By David Busby
Han-Bin coughed and spat on the ground scraping it into a wide arc, inches from where the dead man lay. Jae Woo, hunched over the body, looked up at him with distaste.
“He’s a jumper. Suicide.”
The two policemen looked down silently at the body for a moment, the early winter sun offering no protection against the bitter cold.
“Mmm.” Han-Bin looked up at the building. Close to 30 storeys. He shrugged “Suicide, eh? That’s a crime against the state, buddy,” he grunted, tapping the side of the body with his boot. He frowned “Bad news for the family though. They could lose everything. Who called it in?”
Jae Woo looked up “A neighbour, she’s with the wife now.” He turned back to the body. “No shoes,” he said.
Han-Bin looked down at him, “eh?”
“No shoes. Left his shoes at home, went to the roof and jumped.”
The dead man lay face down in a tangled mess against the concrete. One arm trapped under the body, the other twisted away, and the legs, one on top of the other as though in his last moments the man had been in some macabre dance. His feet faced inwards, shoeless. The left sock, a pale blue, was half hanging from his twisted foot. Jae Woo snapped on his polythene gloves and reached under the body to turn it over.
“Here, let me,” said Han-Bin, grunting and rolling the body to one side. Han-Bin was a bear of a man, wrestling champion of the PDR police academy in his year and twice the size of Jae Woo. Whereas Han-Bin’s muscle was slowly turning to fat Jae Woo had retained the wiry, taut frame of his youth. Jae Woo had been the academy running champion at the same time Han-Bin was winning wrestling matches but the two had never met prior to their first case file together three years ago.
They could not have been more different. Han-Bin was affable, relaxed. He made people laugh and got the job done, no questions asked. If a confession needed beating from a suspect he would think nothing of it. Man or woman, old or young. Whatever it took. He followed orders. By comparison Jae Woo was more reserved. He liked facts and reasons. He followed paths of logic when interrogating suspects and though he never openly questioned orders he secretly doubted the outcome of them. His colleagues and his superiors thought of Jae Woo as too high-minded. As a result Han-Bin was the lead investigator and called the shots.
They rolled the body over onto its back. The arms now flopped wide to either side, the legs still crossed, resembling a crucifixion. The right side of the face was caved in as though hit repeatedly with a hammer. The cheekbone crushed and forced up into what was left of the eye socket. The jaw broken and hanging loose from the rest of the face; the man’s bloody mouth a mess of broken teeth and gore.
“Glad I missed breakfast,” said Han-Bin moving his heavy frame to stand up. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He felt light headed from standing up too soon. “Check it out,” he told Jae Woo, gesturing towards the body. He turned away, pulling his collar tight against his thick neck.
Jae Woo began to search the man’s pockets and immediately located the man’s ID card. “Party member,” he called over to Han-Bin. He laid the ID to one side and examined the rest of the man’s pockets. He lifted the man’s limp jaw to examine the neckline. “Hey,” he beckoned Han-Bin “look at this.”
He lifted the man’s jaw to one side and revealed a three-inch crooked gap along the jugular and across the Adam’s apple. The man’s throat had been slashed. “Cut and pushed more likely,” said Jae Woo.
“Murder, eh? You’re lucky.” Han-Bin wagged a finger at the dead man’s face. “Suicide is strictly forbidden by the state and punishable by death!” He laughed. Jae Woo ignored him and turned to inspect the wound.
“It's not a deep cut. Quite rough… made from a strange angle. Thin blade. Must have severed the artery. He would have bled to death if the fall hadn’t killed him.”
Jae Woo stood up and shaded his eyes against the grey-white glare of the morning sky. “The building’s windows are fake… he must have been thrown off the roof.”
Han-Bin looked up and squinted. The windows of the building were painted on the surface of the building. He looked further up towards the roof and then to Jae Woo. Han-Bin sighed.
“Couldn’t fly, eh? What's his name?”
