Summary; 670 AD, Lan-fang, the Western frontier of Tang China. Judge Dee is faced with a baffling double murder. A distinguished visiting scholar from the capital, and a mysterious master swordswoman, have been found dead in strange circumstances. He is determined to devote all his resources to the investigation; what he doesn’t need is to be distracted by two peculiar women who claim to be visitors from the far future…
The Chinese Slayer Murders
The young woman’s body was face down on the street. A sword lay a few inches from her outstretched hand.
Judge Dee Jen-djieh, Magistrate of Lan-fang, stared down at the corpse. What could be seen of her face was discoloured, her cheeks blotched with patches of red but her lips seemingly stained a bluish colour, and grooves in the hard-packed earth of the street indicated that she had clawed at the ground as she died.
“It appears that she was poisoned,” he observed. “The coroner’s examination will reveal more.” His brows lowered as he studied the scabbard that hung across the woman’s back. He stooped and took a closer look at her hands. “Interesting,” he said. “When Master Kuo visited me at the tribunal he mentioned that he was accompanied by a female companion. I assumed, naturally, that the woman would be a courtesan. This girl, however, was a warrior.”
“Her sword is certainly a fine blade,” remarked Chiao Tai. The tall swordsman, one of the two former highwaymen who served the judge as his chief investigators and bodyguards, had once been an officer in the Northern Army and was well schooled in the martial arts. “It looks to be almost as good quality as Your Honour’s blade Rain Dragon.”
“Indeed so,” Judge Dee agreed. “Not a weapon that one would expect to see in the possession of a woman.” He straightened up and addressed his faithful family retainer, Hoong Liang, who acted as his confidential advisor and also as the sergeant over the constables of the tribunal. “We will leave this body for the moment. Wait here and touch nothing. When the coroner arrives have him perform a preliminary examination only and then send him inside.”
“Yes, Your Honour,” Sergeant Hoong replied. Judge Dee turned away and, followed by Chiao Tai, made his way inside the house.
Two of the rooms were set up as bedrooms. It looked as if Master Kuo and his female companion had not been sleeping together. Judge Dee gave the bedrooms only a cursory glance in passing. His attention was directed to the room in which the distinguished scholar’s body had been found.
The remains of two meals were visible on a table in the centre of the room. Bowls containing partially-consumed servings of noodles, a plate bearing a couple of dumplings, discarded chopsticks, a wine pot and a tea-pot, and two cups. One of the cups was lying on its side, a liquid trail stretching from it to the edge of the table, and only dregs remained in the overturned vessel. Judge Dee picked up the cup carefully, sniffed at what was left of the content, and then set it down upright. “Jasmine tea,” he remarked. “Probably poisoned.”
“That may have killed the girl,” Chiao Tai said, “but our other victim died in a much more violent manner.”
“Indeed so,” the judge agreed.
The body of Master Kuo lay on the floor in a pool of blood. Judge Dee knelt down, being careful to avoid soiling his clothes with blood, and searched for the fatal wound. It took him a few seconds to discover it. A stab wound, obviously deep, at the base of the neck behind the collar bone on the right hand side.
“A downward stab,” Chiao Tai said, when the judge had drawn his attention to the wound. “Either a left-handed blow from the front or a right-handed blow from behind. He would have died almost instantly.”
A satchel lay beside the body, partially within the puddle of blood, and the judge picked it up carefully. He examined the contents. “Medicines,” he told his assistant. “Bandages, ointments, powders and the like.” A paper sachet, similar to some that were in the satchel, was loose on the floor near where the container had lain. It was soaked in Master Kuo’s blood and was little more than a soggy, barely-recognisable, lump.
He stood up and returned his attention to the table. A small pot and two paper sachets lay near the meal dishes. “It would seem that those were removed from the satchel prior to the stabbing,” Judge Dee deduced. “On the face of it this makes a most peculiar picture. What do you make of it, Chiao Tai?”
Chiao Tai frowned. “You know that deduction is not one of my skills, Your Honour,” he said. “I would reconstruct the events as follows. The gentleman decided to kill his companion. They sat at meal together and, under her very nose, he unpacked poison from his medical bag and openly put it into her tea. He must have told her that it was medicine. On feeling the effects she rose, stabbed him to death, and then fled into the street to seek aid. The poison overcame her before anyone could respond.”
