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circumstances.jpg
Art by Lonni Lees 2016

The Best One Can Do, Given the Circumstances

By

T.L. Huchu

 

Detective Munatsi was in bed when the phone rang. It was on silent, but the green light from its screen illuminated the dark bedroom in which she lay with her flatmate, her flatmate’s six-year-old daughter sleeping between them.

Will you take that somewhere else, me and Tata are trying to sleep,” said Rachel, her flatmate.

Munatsi grunted, rolled out of bed, and pressed answer. She stepped barefoot onto the carpet and made her way to the corridor, the voice at the other end of the line went:

Hello, hello, is anyone there?”

What do you want?” Munatsi said, leaning against the wall. She flicked the light switch, but there was no power. ZESA’s erratic load-shedding meant that they were lucky to get six hours of electricity a day, but it was worth a try all the same.

Detective, there has been a murder,” said the voice at the other end.

Who are you?”

Inspector Gidi at H.Q.”

Look, Gidi, my caseload is full. I have no capacity to take this on. Call Superintendent Chiweshe and he’ll put Zvobgo or Moyo on the case.”

I already spoke with him and he told me to call you.”

Munatsi groaned. “Fill me in,” she said.

It’s cut and dry, like biltong on the rack. Rhodesville P.S. say a female attended the station with two children to report she had murdered her husband. She was immediately apprehended and taken into custody. OIC sent two officers to her house on Boscobel Drive East and they confirmed there was a deceased male with—”

Tell Rhodesville to secure the scene, and not to steal anything. I’ll deal with this in the morning. Is that clear?”

Munatsi hung up and went back to the bedroom. There was no need for her to hurry on such a case, especially with a confession in hand. She had already been putting in long hours, with no overtime pay; hell, the government had not even paid her last month’s salary. It was January, and that meant she had gone through Christmas broke. Rachel was a nurse and she had not been paid, either; the only folks who got their salaries on time were those in the army and intelligence services. Just how it was. The only reason the landlord had yet to kick them out was because they were both in professions useful to know someone in, just in case anything ever went wrong. Munatsi was not feeling particularly motivated. She crawled back into bed, relieved to be under a warm blanket once more.

 

*

 

Munatsi got into her battered 1963 Series IIA Land Rover. It was dusk, the sun hidden behind skyscrapers, and the car looked like a heap of white scrap metal on wheels. She turned the key and there was a metallic click. Turned it again. She had heard more of a rumble in her tummy than any sound that engine gave. Munatsi stepped hard on the clutch, put the gear in second, took off the handbrake and the car rolled down the slope. She released the clutch and the Land Rover coughed, splattered and went quiet. There was only one thing for it, turning the ignition off and trying again. The second time, the old girl jerked, shaking Munatsi around, and she roared like a steam engine, diesel filling up her veins, as Munatsi pumped the accelerator hard, black fumes pouring out of the exhaust. She drove down onto Hebert Chitepo Avenue, joining the sparse early morning commuters.

The robot on Selous turned red on her and she stopped, occasionally revving, just to make sure the old girl was kept fed. A vendor peddling the morning papers came up and knocked on the window, flashing the day’s headlines in her face. He had a toothy grin, was wearing an Econet cap on his head, and a waistcoat that had an assortment of goods sticking out – toothbrushes, toothpicks, Okapi knives, cigarette lighters, all strategically displayed. The man was a walking convenience store. Munatsi rolled down her window.

You want the Herald or the Independent? I’ve also got—”

How much for that Okapi?” She cut him off.

The robot turned green as he answered. A kombi behind her hooted, but she paid it no mind.

Is it sharp?” she asked.

Enough to skin an elephant,” he said, taking the money and handing the knife over.

Munatsi drove off, just as the robot turned amber, leaving the kombi stuck at a red. She went down Samora Machel, and from there on to Rhodesville.

                                                           

                                                            *

 

The desk sergeant was surly – he had not been paid either. His potbelly stretched the buttons on his shirt and his shoes were unpolished, the kind of thing that never happened back in the day when Munatsi joined the force. He looked up at her as he presented the docket. She was a tall woman, a shoulder and two heads above him.

Open goal, Detective,” the sergeant said to her. “Confession and everything.”

Good job. I’m just here to tick the boxes,” she replied.

He led her to the cells. The corridor was dank, and the smell of shit and vomit was overwhelming. That said, Rhodesville had some of the cosiest cells in Harare. The florescent light flickered overhead.

