Reckoning: A Mystery Short Story

Nov 29, 2014 | 2014 Articles, Mysteryrat's Maze, Terrific Tales

by Pam De Voe

Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.

The early morning drizzle soaked Judge Lu with unease as he leaned over his horse. He carefully directed his steed over the muddy path, negotiating its many holes which had been carelessly filled in with rocks. He’d have to talk to the city headman about properly repairing the road. Lu could have taken the official covered carriage to make his first courtesy call on Magistrate Yu Jiao in Nanchang, the neighboring prefecture, but he much preferred riding, whatever the weather. horse

Fifteen years Lu’s senior, Yu Jiao had a wealth of experience and, most importantly, seemed willing to share it with Lu, himself a newly minted Magistrate. Lu knew what the law required of him as judge, investigator, prosecutor, and jury in criminal and civil litigation. He had successfully resolved a couple of cases since his recent assignment to Pu-an. Nevertheless, he was painfully aware of his inexperience. His training as a Confucian scholar required of all government officials, in no way prepared him for the practical job of running a prefecture. He gratefully spent several hours with Yu Jiao discussing the responsibilities and pitfalls of their duties.

Rounding a thicket, a covey of three men and a wizened woman stood shrouded in the dreary, wet day and blocked the narrow pathway. One strongly built fellow addressed the others, while gesturing broadly toward an adjacent field with a hoe wielded in his left hand. The men, burdened with sagging, enclosed baskets hanging at the end of poles balanced on their shoulders, vigorously nodded as if in agreement, causing the baskets to swing precipitously. The woman stood apart, clutching a large bag to her chest.field

The speaker spied Lu and his entourage and promptly stepped toward them. Lu noticed the infernal mud clung to his shoes and leggings.

“Magistrate Lu,” he said, bowing, “How auspicious for you to appear at this moment. I am He Qi-feng of Pu-an. My farm is southwest of here. I come along this path everyday going to my field. Today I found farmer Chou lying strewn onto the path. I am sorry to report he’s dead. I have already sent another passerby to inform the city’s headman.”

“Is he here?” Judge Lu asked surveying the group. No one stepped forward.

Qi-feng spit on the ground and said, “He’s on his way.” He looked down the path toward the town. “It may be a while; he often feels he’s too busy to respond with immediacy.”

Silently noting the unsolicited disapproval this comment carried, Lu dismounted, his shoes sinking into the road’s muck. His two personal guards had already preceded him and were loudly ordering the small collection of bystanders to step aside. They parted, exposing a figure sprawled half in the field and half across the raised path.
Lu ordered Lu Fu-hao, his brother and the court secretary, to take their names before they dispersed. As magistrate, Lu was required to examine the body and determine cause of death. In his opinion, if the man was murdered, valuable information could be prematurely exposed if there were witnesses to the process.

Once Fu-hao took their names he returned to Lu’s side. Normally, Fu-hao would record the examination as Lu carried it out, but with the persistent light shower this was impossible. He would simply witness the examination and record the event later after they returned to court.

Lu lost no time in doing a preliminary examination of the body. Quietly, to keep his voice from carrying, he noted his findings to Fu-hao: The man was laying face down, right hand extended out onto the road, left hand down along his side. The handle of a small rice sickle protruded out from under the lower body.

Lu inspected the back of the dead man’s head; his soaked, matted hair formed a close fitting and seamless hat. The guard turned the corpse over and Lu continued his examination. The right side of the man’s face was crushed. Lu looked at the pathway; the man had been lying face down in a rock-filled hole.

A long, jagged cut was also apparent in the farmer’s mud soaked, cotton jacket. Lu removed the rope belt, opening the jacket and revealing a deep slash stretching across his stomach. Gently pushing the dirt out of the wound, Lu measured the cut’s length and depth. Its size and shape matched the rice sickle’s serrated edge.

Straightening, Lu smacked his hands together to get rid of the dirt. His guard brought a towel to clean his hands.
“Looks like an accident,” Fu-hao said.

Lu stared down at the body, then slowly nodded. “Yes. He could have slipped as he stepped onto the path. With this rain, the walls of the path are nothing more than mud. Then, since he was apparently carrying his sickle, it cut into his abdomen, killing him.”

