This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2017

Bad Detectives

Short story by Liz Harmer

Liz Harmer@lizharmer

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Illustration by Valentine Smith.

One way to examine a marriage is to look at the pattern of jokes. Fourteen years ago, when Heidi started her daily running practice, when Marley was two, terribly two, Heidi used to joke that she ran because she could pretend she’d keep running and never come back. Sometimes she ran for an hour, for two. Jake laughed loudly, generously, and it was one of his best points. He could take a joke.

Her breaths were as loud as the rustling of leaves. Footsteps too heavy. Her breath a fog in the air, dirty as exhaust.

Last night, she’d gone to bed early. They’d had Dinah and Steve and Nathan over, and they were a little drunk, trying, a bunch of academic ex-radicals, to revel. Their parties were growing sluggish as their metabolisms. Talk now turned around aches and pains, ageism, the fact of death. “I’m going to die, me!” Dinah said. Dinah had recently gotten through a bout of breast cancer. “Riddled!” she said. “I’m riddled with disease.” Heidi had smiled. She’d been amused, slightly, but was already thinking forward to the morning, to her ritual in the still-dark world. Snug clothing thin as a rubber cast peeling up and over her body, her neon pink runners, the sweat-wicking socks. Yanking the laces hard. It was a place she could go to in her mind, down to the paved trails curving around the marsh called Cootes Paradise, down to the view of the lake, choppy and wild. The fishy smells, the dead things, skeletons recalling wasps’ nests when viewed from a long way off. Marley called it an addiction. Teenagers were prone to misusing words and exaggerating. Everything random, everything literally.

“I think the definition of addiction includes the possibility for ruin. Drugs and alcohol and gambling ruin people’s lives.”

“So drugs aren’t always so bad?” Marley was withering, eyebrows high, and Heidi suspected a trap, that she’d have to allow that hard drug use was okay. She skirted it.

“I don’t think my running’s an addiction.”

“You depend on it, Mom. You’re de-pend-ent.”

Sometimes at parties Jake still talked about her PhD, as though he worried about how people might view her. And Dinah talked and talked about cancer, about bodies.

Steve said, “I haven’t passed on my genetic material.”

“Maybe it all comes down to biology in the end,” Nathan said. None of them believed this, but they allowed it to pass unchallenged. A

s they talked, Heidi watched her husband, sexy because he would be inaccessible to her until afterwards. Married 20 years, they were now amazing to people. “I need a little more dysfunction in my life!”: one of Marley’s ridiculous complaints.

She got up to pour everyone more wine, to offer chocolates. In half an hour, she’d go to bed, armed with the excuse of her morning run. From upstairs, she would hear their voices faintly, the eruptions of laughter. Would hear when they decided to put on reggae, possibly to dance. Would hear Dinah say that she was running so much it was like she thought she wasn’t going to die. Soon it was only Dinah’s voice, and Jake’s. The words, the laughter, the drumbeats wound into her mind, while she fell by drowsy steps to sleep. Was that Dinah talking to Jake after the others had gone home? Was that them saying “her”? Over and and over again, her her her, scritch-scratching like branches hitting the window in a storm.

Heidi used to joke, when asked how they’d gotten together, “He was just so obsessed with me, I felt sorry for him.” Funny because Jake was so good looking. Funny because it had been she who’d been obsessed. “A marriage based on pity.”


Some years ago, there’d been a body right on the trail where she ran every day. It had been lying there in plain sight, decomposing, presumably with its unseeing eye or eyes staring right at Heidi as she breezed past. She read the paper for clues, brought it up in every casual conversation with neighbours, with parents dropping their kids off in the morning and picking them up in the afternoon, with the woman who owns the bakery, with the librarians. It had been a calm, almost idyllic time in her life, with both kids in school and space in the day for walking by herself, stopping at the bookstore, treating herself to lattes. But in this body there seemed to be something personal, especially in the fact that she had missed it, a half-dressed woman, torso pricked with stab wounds, skin mottled and bruised and swollen, barely covered by leaves and pine needles.