Prisoner Chigumbura!” the sergeant called out, opening the door to the women’s cell.

The floor of the twenty-by-ten room, packed with women lain down. You could hear them wheezing, coughing, snoring. In the furthest corner was the bucket they used for their toilet, full up from the night’s use. Nearest the door was a pregnant lady, belly showing through the grey, lice-ridden blanket she was sleeping under. A small figure got up from the corner near the toilet bucket and stepped over sleeping heads, anxiously making her way to the door.

The prisoner’s eyes were red from weeping. White lines marked her cheeks like fine hupfu. She shivered, exposed in her nightdress; barefooted, the cold concrete floor could not have helped. Munatsi walked behind her, the sergeant ahead, observing her hunched shoulders, as they were led into the interrogation room. It was a sparse space. Two metal chairs bolted to the floor, and a metal desk. There was no window and the four white walls were artified with dried blood and faeces.

Sit down,” Munatsi said, pointing at the chair opposite. “Put the file on the desk – you can leave us now, Sergeant.”

Open goal,” the fat man said, before leaving.

Munatsi opened the file and scrolled through details of the confession in the statement. She took her time, letting the prisoner soak in the silence that was only occasionally broken by the rustle of a turning page. Then she looked up at the prisoner who was staring at the floor, her head covered in a grey doek. She had two black eyes, and a cut on her lower lip.

Munatsi opened her notepad and took a pen out from her jacket pocket.

Did they beat you – the police?” Munatsi asked.

The prisoner shook her head.

Munatsi raised her eyebrows. The lads liked to soften suspects up now and again, but if the suspect was ready to confess, then there was no need. Beating people up was hard work, and the ZRP didn’t like hard work.

Who gave you those bruises?”

The prisoner remained silent.

It says here you drove in just around 1am and told the constable at the desk that you had killed your husband. Is this correct?”

The prisoner nodded. She was hunched in a little ball, barely filling her seat.

How old are you?” Munatsi asked.

Seventeen,” the girl whispered.

How long have you been married?”

“…”

I didn’t get that.”

Four years,” the prisoner replied.

Munatsi did the math and sighed.

Your husband, how old was he?”

I don’t know.”

And those are your children you brought with you, aged 10 and 12?”

The girl shook her head: “My husband’s.”

Munatsi stood up, and walked to the left wall where the window should have been. A “Lupemba” had scratched his name in the plaster. There was a dark palm mark next to it, as if someone with sooty hands had touched it. The girl’s accent told Munatsi that she was rural, probably Manyika from Manicaland. She hadn’t asked for a lawyer, probably didn’t even know what one was. Munatsi clenched and unclenched her fists, thinking, just when her cell phone rang. She checked, saw it was her SO, and answered.

I heard you caught an easy one last night. Great. I have another thing in Mbare that I want you to look at ASAP. Do the paperwork, we’ll transfer that one to Chikurubi on remand,” the voice on the phone said.

I need a few more hours on this. Heading over to her residence just now, Supt,” she replied.

Get it done quickly.” The superintendent hung up on her.

Munatsi turned back to the prisoner and asked her to hold out her arm. She reached into her pocket, took out the Okapi knife, flicked it open and said, “I want you to be very quiet.”

The knife was as sharp as the vendor had said it was.

 

*

 

It was around mid-morning by the time Detective Munatsi arrived at Boscobel Drive East in Highlands. This was the kind of neighbourhood Munatsi could only ever dream of living in; the sort of folks who lived here were the type who owned their own homes. A solitary constable was manning the gate, he recognised her car and waved her through. Munatsi’s immediate problem was that this property stood on flat terrain, which meant starting her car afterwards would be its own mission. She could leave the engine idling, but then she couldn’t afford the diesel, and the department was getting tighter on their fuel-mileage allowance, which was already based on newer, more efficient cars in the fleet, not her old Land Rover. It was a pain, but she parked on the driveway behind three other ZRP vehicles and cut the engine.

She got out, inspected the place. Typical four bedroomed colonial bungalow set on an acre. Lush green lawn, suggesting a borehole hidden somewhere. Palm trees and exotic flowerbeds, mixed in with indigenous msasa and mopane. Walled veranda. Typical middle-class set-up.

Assistant Inspector Guzha came out of the house to meet her.

Come this way, Detective,” he said. “The forensics guy is already here.”

He got anything for us?”

You know these UZ types, all they tell you is what you can already see in front of you. Guy takes a blow to the back of the head, has his skull smashed in, and we need this scientist to tell us what happened?”

