Doctor Fang handed the full autopsy report to the chief constable in the evening. The doctor was old-fashioned and preferred writing on paper. He hated the word processors and cursed the “demonic” huge printing machines every time he had to pass by the printing room, because their vibrations jarred his metal prosthetic leg.
Privately, Wan Zongran was on the doctor’s side. Writing helped him to clear his mind, whereas typing up his notes just made him sleepy, but the prefect was insistent on typed reports, claiming that it made everything look official. The onerous duty of transcribing handwritten notes to the database thus fell on those who were injured and those who were near retirement.
The night shift was just coming in, greeting the chief constable and the doctor with casual salutes before heading to the deputy chief constable. Kun De handed assignments to each of them before bidding goodnight to Wan Zongran and Doctor Fang, a folder tucked under his arm.
“You should go back early too, Chief,” Kun De chided quietly.
“I won’t stay long,” said Wan Zongran, and all three men pretended that he was not lying.
Wan Zongran was going through each piece of evidence again personally. Though the prefect had advised him to recuse himself from the case on the grounds of his close friendship with the de facto head of the Hu family, Wan Zongran had refused to step away from the investigation. He was not related by blood or marriage to the Hu clan, and everyone in the city knew someone from the household, so he could not be barred from the case for that reason alone.
“I suppose Prefect Wu is about to breathe down our necks now that a body has turned up,” the doctor said. “The annual review is approaching. He can’t risk an ongoing murder case.”
“High profile family, child abduction, now a confirmed homicide. It reflects poorly on him,” said Wan Zongran dryly. He set aside Kun De’s notes. It contained nothing he did not already know: Hu Yao, eight years old, grandson to the salt tycoon Hu Dingtian, abducted fourteen days ago from his room in the morning after breakfast.
The Hu family had sent out at least fifty men of their own, on top of the constables, to scour the entire prefecture. The manhunt had turned up scores of rumors and nothing concrete, until yesterday morning, when a pair of ashen-faced beggars came to the constables to report the corpse. Flipping through Doctor Fang's report, Wan Zongran forced aside his emotional response and focused on the dry facts.
“To put it bluntly, the victim died from blood loss. From the incisions, I'd say the perpetrator used a very sharp blade.” The doctor exhaled. “They removed his internal organs.”
Wan Zongran looked up at him, feeling sickened. Some questions had to be asked, and he hated having to ask them. “Was he alive when he was disemboweled?”
“As far as I can tell, yes.” Doctor Fang turned a few pages in the report in the chief constable's hands. “But there are traces of a heavy anesthetic, and the back of his skull was cracked, so it is very likely that he was unconscious, and then died from exsanguination.”
“Time of death… three days ago?”
“Judging by lividity and the discoloration of the veins, that would be my best guess, but blood loss would affect the usual markers. The maggots are between the first and second molt, so that’s the timeline we are working with.”
“Not a lot of blood found at the temple.”
“My best guess is that he was taken there after the deed to be discovered.” The doctor pointed to a different section in the report. “The wounds on his back, between the scapulae… I have no idea why they were there, but the incisions were made with a different blade than the one used for his insides.”
Three days. That was all that made the difference between a living boy and a dead child. Wan Zongran slammed the report onto the desk and buried his face in his hands. His breath was hot against the skin of his palms, and his jaw ached from tension. It was painfully difficult to keep his guilt and anger at bay. Two weeks of searching every nook and cranny, of checking every stray clue, of enduring through every sleepless night as he scoured report after report after report from the different districts in the prefecture...
Useless. Futile. Failure.
Doctor Fang gripped his shoulder and shook it lightly. “Zongran, we did everything we could.”
“Did we really do everything?” It was a rhetorical question. Wan Zongran knew he could have done more. He could have forced the prefect to call in the Justice Ministry, have the full might of the law and its enforcers behind it. Prefect Wu had not wanted to alarm the citizens “in case they panicked”, even though the case was already on everyone’s lips. Privately, Wan Zongran thought the prefect was only worried about his annual review.
“It’s not only a homicide, chief.” There it was, the doctor’s professionalism stepping in. It caught Wan Zongran’s attention.
“What do you mean?”
Doctor Fang opened the report to the fourth page. There were photos. “I found these symbols carved into his lower back.”
“Is it me or do these form a constellation?”
“It’s not you,” Doctor Fang murmured, his eyes darting at the other constables. “Something you can use in the investigation and to rule out the nuts. It’s the constellation of the Swallow. Another small mercy: no sign of sexual trauma.”
“Very small mercy, Doctor Fang.” He scanned through the report again, burning every injury and wound into his memory, and shut down his feelings ruthlessly. He must not let grief and horror cloud his judgment or slow down the investigation. There was much to research. “I'll send word to the other prefectures to look out for such symbols. Ritualistic killings could mean the rise of a cult. If another child is missing, we have to know. Everyone, pay attention!”
