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THE MORNING OF THE MONKEY
Judge Dee was enjoying the cool summer morning in the open gallery built along the rear of his official residence. He had just finished breakfast inside with his family, and now was having his tea there all alone, as had become his fixed habit during the year he had been serving as magistrate of the lake district Han-yuan. He had drawn his rattan armchair close to the carved marble balustrade. Slowly stroking his long black beard, he gazed up contentedly at the tall trees and dense undergrowth covering the mountain slope that rose directly in front of the gallery like a protecting wall of cool verdure. From it came the busy twitter of small birds, and the murmur of the cascade farther along. It was a pity, he thought, that these relaxed moments of peaceful enjoyment were so brief. Presently he would have to go to the chancery in the front section of the tribunal compound, and have a look at the official correspondence that had come in.
Suddenly there was the sound of rustling leaves and breaking twigs. Two furry black shapes came rushing through the tree-tops, swinging from branch to branch by their long, thin arms, and leaving a rain of falling leaves in their wake. The judge looked after the gibbons with a smile. He never tired of admiring their lithe grace as they came speeding past. Shy as they were, the gibbons living on the mountain slope had become accustomed to that solitary figure sitting there every morning. Sometimes one of them would stop for one brief moment and deftly catch the banana Judge Dee threw at him.
Again the leaves rustled. Now another gibbon came into sight. He moved slowly, using only one long arm and his hand-like feet. He was carrying a small object in his left hand. The gibbon halted in front of the gallery and, perched on a lower branch, darted an inquisitive look at the judge from his round, brown eyes. Now Judge Dee saw what the animal had in his left hand: it was a golden ring with a large, sparkling green stone. He knew that gibbons often snatch small objects that catch their fancy, but also that their interest is short-lived, especially if they find they can't eat what they have picked up. If he couldn't make the gibbon drop the ring then and there, he would throw it away somewhere in the forest, and the owner would never recover it.
Since the judge had no fruit at hand to distract the gibbon's attention from the ring, he quickly took his tinderbox from his sleeve and began to arrange its contents on the tea-table, carefully examining and sniffing at each object. He saw out of the corner of his eye that the gibbon was watching him. Soon he let the ring drop, swung himself down to the lowest branch and remained hanging there by his long, spidery arms, following Judge Dee's every gesture with eager interest. The judge noticed that a few blades of straw were sticking to the gibbon's black fur. He couldn't hold the fickle animal's attention for long. The gibbon called out a friendly 'Wak wak!' then swung itself up onto a higher branch, and disappeared among the green leaves.
Judge Dee stepped over the balustrade and down onto the moss-covered boulders that lined the foot of the mountain slope. Soon he had spotted the glittering ring. He picked it up and climbed back onto the gallery. A closer examination proved that it was rather large, evidently a man's ring. It consisted of two intertwined dragons of solid gold, and the emerald was unusually big and of excellent quality. The owner would be glad to get this valuable antique specimen back. Just when he was about to put the ring away in his sleeve, his eye fell on a few rust-brown spots on its inside. Creasing his bushy eyebrows, he brought the ring closer. The stains looked uncommonly like dried blood.
He turned round and clapped his hands. When his old house steward came shuffling out to the gallery, he asked:
'What houses stand on the mountain slope over there, steward?'
'There are none, sir. The slope is much too steep, and covered entirely by the dense forest. There are several villas on top of the ridge, though.'
'Yes, I remember having seen those summer villas. Do you happen to know who is living there?'
'Well, sir, the pawnbroker Leng, for instance. And also Wang, the pharmacist.'
'Leng I don't know. And Wang, you say? I suppose you mean the owner of the large pharmacy in the market-place, opposite the Temple of Confucius? A small, dapper fellow, always looking rather worried?'
'Yes indeed, sir. He has good reasons to look worried, too, sir. His business isn't going very well this year, I heard. And his only son is mentally defective. He'll be twenty next year, and still he can neither read nor write. I don't know what is to become of a boy like that ...'
Judge Dee nodded absent-mindedly. The villas on the ridge were out, for gibbons are too shy to venture into an inhabited area. He could have picked it up, of course, in a quiet corner of a large garden up there. But even then he would have thrown it away long before he had traversed the forest and arrived at the foot of the slope. The gibbon must have found the ring much farther down.
He dismissed the steward and had another look at the ring. The glitter of the emerald seemed to have become dull suddenly, it had become a sombre eye that fixed him with a mournful stare. Annoyed at his discomfiture, he quickly put it back into his sleeve. He would issue a public notice describing the ring, and then the owner would soon present himself at the tribunal and that would be the end of it. He went inside, and walked through his residence to his front garden, and from there on to the large central courtyard of the tribunal compound.
