Read an Excerpt
The Phantom of the Temple
A Judge Dee Mystery
By Robert van Gulik
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 1966 Robert van Gulik
All rights reserved.
She stared in silence at the thing lying on the rim of the old well. Not a breeze stirred in the hot, damp air that hung heavily in the dark temple garden. A few almond blossoms came fluttering down from the spreading branches overhead, very white in the light of the lantern. And whiter still when they stuck to the bloodstains on the weatherbeaten stones.
Clutching her wide robe to her bosom, she said to the tall man standing beside her, 'Throw it into the well too! It'll be quite safe; this old well hasn't been used for years. I don't think anybody even knows of its existence.'
He cast an anxious look at her pale, expressionless face, placed the lantern on the pile of boulders and broken bricks beside the well and loosened his neckcloth with impatient jerks.
'I want to play it double safe, you see. I shall wrap it up and ...' Noticing that his voice sounded very loud in the deserted temple garden, he continued in a whisper, '... bury it among the trees behind the temple. The drunken fool is sound asleep and nobody else'll be about for it's past midnight.'
She watched dispassionately as he wrapped the severed head up in his neckcloth. His fingers trembled so violently that he had difficulty in tying the ends.
'I can't help it!' he muttered defensively. 'It ... it's getting too much for me. How ... how did you do it? Twice, and so deftly ...'
She shrugged her shoulders.
'You have to know about the spacing of the joints,' she replied with indifference. Then she bent over the rim of the well. Thick clusters of ivy had overgrown the mouldering wood of the broken crossbar and long, rank streamers hung down into the dark depths, clinging to the half-decayed rope that once had a pitcher attached to it. Something stirred in the dense foliage of the towering old trees. Again there was a thin shower of white blossoms. A few dropped on her hand. They felt cold, like snow. She drew her hand back and shook them off. Then she said, slowly, 'Last winter, this garden was all white with snow. All white ...' Her voice trailed off.
'Yes,' he said eagerly. 'Yes! Down in the city it was beautiful too. Icicles hung from the eaves of the pagoda in the lotus lake like so many small bells.' He wiped his moist, hot face and added, 'How clean the frosty air was; I remember that in the morning ...'
'Don't remember,' she interrupted coldly. 'Forget! Think only of the future. For now we shall be able to get it. All of it. Let's go now, and get it out of there.'
'Now?' he exclaimed, aghast, 'Just after ...' Seeing her contemptuous look, he resumed quickly: 'I am dog-tired, I tell you. Really!'
'Tired? You always boast about your strength!'
'But there isn't any hurry any more, is there? We can go and take it, any time we like. And we ...'
'I happen to be in a hurry. But I suppose it'll keep. what is one right?'
He looked at her unhappily. She was withdrawing into herself again, away from him. And his desire for this woman was so poignant that it hurt him.
'Why can't you belong to me, to me alone?' he pleaded. 'You know I'll do anything you want. I proved it, I ...'
He broke off, for he saw that she was not listening. She was staring up at an open space between the branches, strewn with white blossoms. The tops of the two three-storeyed towers stood out clearly against the evening sky. They flanked the main hall of the temple, in perfect symmetry.CHAPTER 2
Early the next morning the heavy hot air still hung over the city of Lan-fang. When Judge Dee came back to his private office from his morning walk he noticed with dismay that his cotton robe, drenched with sweat, was sticking to his broad shoulders. He took the small wooden box from his sleeve and put it on his desk. Then he went to the clothes-box in the corner. After he had changed into a clean summer robe of blue cotton, he pushed the window open and looked outside. His burly lieutenant Ma Joong was crossing the paved courtyard of the tribunal compound, carrying a whole roasted pig on his shoulders. He was humming a song. It sounded thin and eerie in the empty yard.
The judge closed the window and sat down behind his desk, littered with papers. Rubbing his face, he reflected that he too ought to feel happy on this special day. His eyes strayed to the small ebony box he had put on the end of the desk. The round disc of green jade that decorated its smooth black cover shone with a dull gleam. When taking his morning walk he had seen the box in the shop window of a curio-dealer down town and bought it at once. For the jade disc was carved into the stylized shape of the character for 'long life', which made the box eminently suited for today's occasion. There was no earthly reason why he should be feeling out of sorts. He must take himself in hand. The dreary life in this remote frontier district was making him restive. He ought not to give in to these occasional moods of depression.
With a determined gesture he cleared a space on the desk in front of him by pushing a bulky dossier aside and clapped his hands to summon a clerk. Breakfast would settle the queasy feeling in his stomach. The heat had something to do with it too, probably. He picked up his large fan of crane-feathers. Leaning back in his armchair of carved blackwood, he slowly fanned himself.
