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Hanged corpses and strangled corpses were not identical, as intersecting strangulation marks would appear on the back of the necks of the latter. In addition to that, anyone getting strangled was certain to put up a violent fight prior to their death; even if there were no scratch marks from fingernails on the neck, there had to be other bumps and bruises from the struggle on the body. This fact had long been detailed in the Northern Song’s Collected Cases of Injustice Rectified.
For a coroner at average level, it still wasn’t difficult to distinguish between suicide and strangulation, doable just by re-reading the Collected Cases until they were familiar with it.
In regards to this outcome, Tang Fan wasn’t surprised at all, because from how he saw it, Lady Zhang had been a kind person that was harmless by nature. People of said nature were always patient, obedient, and observant of worldly Confucian etiquette as normality, abiding by them subconsciously. Before he brought that pretty woman back, Li Man already had two concubines; while he hadn’t seen how Lady Zhang had been towards them, even if she was angry and heartbroken, her running off to hang herself over this was an impossibility.
Were her personality to turn a bit fierce or extreme, that would be a possibility. Or, she would gun straight for the husband, like Lady Sun’s type.
That was why the probability that she had killed herself was not very great.
Since it hadn’t been a suicide, the murderer needed to be found, and those in the Li family were no longer in charge of this matter.
As he lived next door, it was according to both emotion and logic that Tang Fan would be the one going to take a look.
This time, however, he didn’t go alone like how he had in the morn, but rather ordered Old Wang, Verifier Du Jiang, and several bureau bailiffs to proceed forward with him.
Lady Zhang’s corpse had been placed in the middle of the Li’s lobby. The Deputy and Registrar of Wanping were present together, with the County’s own coroner also nearby.
The County served directly under Shuntian Prefecture, so they knew of Tang Fan. Upon seeing him arrive, they both uniformly greeted him with bows.
“You two don’t have to be so polite. What progress have you made?”
“The Li’s have all said that they didn’t see any suspicious people entering their Mistress’s room for that night,” the Deputy replied. “Only those two maids were on night watch, and we’ve already arrested them. Will you question them, Sir?”
“Where are they?”
The Deputy had the two escorted over. Since Ah-Chun and Ah-Xia were frail women, there was no need to bind them, and someone kept watch on them from behind. They simply looked downcast, and worse than they had been in the morning.
The Deputy succinctly stated the details from his own interrogation. Truthfully, it was the same content that Tang Fan had long since known, and there was nothing new to hear.
Li Man observed with a cool eye for a long while, until he finally couldn’t resist stepping forward. “You showing off your governmental authority like this has made my home into a mess, Sir Tang. Are you quite satisfied with this?” he asked, furious. “Since you couldn’t find anything, why not let us complete my wife’s funeral arrangements so that she can enter the earth and be at peace soon?!”
“Cease being rude, civilian!” the Deputy shouted. “Now that this is a homicide case, it’s no longer a familial matter of yours! The authorities will be assuming control over Lady Zhang’s body until the truth is out!”
Li Man sneered. “She died horribly, and I’m grieving immensely, too! How can you just block the funeral?! All of you are mistreating everyone in my Li family! My grandfather had once been a third-rank, and a couple of his old senior friends are still in Court; if I file a complaint because of this, none of you will ever stop suffering responsibility for it!”
Both the Deputy and Registrar were displeased that a merchant dared to menace them, but they were also uncertain about how true the other’s words were. Therefore, they both looked at Tang Fan — because among the three of them, he was the highest rank, so it was only natural that he would be the leader.
Tang Fan chuckled. “I’m not sure who those old friends you speak of are. Why don’t you tell us? Maybe this official knows them, too.”
Li Man paused, then softened his tone into a pleading one. “Sir, this commoner isn’t purposefully trying to make a scene. It’s simply that the weather is hot right now, so storing the body won’t be easy. She has helped me manage the household for decades with no credit for her hard work… your investigation is your business and has nothing to do with me, but I just hope that she’ll be able to be at rest as soon as possible so that she won’t be deceased with open eyes under the Nine Springs. The dead are to be respected; that’s proper justice. Surely, you can empathize with that, Sirs?”
Before Tang Fan could answer, he kept going. “This commoner has inside information to make clear. Please, Sir Tang, take a step to the side with me for a talk.”
Li Man stared at Tang Fan with ardent hope, and the latter nodded. “Alright. Lead the way.”
Li Man brought him into a neighboring room. Without another word, he knelt down with a thud.
“I actually don’t have any secret information pertaining to my wife’s death. This here is a written plea I’m presenting; please look it over!”
He offered the folded paper up with both hands.
Tang Fan took it, but it felt heavy in his hand, and he opened it up to take a look. Pressed between the layers of white paper were dozens of Huitong-issued silver banknotes; some were for a hundred taels, some for fifty. They overall totaled to at least somewhere around two-thousand taels.