It was fairly cool there, for the big buildings surrounding the yard protected it from the morning sun. The headman of the constables was inspecting the equipment of a dozen of his men, lined up in the centre of the courtyard. All sprang to attention when they saw the magistrate approaching. Judge Dee was about to walk past them, on to the chancery over on the other side, when a sudden thought made him halt in his steps. He asked the headman:
'Do you know of any inhabited place in the forest on the mountain slope, behind my residence?'
'No, Your Honour, there are no houses, as far as I know. Half-way up there is a hut, though. A small log-cabin, formerly used by a woodcutter. It has been standing empty for a long time now.' Then he added importantly: 'Vagabonds often stay there for the night, sir. That's why I go up there regularly. Just to see that they make no mischief.'
This might fit. In a deserted hut, half-way up the slope ...
'What do you call regularly?' he asked sharply.
'Well, I mean to say ... once every five or six weeks, sir. I ...'
'I don't call that regularly!' the judge interrupted him curtly. 'I expect you to ...' He broke off in mid-sentence. This wouldn't do. A vague, uneasy feeling oughtn't to make him lose his temper. It must be the savoury sitting heavily on his stomach that had spoilt his pleasant, relaxed mood. He shouldn't take meat with the morning rice ... He resumed, in a more friendly manner:
'How far is that hut from here, headman?'
'A quarter of an hour's walk, sir. On the narrow footpath that leads up the slope.'
'Right. Call Tao Gan here!'
The headman ran to the chancery. He came back with a gaunt, elderly man, clad in a long robe of faded brown cotton and with a high square cap of black gauze on his head. He had a long, melancholy face with a drooping moustache and a wispy chinbeard, and three long hairs waxed from the wart on his left cheek. When Tao Gan had wished his chief a good morning, Judge Dee took his assistant to the corner of the yard. He showed him the ring and told him how he had got it. 'You notice the dried blood sticking to it. Probably the owner cut his hand when taking a walk in the forest. He took the ring off before washing his hand in the brook, and then the gibbon snatched it. Since it is quite a valuable piece, and since we have still an hour before the morning session begins, we'll go up there and have a look. Perhaps the owner is still wandering about searching for his ring. Were there any important letters by the morning courier?'
Tao Gan's long, sallow face fell as he replied:
'There was a brief note from Chiang-pei, from our Sergeant Hoong, sir. He reports that Ma Joong and Chiao Tai haven't yet succeeded in discovering a clue.'
Judge Dee frowned. Sergeant Hoong and his two other lieutenants had left for the neighbouring district of Chiang-pei two days before, in order to assist Judge Dee's colleague there who was working on a difficult case with ramifications in his own district. 'Well,' he said with a sigh, 'let's go. A brisk walk will do us good!' He beckoned the headman and told him to accompany them with two constables.
They left the tribunal compound by the back door, and, a little way along the narrow mud road, the headman took a footpath that led up into the forest.
The path rose gradually in a zig-zag pattern but it was still a stiff climb. They met nobody and the only sound they heard was the twittering of the birds, high up in the tree-tops. After about a quarter of an hour the headman halted and pointed at a cluster of tall trees farther up.
'There it is, sir!' he announced.
Soon they found themselves in a small clearing surrounded by high oak trees. In the rear stood a small log-cabin with a mossy thatched roof. The door was closed, the only window shuttered. In front stood a chopping-block made of an old tree trunk; beside it was a heap of straw. It was still as the grave; the place seemed completely deserted.
Judge Dee walked through the tall, wet grass and pulled the door open. In the semi-dark interior he saw a deal table with two footstools, and against the back wall a bare plankbed. On the floor in front lay the still figure of a man, clad in a jacket and trousers of faded blue cloth. His jaw was sagging, his glazed eyes wide open.
The judge quickly turned round and ordered the headman to open the shutters. Then he and Tao Gan squatted down by the side of the prone figure. It was an elderly man, thin but rather tall. He had a broad, regular face with a grey moustache and a short, neatly-trimmed goatee. The grey hair on top of the head was a mass of clotted blood. The right hand was folded over the breast, the left stretched out, dose against the side of the body. Judge Dee tried to lift the arm but found it had stiffened completely. 'Must have died late last night!' he muttered.
'What happened to his left hand, sir?' Tao Gan asked.
Four fingers had been cut off just at the last joint, leaving only blood-covered stumps. Only the thumb was intact.
