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By June 6, 2022No Comments


‘How did I end up in Tashkent?’ I asked, genuinely bewildered. Now I understood why neither the nurse nor the doctor had said a word to me. I wasn’t supposed to know where I was and their accent might have given the game away.

‘I brought you here,’ Saltanat said, matter-of-fact, her eyes not leaving my face, ‘I knew we couldn’t leave you in Bishkek, not after having killed the local crime pakhan and thrown in a few of his men, just to show you were serious.’

I just stared at her, unable to speak.

‘A revenge team would have torn the intensive care unit apart ten minutes after you’d been wheeled in and hooked up.’

She took cigarettes out of her pocket, frowned at the NO SMOKING, put the pack back. Even Saltanat respects some rules. Sometimes.

‘I’m sure there’s a new boss who’s grateful to you for moving him up the ladder, but he has to show the troops a mere cop can’t get away with shit like that. They’d hurt you a lot worse than Aliyev did before they put you out of the picture.’

I nodded; what she said made sense.

‘Then there’s your old friend, the minister, to consider,’ Saltanat continued, ‘I don’t imagine he’d be too pleased you’re alive and maybe thinking about talking to everyone about his plans to take over the drug trade.’

Another nod.

‘I don’t suppose your friend in Bangkok, Mr Quang, has fond memories of you either. In fact, I’m the only person you know who doesn’t want you dead or hanging from a sharp hook, and sometimes I’m not sure about that.’

Saltanat stood up, pressing her hand against her back, and for the first time I noticed the swell of her belly. Not huge  –  no unborn  infant would dare make Saltanat look fat  –  but starting to show. I looked in vain for the glow of expectant motherhood pregnant women are supposed to have. Perhaps Saltanat just wasn’t the maternal type. I didn’t think I was the paternal type either.

‘I’m grateful you’re concerned about my welfare,’ I said, ‘But there’s something else on your mind. You’re not the sentimental type. I don’t see any cards with pictures of kittens on my bedside table. So tell me.’

Saltanat did her best to look offended, smiled.

‘Believe me, getting an unconscious man across the border wasn’t easy. You were hooked up to drips, plasma bottles and who knows what else, and the Kyrgyz officials were reluctant to let you leave at first, especially without a passport.’

‘How did you make them change their mind?’ I asked, ‘A donation to their favourite charity?’

‘It was easy,’ she said, smiling in a way that worried me, ‘ They were only too keen to get rid of you, once I told them you were just back from Bangkok, dying from AIDS.’

‘Imaginative,’ I said, rolling my eyes, ‘And I’m sure they’ll keep that particular piece of information strictly to themselves. That’s really going to help when I return to the department.’

‘No reason why it should,’ Saltanat said, ‘You don’t think I gave them your real name, do you?’

Maybe she had a point, but I know cops; they’re trained to dig out the truth, particularly if someone’s lied to them. And if it reflects badly on someone, shines a spotlight on secrets best kept in the dark, so much the better. Extra leverage for information, or maybe a cash donation.

‘Your problem is you care what people think of you,’ Saltanat said, ‘It makes you weak, indecisive. I either say fuck it, I don’t give a damn, or I go and make their world turn to shit. Problem over.’

‘Such language, and from a mother to be,’ I said, ‘I hope you won’t talk like that in front of our son. Or daughter,’ I quickly added, for the sake of peace and harmony. The last thing I wanted right then was a lecture on daughters being just as good as sons, particularly coming from the toughest person I knew.

‘Wait until you’re chain-smoking outside the maternity ward, trying to wear out the carpet, listening to the screams, the swearing and yelling. You’ll learn words you never even knew existed.’

I thought about what she’d said, about what it could mean.

‘So you want me there for the birth, then? And afterwards? To be a father?’

‘That’s up to you,’ she said, her face betraying nothing.

‘You want to get married?’ I asked.

Her laugh startled me. I’d only ever asked one woman before, and she’d said yes, then burst into tears before calling her mother.

‘I don’t want to marry you, Akyl,’ Saltanat said, in a surprisingly gentle voice, ‘I don’t want to marry anyone. That was never the reason I brought you here.’

‘So why did you?’ 

‘You’ll laugh when I tell you.’

‘Saltanat, I’ve just done something terrifying and asked you to marry me. And you said no. So right now, humour isn’t high on my to-do list.’

‘I just imagined when my child turns fifteen and wants to know about their father, I say, ‘Oh, that guy, he got shot so I left him to die,’ and watch the look of horror on their face.’

‘So once you’ve told them, ‘I saved his life, aren’t I wonderful?’, what’s next?’

