Another morning, another murder.
Lan Wangji stood on the edges of the crime scene as he watched the police officers and forensics investigators scurry about, antlike in their single-minded focus on tasks that were incomprehensible to anyone who was not carefully tracking their patterns.
“At least the case isn’t going to be as big a mess as this fucking crime scene,” Jiang Cheng grumbled as he carefully stepped over a collapsed bookshelf to kneel beside the spot where the body had been discovered. “The suspect confessed before we could even ask him about it.”
Lan Wangji frowned but didn’t reply. He was always wary of cases that seemed just a little too simple.
The victim was a man named Song Lan. By all accounts, his death was accidental; he had come to visit the home of an estranged friend who ran a small martial arts school, but was mistaken for an intruder and stabbed through the stomach. Tragically, the one who stabbed him was the very friend he had intended to visit, Xiao Xingchen. Horrified by this mistake, Xiao Xingchen had called the police and taken the blame for the murder immediately.
“How did the suspect not recognize the victim?” Lan Wangji asked.
“He’s blind,” Jiang Cheng replied, squinting at the chalk outline of the body bathed in a gigantic bloodstain. “Guess the victim just didn’t identify himself fast enough and the suspect was startled.”
Lan Wangji made a mental note to pursue that topic further when he questioned Xiao Xingchen later.
“Woah, check it out!” Lan Jingyi called from across the room. The police officer was bouncing on his tiptoes as he stared up at the wall of weapons, one of the few places in the tiny apartment that was more or less undisturbed except for a single empty spot. “This guy has so many swords!”
“Explains the murder weapon,” Jiang Cheng said dryly, eyeing the bloodied long sword that lay on the floor beside the stain. It must have been the one from the empty spot on the wall. He craned his neck to look closer at the characters engraved on the handle without touching it and wrinkled his nose in frustration. “The name of the sword is written too damn fancy to read.”
“You sure we have to arrest this guy?” Lan Jingyi asked. “I wanna learn how to swordfight too!”
Jiang Cheng dragged a hand down his face with an exasperated sigh. “Get back to work, kid.”
The truth was, no one was very happy about arresting Xiao Xingchen. He had been a detective himself many years ago, but had quit to become a martial arts teacher after a particularly difficult case. Lan Wangji had never met him personally before, but there were several people in the police department who had misgivings about arresting someone they still considered one of their own.
Especially for the alleged murder of his former partner.
Lan Wangji picked his way over to the display of weapons. Lan Jingyi seemed to be taking great joy in documenting every single one by name, so Lan Wangji decided to trust him with that task and instead swept his gaze to the floor below the wall. There was a little reddish-brown smudge that seemed to line up with the empty spot where the long sword had been kept. The rest of the scene was such a mess that he couldn’t be sure this was important, but he made a note of it nonetheless.
“It must have been a really crazy fight,” Lan Jingyi commented, his eyes still sparkling at all the uniquely shaped blades. “Since this place is such a mess and all.”
It was quite the scene of disarray, with the collapsed shelf spewing books across the floor, a chair turned on its side, a smashed glass right in the doorway, and all kinds of various other items and furniture strewn about. A couch had even been moved right next to the body from its previous place against the wall, which was marked by a dusty rectangle of floor now barren except an untouched pale square where one of the couch legs had been outlined by an old water stain. A police officer nudged the couch to the side to get through, revealing that the pool of the victim’s blood had seeped under the heavy couch leg.
Lan Wangji wasn’t convinced the chaos was from a fight, though. He hadn’t received a full autopsy report yet, but based on the pictures alone, Song Lan’s body didn’t seem to have had the bruises or additional cuts one might expect from such a destructive altercation. Additionally, the mess seemed almost purposefully random and didn’t show a clear pathway of two people moving through the apartment as they fought. Overall, Lan Wangji concluded that the mess most likely occurred either before or after the confrontation.
He then turned his attention to the layout of the apartment. The living room was more or less a square shape with the chalk body located in the approximate middle. From the perspective of the front door, there was a hallway to the left that led to the other rooms. The weapons’ display was on the wall to the right. Next to the weapons’ display was a section of wall that jutted out from the back corner of the room to make a closet. The orientation was such that a person facing the closet door would have the weapons located on their immediate right. Beside the closet on the back wall was an open window and the edge of an unstable drainpipe that had been badly bent out of shape could be seen.