The judge studied the sunburnt, mutilated hand carefully.
'Do you see that narrow band of white skin round the index, Tao Gan? Its irregular outline corresponds to that of the intertwined dragons of the emerald ring. My hunch was right. This is the owner, and he was murdered.' He got up and told the headman, 'Let your men carry the corpse outside!'
While the two constables were dragging the dead man away, Judge Dee and Tao Gan quickly searched the hut. The floor, the table and the two stools were covered by a thick layer of dust, but the plank-bed had been cleaned very thoroughly. They did not see a single bloodstain. Pointing at the many confused footprints in the dust on the floor, Tao Gan remarked:
'Evidently a number of people were about here last night. This print here would seem to be left by a small, pointed woman's shoe. And that there by a man's shoe, and a very big one too!'
The judge nodded. He studied the floor a while, then said: 'I don't see any traces of the body having been dragged across the floor, so it must have been carried inside. They neatly cleaned the plank-bed. Then, instead of putting the body there, they deposited it on the floor! Strange affair! Well, let's have a second look at the corpse.'
Outside Judge Dee pointed at the heap of straw and resumed:
'Everything fits, Tao Gan. I noticed a few blades of straw clinging to the gibbon's fur. When the body was being carried to the hut, the ring slipped from the stump of the left index and fell into the straw. When the gibbon passed by here early this morning, his sharp eyes spotted the glittering object among the straw, and he picked it up. It took us a quarter of an hour to come here along the winding path, but as the crow flies it's but a short distance from here to the trees at the foot of the slope, behind my house. It took the gibbon very little time to rush down through the tree-tops.'
Tao Gan stooped and examined the chopping-block.
'There are no traces of blood here, sir. And the four cut-off fingers are nowhere to be seen.'
'Evidently the man was mutilated and murdered somewhere else,' the judge said. 'His dead body was carried up here afterwards.'
'Then the murderer must have been a hefty fellow, sir. It isn't an easy job to carry a body all the way up here. Unless the murderer had assistance, of course.'
As Tao Gan began to go through the dead man's clothes, Judge Dee carefully examined the head. He thought that the skull must have been bashed in from behind, with a fairly small but heavy instrument, probably an iron hammer. Then he studied the intact right hand. The palm and the inside of the fingers were rather horny, but the nails were fairly long and well kept.
'There's absolutely nothing, sir!' Tao Gan exclaimed as he righted himself. 'Not even a handkerchief! The murderer must have taken away everything that could have led to the identification of his victim.'
'We do have the ring, however,' the judge observed. 'He had doubtless planned to take that too. When he found it missing, he must have realized that it fell off the mutilated hand somewhere on the way here. He probably searched for it with a lantern, but in vain.' He turned to the headman, who was chewing on a toothpick with a bored look, and asked curtly: 'Ever seen this man before?'
The headman sprang to attention.
'No, Your Honour. Never!' He cast a questioning look at the two constables. When they shook their heads, he added: 'Must be a vagabond from up-country, sir.'
'Tell your men to make a stretcher from a couple of thick branches and take the body to the tribunal. Let the clerks and the rest of the court personnel file past it, and see whether any of them knows the man. After you have warned the coroner, go to Mr Wang's pharmacy in the marketplace, and ask him to come and see me in my office.'
While walking downhill Tao Gan asked curiously:
'Do you think that pharmacist knows more about this, sir?'
'Oh no. But it had just occurred to me that the dead body might as well have been carried down as up hill! Therefore I want to ask Wang whether there was a fight among vagabonds or other riff-raff on the ridge last night. At the same time I want to ask him who else is living there, beside himself and that pawnbroker Leng. Heaven, my robe is caught!'
As Tao Gan was prying loose the thorny branch, Judge Dee went on: The dead man's dress points to a labourer or an artisan, but he has the face of an intellectual. And his sunburnt and calloused but well-kept hand suggests an educated man of means, who likes to live outdoors. I conclude that he was a man of means from the fact that he possessed that expensive emerald ring.'
Tao Gan remained silent the rest of the way. When they had arrived at the mud road, however, he said slowly:
'I don't think that the expensive ring proves that the man was rich, sir. Vagrant crooks are very superstitious as a rule. They will often hang on to a piece of stolen jewellery, just because they believe it brings them good luck.'
'Quite. Well, I'll go and change now, for I am wet all over. You'll find me presently, in my private office.'
Excerpted from The Monkey and The Tiger by Robert H. van Gulik. Copyright © 1965 Robert H. van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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