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By October 3, 2022No Comments


‘No answer.’

‘Try again,’ I said.

Saltanat hit redial, glared at the phone as if she were holding a scorpion.


I reached into the wardrobe, pulled out my canvas bag from the bottom shelf.

‘It’s loaded,’ I said, passing her the Beretta, taking the Makarov for myself, ‘You drive, but try not to get us killed or arrested.’

‘You’re a cop, tell them you’re on a call.’

‘And explain how I just happened to give a foreign national an unregistered piece? Let’s stop for red lights, ok?’

We drove up Isanov St towards Chui Prospekt, Saltanat swerving past traffic, horn blaring. So much for discretion. We tried to turn right into Kiev Street, but a policeman at the junction was waving all traffic forward.

‘This doesn’t look good,’ Saltanat said.

‘Go round the block and wait for me in the parking lot of Beta Stores,’ I said, reaching for the door handle, trying to lever myself to the ground.

‘It looks like a crime scene,’ I said, wincing at the pain in my side.  I had a pocketful of painkillers, but this wasn’t the time to let my senses get drowsy.

 ‘I’m coming with you.’

 ‘They won’t let you through, you know that,’ I said, ‘Just wait for me there, I’ll call you as soon as I know anything. I’ll meet you there.’

I knew Saltanat didn’t like it; I pitied the parking lot attendant who tried to give her a hard time. I watched as she drove off, started to make my way down Kiev towards Sayara’s apartment block.

The pavements were crowded with people all staring in the direction of half a dozen police cars forming a barricade across the street. Uniformed menti held people back, doing their best to preserve a crime scene. An officer held up a hand to prevent me going any closer, read my ID, let me through. I hobbled towards a group of officers clustered on the pavement, recognised a couple of faces, nodded at the photographer capturing the moment.

I’ve seen neater crime scenes; this one was spread out over about three metres, with splashes of red streaking across cracked and uneven paving stones. A junior squad detective I knew slightly looked up as I approached.

‘We can all go home now,’ he said, ‘The Clever Wolf has arrived to solve the case for us.’

I nodded at the department joke. Akyl means ‘Clever’ and my family name, Borubaev, features the word ‘Wolf’. I pretended to dislike the nickname, but truth be told, it suited the way I worked, alone, not burdened by hangers-on or the need for endless paperwork and reporting lines.

‘A flyer or a jumper, Inspector?’ one of the uniformed officers beside me asked, looked around for approving chuckles, disappointed at not getting any. The glare I gave him should have been enough for him to request an immediate transfer, preferably to the remote and desolate border post with China on the Torugart Pass. People know better than to joke when I’m in the presence of death.

I walked over to the body, heard someone call my name.

Kenesh Usupov has run the Bishkek morgue for as long as I’ve worked in the Murder Squad, and we’ve established a truce, if not exactly a trust, one that allows me to run with his findings and find the people responsible for the butchered remnants on his metal slabs.

We’re not drinking friends; he’s too formal, too reserved for that, but when he states something to be a fact, I can rely on it to help hunt someone down, knowing his word will stand up in court.

‘Akyl, long time,’ Kenesh said, extending his hands to give the two-grip shake that we give each other as a sign of respect. As I would have expected, he noticed the bandages on my hand, saw that one of my fingers was no longer there.

‘Missing in action? Or you couldn’t get the wedding ring off?’ he muttered, giving an almost imperceptible nod down at my hand. Nothing if not discreet.

‘I think of it as an involuntary divorce,’ I said, did my best to give a light-hearted smile.

‘And you turn up here, why?’

‘I’m Murder Squad, you know that.’

‘And who said this was murder?’

I looked at him.

‘You remember that friend of mine you helped out one time?’

Usupov nodded. What Saltanat was raped, I’d called him, frantic, asked for his help. He’d brought the morning after pill, retrovirals to prevent the HIV virus, all in the middle of the night. I didn’t know where he’d located the drugs, but I owed him bigtime, and in my book, that means for ever.

‘Her uncle was the guy who kissed the wrong end of someone else’s shotgun.’

Usupov jerked a thumb over his shoulder towards the group of his white-clothed colleagues who were gathered around a body.

‘The uncle’s wife?’

I nodded, briefly brushed my forefinger against my lips to signify silence.

In death, Sayara didn’t look any more peaceful than she had when Saltanat and I were questioning her. Most of her face was still intact, although the back of her head was a jigsaw puzzle of brains, bone fragments and blood. Her legs and arms were twisted into shapes not even a ballerina could reach, and I could tell that her hips had been shattered by the fall as well. Some of her hair had spilled out onto the pavement, a ribbon still tying most of it into a loose ponytail. In one hand she clutched a small piece of coloured fabric, red and green, the green now overlaid with her blood.

Shards and speaks of glass framed her body, glinting in the light like slivers of ice on a frozen lake. Several of them were red-tipped with the crimson of her blood, and I could see the cuts on her hands and legs, deep enough to glimpse bone.

Falling leaves from the nearby trees had drifted onto the body, a kind of makeshift shroud, covering her eyes, for which I was thankful. The stare of the dead stays with you long after the other insults to the body have started to fade from the mind. One of her shoes was lying a few feet away, red, high-heeled, probably ripped away by the fall, another reminder how unprepared anyone is when it’s their turn to die.

Most people encounter death in a hospital, or a bed at home, where life has slowly leached away. They see faces that are calm, resigned, sometimes even glad at the ending of pain. I see very different faces, faces warped by fear, terror, the sudden realisation that the end has burst through the door. Faces smashed by hammers, boots, fists. Faces carved with knives until the flesh hangs off like bloodstained sheets drying in the wind. There may be peace in death, but not for the people I see.

‘Cause of death?’

‘If it was anything other than a catastrophic fall from the penthouse, it’s going to be almost impossible to tell,’ Usupov said, ‘Unless she was shot or poisoned, of course.


Usupov slowly shook his head.

‘Hard to say, one way or another, but…’

He drew closer, not wanting to share his thoughts with half of Sverdlovsky Station.

‘People who decide to kill themselves this way, usually land face-down. It’s like diving into a pool backwards, it just doesn’t seem right,’ he said, ‘And there’s one other thing.’

‘Go on.’

‘It’s rare for women to commit suicide this way. Even in death, no woman wants to be broken and smashed, unrecognisable as anything more than a jelly. It’s much more common in men, just like shotgun blasts, they seem to care less about how their corpse looks.’

Most people don’t know, or choose not to remember, that if they end up on one of Usupov’s steel tables, the end result looks like an abattoir’s scrapings, no matter what method they’ve used to get there.

 ‘So your thoughts?’ I asked.

‘You’re the detective,’ Usupov said, ‘But when you go up to her apartment, you might want to see if anything seems out of the ordinary.’

I nodded. I knew what Usupov was hinting at. Murder. The way this case was turning out, nothing would surprise me.

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