The constables on night shift looked up.
“I know you were eavesdropping on our conversation. You wouldn’t be constables otherwise. But you are not to repeat what you heard nor share what you see! If I hear any leaks, I will hunt down the person who opened his mouth and remove all his teeth. Then I will get creative! I want to be able to sift out the crazies who'll confess for no good reason from the actual murderer, and the only way is to restrict the flow of information. Is that understood?”
“Good. Everyone not on an active case, you're now on my team. Show of hands.” A quick count showed he had drafted eight constables. “Tonight, I want a list of every triad, gang, gate and sect in the prefecture, and a clear map of the territories they claim. I want to know where their leaders have gone the past two weeks, and if they have alibis not from their groups. I want to know if any strange religious group has set up shop in any of the districts. Ma Peng, you’re the night shift leader, you distribute the duties. I want progress reports on my desk before I come in in the morning so the day shift can continue with the investigation.”
“Yes, chief.” Ma Peng's round cheeks seemed to deflate slightly, but she was a conscientious woman, so Wan Zongran was certain he would receive the information he wanted.
Sinking back into his chair, he felt suddenly drained. The sound of papers shuffling and soft murmurs rose, and the doctor took the chair next to the chief constable's desk. Wan Zongran shut his eyes and sighed. “Doctor Fang, I swear I am not paid enough for this shit.”
“Yet here you are, chief.” Doctor Fang smiled paternally. He was one of the prefecture’s lead forensic examiners, and a respected doctor of the city of Ping An; he had mentored Wan Zongran from his first days as a lowly constable and taught him how to manage superior officers. “We have to warn people to keep an eye on their children though.”
“So, a public notice to remind parents to be vigilant and keep their children with them at all times, along with letters to the other chief constables around the empire.” The chief constable shook his head. A migraine was already starting to make its presence known. “Prefect Wu will think I've gone over his head when he finds out. Because I am going over his head with this. He's going to fire me.”
The doctor sighed and rose to his feet. “So have them send me any autopsy reports they have. You’re just calling in a favor for a coroner, and every constable worth his job knows he doesn’t turn down a request from the coroner.”
“Thank you, Doctor Fang.” Wan Zongran managed a small, humorless smile. “I don't know if I want the other chiefs to have reports. If they do, then there are child murderers across the empire. If they don’t, I have no leads to go on.”
“You’ll find the monsters, Zongran. You always do.” Doctor Fang patted the younger man's shoulder and left.
Brushing his fingers over the autopsy report, Wan chewed thoughtfully on the inside of his cheek. He wished he had the doctor’s confidence. There was much to do, but as he scanned the pile of papers on his battered and stained desk, he suddenly found himself wishing to be anywhere else but here in the office. With a heavy sigh, he locked the documents and reports in his drawer.
“Ma Peng, I’m going to visit the Hu family, see how they’re holding up.The datapad needs charging, so if you need me, send someone there.”
“Yes chief,” said Ma Peng, snapping off a salute without looking away from the map she and another senior constable had pinned up.
The ride over on his motorcycle took fifteen minutes, so when he reached, the sky still wore traces of gold and streaks of pink and mauve. Wan Zongran hesitated as he parked the vehicle in the sheltered lot outside the main building. How much should he share with his sworn brother? Professionally, he should not even be contemplating this question; this was an active investigation and Hu Yuan was a suspect, unlikely though it seemed. Privately, he wanted Hu Yuan to know everything he himself knew, which was not a lot, just so he could glean new insights from his sworn brother’s analysis. As he walked from the lot to the front door, he noticed that the lanterns for mourning on the tall signal posts were now white instead of the usual warm orange ones.
The main entrance was humble for their status, without the extensive adornment of multiple lanterns or exquisite carvings the other wealthy households have. Even the plaque over the door was simply their surname. However, anyone who arrived here would know that the Hu family had the favor of the imperial court, for that plaque was a gift bestowed by the Emperor himself. On either side of the main door were two lines of a poem from the great imperial poet Li Bai, painted in gold:
People today cannot see the moon of yore; the moon tonight once shone on the people before.
Wan Zongran had learned the words as a boy, though he did not really grasp the meaning behind them. Now, he comprehended a little better. As he stood at the door, his mind still gnawing at the dilemma of what to share with Hu Yuan, he thought about the poem, and wondered about the value of a human life compared to eternity.
The door opened. The manservant – Wan Zongran vaguely recognized him, though he could not recall his name – bowed and welcomed him in; Wan Zongran made a mental note that all the servants and employees of the Hu family were to interviewed again the next day.
Hu Yuan was in his study alone, with only a single candle in a colorful glass holder to illuminate the space. In front of him was a little bronze figurine around the size of Wan Zongran’s forearm.
