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Short Stories


By September 12, 2022No Comments


The penthouse had floor to ceiling windows, all the better to enjoy the spectacular view up towards the mountains on the south side of the city. The main room was furnished with the sort of understated elegance that whispers money with every leather or mahogany surface. It felt strangely unlived in, like a luxury hotel suite, no family photos or holiday souvenirs, everything in its place. It belonged on the cover of a fashion magazine, the kind that feature homes that aren’t really homes.

The air was rich with the smell of newly brewed coffee. A stylish glass cafitiere stood on a side table near us, together with the sort of cups that always look easily broken, vulnerable, too delicate to touch. Much like the woman who sat opposite us. Husan’s widow. Tall and slender almost to the point of anorexia, long black hair pinned up and worn under a plain grey chiffon scarf. A plain dark blue dress belted at the waist. Dark glasses that hid her eyes but not the bruising on her cheek and jaw, no makeup, no lipstick. Perhaps not a traditional mourning look, but I couldn’t doubt the depth and sincerity of her grief.

The way her shoulders slumped, bowed down with despair, the nervous tic in the cheek, the pallid skin, the handkerchief twisted unnoticed in her hands; I’d seen it too many times, broken the terrible news to wives, husbands, parents, children. Sometimes I’d mourned with them; sometimes I’d arrested them. When death comes through the door, things can never be the same again.

‘We’re here to help, Sayara.’

Saltanat’s voice, softer, gentler than I’d ever heard it before.

‘It’s kind of you to want to help…’

A voice sore and cracked with weeping.’

‘Family,’ Saltanat said, ‘How could I not?’

‘Husan never really spoke of his family back in Tashkent.’

‘We were all very proud of him, how he’d made something of himself,’ Saltanat said.

Sayara dabbed at her eyes without removing the dark glasses, a gesture that looked oddly false, an inexperienced actor overdoing grief. As I watched, she turned her attention to me.

‘And this is your boyfriend, Saltanat?’

I managed not to wince, wondering what Saltanat’s answer would be, but I needn’t have worried; her misdirection skills were as accurate as ever.

‘Inspector Borubaev is a member of the Bishkek police. He has a lot of experience in cases like these. His involvement can only help solve what happened, help you to move on in time.’

‘As you know,’ I said, pushing forward in case Sayara asked to see some credentials, or wondered why I hadn’t interviewed her with the regular police, ‘It’s important to establish events as quickly as  possible. Details get forgotten, memory can play tricks, shock can wipe out important points.’

I paused, gave my most sincere expression a new outing, chose my words to suit my official voice.

‘I realise how painful it must be to retell this awful tragedy, but it needs to be done, not just for your husband’s sake, but for yours.’

Saltanat went to sit next to Sayara, put an arm around her shoulders. I had the sense all three of us were engaged in some sort of playacting. Or perhaps reality is sometimes too much for any of us to deal with, so we resort to the clichés and mannerisms that hold the darkness at arm’s length.

Wind whipped at the windows, threw autumn leaves in handfuls against the glass, threatening to invade, moaning as if sharing Sayara’s sorrow. I took out my phone, switched on the recording facility, set it on the table near Sayara.

‘Do we have to do this?’ she asked, ‘The other officers made tapes as well; can’t you access those?’

I didn’t want to tell her I wasn’t working the case, that my former colleagues at Sverdlovsky station would rather cold-shoulder me than share information. And as always, I didn’t know whose side anyone was on. I’ve had cases where files found their way to suspects even before they’d found a place in the grey metal filing cabinets. When you can’t trust anyone, you have to trust yourself.

‘Tell us about that evening,’ I prompted.

‘We were going to have a simple supper at home,’ Sayara said, ‘Not often we managed that, with Husan having so many meetings in the evenings, always heading out of the door for one client or another.’

‘But not that evening?’ Saltanat asked.

‘We joked about it, said it was our second honeymoon.’

I watched as the tears began to trickle down Sayara’s cheeks. Dark smudges; the widow hadn’t forgotten her mascara.

‘I wasn’t cooking anything special; pelmeni dumplings, borscht. Husan said he ate enough fancy food with clients.’