He remained silently contemplating the form on the ground.

“Something’s bothering you?” Fu-hao said and sighed loudly. Lu knew the sigh was meant to be a complaint. Fu-hao often criticized him for being overly cautious, too slow to make a decision. It was not a problem his impatient brother had, Lu thought.

“Yes. I feel I am missing something important, but I just don’t know what,” he said, ignoring his brother’s sigh. Lu shook his head and scowled.

“You’re always looking for complications even when there aren’t any,” his brother murmured, and then in a louder, official tone, said, “The report will say accidental death then?”

Lu stroked his ear. “Yes.There’s no apparent reason to delay his burial.”

Before he finished speaking, an older man hurried up to him, his long, grey coat flapping around his ankles. He halted before Lu and, hands clasped at the waist, bowed. Lu noticed the aged woman he had seen previously had remained standing behind and at a slight distance. Her long, dank, unkempt hair made her appear more specter than villager.

With his eyes on the corpse, the stranger quickly introduced himself as the headman. “I heard you say this was an accident,” he said. “What bad fate! What did he do to earn such bad karma?”

“To die at a young age is indeed unfortunate,” Lu said.

The man sadly shook his head. “Farmer Chou was an only son, newly married, with no offspring. He’s the last of his family’s branch.”

“Ah,” Fu-hao loudly sighed again, this time in sympathy with the deceased.

“Bad fate, indeed,” Lu said and glanced from the village elder to the corpse. The last of his line meant there was no one to feed and care for his needs in the netherworld; he would become an è gu?, a hungry ghost, terrorizing the living.

“I understand He Qi-feng alerted you about farmer Chou’s death,” Lu said.

The headman cast a quick glance at Qi-feng, who had moved down the path. “Yes, yes. He sent someone else to come and report the tragedy to me. He didn’t come himself. He never does.”

To Lu, a clear note of unsolicited disapproval was embedded in the last comment. There seemed to be a bit of tension between Qi-feng and the elder. Whatever, it wasn’t a part of this incident surely and, therefore, was none of the court’s business.

Having determined the death was accidental, Lu released the body into the hands of the village headman and went back to the yamen where he would write up his findings and Fu-hao would add it to an official death report.


On the way back, Lu reminded himself to be sure and make the necessary ceremonial offerings to those unfortunate enough to have died without descendants to care for them in the afterlife. As one of the duties of his office, it must be done properly in order to diminish the possibilities of hungry ghosts causing trouble among his province’s citizens.


Three days later, the beat of the petitioner’s drum set up in the court’s outer most courtyard, caught Lu’s attention. He was pouring over maps showing Pu-an’s land ownership patterns. Unconsciously, he shuffled the papers together and began putting them aside.

Fu-hao noiselessly entered his office and announced that the city’s headman had come to petition the court. KRL#5

Lu quickly changed into his colorful, official robes with his badge of office boldly embroidered on the front. He picked up a black, gauze hat with large round flaps on either side and after carefully placing it on his head, he went into court. Once seated behind a highly carved desk on a raised dais, he ordered the petitioner to come forward.

The man moved down the center of the hall, with a firm, yet rigid, step. He stopped before the Judge and bowed.

“What is the case you are bringing before the court?” Judge Lu asked.

“Honorable Sir, I am sorry to trouble you about this case, the death of a local farmer,” he said, the corners of his mouth twitching.

Lu wondered at his nervousness. As the local headman he must be accustomed to bringing the more serious cases to court. The lesser cases he could handle himself as headman.

“Did you write a report and submit it to Secretary Lu Fu-hao?” Judge Lu asked.

“Yes, sir, as required. This case involves farmer Chou.”

Lu frowned. “Chou, the farmer who died accidently? Explain.”

“Honorable Sir, although his death at first appeared accidental, for the past three nights a Demon has been harrowing my town.”

“A Demon?” Lu asked.

The headman nodded. “Many people saw him. Every night, at the drumming of each watch, he appears: long hair flying; wearing a conical, straw hat and mourning clothing. He shakes doors and windows and has been seen on the road. Whenever anyone dares to investigate further, he disappears. Truly, he’s a Demon.”