“There’s no wallet on him but his ID was in his pocket. Name, Dong Woo Kim; factory foreman, like I said, party member.”
“Foreman, eh? Must have pissed the tea lady off. Address?”
“Floor 23. Apartment 2329.”
Han-Bin looked at the entrance to the building and then up at the structure again.
“Crap. It's never the ground floor, is it? Ok. Let’s go up and see Mrs Dong Woo Kim then.” Han-Bin called over to three old women who had gathered at the building entrance, and gestured for them to come over.
“Hey you!” The old women looked at each other and started bickering inaudibly. Han-Bin singled one out. “You. Mama. In the blue scarf.” He gestured again and the old women began to look at each other as if saying “Who? Me?” their heads nodding like pigeons. Two of the old women moved backwards and while doing so nudged the third forward. She turned her crabby face and muttered something to the others before shuffling over to the policemen.
Han-Bin looked at her lined face, her eyes deliberately vacant as if to protect any secret thoughts she might be having. He squinted. She could just be vacant minded, thought Han-Bin, more likely. He pointed at the body.
“See him? Know him?”
The woman shook her head.
“Okay, I hereby deputise you a police officer of the municipal district 76. That means no one touches the body. No one. You understand? You wait here and guard this body.”
The old woman looked panicked and started to protest.
“Listen mama, I read minds, I know what you’re thinking. See my buddy here?” he pointed at Jae Woo. “You or anyone else touch this body and he’ll shoot you.” Han-Bin prodded the old woman’s forehead with a fat finger. “Right here.” Jae Woo looked at the old woman coldly then down to his holstered pistol and tapped the butt.
The old woman’s eyes opened wide.
* * *
Jae Woo, Han-Bin and the building caretaker were crammed in an elevator designed for two people at best. As it creaked slowly up the building Jae Woo felt the rancid smell from the caretaker creep up his nose and into his stomach. The air seemed to evaporate from the cabin. Han-Bin tried to turn his face away from the caretaker who smiled at him inanely with rotten teeth.
With an uninspired ding the elevator bell sounded and the doors opened. Relieved Jae Woo and Han-Bin struggled to get out. They gestured for the caretaker to leave them and the caretaker grinned goodbye.
“I nearly shot the smelly bastard” huffed Han-Bin as the elevator doors closed to begin its creaking descent. The corridor was grey and cold. Each steel door painted the same dull grey as the concrete walls. Every five feet there was a weak, flickering light on.
Jae Woo found 2329, the door ajar, someone crying inside. He swallowed hard on a dry throat and pushed open the door. The apartment was quite standard. One large room with a kitchen area off to one side and door next to that leading to what he presumed was a bathroom. In the centre of the room was low dining table and on the other side was a higher, smaller table with flowers on it next to a set of double doors. The apartment was brightly lit but the air was dull and hot. There were no windows, not even in the kitchen area, which was dominated by a large extractor fan. On a sofa, which Jae Woo assumed doubled for bedding, sat a young woman crying and an old woman speaking in a low tone, holding her shoulders.
“I take the widow. You look around,” instructed Han-Bin. Jae Woo nodded his assent. He noted that the pale grey walls were bare apart from the obligatory framed photograph of the glorious leader. He walked over to the double doors. The doors led to a small room containing clothes, more bedding, towels, several cardboard boxes and a small dressing table.
He closed the double doors and walked around the room. There was no television, as he expected, but there was a large radio. It looked new so he made a note of this. Jae Woo walked over to the kitchen area passing Han-Bin, now kneeling next to the widow. The kitchen area was small, about five feet square. There was a small stove and food preparation area. The refrigerator was small but modern. They must be reasonably well connected, he thought. He found nothing of note in the bathroom either, so walked over to the entrance and examined where the shoes were kept. There was a gap where the man’s shoes would have been. “A jumper wouldn’t have taken his shoes,” he thought “a jumper would have just gone to the roof and launched himself off.” He looked over to Han-Bin who returned the glance as if to say, “This is going nowhere.”