It had to be known that in this era, one tael of silver could buy two or more dan(100kg) of rice. Two-thousand taels was therefore equivalent to being able to buy over four-thousand dan(200,000kg) of rice, while truesecond-rank officials, like Ministers of the Six Ministries, only got sixty-one dan(3,050kg) each month.
Given that there were poor people, there would thus be rich people. For a successful merchant such as Li Man, two-thousand taels was not a figure he couldn’t withstand. When Feng Qingzi wanted to redeem herself before, she needed to get five-thousand taels, which hadn’t been a very high condition from the bawd at all; in the opinions of those truly rich, five-thousand taels was a trifle.
However, to low-salaried Dynasty officials, two-thousand taels was really a massive amount.
Tang Fan held the banknotes, smiling fakely. “What? Is this a bribe of yours?”
“How could I dare do that?!” Li Man quickly cupped his hands. “I heard Old Li say that my family has received your care for many years, Sir Tang. This humble one is moved to tears yet incapable of compensating you, so this is a minor token of my appreciation that doesn’t sufficiently convey my respect. I hope that you accept it.”
Tang Fan weighed the notes in his hand. “Are you hoping that this case won’t be looked into, then?”
Li Man smiled painfully. “My wife’s death pains me terribly all the same. You want to investigate, Sir, so I naturally don’t dare to obstruct you. I merely hope that our family can pass a couple of days in peace. If you gents keep stopping by nearly every day, not only will the funeral never get done, but all of the servants will likely get anxious, and not be of the mind to work!”
Tang Fan nodded, putting the notes into his lapels. “I understand your intent.”
With that, he turned and left.
Seeing that he accepted them, Li Man knew that the matter was over with. He couldn’t help but be overjoyed, hurriedly following after him.
As it went, the two returned to the hall. The Deputy and Registrar both greeted Tang Fan and asked for his opinion. “Sir, should the case still be investigated, or no?”
“Of course it should. Why wouldn’t it be?” Tang Fan oddly countered. “The murderer is present, even. Are you two planning on letting the real killer get away with it?”
They were hugely shocked. “Where?”
Tang Fan pointed at Li Man. “Is this not him?”
Before Li Man could speak, he then shouted, “Come! Bind him!”
He had brought his own people from Shuntian, and thus didn’t need to trouble Wanping County’s people with doing this. Once they heard Tang Fan’s command, Old Wang and his crew immediately affirmed, strode forward, pulled Li Man’s arms behind him, then tied him up securely with a rope.
“You…! How dare you falsely accuse a good person?! You treat human lives like common grass! I’ll report you! I’ll go report you!” It was entirely unexpected to him that Tang Fan would go turncoat so readily. Both alarmed and furious, he struggled like his life depended on it.
Tang Fan raised a brow. “I’ve falsely accused a good person? Not necessarily. You had the gall to kill your primary wife, so how good of a person can you really be? If you refuse to comply, that’s fine. Keep calm, don’t get impatient, and allow me to explain this piece by piece to you.”
He turned to question Ah-Chun. “Is the jade earring I handed you that day still around?”
“Yes. I placed it back into the Madam’s dressing box,” she answered.
“Go bring it out.”
She affirmed, stood up, left, then brought the box back over. “It’s in the last compartment, Sir Tang.”
He opened the drawer, discovering the lotus-jade earring inside.
Indicating for her to set the box down, he then took out an identical earring out from his lapels.
Ah-Chun cried out in surprise. “You found the other one?”
Tang Fan nodded, raising the earring up high. “I found it under the bed of your Madam’s room. When you all were in her room on typical days, did you ever joke around by chasing each other?”
“Of course not. She was kind-hearted, but there’s distinctions between master and servant. Rules are in place there. We couldn’t be impudent.”
“Then, did she normally have a habit of dancing around or getting up to wander around at night when she went to bed?”
“That’s even less possible. Her sleeping posture couldn’t have been better. Sometimes, she wouldn’t even turn in her sleep the whole night.”
“I’ll ask you again; from what you said earlier, in the middle of the night, you had gone into the outer room to shut the window, didn’t you?”
“Did you enter the inner room then?”
“No, I only shut the outer window. Ah-Xia was the one that went to check the inner room.”
He then asked Ah-Xia, “When you went in, did you notice anything unusual?”
“N-No. Her back had been turned to me at the time, and there was a blanket covering her body. It seemed like she was in a deep sleep, so I didn’t get in close for a look because I was afraid of disturbing her.”
“Did you ever take a look under the bed?”
She shook her head. “It’s covered by bedsheets, and is generally only pushed open when cleaning to get under there.”
“A woman is sleeping by herself in her boudoir, and doing so extremely deeply. Then, she accidentally drops her earring onto her pillow. How could one also fall into the depths of the underbed for no reason? There’s only two explanations for this: your Madam didn’t accidentally drop the earring at all — it got flung off of her ear due to the fierce struggle she gave while someone was strangling her, fell to the floor, and then was accidentally kicked under the bed by the killer!”
Ah-Chun turned pale. “Could it be that the murderer… had been under the bed?”
