Valley of terror, p.37

Valley of Terror, page 37

 

Valley of Terror
 



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  “Oh, all right. That makes sense.” Professor Zhou nodded. There was a glint in his eyes. “But is that all?”

  “Shoes,” Luo said. “Your shoes.”

  Professor Zhou frowned and looked at his feet. He was wearing hiking boots. Though they had been through water and across rough terrain over the past few days, there was nothing unusual about them.

  Yue Dongbei scratched his head in confusion. “What about his shoes?”

  “Not this pair. The old pair,” Luo prompted him. “Among the three of us, only you brought an extra pair of shoes. Then a hole got burned in them.”

  Professor Zhou laughed. “But what does that prove? I burned the hole myself? So that I could wear my new boots?”

  “Let’s back up and take a look at the sequence of events in Mihong. Liu Yun arrived on the day of the Rain God ceremony. That afternoon, when we were ‘invited’ to see Chief Bai, Liu Yun went into our room. That evening, your old shoes got burned. The next morning, I went looking for Liu Yun, and you headed to Chief Bai’s place, supposedly ‘to help him prepare.’ Liu Yun was following me on the road, but then I ran into you, Professor Zhou. Liu Yun saw you and fled, then tried to make arrangements to meet me alone. I’ve realized now that it’s because you and Chief Bai divulged some secrets during your meeting that morning—perhaps your plans for Yue Dongbei and me?—that Liu Yun wanted to warn me about. But how did Liu Yun know what you two talked about? That question had me stumped for a long time. It wasn’t until we got back to Kunming last night that I suddenly remembered your shoes. I found something in the tongue of the left one.”

  Luo extended his right hand. In his palm was a tiny disc like a watch battery. “Liu Yun planted this bug in your new shoes, then made sure your old ones were ruined. He originally wanted to eavesdrop on our conversations so he could publish more salacious stories. He never expected to uncover secrets that would endanger even himself. When Liu Yun arranged to meet me alone, you immediately sensed that something was wrong and insisted on coming along to ‘protect’ me. Then, when Chief Bai delayed the start of the trip, you were strangely rude to him. You didn’t know it at the time, but the delay was because, at the time of our appointment, Chief Bai was hunting down Liu Yun.”

  “Interesting. Interesting.” Professor Zhou eyed the device. “But these bugs don’t record. They only transmit sound, isn’t that right?”

  Luo nodded. “That’s right.”

  “Then there’s no real evidence for anything you’re saying,” Professor Zhou sneered. “I’m disgusted by your allegations!”

  Yue Dongbei gazed expectantly at Luo, desperately hoping that he was about to drop an even bigger bomb. “But why would Professor Zhou do all that? What was his motive?”

  “Right. Motive.” Luo cleared his throat. “I struggled with that myself until I finally had the opportunity to talk with Li Yanhui. Having learned about your plans from Chief Bai and his aides when they captured him, he helped me connect all the pieces. Mr. Yue, you must be puzzled right now, but let me explain it all to you from the beginning.

  “A year or so ago, a celebrated psychiatry professor came across your fascinating historical work. But what interested him were not the mysteries of General Li’s life and death, but the man’s so-called demonic powers. He deduced that these powers were the product of some hallucinatory substance. To learn more, he traveled to the Yunnan border, where he met a man whose family had been trying to obtain those powers for generations: Chief Bai. Chief Bai brought him to the Valley of Terror, and the two of them eventually found a substance that could induce certain sensations that were both stimulating and pleasant. The professor then had the idea of producing a new drug that, with the aid of Chief Bai, would be put on the black market in Yunnan, with the two parties sharing the profits.

  “But there was one problem. The drug’s side effect was extreme phobia, which meant additional research and development was required. The professor gathered samples and returned to Longzhou. He then went back to the valley in February to test the drug on the Hamo tribe. In August, the professor used a more developed version of the drug to conduct a larger-scale test in Longzhou. He distributed the drug at schools, hotels, and other places where all kinds of people gather, allowing it to be tested on a wider demographic. Most people experienced its intended effects as a recreational stimulant, while a small number—and all of those who received a large dose, as we did—succumbed to extreme phobia. These people, of course, became the professor’s patients as well as his research subjects—except for those unlucky few who died and brought the whole mess to my attention.

