Valley of terror, p.29

Valley of Terror, page 29

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  “What do these things mean?” Luo couldn’t help asking.

  “You don’t know?” Lord An Mi looked Luo in the eye. “Didn’t you bring this map?”

  “Me?” Though Luo was intelligent, he was still confused.

  Lord An Mi was silent. Then he took out another object and handed it to Luo. “Do you recognize this?” It was an eight-inch penknife. Luo did recognize this object, as he had bought it before departing Longzhou.

  “That’s my camping knife,” Luo said softly. Then his jaw dropped. The knife was covered with blood that was not yet dry. The torches flickered, casting a somber glow around them.

  “Di Erjia is dead.” There was anger in Lord An Mi’s eyes. “Stabbed in the neck with this knife.”

  “You think that I killed him?” Luo gasped. “But you can see that I was just in the Valley of Terror.”

  “When you met with the priestess, Di Erjia came and reported it to me. I had him follow you out of the village, but he never came back. I sent two of my attendants to search for him an hour ago. They found his body on the mountain trail not far from here. The killer left this map with his body.” Lord An Mi stared at Luo and said coldly, “Since the beginning, I’ve told you that there are matters you shouldn’t involve yourself in. Now it seems that the situation has worsened well beyond your imagination.”

  Luo grasped the seriousness of the situation, and his mind spun. How had this happened? Since they’d arrived in the Hamo village, that knife had been stored in his backpack, so how could Di Erjia have been stabbed with it? Luo had been framed. Protesting too much would only further raise suspicions.

  Luo returned Lord An Mi’s gaze and told him frankly, “I only have two things to say: I didn’t kill Di Erjia, and I need to know what you are planning to do.”

  The fact that Luo was unfazed did seem to lessen Lord An Mi’s suspicion somewhat. He replied, “I’m going put you in the water dungeon until I find Di Erjia’s killer. Perhaps it was you, and perhaps it wasn’t. Until we know for sure, you won’t be harmed, but you can no longer be allowed to move freely.”

  Luo nodded. He knew that there was no negotiating with Lord An Mi.

  “No, Lord An Mi. You can’t do that,” Xu Xiaowen pleaded. “Trust me. He’s a friend of the Hamo people.”

  “Your Holiness,” Lord An Mi replied without a trace of emotion, “you may determine whether Shui Yidie lives or dies, but you have no authority to stop me from detaining this man. I am the leader of the Hamo people, and I must look out for the safety of the entire tribe.”

  Xu Xiaowen bit her lip. She seemed to want to say something more, but Luo’s stare stopped her.

  Luo turned his gaze to Lord An Mi and smiled politely. “Lord An Mi, though I know that I am innocent, I am not angered by your decision. In fact, if I were in your place, I would do the same thing. Before you take me to the water dungeon, I would like to have a few words with my friends. Would that be all right with you?”

  Lord An Mi nodded. But he added, “You may not leave the circle.”

  Luo slowly walked over to where Professor Zhou, Yue Dongbei, and Chief Bai stood. The three of them were Han people who had come to the Hamo village together. The expressions on their faces showed their unease.

  Yue Dongbei’s face was twitching. He managed an embarrassed smile. “Chief Inspector Luo, what happened? How did this happen?”

  Chief Bai sighed. “I believe you when you say you didn’t kill him.”

  Professor Zhou didn’t say a word. He simply looked at Luo and waited for him to speak.

  Luo scanned their faces. Then he said, slowly and clearly, “One of you has framed me.”

  Yue Dongbei waved dismissively. “No, I’d never do such a thing.”

  “What I’d like to know is if any of you went out on your own after the ceremony.”

  “I went to see some friends,” Chief Bai said casually, “but I didn’t leave the village. My friends will attest to that.”

  “That doesn’t mean that you were with your friends the entire time,” Yue Dongbei said to Chief Bai, then turned to Professor Zhou. “You left the house. What were you doing?”

  “I went for a stroll.” Professor Zhou let out an exasperated sigh. “To be honest, I just didn’t want to be in the same room as you. I didn’t go far. I went, and when I came back, you weren’t there.”