I saw Saltanat reach for a cigarette, felt the old craving flood back into my system. I’ve seen people who’ve managed to kick booze, junk, but can’t stay away from the unfiltered smokes. I don’t drink any more since I helped Chinara to die, but I think I’d go crazy without my daily dose of nicotine. And seeing her fumble with the pack sent all the old triggers firing bullets into my back brain.

‘Go on, what do you want?’ I said, willing my fingers to resist snatching the pack from hers.

‘I wanted to keep you alive,’ she said, turning her face away from mine, ‘You’re a good cop when you’re not being an arsehole. Which is most of the time,’ she added.

‘So what made you change your mind?’

‘The thing you’re good at.’

And before I could smirk about my sexual prowess, she shot me down.

‘Murders. Solving them. Grabbing onto bits of the facts and chewing them and digesting them until you put the killer behind bars, or in the ground.’

‘So who got dead?’ I asked. I didn’t want to sound cynical, but if you’ve just donated your spleen to a hospital incinerator, compassion and sympathy doesn’t play very well.

‘A man, rich, successful, his brains plastered all over the roof of his Mercedes convertible.’

‘An organised hit?’

‘Probably. His wife was raped while waiting for him to come home for supper. Manti dumplings, lepeshka bread with pelmini soup. Nothing fancy.’

‘Hitting the family? That doesn’t sound like Circle of Brothers stuff.’

‘The police scraped his brains off the car park floor with a shovel. Then they had to break into the penthouse where he lived, untie his wife, tell her to set one less place for supper, and did she know if her husband had any unusual business deals while they waited for the rape kit to arrive.’

I stared out at the snow, watched it flurry and sway like a drunk on the dance floor. I’ve never been comfortable discussing sexual violence with women. It shows my gender at its very worst, the reptilian brutal part of our brain rearing up in triumph then swooping down to feast on the weak. You can spot its handiwork whenever you see a woman wearing a headscarf to cover the purple bruises as they turn yellow. We call them vodka kisses, signs of affection from a loving husband. The joke at the station is Kyrgyz wives should all have eye tests, they walk into doors so often. I don’t think it’s funny; when you’ve seen the woman you love dying in agony, not many things make you laugh.

‘I don’t see how I can help,’ I said, pointed to the drip feeding on my arm.

‘Quite apart from all this, and feeling too weak to raise a cup of tea to my mouth, there’s the question of jurisdiction. Uzbek citizen murdered in Tashkent. I wouldn’t know where to start.’

Saltanat stared at me. I remembered sitting with her in my apartment after she’d killed the man who’d raped her. She’d showered afterwards, until the hot water ran cold, replaced her clothes with those of my dead wife I hadn’t yet cleared out of our wardrobe. We’d sat in silence for hours, examining a world turned upside down, staring out of the window as the sky moved through darkening shades of blue and into black. I’d felt helpless then; I felt just as helpless now, ashamed and guilty at my lacklustre response to a new horror. 

‘Since when have you ever let a little thing like procedure get in your way? You don’t open doors, you kick them in or blow them off their hinges. Especially if you know that will only cause more trouble. You feel for the dead, but they don’t thank you for it. So you create a firestorm to cremate everything. That’s the kind of cop you are.’

‘The kind of cop I was,’ I corrected her, ‘Right now, the rule book looks very appealing. A desk job processing reports, that’s the future I’m looking forward to.’

Saltanat didn’t even bother to hide her scorn, her disbelief.

‘Maybe I should have left you to bleed out at Ata Beyit,’ she said, ‘That way I wouldn’t have to tell our child what a pathetic waste you became.’

‘What do you honestly expect me to do?’ I asked, hating the whine in my voice Saltanat always seemed able to conjure up, ‘I couldn’t find my way around Tashkent with a guide book.’

‘It’s just as well you won’t have to,’ Saltanat said, walking over to the window. Her hand on the catch, I wondered if she was going to light up, blow the smoke outside and let the snow in.

‘I don’t understand,’ I said, asked myself how many times I’d said those words to her.

‘The dead man was Uzbek,’ Saltanat said, turning to stare at me with those hypnotic dark eyes, ‘But he wasn’t murdered here. He lived in Bishkek. And that’s where his brains were used to decorate a car park.’

While I was processing that, she walked to the door, held up her cigarettes. It was reassuring to know Saltanat had one weakness. I knew it wasn’t me.

‘I’ll be back later,’ she said, opening the door, ‘And while you’re still wondering about jurisdiction and procedure and whether to paint your new office cream or beige, I’ve got one more piece of information for you to consider.’

She cocked her head, threw me a crooked smile that died before it climbed up to her eyes. On the silent TV, a middle-aged woman tasted the soup she’d been preparing, nodded approval.

‘The dead man? Husam Umarov? My uncle.’

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