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Faced with Qingzi’s corpse, Tang Fan had to smile bitterly. “We were too careless!” he said to Sui Zhou.
The other frowned. “She took the blame for someone else, concealing the true murderer.”
Tang Fan nodded. “She admitted to it too readily just now. I thought that was fishy, so I wanted to interrogate her in detail after she was brought back. I just didn’t expect that she would be so determined as to instantly kill herself!”
“What did you remember just then?”
“The Eastern Depot! Even if she had devised the plan to kill Zheng Cheng herself, then nevermind how she managed to pilfer the money off of Zheng Cheng, or how she came to be well-versed in acupuncture — how was she, a brothel woman, able to get the Depot to intervene by snatching the corpse from your Office? That’s highly suspicious!”
Sui Zhou nodded, having obviously just thought of that as well.
The two were synchronized in many ways of thinking, making them have a very rare tacit understanding when investigating cases, different from others’.
“I will go check out the Eastern Depot,” Sui Zhou said.
Tang Fan understood. “I’ll continue to check her here.”
Sui Zhou nodded slightly. With nothing else said, he immediately left.
Tang Fan looked at Qingzi as she lay on the ground. She was as beautiful as ever now, but that peony-esque bearing from when she was a famed beauty was gone. A dagger stuck deep in her chest, her blood had already slowly congealed, with her body beginning to go stiff.
People died like candles extinguished. With one step into the river of yin and yang, everything was no more. How much money one had, peerless looks — those were all in vain.
Her committing suicide was plainly because she had been afraid of being questioned after entering the prison, thus getting the real killer behind this drawn out of her. Still, lone deaths had been challenging since time immemorial; for her to be able to make such a decisive act in such a short period of time, there clearly had to be someone or something that drove her to shield the murderer.
Yet, with her death, Tang Fan and them were truly cut off from the trail of clues. Could the investigation continue?
No matter how daring she had been, she had merely been a brothel woman, in the end. With her limited range of view, there was no way she could have thought too far ahead, only believing that everything would be resolved once she died.
He started to hypothesize from a different angle.
She had purchased a residence outside and wanted fiscal redemption; that wasn’t for herself, but for someone else. If it had been for herself, then she wouldn’t have committed suicide, because those that coveted life and feared death would not let it go, given that there was a thread of an opportunity to struggle free on death’s door. For that, she had to have done it for another.
It had been precisely because she knew that she had been found out, and no matter what conclusion she’d get from this, it wouldn’t be anything good. Considering that she might be unable to endure the torture and would reveal the truth, it would have been better for her to simply kill herself so that she could save the one behind the scenes.
The one behind the scenes…
Tang Fan stood up. “Old Wang.”
“You previously stated that Qingzi had a maid help her buy the house. Where is that maid now?”
“She wasn’t at Jubilance today, Sir. She must have been veered elsewhere. We had followed her for many days, though, and know where Miss Qingzi bought the house. I had Old Gao keep watch outside it, too!”
Tang Fan nodded appreciatively. “Go over there now and swap places with him for the watch. I have some things I want to ask him. Also, have people come prepare Miss Qingzi’s body for a coffin and bury her.”
Old Wang affirmed, leaving in a rush.
Old Gao soon arrived, then individually reported the gains from his days of tailing to Tang Fan. “Sir, the house is on Xiaobi Street, outside the city’s east. I asked the neighbors; the houses there aren’t expensive, but there’s one odd thing. After someone purchased that house, no one has ever moved into it.”
“Did anyone enter or exit?
“Apart from the maid, who hired someone to go clean it inside and out, no one was seen to do so.”
Tang Fan pondered this for a short moment. “That’s fine. Come with me for a trip there, I want to see it for myself.”
“That’s both a filthy and chaotic place, Sir,” Old Gao quickly said. “I fear that it’ll sully someone as noble as you!”
Tang Fan burst out laughing. “How am I noble? There are some things to be asked that won’t be crystal clear if I have you do it. I need to go there to be able to understand the situation, too.”
Not able to obstruct him now, Old Gao had no choice but to follow behind to leave with him.
After reaching the site, Tang Fan came to understand why old Gao had said what he said.
Xiaobi Street was actually in the slums.
Due to it being close to the mass burial mound outside the city, anyone with a teeny tiny bit of adequacy would positively refuse to live here. Over time, this had turned into a converging spot for people from all sorts of walks of life; not far away, a decrepit monastery was set up. Sewage overflowed nearby, flies buzzing about all around. Many of the peoples’ clothes were worn and patched. Compared to the dignity of the many-standing, major government bureaus inside the city, this place was like a different world.
In contrast, the clean, fair, and handsome, yet official’s-uniform-less Tang Fan looked weird standing there. In an instant, he attracted many different gazes. There was no lack of those with malice mixed within them, too.
However, Old Gao was following behind him, armed and in his bailiff’s outfit, so no one dared to mess around.
The two came before an old house.
“Sir, this is the house Qingzi had someone else buy.”