Judge Dee shook his head. “The sword we saw is a most unlikely weapon to have inflicted such a wound,” he said. “Thrusting down in such a fashion would have been extremely awkward.”
“Unless the gentleman was bending toward her at an acute angle,” Chiao Tai countered, “and she delivered a forward thrust.”
“Possible, I suppose,” the judge conceded, “but we saw no blood on the blade. Why would she clean it before rushing out? And if she used another weapon, a dagger perhaps, why remove it and put it out of sight?” He peered closer at the table, making a careful examination, and uttered a grunt as he spotted something. “See,” he said, drawing his assistant’s attention to what he had found. “A damp ring, made by the base of a cup, well away from where the other dishes lie. There was a third party here.”
“The murderer?” Chiao Tai asked.
“So it would appear,” said the judge. He swept the room with his gaze. On the floor, behind the place at which he believed the woman had been sitting, he saw a second satchel. He crossed the room, picked it up, and opened the bag. “Strange,” he said, and pulled forth an item from within.
It was a stick of wood, twice the thickness of a man’s thumb, sharpened at one end to a sharp point. There were four more such sticks in the bag. There was also a dagger in a sheath. Judge Dee slid the dagger from its scabbard and examined the blade. “This could, perhaps, have inflicted the death wound,” he mused, “but someone already feeling the effects of a fatal dose of poison would never have taken time to clean a weapon and put it away so carefully. Also the metal looks… odd. It isn’t steel. In fact I would say that it is silver.”
“Silver is too soft to make a good weapon,” Chiao Tai commented.
“So I would have thought,” the judge agreed. He resumed his scan of the room. He saw books, nothing unusual in a house in which a noted scholar was staying, but ignored them for the time being. “Odd that the Master and the woman should have been eating together in the presence of a guest,” he remarked. “It must not have been a formal invitation. Someone who called unexpectedly when they were already eating, perhaps, and was invited to sit and share a cup of wine while they continued with their meal.”
“And who took advantage of this to poison the woman,” Chiao Tai said, “and to stab the man. But why different methods for the two victims?”
“He could poison only one drink,” Judge Dee suggested, “and chose to use that method to dispose of the more formidable opponent, the woman who wore a sword and whose hands bear the calluses of a trained boxer, resorting to a dagger against the elderly scholar who bore no arms.”
“You are no doubt correct, Your Honour,” Chiao Tai agreed. He rested a hand on the hilt of his sword and then frowned. He looked up at the ceiling, put his hand up to his shoulder, and then went around the table to the place at which the spilled cup of tea had lain. He stared hard at the ceiling. “I think I have something to contribute, Your Honour,” he said, and pointed. “Look there.”
Judge Dee directed his gaze to the point indicated. “A gouge on the ceiling,” he said. “You think, then, that it was made by her sword in the draw?”
“I do,” Chiao Tai confirmed. He climbed up onto a chair and examined the ceiling more closely. “The sword has cut a groove through a solid beam,” he reported. “A strong and sharp blade, and with a lot of force behind the blow, I think. Even so it must have slowed the strike more than somewhat.”
“A strike made, I suspect, in response to the unknown third party stabbing Master Kuo,” the judge deduced. “If her stroke had been aimed at Master Kuo, as you at first believed, it would have cloven his head in two rather than piercing down into his chest.”
“She must have missed her target, though,” Chiao Tai said. He stepped down from the chair. “I would guess that the contact with the ceiling beam slowed her sword enough for the murderer to evade. He – or perhaps she, for poison is often a woman’s weapon – then fled. The swordswoman pursued but she succumbed to the poison before she could catch the killer and strike again.”
“That fits the facts as we have them at this point,” said the judge, “and it certainly explains why the woman ran out with her sword in her hand, but it is still only supposition. There is more yet to be learned. Ah. The coroner is here. Come in!”
The elderly pharmacist, who served as coroner and medical examiner to the tribunal of Lan-fang, entered the room at Judge Dee’s command. “I looked at the dead woman outside, as you ordered, Your Honour,” he said. “There is no doubt that she was poisoned. I believe that the poison was the nectar, or the dried leaves, of the Jia Zhu Tao flower that grows in Yunnan province. The victim’s tongue was blistered and her lips were bluish, typical symptoms according to what I have read, and the rapidity of her death is another indicator. There are few plants more deadly. It is said that merely using a twig as a skewer when cooking meat will kill all who eat the roast.”
