We followed the police back to the county, unavoidably passing by my home, whereupon I immediately slumped my body to prevent being spotted. If my aunt went out shopping and caught me sitting in a police car, she would question me to no end.
When we arrived at the county police station, the other officers carried the body in while Officer Lu introduced the place to me. He shared how hard he had worked over the years and hoped we would put in a good word with the director when we returned to the city. Then, he pointed to a certificate on the wall, proudly showing off his victory. I thought it was the result of solving a crime, but when I moved closer to get a good look, I saw the words, "Third prize in the Municipal Public Security Bureau’s Table Tennis Competition.” What a leisurely policeman!
The morgue had long been turned into a storage unit. Several officers sorted out the mess so we had space to place the corpse. Naturally, they had no forensic equipment. Bingxin complained, "They don’t even have a forensic laboratory. How are we supposed to conduct the autopsy? Why don’t I run back to your house and get your tools?"
"There’s no need. This’ll do."
Conducting an autopsy with the naked eye was the most basic skill for a Traditional Coroner. The condition of this corpse wasn’t so complex that I required tools.
Bingxin soon returned after buying some seaweed and burning them into ashes like I asked. I blew the seaweed ashes onto the clothes of the deceased. Beyond my expectations, I managed to successfully extract a large number of fingerprints this time, about five or six groups.
Bingxin did a double take. "There are so many fingerprints! Could it be a group of murderers?"
"Bring me a pair of scissors," I said.
Soil immediately spilled from within once I cut through the dead man's clothes.
“Why is there so much soil? Let me wipe it off for you!"
I shot Officer Lu a death stare. "Don't move!"
Picking up some soil, I sniffed at it, then folded a piece of paper and very carefully scooped up a little so Bingxin could smell it too. She took a deep breath and commented, “It stinks.”
I decided to test her. "Can you tell what the stench is?"
"Like the stench of rot!"
"That’s right!" I nodded.
The deceased had extensive rashes. His hands and feet were covered in shallow scratches that appeared to have been caused by his clothes. "The clothes were forcefully worn on him. That's why so many fingerprints were left behind. That combined with soil that smells of rot–have you thought of it?" I asked.
Bingxin took a moment trying to put two and two together. Finally, she shook her head. "I can't figure it out!"
"I'll give you another hint," I smiled.
I grabbed a handful of soil, baked it on the alcohol burner for a while and asked Officer Lu to hit the light switch. As the room sank into darkness, flickering pale blue flames danced on the soil, appearing almost unreal. Stunned, Officer Lu asked, "Wh-what happened?"
Bingxin was quick on the uptake. "Does the soil contain phosphorus?"
Phosphorus was a substance with a very low ignition point. Heating it slightly would cause it to burn. Human bones contained large amounts of phosphorus, which would seep into the soil after decomposition. Therefore, will-o-wisps could often be seen floating above the graves on hot summer nights.
"Yes!" I responded.
"So the soil is grave soil and the dead man was wearing these clothes. Ah, I got it! A ghost marriage!"
I told Officer Lu to turn the lights back on before explaining, "This soil contains a lot of phosphorus, which proves that the family who arranged the ghost marriage has an ancestral tomb just like my family. So this family used to be a large clan."
I turned to Officer Lu who should know better given that this was his jurisdiction.
Officer Lu mumbled, "The biggest clan in the county would be the Song family. I heard that the Song family used to be high-ranking officials and the sons were given three acres of land upon birth... Consultant Song, you’re not part of that Song family, are you?"
"I am, though it’s really not as exaggerated as you say." I admitted.
Three acres of land upon birth? That was completely fabricated by outsiders. However, it was true that the Song family used to be a large family before it gradually declined.
"Are there any big families in the surrounding villages and towns?" I asked.
"I'll send someone to check as soon as possible!" answered Officer Lu.
Bingxin asked, "Soil was found on the man’s body. Was he buried alive?"
"If that’s the case, then it’s still intentional homicide." Bingxin's brows were slightly puckered.
