Read an Excerpt
The Chinese Lake Murders
A Judge Dee Detective Story
AN AILING OFFICIAL COMPLETES A WEIRD RECORD; JUDGE DEE ATTENDS A BANQUET ON A FLOWER BOAT
Only Heaven that wrote the scroll of human life
Knows where its beginning is, and where its end --
If end there be. We mortals can not read its writ,
We even know not whether the text runs down or up.
Yet when a judge is seated behind his scarlet bench
his is the power of Heaven, over life and death --
But not heaven's knowledge. Let him -- and us! -- beware
Lest passing judgment on others, we ourselves be judged.
No one, I trust, will call twenty years of serving our illustrious Ming Emperor a poor record. My late father. it is true, served fifty years, and when he died a Councilor of State, he had just celebrated his seventieth birthday. I shall be forty, three days hence -- but may Heaven grant that I shan't be then still alive.
In the ever rarer moments that my tortured brain is clear, I let my thoughts go back to the years that have passed, the only escape now left. Four years ago I was promoted to Investigator of the Metropolitan Court, a signal honor for an official of only thirty-five. People predicted a great future for me. How proud I was of this large mansion assigned to me, and how I loved to walk in the beautiful garden, hand in hand with my daughter! How small she was then, only a child, but she knew already the literary names of every flower I pointed at. Four years -- but how long ago that seems now. Like memories from a previous existence.
Now you, threatening shadow, again press close to me; shrinking in terror. I must obey you. Do you grudge me even this brief respite? Didn't I do all you ordered me to do? Didn't I last month, after my return from that fey old city of Han-yuan by its sinister lake, choose at once an auspicious date for my daughters wedding; and wasn't she married last week? What do you say now? My senses are numbed by the unbearable pain; I can't hear you well. You say that ... that my daughter must learn the truth? Almighty Heaven, have you no pity? That knowledge shall break her heart, destroy her ... No, don't hurt me, please. I shall do as you say, only don't hurt me. Yes, I shall write.
Write, as every sleepless night I write, with you, inexorable executioner, standing over me. The others can't see you, you say. But isn't it true that when a man has been touched by death, others can see its mark on him? Every time I come upon one of my wives or concubines in the now deserted corridors, she quickly averts her face. When I look up from my papers in the office, I often catch my clerks staring at me. As they hurriedly bend again over their documents, I know that they covertly clasp the amulets they have taken to wearing of late. They must feel that after I had come back from my visit to Han-yuan I was not merely very ill. A sick man is pitied; a man possessed is shunned.
They do not understand. They need only pity me. As one pities a man condemned to the inhuman punishment of inflicting on himself with his own hand the lingering death: being forced by the executioner to cut away his own flesh, piece by piece. Every letter I wrote, every coded message I sent out these last days cut away a slice of my living flesh. Thus the threads of the ingenious web I had been weaving patiently over the entire Empire were cut, one by one. Every thread cut stands for a crushed hope, a thwarted illusion, a wasted dream. Now all traces have been swept out, no one shall ever know. I even presume that the Imperial Gazette shall print an obituary, mourning me as a promising young official who met an untimely death by a lingering disease. Lingering, indeed, lingering till now there is nothing left of me but this bloodstained carcass.
This is the moment that the executioner plunges his long knife in the tortured criminal's heart, giving him the merciful deathblow. Why, then, do you, fearful shadow. insist on prolonging my agony, you who call yourself by the name of a flower? Why do you want to tear my heart to pieces, by forcing me to kill the soul of my poor daughter? She never committed any crime, she never knew .... Yes, I hear you, terrible woman: you say that I still must write, write down everything, so that my daughter shall know. Tell her how Heaven denied me a quick, self-chosen end, and condemned me to a slow death of agony in your cruel hands. And that after having granted me one brief glance of ... what could have been.
Yes, my daughter shall know. About meeting you on the shore of the lake, about the old tale you told me, all. But I swear that if there still be a Heaven above us, my daughter shall forgive me; a traitor and a murderer she shall forgive, I tell you. But not you! Not you, because you are only hate, hate incarnate, and you shall die together with me, die forever. No, don't pull away my hand now; you said "Write!" and write I shall. May Heaven have mercy on me and ... yes, also on you. For now too late -- I recognize you for what you really are, and I know that you never come uninvited. You haunt and torture to death only those who have called you up by their own dark deeds.
This, then, is what happened ...The Chinese Lake Murders
A Judge Dee Detective Story. Copyright © by Robert Van Gulik. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.