“Exactly where was he seen?” Judge Lu asked.

“He’s been seen at Chou’s death site and around He Qi-feng’s house,” the headman said. “He’s angry about farmer Chou’s death,” he firmly added.

“Why would he appear at He Qi-feng’s home?”

“He Qi-feng was helpful in taking care of a couple of problems concerning Chou’s death. He put up the money for Chou’s burial ceremonies, which because of his violent death included special, elaborate rites and, therefore, was expensive.”

“So? The netherworld should be happy at such a magnanimous gesture,” Lu said He glanced aside and wondered why the headman was bringing the case to his court. It was neither a civil nor criminal matter and should more properly be taken to a Taoist priest, not him.

The headman rocked from foot to foot. “Yes. Well, in return for paying for Chou’s funeral, Qi-feng is buying his field—at a very low price.”

“Not many people are willing to work such bad-luck land, much less buy it,” Lu said.

“For some that is true.” He thrust his chin out and added, “He’s also taking the widow Chou as his concubine.”

Lu tugged on his ear, “I see.”

The headman nodded. “Perhaps, farmer Chou’s ghost is angry and jealous.” He scowled and shook his head. “Of course, the question is why?”

“As Qi-feng’s concubine, Chou’s wife wouldn’t starve and the land wouldn’t go fallow. A package deal, of sorts.How can a woman farm by herself?” Lu observed. And such an arrangement would keep Chou’s wife from becoming another indigent widow and a problem to the village, Lu thought.

The headman’s lips turned down in a frown. “Qi-feng is known to have a bad temper, so he’s not necessarily the best of fates. Yet,” He patted his chest. “I am sure there are other men who would even take her as a second wife.” He paused, and then went on more forcefully. “The Demon’s coming tells us there’s something wrong, something which needs to be addressed. As our magistrate, I beg you to look into this.”

“Why haven’t you enlisted the services of an exorcist to placate farmer Chou’s spirit and make the Demon go away?” Judge Lu asked.

“We have, Your Honor. We brought in a Taoist priest. After connecting with Chou’s spirit in the netherworld, the priest told us we must investigate the death more thoroughly. Chou died too soon and he should have had a descendent; he wants justice.” The headman again spoke with certainty.

Lu knew the elderly man wanted what was best for his village, for his community. They had a Demon harassing the town; plus, there was no telling what Chou’s ghost would do if it felt abandoned. Right now the Demon rattled windows and doors, but Demons and ghosts were known to lead people to their deaths, to destroy homes, and cause calamities for entire villages.

“Tonight’s the forth night,” the headman passed his right hand and pulled at a large mole on his chin. “People are afraid someone will die; they’re demanding action.”

The words four and death were homophonous, pronounced exactly the same, making the number four very unlucky.

Tonight’s being the forth night would naturally make people anxious. Lu glanced at the large statue at the entrance to his courtroom. The multi-animal Xie Zhi, with its head of a dragon, horn of a stag and eye of a lion, stood as the symbol of fairness, righteousness, and justice. dragon

He spread his fingers wide and wiped his hands in a cleansing motion over the top of his desk. “I’ll look into the matter.”


After the village headman left the court, Judge Lu crafted a letter to MagistrateYu Jiao and had his personal guard, Ma, deliver it immediately. Lu hoped to have a reply by late afternoon. Next, he sent his second trusted guard, Zhang, to bring in everyone who had surrounded the body on the pathway. Lu would interrogate each one. If, in accordance with the law, any suspicious person was not forthcoming, he’d have his jailers apply their own persuasive techniques. But he wanted to avoid such torture if possible. It wasn’t that he was squeamish; he just didn’t believe torture always produced honest information. He knew some would confess to crimes they didn’t commit to stop the torture’s unbearable pain. He was looking for truth, if that was possible.

Qi-feng was first. When he was brought in, he appeared pale and drawn compared to the confident, in-control man Lu had first met only three days ago. Today, puffy, sleepless eyes looked out of a drawn, tense face.

Quite a transformation, Lu thought. Qi-feng’s responses to Lu’s questions sounded mechanical and flat.

