor in front of him. “Farmer Song, you stand accused of murdering your neighbor. Do you confess to the crime?” His voice boomed across the court room.
Song fell forward on his knees, beating his head on the floor. “Your Honor, I did not kill Feng!” His voice quivered.
“You two have a history of violent conflict and you were heard threatening him the day he died. You might as well confess. We will get the truth from you, eventually.” Lu looked meaningfully over at the jailer standing along the side wall. When criminals refused to confess to their crimes, the court had other, more concrete, ways of convincing the perpetrator to admit guilt.
Song followed his gaze and began hitting his head even harder on the floor. “Please, Your Honor, we argued, yes, but I never hurt him. He was alive when I left.”
“Guards, take Song to jail. Hold him, but do not apply any torture until I give the order.” He glared at the jailer.
“I expect you to protect him while he’s in your custody, understand?”
The jailer snapped to attention and bowed. Lu was only too aware of the jailer and his underlings demanding cash in return for either not using torture on the criminal or to use a lighter form of torture if the court required it.
“Chu, remain here and file a proper report for the court.
“Zhang, take a contingent of soldiers over to Farmer Song’s to protect his property from vandals and thieves.” This precautionary measure was to ensure that locals would not loot and destroy the accuser’s property, as often happened. “After the soldiers are dispatched, return here immediately.
“Ma, I want you to investigate in the neighborhood. Find out everything you can about Feng and Song. There’s a wine shop near the farms, start there.” He turned to another aid, “Tell Fu-hao, to bring his writing materials, we’ll leave for the homicide site immediately.”
Lu and his entourage pulled up in front of a low roofed, non-descript mud house with patches of stucco missing. Zhang pounded loudly on the simple, but strongly built, wood door. A short, muscular man opened it and stood scratching his head and staring at Zhang. The odor of garlic mixed with onion generously wafted around him.
“Magistrate Lu is here to inspect the victim and the homicide site,” Zhang announced.
The man jumped back a step and peered beyond Zhang, catching sight of Lu on his horse, dressed in his official magistrate robes. “Of course! I am honored, Your Excellency,” he said toward Lu as, hands clasped at chest level, he bobbed up and down from his waist. “My brother is lying within. Please come.”
Lu dismounted and entered a dim room with one wooden table and a few stools on one side near the earthen stove built into the side wall. Across from that lay the body of a man of medium build. As soon as Fu-hao set his writing materials on the table and prepared his ink, Lu moved toward the body and bent over, inspecting it. The killing blow was a knife wound in the back, which appeared to be delivered with an upward thrust, indicating the killer might have been shorter than the victim.
“Knifed in the back. He probably didn’t even know Song was attacking him,” Da Jiao said as Lu stood up.
Lu nodded. “Take me to where you found him.”
Da Jiao took Lu out to a small shed with an animal enclosure running down its side. They walked along fence’s edge to the far corner. “Here, he was lying near the pigpen’s gate.”
A sow covered in mud watched them from within the pen. A portion of her fence had been recently repaired.
“Is she the reason Farmer Song’s boar comes over,” Lu asked with a grin.
“That and the garden.” Feng’s brother stabbed a finger toward a small patch of barely visible disturbed ground on the other side of the shed and spat. “Stupid pig. He’s totally destroyed it. Nothing but mud now.”
“How about your brother’s sow? Did she ever break out and destroy the garden? It looks like part of the fence has been repaired.”
“She’s a good old pig, stays put. She gets plenty of scraps. Just eats and sleeps. No, Song’s boar broke through the fence. He’s a terror. My brother was fed up and planned to sue for damages. That’s what the fight was about. He told Song he was going to pay and pay big for what his boar had done.” He swung around toward Lu. “We deserve justice.”
“And you shall have it. However, it is critical for the court to follow procedures. In the end, justice will be served.”
Lu proceeded to closely study the ground. Feng’s brother walked to the shed and watched from a non-interfering distance. Fu-hao had moved to a make-shift table and chair near Lu, ready to record the findings. The entire area was covered with the recent footprints of the curious and of those who assisted in moving the body.
“No. Nothing. Song must have taken it with him.”