Jae Woo walked over to Han-Bin and the sobbing widow. She was looking at the floor. Jae-Woo grabbed Han-Bin’s shoulder “Let’s go.”
The widow looked up at him and he saw her for the first time. She had a delicate face with prominent cheekbones. Her eyes were rounded, wide and deep. Her nose was petite and slight. Her upper lip curved like an archer’s bow, her bottom lip full. She looked slight but strong. Her skin was clear and her eyes, despite the crying were coloured a very light brown. They were deep. Welcoming. Jae Woo swallowed again. She looked at him and her small mouth opened slightly as though she had a sudden need to breathe. In that instant Jae Woo felt his stomach drop. As she looked up a tear rolled from her eye and slowly crawled down her cheek. Her eyes seemed to be saying something to him.
Jae Woo instinctively reached out and touched the teardrop that exploded with his touch. Her gaze never left his. She did not pull back, she did not react, and she just looked at him.
“I, I,” he stuttered, his voice cracking “I’m sorry for your loss.” He pulled his hand away. Han-Bin grabbed his arm.
“Come on Romeo, let’s check the roof,” he said standing up and walking towards the door. Jae Woo stood still for a second then turned and followed him. As he neared the door he looked back. The neighbour was still consoling the widow, arm around her shoulder, but she was no longer crying. She was staring straight back at Jae Woo. What was she saying to him? He turned to leave and as he did he put his finger to his lips and tasted salt.
* * *
It was only two flights of stairs to the roof but Han-Bin was already out of breath when he got to the top. He sat on a ventilator unit, panting. The roof was wide and bare, each side blocked by the large stairwell exit. The wind whipped up dust and dirt. Han-Bin reached in his pocket for a cigarette.
“What was that?” he asked.
“What?” Jae Woo looked around trying not to catch Han-Bin’s eye.
“You and the merry widow, eh? Husband’s body’s not even cold and you’re trying to fill your boots, eh?” he laughed. “Forget it buddy, little beauty like that’ll have her finger up some party members asshole within a week,” he clapped his hands. “She’s special status, or at least her dead husband was. You and me, we’re basic status at best.” He held his half finished cigarette out at arm’s length and watched the wind carry it away.
They both stared in silence across the grey and brown landscape in front of them. The buildings ahead mirrored the one they stood on, characterless, designed to fit in not stand out. Each block reminded Jae Woo of people he had seen, beaten people, their personalities driven from them, eyes closed to the brutality around them. The blocks stood, connected yet isolated; silent like the queues of people Jae Woo watched waiting patiently for food each morning.
Cold wind whipped between the soulless buildings. In the distance, through the thin smog, they could make out the peak of the Ryugyong Hotel. It looked alien compared to the dull buildings that surrounded it. Above the smog line the peak resembled a rocket from another world. It was, in fact, a world apart from theirs, neither had seen inside it.
Standing up Han-Bin suggested that Jae Woo cover the roof in one direction while he took the other. The sooner they were out of there the happier he would be. “And thank the founding father, the paperwork on this should keep us inside and warm for the rest of the day,” he chuckled.
He set off walking slowly to the left leaving Jae Woo to walk in the direction where the man had fallen. Han-Bin had done this so Jae Woo would arrive at the crime scene first and therefore take up the bulk of the report writing. Jae Woo shrugged, he was used to it.
Jae Woo walked directly to where the man had fallen. The ledge spotted with dried blood spotted on the concrete. Jae Woo peered over the edge and could see a small crowd gathered around the body, still no other police. He looked back to the area close to the ledge. There was blood dotted around the ledge but no spatter on the concrete surrounding the area. Jae Woo looked closely at the ground but could find no evidence of a struggle. Had the man been forced up here, his throat slashed on the ledge? Doubtful.