  “I just went to the bathroom. Apart from that, I didn’t go anywhere!” Yue Dongbei seemed embarrassed as he defended himself.

  “So you three weren’t together?” Luo raised an eyebrow. He hadn’t expected the situation to be this complicated. He lowered his head, thinking. “From now on, the three of you should split up.”

  “What?” Professor Zhou and the others looked at each other in confusion.

  “I’m talking about when you go to sleep at night,” Luo explained. “Otherwise, there’s a chance that one of you will harm the others.”

  Professor Zhou stared at him in alarm. “You’re saying that whoever framed you is conspiring against the rest of us?”

  Luo nodded. “In fact, when I discovered the body of that journalist who followed us, Liu Yun, I was already sure that the danger was lurking near. Liu Yun had wanted to tell me something, which is why he wanted to meet me alone and why he tried to carve that word on his arm. Since then, I’ve been on high alert, but now I have to go to the water dungeon, and perhaps that is what someone was hoping would happen.”

  Professor Zhou and the others were silent. They anxiously looked one another up and down.

  “But shouldn’t we stick together?” Yue Dongbei asked. “If there’s two of us, it’ll be easier to handle the third.”

  Luo shook his head. “No, it’s better to split up. Everyone has to watch out for themselves.”

  “Why?” Professor Zhou didn’t seem to understand, either.

  “With things as they are, I can’t keep my concerns to myself anymore.” Luo’s eyes shone as he turned his gaze to Chief Bai. “Chief Bai, if you have anything to get off your chest, now’s the time.”

  Chief Bai slowly raised his eyebrows. “Chief Inspector Luo, what exactly are you saying?”

  “Let’s take a look at the issue of Liu Yun, shall we? Why was he so cautious in Mihong?” Luo’s gaze swept over Professor Zhou’s and Yue Dongbei’s faces. “Why did he have to meet with me alone? I’ve been racking my brains, and there’s only one explanation: He discovered a secret that would have a much bigger impact on the situation. That was the case in Mihong, at least.”

  At first, Chief Bai was startled. Then he let out a dark cackle. “Chief Inspector Luo, are you accusing me of killing that journalist?”

  “It was just a suspicion, so I never came out and said it. But it would be wrong if I didn’t say anything at this point. If you have nothing to do with this incident, then I sincerely apologize. But”—Luo gave them all a severe look—“if my guess is correct, then the three of you shouldn’t stick together.”

  He’d made himself clear. If anything happened to Professor Zhou or Yue Dongbei, the killer’s identity would be revealed.

  With those words, he turned. “Lord An Mi, why don’t you handcuff me? I won’t resist.”

  Lord An Mi lifted a hand, and his four attendants tied up Luo and led him away.

  Luo couldn’t resist a cynical laugh. He’d never imagined that, after more than a decade of being a police officer, he would finally experience what it was like to be in jail.

  Chapter 31

  CLUES EMERGE

  When the first glimmer of dawn appeared that morning, most of the villagers were fast asleep, but one person quietly left the village. The tall, lanky man with thick brows was none other than Mihong’s village chief and Lieutenant General Bai’s descendant. Taking long strides, Chief Bai hurried back toward the place he’d been the day before and where he had agreed to meet the figure in black.

  Chief Bai placed two giant clay vessels on the ground, then silently waited. Before long, the figure in black appeared be
fore him.

  “Did you bring what I asked for?” The figure in black looked at the vessels, his tone forbidding.

  Deferentially, Chief Bai moved aside. “Yes.”

  The figure in black opened one of the vessels and examined its contents, then nodded, satisfied. “Very good. I will consider pardoning the Bai family for its crimes.”

  Chief Bai threw himself on his knees, bowing fervently. Then, after some time, he lifted his head. The figure in black was already gone.

  If this cursed business had been resolved earlier, I wouldn’t have to do this. I’d be living like an ordinary villager, he thought as he descended the hill on his way back.

