By Chan Ho-Kei, translated by Stacy Mosher, runner-up in the 5th Bai Meigui Translation Competition
Read in Chinese here.
Whenever I’ve finished a job and I’m done running around, I like to find an open space to relax with a cigarette. But smokers are discriminated against in this city; smoking is banned at bus stops and sport fields, and even in parks and plazas. Even in the less frequented parks, you draw a dirty look just from pulling out a pack, let alone exhaling a wisp of smoke. So my best bet is to look for a bench in a roadside greenspace where I can satisfy my craving.
Today I’m enjoying my after-work smoke on a bench under an Eastern District flyover. I’m not too familiar with this area, but I know that just after the left turn-off in front of me there’s a derelict old police station, and to the right there’s a pub serving over-priced beer that tastes like piss. As I lean back with my cigarette clenched between my lips and gaze aimlessly at the distant cityscape, I happen to notice an old geezer ambling my way. Looking to be in his 70s, the old guy is wearing threadbare clothes; greasy gray hair pokes out from under a black ball cap, and grotty whiskers, neither long nor short, sprout above and below his lips. He’s dragging several bulging and faded plastic bags, and from his outfit I reckon he’s not homeless but probably one of those poor down-and-out bastards who makes his living scrounging through the rubbish.
“A young idler becomes an old beggar.” That about sums up his type.
Ignoring the old geezer, I exhale a mouthful of smoke, but when I turn my head again a few seconds later, he’s sitting at the other end of my bench, staring at me with a queer look. His eyes seem fastened on the cigarette between my fingers.
Maybe because I’m in the right mood and up for my good deed for the day, I pull out my pack with just two smokes left and pass it to him. The old boy’s face lights up at the sight of the cigarettes, and he joyfully reaches out, nodding in thanks as he pulls one out with a shaking hand and stuffs it in his mouth like a tot with a sweet.
“Aahhh! That brings me back to life…” After lighting the cigarette with his disposable lighter, the old geezer takes a deep drag and slowly exhales a stream of smoke. It’s as if he can’t bear to part with it and wants to extend the pleasure for as long as possible.
“The government raised the tobacco tax again, the bastards,” I remark. The old man seems normal enough, so I don’t mind exchanging a few words with him.
“Yes, blast them… If I hadn’t blundered and lost my business, I wouldn’t care if they added 50 or 500 percent; I could still smoke as much as I wanted…” He sounds as wretched as he looks.
“You used to be in business?”
“No…” The old man pauses and shoots me a look, then says, “I’m a psychic.”
I stare at him for a moment. Is he a lunatic or a charlatan? I grunt noncommittally.
“I know you think I’m talking rubbish,” says the geezer with a smile that reveals a full set of yellowing teeth. “But it’s absolutely true. Back then I was famous; even coppers consulted me. I was a regular visitor at that police station up the way.”
“Really?” I respond flippantly. Frequently hauled in as a drunkard, more like!
“I know you don’t believe me. Who cares? My credit has been bankrupt these thirty years, and no one in this city believes me anymore,” says the old guy with a shrug. “Even though I helped them crack more than a hundred cases and arrest dozens of cold-blooded killers…”
“I reckon you told the police, ‘I see water,’ or ‘The killer is connected to the number three,’ and they managed to stumble onto the culprit by sheer luck,” I scoff.
“That’s the kind of thing con artists say,” says the geezer, but I haven’t riled him; he’s nodding in agreement. “I’m not a fortune-teller or a clairvoyant. I have only one ability: I see ghosts.”
I stare at the old guy, thinking he must be bullshitting, but he looks dead serious.
“I was a hundred times better than those detectives or CIDs. I knew the truth the minute I saw the spirit of the deceased standing behind the perpetrator, or pointing hatefully at him. You must have heard about the ‘corpse in the lorry’ forty-odd years ago. That was the case that made me famous. The murderer was the victim’s boss, but the journos and coppers were all convinced it was his elder brother.”
I seem to remember hearing about that. There were rumors that a consultant helped the police crack the case, but I’m foggy on the details.
“Wooahwooahwooah…” A squad car races past with its siren howling, heading east toward the marina. The clamor interrupts our conversation, and by tacit agreement we pause to take a few silent drags off our cigarettes.
“How much did you make back then?” I continue after the squad car disappears.
“The reward for solving cases was not bad,” the geezer grins.
“If you’re a bona fide psychic, how did you end up like this?” I look him up and down so he knows how implausible it sounds.
“Right! Well, thirty years ago there was a case called ‘the murder in the engineer’s mansion.’ Have you heard of it?”
