A bone-chilling scream erupted in the middle of the night.
The loud thumping of chaotic footsteps resonated from outside. A person’s screeching of someone’s death prompted several others to rise up in haste.
Feng Sheng also heard it.
She didn’t intend to get up, but someone banged on her door in alarm.
“Who is it?”
“Worthy Brother1 Fang, it’s me.”
The person who knocked on the door was Fan Jin Chuan.
“Someone seemed to have died at the inn. Would you like to take a look?”
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu had already gotten up, but Fang Feng Sheng still felt sluggish and lagged behind.
She often had difficulty sleeping peacefully at night. If she slept poorly and was disturbed, she would get lightheaded and uncomfortable, so her patience this time of the day was stretched thin.
Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu were both aware of this and looked at her hesitantly, “Young Master?”
Feng Sheng sat up while thinking in her heart that this person was truly meddlesome. If a person had died, then he died. What was so exciting about it? Deadpan, she responded, “You wait for me.”
When she got dressed, Zhi Qiu went to open the door, and Fan Jin Chuan trod in, followed by Xiao Qi.
Deep into the night, Fan Jin Chuan had gotten up in panic, but his clothes were not the least bit disheveled. With a neat bun and a slightly white-washed blue robe, he was aptly dressed and appeared solemn.
“Worthy Brother Fang, please forgive this brother’s late night intrusion, but with this kind of incident at the inn, it’s better for us to go and see what’s going on. This way, we can use each other as eyewitnesses.”
“Brother2 Fan is quite careful.”
“This foolish brother once encountered a similar incident, and because I didn’t want to cause any more trouble, I remained behind closed doors. But, who knew that it was precisely because I attended to my own virtue in solitude3 that I provoked trouble,” Fan Jin Chuan expressed with a bitter smile.
“Did it also happen in an inn? Brother Fan is a bit unlucky.”
Feng Sheng noticed that Fan Jin Chuan wasn’t looking at her, and her eyes fell dubiously on the bed.
She just remembered that they had squeezed four people in two rooms, and Uncle Yu was a man, so Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu shared a room with her. They were supposed to make their own beds, but the ground was damp and cold from the constant rain, so she let them sleep on the same bed with her.
This was nothing to them, but to outsiders, it was different. Discovering that three men were sleeping in the same bed inevitably evoked wild and fanciful thoughts. The two maids were garbed in men’s clothes, but the nearby Zhi Chun’s red face and tousled bun only made one’s imagination run amok.
Feng Sheng realized that Fan Jin Chuan was not looking at herself, but his gaze rather faltered on her bed.
Fan Jin Chuan stared absently for a bit before hurriedly dismissing, “Worthy Brother Fan, shall we go?”
For some reason, he couldn’t look at Fang Feng Sheng in the eye as he spoke, which differed from his usual habit. Feng Sheng deduced that he had misunderstood something, but she had no intention of explaining.
She nodded and warned Zhi Chun and Zhi Qiu, “The two of you also come with us. A case of murder has occurred so suddenly. It’s better to be careful.”
Upon leaving the room, they met Uncle Yu, and the party advanced together towards the source of the clamor.
The man who died was the fat merchant.
This man’s surname was Wang and his given name was unknown, but the servants around him addressed him as Master Wang.
Master Wang’s death was extremely tragic. He was struck on the head with a blunt object and died on the spot.
When Fang Feng Sheng and her party arrived, someone had already found a cloth to cover Master Wang’s face. Zhi Chun was caught off guard and became instantly terrified, running behind Fang Feng Sheng and clutching her sleeve.
Feng Sheng felt Fan Jin Chuan’s eyes piercing on her arm, so she coughed and pried Zhi Chun’s tightly clutched hand away, “It’s fine. It’s covered. If you don’t believe me, take a look.”
Zhi Chun shook her head repeatedly, “Young Master, I’m afraid.”
“Look at your cowardly face. Young Master isn’t afraid, so what are you afraid of?” Zhi Qiu teased her.
“You stand outside with her for a while, and don’t go in.”
There were quite a few people standing around in the room, all of them guests of the inn, as well as the old innkeeper and two waiters.
The old innkeeper’s face was pale, his body was shaking, and he kept murmuring about how he hadn’t been feeling well the last few days and had a bad premonition, but he was caught unaware by the recent turn of events.
