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Short Stories


By August 28, 2022No Comments


‘We must have been followed from the hotel,’ I said.

‘The question is, how did they know we were there?’

‘I don’t think there would be a police alert for us,’ I said, ‘No ‘handsome policeman travelling with heavily pregnant foreigner wanted for questioning.’

‘Joking after being shot at ten minutes ago, Akyl? You must be finally growing a pair,’ Saltanat said, ‘It must be because of my credit card.’

‘Maybe all the hotels got a message to look out for us, for an Uzbek woman with your name?’

‘That wouldn’t get them very far; I never use my own card,’ she said, ‘And the number is blacked-out on the international system. So someone has had access to my file, hacked the information. Some one very high up.’

I thought about that for a moment.

‘Connected to your uncle’s murder, do you think?’

Saltanat shrugged.

‘I imagine we’ve both got enemies here. And obviously people know we’re together, under the radar.’

‘We haven’t broken any laws,’ I said, ‘Apart from crossing the border with false passports, carrying unlicensed weapons, obtaining shelter under a false name…’

‘I’ve got other cards in other names, but they may be compromised as well,’ Saltanat said, ‘That’s not the problem.’

‘Which is, who’s chasing us,’ I said.

‘Exactly. You eliminated a top pakhan, and some of his best men. Whoever’s now in charge may be very grateful to you for the step up, but you’ve still got to be made an example of,’ Saltanant said.

‘To encourage the others.’

It was a dispiriting prospect. We were parked on the edge of Panfilov Park, not far from the old government buildings, flanked by impressive arches with murals showing mountain lakes and forests. The distant noises of the amusement park carried towards us, the shrieks of delight or fear from the rides somehow sinister and menacing, distorted by the wind. The shadows were beginning to fall, and I knew it would be too cold for a pregnant woman and a wounded man to sleep in the car.

Saltanat must have read my thoughts, because she turned the ignition and the heater on.

‘I know where we can stay, no cards needed, no questions asked,’ she said, and we moved away from the kerb, headed north. We drove through increasingly narrow streets, the road getting more potholed, the buildings on either side shabbier, the shops more decrepit.

Finally, we pulled up outside tall metal gates, snow cleared and piled on either side. The gates bore a giant bas-relief of a woman’s head, hair flowing behind her, and a name, Umai Hotel. Umai is the Kyrgyz goddess of fertility and protector of women, and Saltanat and I had stayed there before, when we were hunting down a foreign paedophile ring. The owner, Rustam, had a daughter, Anastasia, who was a close college friend of Saltanat. After Anastasia had been attacked by three men and killed herself from shame, Saltanat hunted down the scum responsible and served justice. After that, Rustam wouldn’t let her pay for a room, food, drink, anything Saltanat needed.

It was later on in our investigation that the paedophile gang slaughtered Rustam and his hotel staff, and I hadn’t heard about the fate of the hotel after that.

‘The place is still open?’ I asked.

‘Rustam’s sister, Azar, inherited it, runs it now with her husband.’

‘She doesn’t blame us for what happened here?’ I said.

Saltanat shook her head.

‘I avenged her niece. We avenged her brother and his staff. That’s enough for her.’

I wondered if by staying here we were going to bring more trouble with us, but Saltanat knew the people and I didn’t. I decided to wait and see.

A lot of being a murder detective is just that; waiting and watching to see who stumbles over their own feet, tells one lie too many, gets overwhelmed by the pressure and does a runner. Pieces get added to the puzzle all the time; sometimes all you have to do is let them fall into place.

‘So you think Kazakh are involved?’ Saltanant asked.

I nodded. For once in our strange relationship, I was in the position of knowing the territory better than her. For a lot of Kyrgyz, Kazakhstan is the country with all the money but none of the beauty. We’re jealous of what they have, they want what we’ve got. It doesn’t make for neighbourliness.

The snow was falling heavier now, so it was time to move indoors. Saltanat spoke on her mobile, and a moment later, the metal gates swung open. We drove through, parked as the gates closed behind us. At the front door of the hotel, a middle-aged woman waved to us, hurrying us in. Heads down, we hurried to join her.

‘Azar, this is Akyl, you remember I told you about him?’

I looked at the woman standing before me. Thin, a drawn face, hair hidden behind a headscarf. Hands worn coarse through fieldwork, cooking, poverty. But dark eyes that still burnt like the flame after which she was named. 

She looked at me. As is our custom between men and women, we didn’t shake hands.

‘You helped avenge my family,’ she said, her voice surprisingly soft, ‘You have an honoured place in my home whenever you need it.’

‘Spasibo,’ I said, uncertain what else to say. What words are there to console someone who’s lost so much, in so brutal a fashion? I understand why some people think that only blood can avenge blood.

Azar led us through into a large room, obviously a dining room used only during the summer season. Uncomfortable dark wooden chairs, thick curtains drawn, square tables set around the room. Perhaps it was because I knew the building’s history, had met the people slaughtered there, but the melancholy that invades closed hotels felt overlaid with a darker sense of tragedy. I didn’t want to stay there too long, let alone sleep there.

The inevitable bowls of chocolates, sweets, apples, teacups sat on the largest of the tables, and we pulled up chairs. Kyrgyz hospitality is inviolate, one of the traditions from a harsh nomadic life that the move into the cities has never altered.

‘Azar, we’re going to need somewhere to stay,’ Saltanat said, ‘Without paperwork.’

‘Whatever you want, whenever you want,’ Azar said.

‘Akyl was hurt recently; he’s going to need fresh bandages, antibiotics. Again, without leaving a path back to us.’

‘Whatever you want, whenever you want,’ Azar repeated.

‘We don’t want to get you or your husband into trouble,’ I added.

Azar turned those dark eyes upon me, picking me out like a searchlight hunts down an escaping prisoner against a high brick wall.

‘You shed blood for my family,’ she said, and I could hear the steel in her voice, ‘Nothing we can do can ever fully repay that.’

I felt ashamed at questioning just how much they would be prepared to help us. I could sense Saltanat’s glare burning the back of my neck. Not for the first time, I wondered if a career hunting for the worst blinds you to the best.

I said nothing, bowed my head in acknowledgement. Simple dignity rises above all the complications and prevarications the world can throw at it.

I stood up, walked over to the window, pulled back one of the curtains. More snow, falling faster now, the way a dance speeds up until the dancers seem out of control. I touched the glass; cold. The jaws of winter were upon us.

I thought of the eagle hunters out on the south side of Issy-Kul, riding out to train their birds on the prey that ventured out in search of food, vivid against the snow. Wolves would be starting to make their way down from the mountains, towards the easy pickings from herds of goats or sheep.

I let the curtain fall, turned back to the warmth and shelter of the room.

Wondering how long it would last for me.

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