After midnight in the Kulturny Bar, where I was upsetting the regulars and planning to get myself a gun. Of course, I already had one. An Inspector in the Bishkek Murder Squad, it would be a quick waltz to the boneyard if I didn’t. My duty-issue Makarov reminds regular citizens not to fuck with me. And if the mob guys, the vor v zakone, turn up, I’ve got the Yarygin pistol I bought myself. 18 Parabellum rounds and stopping power that would make Dirty Harry scurry for cover.
The problem is, they’re both registered to me, with ballistics and test firings on record, which means I can be traced if I fire them. But the way things are today, after four months of coronavirus lockdown, and temperatures hitting the high 30’s, my instinct tells me things are about to kick off. I’ve survived two revolutions, and I’ve every intention of seeing off a third. So a gun that doesn’t light a path to my door could prove useful.
I’m not looking on the black side, but there are plenty of people ready to kick in a store window, grab what they want and maybe shoot their way out if someone tries to stop them. I wouldn’t risk getting shot for looting a microwave or a hairdryer, but there are plenty who would, and kill to get away with it.
Then there are old acquaintances with a score to settle: you’ll never see me sitting in a bar or café unless my back is to the wall and I can keep at least one eye on the door. Of course, there are always lowlifes who prefer a hand grenade or a Molotov cocktail but you do what you can.
An unregistered gun means no questions if you use it, and if you wind up on a morgue slab, who’s listening to questions anyway?
I wasn’t looking for anything fancy – on the pittance I get paid, I couldn’t afford a decent catapult. But I didn’t want to get caught in crossfire with nothing in my hand except my yelda. And with the borders closed, no flights in or out, it wasn’t as if I could go anywhere safer.
So there I was, leaning against the bar, doing my best not to touch anything that might carry the virus. No easy task in the Kulturny, which saw its last spring clean around the time Brezhnev died.
The barman slid a free shot of the cheapest vodka in my direction. I don’t drink, and he knows that, but I accepted it anyway, let it sit in front of me. I think of it as a membership card to the underworld.
The bar carried its usual romantic aroma of piss, pelmeni dumplings and poverty. Patches of greasy mould on the ceiling, spilt beer on the floor. And more than once, blood on the walls.
A dozen regulars were scattered around the bar, none of them sitting together. Not social distancing, but it’s easier to watch someone else’s hands from a distance. A few of them threw scowls in my direction, but that was nothing new. A cockroach scurried past my glass and scrambled under the bar; probably afraid of the two-legged variety seated all around.
I squinted at my watch. Twenty three minutes after midnight. The Kulturny was supposed to close at eight pm, but its patrons aren’t known for their respect for law and order.
And that was when a herd of yaks stampeded down the stairs from the street.
Sometimes life decides to imitate cliché, so no one in the Kulturny was too surprised when three men wearing surgical masks and clutching handguns appeared at the door. The biggest one said ‘Nobody move.’ Maybe someone raised an eyebrow, but I didn’t spot it. Masked men wanting to rob you has to be an improvement on masked men potentially carrying the virus. Today’s world, I suppose.
They were dressed alike, dark shirts, black jeans, no-brand sneakers. It pays to dress alike on a raid; makes witnesses a little confused about who shot whom.
The bartender said nothing, put three glasses on the bar, filled them with vodka, pushed them forward. The cheap stuff; no point in being taken for more than you have to be.
‘The quarantine must be biting really hard,’ I said, ‘If you have to rob this shithole. Maybe fifty dollars in the whole dump, and that’s including everyone’s pockets.’
The big one looked over at me, used his gun to beckon me forward. One of his partners tossed me a backpack, kept his gun picking out the sweet spot between my eyes. His hand stayed steady. I think he’d played this game before.
‘We don’t want anyone’s money,’ the big one said, ‘Just your guns.’
‘I’m not sure this will be big enough,’ I said, holding up the backpack. No one goes into the Kulturny if they’re not carrying, unless they want to be carried out.
All three guns stared at me, three black eyes deciding they didn’t like me. I raised my hands in apology, started to make my way around the room.
