The smell hits you first, so you know what lies ahead, even before you enter the room.
The stink of fruit gone sour and soft, dripping juices leaving a sticky trail. The metallic scent of blood hardened into a black crust of spilt paint. And the reek of long-rotted steak left for rats to gnaw away from the bones.
Kenesh Usupov, Bishkek’s Chief Forensic Pathologist, was waiting for me at the entrance, his face impassive as always. Kenesh has seen it all, smelt it all, and sliced it open to look for the truth.
The cotton mask I was wearing probably wouldn’t protect me against the virus, let alone the decaying remnants of a once-human being. Kenesh gave me a jar of balsam to smear under my nose, one of the perks of the job. That didn’t smell too great either.
And then I took a final gulp of air and we went inside. The room was dark, the walls painted matt black, cobwebs draped in the corners. The dead man sprawled on the floor, a marionette with severed strings, captured in the usual catastrophe of death.
Books and films always get it wrong; I’ve never seen an elegantly posed corpse. Extinction comes too quickly – or too slowly – for that. I’ve never seen a half-decayed corpse cradling a skeleton before either. Perhaps they’d been dance partners in a previous life.
It’s at times like this I’m more than happy for Kenesh to take the lead in examining the body. He inspects the victims, I hunt the culprits. It’s a fair exchange of labour.
Once the department photographer had finished, Kenesh knelt down, reached forward to touch the skeleton’s skull, lifted it up to examine it.
‘Chinese, no question,’ he said.
‘You can tell by the elongation of the skull?’ I asked, impressed as always by his knowledge.
‘No, I looked at the lettering printed on the back.’
He tossed the skull for me to catch. Too light for bone. Close up, cheap plastic.
‘сделано в Китае’. Made in China.
Pretty obvious when you think about it.
Go inside any ghost train ride and you’ll find a few giant bats, a cackling witch or two, maybe even Dracula lurking behind his cape. And it wouldn’t be even a mildly scary ride without a luminous plastic skeleton.
‘What about the real body? How long’s he been dead?’
No question if this was a model. The body was swollen with decay, gas bursting through the skin and leaving gouge marks and tears, colourless eyes buried deep in their sockets. The man’s face was mottled with patches of green and blue-black, as if he’d been beaten with an iron bar.
Kenesh shrugged, pressed a gloved finger into one of the splits in the man’s face. My stomach rebelled against my breakfast; I told myself I’d seen worse, smelt worse.
‘Hard to say. Maybe a couple of weeks, and it’s been a hot summer.’
‘And the park was closed because of the pandemic,’ I said, ‘Whoever dumped the body here was counting on it not being found for a while. Or smelt.’
‘No immediate visible cause of death. Maybe when he’s on my table.’
I looked around for clues just as the manual told me. No blood-stained candlesticks, no exotic knives, no bottles labelled POISON. Death is usually an uncomplicated event here.
I moved aside to let Kenesh’s assistants peel the body off the floor, felt something move under my feet. I knelt down to take a closer look. Half a dozen tiny metal pellets, lead by the look of them, skittered across the floor. Maybe the dead man had slipped on them, broke his neck as he fell.
Moving the body didn’t help the smell in the room; a cigarette outside was my best idea yet. On the entrance door, a zombie leered at me over the shoulder of a snarling dragon, as if to warn me against going back inside. I wished I’d taken their advice earlier.
The balsam under my nostrils gave my cigarette a hint of eucalyptus. Further inside the park, the merry-go-round’s barrel-organ music waltzed through the trees. I could hear the screams of children. Just another Saturday afternoon.
Kenesh called me later the next day.
‘Coronary attack, massively overweight, heart the size of a watermelon; amazing he’d lived that long. Dead before he hit the floor. No sign of any assault, no wounds or bruises.’
‘So natural causes?’
‘Unless you think different.’
I thanked Kenesh, asked him to send his report over. I finished the call, stared at the overweight man sitting in the uncomfortable chair the other side of the table.
‘Looks like you’re off the hook, Mr Uskenbaev,” I said, ‘No fourteen years in Penal Colony One for you.’
