A MORNING RESURRECTION – CHAPTER 12
Eight hours later, our car was doing its best to get through the ruts and puddles of the road that led into the apartment blocks of Alamedin. To describe Alamedin as run down is to flatter it; concrete prefabricated khrushchyovka apartments, stained and scarred by fifty years of snow, rain and general decay.
Big metal skips overflowing with rubbish that never seem to get emptied, broken pavements, children’s playgrounds with every removable metal part that could be sold for scrap long gone. A lot of the entry doors have electronic locks now, but plenty still gape open, wedged by bricks or rusty steel pipes. The police would patrol here in twos if they ever patrolled at all. People scraping a living to get by don’t rank high in the department’s priorities; easier and more profitable to stop every fifth car for speeding and an on the spot fine.
We’d paid a call to my storage space to collect weapons and cash, and now we were headed for a building tucked away behind the street market that spilled out onto the main road. The weather had turned chilly, and there was mist in the air, as we pushed past women shapeless in layers of thick winter coats, selling vegetables, smoked fish and unidentifiable lumps of meat.
‘His name is Omurbek Isaev; we were in the same orphanage, and we’ve kept in sporadic touch over the years,’ I said, as we made our way up the unlit stairwell, using the might from our mobile phones to avoid the worst of the rubbish.
‘A source?’ Saltanat asked.
‘We’ve helped each other out a few times over the years,’ I said, unwilling to go into details.
‘I can imagine,’ Saltant said, the edge in her voice telling me she wondered how many corners I’d cut during my career, how many convictions wouldn’t stand up to fresh and closer scrutiny.
‘You have to understand that Omurbek isn’t the biggest conversationalist in Bishkek, especially around people he doesn’t know. He works on the basis that if you haven’t said anything, you usually get away with something. Ask him if it’s raining, and he’ll shrug, not interested, doesn’t know, doesn’t give a shit.’
‘So why have we come to this dump to meet him?’
‘Because he’s ex-squad. Because he’s busy listening when he’s not talking, and he’s very rarely talking. What he doesn’t hear through his contacts on the street usually isn’t worth investigating. I only ever ask him about big stuff; I don’t give a damn about a van packed with stolen TVs and DVD players.’
‘Why should you? You’re Murder Squad.’
‘He knows that. So when I appear on his doorstep, he also knows it’s serious,’ I said, using the barrel of my Makarov to beat a rapid tattoo on the steel door. We waited for a couple of moments, and then the door swung open.
‘Fuck you want?’
The warm greeting came from somewhere around the level of my waist. Omurbek Isaev could have been as much as a metre sixty tall had he stood on tiptoe. But he wasn’t ever going to do any standing; the wheelchair that he sat in was the only means of travelling he had. A drive by near the Blonder pub on Ibrahimova had spared his life but taken his mobility. I knew he hadn’t left his two room apartment in over ten years, wondered how he managed to stay sane after a decade of the same peeling wallpaper.
‘Just thought I’d come see how my favourite cripple is,’ I said, reaching out to shake his hand. It felt small and cold in my grasp, as if the bones were ready to crumble into fragments.
Omurbek looked over at Saltanat, recognised the bulge of the gun tucked under her sweatshirt.
‘We’ve done a lot of work together,’ I said, not wanting to get into our complicated history.
‘So I see,’ Omurbek said, staring at Saltanat’s stomach, ‘Come through, sit down. Have to be the floor though. Only one chair. Mine’
We sat in the dingy sitting room, the unmade sofa bed in one corner. I watched Omurbek wheel himself towards the table and a half-open bottle of vodka. He held it up towards us.
‘Still not drinking?
‘Only one chair. Only one glass. You get a lot of visitors drop by, Omurbek? Saltanat asked.
‘Keeps out the riff raff,’ he said, pouring himself a shot, throwing it back. I recognised the brand; I wouldn’t use it as paint stripper. Omurbek saw me staring, smiled.
‘Can’t afford the good stuff,’ he said, ‘Next stop, samogon.’
Anyone that drinks the homemade vodka that is distilled out in the villages might as well be playing Russian roulette; I’ve known the stuff made out of battery acid, brake fluid, gasoline. I made a note to leave some som on the table accidentally on purpose when I left. Omurbek had been a good cop, taught me the rules to follow and the ones that could be bent. Payback was long overdue.
