Crime Beat: Extracts from this year’s krimis: (5) A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley.
A Death in the Family by Michael Stanley
Assistant Superintendent David ‘Kubu’ Bengu was enjoying his dream. He was at an all-you-can-eat buffet at The Palms hotel. His table was on the patio away from the noisy bar, and Joy, his wife, was visiting her sister, so she couldn’t limit how much he had to eat.
A smile flitted over his sleeping face as the bowl of shrimp on the buffet table slowly morphed into a platter of lobster in front of his eyes, and a man with a chef’s hat put two enormous tails onto his plate. Then his plate grew to the size of a tray, and there was room for cold, poached salmon and a delicious white sauce he didn’t recognize, as well as a large piece of smoked trout. That’s enough for a starter, he thought as he gazed at the lamb on the spit and the mountain of rare beef surrounded by crisp, roast potatoes and horseradish sauce. He picked his way back to his table past the other diners and their dainty helpings, where his half-empty glass of Sauvignon Blanc miraculously changed into a silver ice-bucket with a bottle of Moët champagne, already open. A white-gloved waiter with a red sash pulled back his chair then slid it forward as he sat down. Kubu nodded, and the waiter poured the bubbling nectar into a flute that stood twenty-five centimetres tall.
Even though he was fast asleep, Kubu let out a quiet sigh of pleasure.
Joy rolled onto her side, trying to move away from the twitches of Kubu’s arm as he drained the flute in a series of toasts to the other diners on the patio.
Now Kubu watched a man nearly as huge as himself trundle a large trolley of desserts towards him. Sherry trifle, apple pie, malva pudding, chocolate cake, carrot cake, jugs of custard and bowls of whipped cream delicately laced with cognac. Kubu groaned with pleasure as it approached. Thank God there was no fruit salad or fresh fruit.
He opened his mouth, and the man wheeled the trolley right into it. Why choose, Kubu thought, when you can have it all?
Just as he was about to wash it all down with a bottle of port that had appeared in his hand, an alarm went off, and a doctor ran onto the patio holding a clipboard. He pointed at Kubu, and the alarm rang again. Kubu looked around, and the piles of food shrank in front of his eyes, and the diners evaporated into thin air. Kubu became frantic. Where was the food going? What was he going to eat?
‘Wake up, Kubu!’ Joy shook him. ‘Wake up. It’s the phone. It’ll be for you.’
Kubu shook his head trying to orient himself back to reality.
‘Okay. Okay,’ he grumbled and stretched over to pick up the phone next to his bed.
‘Bengu.’ His voice came out like a hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat.
‘Bengu.’ This time he recognized his own voice.
‘Kubu, this is Jacob Mabaku. I have some bad news.’
Kubu sat up, trying to think which of his cases could have blown up so badly that the director of the Criminal Investigation Department had to phone in the middle of the night.
‘What’s going on, Director?’
‘There’s no easy way to say this, Kubu. Your father’s dead. I’m afraid he’s been murdered.’
For Detective Samantha Khama, it was only her second call-out to the scene of a murder. The first time had been dreadful, the still body proclaiming that a life was over, violently ended with no time to put affairs in order, no chance for goodbyes. But this time was much worse. The body lying in the alley under the police floodlights was a defenceless old man and, worse still, the father of a colleague.
Samantha wiped her eyes and tried to focus on the job at hand. She and Kubu had had their disagreements, but she counted him as a friend and looked up to him. Their work together on the witch-doctor case had been close and intense and, although she wouldn’t use that word, Kubu had become her mentor. She could imagine the turmoil he was going through now. She’d never met his father, but she’d heard Kubu talk of him and had deduced how close they were. And she could imagine how she would feel if something like this happened to her father.
Everyone at the scene was upset. There was little conversation except what was necessary to carry out the job efficiently. They were taking every care with the scene itself. Forensics had photographed the area around the body and checked for footprints. They had a couple of clear prints in the dusty section opposite the body, but they seemed to match those of Constable Tohe, who had discovered the body.
Ian MacGregor, the pathologist, was kneeling next to the body. He was usually unflappable, but she could see that he, too, was badly shaken.
Ian hauled himself to his feet, shaking his head. ‘Looks like three or four stab wounds to the chest and one to the neck. One probably went into the heart. Of course I won’t be able to tell until we do an autopsy. My guess is that the assailant was right-handed and struck downwards.’
Samantha nodded, but didn’t respond.
‘Well, you can search the body now.’
‘I think I should wait for the director. He said he would head over here as soon as Kubu was with his mother.’ She hesitated, then rushed on. ‘Dr. MacGregor, this is so awful! Who would attack an old man and knife him to death?
He was just a frail, old man and deserved respect.’