“There is tea in the teapot, and a small quantity of tea in that cup,” Judge Dee said. “Test them for the presence of poison. Test the wine, also, in case my assumption is wrong. Oh, yes, and the remains of the food.”
“Certainly, Your Honour,” the coroner replied. “I see the tea was spilt. I shall clean it up with care lest it harm someone else.”
“A good idea, Doctor, and I thank you,” said Judge Dee. A thought struck him. “Before you start,” he said, “tell me if you can identify these items.” He pointed out the pot and sachets that lay on the table.
The coroner examined them, handling them with some caution initially, and then relaxed. “A preparation of the stem of melons,” he announced. “It is used to induce vomiting. This is powdered charcoal. It can be very efficacious in cases of poisoning. It absorbs the poison and draws it from the system. These are the very treatments I would have recommended had I arrived here before the young woman died.”
“I understood Master Kuo to be a historian,” Judge Dee said, “but it seems that his knowledge extended to medicine and herbalism as well.”
“He sought to cure the girl,” said Chiao Tai, “but the murderer acted swiftly to stop him.” His brows furrowed. “It almost seems,” he went on, “as if the young woman was the primary target and Master Kuo was slain only to make sure that she died.”
“And to prevent him from being able to identify the poisoner,” Judge Dee pointed out. “Chiao Tai, question the neighbours. Find out if anyone saw the visitor, either arriving or fleeing, and ask if they know who had associated with Master Kuo since his arrival in Lan-fang. I shall send Tao Gan to assist you. Ma Joong can question local martial arts teachers to see if any of them know the woman. I shall take Master Kuo’s books back to the tribunal and examine them there. Perhaps they will contain some clue that will reveal why the distinguished scholar, and his companion, came to Lan-fang – and thus why they were murdered.”
Judge Dee emerged from his office and passed beyond the lacquer screen into the courtroom. He ascended the dais and looked around. “Where is the headman?” he asked Sergeant Hoong.
“He went out on patrol this morning, with a half-dozen constables, and has not yet returned, Your Honour,” Hoong reported.
The judge frowned. “Yet again,” he grumbled. “It is a shame that I was unable to persuade Blacksmith Fang to stay on in the position. His successor is barely adequate. Still, we must cope without him. Where is Ma Joong?”
“He, too, is absent,” Hoong replied.
“Brother Ma went to question local boxing masters, as you ordered, Your Honour,” Chiao Tai said.
The judge nodded. “Very well. Hoong, you will perform the headman’s duties for this session. Let us begin.” He took his seat and banged down the gavel to announce the opening of the afternoon session of the tribunal.
He had made little progress, so far, on the case of the murdered scholar and his female bodyguard. Studying the books taken from the crime scene, late into the night, had shed little light on the affair. Some of them had been works of history and literature, as was to be expected in the collection of such a man, and a number were manuals of martial arts techniques. The majority, however, were collections of folklore. Tales of fox-spirits, were-tigers, vampires and other such creatures of popular superstition. The only thing he had learnt from them was that a blade of silver was reputed to be deadly against were-tigers, if such things did indeed exist, and that pointed stakes were the bane of vampires. He could see no relevance to the murders at all.
The cases he was likely to face in the tribunal session would, no doubt, be run-of-the-mill affairs of petty thievery and disputes between neighbours. Such simple, even boring, matters would be a blessed relief from the complexity of the double murder case.
Or so he thought. As the session drew towards a close, while he was listening to the complaint of a restaurant owner who claimed that a diner had departed without paying for his meal, he heard the sounds of a commotion from outside. The door of the courtroom opened and a procession of people entered.
The missing headman was first to enter. His face was marred by bruises and an eye swollen almost shut. Behind him walked two young women; strode, rather, with a confident air rare in those entering the tribunal. Following them were the constables of the patrol, all of whom were also bruised and battered, and three of them carried crossbows trained at the women. Bringing up the rear was the tall and muscular figure of Ma Joong. The former highwayman was, unlike the others, completely unmarked. He was grinning hugely.
“Your Honour,” the headman called, “I have arrested a pair of violent criminals!”