She should have noticed something. A smell? Scavenging animals? She returned to her memory of the day when she would have run right past the body twice—once in, once back—and could not see anything where seeing the body should have been. It was all she talked about for a while. She joked about turning herself into the police for being such a bad detective. There was guilt in it, wasn’t there? A sin of omission?

The body had, while living, belonged to a student who lived around the corner from them. And when she racked her memory for this, too, she thought she almost remembered the girl’s long sweep of blonde hair, her slender body, glasses that appeared to be ornamental, but she knew that this picture in her mind came not from her own observations but from the newspaper, the neighbours’ reports.

Semen had been found on her person, semen eventually determined to have been deposited only an hour before her death. The rage indicated by the many stab wounds were said to be proof that she had been killed by someone she knew intimately. But there were no witnesses, no DNA matches.

A woman detective came by, claimed only to be making rounds. “I’m afraid these things rarely get resolved,” she told Heidi. Middle-aged, paunchy, but pretty in her way, she walked slowly around the living room, pausing at the teak bookshelves covering one large wall, pausing again to peer at photos and artworks sat here and there. “Call me if you think of anything,” she’d said, and there was a meaning to her look that Heidi understood was a police trick, an attempt to suss you out if there was anything to be sussed.

There were layers of years between her and those months of investigation, layers between the investigation and what had really happened, and she was only thinking of it now because of something Dinah had said last night. It was a bin you found in an attic full of things you’d forgotten existed.

Heidi no longer became breathless while running. More likely were her legs to give out than her lungs. Lately it was heel pain; the only time her foot didn’t hurt was when she was actually hitting the ground hard, silencing it, and then it whimpered through the rest of her day. She limped while walking; running, she flew.

The only way to survive those years when the kids were babies was to be like that heel, numb and silent, getting through. So that now she could not remember. She must have told Jake about the detective. Now it throbbed in her mind, a halo of light around the thing to which she should have been alert.

A year after the body was found, she’d become a cliché, the bored housewife imagining things. She could not find significance in the details. Her sympathy was with the police, dealing always with gaps and misarrangements of facts and— how could the justice system rely so heavily on eyewitness testimony?—human memory. “I think I’ll retire the detective’s cap,” she said to Jake one evening after dinner. “At the risk of becoming ridiculous.”

Jake had laughed. The table was strewn with dirty dishes, rice spread like maggots around Kent’s chair. She took him to the kitchen to wash the sticky soy sauce off his hands and said to Jake, “Was she ever in any of your classes?”


“Larissa Cheminovsky or however you pronounce it.”

“Oh, her.”

The Who?. The Oh, her. These responses made no sense in the context of their discussion. They sent a chill through her so that she thought, her hands on Kent’s, working the suds through his fat fingers, she might make her son shiver.


“I thought I told you that? She was in the first Sensationalist class I taught,” he said, boldly looking at her, a dare in his eyes.


Sometimes when she was running her body disappeared. She became spirit. Only her eyes floated in midair like two firebugs. Sometimes during a long run it was as if she’d fallen asleep.

It was as bad as an addiction. When she had to stop, it might ruin her. How could she go on without the way it felt? Running was a way of sorting the thoughts into their proper channels, sending them along like paper boats out to sea. Her body in leaps and falls, its acquaintance with gravity. An old joke about why she ran marathons, about why she insisted on giving birth without an epidural: “I have a guilty conscience.”

Running also made her see herself as prey. When she went down her trails, the wooded ones, the asphalt ones trimmed by the polluted, fish-stinking waterways, she was always alert. A branch falling along the path ahead of her felt ominous. Rustling sounds were wolves in her imagination. Once she had come across a pack of five enormous deer, and camouflaged as she was by her black Gore-Tex and the winter’s dark they didn’t notice her. From a distance and until she was a few metres away, she thought they were fantastical, too fine to be animals, and too large to be people.

Perhaps with her routine, her isolation, she was inviting rapists and weirdos. She didn’t stop running underneath overpasses, in absolute darkness, not even after the body was found.



Just before she’d said good-night, she gave an anecdote about running past the giant blow-up black cats someone had put on their lawn for Halloween. They were at least six-by-six-by-six feet large, and there two of them, rigged up to a motor so that they turned their giant grinning evil black cat faces toward each other and then forward and then toward each other. “It was terrifying to run past them,” she said. She felt judgment or boredom in the silence of her audience. “I don’t know how to explain it. My instincts flared. Obviously they were made out of nylon or whatever. But as I was running past them I felt distinctly like they were going to pounce on me.”

