The squad room was empty, the only sound the whisper of dust gently settling on filing cabinets stuffed with unsolved cases.
Some of the team were in one or other of the makeshift hospitals dotted around the city, wondering if a bulletproof vest made the coughing better or worse.
Others were at home, wondering if the virus could climb stairs and get through locked doors.
Perhaps one or two were even out solving crimes and hoping their shift would stay peaceful.
And then I got the call.
Someone reported a siege out in Tungush, on the outskirts of the city. The houses there had originally been built illegally, on what had been reserved farmland, so there were no proper roads, not much in the way of street lighting, and houses of all shapes and sizes, none of them numbered or named.
Because I was Murder Squad, technically I shouldn’t have been in charge. But I was the only senior officer available, and everyone said time was running out. So I got to put on the bullet-proof vest, check my Yarygin was loaded, and bounce up and down on the unmade roads through Tungush.
It was very early autumn. The air was crisp and clear, and I could smell wood smoke, watch the snow on the mountains climbing up into the horizon.
It was the sort of day when nobody should have to die, and somebody always does.
Like most of the other houses, a high wall guaranteed privacy and security. Heavy metal gates were capped with ornamental yet sharp spikes. The walls were made from grey breeze block that hadn’t yet been plastered, and the house looked as if the money had run out before the building work did. From the barking I could hear, there were at least two guard dogs, probably roaming around, excited and aggressive from the noise and tension.
I knew this was a domestic, but one with a difference. Normally, we get a husband, wound up on anger, resentment and vodka, shouting the odds and threatening to kill anyone who comes near. The report said this time, it was the mother holding the gun, and the father and daughter trapped in the yard outside the house.
From what the mother was screaming, the father had been showing not enough interest in her, rather too much in their daughter. It sometimes happens that way, mainly out in the villages rather than the city.
Bride-steal a young woman with the help of your drunken friends, get your family to bully her into marrying you, wonder why you bothered when she lies there underneath you like a sack of last season’s potatoes, give her a couple of screaming kids. And then you piss off to Moscow or Novosibirsk for a few years to graft for way less than the going rate.
While you’re away, working illegally on a building site for a couple of dollars a day, drudgery and poverty rob your young wife of her looks, her figure and finally, her hope. Then you come back to see the image of the girl you married in the girl you fathered.
For some men, vodka, stupidity and lust will do the rest.
The neighbour who’d called it in waddled towards me. A big man, more fat than muscle, with a nose that proclaimed his best friend was a cheap Stolichnaya knockoff. He’d obviously decided that the best vaccine against the virus came in 40% bottles.
He jabbed a greasy finger in my chest, his belly swaying with the effort.
‘Two days they’ve been fighting, and it takes you this long to turn up? No speeding motorists to fine, no breakfast money to collect?’
I held up my hand to silence him, so I could hear the shouting from inside the wall, but he was only just getting started, and his breath could stun a yak.
‘I suppose this is overtime money for you; why else would you bother?’
He paused so he could curl his lip and sneer a little more.
‘I could do a better job eyes shut than you lot.’
I put my finger to my lips, beckoned him forward.
‘Say another word, and we’ll carry on this discussion down Sverdlovsky station. There’s a nice quiet basement there where you can air your complaints without any distractions.’
Everyone in Bishkek knows what that means, so he backed off towards his own house, but not without spitting in the dirt. I ignored him, and got back to the important stuff. I couldn’t see into the yard, and I wasn’t prepared to send anyone in blind. No knowing what firepower was the other side of the wall, whose trigger finger was quivering with anticipation or fear, it was just too big a risk.
I didn’t want to spend an eternal afternoon comforting a dead officer’s widow, or having someone bury me beside my wife Chinara.
One of my more enterprising officers had climbed a telegraph pole overlooking the scene, and reported that the mother was pacing up and down in the yard, screaming obscenities at her husband, demanding that we shoot him before she saved us the bullet.
The husband crouched near the outside toilet in the corner of the yard, sheltering his daughter with his body, both of them clearly terrified. He wasn’t a big man, but stocky, coarse black hair brushed back over his forehead, I guessed he’d somehow managed to get on a repatriation flight back home, paying way over the odds for a seat. Funny how we nomads always want to return to the motherland when times get worse than usual.
His wife clutched at the gun as if clinging to a lifebelt in a storm. Her face wore the scars I’d seen on so many women, the ones that spoke of wondering if she had enough som in her purse to buy tonight’s potatoes and onions, hoping this month’s schet za elektrichestvo would be late arriving.
And all I could see of the daughter was the bantiki ribbons that blossomed like white carnations in her long black hair.
I didn’t want to kill the dogs – I didn’t want to kill anyone or anything – but I knew they’d be a problem. Fending off a couple of angry German Shepherds can distract you long enough for a head shot that stops you being distracted ever again.
I sent a young officer, so raw a recruit he was almost whimpering with excitement, to the local shop to buy meat and a nearby pharmacy to get sleeping tablets. I was pretty certain that the dogs would not have been fed, and a special hamburger would either knock them out or make them drowsy.
As I’d expected, the dogs ate the meat with a single gulp, and we waited until they began to stagger and stumble. Once the dogs were out of the way, dreaming doggy dreams and twitching occasionally, I ordered two men to position a ladder against the gates, and I climbed up. The metal gates looked solid enough to give me some protection, but I still wore the bullet-proof vest.
It wasn’t just the virus I was worried about, and sometimes looking official isn’t enough.
‘Let’s all calm down and have a cup of chai,’ I suggested. Obviously not a good idea, since the mother turned towards me in shock at the sound of my voice, her finger snatching at the trigger in surprise. The bullet embedded itself in the front door, and everyone went silent as the echo bounced off the walls.
‘An accident, that’s all,’ I shouted, in case some keen ment decided it was time to earn promotion. I was pretty sure by the look of surprise on the woman’s face that she’d never fired a gun before, and even now was wondering how to get rid of it.
But she never got the opportunity. Because that’s when the real trouble started.
The drunken neighbour stood at his bedroom window, swearing, waving a gun, pulling the trigger. God knows how many targets he could see, but the first shot ploughed into the gate near me, with a sound like a hammer being dropped. The second shot took the right front paw off one of the dogs, waking it from its slumber with a yelp of surprise.
And the third shot missed the little girl’s right eye by three centimetres.
Surprisingly little blood spurted from her temple, but enough to soak the white ribbons in her hair a dark red, drops falling onto the concrete like oil stains from an old car.
As her father howled, and her mother dropped the gun and ran over to their dead daughter, I swung my gun towards the neighbour. He was looking down at the chaos and death he’d caused, and I couldn’t tell whether it was in horror or satisfaction.
So when he raised his gun again, I shot him twice in the chest, the roses blossoming on his wifebeater T-shirt. I watched as he slumped back and fell out of sight.
To this day, I don’t know whether I shot him out of self-preservation or revenge. But I can still hear the mother’s wail of despair and the father’s sobbing. I can still see the puzzled look in the girl’s eyes, her mouth’s perfect Oh of surprise.
I hate it when amateurs get involved.
Photo by Akyl Callaghan
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