“You are interrupting a plaintiff,” the judge scolded. “Wait your turn.” He focused his gaze on the women, no doubt the ‘violent criminals’ in question, and his eyebrows shot up in amazement. Their clothing was like nothing he had ever seen in his life. Narrow leggings, clinging to the legs underneath far closer even than the garb of the barbarian Uigurs and Tartars of the city’s North-Western Ward; upper garments equally tight, revealing more bare skin than would be shown in public even by prostitutes, and yet the quality of the cloth was as fine as would be seen in the apparel of a member of the Imperial Court. The shoes both women wore were so strange that he could not even think of words to describe them. His gaze swept over them and then fixed on something at waist level. Both of them had pointed sticks tucked into their belts; matching exactly, in shape and size, those that he had found among the possessions of the two murder victims.
He lifted his gaze to their faces and his jaw dropped. One of the women was Chinese, looking much like any other woman save for her mode of dress, but the other was a barbarian; not a Uigur, a Tartar, nor even one of the folk from far-off India who could sometimes be found in the North-Western ward, but a member of some strange race from the mysterious lands of the West. Her skin was of a pinkish shade, her eyes were strangely shaped, and her hair was brown and wavy. How had someone from so far away come to Lan-fang? He could not guess.
Reluctantly he forced his attention back to the trivial case at hand. “Your pardon, Mr Liu,” the judge addressed the restaurant owner. “Continue.”
The man resumed his accusation against impoverished student Candidate Hsieh, who had allegedly absconded after consuming three pots of wine and a dish of roast duck and rice, and Judge Dee tried to concentrate on what was said.
“Your Honour,” Candidate Hsieh spoke up, taking advantage of the restaurateur pausing momentarily for breath, “I will not waste your time any further. I confess that I did, indeed, depart from the restaurant without paying for my meal. It was very busy and I believed that Mr Liu would not notice. I acted dishonourably, I admit, and I am deeply ashamed that I did not resist the temptation. I deny, however, that I had three pots of wine and a duck. I do not have the funds to be so extravagant. I had only one pot, of rice beer not of wine, and my meal was noodles with pork.”
Judge Dee fixed Mr Liu with a stern stare. “Is this true?” he barked.
The restaurant owner quailed under the judge’s gaze. “I… may have been mistaken,” Liu said, his voice quavering. “It was, indeed, busy and I may have confused Hsieh’s bill with that of another customer.”
“Or you may have seen the chance to profit,” Judge Dee growled. “Had you been honest you would have received fair recompense. Instead your greed means that you will receive nothing. Candidate Hsieh, you did indeed act in a fashion unworthy of a scholar, but at least you confessed of your own accord and did not waste the court’s time with denials. I sentence you to serve as the scribe for tomorrow’s session of the tribunal.”
“That is very fair of Your Honour,” the student said. “I shall strive to accomplish the task to the best of my ability.”
“But…” Mr Liu began.
“Silence!” Judge Dee snapped. “You will waste no more of this court’s time. Dismissed!” He swept his gaze over the crowd, saw no more petitioners, and slammed down his gavel. “I pronounce this session of the tribunal over.”
The audience, somewhat reluctantly, made for the doors. Almost all eyes were aimed at the two strange women. Candidate Hsieh, in particular, was so occupied in bestowing admiring glances at them that he almost missed the door and walked into a wall.
Once the courtroom was clear Judge Dee addressed the headman. “Well?” he said. “With what are these allegedly violent criminals charged?”
“Assault upon officers of the law,” said the headman. “I came upon them in the main thoroughfare, near the southern gate, and asked them what they were doing outside the barbarian quarter. They set upon me at once. My men came to my rescue but they, too, were set upon and badly beaten. Eventually we were able to hold them at crossbow point and they ceased to resist.”
“And what is your account of this incident?” Judge Dee asked the women. The barbarian woman shrugged her shoulders and uttered a few words in some unintelligible tongue.
“They don’t speak Chinese, Your Honour,” Ma Joong explained. “They do respond quite well to bowing and pointing, however, which is how I managed to persuade them to accompany us to the tribunal.” He cast a wry glance at the headman. “Our worthy headman’s account of events differs in some respects from the truth. I did not see the start but I did observe that the two ladies were obviously taking great pains to inflict no permanent damage. They have weapons but made no move to use them. They are greatly skilled at martial arts,” he said, open admiration plain on his face. “I am, as you know, of the ninth grade. They are at least as skilful as am I and perhaps even more so.”
“Indeed,” said Judge Dee. “Did you, before you became embroiled in this affair, discover anything about the young woman who was killed yesterday?”
