By Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Kristen Robinson, runner-up in the 5th Bai Meigui Translation Competition
Read in Chinese here.
When I’m done with work for the day and it’s not so hectic, I like to find somewhere with a bit of space and enjoy a fag. In this city, we smokers get treated like scum. I get that it’s banned in train stations and sports grounds, but even parks and plazas and whatever are no-go for smokers. Doesn’t matter if it’s basically empty, you can forget about taking a puff. Just pulling out a pack of cigs will get you a dirty look. Not much I can do about it, just find a quiet place with a bit of greenery and a bench to sit on while I scratch an itch.
I let out a puff of smoke.
This one day, I was enjoying my post-job fag under a footbridge in the east of the city. It’s not a place I know real well, just that on the left over there is one of those old police stations and off to the right is a bar. The beer tastes like piss and it’s not even cheap.
I wasn’t thinking about much, just sitting with my head to one side staring into space, fag hanging out of my mouth, when I saw this old guy shuffling over. This geezer must have been more than 70. His clothes were basically a bunch of rags and his black baseball cap covered a mess of filthy grey hair. He had one of those beards that’s not really long but not short either, the sort that really pisses you off. The faded plastic bags he was dragging were about to burst. By the look of him I reckoned he probably wasn’t homeless, just some poor bastard who’d had a bad run, selling stuff he found in the rubbish to make ends meet.
The kind of bastard who makes you think you’d better get ahead when you’re young or you’ll regret it when you’re old.
I let out a puff of smoke and forgot about him, but when I looked back I found him sitting on the other end of the bench, staring my way with an odd, blank look on his mug.
Looked like he was eyeing my fag.
He must have caught me in a real good mood, wanting to do a good deed or something, ‘cos I took out the pack of fags from my pocket with just the two left in it and passed it over. His eyes lit up and he grabbed one with a shaking hand. “Thanks,” he said and shoved it in his mouth in a hurry, like a kid with a bit of candy.
“Ah, that gets the blood pumping…” the old man took out a plastic lighter and lit up. He took a deep drag and breathed it out real slow, like he didn’t want to let it go, like he wanted to savour it as long as he could.
“Those government bastards put cigarette taxes up again,” I said. He seemed normal enough, so I thought I might as well have a chat.
“Yeah. Goddam it… If I hadn’t messed up that job all those years back, I wouldn’t even care if they slapped 50 per cent more tax on them. I wouldn’t care if it was 500 per cent! I could just smoke whenever I wanted…” he said dejectedly, looking like he was all out of options.
“You used to be in business?”
“No…” he shot me a momentary glance. “I talk to the dead.”
I blinked at him. Was this guy off his nut? Was he trying to pull one over me?
I made a noncommittal grunt.
“You probably think I’m talking rubbish,” he gave a short laugh, flashing a row of yellow teeth. “There’s no word of a lie in it. What’s more, in those days I had made quite a name for myself. I’d even consult for the cops. I’ve been invited to that cop shop around the corner more than a few times.”
“Is that so,” I humoured him. More than likely he was ‘invited’ there after a few too many out on the town.
“I know you don’t believe me. Don’t worry, after 30 years there’s not a person in this city who believes me anymore,” he shrugged. “What was the point of my solving those hundreds of cases for everyone, catching those dozens of cold-blooded murderers…”
“Did you go round telling the cops, ‘I see water’? What about ‘the culprit has something to do with the number three’? Make them run around like headless chickens hoping they get lucky?” I said, having a go at him.
“No!” he said. “That’s what the con artists do.” The old man wasn’t getting shitty at me; in fact , he was nodding in agreement. “I don’t speak prophecies and I don’t do clairvoyance. I’ve just got the one skill: I can see ghosts.”
The old man’s gotta be full of shit, I thought, but he looked dead serious.
“I’m a thousand times the detective any of those police are. All I need is one look at which suspect the spirit is standing behind or who they point a vengeful finger at, and it’s clear as day. I imagine you’ve heard of the ‘Body in the Van’? That’s the case that made me famous 40 years ago. The media and the coppers were all convinced the murderer was the victim’s brother. But it wasn’t, it was her boss.”
I remembered hearing about that case. Heard rumours it was only cracked thanks to a consultant, but I didn’t know much more than that.
A police car sped past, siren blaring, heading east toward the yacht club. The roar drowned out our conversation, so we both shut up and took a few quiet drags.
The noise faded. “Were you making big money in those days?” I asked casually.
“Well, there’s pretty good rewards for busting unsolved cases,” the old man smiled.
“So if you’re so good at talking to the dead, how come you’ve ended up like this?” I asked, and I looked him up and down so he got what I meant: I wasn’t buying his bullshit.
“Geez, well 30 years ago there was a case called ‘The Murder in the Engineer’s Mansion.’ You know it?”