‘Well, that’s your job to find out. But in my experience, people who commit murders aren’t usually very concerned about age and frailty. The less likely the victim is to fight back, the better.’
They heard a car drive up and soon Mabaku joined them.
‘How is Kubu taking it, Director?’ Ian asked.
‘How do you think? He’s seems okay on the surface, but he’s in shock. And his mother’s distraught, of course. It’s a hell of a mess.’ He turned to Samantha. ‘Drop everything else. This is now top priority. I don’t care if he was mugged or if this is somehow connected to one of Kubu’s cases. Whoever did it is going to hang. We’re going to make it absolutely clear that we won’t tolerate anyone hurting one of us through our families.’
Samantha wondered how much that was going to help Kubu and his mother, but she just nodded.
‘So what have we got?’
Ian shrugged. ‘He’s been dead for around three hours, I’d say. Died somewhere between eight and ten o’clock. There are several stab wounds, one of which went into the heart as far as I can tell. I’ll do a preliminary autopsy first thing in the morning. Not much more I can do here.’ But he made no move to leave.
‘Zanele’s people haven’t come up with anything yet. No murder weapon, no clues. But they’re working on it.’
Mabaku could see that for himself. Zanele was talking to her fingerprint specialist and sounded frustrated.
Mabaku cursed. ‘We should have something by now!’ He took a deep breath. Then he said more quietly, as though to himself, ‘We have to be careful to keep perspective on this. Routine procedure and hard work. That’s what we need. That’s what solves cases.’ He didn’t add that they’d miss Kubu’s flashes of inspiration, but they were going to have to do without them. ‘Let’s take a look.’ He put on his overalls, booties, and gloves and went over to the body.
Kubu’s father was wearing a white shirt with long sleeves, and a grey jacket open in front, as if to frame the browning crimson of the wound. The pockets of his trousers were turned inside out. Mabaku bent over and started searching. He rolled the body on its side to see if there was a wallet in the back pocket. There wasn’t, but lying on the ground was a mobile phone.
‘That’s funny,’ Samantha said. The two men looked at her, surprised. ‘I mean it’s odd. Kubu told me that Wilmon never takes his mobile phone anywhere. He just uses it to get calls from the family. Kubu told me it once fell in the toilet, and his father pretended it was lost…’ Her voice trailed off, and she felt her throat close. She swallowed.
Mabaku thought for a moment. ‘We must check that with Kubu and Amantle. Maybe he was expecting a call. He doesn’t seem to have anything else with him.’ He turned to Samantha. ‘Please check the phone for calls made and received for the past month and check with the phone company as well, in case any of the records on the phone have been deleted.’
Samantha nodded, then asked, ‘No wallet?’
Mabaku shook his head. ‘Hardly surprising. If he was mugged, the wallet would be gone. Or the assailant could have taken it to make it look like a mugging. Wilmon must have dropped the mobile phone when he was stabbed and fallen on top of it.’
Zanele joined them, looking tired and depressed.
‘Nothing yet. A dirt street is about the worst murder scene you can imagine. It’s been windy so stuff blows away. People walk through here all the time, so anything we find might have nothing to do with the murder at all. I’ve already got a whole bag of junk. And I don’t think we’ll get any fingerprints.’ She glanced at the rough brick walls.
‘Keep at it, Zanele,’ Mabaku said. ‘Collect everything. Some of your junk could turn out to be important later on. In the morning we’ll search the whole area. Maybe the killer threw the knife away. And we’ll start checking right away if anyone in the area saw or heard anything.’
Suddenly Samantha had an awful thought. Suppose they never got to the bottom of this? Suppose Kubu had to live without knowing what had happened here and why? But then she pulled herself together. That wasn’t going to happen. Mabaku wasn’t going to let it happen and neither was she.
The director turned back to her. ‘If this is just an opportunistic mugging, we’ll get him through the local police. Check with them in the morning and get them to see if their contacts have any information that could be useful. But if this is something to do with Kubu, then we’re going to have to get at the motive through him. That’s going to be painful for him because he’ll blame himself for his father’s death.’
Samantha thought about it. ‘What if it’s neither?’ she asked tentatively.
Mabaku shook his head. ‘Wilmon was as straight as an arrow. He would never have been involved in anything that would get him killed.’
Samantha said nothing, but she wondered about that mobile phone.
Visit the website of Michael Stanley (Michael Sears and Stanley Trollip) here.
What reviewers say about Michael Stanley novels:
‘A wonderful, original voice – McCall Smith with a dark edge and even darker underbelly’ – Peter James
‘Under the African sun, Michael Stanley’s Detective Kubu investigates crimes as dark as the darkest of Nordic Noir. Call it Sunshine Noir, if you will – a must read’ – Yrsa Sigurðardóttir