“I did, Your Honour,” Ma Joong replied. “Her name was Shao Soo-niang and she had, as you surmised, visited one of the boxing masters. Mr Chin, who has an academy near the eastern gate, and who is of the ninth grade. He told me,” Ma Joong went on, shooting a glance sideways at the unusual women, “that she was the finest martial artist he has ever seen. With sword, with staff, or with fists she was unequalled in his experience.”
“Indeed,” the judge said again. He did not bother to ask if Ma Joong suspected some connection with this new pair of women who also displayed mastery of the martial arts. The side glance had given away the lieutenant’s thoughts as plainly as if he had spoken aloud. “Well done, Ma Joong. Now perhaps you can make use of your ‘bowing and pointing’ skills to obtain some kind of explanation from these, ah, strangers as to who they are, what they are doing in Lan-fang, and their account of what led to the confrontation with our headman and his constables.”
“I shall try, Your Honour,” Ma Joong said. He turned to the women and began to perform some sort of mime. Judge Dee had no idea what the gestures meant, or what his lieutenant was trying to convey, but he knew that Ma Joong did seem to have a gift for communicating with women. He had, after all, managed to carry on a romance with the Uigur informant Tulbee despite speaking not a word of the Uigur language and her speaking no Chinese.
Suddenly the Chinese-appearing one of the two women spoke in mangled, but understandable, Chinese.
“Comrade Official,” she said, addressing Judge Dee directly, “I speak only Cantonese.”
“Cantonese?” Judge Dee sat up straight. He spoke only a few words of that language but he knew someone who spoke it fluently. “Sergeant Hoong, send for Tao Gan at once.”
“He is in the office, Your Honour,” Hoong replied.
“I am here,” Tao Gan spoke up for himself as he entered the room. The wiry little man, who had been a confidence trickster before entering Judge Dee’s service, had one of Master Kuo’s books under his arm. “I was within earshot, Your Honour. I take it you wish me to translate?”
“I do indeed,” Judge Dee confirmed. “Find out who these women are, what they are doing in Lan-fang, and how they came to be fighting against the constables. And,” he added, “ask them the significance of the wooden sticks they carry in their belts.”
“Of course,” Tao Gan said, and he turned to the women and began to speak in the Cantonese language. The Chinese girl replied, occasionally consulting with her barbarian companion, and Judge Dee waited as patiently as he could. He understood none of the conversation but he did get the impression that the two women could not converse fluently with each other. The barbarian girl spoke no Cantonese and, he believed, the Chinese girl’s grasp of the barbarian’s language was less than perfect. Eventually Tao Gan turned back to the judge.
“Their tale is exceedingly strange, Your Honour,” Tao Gan reported. “They claim that they were transported here by the Judge of the Netherworld.”
Judge Dee snorted. “Ridiculous,” he said. “Transported from where?”
“A land across the ocean,” Tao Gan said. “Not only that, but they claim that they are not from this age. They come from the future. A thousand years or more away.”
“Even more ridiculous,” said the judge, “but I shall ignore that for the moment. What else do they say?”
“That they are warriors called Slayers,” Tao Gan went on, “tasked with battling against vampires and evil spirits. The pointed sticks are weapons for use against those creatures. They were brought here, they claim, to avenge the death of another Slayer and to complete her task.”
Judge Dee straightened up and stared at the women. This part of their incredible story carried the ring of truth. The martial arts expertise, and the pointed sticks, did indicate that there was some kind of a connection between these strangers and the murdered girl Shao Soo-niang. “Go on,” the judge urged.
“They claim that our headman shouted at them, laid hands upon them, and that at first they only freed themselves and pushed him away,” Tao Gan continued. “They fought back when the constables joined in the attack.”
“I can believe that,” the judge said. “And their names?”
“The girl from Canton is called Chao-Ahn, family name Tsang,” Tao Gan said. “The barbarian woman has a name that I can barely pronounce – it sounds something like Feh Tse – but apparently it means ‘Faith’.”
Disclaimer: The Buffyverse characters in this story do not belong to me, but are being used for amusement only and all rights to them remain with Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, the writers of the original episodes, and the TV and production companies responsible for the original television show. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER ©2002 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All Rights Reserved. The Buffy the Vampire Slayer trademark is used without express permission from Fox. The ‘Judge Dee’ novels, and all characters within them other than the historical magistrate Judge Dee, are copyright Robert van Gulik.