“Zongran, I didn’t think you’d come.” Hu Yuan almost stood up, but the younger man waved him down.
“I told you I would drop in, and I have yet to break a promise to you,” said Wan Zongran. He picked up the figurine and examined it. It appeared to be a dragon, twisted around to bite its own tail. “What’s this?”
“A mechanical toy I’d got for Yao,” said Hu Yuan. “Here, let me show you.”
He inserted a key that had been on the table and turned it. As the key rotated, a series of clacking sounds came from the figurine, and then it suddenly fell open like a flower blooming to reveal a boy, armed with a spear and standing on little wheels. When Hu Yuan set it on the table, the little boy figure wove about in two circles until the mechanism wound down.
Wan Zongran was charmed. “Is that Nezha?”
“Yes,” Hu Yuan replied, smiling. “I’d been telling Yao the story, and he loved the part where Nezha beat up the dragon for threatening to flood the land. I had commissioned this for his birthday.” The smile faded and he inhaled sharply, swallowing.
“He would have loved it.” Wan Zongran put his hand over Hu Yuan’s and squeezed lightly, before drawing his hand back to fiddle with the toy. “Have you eaten?”
“I should be the one asking you that,” Hu Yuan said, chuckling, before he sighed. “I have no appetite. Father would be waking soon, and he’d be asking for Yao again, and the mere thought of-” He covered his mouth and then rubbed the bridge of his nose, his brow furrowed. “What have we done to deserve any of this?”
Nothing. You’ve done nothing to deserve this. Sometimes bad things happen to good people. Wan Zongran did not say anything. Instead, he perched on the side of the table and patted the top of his sworn brother’s head.
Hu Yuan laughed quietly again and peered up at him. “You remember I am older than you, right?”
“By less than a year,” said Wan Zongran. He ached to smooth away the lines he could see gathering in the corners of Hu Yuan’s eyes and around his mouth, to soothe the strain from his jaw, to knead away the tension he carried in his broad shoulders. Carefully, almost painstakingly, Wan Zongran leaned over and touched his forehead to Hu Yuan’s, holding his breath, and drew away again as he stood up. “You do not have to bear all of this alone, Yuan. You will always have me.”
“I cannot ask of you more than what you have already done, Zongran. I know how much time and energy you have spent trying to find Yao.” Hu Yuan clasped his hand around Wan Zongran’s forearm and clapped him on the back.
It would be so easy to step forward to hug him. Wan Zongran curled his toes in his boots and made himself smile. “I will find out who did this.” Then, briskly, he added, “There are a couple of things I need to do. First of all, I need to have my people interview your staff again, all of them. Doctor Fang has given us a time of death and I want to check for alibis. Secondly, I need to ask if Yao had… if he had something different from other children. Physically.”
Hu Yuan tilted his head. “Whatever do you mean?”
It was the worst attempt at appearing innocent that Wan Zongran had ever seen, and he understood why. In a low whisper, Wan Zongran said, “I saw your sister-in-law’s reaction to the two wounds in Yao’s back. I saw your reaction too. Yuan, did Yao have wings like his mother?”
Nodding reluctantly, Hu Yuan said, “We had him wear clothes that hid the wings so the other children in school would not make fun of them or try to pull on them.”
“Who else knew of the wings?”
“It was not something they were supposed to talk about.” If Hu Yuan sounded defensive, Wan Zongran saw no need to call him out on it. “The ones who did know, outside of the family, were the two maids dressing him, his wet nurse, the two manservants who escorted him to and from school, and the three sewing maids who made his clothes.”
“Eight members of your staff knew.”
“They had to. They were his servants.”
“Which means that everyone in the household knows.”
“It’s not like Xiang hides hers unless she goes out.”
And there it was, the expected yet painful stab of the knife that Hu Yuan wielded unawares. Hu Yuan hardly ever spoke his sister-in-law’s name, but when he did, it would be tender, protective, and far too revealing of his real feelings.
Pushing the bitter thought aside, Wan Zongran said, “Do you know if the servants told anyone outside of the household?”
“They know better than that,” said Hu Yuan, although he sounded uncertain. “Why? Because his wings were cut off?”
“Who in their right mind would try to abduct the only heir to the Hu family? Outside of the connections you have to the officials of the imperial court, you’re respected through the region, and your brother is… I hate to say it, but he is feared among those on the other side of the law. Your sister-in-law is the first student of the legendary Madam Bai. Killing Yao is begging for trouble of the worst kind, so they had to have been targeting him specifically.”
Hu Yuan blanched and collapsed against the back of his chair. “They wanted his wings.”
“They took the wings. Which means they either have exactly what they want, or they would target the next person who has wings.” It was Wan Zongran’s turn to sigh. “You should warn your sister-in-law.”