There was a thick pipe running along the edge of the ledge but that was it. An idea came to mind. No other hiding place except the pipe, which was too thick and deep to look behind with ease. The stairwell exit blocked him from Han-Bin’s his view. Bending down he ran his hands along the pipe in one direction. Nothing. He then ran his hands along the pipe in the other direction and at once hit something. The object was rammed in tight and would not yield to his initial tugs. Looking around to check whether anyone was watching he reached in deeper and took a harder grip on the object. Jae Woo pulled hard and the object gave way almost sending him reeling backwards.
In his hand was a canvas bag and inside he found a pair of the man’s shoes, a wallet and watch. He opened the wallet and found no money just a photograph of the widow. She looked younger and wore her hair long. She was smiling; her nose wrinkled slightly, her eyes squeezed tight. “Who was she smiling for?” thought Jae Woo, “was her husband the photographer?”
Looking around he took out his own wallet and put the photo of the woman inside. He tucked the shoes inside his large jacket and shoved the other belongings in his pockets. He took out his notebook and began writing up a description of the scene just as Han-Bin rounded the corner.
“What have you found buddy?”
“Nothing, just a blood pattern here,” replied Jae Woo indicating the ledge “and a possible struggle. Nothing else. No weapon.”
Han-Bin sighed, “Let’s go back downstairs. Forensic will be here soon.”
Jae Woo knew forensic meant little more than taking photos of the body unless they had sent a particularly diligent officer. But Jae Woo had an idea crawling in his head, an idea that needed to bear fruit or be discarded. He had to get back to the body before they arrived. He had a theory he wanted to prove first.
“Han-Bin, I tell you what. Why don’t you go back and interview the widow some more? In the warm?” he paused adding “You’re right; I’m a little distracted by her. I’ll go wait for forensic.”
Han-Bin gave a little laugh and pinched Jae Woo’s cheek “Not a bad idea little buddy.” He drew closer, his voice low, “maybe I’ll put a word in for you, eh?”
* * *
Jae Woo put the shoes, wallet, and watch back in the canvas bag and threw them into the boot of his patrol car. He thanked the old woman with a pat on the back and dispersed the crowds. He looked down at the man’s twisted body. The man’s wound was turning darker, his throat gaping open like an obscene leer. Jae Woo looked at the man’s feet, and pulled the man’s sock back up. He weighed up the possibilities: the man had been murdered on the roof, his belongings stolen then hidden or…
He had little time. He inspected the man’s wound and saw that his throat had been cut left to right. Jae Woo looked at his own hands and mimicked running his palm against his own throat. He then took the man’s right hand and noticed a shard of metal about three inches long embedded deeply in the palm. Jae Woo took out his tweezers and gently eased the metal out. He flipped an idea over in his head.
From the corner of his eye he spotted the forensic team arriving. Putting the metal and tweezers in his pocket he stood up. The forensics team leader came up to him looking half asleep. “What do we have officer?” The forensics team leader yawned. He didn’t even try to hide the boredom in his voice.
“Murder. His throat has been slashed. Signs of blood and a scuffle on the roof, he must have been cut and pushed. Wallet and possibly his watch have been taken.”
“His shoes.” Jae Woo lied.
* * *
Two nights passed and on the third Jae Woo lay on a small futon in his grey, cramped apartment. The rain crashed against his apartment’s one tiny window. It sounded like food frying. Jae Woo’s stomach rumbled. His mind was cluttered and confused.
He sat up and lit a cigarette, inhaling deeply. He stared at the canvas bag, on the floor next to the apartment door, with the man’s shoes and belongings inside. He could not think why he had taken them. He was a thief. Jae Woo felt a pang of shame.
Why had the man hidden his belongings? To make it look like he’s been robbed and murdered? Jae Woo figured that the man had stood on the ledge and stuck the metal sliver deep into his palm before running it against his own throat and jumping to his death.
He thought of the widow. Jae Woo thought of her small mouth. He imagined touching her bottom lip, putting his own lips against it, biting her flesh, kissing her. He shook his head.