  After three centuries of peace, the events of the past had come back to haunt the Bai family, and the consequences were tragic. According to the instructions handed down by his ancestors, subsequent generations of the Bai family were to reside deep in the mountains, where they alone would hold the secrets of the demonic powers that could manipulate minds and reinforce authority and wealth. Now the secret behind those powers was being uncovered, and the status held for dozens of past generations was being questioned. Someone had appeared out of nowhere with a plot to render it completely meaningless.

  Chief Bai was unable to accept the recent string of deaths as mere coincidence. He could even accept the fact that it had been karma. When his forefather Lieutenant General Bai began the first chapter in a series of karmic exchanges over three hundred years ago, it had been decided early on that the secret of their legacy would someday be buried once and for all.

  And now it had. It did not matter what this certain someone wanted as long as it finally came to an end.

  It was pitiful indeed, never knowing where one’s fate was headed next. As for Chief Bai, he hadn’t expected to run into Professor Zhou on the road.

  Professor Zhou was standing with his hands behind his back. His expression was flinty. “What were you doing in the mountains so early?”

  There was a pause. “I went to see him,” Chief Bai replied matter-of-factly. “I have to do whatever he says.”

  “You have to do everything he says?” Professor Zhou didn’t hide the fact that he was annoyed. “Are you an idiot? You’re going to be the death of us all. You need to get back over here and help figure out a way to get rid of him.”

  “Get rid of him?” Chief Bai cackled. “The forest is his empire. What can the two of us possibly do? He was confined to the depths of hell, and he managed to find a way to reincarnate. It’s the will of the heavens. They’ve allowed him to take revenge. The legacy of the past three hundred years is about to come to an end. Listen to me—the most sensible thing for you to do is to step aside. This is outside your area of expertise.”

  “‘Outside my expertise?’ How can that be?” Professor Zhou exhaled loudly. “Luo is incredibly perceptive and insightful. He’s managed to find evidence that he left behind and uncover all kinds of secrets. Does he seem to think that this is outside of my expertise?”

  “He’s locked away in the water dungeon! What can he do?” Chief Bai glared at Professor Zhou. “Do you think that getting rid of him will keep all these secrets hidden? The situation is quite to the contrary.”

  Professor Zhou narrowed his eyes. “What are you saying?”

  “He’s already drawn up the documents. If things don’t go according to plan, he’ll make the documents public,” Chief Bai said gravely. “That’s why our only recourse is to help him realize his wishes and pray that he shows us mercy.”

  “Is that so?” Professor Zhou’s face was deathly pale. “Does he know all of our connections?”

  “It’s not that serious.” When Chief Bai saw the look of despair on Professor Zhou’s face, he almost wanted to laugh. He patted Professor Zhou’s shoulder, then consoled him. “Just think about it. If he already knew, would he have let you go at Qingfeng Pass?”

  “Fine.” Professor Zhou was somewhat relieved. Then he noticed a faint smile on Chief Bai’s face.

  A few hours later, Luo was waking up inside the water dungeon that had previously held Shui Yidie. The ceiling and all four sides were lined with wooden slabs that provided no shelter from the wind or rain. With his hands tied, Luo lay on the cold, wet floor. When he opened his eyes, he saw a giant tree on the shore. One of its branches, which extended over the water dungeon, was swaying.

  Having struggled to fall asleep in such conditions, Luo could scarcely imagine how Shui Yidie managed to survive six months of detainment. It was both physically and mentally grueling. But Shui Yidie had persevered, and his ability to seize an opportunity to escape demonstrated a courage and will that was truly admirable.

  The one thing that consoled Luo was the fact that, despite his immobility and physical discomfort, his mind was still sharp. He had just awakened and felt somewhat rested.

  In his mind, he laid out all the clues and leads that had emerged since his trip to the Valley of Terror—from the past, from the present, in history, in folklore, in reality. Whatever connections he’d made so far had proved useless. If he looked at the big picture, there was no unifying explanation.

  There were also logical links that were missing. The various clues formed an intricate web tied together by preposterous myths, revealing only a glimpse of the truth.

