Michael Bennett won the 2017 Ngaio Marsh crime writing award for best book of non-fiction on Saturday night for his book In Dark Places, a study of the wrongful, shameful conviction of Teina Pora for the 1992 murder of Susan Burdett. The excerpt is from the opening chapter.
Content warning: This chilling excerpt describes the events leading up to the rape and murder of Susan Burdett.
March 1992. South Auckland. It’s a Monday night. Monday night is league night. She’s been playing in the ten-pin bowling social league at Manukau Superstrike for several years now. Mondays are a chance to catch up, bowl a few games, have a laugh. Then a drink or two. The people she bowls with are more than teammates. They’ve become good friends. Monday night is her favourite night of the week.
As she pulls on her team uniform, she thinks about ringing Dallas. She only recently connected with the son she gave up for adoption years before, when she was little more than a child herself. She still can’t get her head around it. So strange to see the baby she only knew a day or two, now a grown man.
She opens her bedroom window to let in some fresh air. Her small two bedroom unit gets airless on warm March nights like tonight. It would be nice to give Dallas a call, say hi, check everything is okay.
She looks at the clock on the wall. There’s only twenty minutes till she has to be at Superstrike for her first game. No time to make the call.
As she heads out the door Susan Burdett decides to definitely phone Dallas when she gets back from bowling tonight.
* * *
Another part of South Auckland. The same muggy early autumn of 1992. Walking alone past locked and security-grilled shopfronts Teina Pora laughs, remembering something.
“Hangi Pants”. Lobelia, the little bitch, calling him “Hangi Pants”! When it’s Teina running around the bars of South Auckland every other night looking for his 13 year-old sister. It’s him dragging Lobelia’s skinny brown arse home before whichever uncle and auntie she’s staying with works out what she’s up to – which is, getting pissed with guys ten years older than her. And she’s calling Teina the Hangi Pants. What?!
Teina catches a glimpse of himself in a shop window as he passes. The long curly black hair. The big smile. The baby face, younger than his 16 years. The clothes that he always keeps clean and tidy. Maybe Lobelia’s right. The girls are interested, for sure. Teina’s never had a problem in that department. So what? There’s only one girl who matters to him now.
Channelle. Just turned one years old. Cute as anything. His baby girl.
Teina turns to walk down a side street. This one’s not so busy. Darker, a few street lights out. Way better.
As he checks out the cars, Teina thinks about the tricycle he’s had his eye on. Big wheels, easy for Channelle to balance on. Red. Her favourite colour. He can just imagine bringing the trike home for Channelle. Teina thinks he might pocket a bit more of the money he makes tonight, keep back a wee bit of extra tax from what he’s gonna hand over to the mobsters. He’ll use it to buy her a jacket, the same colour. For when she’s riding her new trike.
Teina slips the fork out of his pocket. The two outer prongs are already bent back, ready to go. He eases the fork in the door-lock of the Subaru. A couple of well-practiced twists, click.
Teina slips into the drivers seat, he reaches under the dashboard for the wiring. As the engine sparks to life, Teina grins to himself. He can’t wait to see the look on her face when Channelle sees her new trike.
He can’t wait.
* * *
Susan buys her round, and she takes the drinks to the table where her team are celebrating. Half past ten on a Monday night, Superstrike is still rowdy as hell. The rumble of bowling balls, the bleeping of space invader machines, the cheering of bowlers. The smash of pins being knocked over. Susan likes this place. It’s noisy but it’s a comfortable kind of noisy.
The team played well, they won easily. At the table the conversation follows the usual well-travelled paths. How’s work? Who are we playing next week? Seeing anyone new? Familiar. Easy.
A teammate goes for another round of drinks, but Susan takes a last sip of her gin and says goodnight. It’s a work night, she has to be back in at the accounts department first thing. Susan smiles to her friends. See you next Monday.
In the carpark Susan gets into her charcoal Toyota Starlet. She keeps the little car clean and tidy. The same way she keeps her little house. That’s one advantage of living alone, you can have things just how you like them.
* * *
It’s an eight minute drive from Superstrike back to her house. As it turns into Pah Road the Toyota Starlet passes under a streetlight, brighter than the others. Susan catches a glimpse of herself in her rear-view mirror. She unconsciously touches her curls. Still her natural colour at 39 years old, not like some of the office ladies who are younger even than her. Susan’s quietly pleased. She doesn’t have to dye yet.
She turns right into Olive Crescent, pushing the remote switch. The little Toyota Starlet idles a moment in the driveway as her garage door labours upwards. Then she drives into the open garage, using the remote to shut the door again behind her. She is security conscious, Susan. The remote door means she is safely inside her house before she even needs to get out of her car.
A shower, a phone call to her son Dallas, then bed. That’s all that is left of Susan’s day.
* * *
It’s dark in Susan’s house. The man hears the car driving in the garage. He listens to the sound of the sliding door as it descends.
The clock on the wall reads a couple of minutes after 11:00. Okay.
In the garage, the car engine dies. The man tenses. A familiar feeling stirs again inside him. The adrenaline is flowing. Cold sweat forming on the back of his neck. Anticipation.
He always likes this moment.
In Dark Places by Michael Bennett (Paul Little Books, $35) is available from Unity Books.