from The Business of Death
If a tourist came to Sykesland, it was probably for the beaches. A good deal of the country was landlocked, but it was also very flat, so there were no spectacular mountain views. Instead, there were a number of small but steadily growing beach communities along Sykesland’s seaside. Grasshead, the nation’s capital, was technically one of them, but if a person had come to Sykesland especially to swim, they probably wouldn’t do it in Grasshead, as the beaches there tended to be too small or otherwise unattractive. Tourists were likely to head to one of the towns half an hour or an hour outside of Sykesland’s capital, like Baker’s Bay, or even to nearby Merchant’s Island.
Still, tourists passing through Grasshead on their way to better summer holiday spots could find something to do for the day or so of layover. There were two casinos in the city, each quite large, and with their own communities of hotels and loan sharks growing around them, sponsored mostly by the arrival of tourists in the summer. In the winter, of course, it was different. In the winter, it rained more often than not, and the only people likely to gamble in the casinos were natives to Grasshead. The city died a little in winter.
Harriet Ozer, detective for Grasshead’s Homicide Department, felt a little dead, too. She felt sluggish, like a fly that had somehow lived into the winter, but now found itself moving slowly, unhappily, not quite able to navigate this new and unnatural climate. More so than the climate, though, Ozer was bothered by boredom.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon, and she was walking to the elevator bank on the third floor of the police station, her limbs sluggish and heavy with her boredom. She wished that she was in her car right then, heading home. Or even that she was in Adaway Park, enjoying the sun. Instead, she was catching the elevator down to Interrogation Room 4.
She crossed through the busy reception area, and ducked into the corridor leading to the interrogation rooms. Inside Room 4, she found Robert King sitting alone. She sighed, and let the door fall shut behind her. She pulled a chair out from the room’s table as she passed it, but instead of sitting down, went straight to the camera on one side of the room and turned it on. Finally, she took her seat, and brought her notepad out of her pocket as a matter of routine. She wished that someone else could have done this part, after she had done the work of finding the footage and locating King.
She cleared her throat, and checked the time. ‘It is currently 3:05 p.m.,’ she said. ‘Interrogating officer is Detective Harriet Ozer.’ She put her phone back in her pocket and looked across at King. ‘Please state your name, sir.’
‘Robert King,’ he said.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ve been told you have waived your right to counsel. Is that correct?’
‘Yes,’ King replied, ‘I don’t want a lawyer.’
Something else, Ozer thought, to make this tedious: no one to fight.
‘Okay, Mr King,’ she said. ‘Tell me where you were between ten and eleven o’clock this Saturday.’
‘At home,’ he said. ‘Drinking.’
Ozer had heard this lie from him before. She debated not mentioning the peculiarity of drinking alcohol at ten o’clock in the morning, but even if she was bored, she had to be thorough.
‘What were you drinking, Mr King?’ she asked.
‘Beer,’ he said. ‘Can’t remember what brand.’
‘That’s quite early to be drinking beer,’ Ozer pointed out.
He paused. She supposed that this had only just occurred to him, because he was a bad liar who didn’t think his story all the way through. Then again, he might have been genuinely hurt by her comment: Ozer wasn’t sure, and she didn’t care to guess.
‘It was a Saturday,’ he finally explained. ‘I thought I’d treat myself.’
‘Mr King,’ Ozer said, ‘we have you on camera leaving your apartment building at nine-thirty in the morning and not coming back until eleven forty-five. We also have you on surveillance camera committing the murder of Samuel Church. Four different people have seen you in that footage, and identified you. Do you want to see the footage?’
King paused for a long time. ‘They had cameras in the parking lot?’ he asked eventually, in a low whisper.
She hadn’t said that the murder had taken place in a mall’s parking lot, so now Ozer had that, too.
‘Yes, Mr King,’ Ozer said, ‘they had cameras in the parking lot.’
He sat back. His eyes were very wide now. ‘Who identified me?’ he asked.