It had rained yesterday evening. There was no notable damage to the building’s roof, so the drainpipe had to have been working before the murder occurred, but at some point it must have been broken.
Lan Wangji turned and opened the closet, just to see what was inside. There was a rack with several coat hangers, but no coats. A few umbrellas and two pairs of shoes were placed neatly on the floor. It was otherwise empty.
“Was this door open or closed?” he asked.
“Closed, I think,” Lan Jingyi replied, finally tearing his eyes away from a particularly shiny saber. “The photographer took a picture if you want to check.”
Lan Wangji nodded and made a note to ask for the picture. He turned back to Jiang Cheng.
“Has an autopsy report been prepared yet?”
The detective shook his head. “No, but I think it’ll be ready by noon. I got an update from the coroner though, said there weren’t really any surprises for a presumed stabbing. Victim was wearing a lot of coats for this kind of weather though, she complained about having to wrestle them off him.”
“Mm.” Lan Wangji noted that the cause of death seemed straightforward. He then did a final sweep of the room with his eyes and when he was satisfied that he had learned all he could for the moment, he moved to exit the apartment.
He had hardly walked five feet towards the stairs when someone came barreling up and narrowly avoided slamming into him by veering off into the wall. Lan Wangji reflexively grasped the person’s arm to prevent the collision.
The momentum pulled Mo Xuanyu right into his chest.
“Oh!” Mo Xuanyu looked up at him with wide, startled eyes before his expression relaxed into a grin. “Oh, hi!”
Lan Wangji was keenly aware of Mo Xuanyu’s slender wrist in his hand, the gentle thump thump thump of his pulse point. He let go as soon as the nerves in his muscles reconnected with his brain and took a polite step backward.
“This is a crime scene,” he informed Mo Xuanyu. Procedural instructions were always a good fallback when he couldn’t think of any words of his own. “Civilians are not allowed.”
Mo Xuanyu rolled his eyes. “I know that! Why do you think I’m here?”
He patted his jacket, then stuck his tongue out as he fished around the front pocket of his jeans. Lan Wangji’s eyes slid down to thigh level of their own accord but he smoothly pushed them further down to look at the floor.
“Where is the freaking- Ah-ha!” Mo Xuanyu held up a little gold badge stamped with the image of a scale, already nicked in one corner. “I’m the defense attorney so you gotta let me investigate!”
Lan Wangji beheld the attorney’s badge for the appropriate amount of time and then fixed Mo Xuanyu with a mild frown. “You were a defendant a week ago.”
“Hm?” Mo Xuanyu tilted his head with exaggerated cuteness. “Oh yeah, you were in the gallery, weren’t you? Of course I remember your handsome face.”
Lan Wangji avoided thinking of a response to that comment by giving him an impassive look.
Mo Xuanyu’s face turned overly serious as he engaged the staring contest for several seconds before breaking into laughter. “Joking, joking. It was all the grim staring that made me notice you. People can tell when they’re being watched, just so you know.” He paused, then quirked an eyebrow. “You are extremely handsome though, that part wasn’t a joke.”
Lan Wangji could feel blood curdling in the tips of his ears. “You were a defendant a week ago,” he repeated himself, reeling the topic back in.
“Oh right.” Mo Xuanyu shrugged. “What can I say, it was a lot of fun defending myself. There happened to be a bar exam the next day, so I figured, why not take it? And, it’s totally crazy but, as I was walking out of the office after getting my badge yesterday, I ran right into this girl who asked me to defend someone! It was like it was meant to be!” His wide, glittering eyes narrowed with deliberate intent as he gave Lan Wangji a once-over. “And now that this case has brought me back to you, I have proof it was fate.”
Lan Wangji was so distracted by the blatant flirting he nearly missed the fact that Mo Xuanyu had just decided to take the bar one day and passed.
Even for someone as quiet as himself, it was becoming increasingly difficult for Lan Wangji to keep from asking the obvious question.
Luckily, Mo Xuanyu took the beat of silence as an opportunity to continue talking. “Well anyway, I’m just gonna go check the scene out, okay-“
He sidled a few steps toward the apartment, but Lan Wangji caught him by the arm again.
“Not now. The police are still investigating.”
Mo Xuanyu pouted. “Huh?” He squirmed restlessly, but didn’t fight Lan Wangji’s grip. “So what? Wouldn’t you guys rather I look around when there’s someone to supervise? I won’t get in the way, promise…”
He trailed off as his gaze slid over to the open door of the apartment. Jiang Cheng could be seen inside, directing a flustered officer on how to bag the unwieldy murder weapon.
