‘My babulya’s been murdered.’
Not words you ever want to hear, especially when you’ve put your jacket on, decided to walk home though the park, anything to avoid wearing your mask.
The duty officer called me down to ‘sort out some woman says her grannie’s been done in’. Murdered. That magic word which always brings me down the crumbling concrete stairs from my office. My knees complain about the Bishkek murder rate, but I look on it as necessary exercise. Not to mention the lift having died two years ago. Maybe it had been murdered as well.
I arrived at the scarred wooden table we call reception, and stared at the woman standing there, arms folded as if she had a shoulder holster under each breast and was about to practice her speed-draw. The look on her face made me very relieved she didn’t.
She was well worth staring at. Out of my league and my bank account. Long straight black hair, tall and slender, eyes the deep emerald of the finest Chinese jade. An elegant jacket and trousers that murmured Italian fashion house, not Osh bazaar. I was willing to bet there was a latest-model BMW parked outside and the keys were in the designer leather bag hanging from her shoulder.
All of which always spells trouble. A businessman’s trophy wife, or a politician’s high-maintenance mistress. Someone with access to the movers and shakers, ministers, perhaps even the president. I might be a senior cop, a Murder Squad Inspector, but that doesn’t mean I’m not little people as far as women like her are concerned. A pout of annoyance and an angry complaint to the right person, and a posting to somewhere remote could be my future.
I nodded to the duty officer, clearly more than happy to let me face the woman’s wrath single-handed.
‘Dobry vecher. I’m Inspector Borubaev, Murder Squad. What seems to be the trouble?’
The woman stared at me, unblinking. Clearly, civility and titles didn’t impress her.
‘My grandmother has been murdered. And I know who did it.’
She’d have had more passion in her voice if someone had lifted her mobile.
A sigh of impatience, a scrabble through her bag, a smart leather folder with an embossed Prada logo. The photo obviously professionally taken, maybe even retouched to emphasise her cheekbones. Shermatova, Daruna, twenty-three.
‘Spasibo, Miss Shermatova. Officers are already at the scene?’
‘Myrki? No, I want someone with experience to make an arrest and make it stick. Not some halfwit peasant.’
Scorn smeared all over her voice. Myrki is what we Bishkek sophisticates call people from the villages, innocents who stare at buildings over three storeys high and who’ve never seen a car without scratches, dents or cracked windscreens.
‘So the body is where you found it?’
I waited. Blood from a stone. Better than blood from a body, I suppose.
‘Which is where, exactly?’
I was right about the car being a BMW – sometimes I think I should have been a detective. I opened the passenger door, saw the paper mat for my feet, wondered if she’d have my seat steam-cleaned later. Her fingers tapped the steering wheel with impatience as I made myself comfortable, reclined the seat, adjusted the belt. I knew we’d get on famously.
She drove with the expected amount of arrogance, plenty of horn, last-second braking, racing car acceleration. No quarter given, not even to marshrutki buses, whose drivers practice auditioning for Death Race 2020: The Movie.
The car’s ripe new leather scent was overlaid with a hint of nicotine, and I debated lighting a cigarette. She glanced over at my pack, shrugged.
‘Smoke if you want, I’m changing cars next week anyway.’
‘The ashtray’s full?’
I’ve always thought old jokes get better with repetition, but perhaps I’m wrong. Her glare forced the pack back into my pocket.
We were halfway down Logvinyenko when she slammed on the brakes, spun the wheel, skidded to a halt outside the maternity hospital.
‘Your grandmother died here?’
She didn’t reply, got out of the car, started to cross the street without waiting for me. I took out the mask in my pocket, put it on, followed her in.
I’ve been in Soviet-era hospitals before, and if the food doesn’t kill you, depression will. Narrow badly-lit corridors with scuffed floors and grim walls painted a bilious green. The odour of overboiled food, carbolic soap and ancient sweat ingrained into the walls and lingering by iron-grated windows. Imagine one of the asylums where the Kremlin sent its dissidents, and you get the picture.
Finally, we reached a set of double doors. Above them, a hand-lettered banner said ‘RED ZONE’. I pushed one of the doors open and we found ourselves in what had once been a large hall but was now a waiting room for hell.
Three dozen simple iron frame beds filled every available space, so close together the men and women occupying them could reach out and hold hands. A single doctor and two nurses moved from bed to bed, checking temperatures, holding paper cups of water for hands that shook with fever. A few of the luckier patients were connected to ventilators to help regulate their breathing.
The noise was overwhelming; staccato coughing, hoarse wheezing that tore lungs apart, the mechanical whirr of machinery, and lying above it all, weeping, curses and prayers.
Puzzled, I looked over at Daruna Shermatova. As far as I could tell, the room was full of bodies on their final journey to becoming corpses.
‘Why are we here, Miss Shermatova?’
We threaded our way through the maze of beds, until she reached one, halfway along the far wall. I looked down at the middle-aged man lying there, eyes closed, his chest rising and falling spasmodically, mainly with the help of a ventilator. The rattle of his breathing was weak, irregular, as if about to stop at any moment.
‘This was her bed, this was where she was murdered. And they didn’t even have the decency to let her body grow cold here.’
I heard no evidence of sorrow in her voice, only cold anger and the rage of entitlement thwarted.
‘I want you to arrest the bitch who killed her.’