It seemed that the person was deliberately murdered. For this kind of thing to happen in their inn, it was truly terrible luck.
“Innkeeper, you can’t panic. Have you forgotten what the official said?”
This kind of small inn in a desolate area outside of town was the most prone to accidents. If it were a small matter, they would leave it alone. However, when human life was involved, if the real culprit wasn’t caught, then the inn would be held accountable. After all, the people died at the inn, and there had been no less cases of crude shops robbing people through murder, so the officials were extremely strict in inspecting small establishments in remote areas such as this one.
Once crime occurred, it could be case of light felony that could be dismissed by paying silver, but a murder would incur closure of the shop.
“Yes, I can’t panic.”
The old innkeeper regained his composure after a bout of self-consolation, and gestured his hands to the onlookers, “This lowly old man has been running the inn here for dozens of years, not to make money, but only to provide convenience to large groups of people traveling from the south to the north. This is the first time such a tragedy has occurred. I hope everyone will cooperate and help us find the real culprit in time. If not, we can only wait for the rain to stop and report to the officials, and only when the officials come to investigate the case can you all leave.”
“What business is it of ours if someone is dead? Why should we waste our time here?”
There were also people who helped explain for the old innkeeper, saying that this was usually how they resolved such matters when they encountered them. Presumably, they were also used to traveling from all directions, and knew how incidents such as this worked.
Amidst everyone’s uproar, Chen Si suddenly spoke.
“I know who the murderer is. It’s definitely him.”
Chen Si pointed at Fan Jin Chuan, who had gone to the corpse at some point to scrutinize the injuries on the corpse’s head: “That’s him! Yesterday, the master forcefully took his room, and they broke out in dispute in front of everyone. How could there be anyone who would kill someone for no reason, especially when they were previously unacquainted? It must have been him who bore a grudge, and, while I went to the kitchen to fetch water, took the opportunity to do such a heinous act against my master.”
After voicing out his accusation, he drew his face close to the other party’s, “Don’t you move my master’s body. Are you trying to destroy evidence?”
Fan Jin Chuan was startled.
Xiao Qi pushed away Chen Si who bumped into him and indignantly said, “What are you guys talking nonsense about? How could my Young Sir kill someone?”
“Why would it be impossible for him to kill someone? Then, why did he go to inspect the body when bystanders were avoiding it, and even make his way over?”
“My Young Sir is……”
“Why did you stop talking? You must be an accomplice, and now you’ve just slipped up and revealed it,” Chen Si cried on one hand, and bewailed to the onlookers on the other, “All of us staying here have never been previously acquainted and thus bear no grudges against one another. Other than him, I really can’t think of anyone else who would murder my master. Old innkeeper, quickly arrest him and send him to the officials to seek justice for my master.”
Xiao Qi stared at Fan Jin Chuan anxiously, “Young Sir, say something quickly.”
Fan Jin Chuan, however, remained unspeaking, his brows tightly knit for reasons unknown.
Fang Feng Sheng couldn’t watch any longer. It was apparent that this Brother Fan wasn’t stupid, so why did his composure spiral down during such a critical moment? This person was also unlucky. He was making jolly on his own, but ended up getting entangled in such a matter once again.
She stepped out and said, “Everyone, be quiet for a moment.”
Then, she told the old innkeeper, “Old innkeeper, I have somewhat a bit of knowledge about criminal law because my family is relatively learned such matters. If you don’t mind, how about I help you with this predicament?”
Although they didn’t have much contact, Fang Feng Sheng was dressed like a scholar and was modest and courteous, which made her particularly conspicuous in this group of merchants and porters. Recently, people respected scholars and always believed scholars to be smarter than most. Now, since Fang Feng Sheng took the initiative to take over the situation, the old innkeeper was pleased.
“No, I don’t mind. Not at all. If Young Master can investigate the real culprit behind Master Wang’s tragic death, this lowly old man will be very grateful to you.”
“It’s too early to say this now. Moreover, I hope you will all cooperate.” She arched her hands at the crowd and appeared extremely courteous, fully embodying the so-called common saying, ‘nobody will fault with extra courtesy.’