  “Oh, and I forgot about the Hamos’ sacred blood vial. Li Yanhui had gotten it from Ya Kuma, so it fell into the hands of Chief Bai and his men when they captured him. Most likely, this same professor brought the vial to Longzhou and arranged for it to be sold on the black market, hoping for a little extra money even before the drug was in full-scale production. What terrible luck for him that I accidentally shot it—a million dollars lost and a meddling detective and historian in his way! You see, when we traced the origins of the blood vial to the Valley of Terror, the professor was with us the entire way, for his objective was to conceal the truth. In the process, he was willing to resort to any means necessary, including killing his own ally, Chief Bai.”

  After he finished speaking, Luo turned to Yue Dongbei, whose eyes were wide and whose mouth was gaping. He stared at Professor Zhou with genuine terror in his eyes.

  Professor Zhou glared at Luo. “A fascinating theory. But you still haven’t produced a shred of hard evidence!”

  “Yesterday, I called the bureau and had them search your lab. They found some suspicious substances, which they then tested. The substances produce both stimulant and phobia-like effects.”

  “Ah.” With a bitter laugh, Professor Zhou shook his head. “It’s normal to have these kinds of substances in my lab. There’s no way you can prove that those are linked to the powers from the Valley of Terror. Chief Inspector Luo, your evidence is missing a crucial link.”

  “This link?” Luo reached into his backpack and pulled out a dark, round object covered in mud.

  All the blood drained from Professor Zhou’s face.

  “Professor, if the substances in your lab contain the same components that are in this, I’m sure the judge can draw his own conclusions.” Though his tone was nonchalant, Luo knew he’d dealt Professor Zhou a fatal blow.

  “What—what is that?” Yue Dongbei reached out and touched the object.

  “It’s the fruit produced by the blood of ghosts. But it grows on the roots. According to Li Yanhui, the demonic powers originated in the ancient cemetery. But Professor Zhou here only cut off the stalks for us to bring back for testing, when a scientist would surely know to take the whole plant. Plus, there were the human bones we found—someone had been digging. So, before we left, I went back and found these.”

  Luo stopped. He turned his head and looked out the window. The plane had begun its descent.

  “Professor Zhou, I hope you have everything you need. Someone is waiting for you,” Luo said, pointing toward the tarmac.

  Standing in the sun, Luo’s team waited in their police uniforms, a swath of darkness that was, in fact, full of light.

  Epilogue

  Yue Dongbei sat across from Luo in his office at the police station with a stunned look on his face, having just heard all the rest of the story about Lieutenant General Bai’s deceit and the Hamo people’s tragic mistake.

  By now, Luo was well acquainted with Yue Dongbei’s melodramatic ways. He quietly waited for a gleeful, smug expression to appear before the man launched into his usual blustering.

  But this time, something completely unexpected came out. “Why didn’t you take her with you?” Yue Dongbei blurted out.

  There was a silence before Luo responded. “What?”

  “That woman, Xu Xiaowen. Why didn’t you take her with you? You already know the holy war business is a sham. Why did
n’t you expose it? How can you stand to let a lovely young woman endure such suffering? And what about General Li and Li Yanhui, whose reputations have been slandered?”

  “I’ve told you everything, and you now can rewrite the history of General Li so that everyone recognizes his rightful place as a hero—which was Li Yanhui’s wish. But you must promise that no one, including you, will ever let this book fall into the hands of the Hamo tribe, for it will overturn their way of life.” Luo paused. “As far as Xu Xiaowen is concerned, it’s her choice to stay in the village and guard the secret. She would never abandon her people amid such tragedy—”

  “She can’t do it, but you can!” Yue Dongbei interrupted him, his face flushed. “All you need to do is reveal the truth and everything will come to an end, and no innocent, well-meaning person will have to be enslaved by this huge secret. You have to help her! I really can’t believe you actually left her there on her own!”