Distinctly was one of those words people used when they wanted to sound smart. It had been well over a decade since she’d given up her academic life. Dinah and Steve and Nathan stared at her, blinking.

It reminded Jake of something amusing that had happened. He could read her and a crowd, rescuing her from the limelight.

He told the anecdote about the squirrel, about their bad detective work. The joke was that his specialization was Sherlock Holmes and the 19th-century detective novel, that in his work he dealt with the detail, with clues, all the ways to think about the epistemological problem of everyday life.

“First, there was a hole in the screen. We found a huge gaping hole one day in the dining room window screen. We thought it was Kent!” Everyone laughed. “Just like Kent to punch a hole in the screen for no reason. And then the next day our fruit basket was knocked over. My first thought was—there’s been a burglar! What did he want with our fruit?” He was into the story now, standing. “There was an apple with some bites in it and of course I assumed it had to be Kent!”

“Tell me you did not eat the apple,” Steve said. He was famously fastidious, and grimaced largely for everyone’s amusement.

“Well, I cut out the bite marks.” Jake seemed quite far from her, and she smiled at him from another place, underwater. “Then, at dinner time, a squirrel comes along and sits on the windowsill and stares at us while we’re eating.”

“We really didn’t have a clue,” Heidi said. “I think I said ‘We need to cover up that hole or we’ll have wildlife getting in.’”

“We interrogated Kent and Marley: Why did you break the screen? We couldn’t figure out why they wouldn’t just tell us the truth. We’re the worst detectives in the entire world! It wasn’t until we saw the squirrel sitting in our fucking nut jar that we finally put it together.”

“At least the irony isn’t lost on you,” Nathan said.

As she left the room with empty plates, and on her way back with another bottle, Heidi heard Dinah say something about Larissa. “Remember that whole thing?”

“Did they ever find the guy?” Steve said.

“Of course you assume it was a guy,” Dinah said.

“They never caught him,” Heidi said. They all stared. Everything always came blurting out of her.

“Wasn’t she in a bunch of your classes?” Dinah said to Jake.

“She was his RA,” Nathan said. Then they moved on to another discussion: the barrage of email, the problem of cell phones.

“I’m a hamster on a wheel,” Heidi said, by way of apologizing for leaving the room.

“Aren’t we all,” said Dinah.


In the morning, she ran the knots out of her mind. She thought them over like a surgeon, plucking them out as though they were tumours she was riddled with. What might it mean to live as though the irony weren’t lost on you? She thought again and again. What might it mean to live like someone upon whom nothing is lost?

She thought about the rice maggots, Kent’s hands under the water, Jake’s strange response. Oh, her. She’d been a student in more than one class, a chosen research assistant. His reaction had been a lie so easily deciphered that it was an insult as well as a dare. What had it meant? You never believed a person capable of cheating, let alone killing, let alone killing in such a gruesome way, but every killer had a family, had at least one friend who’d say: not the person I knew.

No. These were the thoughts of an irrational, a paranoiac, a conspiracy theorist. There was something there under the thoughts—something about her—but she ran around it, couldn’t dig.

As she neared the house, she saw him there on the porch.

“What are you doing?” she said, unable to look at him directly.

“What do you mean?”

“Standing vigil?” He had never been there to greet her, not once in all these years, but now it seemed to her that marriage as a form of guardianship was inescapable.

“Yeah, ha.” She didn’t need to look up from her stretch to know how his smile looked. “How’s your foot?”

“Same,” she said, pulling off the sock and digging her thumbs into the meat of her heel. You couldn’t see a person you’ve loved this long.

“Don’t let it cripple you,” he said. Then, he reached out his arm to help her up. “You’re allowed to take a day off, you know,” he said, eyes kind, smile relaxed. It was too easy to trust him. No, that was the wrong modifier. Just: it was easy enough to trust him.

Liz Harmer’s debut novel, The Amateurs, will be published in 2018.

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