“Now, I would like to ask the old innkeeper to order reliable people to explore each room and count the occupants to check if anyone had left. If there are people in the rooms, please gather them in the hall.” Feng Sheng explained as she continued, “The road was washed out by the heavy rain, so it’s unlikely that the murderer ran away and should still be within the inn. There also has to be a motive for murder, either to seek revenge or to rob silver. So, the second step is to count Master Wang’s belongings and check if any is missing.”
The moment an expert stepped out, everything was immediately put in order.
Fang Feng Sheng’s speech was brief, but it was logical and concise, which fared better than those who interjected randomly at the side. At a glance one could tell she was reliable, so the old innkeeper was busy letting his men count the number of people within the rooms.
“Who was the first to discover that someone had died?”
After some questioning, the context of the matter was almost clear.
The first to discover the dead Master Wang was his manservant, Chen Si. Because of the rain, Master Wang was in a bad mood. After drinking in the hall, he took his people back to their respective rooms to rest.
There were only two rooms, one for him and Chen Si, and one for the two attendants. However, the two attendants guarding the goods were on long shifts. The one who stayed in the room was too tired and fell asleep when he returned.
In the middle of the night, Master Wang was thirsty and wanted to drink tea, so Chen Si scurried to the kitchen to find water. Who would have known that, upon his return, he would discover Master Wang’s dead body instead.
The scream they had heard was Chen Si’s. The waiter, Kui Zi, hurried over after hearing the noise, and the two bumped into each other in the corridor. For this reason, Kui Zi’s arm became bruised.
Feng Sheng interrogated the guests in the next few rooms but didn’t detect anything suspicious. There was also the attendant who remained in the room. He was the third person to arrive, and when he left the room, he saw Chen Si and the waiter, Kui Zi, collide against each other and fall to the ground.
“Now that I’m cleared of suspicion, what about him?” Chen Si seemed to be intent on isolating Fan Jin Chuan and had never forgotten his accusations against him.
“Him, huh?” Feng Sheng didn’t hold back her laughter, unknown as to what she was laughing at, but Fan Jin Chuan somehow remembered her previous words, ‘Brother Fan is a bit unlucky.’
“Don’t worry, rice has to be eaten one bite at a time.4 If he really did kill someone out of a grudge, he will definitely not escape.”
Chen Si muttered, “You are both familiar with each other. Who would know if you’re just shielding him?”
Fan Jin Chuan was about to speak when a waiter came in a flurry, reporting that he had taken count and found a room where the guests were absent. He had checked the housing records, and it was three porters.
These three men were still there during the evening meal, but at this time, they had disappeared.
At the same time, the old innkeeper, who had brought people to inventory Master Wang’s belongings, had also counted the results.
According to the information provided by Chen Si, Master Wang was going to Taixing to settle a batch of goods and silver this time, and now that batch of goods and silver was gone.
This time, without needing Fang Feng Sheng’s instruction, the old innkeeper summoned people to chase those three porters back.
Because the inn was short of manpower, he deliberately asked for help from those around and offered a reward of twenty taels of silver if they managed to catch them.
Moreover, if such a murder case were reported to the officials, there would be rewards.
For the sake of silver, plenty were eager to try. They were people who traveled about all year round, and their courage naturally far exceeded that of ordinary people’s. Immediately, several groups of people ganged up to chase after them.
The next step was to wait.
Because Master Wang’s body was still in the room, it was an eerily frightening sight, especially during that time of the night, so some people suggested changing its location.
The old innkeeper and his men went out, and when Fang Feng Sheng followed, she gave Uncle Yu, who was standing in a corner of the room and hadn’t once spoken, a meaningful glance.
Uncle Yu nodded his head without batting an eyelid.
1 贤弟 (xián dì): literally means worthy little brother. Unsure about the origins of this. I shortened it to Worthy Brother as it’s what Fan Jin Chuan uses to address Feng Sheng most of the time.
2 兄 (xiōng): lit. elder brother. Just put this here to emphasize the seniority in their address.
3 This is from a dialogue between Mencius and Song Gou Jian in, 孟子 (Mengzi) ‘The Works of Mencius,’ rendered by James Legge. As mentioned previously, this Fan Jin Chuan is excessively bookish, so he references classics a lot.
4 饭要一口一口的吃: rice has to be eaten one bite at a time (idiom); fig. don’t rush, one step at a time, take your time, don’t be in a hurry, etc.