Wait till the pathologist writes his report. He’ll tell us if the deceased is actually dead,” Munatsi said, with a chuckle.

They went inside, to the living room. Someone had turned the television on, probably one of the cops, and it was playing South African music off a satellite channel. The room was well ordered; family photos on the wall, old, green fabric sofas mixed in with a new leather settee, glass coffee table, faux Persian rug, and a dead man in the middle of it all. Munatsi walked over to him, squatted, looked at his face.

So this is Mr Chigumbura,” she said.

Only in the flesh,” Guzha replied.

The dead man was round and heavy. His hair – where it was not bloody – was black, speckled with grey. He had deep lines on his face and was pushing sixty. The photos on the wall showed pictures of his older children, two girls in their twenties, and his late first wife, who was a good decade and a half younger than him, in their last portrait. The pride of place was taken by two accounting certificates, framed; an undergrad and a Masters from Fort Hare in South Africa, displayed for every visitor to see.

Where’s everyone else?”

They’re in the kitchen, making themselves something to eat,” Guzha replied.

You guys got gloves?” Munatsi asked.

I’ve got the last pair,” Billy Mungate, the forensic scientist, said, popping out from the corridor. “Been requesting them for months, but we never get any. I have to wash and reuse these.” He held up his hands, showing a pair of blue gloves, the left one torn at the heel of his hand.

Munatsi knelt down and sniffed the dead man’s mouth. Teachers or Grants whisky. She crawled round and looked at his hands. Slight purple bruising on the knuckles.

What do you think?” she said to the two men in the room.

Oh, she whacked him alright. Young wife probably having an affair, he confronts her…” Guzha said.

See, I don’t speculate. I just do science,” Billy said, stepping up closer. “He was hit at the back of the head with that Shona family sculpture. The whole thing is hard, black springstone, weighs at least a kilo and a half, maybe two.”

Munatsi duck-walked to the sculpture on the carpet, next to the leather settee. It was a popular icon at the open markets for the few tourists who still ventured to Harare. Three figures embracing: Father-Mother-Child, forming a circle of unity with their hands.

Sad times when a husband and provider is murdered by some young slut who probably only got with him for his money in the first place,” Guzha said, shaking his head. “Sad times.”

What makes you think that?” Munatsi asked.

They were married how many years, and she hasn’t had any children of her own. Probably one of those who uses family planning tablets and goes around aborting.”

Munatsi made to stand up, half rising, but then something under the sofa caught her eye. She squatted back down.

Hey, what about this—”

Don’t touch—!” Billy called out, but he was too late.

Munatsi stood up and presented a bloodied Okapi knife. Sharp blade with a brown handle.

The. Evi. Dence,” Billy completed his sentence, holding out his blue gloves.

Munatsi stood up and shrugged. An honest mistake, by a twenty-year veteran in the force. Billy fished into his pack and brought out a sandwich bag, and told the detective to drop the knife into the bag.

Sorry, Billy, it just happened,” she said.

I’ll take it to the lab and see what I can find.”

Good, because Mrs Chigumbura told me a different story, and she has a deep gash in her right forearm, which I think came from that knife,” Munatsi said.

I swept this room clean and I didn’t see that,” said Guzha, frowning.

Then you must be blind,” she said, stepping away from the scene. “Don’t worry, I won’t document your incompetence. Now, did you guys say someone was making breakfast? I’m starving.”

 

*

 

It took three constables pushing the car for fifty metres before she would start up again. She roared to life and Munatsi honked to say thank you before she drove away.

Watching the leafy suburbs recede in her rear-view mirror, she remembered an old case, from when she had just joined Homicide. The suspect was a woman called Eugenia Phiri, a flea market trader who lived with her unemployed mechanic husband, Reginald Phiri, in the township of Tafara. Reginald used to beat on his wife near enough every day, something all the neighbours knew. One day, Eugenia defended herself by picking up a log from the cooking fire and wielding it against him. Munatsi made the arrest and took the statement. When the case went to the High Court, they found Eugenia guilty of manslaughter, and sent her to Chikurubi Maximum. That was the law, and the circumstances of a man who beat his wife with his hands failed to satisfy the judge that this was sufficient grounds for acquittal.

Eugenia had hanged herself halfway through her sentence. And for years, Munatsi kept telling herself, this was the law, she was just doing her job.

She adjusted her rear view mirror and looked herself in the eyes.

I’m just doing my job,” she said.

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