Placed within such an environment, Tang Fan knew that she had definitely not bought it for herself to live in. She was able to acquire five thousand silver in redemption money, so why would she do wrong by herself here? Furthermore, with her looks, if she really did want to stay here, she probably would’ve been about as safe as in Jubilance.
The courtyard was locked, but Old Gao was efficient in skill, having his own method of effortlessly getting the lock open.
Tang Fan pushed the gate aside and entered. Even though the inside had already been redecorated and tidied up, the scent of old rot still came through, as if it had formerly been coated in dust for many years.
Following behind him, Old Gao felt a chill in his heart. “This house is eerie, Sir. It’s likely no one lives here!”
“Old Gao, didn’t you run off to the burial mound and spend the night there once? How are you this spooked?” Tang Fan teased.
Old Gao chortled. “About all that… I was young and ignorant at the time, still peeing on peoples’ grave. Now, I wouldn’t dare to, even if I was given ten more notches of courage!”
The inside of the courtyard was vacuously bleak. Several old trees were lacking in spirit, standing withered, and more dead than alive. A wooden barrel was placed beside the well, but it looked just as decrepit as the yard, its bottom leaking water and cords all rotten.
Tang Fan stepped inside, pushing the door of the main building open, but had to pause.
Within the small building was no chairs or tea tables of any sort set up, but a single table in the center, some fresh fruits arranged atop it. Behind it were four neat memorial tablets — the center two raised up, the other two a little lower.
Approaching for a closer look, he saw that the fruits had been sitting there for some time, as they were a little soft when pressed. In regards to the timeframe, it could match up with the time Qingzi had hired someone to come and clean.
Four tablets naturally meant four people.
One for the passed father, Feng Maijian.
One for the passed mother, Lady Qin of Feng.
One for the second little sister, Feng Qing’an.
One for the fourth little brother, Feng Qingning.
It wasn’t hard to guess from the names on the tablet that Qingzi’s surname was likely Feng before she entered the brothel, and these people were her actual family.
The parents met an untimely death, the home broken with its people dead. Truly, it caused one to sigh.
However, in this world, there was no love or hate without reason. She had been in the brothel for so many years, the amount of customers she had received as unknowable. He didn’t believe that she would kill Zheng Cheng purely because she couldn’t stand him, thereby shouldering a human life.
Father, mother, second sister, fourth brother.
What had Qingzi’s seniority ranking in the family been?
If she was the eldest daughter, where had the third Feng child gone, then?
He mumbled to himself for a bit. “Old Gao!”
“Hey. What’s your command, Sir?”
“Didn’t you previously ask around the neighborhood about the family here? Did you ask about the home’s former owners?”
“I did, but this area was completely burnt down by a huge fire several years ago. Many of the original residents either died in it, or moved away. Only one elder had a slight memory of there once being a family here a decade or so ago, with the surname Feng. Later on, they had committed some unknown crime, and authorities came by one night. The men of the family were forcefully enlisted and banished, while the women took ill and died. Quite the tragedy… the house was then sealed up, and he didn’t dare to ask more about it. Afterwards, everyone said that it was haunted, so no one dared to live there!”
Tang Fan frowned. “Was it for sure over ten years ago?”
“He couldn’t remember entirely,” Old Gao quickly answered, “but he reckoned that it should have been thirteen or fourteen years back. On account of them saying that Qingzi had been sold to the brothel at age six, and her presently being nineteen, wouldn’t that just happen to correspond?”
Tang Fan mulled it over for a long time. “Come on,” he abruptly said, “we’re going back to the Prefecture!”
“Ah? You don’t want to look around?”
“No need for that. I’ve got a gist.”
While he talked, he swiftly walked out. Old Gao turned to look back at the tablets, and that shadowy room, then couldn’t help but shudder, busily quickening his pace to leave.
The moment Tang Fan returned to the Prefecture, he went straight for the files from thirteen years back.
Being located at Shuntian Prefecture had an advantage; as the supreme administrative organization in charge of the capital region, no matter the size of any incident, all would be filed into separate categories.
He concentrated on major or important cases that were compiled from thirteen years ago. Unfortunately, he researched the night through, but found no information about the Feng’s offense.
Noticing that the sky had the glimmers of dawn in it, he then became aware that his eyes were incomparably aching, and his head was heavy.
Could it be that he was looking in the wrong direction?
Thirteen years ago was the first year of Chenghua, where the current Emperor ascended to the throne.
He held his head and tried to think back. What had happened that year?
Following the deaths of his parents, he set out alone to wander in his studies; he had some knowledge in regards to all the world events, not at all like those eggheads that would only read books unto death. The Feng family got into a situation where all their men were banished to the army, so it must have committed an extremely serious crime; and if they didn’t do the crime themselves, they were involved in it.
He wrote a couple words down, stroke by stroke, onto a white paper.
First year of Chenghua, Feng.
“Sir,” Verifier Du Jiang stood outside the door to report, “Gonfalon Sui of the Northern Bastion Office has arrived, and is waiting to see you outside.”
Tang Fan couldn’t help but smile, sitting up straight. “Invite him in, quick!”