“It’s impossible to delineate anything,” Lu groused to Fu-hao, “Too many people have tramped through here. I need to remind the citizens not to disturb crime scenes. Hang a notice to that effect on the court’s public entrance. Everyone coming to court should see it. Also, put the topic on the agenda for our community meeting this week.” He turned away in disgust. “What a mess. Let’s hope Ma was able to glean some useful information at the wine shop.”
Feng’s sow grunted.
“See, even the pig knows better,” Lu said with a sardonic grin.
Late in the evening, Ma Jie returned from the wine shop. He’d abandoned his uniform, and wore a simple pair of trousers tied below the knee over leggings and a short jacket tied at the waist. Lu, wearing a casual long grey robe, sat at ease at a small tea table with Fu-hao and Zhang. They had been discussing the Feng murder case.
As his guard entered the office, Lu said, “I hope you spent my money wisely,” noting Ma’s bright red face. Whenever his guard drank, his face betrayed his indulgence. However, such a tell-tale sign never stopped his guard from enjoying a drink or two.
Ma bowed, folded his rangy frame on the chair, and joined the others.
“The wine shop turned out to be a true treasure,” Ma began. “According to the men there, Feng Da Jiao, the victim’s younger brother, is the leader of a local gang. They make a living shaking down travelers and have even been known to rob traveling merchants.”
Lu raised an eyebrow and nodded. “Very interesting. What else?”
“I discovered two possibly related – or not related – things,” Ma said and paused, his eyes seeming to travel to the ceiling.
Lu grimaced. His guard was fond of over-thinking information and creating complex scenarios where none existed.
“Yes, Sir,” he said as if awakened from a reverie. “The gossip is that Feng has had a long standing conflict with Song and the two are well-known for their heated, sometimes violent arguments. Always over that boar of Song’s. Second, it is common knowledge that Feng liked to gamble, was heavily in debt, and was planning on selling his farm.”
“Excellent. Excellent,” Lu said. He studied the table’s dark grain as he considered this new information.
“One more thing,” Ma said.
“There is another wine shop nearby, where Da Jiao and his men spend a lot of time. If you would like, I could go there tonight.”
Lu continued to study the wood grain with its parallel lines meeting and eventually becoming one connected line. Finally, after a few seconds of silence, he leaned back in his chair. “We will go to Da Jiao’s wine shop,” he said.
Fu-hao cringed. “Don’t do that. You’re the magistrate. You’ll be recognized. It’s unbecoming. Such work should be…”
Lu flicked his hand, palm towards his brother, and stopped Fu-hao before he could complete his thought. “When I’m on duty, people recognize the power of my official uniform: the badge, black robe, and hat. That’s really all they pay attention to, all they see. Don’t worry, little brother, now they will see only a simple, scruffy worker.”
Lu stood up, threw his robe down on the chair, and left the room to change his clothing. Ma and Zhang smiled broadly. This would be a fun night.
The stench of sweat, rancid cooking oil, and bad wine filled the room. Figures, barely illuminated by a grease-spotted, hanging lantern, sat hunched over tables. An indiscriminate, hearty blanket of voices, punctuated now and then with laughter, spread over the drinkers.
When Ma, Zhang, and Lu entered the room, everyone fell silent while they studied the new arrivals. Lu slouched over and walked with a slight limp as he followed his two guards to a table in a corner. Little of the lantern light reached to their table. Lu sat in the deepest shadow, facing out into the room. Ma and Zhang sat on stools on either side of the judge, each turned at an angle facing into the room. They placed their order, a large jug of wine and a plate of onion cakes. The room remained silent.
After the wine and food arrived, a short, burly fellow approached their table. Feng Da Jiao! Lu ducked his head and held his wine cup up, covering his lower face. Ma bent slightly forward, hiding the magistrate’s figure even more.
“Welcome, strangers. What brings you here?” Da Jiao said.
Zhang rose up, “Ah, Master Feng Da Jiao! Come and join us.”
Da Jiao started, clearly not expecting strangers to recognize him. “Who are you? How do you know me?”
Zhang laughed. “I’m a court guard under the new magistrate,” Zhang said. “I was at your house today.”
“Ah. Yes,” Da Jiao said peering at Zhang as if trying to place him. Seldom are servants remarkable enough to be remembered. “And you two?” he said turning to Ma and Lu.