I looked around the room; threadbare, but still clean, tidy. Like Omurbek himself, hair trimmed, clothes crumpled but laundered. I guessed that someone came in to help him, a woman neighbour perhaps, wondered how his pride dealt with needing help.
‘I know you hear what’s going down on the dark side,’ I said, ‘Know anything about some rich businessman getting executed parking his ride?’
Saltanat nodded, kept her face expressionless.
She nodded again, ‘How did you know?’
‘Woman with a gun and an Uzbek accent. Not such a wild guess.’
He poured another vodka, got rid of it as quickly as the first one. Or maybe it was the sixth or seventh.
‘Dead Uzbek? Kyrgyz cops don’t give a shit. So you’re here.’
Drinking the cheap stuff hadn’t lessened his deductive skills.
‘You always were the smartest cop I ever worked with, Urmurbek,’ I said.
‘Not the world’s biggest challenge,’ he said. We both smiled, and I remembered how he’d been a good if taciturn friend after Chinara’s death.
‘What do you hear?’ Saltanat asked, ‘Not that I hate to break up a reunion of old buddies, but there’s a degree of haste to this.’
‘Word I hear, he wasn’t exactly dirty, but he wasn’t a shining member of the Bishkek Chamber of Commerce either.’
‘If he had been, there wouldn’t have been a reason to kill him,’ I said, ‘So it wasn’t your straightforward robbery gone wrong, not some streetlife chancing his arm.’
‘Home invasion. Raping the wife. Ambush in the car park. Planned ahead,’ Omurbek said.
‘The dead man took in washing,’ I said, ‘Anything if the price was right, and he stayed behind a line that couldn’t be overlooked.’
‘So someone didn’t like how he cleaned their collars and cuffs,’ Omurbek said, ‘Or he took in laundry from the wrong people.’
I shrugged; in any country, there are always beaks that need feeding if you want to get anything done, and Kyrgyzstan has more of them than most. The right envelope cuts through a lot of red tape for something that’s legal, covers a lot of traces for anything that isn’t.
Omurbek poured another drink, held the glass towards Saltanat, who shook her head.
‘I wouldn’t want to get lipstick on your glass,’ she said, ‘Since it’s your only one.’
‘You might need a drink,’ he said. He didn’t know just how tough Saltanat was, how she could handle any information thrown at her. I wasn’t even sure I knew.
Omurbek balanced the vodka bottle in his hand, gauged the remaining level, put it back on the table.
‘This is a poor country,’ he said, ‘Most people struggle to put a meal on the table, shoes on their kid’s feet. Plenty of opportunity if you have a few dollars in your pocket.’
‘I’m not here to hear a lecture on poverty,’ Saltanat said, ‘The dead man?’
‘The Kazakhs have plenty of money,’ Omurbek, ‘And the business acumen to expand. Casinos were banned in Kazakhstan, so they bought up land, premises, opened casinos this side of the border. People with no money will always risk the little they can scrape together to gamble.’
He paused, poured a shot, held the glass in his hand.
‘It’s called hope.’
‘Go on,’ Saltanat said.
‘Well, the casinos here got closed. Too many foreigners making too much money and not enough beaks here being fed. Short-sighted really, but greed does that to people.’
‘So they looked for new opportunities?’
‘Hope gone, oblivion beckons.’
We waited, as Omurbek ran his finger around the rim of his glass.
‘You ever been in a really poor family’s home? When they serve tea to their guests, bring out the best teacups? Proud of the few nice things they have?’
Saltanat and I both nodded.
‘’Well, if you’re going to offer people a little touch of oblivion, you’re not going to bring out the samogon in jam jars, are you? You want to show you have a little style, a little sophistication. So you open the good vodka, with the fancy bottle, the expensive label.’
Omurbek toasted us both, mimed touching our imaginary glasses, tossed back the shot.
‘But all those fancy bottles, all that platinum-distilled vodka has to come from somewhere and you sure as hell can’t afford the real thing.’
‘Smuggled cheap vodka, bottled and labelled up to look like the real thing,’ I said. Omurbek nodded.
‘Remember that pipeline across the river Chui that got busted a few years back?’ he asked.
‘Twenty centimetres wide,’ I said, ‘Ran for half a kilometre between Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. Thousands of litres a day coming into the country, bottled here, given a fancy label, sold off to the little village stores or from the back of vans.’
‘Big money in smuggling,’ Omurbek said, ‘Especially if you’re smuggling the right stuff. Either way, import or export.’
