Chapter 23: Interrogation
The case started out as expected, with seemingly no use for Zhang Chi’s skills.
But this didn’t impact his enthusiasm for his job at all. Inspecting crime scenes, walking around interviewing people, going back and watching videotape, attending special investigation team meetings. No one called on him, and he didn’t interject anything. Just like the rest of the police force, everyone going about their work happily. These basic assignments were way better than sitting in an office. Besides, he was a flexible police officer. His boss made it clear from the start that the focus of his job was making composite sketches, but his job wasn’t limited to just that. So wherever he showed up, no one thought it out of the ordinary.
Zhang Chi went back to the office, the scene of the crime still vivid in his mind, especially the deep fear in the little boy’s eyes. He opened his notebook and found the phone number of the neighborhood committee he had written down earlier, and the number of the boy’s teacher. He called them and told them to look after the kid’s mental health, and he helped them get in touch with volunteer counselors. He also asked where the child was staying now, and whether anyone was looking after him. Once he was satisfied everything was being taken care of, he hung up, and relieved, got up to pour some tea.
He sighed deeply and turned around. Gu Shi was standing silently in the doorway, smiling, holding a cup of coffee out to him. He realized she had overheard him talking on the phone. Humbled by this unexpected favor, he accepted the cup. But he still felt a little embarrassed. He hadn’t meant for anyone to see his sentimental side, even if it was the woman he liked.
On the third day there were a few breakthroughs in the case. Suddenly there was a big hubbub in the hallway. The team was used to this sudden break of tranquility. Sure enough, there was Gu Zhichang leading a group which was bringing someone back.
They had obtained a reliable clue. The deceased had been in charge of the family’s finances. She had handled all the expenses and deposits. Before the incident the old woman’s son-in-law’s unit had granted a rental allowance, a one-time fixed year subsidy for work. Altogether it added up to several hundred thousand. The old woman liked to go play mahjong at a friend’s place on the ground floor when she had nothing else to do. She had never seen so much money. One day, in her happiness, she let the news slip to a few of her mahjong friends.
On the day of the crime, one of her mahjong buddies, Old Zhao the janitor, was pacing around by the steps. Someone had seen him streaming with sweat going up and down the stairs, his face taut, holding several hundred-yuan bills in one hand, the other holding a shopping bag that seemed to be filled with clothes.
Gu Zhichang was about to head to the interrogation room when Zhang Chi walked up to him. “Boss, are you going to interrogate? I’d like to take a crack at it. I’ve already got him figured out, and I have a little experience interacting with people.”
“Gu Zhichang smiled. “Boy, you’re a concealed hand[Name of a hand in mahjong where you have no declared sets. i.e. a hand where you don’t eat others’ tiles or take from the table, but is instead constructed only by drawing from the wall. Here Gu Zhichang is joking that Zhang Chi has it figured out but didn’t tell anyone.], now telling your strengths and weaknesses. All right, I’ll back you, let you get some formal experience. Tell me, what’s your strategy?”
More work meant more responsibility. But it was necessary if he wanted to become more versatile and reflect his value to the criminal investigation team. Zhang Chi had understood this principle since his first week on the team. “I wouldn’t call it strategy. I’ll just play it by ear. If I go too far, please tell me to hit the brakes. If it gets to that point, just take over like I don’t even exist.”
His disciple was eager to learn, and uncommonly modest. Gu Zhichang was beaming as he threw his arm around his shoulder and they went into the interrogation room together. Old Zhao was looking around the room uncertainly, his hands on the table, fingers entwined and trembling, now placing them on his knees, now back on the table. When he saw them enter, the first thing he said was, “I don’t know anything.”
Gu Zhichang signaled for Zhang Chi to take the lead. Having been given the go ahead, he looked down and riffled through his papers. Then he said flatly, “I haven’t asked anything yet. How do you know you don’t know the answer to what I want to ask?”
Old Zhao was speechless. His nervous eyes flitted from the two officers to the interrogation room door, as if he were waiting for someone to come in and get him out of this place.
Zhang Chi paid no attention to him, instead making idle chatter with Gu Zhichang, who played along. They really got into it, complaining about how the force was understaffed, how their work was so dangerous, how little their pay was, how the cost performance index was too low, etc. Old Zhao watched them, listening curiously, his anxiety slowly easing up.
“Want a smoke?” Zhang Chi asked. Seeing the man’s eager expression, he leaned over and lit him a cigarette. Old Zhao accepted it with trepidation, then took a strong drag, which helped him recover quickly.
Zhang Chi turned and respectfully lit Gu Zhichang a cigarette. By the time they had just about finished smoking, Old Zhao had stabilized. Zhang Chi went through his pile of papers and rapped on the table with his pen. “You’re the janitor,” he said casually. “Over how many areas?”
“I’m in charge of all sanitation work in the neighborhood.”
“Everyone on the cleaning staff must clean fifteen buildings every week. From which number to which number, how many buildings are you responsible for?”
“Buildings 30 to 45.”
“Where were you around four in the afternoon last Thursday?”
“I clean them at random, depending on which has the most trash in the hallways. Or if the residents request me to clean it, then I’ll go clean that one.”
“Please listen to my question carefully. I’m not asking which day you clean which building. I’m asking which building were you at at four in the afternoon last Thursday?”