Ma leaned forward in greeting. Lu, wearing a stained shirt and worker’s hat tied around his head, slouched over the table but managed to remain in the darkest shadows.
“We’re also with the new administration,” Ma said. “We needed a drink and heard this was the place to come to.” He changed his tone when he said the place to come to in order to emphasize a meaning beyond the words.
Da Jiao’s half smile indicated that he understood Ma’s implied meaning. He pulled up a stool and sat down. “Yes, if you’re looking for ‘extra income’ this is the place. If you can do the work.”
“No problem there,” Ma said as he raised a hand to let the watchful owner know they needed another wine cup for Da Jiao.
After the cup was placed on the table, Ma said, “But we must be with a gang that knows what’s what. We heard this was the place to link up with such a group. Rumor has it you all have had a profitable year.” He filled the extra wine cup and, holding the cup in two hands, offered it to the gang leader.
Da Jiao grinned, took the cup, and emptied it in one swig. “A profitable year and a profitable week! We are in the middle of a very profitable exchange from a recent job,” he said stressing the word profitable each time.
Ma Jie refilled his cup and leaned toward him. “Could you use extra hands? My comrades,” and he indicated Zhang and Lu, “are experienced.”
“Would you put your court jobs at risk for such work?” Da Jiao asked, emptying his cup.
“Have you any idea what kind of pay we get for being on call day and night?” Ma returned. “If we don’t supplement our pay, how can we survive? We couldn’t even buy bad wine.”
Da Jiao pushed back on the stool; guffawing loudly, he slapped the table. His laughter released the silence in the room and voices once more rose to fill the former void.
“It’s possible we could use three good men, such as you,” he said.
Ma filled Da Jiao’s cup and raised his own as if to drink. Da Jiao followed suit. Each time he emptied his cup, Ma refilled it.
“We know we’re good, but what about you? We heard you and your gang are the best in this part of the province, but how do we know? We’re risking everything, if we work with you,” Ma said.
Da Jiao spat on the floor and rubbed his chin. “Since your connections to court can be useful to me and my gang – not only in our normal activities, but also if we get into trouble with the law – I’ll prove to you how successful we are. We just completed a job that’s worth a lot of money. Tonight we will move the goods over to our buyer. I’ll take a chance with you three and let you work with us. Then you’ll see how successful we are.” At this boast he again drained his cup.
“If you have so much that it needs several men to move it, where could you possibly hide it? The new magistrate is no fool. How can you hide so much without someone knowing?” Ma asked.
Da Jiao laughed. “I have the perfect place where no one would even think of looking. Today the magistrate was within a few feet of our treasure and he never even suspected.”
At Ma and Zhang’s skeptical glances, he added, “It’s in my brother’s shed, right next to the pigpen.” His grating laughter rang throughout the room. Then, he abruptly stopped and said, “We must move the goods tonight and I am short a couple of men. If you’d like to join us, you can.”
Ma Jie jumped in, “We would be honored to join you and your gang tonight. Unfortunately, we have to attend to court business before the next sounding from the drum tower. When are you going to move the goods?”
“I have to do it tonight. Waiting until after the drums sound will be good, since it will be late and everyone will be asleep. After you have attended to your duties, come to my brother’s.”
The three rose from the table with Lu ducking his head and keeping in the shadows.
“We’ll be there,” Ma said. After a quick bow to Da Jiao, they left the wine shop.
Without a word, they strode back to the yamen. Once inside the gate, they moved along the shadowed wall, passing though the courtroom and then entering Lu’s office.
“Zhang, dispatch another contingent of soldiers around Feng’s home. Tell them to surreptitiously circle Feng’s property, being as discrete as possible. When Da Jiao and his men arrive to retrieve the stolen merchandize, we’ll arrest them.”
At the drum tower’s sounding the hour, Lu, Ma, and Zhang left the yamen, rapidly moving through the sleeping city. As they approached the street to Feng’s house, Ma moved to the front of the trio and Lu fell back. Cumulus clouds lazily moved across the moon, further darkening the area. A nearby dog started barking, followed by a deep voice calling out for it to be quiet. Feng’s house and yard came into sight and appeared to be empty. They slowed down, cautiously moving forward.