I beckoned to the solitary doctor who was helping a patient four beds along. She stared at Shermatova, made her way towards us. Middle-aged, round-faced, with cropped hair greying at the roots. Deep lines of fatigue and stress carved her face into blocks, but her eyes remained alive, alert. A metal badge on her white coat told me her name was Doctor Sultanova.
‘You were asked to leave, then escorted out,’ the doctor said, ‘So now you’ve come back with this paid thug. You have no shame, no respect for the sick all around us?’
I showed my ID, held my hands up, the way a referee separates two boxers.
‘Doctor, this lady came to the station with a complaint, and I have to investigate it. I’m sure we can settle this very quickly if we all remain calm.’
Clearly, remaining calm wasn’t in Daruna Shermatova’s vocabulary.
‘What have you done with her body, suka?’
She ignored the finger I pushed in her face, as she and the doctor glared at each other. I adopted the calm, dispassionate voice I use to intimidate people when I’m questioning them.
‘This is a hospital. Be quiet or I’ll arrest you myself, and you can enjoy our no-star hotel for the night.’
‘I had your grandmother’s body removed to one of the smaller side wards. If you hadn’t noticed, there’s an emergency and we needed the bed.’
‘But her breathing was improving with the ventilator and the drugs I brought,’ Shermatova said, her voice growing louder, ‘You said so yourself. That there was no cause for concern, and to go home.’
The doctor shrugged, drew her hand across her face as if wiping away a deep weariness.
‘Nine of my patients have died in the last twenty-four hours. Your grandmother was old, vulnerable. Her condition suddenly deteriorated, her breathing worsened and we were unable to prevent her death.’
I turned to Shermatova, saw tears in her eyes. I couldn’t tell whether they were from sorrow or frustration.
‘I can send a pathologist to examine your grandmother’s body,’ I said, keeping my voice quiet, ‘But I really see no evidence to suggest she was murdered.’
Then it was Shermatova’s turn to jab her finger in my face. She pulled her mask away from her mouth.
‘So where are the drugs I bought for her? The dexamethasone? The ventilator? Do you have any idea how much they cost? What strings I had to tug in order to find them?’
She was shouting now, flecks of spittle landing on my mask, and I took a step back. Probably pointless if she had the virus, but I’m more comfortable with enemies I can see.
‘And the ventilator?’
She pointed at the unconscious figure in the bed as he struggled to breathe.
‘I paid for it; so how does he end up with it?’
The doctor stared at her, with something like contempt in her eyes.
‘You want it back? With people all around you here who are dying, and whose life it could save?’
I took Daruna Shermatova’s arm, tried to turn her back to the way we entered. But then the clipboard at the foot of the bed caught my eye. I picked it up and looked at the information on the chart.
‘Doctor Sultanova, can you tell me anything about this patient? Why this man in particular is here?’
She paused, looked at me, her gaze unflinching.
‘He has the virus. As you can see. Like thousands of other people. Kyrgyz, Uzbek, Dungan. And this is a hospital. This is where we treat them, try to save them.’
I put the clipboard back on the bed frame.
‘I’m not interested in his ethnicity, doctor, more in his family name.’
She said nothing, continued to give nothing away.
‘Vladimir Sultanov,’ I said, ‘Could he possibly be a relative, a brother perhaps, or an uncle?’
‘It’s very easy for me to find out, you know,’ I said, ‘He’ll have an ID card, papers, an address, relatives who are worried about him. A couple of hours, that’s all it takes for me to find out.’
‘My sympathy,’ I said, ‘He’s very lucky to have a sister who can take care of him.’
I pointed towards the ventilator.
‘And is that helping him?’
‘And medication? Injections? Dexamethasone?’
The doctor reluctantly nodded. I held out my hand. She reached into her pocket, took out a plastic bag. I opened it, saw plastic vials in a couple of blister packs, handed them back.
I turned to Daruna Shermatova. I could see the anger building in her face, put my finger to my lips to silence her.
‘Doctor Sultanova, as I’m sure you realise, I’m going to have to start an investigation into the death of one of your patients, and the immediate transfer of privately-owned equipment and medicine to a member of your family.’
‘Put the bitch in handcuffs and drag her out of here.’
I ignored the outburst.
‘I’ll want you to make yourself available at an appropriate time, but until then, please carry on with the excellent work you’re doing here.’
I watched as one of the nurses called her over and she turned away. I bundled a protesting Daruna Shermatova out of the ward, along endless bleak corridors and out into the evening.
‘You should have arrested her. You don’t realise the shit you’re in. You don’t know who I am.’
I took her handbag, took out the mobile. Top of the range, latest model, designer case. I handed it to her, took her arm as we crossed the road towards her car.
‘Go on, call him, whoever he is. Minister? Lawyer? Police chief? I really don’t give a fuck.’
She glared at me, dialled a number.
‘But remember, I could always arrest you for wasting police time. And it’s easy for someone important to get a new girlfriend who doesn’t cause him problems.’
She scowled at me, listening to the ringtone. No answer. Under the streetlight, she looked older, suddenly vulnerable.
I left her standing there, started to walk towards Panfilov Park. I took off my mask, shoved it in my jacket pocket. I was hoping to breath clean, uninfected air. Maybe I’d celebrate the end of the day with a cigarette.
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