‘Not just vodka,’ Saltanat said.
‘The really reliable moneyspinner? Kazakh tenge. You’re not going to get the official dollar exchange rate, but it’s a hell of a lot easier to get your hard-stolen money out of the sight of the Kazakhs and into dollars that can get shipped anywhere if they’re here in Kyrgyzstan. One hand washes the other, and if you know what you’re doing, it washes your wallet as well.’
I nodded; I’d used a Kyrgyz money dealer to send a hundred thousand dollars to a dead woman’s family in Ho Chi Minh City after Saltanat and I had spent time in Dubai. No way it could be done legally without attracting attention, so you paid a ten per cent broker’s fee, no questions asked, and the money ended up wherever you wanted it to go, to do whatever you wanted with it. I like to think I bought two small Vietnamese orphans an education and a more secure future.
‘Just money and booze? That’s what this is about?’ Saltanat asked. I could sense the anger building in her, wanted to defuse it while there was still information to be gleaned from Omurbek.
I watched as he pushed his wheelchair towards the window, to stare out at a view he must have seen tens of thousands of times. I motioned to Saltanat to dial it down, walked over to the window to join Omurbek.
‘Like you said, family.’
‘Tell her to lose the attitude.’
‘You know what it’s like when it becomes personal.’ I said.
Omurbek looked out at the tower blocks that hid all but a partial view of the sky, considered, then nodded. The towers and the sky merged into the same shade of dismal gray. The mist outside had turned to the thin drizzle that becomes snow after sunset.
‘Sometimes you need to pass people down the pipeline.’
I didn’t need to ask what sort of people. Criminals looking to escape a stay in the penitentiary, politicians who’d suddenly found themselves on the wrong side of history, even regular people looking to get away from the rigours of alimony or the revenge of angry fathers or their sons.
‘Flows both ways,’ said Omurbek, as if reading my mind. Plenty of people with a few undeclared dollars know they can stretch much further on the right side of the border.’
‘A free market,’ I said.
‘Free for those who can afford to pay,’ said Omurbek, and there was a world of weariness and resignation in his voice, an acceptance that nothing anyone could do would ever make a difference.
‘So what do you suggest?’ I asked.
‘Remember what I told you, the first day you joined the squad? When you couldn’t get used to the weight of the gun on your hip and you kept tugging at your belt?’
‘Follow the money,’ I said.
‘’Not very original advice,’ Omurbek said, ‘But like vodka, the good shit never goes out of date.’
I put my hand on his shoulder, squeezed, felt the frail bones move under my fingers.
‘I’ll let you know what goes down,’ I said, and caught Saltanat’s eye, nodded towards the door. Omurbek said nothing as we left, didn’t even turn around. He’d spoken, decided that was enough, maybe even too much, and reverted to his default position as a sphinx.
I shut the door behind us, waited to hear the bolts slam in place, the key grind in the lock. Nothing. We stared to pick our cautious way down the stairs.
‘How does he survive?’ Saltanat asked, stepping over a torn and stinking refuse bag.
‘The police pension plan is not a matter of government pride,’ I explained, ‘Basically, you fund your own retirement. Omurbek comes from a small village on the north shore of Issy-Kul, owns some land there. Someone, a cousin probably, grows a few travka plants there, enough to keep the local potheads smiling. The money is enough to keep Omurbek in cheap vodka and pay his bills.’
‘The local menti don’t bust him? Or want a piece?’
I stopped, stared at her.
‘Omurbek was on the force, one of us. Put in that wheelchair by a gopnik with a Makarov looking to score a little chemical relaxation and managing to kill a pharmacy owner instead. No one is going to piece off the only thing a wounded cop has to live on. We look after our own. Anyone who tried would find himself in a world of pain. Isn’t that how they do things in Tashkent?’
Saltanat stared back, shrugged, carried on down the stairs. Maybe there are worse places than Bishkek to be Murder Squad.
The painkillers I’d taken to keep the nerves in my hand subdued were wearing off, and I could feel the first tentative throbbing and twitching of my missing finger. Strange how you can still feel something that’s no longer there. I stopped, stared at the bandages on my hand as if that might ease the pain. Saltanat was five paces ahead of me, framed in the entrance doorway, the reek of piss on the stairs, the stink of rotting food heavy from the trash skip opposite. I felt a few tentative flecks of snow brush against my face.
And that’s when the shooting began.
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