  Yue Dongbei’s words touched a sore spot in Luo’s heart. After a long silence, he smiled bitterly. “I know what you’re saying, but—I can’t do it. Trust me, if she’d given even the slightest hint that it was what she wanted, I would have taken her away in a second. But her mind was made up. What right do I have to impose my own selfish desires on someone else?”

  “You’re going to regret it.” For the first time, it was Yue Dongbei’s turn to scold Luo. “When you’re my age, which will be sooner than you think, you’ll regret it. A nice girl came into your life, and you had a chance with her, but you made the wrong decision. Someday you’ll find yourself drunk and muttering to yourself, wondering what could have been if you hadn’t been such a lowly coward. It doesn’t matter what you go on to achieve in life—it’ll happen all the same.”

  A lowly coward? This was the first time that Luo had ever heard himself described that way. His mind was spinning.

  “All right. I’m going to rewrite General Li’s biography, and I will keep my word. But Chief Inspector Luo, my opinion of you has changed today. You’ve disappointed me.” Yue Dongbei huffed before getting up and leaving.

  Luo was astounded. He stood up and walked over to the window, where he felt a gentle breeze on his face. Before leaving the Hamo village, he had paid one last visit to Xu Xiaowen, and their conversation was burned into his mind.

  “Is it worth it to you, to keep living this lie?”

  “If it were only about me, of course not. But when I think of my sister, or of Li Yanhui, or of the tribespeople, what am I supposed to do? You may think of it as living a lie or even a hideous fraud, but that’s because you don’t understand our village. You met Meng Sha, who tried living in the city, didn’t you? Have you seen how people like him, whose beliefs were so shaken they left the village, have fared? My people are not like your people. In the outside world, there are plenty of people who have no beliefs whatsoever, and all of you can live that way. But the Hamo people have nothing other than their beliefs. Even if those beliefs are false, the tribespeople still need them. If those pillars were to crumble, I simply can’t imagine how harsh and cruel the world would be for us.”

  With those words, “my people” and “your people,” she had made it clear: They stood on opposite sides of a chasm. No matter how much time passed, whenever Luo recalled that conversation, his heart still ached.

  Exhaling slowly, he gazed at the horizon in the far distance. On this clear, beautiful day, how many others out there were living a lie?

  AFTERWORD

  First manuscript completed on October 27, 2006, in Yanjiao, Hebei Province

  Over six months, from April to October, I completed Valley of Terror, my longest work to date.

  I started out trying to write an ordinary novel, with no intention of ever making it this long or making use of this much historical information.

  Then something happened at the end of May.

  I was writing chapter 7, and I needed to know the legend surrounding the demonic powers, as well as the history of the Southern Ming’s resistance against the Qing forces. When I searched online, I became intrigued by Li Dingguo.

  The aloof orphan turned a loyal, steadfast man / Reaching for the sky, he single-handedly took it in his grasp / Making his name in the Battle of Mopan / A light concealed among shadows, his true brilliance is matched only by the sun.

  —An ode to General Li written by a late–Ming Dynasty literati scholar

  He is no less than a tragic personage. If you browse through the historical information on him, you’ll find that he possesses all the qualities of a hero: fierceness, resourcefulness, ambition, righteousness. And yet he seemed to have been born in the wrong place and at the wrong time. Li Dingguo was born into the peasant army that staged a rebellion during the late Ming Dynasty, and after the Qing government came into power, he demonstrated astute judgment in taking the big picture into account, forming an alliance with the remaining Southern Ming troops to build a resistance. It resulted in major victories in Guangxi and Hengzhou that left two famed princes dead and devastated an army comprising tens of thousands. For the Ming forces, those victories marked an unprecedented triumph over the Qing army.

  Sun Kewang, the Southern Ming warlord, held sway at the time, but he felt threatened by Li Dingguo’s military might. He wrote a letter inviting the general to Yuanzhou to discuss war strategies, but it was a ploy. General Li realized this, and in order to avoid internal conflict, he withdrew his troops from Hunan and headed to Liangguang. Sun Kewang sent his forces to Hunan, where the Qing army annihilated them.

