By Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Bill Leverett, winner of the 5th Bai Meigui Translation Competition
Read in Chinese here.
Every time I finish a job, and things calm down, I like to find a quiet place to smoke a cigarette in peace. But smokers are an oppressed minority in this city – we’re banned not just from the usual stations and playing fields, but parks and plazas, too. Even in a nearly deserted park, forget having a puff, you get glared at just for pulling out a pack of fags. I have to find one of those roadside benches with a bit of greenery to satisfy my craving.
Today I’d come to a place under the East Bridge, and was enjoying my ‘afterwards’ cigarette. I wasn’t too familiar with this neighbourhood, but I knew that on the left side of the intersection straight ahead was an old police station, and on the right was a pub where the beer was pricey but still tasted like piss. While I was absent-mindedly puffing away and gazing at the scenery, I caught sight of an old man shuffling towards me. This guy looked to be at least seventy, with shabby clothes, a black baseball cap covering a knot of dirty grey hair, and a bit too much stubble. He was carrying a bunch of bulging plastic bags. From the way he was dressed, I guessed he wasn’t homeless, but was one of those poor souls who survives by rooting through rubbish bins.
I could picture him on a poster warning: “Idleness in youth brings misery in age”.
I let out a mouthful of smoke, ignoring the old man, but a few seconds later, turning my head, I found him sitting at the other end of the bench, staring at me with an odd expression.
Perhaps because I was in a good mood, or I wanted to do my good deed for the day, I took out my pack with two remaining cigarettes and handed it to the old man. His eyes lit up and he reached for it ecstatically, thanking me while pulling one out with trembling hands, like a child desperately stuffing sweets into its mouth.
“Ahhh. I feel alive again . . .” The old man used a disposable lighter to fire one up, took a deep drag, then let it out slowly. He looked like he didn’t want to exhale, and wished he could savour it a little longer.
“The bastards raised the tobacco tax again,” I said. The old man seemed perfectly normal, so I didn’t mind a short chat.
“That’s right. Goddammit, if I hadn’t fucked it all up and flushed my career down the drain, I wouldn’t care whether they added 50% or 500%, I’d smoke as much as I liked.” The old man looked resigned, and his voice carried a note of sadness.
“You were in business?”
“No . . .” the old man shot me a look, paused, and said, “I’m a spirit medium.”
I stared. Was this guy crazy? Or was this a scam?
“Ah,” I answered, neither agreeing nor disagreeing.
“I’m sure you think I’m bullshitting you,” the old man smiled, revealing a row of well-shaped but yellowed teeth. “It’s totally true, and in fact back in the day I was quite famous, even the cops wanted my help all the time. In fact, I was a frequent visitor at the police station just over there.”
“You don’t believe me. Doesn’t matter, I blew my credibility thirty years ago, nobody in this town believes me,” the old man shrugged. “Even though I’d cracked over a hundred cases , and arrested scores of cold-blooded murderers . . .”
“You would tell the police ‘I see water’ or ‘the murderer has something to do with the number 3’, then let them wander around like headless chickens until they got lucky,” I laughed.
“No, the ones who do that are fakes.” The old man wasn’t offended by what I said, and even nodded in agreement. “I don’t predict the future, and I’m not clairvoyant, I can only do one thing – I see ghosts.”
I stared at the old man, figuring he was talking out of his arse, but he looked completely sincere.
“I’m way more efficient than detectives, or those criminal investigators. I just look at which suspect the victim’s ghost is standing behind, or pointing at hatefully – it’s clear as day. You probably heard of the ‘Corpse in the Truck’ case from 40-odd years ago? I made my name with that one. The murderer was the victim’s boss, though the media and the cops were sure it was his brother.”
That did sound familiar, and I’d heard that the police had broken the case thanks to a consultant, but I wasn’t clear on the details.
“Wahwahwah—” A police car whizzed past us with its sirens on full, heading for the marina to the east. The noise of the siren interrupted our conversation, and we fell silent for a while, smoking in tacit agreement.
“Did you make a lot back then?” I asked casually, once the police car had driven into the distance.
“The reward money for unsolved cases wasn’t bad,” the old man smiled.
“So, if you’re an actual spirit medium, how did you end up like this?” I looked him up and down, letting him know I found his story hard to swallow.
“Ah, well. Thirty years ago a case came up known as ‘The Engineer’s Mansion Killing’, have you heard of it?”
I shook my head.