I shook my head.
“So, this engineer, he lived with his wife in a mansion on the south side of the city,” the old man started up his story. “Anyhow, one day the cleaner comes in and finds the wife dead, stabbed over a dozen times. The floor’s covered in blood. Cops figure it’s a thief who’s done it ‘cos some of their stuff’s been stolen, you see. But then I get asked to investigate and I work out they’ve got it wrong. The wife’s ghost is standing there, right behind her husband the whole time, like she has unfinished business in this world. Blood still seeping from her wounds. Shocking sight. I gesture at her: tell us who the killer is. She points a ghastly finger, right at her husband.”
“And the cops just believed you?”
“God, no. Even if I had a perfect record, the police wouldn’t lay charges based on just my say so.” He took a drag on his cigarette. “I asked her where the murder weapon was – that’s right, I forgot to say the cops couldn’t find the knife – she pointed at the back yard. I followed her direction and in a dark corner of the garden shed there was the blood-stained kitchen knife. Her husband’s prints were still on it.”
“Why’d he do it?”
“The police investigated. They found the wife was well known in her circle for being the jealous type, while her husband had movie-star good looks and loose morals. From the outside they seemed to be the perfect couple but in fact they were at it like cat and dog when no one was looking. At its worst it would turn violent. Once word got out that he’d been arrested, the engineer’s secretary voluntarily admitted to being his lover so that people wouldn’t think she’d been an accomplice.”
“A-ha.” This sort of soap opera is old hat. Nothing shocks you in a city like this. “Then what happened?”
“In the end he was convicted of murder. Back then, things were much more efficient. The whole case was over less than a year after the event. The execution followed six months later. Done and dusted. Thinking back, might have been better if things had been a little less efficient, to be honest.” He gave a bitter laugh. “No one could have guessed it, but less than three months after the execution they overturned the verdict.”
“The real murderer killed again, only this time she got caught.”
“What? Real murderer? Who?”
I stared at him, gobsmacked.
“She was lying about being the first to find the body. There’s no doubt she was the killer,” the old man said. He was pretty cut up. “She was a serial thief, always lusting after the jewels in her employers’ houses. She waited until the house was empty, put on a pair of gloves and took whatever she wanted. But the engineer’s wife came home early and caught her in the act. So, the cleaner killed her. In her confession she said her employer had always been unreasonable and that’s why she stabbed her so furiously over and over, to vent her anger. All the jewellery that had gone missing was found in the cleaner’s house, so they found the killer and they got the goods back to boot.”
“B...but the cleaner reoffended? She killed again?” I stammered.
“Later on in a different house, she tried to pull the same trick. She was caught by the owner again, only this time she wasn’t careful enough. She thought the victim was dead, but she hadn’t used enough force. The stupid girl thought the more you confess, the lighter your sentence, and told the cops the truth about the engineer’s case too,” he scoffed. “If you have to go down, fine, but do you have to take me with you? Leave me no better off than a street rat? She ruined my entire career… goddam it…”
Reckon you weren’t the only one, I thought. The police branch that hired you probably got done over too. Would be no wonder after such a massive cock-up.
“So, these ghosts you see are just in your head then?” I asked.
“No, you still don’t get it,” the old man sighed. “Just because the wife’s ghost said the engineer was the killer doesn’t mean she was telling the truth.”
“She cared more about her husband shacking up with his mistress and replacing her than she did about seeing the real murderer punished. I was there when he was executed. Her ghost had a smile on her lips. And there I was, thinking it was the joy of seeing justice done…”
What the fuck! I looked at him, and thought: I half believe the old guy. But the end of that story was just so damn nasty. Maybe the whole thing was bullshit?
The old man stood up and took one last deep drag on the butt-end of his cigarette, then stubbed it out reluctantly, sad to let it go. “Thanks for the smoke, kid. It was nice talking with you.”
“Sure,” I said. Better not to get caught up with someone this far gone, I told myself.
“You can’t trust people and you can’t trust ghosts either. Once I got that through my head, I stopped being so flippant about the things I say.” He started to walk away, then he looked back saying thoughtfully, “That’s why, even if you had a whole crowd of ghosts standing behind you, I wouldn’t start just making wild speculations about what they’ve got to do with you… It’s only that the fat guy, the one with the busted left eye, he looks like he wants to tear you into tiny pieces.”
A shiver went down my spine. I spun around and looked behind me, but there were just some puny shrubs and nothing else. When I turned back, the old man had already walked off. I wanted to chase him down but his words had left me frozen to my spot on the bench.
Just now, I’d been down at the yacht club taking care of this banker for a client. The guy was fat alright, so fat I thought the bullet might bounce right off him. Nah, that’s a joke. I popped him with one shot. Bang! Right in the brain!
The slug went straight through his left eye.