After a lackluster, short description of finding Chou’s body half strewn across the path, Lu wanted to push him further. “Tell me why the Demon comes to your house?” Lu demanded as he slapped the desk.

At the sharp sound, Qi-feng blanched and shrank inside himself.

“I was only trying to help out a fellow farmer by buying his worthless land,” he whined, rubbing his neck with his left hand.

Judge Lu picked up a map from his desk and shook it. “Farmer Chou’s land is in the best part of the valley; yours is on the hillside. How can you call his land worthless?”

“Land is only as good as the farmer,” Qi-feng retorted. He straightened his shoulders and seemed to rally.

“And his wife, were you only helping there, too?” Lu thundered.

Qi-feng quivered. But he responded, saying, “Why not? She’s young and already a widow. My offer is fair. If you’ve heard otherwise, the teller’s merely trying to cause trouble. Perhaps he wants Chou’s widow for himself.”

Lu stared down at Qi-feng. He certainly appeared suspicious: He was the one to find the body and, due to Chou’s death, he was prospering by gaining both productive land and a beautiful concubine. Lu shifted in his chair. How was he going to determine whether such good fortune merely meant Qi-feng was being opportunistic or whether it was a motive for murder? Torture might elicit a truthful confession but—Lu caressed the badge of office on his chest—if Qi-feng was innocent, the torture could cripple him for life. Lu continued to examine the defiant man kneeling before him.

“You may go, but be warned, if you are hiding anything, I will find out.” And, with that, he released Qi-feng.

Judge Lu interviewed each of the other men present the morning of Chou’s death; they had come upon the scene late and could add nothing. As for the Demon, they all agreed the phantom Demon figure came to avenge Chou’s murder. From their testimony it was clear to Judge Lu that the town was in a near state of panic. No one was sure how or where the Demon would strike, but they were sure something bad was about to happen.

Finally, Zhang led in the wizened, old woman. Her loose, unkempt hair and unnaturally bright eyes made him wonder at her sanity. She did a half-kowtow and remained on her knees, moving her head rhythmically from side to side. While she appeared disengaged, Lu noticed she also seemed to take everything in. Carefully observing her, he wondered if she were playing a game.

“State your name, relation to the deceased, and whatever you can about the day you and the others found farmer Chou’s body,” Judge Lu ordered.

“Widow Han, maternal aunt to farmer Chou’s wife,” she said, her answers came measured and succinct. “Qi-feng was already near farmer Chou’s body when I arrived. The other men came along after me. They were on the way to morning market. Qi-feng sent one of them to get the headman.”

“What were you doing out on the path so early in the morning?”

“I was on my way to collect herbs for my niece, farmer Chou’s wife. She wasn’t feeling well.”

“Chou was already dead when you arrived? Describe what you saw.”

“My nephew lay partially stretched out onto the path. He never moved. Qi-feng stood above him, gripping his hand.”

“Gripping his hand?”

“As if to pull him out of the field,” she said.

“And what do you know of the Demon that’s been hounding the town?” Lu asked.

“He’s not ‘hounding the town,’ only the guilty party,” she said with a tinge of bitterness.

“Guilty party? Guilty of what? Who’s guilty?” Lu asked in quick succession.KRL #1

“Qi-feng killed Chou,” she burst out and leaped up, pepper-and-salt hair flying. “He’s an evil man.” Her eyes darted around the room as if searching for something. “Chou and his wife, must have justice. Qi-feng must account for what he did.”

Zhang moved toward the woman when she sprang up, ready to grab her if she attacked Lu.

“Is that what the Taoist said is needed to appease Chou’s ghost?” Lu said, watching her closely. “Have you seen the Demon?”

With a grim smile, she said, “Do you doubt its reality? Ask anyone, they’ve seen it and it demands a reckoning.” She looked him straight in the eyes. “Demons do not appear without cause; they come because of a grave wrong. A soul in Hell is angry or wounded by the acts of men.” She pointed her dagger-like finger at Lu. “It’s your duty to see justice is done.”

Her antics didn’t move him, but he wondered at her belligerency. Chou was family, her niece’s husband; therefore, he couldn’t believe the old woman was involved in his death. But then, what? What did she know? What was she hiding? After a few more demands from her, and realizing he wasn’t going to get any useful information, only a deranged tirade, he let her go.