I shake my head.
“The engineer, Mr. A, lived with his wife in a mansion over in Southern District,” said the geezer, as if talking to himself. “One day, the part-time helper found Mrs. A dead at home, lying in a pool of blood with more than a dozen knife-wounds. Valuables were missing, so the cops decided it was a robbery gone wrong, but my subsequent assistance of their inquiries determined that they were mistaken – Mrs. A’s ghost stood behind her husband, like the restless spirit of someone who had died a wrongful death with horrific wounds all over her body. I took out my divination tool and made a show of asking the victim to point to her murderer, and she aimed a ferocious glare at Mr. A.”
“Did that make the police believe you?”
“Of course not. Even with my outstanding record, they weren’t going to identify a suspect based on my word alone.” The old man takes another drag on his cigarette. “I asked Mrs. A where the murder weapon was – right, I forgot to mention that the cops hadn’t found the murder weapon – and she pointed to the garden. I followed the direction of her finger, and in the dark corner of a storage shed I found a bloodstained kitchen knife. Mr. A’s fingerprints were all over the handle.”
“Why did he kill his wife?”
“After further investigation, the cops learned that Mrs. A’s jealousy was common knowledge among her friends. Mr. A had movie star looks and was always out carousing. In public they looked like a model couple, but at home they fought constantly, even kicking and punching each other and sometimes threatening each other with weapons. Once news got out that Mr. A had been arrested, his secretary came forward and admitted she was having an affair with him. She was afraid they’d mistake her for an accomplice.”
“Oh.” This kind of hackneyed soap opera plot has played out so many times in this city that it doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. “So then what?”
“In the end, Mr. A was handed a death sentence. Back then the system was a lot more efficient than it is now; the investigation was closed within a year, the death sentence was carried out half a year later, and that was the end of it, neat and tidy. Thinking back on it now, a little less efficiency would have been better…” The geezer smiles bitterly. “Who would have guessed that the verdict would be overturned in less than three months?”
“It was overturned?”
“The real culprit struck again and was caught this time.”
“The real culprit? Who was it?”
I stare at the old man in amazement.
“She had faked discovering the body – she was actually the murderer,” he says, his voice tinged with bitterness. “She was a career criminal who would eyeball her employers’ valuables and then put on gloves and clean them out when no one was at home. Mrs. A must have come home early and caught her in the act, so she killed her. In her confession, she said that Mrs. A had always given her a hard time, so she stabbed her a dozen times out of anger. The missing valuables were found in the killer’s home, meaning she was caught red-handed.”
“So you say the helper struck again? She killed someone else?”
“She played the same game in another home and was caught by her employer, but this time she was too careless. She thought her victim was dead and let up before she breathed her last. The stupid slag thought she’d get a reduced sentence for confessing more, so she told the coppers what really happened in Mr. A’s case,” says the old man with disgust. “She went down and took me with her. People looked at me like a rat in the street. She completely destroyed my business… Bloody hell!…”
The police station that hired you as a consultant must have been ruined as well, I think. No one’s going to forgive a mistake like that.
“Does that mean your superhuman ability to see ghosts was just a hallucination?” I ask.
“No, you still don’t understand,” sighs the old man. “Mrs. A’s spirit wasn’t telling the truth when she said Mr. A was the killer.”
“Rather than having her killer brought to justice, Mrs. A was more worried about her husband setting up house with his mistress. I was in court the day that Mr. A was sentenced, and Mrs. A’s spirit was grinning from ear to ear. I thought she was just glad to have her death avenged…”
I stare at the old man, uncertain whether to believe him. The story ended on such a sour note. Maybe he made it all up.
The geezer gets up from the bench and takes one last long drag off his cigarette, now reduced to a fag end, then regretfully stubs it out. “Thanks for the smoke, sonny. It’s been good talking to you.”
“Ghosts are no more trustworthy than people. Knowing that now, I mind what I say.” The old guy takes a few steps, then turns back and says thoughtfully, “So, my young friend, even though I see all those ghosts standing behind you, I wouldn’t venture a guess as to what they have to do with you… I might just mention that the fat fellow with the blind left eye looks ready to rip you to shreds.”
My spine tingles and I quickly look behind me, but all I see are a few scraggly shrubs. When I turn back, the old man has already walked off, and although I want to chase him down, his words have left me glued to the bench.
The job I just finished for my client was taking out a banker at the marina. The banker was a great fat guy, and I wondered if my bullet could penetrate all that lard. Just kidding, of course; I killed him with one shot – blew his brains out.
My bullet entered through his left eye.