The door opened and a frail old man came shuffling inside. He was clad in a long blue gown, a small black skull-cap covered his grey head. He wished the judge a good morning and carefully placed the breakfast tray on the side table. As he began to move the teapot and the small plates with salted fish and vegetables to the desk, Judge Dee said with a smile:
You should have let the clerk bring my breakfast, Hoong! Why should you trouble to?'
'I was passing by the kitchen anyway, sir. I saw there that Ma Joong has found at the meat shop the largest roasted pig I have ever seen!'
Yes, that'll be the main dish tonight. Here, give me that teapot, I can help myself! Sit down, Hoong!'
But the old man shook his head. He quickly poured the judge a cup of hot tea and placed the bowl of fragrant steaming rice in front of him. Only then did he sit down on the low stool in front of the desk. He had covertly observed Judge Dee's drawn face. Having been a retainer of the Dee family ever since Judge Dee's boyhood, he knew his master's every mood. Taking up his chopsticks, the judge said:
'I didn't sleep too well last night, Hoong. This hearty breakfast will set me up again.'
'It's a trying climate here in Lan-fang,' Sergeant Hoong remarked in his dry, precise voice. 'A cold, wet winter, then this hot, clammy summer, with sudden cold blasts coming in from the desert plain across the border. You must keep fit, sir. One easily catches a nasty cold here/ He sipped his tea, carefully holding up his long frayed moustache with his left hand. After he had set his cup down he resumed, 'Yesterday evening I saw a light burning here long past midnight, sir. I hope that no important case has cropped up?'
The judge shook his head.
'No, there was nothing special. Nothing much has happened here, Hoong, after I restored law and order, half a year ago. A few cases of manslaughter down town, a theft or two, that's about all! Our work consists mainly of the ordinary administrative routine. Registration of births, marriages and deaths, the settling of minor disputes, tax-collecting.... Very peaceful. Too peaceful, I nearly said!' He laughed, but the old man noticed that it was rather a forced laugh. 'Sorry, Hoong,' the judge resumed quickly. 'I am getting a bit stale, that's all. I'll get over that soon enough. What is much more serious: I am worried about my wives. Life is very dreary for them, out here. They hardly have any interesting lady-friends in this small provincial town, and there is little amusement. No good theatrical performances, no places for pleasant outings.... And the Tartar influence is still so strong that even our Chinese seasonal feasts are observed here with little circumstance. That is why I am glad of this little celebration for my First Lady tonight.' He shook his head and ate for a while in silence. After he had put down his chopsticks he leaned back in his chair.
'You asked about last night, Hoong. Well, while rummaging in the archives of this tribunal, I found the dossier dealing with that notorious unsolved case of theft that occurred here. The theft of the Imperial Treasurer's gold.'
'Why take an interest in that case, sir? It dates from last year. From before you assumed office here in Lan-fangl'
'Exactly. It happened on the second day of the eighth month of the year of the Snake, to be precise. But unsolved cases always interest me, Hoong. Whether old or new!'
The old man nodded slowly.
'I remember reading in the Imperial Gazette about that theft, when we were still in Poo-yang. It created quite a stir in official circles. The Treasurer passed through here on his way to the Khan of the Tartars across the frontier. His orders were to purchase a team of the best Tartar horses from the Khan, for the Imperial stables. He was carrying fifty heavy gold bars.'
'Yes, Hoong. The gold was stolen during the night, and replaced by lead. The thief was never found and—'
There was a knock on the door. Ma Joong came in and said with a broad grin, 'I bought the most magnificent roasted pig, sir!'
'I saw you bring it in, Ma Joong. We have only one guest tonight, a lady-friend of my wives, and she is a vegetarian. So there'll be plenty of roasted pig left for all of you. Sit down. I was talking with the sergeant about the theft of the Treasurer's gold last year.'
His tall lieutenant sat down heavily on the second stool.
'An Imperial Treasurer is supposed to know how to guard the government gold entrusted to him,' he remarked indifferently. That's what he's paid for! Yes, I remember the case. Wasn't the fellow summarily dismissed from the service?'
'He was,' Judge Dee replied. 'The thief was not found and the gold never recovered. Yet the case was investigated with painstaking care.' He laid his hand on the dossier in front of him and went on: 'This is a very instructive record, Ma Joong, well worth a close study. The magistrate first interrogated the captain and the soldiers of the Treasurer's escort. He reasoned that, since such large transports of gold are a closely guarded official secret, and since only the Treasurer himself was supposed to know the purpose of his mission, the thief must have been an insider. Another fact also pointed in that direction. The Treasurer's luggage consisted of three leather boxes, of exactly the same size, shape and colour, the lids of all three being secured by identical padlocks. The only distinguishing mark was that one side of the box containing the gold was slightly cracked. Now, only that box was opened. The two other boxes, which contained the Treasurer's clothes and other personal effects, were not tampered with at all. That's why the magistrate began by suspecting the Treasurer's suite.'
