The message came in early one morning, the sun barely beginning to clamber over the mountains to the north-east of the city. The lockdown had taken all the taxis and marshrutki off the roads, and the only vehicle in front of us was a city truck doing its best to spray disinfectant at the pavements, like a drunk waving a beer bottle.
The squad car had picked me up in Oak Park near the statue of Kurmanjan Datka, the Queen of the Mountains. When insomnia hits me, I like to walk and sit there in the shade of the trees, smoking and wondering about the chaos of my life. The oaks were planted when the city was founded, so they’re our version of history and tradition. In a city that’s had more name changes than a twice-divorced woman, it’s comforting to know some things endure.
The driver filled me in on the details. A six year old boy, found dead on a stairwell landing in one of the old Soviet housing blocks in the Cosmos estate, down on Maldybayev Street, not far from the canal. He must have stumbled in the dark, tripped, smashed open his skull on the edge of the concrete stairs. The bulbs that should have lit the landings either burnt out or stolen. No handrail. The edges of the steps cracked or crumbling. A tragic accident, loitering there, just waiting to happen. It could have been a babushka or her elderly husband, a mama carrying groceries to feed her children, an alkash heading home to sleep it off. It could have been anyone: no one was to blame.
At least, that would have been the story, if Maxim Kuznetsov, Probationary Officer, had been a little less meticulous. He’d stayed overnight with a girlfriend on the sixth floor, heard the screams, headed down the stairs, found the broken body.
A gash the depth and length of a forefinger had split open the skull, the way a knife slices into one of those ripe green-striped watermelons from the Fergana Valley. Blood and brains had pooled around the back of the boy’s head, smearing and clotting wisps of his hair. His eyes stared up, as if wondering how he’d flown down the stairs to this ending. His mouth was open, and Kuznetsov could see where the tip of his tongue had been bitten off.
A woman – presumably the boy’s mother – clutched and clawed at her face, her screams echoing off the walls as her husband tried to hold her back. Her open mouth looked like a larger version of her son’s fatal wound, the shriek of death captured in an instant.
Kutnetsov showed his ID, said as gently as he could that the boy had to remain untouched. A neighbour volunteered that she’d called an ambulance. All Kutnetsov could do was caution everyone to go home, make breakfast, drink chai.
By the time the ambulance arrived, the mother’s hysteria had collapsed into a silent shock, the way a balloon slowly deflates. The medics wanted to remove the body, but Kutnetsov ordered them to wait. Taking instructions from a junior officer obviously annoyed them, but it’s never wise to antagonise someone in authority who might uncover all sorts of secrets if he chooses to go hunting.
The crowd of neighbours had thinned out by the time I arrived; Kutnetsov had told them all they would be questioned as witnesses, and that’s usually enough to extinguish all curiosity and cause a retreat to behind closed doors.
‘What do you think, Inspector?’
I shrugged, watched as the body was loaded onto a stretcher, pitifully small.
‘Where are you taking my boy?’
The father stood in front of me, uncomfortably close, his hands bunched into fists the size of grapefruit, knuckles scarred and white. Kutnetsov moved towards forward to intercept him, but I raised my hand to stop him. Confrontation was the last thing I wanted right then.
I kept my voice low, calm, aware of his pain.
‘We have to formally establish a cause of death,’ I said, ‘It’s just standard procedure, and then we’ll return your son’s body to you, for his funeral.’
I paused, watched his fists relax slightly.
‘I’m very sorry for your loss. I knew how you must be feeling.’
I didn’t explain how I knew, how my wife Chinara had fought against cancer. Of course, the pandemic meant that if she’d been alive, the virus might have devoured her instead. Death never stands still, and if you bolt one door tight and secure, then another door gets kicked open.
‘Take care of your wife. Mothers feel these things very deeply, and she’ll rely on you to be strong.’
I grasped his shoulder, squeezed, staring into his eyes for any clue that things weren’t as they seemed. They were dry, unblinking; his wife had done the crying for both of them. He nodded, turned away, started to climb the stairs that had killed his son, on his way back to the apartment that now had one bed too many.
‘What do you think?’ Kuznetsov repeated.
‘An accident,’ I said, heard the uncertainty in my voice, ‘But take a look around anyway, see what you find.’
He nodded, followed the husband up the stairs, while I went outside through the steel door and lit a cigarette to take the taste of death out of my mouth. I watched the smoke rise into the dawn air, melting into nothingness as the day grew stronger.
I got back into the squad car, told the driver to take me back to Sverdlovsky station. The last of the fading stars ignored me as I threw the cigarette out of the window onto the road, watched it smoulder, then die.
‘Your first suspicious death, and you solved it,’ I said.
‘You told me to look closely.’
I shook my head, tapped ash out of the window in my office.
‘It was you that found the tip of the boy’s tongue,’ I said, ‘Two landings up, by the door of his apartment. So it must have been bitten off before he fell down two flights of stairs. Which means?’
‘The boy must have been injured upstairs,’ Kuznetsov said, ‘Probably by his father, or so I thought at first. I took him into the station for questioning, told him that the pathologist would testify if there were bruises or injuries that couldn’t be explained away.’
‘But the father maintained it was an accident, even when the morgue examined the body and you questioned the neighbours?’
‘People think what happens in a family is none of their business. A child screaming, a wife sobbing, nothing to do with me,’ Kuznetsov said, ‘But it all came out in the end, once we questioned the mother. She admitted it, told us everything. But the husband insisted she was lying.’
‘Think what it must have been like in that apartment,’ I said, ‘Stuck at home, no food in the cupboard, no work for him so no money coming in. Worried sick by stories about the virus and the future.’
I ground my cigarette out on the ledge, flicked it to join a thousand others in the car park.
A screaming kid, a woman at the end of her patience, and she hit him,’ I said, ‘Ninety nine times out of a hundred, no harm done. And the hundredth?
‘The boy fell, hit his head, bit his tongue, started choking, died. She panicked, dragged the body down two flights of stairs. Made it look like an accident. Or do you think it was murder?’
I shrugged. Sometimes the truth gives you questions you can’t answer.
‘The father still tried to cover up for her,’ I said, shook my head, ‘A strange kind of love, but still love, I suppose.’
And then we both stared in silence at the cloudless blue sky overhead.
Nothing ever came to trial. A week later, the father killed himself, the hard way, head first out of the window.
* Originally called Phishpek, then Frunze, Kyrgyzstan’s capital was renamed Bishkek upon independence in 1991. It has been suggested that the city rename itself again, to Manas.
‘A KILLING WINTER’, the first in the Akyl Borubaev series of crime novels, was called ‘Even better than Child 44’ by Anthony Horowitz, and ‘storytelling of the highest quality’ by the Daily Mail. It was voted one of the top 40 crime novels of the past five years by the Sunday Times.