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Short Stories


By July 25, 2022No Comments


We knew we couldn’t return to the safe house. Too many police and four dead bodies to explain away. My new passport was in the glove compartment, and Saltanat, always prepared for an immediate departure, had her bag in the boot of the car.

‘Bishkek?’ I asked.

‘Bishkek,’ she agreed, and turned the wheel towards the border. I slumped down in the seat, from exhaustion rather than a desire to hide. Saltanat stopped at a village pharmacy on the way, used her government identification to get hold of enough painkillers and sleeping tablets to send an elephant to wherever they go to dream.

I’ve never grown used to the sudden proximity of violent death, the way breath is snatched away, the heart shuts down and the mannequin falls. I wondered if I was about to vomit, wound the window down for cold fresh air that didn’t stink of blood and bowels and fear.

It’s a nine hour drive from Tashkent to Bishkek, passing through Shymkent and Taraz, following the path of the Chui river for a couple of hundred kilometres until you reach the crossing into Kyrgyzstan. The Uzbeks call the crossing Korday while the Kyrgyz call it Akjol, just another example of how friendly and co-operative the two neighbours are. I knew the crossing would be the first test of my new identity, and I was pretty sure I didn’t look like a respectable businessman. 

Saltanat had bought a pair of scissors along with the painkillers, and we stopped by the roadside so she could attack my hair. My passport was supposed to be four years old, and as she pointed out, no one has exactly the same hairstyle as in their photo. By the end of the shearing, I looked not merely disreputable but thoroughly piratical. I tilted the seat back, closed my eyes, tried to remember a time when I didn’t hurt, failed.

I woke up the other side of the border, head pounding and my missing finger screaming at me to do something to ease the pain. I dry swallowed a couple of the painkillers, rubbed sleep out of my eyes. My mouth was stale, dry and my tongue felt cracked and swollen. The way I felt, I wished Aliyev had aimed more accurately when he shot me. I didn’t know what my long-term prospects for recovery were, but then again, I’ve always been too busy wondering if my prospects were anything other than strictly short-term, and strictly limited.

Saltanat passed me a bottle of water without taking her eyes off the road, and I drank the way an alcoholic hits a bottle of samogon after a week in the tank. As the cold water hit my stomach, I felt dizzy, light-headed, and wondered if I was going to pass out.

‘You were dead to the world when we got to the border,’ Saltanat said, ‘So I showed your passport to the border official, told him you’d been in a car accident in Tashkent, and you were on your way to see a specialist surgeon in Bishkek.’

‘And he believed you?’ I asked.

‘I told him you were my sister’s husband, I was just going to drop you off at the hospital, and I’d be back at the border in a couple of days. I did say I hoped to see him then, asked he was married.’

‘What did he say?’

‘No, of course, but you can always spot that pale band of skin where they’ve taken off their wedding ring. He must have thought it was his birthday.’

‘So he just waved us through?’

‘He took a good look at you, said that if my sister was as beautiful as me, then he felt sorry that she’d ended up with someone as ugly as you.’

‘Charming,’ I said, swallowed a couple of painkillers, hoped I might manage to get some more sleep.

The tablets didn’t do much to help me sleep, and neither did the potholes in the road. After a couple of hours bouncing around like a teenager on speed, I gave up the uneven struggles, thought about what our next step should be. Saltanat’s face was grim, tired as if she’d aged months in just a few hours. I was surprised to see how Orbek’s death had hit her hard, that she wasn’t the emotionless warrior woman tat she presented to the world.

‘What’s your plan when we get to Bishkek?’ Saltanat asked.

‘Find somewhere to stay,’ I said, ‘Not the Hyatt, too obvious, there’s a small hotel outside the city centre. We can stay there tonight, I’ll make a few calls, and then we start looking into your uncle’s murder. But first of all, we need to find out how he managed to afford a Mercedes and a penthouse. And who exactly he pissed off.’

The Futuro Hotel is in a small side street off Chui Prospekt, not far from the power station, some five kilometres from the city centre. I’d stayed there a couple of times in the past, when a couple of Chechen muscle men decided it made an ideal base for their murder for hire business. It took five deaths to persuade them that the business wasn’t profitable: the last two deaths were theirs, and they weren’t painless. 

The Futuro was clean, modern and discreet, which suited me perfectly. I didn’t know who thought I was still alive; maybe the mob and maybe Tynaliev. The one thing I did know was that I wanted to keep my whereabouts under anyone’s radar until I had more of a sense of the situation.

Saltanat paid for three nights and asked for a room on the top floor, at the back of the hotel. Neither of us wanted someone shooting through the window. Not until we could shoot back at any rate. The room wasn’t big, with the kind of fake wood furniture and fittings that you see in Russian TV sitcoms, but it wasn’t as if we were intending to hold a party there. At least there weren’t any chandeliers.  I watched TV while Saltanat showered, then did the same, rather more carefully. The black thread sewing me together seemed to be holding up and the stump of my missing finger was pretty much scabbed over. I didn’t know how much my wounds would slow me down, but I hoped that surprise might give us the edge if we needed it.

We didn’t have any weapons with us; we’d left the house and Tashkent in too much of a hurry to tool up, and crossing any border when you’re carrying is never a great idea. In the morning, we’d pay a visit to my storage space, where I keep a supply of not strictly legal weapons, a couple of thousand dollars, four or five passports that showed the same photo with different names and dates of birth, and some plastique. I knew I wasn’t the only policeman with a stash in case I needed to leave in a hurry; I only hoped no one knew about mine.

I came out of the bathroom to find Saltanat already in bed, the TV still playing but now mute. I was more than tired; no one ever tells you how exhausted you feel after major surgery and during recovery. Suddenly your legs buckle, all your muscles feel as if they’ve turned to water, and your mind shuts down everything except the desperate need for sleep.

‘You look like shit,’ Saltanat said, reverting to her tough bitch routine, ‘You might at least have shaved if I’m going to have to share a bed with you.’

I shrugged; it wasn’t as if either of us seemed in the mood for anything other than eight hours unconsciousness. I clambered into the bed, taking care not to use my right hand, laid back as Saltanat pulled the sheet over me.

‘Tomorrow morning, we start digging, asking around,’ I managed to say, before sleep sandbagged me.

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