'On the other hand,' Sergeant Hoong observed, 'the thief replaced the gold by lead. Evidently because he hoped that the Treasurer would discover the loss only when he opened the box much later, after his arrival in barbarian territory. This clearly points to an outsider. All insiders know the official rule that a carrier of government gold has to verify it is intact every night before he goes to bed, and every morning as soon as he has got up.'
Judge Dee nodded.
'Quite true. However, my predecessor considered the lead as a clever touch, added by the thief to suggest that the theft had been committed by an outsider,'
Ma Joong had risen and walked over to the window. Having searched the empty courtyard with his eyes, he said with a frown:
'I wonder what that lazy headman is doing! He should be taking his constables through their morning drill!' Seeing Judge Dee's annoyed look, he went on quickly, 'Sorry, sir! But now that Chiao Tai and Tao Gan have left for the capital to discuss the reduction of our garrison, I have to watch the constables and guards all by myself.' He sat down again and asked, eager to show his interest, 'Didn't the thief leave any clues?'
'None,' the judge replied curtly. 'The guest room occupied by the Treasurer in our tribunal here has only one door and one window, as you know. The door was guarded all night long by four soldiers, sitting in the corridor outside. The thief gained entrance by the window. He tore one of the paper panes, pushed his hand through, and somehow or other picked the lock that secured the crossbar.'
Sergeant Hoong had pulled the thick dossier over to him and was leafing through it. He looked up and said, shaking his head, 'Yes, the magistrate took all the measures indicated. When it had been established that the Treasurer's suite was beyond suspicion, he had all the professional thieves in the city rounded up, and also all the receivers of stolen goods. Moreover, he—'
'He made one mistake, Hoong,' Judge Dee interrupted. 'Namely that he limited his investigation to this district of Lan-fang.'
'Why shouldn't he?' Ma Joong asked. 'The theft was committed right here, wasn't it?'
The judge sat up straight.
'It was indeed. But it must have been prepared elsewhere, before the Treasurer arrived here in Lan-fang. Therefore I would have begun by instituting thorough inquiries in Tongkang, our neighbouring district, over on the other side of the mountains. The Treasurer stayed there overnight as well. Someone must have learned somehow or other that he was carrying a small fortune, and that it was kept in the box marked by the cracked leather. That precious information travelled ahead of the Treasurer to Lan-fang. Call our senior scribe, Ma Joong!'
Sergeant Hoong looked doubtful. Tugging at his thin goatee, he said, 'By the same reasoning, sir, the thief might have learned the secret in any place along the road from the capital. Or even before the Treasurer left, in the capital itself!'
'No, Hoong, there's definite proof that it must have been in Tong-kang that the secret leaked out. The Treasurer says in his official statement recorded here that the side of the gold-box got cracked just before he reached Tong-kang. Presumably because of the excessive weight of the gold.'
Ma Joong brought a lean, elderly man in. The scribe bowed and wished the judge a good morning. Then he waited respectfully for the judge to address him.
'I am gathering data on the theft of the Treasurer's gold,' Judge Dee told him. 'I want you to make a trip to Tong-kang, his last halting-place before he reached Lan-fang. You'll report to the local tribunal, and try to find there someone who remembers the Treasurer's visit. I want to know whether the Treasurer received any visitors on the night he stayed there, whether a local woman companion was provided for him, whether he received any messages; in short, everything.' He selected an official blank from among the papers on his desk and jotted down a few lines of introduction addressed to his colleague in Tongkang. When he had stamped the document with the large red seal of the tribunal, he handed it to the scribe. 'You'll leave at once. While the grooms are preparing your horse, read this dossier. Try to be back here the day after tomorrow."
'Very good, Your Honour.'
The scribe was about to make his bow when Ma Joong asked him, 'Do you know where our headman is?'
'He has gone out to arrest a vagrant, sir. There was a violent quarrel in a winehouse down town last night, and the vagrant killed a professional bully.'
'Well,' Judge Dee said, 'since that is evidently an ordinary crime of violence of the underworld, it won't necessitate much paperwork. So, get on your way! Good luck!'
When the senior scribe had left, Ma Joong said sourly, 'So that's what our good headman is doing! Arresting a murderer. And without having taken out a warrant, too! If the fellow doesn't take care of himself, he'll fall ill from working overtime, one of these days!'
'Pity we couldn't keep old Fang as headman,' the sergeant remarked. 'By the way, what is that small box there, Your Honour? I've never seen it on your desk before.'
'A box?' Judge Dee asked, roused from his thoughts. 'Oh that! I bought it at the curio-dealer's, on the corner behind the Temple of Confucius. Saw it there half an hour ago, when I was taking my morning walk. I bought it as a small birthday present for my First Lady. I'll give it to her at our festive dinner tonight.'
Excerpted from The Phantom of the Temple by Robert van Gulik. Copyright © 1966 Robert van Gulik. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
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