“Mr A, an engineer, lived with his wife in a mansion in the southern part of town,” the old man started reciting the particulars. “One day, Mrs A was found by an agency maid lying in the house in a pool of blood, with multiple stab wounds. Because valuables had gone missing from the residence, the cops decided she’d been killed by a burglar, but then I was invited to assist with the investigation, and I thought they were wrong – Mrs A’s ghost was standing directly behind her husband, looking all restless and tormented, her wounds still dripping blood, really nasty looking. I grabbed my props and did the song and dance, asking the dead woman to point out the murderer, and with an expression of sheer hatred, she pointed at Mr A.”
“And did the police believe you?”
“Of course not. Despite my previous track record, they couldn’t convict someone just on my say-so.” The old man took a mouthful of smoke, and said, “I asked Mrs A where the murder weapon was – oh, right, I forgot to mention, the police hadn’t found the knife – and she pointed to the garden. I followed her directions, and in a dark corner of the garden shed, found a bloodstained kitchen knife. The handle still had Mr A’s fingerprints.”
“Later in the investigation, it emerged that Mrs A’s jealousy was well known in their circle of friends, while Mr A was good-looking and a bit of a womaniser. Outsiders thought they were a model couple, but in fact they often fought, sometimes to the point of blows, and even weapons. When news of Mr A’s arrest got out, his secretary went to the police and told them they’d been having an affair, so they wouldn’t figure it out themselves and finger her as an accomplice.”
“Ah.” This kind of corny prime-time drama is par for the course in this city. “So what happened next?”
“In the end, Mr A was sentenced to death. Back then they didn’t mess around. The whole case was wrapped up within a year, and the death sentence was carried out six months later, everything by the book. Looking back on it, it might be better if they’d been a bit less efficient . . .” the old man laughed bitterly. “Nobody imagined that less than three months after the execution, the verdict would be overturned.”
“The real killer committed another crime, but this time they were caught.”
“Huh? Real killer? Who?”
I stared at the old man in amazement.
“The whole first-to-find-the-body thing was a lie, she was actually the killer.” The old man’s voice was pained. “She was a habitual thief, and she liked the shiny trinkets in her employers’ houses. She’d put on gloves and fill her boots when the house was empty, but unfortunately on this occasion Mrs A came home early and found her. So she killed her. When she confessed, she said that Mrs A was a bossy cow, and she’d stabbed her so many times to release her pent-up anger. The missing jewellery was found in her home, so she was caught with the loot.
“So, the maid re-offended? Did she kill someone else?”
“She tried the same thing in another house, and again bumped into her boss. This time, though, she was careless, and quit when she thought the boss had stopped breathing – but she was wrong. The fool was stupid enough to think that she could reduce her sentence by confessing to more crimes, so she told the cops the truth about Mr A’s case,” he said with disdain. “To screw herself is one thing, but she had to drag me into it, make me a pariah, totally destroy my livelihood . . . that fucking . . .”
I’m afraid the officers who hired you were also destroyed, I thought. With a mistake that big, you’ve got to pin the blame on someone.
“So your ghost-seeing superpower was all a fantasy, then?” I said.
“No, you still don’t get it . . .” the old man sighed. “Mrs A’s ghost said that Mr A was the killer, but that doesn’t mean he was.”
“For Mrs A, keeping her husband’s mistress from moving in and replacing her was way more important than bringing her killer to justice. I was there the day they executed him, and Mrs A’s ghost had a big smile on her face. I thought it was because she was finally avenged . . .”
I stared, half believing the old man. What a vicious way to go, but what if it was all just bollocks?
The old man stood up from the bench, took a deep drag on the last stub of cigarette, and reluctantly put it out. “Thanks for the smoke, buddy, good talking with you.”
“Hmm.” I was thinking it was probably best if I didn’t get wrapped up in this deluded fantasist’s dreams.
“You can’t trust people, and you can’t trust the dead either. Once I figured that out, I stopped passing on their whispers.” The old man took a few steps, turned, and with a concerned look, said, “So, all those ghosts standing behind you, my friend, I won’t hazard a guess about what business they’ve got with you… but that fat one with the bad left eye looks like he’d like to rip you to shreds.”
I felt a shiver down my spine, and quickly turned to look behind me, but there were only a few straggly shrubs. When I turned around again the old man had walked away. I wanted to run after him, but his words had left me unable to move, stuck like a fool on this bench.
The job I’d just done was down at the marina, dealing with a banker for a client. A fat guy, so fat I figured he was bullet-proof. Of course that was a joke – one shot and his brain was splattered.
The bullet had gone in through his left eye.