“Actually…” Mo Xuanyu whipped his head back to Lan Wangji and gave him a blinding smile. “You’re right, I’ll come back later. Can you help me with something first? I actually sort of haven’t been able to meet my client yet…”
Xiao Xingchen was already a pale man wearing white clothing, and the harsh lights and gray walls of the detention center did him no favors, drawing out the hollows under his cheekbones in sharp detail.
Lan Wangji sat across from him and he could see his own face reflected back at him in the lenses of Xiao Xingchen’s tinted glasses.
“You intend to plead guilty,” he said softly, glancing over the paperwork in front of him.
“Yes.” Xiao Xingchen did not hesitate in his reply. “I stabbed Song Lan. It was…” His voice faltered. He swallowed, took a breath, and then went on, “Unintentional. But I still killed him.”
Lan Wangji watched his own eyebrows knit together with concern in those grim, black glasses. “You understand that the law does not differentiate between intentional and unintentional murder.”
Xiao Xingchen’s chest expanded with a deep breath but he was otherwise calm. “Yes.”
Lan Wangji paused before asking the third question. “You understand that if you plead guilty to a murder, there is a chance you will be given the death penalty. I can advise leniency in your sentencing but a judge may make whatever ruling they deem appropriate.”
There was another few seconds of silence, and then Lan Wangji uncapped his pen. “Please explain the circumstances of your crime.”
Xiao Xingchen began reciting what had happened in a low voice. He had already told the police and his explanation by now was smooth. The only time he stumbled was when he described the moment he had held the body in his arms and realized it was his friend by recognizing a distinctive ring on Song Lan’s finger.
“Then I called the police and they arrived within a few minutes,” he finished, having regained his composure.
Lan Wangji read back over what he had transcribed of the testimony and compared it to his notes from the crime scene. Another frown wrinkled between his eyebrows.
He shut the notebook and stood. “The prosecution will not be accepting your confession at this time.”
Xiao Xingchen’s mouth went slack. “What?”
“We will try the case tomorrow,” Lan Wangji elaborated. “If you do not have an attorney by four o’clock this evening, one will be assigned to you.”
“I don’t understand,” Xiao Xingchen said, a little strained. “Your job is to find me guilty. Why wouldn’t you accept my confession?”
Lan Wangji would have agreed with that assessment of his duties many years ago. Now, however…
“My job is to find the truth,” he replied succinctly. “A guard will escort you to the courtroom tomorrow morning.”
He bowed politely out of habit even though the gesture would not be seen and moved to leave. However, he paused when he put his hand on the doorknob.
“An attorney has already volunteered to defend you,” he said. “He will meet with you shortly.” Then he opened the door and left.
Mo Xuanyu was sitting on a bench outside, kicking his legs like a grade-schooler. He was watching a spider that was building a web on the windowsill with intense focus but when he heard Lan Wangji approach, he perked up immediately.
“The trial is tomorrow,” Lan Wangji confirmed.
“Yes!” Mo Xuanyu pumped a fist in the air. “I knew it! I knew there was something more to this case! And I knew you wouldn’t just take the easy way out, of course the noble Hanguang-jun would rather waste taxpayer dollars trying the case than put someone away without all the answers.”
Lan Wangji still wasn’t sure why the newspapers considered him to be a “bearer of light” in this Dark Age of law. It was all well and good that people follow his example, but the overly honorable title seemed ostentatious to him. Blindly believing in appearances rather than the truth was exactly the problem he was fighting to begin with, so he tried not to encourage the use of “Hanguang-jun.”
Yet somehow when Mo Xuanyu said it, with good humor wrapped around a kernel of genuine respect, he didn’t mind it so much.
“Okay, now all I gotta do is convince him to let me defend him.” Mo Xuanyu leaned his full weight forward until gravity had nearly carried him off the bench, then used the momentum to swing himself up onto his feet. “No problem, no problem at all.”
“Then defend him tomorrow,” Lan Wangji added.
Mo Xuanyu snapped a finger gun at him. “Right, that too! Easy peasy.” He spun himself around and took off down the hallway, calling behind him, “See you in court tomorrow!”
Lan Wangji waited until the man was out of sight to let himself slump just a tad against the wall behind him. “See you tomorrow,” he said to the air.