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By June 13, 2022No Comments


 ‘Husam was my father’s half-brother, by my grandfather’s first wife. Twenty years older than me, already married to a Kyrgyz woman and living in Bishkek when I was a child.’

Saltanat had revealed very little to me about her childhood; I knew she’d been selected as a very promising student and trained by the Uzbek Security Services. I knew nothing about her parents, and assumed that, like me, she chose not to discuss her growing up. I didn’t have nightmares anymore about the orphanage I’d lived in while my mother went abroad to find work, but they weren’t days I cared to revisit. I knew Tolstoy said every unhappy family was unhappy in its own particular way, but that didn’t mean I ever wanted to discuss mine.

‘My father was very proud of Husam,’ Saltanat said, ‘He’d gone to Moscow to study at the university there. Economics. Communist theories of course, which he soon realised had no basis in reality. The Soviets were coming to the end of the Ninth Five-Year Plan to boost the economy, but no one could claim it had been a success. It certainly wasn’t going to make Husam rich. So he dropped out of the university, moved to Almaty for a couple of years, got involved in selling cars to the Kazakhs.’

I nodded understanding; even in the difficult years after independence, people had still somehow found the money to buy cars. Perhaps their only choice was between a third-hand Lada and a decade-old Moskvitch, ugly, practical cars that were long on endurance and short on comfort, but they still bought.

‘Husam got married to a Kyrgyz woman and his wife got homesick, wanted to move back to Bishkek to be near her family. He’d kept the contacts he’d made back home, as well as in Moscow and Almaty, so when he moved to Kyrgyzstan, he opened a laundry business.’

I looked at her, puzzled.

‘You mean, like dry cleaning, clothes repair, shirts ironed, that sort of thing?’

Saltanat shook her head, smiled at my naivety.

‘He laundered things. Whatever needed laundering. Cash, cars, expensive imports and exports, sometimes even people. Always outside Kyrgyzstan itself. He wasn’t going to get himself into trouble with the authorities in Bishkek. But he knew how to move things so they weren’t easily traced Things ended up in tax-free zones, or places where the banking secrecy laws are tougher to break into than the US State Treasury. You needed to move ten million dollars to somewhere your vindictive ex-partner would never be able to trace? You talked to my uncle, and for a hefty commission, he would organise it for you.’

I nodded my understanding.

‘When you say ‘laundered people, you mean he had them terminated? ‘With extreme prejudice’, ‘wet work’, ‘taken off the board’; all those clichés?’

‘No, not at all,’ Saltanat shook her head, ‘New identities that couldn’t be cracked, residence in countries without extradition treaties, that sort of thing. Husam wasn’t an angel, but he always said he wouldn’t have blood on his hands or his conscience.’

Saltanat stopped, considered.

‘Of course, if something happened to a former client after their business with Husam was concluded…’ she shrugged.

‘Obviously, only one step away from being a saint,’ I said. Saltanat shrugged again. In our world, morality comes on a sliding scale, with the odds heavily tipped towards the dark side.

‘Husam was very successful at it,’ she said, ‘He was the go-to man of choice for all sorts of people.’

‘Maybe I should have gone to see him before I got into trouble,’ I said.

‘Husam wouldn’t get involved with something that could give him serious problems. And beside, you couldn’t have afforded him.’

‘Smart and rich then,’ I said, ‘You’d have to be to drive a Mercedes. Until someone put a bullet into the back of his head. So maybe not smart after all.’

‘Smart enough to have hidden all his money where no one can find it,’ she said.

‘Maybe that’s what got him the final kiss,’ I suggested.

Saltanat stood up, moved towards the door. As always, the sheer grace of her movements reminded me of some wild and deadly creature, perhaps the snow leopards living in the mountains between Kyrgyzstan and China.

‘The doctors here say you should stay for another week at least. I’m checking you out in three days time; we’re going to Bishkek.’

Halfway out of the room, she turned back to me, astounded me with a never before bestowed wink.

‘I’ll get false papers sorted for you. Keep the beard; it doesn’t suit you.’

The following day, the silent nurse came in with a camera, photographed my face with a scowl that said she didn’t think the beard was photogenic either, left without saying a word. She didn’t wink at me either.

I was asleep when Saltanat arrived to drag me away from my bed of pain. Getting me onto my feet took several minutes and a degree of swearing I hadn’t used since my uniform days dragging alkashi out of bars and hookers out of hot-pillow apartments out near the power station. I did manage to retain a degree of self-respect by insisting on pissing in the bathroom, and under my own steam.

Stairs proved a rather bigger problem. When I pleaded for the use of a lift, Saltanat merely ignored me, then offered to push me down the stairs. Since I was still connected to a drip, I obeyed orders. The seven flights of stairs didn’t leave me fighting fit, but I could feel ,my leg muscles needed more exercise over the next few days.

Once we got outside the hospital, staggering cautiously across snow and ice towards the waiting van, I realised just how unfit I was. The wheels of the drip stand skidded away on the ice, so using it as a makeshift walking stick was more hazardous than going solo. But we finally reached the van. Any thought of comfort was quickly dispelled when Saltanat opened the rear doors to show me a wooden bench down one side.

‘Try not to fall over when we go round corners,’ was her last advice before shutting the doors behind me and getting behind the wheel. The rear windows had been smeared with some white paste, probably to make sure I couldn’t see where we were going. I knew it was elementary craft  –  if I didn’t know, I couldn’t tell anyone  –  but it still left me feeling untrusted and in the dark.

After an hour or so of hairpin bends, sudden braking and rapid acceleration that threated to send me sprawling, we stopped. Saltanat opened the doors, handed me a woollen ski mask. 

‘Put this on,’ she ordered, ‘Backwards.’

I obviously wasn’t going to be treated to a view of rolling countryside, a rose garden and a palatial mansion. Gravel crunched under my feet as Saltanat steered me and my faithful friend the drip stand, until a hand on my chest ordered me to stop, while another placed a chair behind my legs.

I sat down, heavily enough to make the stitches in my side and leg tug and dance. I felt small hands pulling the sky mask over my head. I blinked, momentarily dazzled by the light, then saw a small boy intently staring at me.

Otabek, the boy Saltanat and I had rescued from the American paedophile Morton Graves. The boy destined to be the victim in a sick and twisted porn film, suffering awful brutality until finally being slaughtered like some animal in an abattoir.

He didn’t smile at me, or speak. I didn’t think he ever would, but at least his eyes were no longer drowning in the terror of first seeing me when we freed him from Graves’ underground film studio and dungeon.

Otabek didn’t take his eyes from my face. I smiled, trying to convey how harmless I was, but the boy showed no reaction. Then, when I was least expecting it, he reached out, patted my hand twice, and then turned away, his interest exhausted. From behind me, I felt Saltanat place a hand on my shoulder.

‘Welcome home,’ she said, and it had been so long since anyone had said that to me, had made me feel accepted and wanted and connected, I felt my eyes suddenly water, and I nodded my head and looked down, to shake off the sudden attack of tears.

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