‘I can’t tell you that, Mr King. You’ll find out at your trial.’
He looked her in the eyes. ‘You want me to confess.’
‘Yes, I do.’
He nodded. ‘Oh, God. Fine. Fine. I killed Sam. Stabbed him behind his car.’ He cradled his bald forehead in his large hands. ‘I didn’t think anyone would see me. He’d just sold his other car.’ He let his hands drop and looked at Ozer again. ‘He’d just sold his car,’ he repeated, ‘and I thought he’d be carrying some of the money on him. I couldn’t find any of it.’
‘He probably kept it in his electronic account,’ Ozer said.
‘Oh, God,’ King said. ‘Probably, yes. What a stupid mistake.’
Ozer watched him. He placed his head back into his hands. She waited for him to describe the murder he had committed as something more evocative than a stupid mistake, but he didn’t. She read out the time again, turned off the camera and left him where he was. She talked to some uniforms in the hall, and they went inside Interrogation Room 4 to take him to jail.
When she was back on the third floor, Ozer walked directly to the office of the Homicide Department’s captain, June Parker, and looked in to find that no one was there. She discovered June coming from the other end of the corridor, talking with someone on her cell phone. She waved at Ozer and beckoned her into the office.
From her side of the call, Ozer gathered that June was arguing about the department’s budget, and winning. When the call was over, June sat back in her chair with her head resting against the wall.
‘Going home?’ she asked.
‘Uh-huh,’ Ozer said.
‘How’d Robert King go?’
‘Fine. He confessed.’
‘Better than fine, then.’
‘He confessed fast.’
‘You okay, Harriet?’
She shrugged. ‘Just bored. Restless.’
‘Sick of the job?’
‘No, sick of the cases.’
June leaned forward. ‘Tell me about it.’
‘Are you sure? I know it’s kind of strange.’
‘Yeah, but I think I should know anyway.’
‘That’s probably true,’ Ozer said, ‘but there’s not a lot you can do.’ She sighed. ‘I keep expecting that I’ll need to use some brainpower on every new case, but I never do. I just follow procedure and find something obvious.’
‘You want smarter murderers,’ June said, smiling.
‘It sounds morbid when you put it like that.’
‘It is morbid, Harriet. I understand what you’re saying, but all it means is that you need a more complex hobby, right? Something that requires a lot of brainpower, like you said.’
‘That’s probably it,’ Ozer said, but she knew that it wasn’t. She had tried puzzles. She didn’t like them. They were a waste of time. ‘Thanks, June.’
‘I’m not sure I’ve helped very much. Look, you’ve been here a few years now. You know how it is. You just do the work, that’s all. You keep doing the work, and it gets to be rewarding by itself. You help people, sure, but even besides that, it gets to be rewarding.’
‘Sure, thanks. I’m going home now.’
‘Have a good afternoon, Harriet.’
She did, sort of. She strolled around Adaway Park a few times and spent most of the walk staring up at the window to her office. When that got to be more than she could stand, she went to the mall and looked around the bookshop, Spectacles, for an hour, finally deciding that she didn’t want a book right then. She went to the movies instead and watched a two-and-a-half-hour drama about the son of a mediaeval executioner. Once it was over, she realised with faint surprise that it was dark outside.
She bought a ticket for another movie, just to feel like she wasn’t spinning her wheels and slowly rotting away in stagnation. Two hours later, she finally allowed herself to go home. In her living room, she turned on the cartoon channel and was glad to discover that a six-hour marathon of Mittens the Airborne was on. She ate dinner at eight o’clock and went to sleep on the couch.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
William Pigott is a Te Herenga Waka, Victoria University of Wellington Film School graduate. He previously won first prize in the New Zealand Society of Authors’ 2020 Zephyr Short Story Competition. Presented here is the opening of his Te Pūtahu Tuhi Auaha o te Ao, IIML MA thesis, The Business of Death, in which a detective investigates the murder of the son of two morticians.