‘I already told you, I didn’t do anything.’
I could see the sweat glisten on his forehead, stain his shirt. Mind you, that’s not unusual when visitors find themselves in Sverdlovsky Police Station, guilty or not. And the interrogation room in the basement isn’t air-conditioned.
‘You own the shooting gallery in Panfilov Park? Next to the ghost ride?’
Uskenbaev nodded, too eager to please.
‘And you knew the owner of that ride?’
A shrug, noncommittal.
‘It’s not like we used to go for a beer and snacks any time. To nod to, that’s all.’
I sighed. Every Kyrgyz interrogation starts the same way. ‘I don’t know anyone, I don’t know anything, and I wasn’t even there when it happened.’
I tipped the contents of a small paper bag onto the table. Lead pellets.
‘These were in your pocket when I interviewed you, right?’
‘Of course, what do you expect people to shoot in a shooting gallery?
I took another bag out of my pocket, emptied it. More lead pellets.
‘I found these near the body of the deceased. Which suggests to me you’d been near the body too.’
Uskenbaev looked at the door, but it stayed firmly closed. No handle on the inside either.
I took out my cigarettes, lit one, pushed the pack across the table. The air in the room didn’t get any sweeter, but it was an improvement on the ghost train.
‘Autopsy says heart attack, just dropped dead. No sign of violence,’ I said, tried for a reassuring smile, ‘So why not just tell me what happened and we can all go home?’
He lit a cigarette, coughed on the first drag. Probably used to a better class of tobacco.
‘Your wife will be waiting for you, mine too.’
I didn’t volunteer that Chinara was waiting in a grave four hundred kilometres east. Empathy only goes so far, but when the dam breaks, there’s no stopping the flood when a suspect decides to talk.
‘I owed him money, a loan. Only eight hundred dollars, shouldn’t have been a problem paying it back.’
‘But then the virus hit, and the authorities shut down the park,’ I said, pasting on my sympathetic smile.
‘I told him, he’d have to wait until we started up again. He said he needed the money, he wasn’t working either. I said, I’ve got a wife and kids to feed, he said what was he supposed to do, his belly needed filling too.’
Uskenbaev sucked at the cigarette like it was a life-support system, dragged it down to the filter.
‘It got heated, nasty. But I never touched him, I swear.’
‘He was yelling, swearing, then just swung around, clutched at the air, dropped dead. I thought he was just trying to scare me.’
Uskenbaev stubbed out the butt, reached for the pack again.
‘I turned round to get my phone, call for an ambulance and somehow, I got all tangled up with that fucking plastic skeleton, pulled it down and it fell on top of him. Maybe I screamed, I don’t remember. Next thing I knew, I was back across the way.’
‘But you didn’t call an ambulance. Or the police,’ I said, matter-of-fact, looking confused.
‘Who wants to end up in a room like this, dancing with some ment with fists like rocks?’
‘And yet here we are,’ I said, gestured around the room.
‘I thought someone would come along, discover the body, no one would link us,’ he said, and the self-pity in his voice made my fists clench under the table.
‘But no one did, because the park was closed,’ I said, ‘And he lay there and lay there, and started to rot and started to stink. And no one came along.’
‘What was I supposed to do?’
‘What you did do was keep the money and keep your rot shut,’ I said, and there was no forgiveness in my voice.
I don’t think I’ve ever heard a louder silence.
‘You’ll be charged with failing to report a death,’ I said, checking my watch, ‘And there’ll probably be some public health violations as well.’
Uskenbaev pushed his chair back, started to rise.
‘I’m free to go?’
‘Don’t worry, we’ll be in touch,’ I said, hammered on the door for the guard.
‘Just one question,’ I said, as Uskenbaev stood in the doorway, ‘Did you know he had a heart condition?’
‘A man that size?’ he said, shrugged, ‘I’m not a doctor.’
He smiled. And then I knew.
I sat there for a moment, as his footsteps went away.
‘Enjoy the money,’ I said, but only the silence was listening.
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