“I don’t keep a log; I don’t remember.”
“Okay. Then I’ll tell you. At that time you were at the entrance to building 37.”
“A lot of people go in and out everyday, not just me.”
“Then do you remember who passed by you and entered the building during that time?”
“There’s always couriers, takeout delivery people, water and electricity repairmen…”
Zhang Chi suddenly raised his voice. “I don’t want to hear about that. Please answer clearly. On that day at the building 37 entrance, who did you see? Think carefully before you answer me.”
Sweat dripped off Old Zhao’s forehead. “I really don’t remember.”
“What were you doing that day? Do you remember that?”
“The old man in number 37 on the sixth floor had a fever. His wife couldn’t move him and his son couldn’t be bothered. His wife asked me if I could help as she was on the way to buy groceries, and she gave me a pack of cigarettes. That old man was dead weight, and it all fell on me…”
“So after you helped him you left?”
“I continued cleaning. There were still several floors I hadn’t cleaned yet because I had been playing mahjong the whole morning.”
“It’s okay if you don’t clean them. Anyway, no one would be able to tell.”
“Those floors have renters and the landlord. Some of the groups of tenants throw away beer bottles and disposable lunch boxes every day. They just throw them out wherever. If the landlord saw it he would call the neighborhood committee and maintenance.”
“You’re sure you cleaned them?”
“Yes, otherwise I would have been written up.”
“Right. You did clean it, but it was not until around six o’clock or so, around the time the owner got off work. What did you do during the hour before that?”
Old Zhao never expected that his movements had already been clearly tracked. His mouth hung open, speechless.
“You saw the husband and wife off, then returned to the building, not coming down until a half hour later, holding two bags. What were they?”
“No, I wasn’t carrying two bags. Sometimes the owner will give me some old clothes or shoes or…”
Zhang Chi slammed the table, his voice stern. “This is the last time I’m going to say it. Don’t give me all this specious talk of ‘sometimes’ or ‘most of the time’. Listen to my question carefully. When you came down from that floor on that day, what were you carrying?”
“Money…” Old Zhao’s eyes suddenly welled up and he hung his head, silently wiping away tears, his mouth open as if sobbing, making him look about ten years older.
Zhang Chi was going to ask more when Gu Zhichang touched his arm, not saying anything. He kept silent and the two of them waited quietly while the man vented his pent-up emotions.
They went out of the interrogation room and fell silent.
Gu Zhichang was the first to speak. “What do you think?”
“I thought we were just a step away from the true killer. Now it looks like we haven’t even caught his shadow.”
“What brings you to that conclusion?”
“You asked me earlier what my strategy was. It was only after he answered my first question that I decided to use the logic principle of the law of the excluded middle as my strategy.”
“Law of the excluded middle? That term sounds interesting.”
“To boil it down, if it’s not black it’s white. I gave him two conjectures that couldn’t both be false at the same time. Of course, these were options in based on our understanding of the situation. This guy likes to sidestep the important stuff and focus on trivial matters, taking the roundabout way with any substantial question. The law of the excluded middle doesn’t allow for ambiguity or equivocation. He didn’t know how much we knew. Forced to answer, he had to pick one of the two.”
“So, you believe his final answer is the truth?”
“Not completely. We can at least confirm he was in the target area during the time of the crime. As to whether or not all that about helping the woman is true, even if the building didn’t have a camera, we could find out from the taxi driver and the woman herself to verify it. He can’t lie about that. The question is, did he give into a momentary lapse of reason and go commit that crime when he passed the fourth floor on his way back from making off with that woman’s money?
“One thing we do know is he certainly had a motive. He’d argued with the old woman on the fourth floor several times, always about mahjong matters. He even once nearly flipped over the table. He was also one of the people who knew about the family’s money situation.
“In light of these circumstances, I put together a series of complicated questions based on his personality and speech habits.”
Gu Zhichang shook his head and chuckled. “Kid, you really used logic in a methodical manner here. I have to admit I’m not your equal.”
Zhang Chi realized he was becoming more and more modest before Gu Zhichang. He was never like that before. He waved his hand and laughed. “That’s just the way of a logician. For a complicated question you have to start with a presupposition; you can’t give them a simple yes or no response. I saw some research once about using complicated questioning, mingling truth with false and forcing the suspects to answer a series of questions. Most of the time they would end up contradicting themselves until finally they were unable to justify their lies.”
“So, you used a set of complex questions to take advantage of his weak point, him going to the old lady’s room on the six floor and stealing her money. But how does that prove he didn’t commit the murder?”
“Boss, you’re testing me on purpose. Actually you’d already come to the same conclusion through your intuition. For evidence that can eliminate him as a suspect we must rely on the technicians’ scientific data. First of all are the clothes he was carrying. Second are the bank notes. Shouldn’t be hard to test and verify with that miserly old lady. You can also see whether or not there are any other fingerprints on the wallet found at the scene of the crime.”
“Certainly we can rely on police intuition, as well as his mental state and personality to eliminate him as a suspect in the murder case. But remember, a chain of intact evidence and sorted out logic are the keys to wrapping up a case.”
Zhang Chi nodded emphatically and smiled helplessly. “Didn’t expect not catching the big fish would lead us to catch a smaller one.”