They sent me to cover the murders on a sleepy Summer afternoon, late July. The city was squatting in the heat, the air melting or seeming to melt, the dust rising. Driving through the streets under an all-too-blue sky, I watched the people as they watched me. Children peering out from beneath verandas, five or six years old. Boys firing toy guns at imaginary foes, girls playing on mobile phones. Elderly men, women sitting out on chairs in the sun with their best broad-brimmed hats, all watching me as I passed through.
The city was a conglomerate; a collection of cities sewn into one, of different cultures and moments in the collective memory. It seemed to me at that time that there was an innocence about the place, a child’s purpose, a combined ambition. Everyone wanted to pull together, get out of the recession. The poor people, they wanted that too, we were told.
Around me, as the car slowed I could certainly feel something. I don’t know what it was, but I felt as if I was a stranger riding into a mid-western village in nineteenth-century America. I almost expected to see a saloon with a grim-faced sheriff staggering out to meet me, a little worse for drink.
I had the address scrawled on a page torn out of a book. My editor didn’t have much respect for books, but he thought the page in question would be relevant to the investigation. Then he wrote all over it. I didn’t have a GPS so I had to do this the old-fashioned way. 7A The Elm Arches, Mr. Chirstofer Schardt. Clutching the paper over the steering wheel, I squinted into the sun, trying to make out the tiny sign on the nearest tower block.
Even with my glasses, I couldn’t read the damn thing. I’d have to get out. I couldn’t tell if it was a bad neighbourhood – everyone looked too lazy in the tropical weather to be a threat, but it was a company car and I didn’t want anything to happen to it. I got out anyway, almost bumping into a shabby fellow in a thick, winter coat. His eyes didn’t meet mine; he was lost in some other world.
The tower block turned out to be the right one. It was turning into that sort of day, as if the universe couldn’t be bothered to make things difficult. It made a nice change from how things usually are. Climbing the steps, I remember an odd smell – it would accompany the other locations in my investigation – something akin to pondweed, rotten vegetation or stagnant water. It was hard to place and unsettled me.
The walls were covered in the usual graffiti, faded now. It was as though that time had been and gone – youthful rebellion – and the world had resigned itself to a stony reality. Bits of mortar, brick, flaking paint and cigarette ends crunched under my shoes. Even without my suit jacket I felt overdressed for the occasion. I didn’t see a single other being on my ascent to the seventh floor; I heard no thumping bass music or shouted arguments. I couldn’t smell any culinary aromas through the stench of decaying plant life.
I knocked on the door, firmly, three times. It wasn’t hard to find, the first along the corridor. I sensed, from the other doors along the passageway a lifelessness. I knew, somehow, that these apartments had been abandoned for years. When the door of 7A opened, creaking inwards, I jumped slightly.
“Jack Stirgan, from the Daily Spokesman,” I said, offering a hand.
It was an old woman – somehow beyond elderly – her eyes blinking in the gloom, measuring me, trying to remember.
“You called,” I said, “about the, erm, the passing of your husband.”
She smiled, thin lips. “Yes, but he didn’t pass. He was killed, you know. Come in.”