“Over here. Around the back,” a low voice directed.
The three swiveled toward the voice. A man’s form stepped out from the inky blackness of the house shadow. Da Jiao.
“You’re in time to help move the sacks,” he said. “We’ll put them in the carts my men brought.”
“Where do they go from here?” Ma asked as they rounded the house, sauntering toward the shed. Feng’s sow lay in the same far corner she’d been in earlier, keeping an eye on the commotion.
“We’ll take them to a whisky manufacturer fifteen li from here. He’s paying a good price because the grain is such high quality.” Lu could see Da Jiao’s teeth as he grinned at Ma.
“So, it’s sorghum. That comes from the north. How did you manage to get it?” Ma asked again.
“You are awfully nosy, aren’t you? Well, I’ll tell you. A generous traveling merchant gave it to us.” Da Jiao’s
laugh ended in a snort. He spat, then added, “Don’t worry about him. He won’t be bothering us, I took care of that.”
Ma stood with his hands on his hips, looking at the shed. “This is a brilliant hiding place. Your brother’s pig shed. Did he know you were using it?”
Da Jiao cast a long look at Ma. “You’re no end of questions. What do you care? It’s here and it’s safe.” He paused, and then said, “It’s not my brother’s shed anymore. Now that he’s dead, it’s mine.” He grinned. “Convenient timing, don’t you think? Of course, I helped it along with that accursed Farmer Song.”
“Ah, yes. Song killed your brother. Is that what you mean?” Ma said.
“Don’t be stupid. Song is a weakling. He’d never be able to kill anyone. I’m amazed he can kill his chickens to eat.” Da Jiao’s contempt for the young farmer was obvious.
Ma pushed on. “If he didn’t kill your brother, who did?”
“You can work that one out for yourself. Now, let’s get moving,” Da Jiao said.
He strode to the shed and stopped. The door was ajar. A snuffling-like noise came from inside. Da Jiao held his hand up, halting his men, and guardedly moved forward. When he was within an arm’s distance from the door, he swung his hand around, indicating he wanted his men to line up on either side of the door. Lu, Ma, and Zhang went to the darker side behind the shed’s door, the others went to its open side.
With one rapid thrust, Da Jiao pushed the door completely open. “Come out of there, you turtle’s egg!”
The noise stopped. No one moved.
“I said, come out. Now. If you value your life.”
Da Jiao ordered one of his men to light a lantern. Lu moved further into the door’s shadow and behind Zhang. Ma stepped forward into the flickering light.
As Da Jiao plunged the lighted lantern into the shed, he called out, “Aargh! It’s that blasted boar! He’s gotten into the sacks and there’s grain everywhere. I’m going to kill him!”
Before Da Jiao could grab his knife, Lu called out, “You’re all under arrest by order of the court!”
Da Jiao’s men sprinted away and he charged out of the shed. Ma grabbed for him, but Da Jiao swung his arm wide, pushing Ma aside. Zhang jumped out from behind, knocking the gang leader down and pinning him to the ground. Lu called for his soldiers who immediately swarmed through the area, capturing the fleeing bandits.
Judge Lu stared at the disheveled, badly bruised, man kneeling before him. Da Jiao’s heavily sweat-stained and torn clothing, along with his glazed eyes and sloping posture, told Lu much about his time in the hands of the court’s jailer. Gone was his sauntering arrogance, replaced by defeat, if not contrition.
Lu had the courtroom doors opened, allowing the citizens to view the trial. After filling the interior space, the over-flow of observers stood just outside the massive doors. They waited. Only the swishing of soft-soled shoes on the stone floor betrayed their presence.
“Feng Da Jiao, you stand accused of multiple crimes – robbing and beating Merchant Gao, falsely accusing Farmer Song of murdering your brother and committing the most heinous crime of murdering an elder brother. Do you confess to each of these crimes?” Lu intoned.
“I do, Your Honor,” Da Jiao replied in a barely audible voice.
With those words two major cases – one involving highway robbery and the other murder – were closed. Lu breathed in deeply. Justice had been served once more and he had fulfilled his duties to the emperor and to the people of his district.
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