“No. When you went in and shut the window, the murderer happened to have jumped out and escaped. If I haven’t guessed incorrectly, you only had the mind to look out the window, and neglected to examine the bushes below it?”
“Y-Yes, I had peeked out the window into the garden at the time. I heard cats meowing, so I thought that the window had been left open earlier, causing a stray to run inside…”
“My wife and I were married for decades!” Li Man started shouting. “We were harmonious as could be, and deeply affectionate! She was virtuous and kind! Why would I want to kill her?! You subpar official! You’re relying on these made-up conjectures to randomly decide that I’m the murderer! I’m definitely going to report this to the Ministry of Justice and Court of Judicial Review so they can right this wrong! You won’t be terrorizing anyone from our Li family!”
“You’ve indeed been married for decades and had once been in harmony together, but because things change with times those feelings went from strong to weak,” Tang Fan answered mildly. “Then, you started to regret that your capital had been vanished and career for the imperial exams relinquished for her sake. You had taken a wife that couldn’t bear children, so, egged on by a young and pretty concubine, you had the thought to divorce her and take someone new as a wife. However, because someone in Lady Zhang’s natal family is an official, you feared that you couldn’t divorce her, lest they all became enemies with you. For that reason, since you might as well go all the way with it, an evil thought sprang to your mind, and you promptly struck first and killed her. Isn’t that right?”
Li Man laughed coldly. “It’s not! Of course it’s not! You slanderer! When she died, I was obviously somewhere else, and only hurried back today! Since I wasn’t here, how could I kill her?!”
Tang Fan looked coldly at him. “You had the guts to do it, but not the guts to now admit it. Are you still not aware? The sole on your right foot has already exposed you.”
That statement caused everyone to automatically look at Li Man’s shoes. Even he couldn’t resist lowering his head to look.
Old Li stooped over, plainly removed Li Man’s right shoe, then passed it to Tang Fan.
Tang Fan flipped it over. “What you said was correct; you genuinely did come from elsewhere. However, you didn’t get back only today. You must have done so a couple of days in advance in order to fabricate proof that you weren’t here, for the sake of avoiding suspicion that you had killed her. However, your shoes have sold you out.”
Not waiting for Li Man to talk, he continued. “You were scared that you would leave evidence or footprints behind when you snuck back to kill her, so you deliberately wiped your shoes clean ahead of time. Too bad that that was the wrong thing to do! Traversing thousands of li should make one’s soles extremely dirty, so why are yours so clean? Don’t tell me that you finally managed to return after traveling for endless days, yet weren’t in a hurry to get home, instead finding a place to get your shoes cleaned first?!”
Tang Fan lightly sneered here. “For that matter, right before you jumped out the window, you accidentally made a noise. You got worried that Ah-Chun and Ah-Xia would find you out when they went to inspect, so you jumped in a panic, resulting in the heel of your shoe rubbing harshly against the sill on the wall. I already found that imprint — it matches this area of abrasion on your shoe exactly!”
He threw the shoe onto the floor, went to sit in a chair, then pointed at Lady Zhang’s coffin. “Say it! In the presence of your wife, explain why you would want to do such a thing! She had been married to you for decades, and even if she couldn’t have children, she had still been virtuous to the utmost of her abilities. Not only did she manage the household for you, but she didn’t even restrict you from taking concubines and having children with them, and treated your concubine-born son like her own. This profane world restricts women terribly, but there are very few that could achieve her level!”
His face darkened, voice going harsh. “What dissatisfied you so much, that you went and killed your own wife?! Are you still human?!”
Denial was useless at this point. Li Man’s face went blank. He only began to answer after a long time had passed. “You think I wanted to? When she married me, she was eighteen, and I was twenty. Our personalities agreed, we were mutually respectful, and other people were endlessly envious of our good fate.
“When I was thirty, her maiden family met with hardships and needed a lot of money. She had three siblings, but not one of them could be counted on. At the time, I was still studying hard. All of my household savings were ancestral properties, and in order to help her family get through the crisis, I grit my teeth, sold them off, and gave her the money. Meanwhile, I had to give up on the imperial exams, use my remaining savings as capital, then switch over to business. Only then could our financial situation gradually improve.
“At that time, we had been married for ten years, but there were still no children at our knees. After I repeatedly asked for it, she finally relented and agreed to a concubine being taken in — that was how Li Lin now came to be. Whenever I go out on business, I frequently need to communicate and socialize, but Lady Zhang was completely illiterate, and there would be no use in her going with me. She looked virtuous, but in reality, the two concubines she got for me were either lacking in looks, or just as unread as her. Only my new concubine, Lady Chen, knows how to navigate such things well, and is tender and virtuous on top of that. When I’m working, she can also help me by socializing with the women of officials and businessmen. I’ve had several huge purchases lately, and her contribution towards them all had been indispensable.”
The translator says: All of the husbands in this story so far have been shit, but this guy is particularly shit.