I said, "It’s attempted murder because he managed to escape."
"How can you tell that he escaped?" Bingxin curiously asked.
I raised the dead man's hand and showed her his cracked nails. "There are wooden splinters embedded in the dead man's hands and the cracks in his nails were most likely caused when he pushed the coffin open. He shows no signs of being beaten or tied up. His limbs also show no indications of being manipulated after death. My guess is he escaped from the coffin but didn’t recognize where he was. So upon seeing a car parked there, he climbed in and wanted to drive away."
"But why did he die? Was it sudden death?" she contemplated.
"It was sudden death, but the direct cause of it remains unclear..." I stared at the wooden splinters on the victim's finger and asked Bingxin, "Can you test to identify what kind of wood is this?"
She shook her head helplessly. "I can't without any tools."
I grabbed the dead man's foot and stared at his sole. He was wearing a pair of ancient boots that matched the rest of his outfit. Bingxin asked if I had discovered anything. I said, "Isn’t it time we go home for dinner?"
Bingxin smiled as she threw me a playful punch. "I'm still really pumped up. Why are you talking about dinner?"
"No, my aunt will lecture us if we don't make it home on time for dinner. Let's go!"
Officer Lu repeatedly waved. "No! Let me treat you two to dinner in the evening. Won’t you give me the honor? I'll ask my subordinates to join us as well. You can tell them about the case, Consultant Song."
"No, we can't. Dinner is already waiting. We’ll see you tomorrow."
Just as we were about to leave, Officer Lu asked if I had any orders for him. I asked him to check the recent death records in the county, to which he readily agreed.
After we left the station, Bingxin queried, "Why did you stop the investigation halfway?"
“Make a guess!" I laughed.
"Oh, I see. You’re afraid that if we continue investigating, the police will solve the case, and you don't want to do Officer Lu any favors," said Bingxin with a roll of her eyes.
I nodded. "Smart girl. We’ll have to be patient. When Officer Ma arrives tomorrow, we can continue with our investigation."
After dinner, I took out a handwritten, thread-bound book titled "Diverse Tests For Various Poisons." It was a toxicology encyclopedia written by a Song family ancestor named Song Haowen. He was afraid that the book might be used as a reference to poison others once it was circulated. Thus, he never published it so only a handwritten copy was passed down.
Winter nights in the South were freezing cold. I was sitting in bed reading the book with a hot water bottle in my arms when Bingxin suddenly entered the room in her pajamas. She lamented, "There’s nothing interesting on the telly. Song Yang-gege, are you reading an ancient book again? Tell me a story!"
"But this book is really boring." I replied.
Bingxin pursed her lips. "I insist on listening to a story!"
Then, she slipped into my quilt, shaking my arm as she begged me for a story. I eventually gave in to her ceaseless whining and chose a few chapters from the book related to folk legends, such Zhen poison. Apparently, one could kill by boiling a Zhen feather in some water. There was also a kind of insect called the Duanhu. Illness would befall a person if a Duanhu spat on their shadow. The phrase, to attack someone by innuendo, originated from the myth.
These stories were hardly enough for Bingxin as she lapped them up with relish. There was a paragraph in the middle that told the story of Sun Simiao who was freeloading at his sister's house. Because his brother-in-law had grown increasingly annoyed, his sister suggested she would pretend to be ill so he could cure her. That way, his brother-in-law wouldn’t drive him away.
Sun Simiao's sister then wiped her body with the leaves of a locust. Then she lay in bed, her body covered in green as she moaned about an imaginary illness. As soon as Sun Simiao read her pulse, he suddenly burst into tears, crying that her condition was hopeless.
His sister reminded him that she was merely pretending and asked why he took it so seriously. Sobbing, Sun Simiao explained that the poison had entered her liver and she was beyond help.
At this point, I suddenly came to a realization and was just about to share it with Bingxin when I noticed that she had fallen asleep curled up beside me.Previous Chapter Next Chapter