After dinner, during which Lu discussed the affair with Fu-hao and his trusted guards, Zhang and Ma, Lu had Qi-feng brought back into court for further interrogation.

“Tonight’s the forth night,” Lu said quietly to Qi-feng’s bent figure standing before him. “The Demon will most certainly come to seek revenge against the murderer.”

Qi-feng turned from a whitish pallor to a sickly grey. His shoulders slumped and he appeared to melt into the floor.

“It would be better for you to confess now before the court, rather than wait for the Demon to wreak justice upon you tonight,” Lu said. He couldn’t prove Qi-feng had killed Chou, but he showed signs of extreme stress and anxiety, making Lu certain the man either knew something about the death he wasn’t revealing—or that he was the murderer. Right now, Lu’s only tool was fear, fear of the Demon—and the power of the unknown—to push Qi-feng into telling the truth.

At first, Qi-feng didn’t move or speak; then he slowly sat up from his kneeling position and stared at Judge Lu with haunted eyes. Lu let silence fill the space between them.

Finally, as if deciding the human court was preferable to the court of the dead, Qi-feng said, “Chou was nothing, yet he had good land. I have more land, but it’s not as fertile. There’s no way for me to prosper with what I have.”

He smirked. “And then, when I saw Chou’s new wife, I thought Why not take her too? She’s a beauty and he’s a useless fool.” He looked up at Lu. “That’s when I knew I had to have both the land and the woman. Chou had to die.”

Judge Lu thoughtfully studied Qi-feng. “You are the foolish one,” he said and arrested Qi-feng for the murder of farmer Chou.


Later, Ma returned with a response from Magistrate Yu Jiao. Lu had investigated Chou’s wound as thoroughly as his expertise allowed, but he felt he needed assistance from the more knowledgeable Magistrate Yu. Thus, he’d sent Yu Jiao a detailed description of Chou’s wounds: broken bones on his face around his right eye and a knife wound on his abdomen.

Grateful for the quick response, Lu opened Magistrate Yu’s letter and carefully read through it. Yu Jiao wrote that if the knife wound had caused the death, Lu would have found signs of bleeding in the area around the wound and blood on the ground. If the head wound had been the reason for death, and the body was cut with the sickle later, there wouldn’t be much, if any, blood from the knife wound, depending on how much time had passed. Given the description Lu sent, it appeared the abdominal cut was administered after death. Further, it would take a powerful blow to cause the damage found to the bones around the eyes. Merely hitting some rocks with his face as he fell would not crush the bones in the way Lu had described. Finally, the broken bones on the right side, indicated a left-handed killer.

Judge Lu took out his notebook on “Essential Points for Examination at Death” and copied Yu Jiao’s comments into it. With He Qi-feng’s confession and Magistrate Yu Jiao’s analysis, Lu was confident he’d found farmer Chou’s murderer.

Leaning back in his chair, he thought of a couplet the great first Ming Emperor wrote:

* With one blow of the hands,
The road to life and death is cleft open;
With one stroke of the knife
The root of right and wrong is cut off.

He rested his hand upon his notebook. He’d learned something new in this case, something which would help him in the future—when he couldn’t count on a Demon to come to his assistance.

*Chinese Couplets
translated & annotated by T.C. Lai
with an introduction by Ma Meng
publisher: Confucius Publishing Co
date: no date given (introduction indicates ca 1969)
page 8 (which is in the introduction)

Check out other mystery articles, reviews, book giveaways & mystery short stories in our mystery section.

Pam De Voe is an anthropologist and, as you might expect, an incorrigible magpie for collecting seemingly irrelevant information. She is published in non-fiction and poetry. Her first cozy mystery, A
Tangled Yarn
, came out in October 2013.


  1. Enjoyed this fascinating look at another culture.

  2. What an interesting story! Great job, Pam.

  3. Thank you, Elaine and Cynthia, for your comments. It was a fun story to write.

  4. Your descriptions are great! I could really picture everything so well. I also love this line from your bio: “Pam De Voe is an anthropologist and, as you might expect, an incorrigible magpie for collecting seemingly irrelevant information.” 🙂


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