Sayara paused, dabbed at her eyes again.

‘Go on,’ Saltanat said.

‘When the doorbell rang, I just assumed it was Husan; he always used to forget his keys, so I just opened the door.’

Whether someone is giving a victim statement or making a confession, my rule is to always allow them to talk at their own speed, in their own way. Sometimes trauma and shock makes them stumble over their words; for other, lifting the weight of guilt makes their voice spill everything in a single mad vomiting. Very few people can bear the silence of a listener, and in their need to fill the empty air, the truth often reveals itself.

‘They pushed their way in past me, slammed the door shut, put the chain on. Three of them. One of them had a shotgun, the sort where they cut the barrel down so it’s easier to hide. From the way he gave orders, I think he was the leader.’

The other ones?’

‘They didn’t have a weapon at first, then one of them went into the kitchen, came back with my filleting knife, the one with the long blade.’

Sayara paused.

‘Husan used to sharpen it every week, said that you have to keep a knife blade keen to get the best results.’

‘Did you see their faces?’

Sayara shook her head, reached out to touch the table. I offered my cigarettes. She was tempted but shook her head. One of us obviously had willpower.

‘They told me they weren’t going to hurt me, that they’d just come to collect money Husam owed their boss, that I had to go into the bedroom and keep quiet while they waited for him.’

I nodded, encouraging her to continue, while Saltanat held Sayara’s hand.

‘I did what they told me to do. I asked them not to hurt me, said Husan would sort out whatever the problem was with money, just to leave us alone.’

Sayara suddenly took off the dark glasses, stared full at me, her dark eyes wide and unblinking. When she spoke, I could hear the anger and terror in her voice, sharp as a scar.

‘We weren’t criminals, Husan had a successful business, he’d made a lot of money by his own efforts, that’s all. He’d worked his way up from nothing, all the hours of the day and night. What had we ever done wrong to deserve this?’

He voice was rising to a pitch that warned me to calm her down. Very few people are prepared for death to walk through the door, unable to deal with the aftermath.

‘I did what they said. What else could I do?’

The pleading in her voice, her need for understanding and agreement, felt like a slap across the face.

‘The one with the shotgun stood near the door, told the other two to take me into the bedroom. Told them not to hurt me, just to keep me quiet, away from phones.’

Tears were falling, faster now, as the wind drove harder against the windows, its voice rising to a howl. If we’d been up in the mountains, I would have imagined it was the cry of wolves approaching.

‘We went into the bedroom, they shut the door, told me to lie on the bed. ‘We won’t hurt you,’ they said, ‘Just be quiet.’ I couldn’t help thinking about how I’d used the filleting knife the week before to trim beef into thin slices, how easily the blade had cut through the meat, almost as if it was tissue paper. And then one of them reached over and touched my breast, the way you weigh an orange in the bazaar before you buy.’

I knew the rest of the story as clearly as if I’d witnessed it. The threats, the knife cutting through cloth, the pulling down or aside of clothes, pale flesh on display. I sometimes think that murder kills the body, but rape devours the soul, then spits it out, still living, to try to endure the aftermath.

We both listened; neither of us speaking, until Sayara had finished, her voice getting stronger, angrier as she continued.

‘Then the one with the shotgun came in, just as the second one was about to take his turn. He said something like, ‘We don’t have time for this, tie her up,’ and I watched as they cut up a pillowcase into strips, tied my hands and feet. Just as they were leaving, the man with the shotgun looked at me, pulled a face almost of apology, headed out of the apartment.’

Saltanat said nothing, took Sayara’s hand. I knew she was thinking about her own rape, when we were trying to solve the Yekaterina Tynalieva murder. The brutality, the helplessness, the invasion of the body and the destruction of the self.

‘After they left, all I could think of was that I had to change the sheets, burn the ones on the bed. Then the police came through the door, found me, untied me, called an ambulance. And it was on the way to the hospital that they told me about Husan.’

We sat for several minutes, as I watched the last rays of the sun spark off the snowcaps of the mountains, diminish and finally become extinguished. Hope always seems at its lowest when the light goes out.

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