At four in the morning, no phone call is ever good news. A patrol car had stopped in front of an alley off Frunze so the driver could empty his bladder. I imagine he’d splashed his boots when he saw what he was standing over.
The young man lay with his cheek pressed against the broken asphalt, eyes open as if surprised to find himself lying in a pool of policeman’s piss. The aroma told me it wasn’t the first time someone had disposed of a few beers on the way home.
Unsurprisingly, the alley was unlit, which explained why the ment hadn’t spotted the body straight away. The government has better ways to waste our money than putting streetlights where they may be needed.
I’ve seen too many bodies in my time, but I’m always moved by the sense of sudden, undeserved waste, the opportunities denied, the potential unfullfilled.
Death comes to all of us, but sometimes shockingly quickly and in a way no one could wish for.
The officer shrugged, no more willing to handle the damp body than I was. But seniority counts. I pointed my finger, mimed flipping the body. There was a smear of blood on the dead man’s cheek.
I normally wait for Kenesh Usupov, the city forensic pathologist, to verify the cause of death. But I suspected it might have something to do with the three rips in the front of the man’s white shirt.
Blood-rimmed holes told me they weren’t due to moths, so I assumed he’d had a brief encounter with someone clutching a knife and a bad attitude. If you know what you’re doing, a knife is as quick as a bullet and a lot quieter. Easy to get rid of: you just put it back in the kitchen drawer.
The ment held out a wallet he’d taken from the man’s jacket. Thankfully, it was dry so I opened it.
Ninety thousand som in high-denomination notes, four hundred-dollar bills: robbery didn’t seem to be the motive. A small plastic bag half-full of white powder. And an ID card.
I read the name, wondered if I should hand the wallet over, go back to bed. But I knew that wasn’t an option.
‘You’ve called for the morgue waggon?’
No point putting off trouble. I slipped the ID card into my pocket, handed back the wallet.
‘There’s seventy thousand som and two hundred dollars in there. I’ll sign it in later, back at the station.’
The ment beamed and nodded agreement. One of my rules; take care of your colleagues, but don’t let them be too greedy.
I walked back towards the patrol car, avoiding the puddles., then turned to the driver.
‘Take me to the detention centre,’ I said.
He looked at me, uncertain.
‘You know how to get there?’
‘Easy,’ I said, climbing into the back seat, ‘Just get caught robbing a bank.’
The detention centre on Orozbekov St looks more like an army barracks than a prison. Not surprising really, since the army runs it. A single-storey whitewashed wall, topped with barbed wire and a double-door metal gate.
A soldier came out of the guard post built into the wall, checked my ID. He didn’t tell me to remove my mask; maybe being in a police car helped.
I wondered how long before someone decides stealing a cop car would be a great way to start a prison break. These days, you can even wear a mask on the way in and out.
In American films, prisoners are always on the other side of a glass screen, talking to visitors via a telephone. We don’t do that here. For a start, setups like that are expensive, and what if you want to punch someone you’re questioning? Not that I would ever do anything like that. Unless it was necessary.
The room was spartan, small, and made smaller by the three men standing near the man I’d come to see, one behind, one either side. Not guards but fellow inmates, security for the man sitting in front of me.
Nobody was bothering with masks or social distancing. In one of our prisons, a virus is the least of your worries.
I looked at the man opposite. Sergei Kabylov, vor v zakone, ‘thief by law’, which makes him head of one of the most powerful criminal gangs in the city. If there’s money to be made, preferably illegally, a healthy slice ends up with him.
Not a tall man, but burly, with shoulders and arms that threatened to split his prison uniform. A head that looked oversized for his body, as impassive and expressionless as one of those stone heads on Easter Island. His tattoos weren’t on display but his arrest photos were a criminal resume that stretched from extortion and assault to armed robbery and murder, both in prison and outside.
His fists rested on the table between us, knuckles scarred and dented in the pursuit of his career. I was in no hurry to discover how much they could hurt.
I took out my cigarettes, offered one. He sneered at my local brand, reached in his pocket for a pack of red-top Marlboro’s, lipped one, waited for the man on his right to fire it up. He didn’t offer one to me.
‘Bad news, Prisoner Kabylov, I’m afraid.’
I used his family name deliberately, not to show him respect but to let him know the matter was serious.
‘I was called earlier to the scene of a homicide. A young man, stabbed, left to die in a pool of urine.’
Kabylov shrugged, blew smoke towards a ceiling already brown with nicotine.
‘I have an alibi, Inspector. Pretty watertight, unless there’s a hidden tunnel out of here, or I’ve grown wings.’
His smile never climbed as far as his eyes.
‘Good to know the prison service is doing its job,’ I said, ‘But for once, you’re not a suspect.’
I made a production of taking an ID card out of my wallet, put it on the table, photo so he could see it.
‘Nicolai Sergeievitch Kabylov. Twenty seven years old. Unmarried. Lived at the same address as your ex-wife. Your son.’
He said nothing, threw his cigarette to the floor, half-smoked. One of his men quickly ground it out with his boot. Kabylov stared at me and I stared back. Never show weakness. It’s a good rule for policemen as well as criminals.
‘I’d like to say how sorry I am for your loss,’ I said, ‘But a piece of shit that bled out in a puddle of piss is one less future problem, as far as I’m concerned.’
The room suddenly got a lot smaller. The gorilla on Kabylov’s left took a step forward, raised his fists, but his boss held up a hand to restrain him.
‘Three stab wounds,’ I said, ‘In the front, so he saw his murderer. He had money, cocaine, and they left that, so it must have been business.’
Kabylov reacted with as much emotion as if I’d told him it was raining outside. Then he spoke, and his voice was the rumble of a boulder falling from a mountaintop.
I lit my own cigarette, took a long drag, stared at the glowing tip, sent smoke chasing after his.
’I wondered about that,’ I said, ‘Hashish and heroin, no problem here, comes from Afghanistan, close to hand, not much risk. Cocaine though? Expensive, lot of chances to lose it on the long journey, suppliers who are even badder bastards than you.’
I waited while he got another cigarette on fire. His hands weren’t shaking.
‘Maybe young Nicolai decided to branch out, get away from daddy’s shadow,’ I said, ‘I guess I’ll never know.’
I inspected my fingernails, letting the moment linger.
‘Twenty seven and still unmarried? Unusual. Maybe he didn’t want to be tied down? Maybe he didn’t like girls? Maybe it all got personal with a special ‘friend’?’
Kabylov ignored my attempts to provoke him, savoured his cigarette.
‘Too hard a case for you to solve?’ Kabylov said, ‘Or you don’t think he’s worth the trouble?’
I shook my head, blew smoke across the table.
‘You’ll find out who did it,’ I said, ‘So why should I? You’ll have to. Because you’ve got a reputation to maintain. Once that starts to melt, well, it’s a shank in the shower for you, and these three find a new boss to protect.’
I pushed my chair back, stood up. The men with Kabylov tensed, so I held up my hands to show we were all friends.
‘Tell me who did it, I’ll see they go to trial. I might even have them serve their sentence here. An incentive for you to whisper a name or two?’
‘They won’t get to trial,’ Kabylov said. Simply stating a fact.
‘I know,’ I said, pulled my mask back on, walked towards the door. I wondered how long it would be before my next 4am phone call.
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