“He’s party member, she’s not.” Han-Bin had told him as they drove away from the apartment. “Been married four years, no kids. Nothing strange there.”
“Did she mention… him?” Jae Woo asked concentrating on the road ahead.
“She blubbed a lot. Just mentioned his name. She’s been with the neighbours all day. Nothing else. As he’s party member it’s out of our hands, let the Ministry of People’s Security take over. Their murder, lucky for her, lucky for us, who knows, eh?”
Jae Woo knew, of course. The man had killed himself but tried to make it look like murder to protect his wife. The wife.
Lucky for her. The words rang hollow in Jae Woo’s head. Lucky for her it wasn’t “suicide;”to lose a member of your family through suicide was a crime against the state, a declaration that your life was your own, tantamount to treason.
Lucky for her. Forensics had found no evidence to support that idea. No blood on her clothes, neighbours corroborated her alibi, saying she’d been with them all day. She was in the clear. Wasn’t she? Jae Woo picked up the sliver of metal, still coated in dried blood. She’ll be okay, he told himself. But what about me, he thought.
Why had he hidden the evidence? She’d looked at him and something had passed between them. Hadn’t it? What did he expect? Something caught his attention. The dull strip of yellow light between the bottom of his door and the floor of his apartment flickered slightly. Someone was outside his apartment. Was this it? Had they come for him? Who would it be? Han-Bin?
Jae Woo held his breath and felt his heart rattle like a stone in his chest. The heat from his burning cigarette crept closer to his fingers. He daren’t move. The shadow outside remained for what felt like a very long time. He heard a scrape of shoe against concrete and the shadow slipped away. Jae Woo exhaled and dropped the burning butt into the ashtray.
He looked again at the sliver of metal in his hand. He knew what he had to do next.
* * *
Jae Woo stood outside the apartment block in the grey morning light and looked down to where the husband’s body had lain horribly twisted just days earlier. He entered the elevator in silence, the caretaker grinning at him, still wearing the same stinking clothes as before. He thanked the man and made his way to the widow’s apartment. Outside her door he took a deep breath and looked at the canvas bag in his hands.
He thought of her deep brown eyes again. “I found these,” he would say. “I thought you would want them back,” and she would know. She would know he had saved her. And that would be that. She would be grateful for this but they would never be together. Unsaid words. Jae Woo’s lungs hurt, his mouth was dry. His heart danced back and forth. He knocked on the door.
An old man opened the door; his wizened face concerned there was cop knocking at eight in the morning. Behind the man Jae Woo could make out the noises of children.
“Mrs Dong Woo Kim. Urgent, a police matter.” Jae Woo tried to sound official but sensed his voice cracking under the pretence.
“No Dong Woo Kim here,” said the old man defiantly. Jae Woo pushed the man aside. The apartment looked the same, the same grey walls, the ubiquitous framed photos of the founding father and sons, the same small kitchen now cluttered and busy. An old woman smiled from the stove. In the centre of the room was a family eating breakfast. Three children, a young man, and woman. Everyone peered at him blankly as if concentrating hard to hide some guilt or other.
Jae Woo checked the apartment number. 2329. It was the right apartment. He stared at the old man.
“How long have you been here?”
“Two days officer, is there a problem?”
Jae Woo was stunned. Lost for words.
“And the wi… Mr and Mrs Dong Woo Kim?”
The old man shrugged. The old woman smiled. The family munched blankly on. Jae Woo apologised. Wrong block he mumbled and walked away. He left the building in a daze and couldn’t recall how he had arrived on the ground floor, his mind thick and dull. Jae Woo looked at the canvas bag in his hands. He suddenly felt very alone.
Dave Busby grew up in London’s rough and tumble East end. After dabbling in acting and comedy he travelled across the world teaching English and training teachers. “The art of writing is like the art of crime” he says, “it’s all about getting away with it.”
His short story “Bones for Bruno” recently appeared in omdb! (December, 2015).
Copyright © 2016 David Busby. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!
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