  Luo already knew where the links ought to fit, but those were the areas shrouded in mystery. Over and over again, he closed his eyes and went over the events at Qingfeng Pass in his mind. He envisioned the dark fog, the bloodshot eyes that had stared at him, trying to get a clear picture.

  Who was he? What was he trying to do? That question was at the center of the entire mystery. Luo sensed that a major incident had occurred. And just when he was about to uncover the solution, he’d been framed. It was humiliating, and he hadn’t seen it coming. His adversary had been close and had concealed himself well. Figuring out the adversary’s identity was just a matter of time, so Luo had let his guard down, hoping his adversary would do the same and slip up. But Luo hadn’t expected him to launch a preemptive attack.

  Before being locked in the water dungeon, Luo had received permission from Lord An Mi to inspect Di Erjia’s body. Di Erjia’s head was turned to the left. He had apparently died from a wound to the nape of his neck on the right side.

  It was possible that, as Di Erjia walked by himself toward the forest, the attacker had snuck up behind him and put him in a headlock with his left arm, covering his mouth, then used a blade in his right hand to stab him—all in one swift motion.

  But Di Erjia was a formidable warrior, and executing such a maneuver would have been no easy feat. Among the three of them, only Chief Bai would have been capable of it.

  Indeed, in explaining his whereabouts the night before, Chief Bai had also been the least convincing. Before and after the ceremony for the priestess, he had claimed to have been visiting a few friends. What had he really been doing?

  Luo pondered these questions until noon, when Xu Xiaowen and Shui Yidie arrived, interrupting his thoughts.

  Two of Lord An Mi’s attendants were responsible for guarding the water dungeon, and one of them, who wore colorful robes, saw Shui Yidie. Both guards were slightly aloof and embarrassed, but upon seeing that the priestess was at his side, they remained on their best behavior. Shui Yidie, for his own part, was magnanimous.

  In a friendly tone, he told them, “My fellow Hamo warriors, I am grateful for all you have done to ensure the safety of our tribe, and on behalf of the priestess, I thank you.” His words were sincere, as if he’d already forgotten that, the night before, they’d been planning to take his life. This gesture put his counterparts at ease, and the two of them returned the greeting before politely informing Xu Xiaowen, “Your Holiness, we’ve been instructed by Lord An Mi to watch the prisoner and ensure that nothing unexpected happens.”

  “Luo is our friend. He is innocent. Lord An Mi will release him soon.” Xu Xiaowen stared at them, then added lightly, “But I won’t be troubling you. I’m only her
e to give him some food.”

  The two attendants stepped aside, but their eyes remained fixed on the basket in Shui Yidie’s hands.

  Luo scrambled to his feet and went over to the wooden bars. “It’s you.” He sounded relieved.

  “I brought you something to eat.” Xu Xiaowen switched to Mandarin, and her voice sounded warmer. “I tried to come sooner, but this morning something happened—one of your friends was killed.”

  “Who?” Luo was stunned.

  “Chief Bai.”

  Luo froze for a second, trying to work it out. Chief Bai’s secret—the Rain God statue—had been exposed, so perhaps he’d had his aides killed to make sure they wouldn’t talk. As it was impossible to defend himself now that suspicions had been raised within their own group, he had apparently decided that there was only one way to assert his innocence.

  Luo shook his head helplessly. “Where did it happen? How?”

  Xu Xiaowen gestured for him to wait, then glanced at her bodyguard. Shui Yidie presented a clay bowl filled with a meat dish that was still steaming hot. The aroma drifted through the air. Luo hadn’t eaten since the night before, and his stomach immediately began to rumble.

  Xu Xiaowen took the bowl from him, then looked at Luo wide-eyed. “Pardon me, Chief Inspector Luo, but there’s no way that I can untie your hands. Is it okay if I feed you?”

  Blushing, Luo looked down. But given the circumstances, there was no choice. He nodded.

  Xu Xiaowen flashed a smile and lifted a piece of meat through the fence, saying, “I’ll tell you everything I know about the situation. You don’t need to say anything. Just listen. Right now your job is to put some food in your stomach. After that, you’ll feel better, and you can help us capture this criminal.”

 

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