  Li was a brilliant strategist. Having a breadth of firsthand experience, he launched an offensive from Guangdong, then reached out to Zheng Chenggong, who had been occupying Taiwan. During a bloody siege that hardly lasted six months, the surrounded Qing army was all but decimated. But Zheng Chenggong, out of sheer self-interest, had been slow to dispatch his own troops, and before they arrived, the Qing reinforcements were already there. Li’s troops struggled against them, losing their entire front line, though they managed to recapture Guangdong. Adhering to their plans and forging ahead to Jiangnan, the troops were dealt a massive defeat. The Southern Ming’s hopes of restoring its power had once again been thwarted.

  Sun Kewang accelerated his efforts at capturing the throne. Two years later, he assembled an army of more than 140,000 to put down General Li, who found himself isolated by this move until his lieutenant general, Bai Wenxuan, joined him. In the end, Sun Kewang and twenty-some other officials fled to Changsha and surrendered to the Qing.

  The Southern Ming’s enormous power had been greatly diminished by internecine strife. The Qing army made Duo Ni its commander, while Wu Sangui, Zhuo Butai, and Hong Chengchou carried out a three-front assault. Sun Kewang’s remaining troops seized the occasion to revive internal rivalries. Beset with difficulties inside its ranks as well as across enemy lines, the Southern Ming troops experienced an upheaval from which they were never able to recover.

  Amid such dire circumstances, General Li managed to rebuild his ailing army. He selected six thousand soldiers to stage an ambush at Mopan Mountain1, to the west of the Salween River, on all three attacking fronts. Wu Sangui’s troops entered the scene with no knowledge of what was to come. It was at this decisive moment that the Southern Ming official Lu Guisheng committed an act of betrayal and informed Wu Sangui of the impending surprise attack, transforming what would have been an ambush into a bloody battle. Two-thirds of Li’s soldiers were killed, and the battle took a similar toll on the Qing forces. At least ten of the military generals at the provincial level were killed along with thousands of their soldiers, and Wu Sangui ended his pursuit for the time being.

  The Yongli Emperor, devoid of courage, fled across the border to Burma with his aides. Li refused to cross into Burma and gathered his remaining troops on the western border of Yunnan in preparation for one last stand against the Qing. The Burmese forces, believing that the Southern Ming had already been defeated, tried to take advantage of the situation to plunder the re
maining troops. Lieutenant General Bai was enraged. He congregated the soldiers and unleashed a counterattack. The main Burmese army (which, according to historical data, comprised tens of thousands of soldiers, though the figures could be inflated) faced their opponents on the other bank of the river, prepared for a head-on clash. The Ming troops crossed the river and routed the Burmese forces with only several hundred fighters on horseback. Their surprise attack was said to have claimed the lives of at least ten thousand Burmese soldiers. The Burmese officials had no choice but to bring out the Yongli Emperor and make him order Lieutenant General Bai’s troops to retreat.

  Given such circumstances, many of the Ming generals and other officials were despondent, and one by one, they surrendered to the Qing. Lieutenant General Bai was the last to surrender. Only General Li never wavered.

  When the Yongli Emperor was killed by Wu Sangui, General Li was deeply saddened. In the end, he fell ill on his forty-first birthday. More than ten days later, the general gathered his family and remaining soldiers, telling them: “Die peacefully in the wilderness. There is no surrender.” With those words, he drew his last breath and died.

  Li Dingguo led a tragic life, and even after his death, his circumstances remained tragic.

  Having been born into an army of peasants, he was not eligible for enfeoffment, and having ended his life in defeat, he was not given due respect in the history books.

  Yet some people see Li Dingguo as the greatest commander of the Ming and Qing Dynasties and argue that his character and abilities surpassed those of his contemporaries, such as Li Zicheng and Zheng Chenggong. But even so, there are more who have never heard his name.

 
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