‘Just so you know,’ I said, ‘I’m a police officer. Which means I’m armed. So if this starts to go arse-up, people are going to bleed. And my oath means I’m obliged to start shooting.’
‘Put your piece on the floor. Slowly.’
‘You know I can’t do that,’ I said, ‘But as long as no one gets hurt, it stays where it is.’
The third man took two steps towards me, aimed at my face. A mistake. Always aim for centre mass, and keep pulling the trigger until you know they’re dead. And if you don’t, they’ll probably kill you.
‘Just fill the fucking bag.’
It didn’t take long. I stood in front of each of the clientele in turn, backpack open, waiting for their weapons. A few of them grumbled or swore as I stood there, patient while they handed over their private arsenal, but I’ve been called a lot worse.
‘You want the knives and knuckledusters as well?’ I asked.
‘Just the guns.’
It made sense; you can pick up a blade at any corner store, and they don’t come with serial numbers, so why weigh yourself down? And I’ve always thought knuckledusters are overrated. Unless you know how to use them, you end up smashing the bones in your fingers and watching your mate cut through the metal with a hacksaw.
I turned to face the raiders, holding the backpack away from my body, my other hand ostentatiously up in the air. I wanted everyone’s trigger finger to be nice and relaxed.
’Bring it over, put it by the door.’
I did as I was told, watched as the men backed towards the door and were gone. Feet clattered up the stairs, then silence. They didn’t even drink their free vodka.
‘I know you’re not happy,’ I said, making sure the butt of my Makarov was visible, ‘And I suppose you think I should have tried to stop them. Dead in the line of duty. Not my idea of an epitaph.’
No one said anything. I waved at the barman, drew a circle in the air.
‘Give everyone a shot.’
‘You are. And use the big glasses. Give the virus something to fight against.’
I waited until everyone clutched a glass of cheap vodka.
‘I believe a crime has been committed,’ I said, ‘Would anyone like to report it?’
‘I’ll need your name, mobile number, the serial number of your gun, and a copy of your licence.’
Silence sucked all the air out of the room.
I shrugged, headed up the stairs, hoping the air outside would taste only of petrol fumes and cigarette smoke.
The squad room was almost empty when I got back to the station. Three officers were clustered around a desk, taking turns to fill up three plastic cups from an unlabelled bottle. I didn’t think they were drinking chai.
‘No masks, tovarishchi?,’ I said, waving away the offer of a cup, ‘What would the Minister say?’
A spirited debate about the Minister’s mother was accompanied by several dramatic gestures, until I held up my hand for silence.
‘So what have you got for me?’
I reached into the backpack on the desk, rummaged around until I found the gun I’d had my eye on. A SIG Sauer M17 pistol, the cream of the crop. Probably stolen or sold from when the US Marines were based at Manas airport, when Kyrgyzstan served as a stop-off post for Afghanistan. A lot of people made money in those days, and not all of them were in the government.
I slid the SIG Sauer into my pocket, liking the way it barely weighed down my jacket.
I knew some of the guns would become throw downs, a kind of insurance. And some would be sold on, maybe even to their original owners. Regrettable but inevitable on a police salary.
‘Don’t get too pissed, you’re on duty, remember?’ I said, heading for the door, smiling at the jeers that followed me.
Outside, I lit a cigarette, waiting for a patrol car to take me home. The smoke drifted away from my face, thin clouds obscuring the stars.
I thought of the trouble ahead. The masked demonstrators with their homemade placards and chanted slogans. The masked riot police clutching their batons and shields as they lined up outside the White House. The snatch squad vans parked in Ala-Too Square.
And then the inevitable first thrown stone. The first shot. The screams of hate and fear.
And then the hitting and the bleeding and the dying and the weeping, starting up yet again.
Maybe we’re the virus.
Akyl Borubaev, the hard-bitten Inspector of the Bishkek Murder Squad attempts to police the mysterious, unstable, corrupt state of Kyrgyzstan, where everyone lies and no one can be trusted.
‘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.
All four Borubaev novels are available as eBooks or paperbacks from Amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Tom-Callaghan/e/B00JNEI40C/ref=dp_byline_cont_pop_book_1