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Short Stories


By November 7, 2022November 14th, 2022No Comments


I looked around the empty car park, hoping to see Saltanat walking towards me, hands held up in apology. Bit I knew she wouldn’t have decided on a whim to go off shopping somewhere, or duck into a nearby bar for a beer. Whatever you might think about the concept of a female assassin, Saltanat never lets herself get distracted from the job in hand.

I picked up the small white cloth lying discarded on the tarmac, blinked at the sweet smell of chloroform, added up the pieces. A stab of panic rocked me as I wondered if the baby  –  our baby  –  would be damaged, maybe even killed by the chloroform. Then I put the thought aside. It would only be a distraction from the task ahead. Finding Saltanat, killing her abductor, solving the murders of Husam and Sayara.

It was time to start getting some answers, and I didn’t much care who I had to hurt to get them. I even had a pretty good idea where to find them.

My wife Chinara used to tease me that the Italian poet Dante wrote a long poem about Hell, and how it had nine circles of torment. Here in Bishkek, we have only one, but it’s pretty grim all the same. It’s always amazed me that the Kulturny bar has never been closed down, but it doesn’t surprise me. You can always protect someone or something if you’ve got the money to pay for it, preferably in dollars.

You would walk past it without noticing it; no windows, no half-lit neon signs for Arpa, Jivoe or Baltika beer. You might spot the scorch marks of the pavement where someone with a grudge lobbed a Molotov cocktail from a passing car a few years ago, but that’s all. The battered steel door doesn’t have a handle, but a doorman inside vets you through a spyhole. Assuming he decides to let you in, you have to be willing to be frisked by a thug who’s probably drunk or stoned, and certainly armed.

The stairs down to the cellar hold all the promise of a nightmare involving starving rats, and that’s probably not so far from the truth. The stink of piss, sweat and stale beer isn’t too alluring either.

If the building ever has a change of use instead of simply being demolished with a carpark on the site to mark its grave, then the cellar bar makes a very good imitation of a basement room in the old Lubyanka prison in Moscow. Dark, sparsely furnished, and with the reek of fear and anger steeped into the walls, the Kulturny is the last step down before you start drinking battery acid behind a rubbish skip to face the day. The prostis are worn out and haggard from a lifetime of fucking, bad food and beatings, makeup and lipstick applied in the dark with their eyes shut. The local alkashi slump over the tables, bottles of dubious vodka open in front of them, and dream of past glories, before they inherited despair.

I hadn’t been to the Kulturny since I’d killed Kenybek Aliyev, the pakhan of the local branch of the Circle of Brothers mafia, so I’d made sure my Yarygin was loaded before I set off. I was pretty certain that eighteen bullets would be enough, but if you don’t prepare for any eventuality, someone might be preparing a grave for you.

I could feel my stitches pull as I made my way down the unlit stairs. In the absence of a railing, I kept one hand pressed to the wall, the damp and slime greasy on my palm. The other hand  –  my gun hand  – I kept free in case I encountered an old acquaintance coming up the stairs.

I checked the room out from the comparative safety of the door. Many of the people I’ve booked into Penitentiary One drink in the Kulturny if they ever get released, and you never know when one too many glass of vodka gives them the courage to try something stupid. 

The barman was smearing a glass with a filthy rag when I walked through the door, did a double take when he saw me. Obviously he’d heard I’d killed Aliyev, didn’t know I’d survived the meeting. As I watched, he put down the glass, reached under the counter. I simply pulled my jacket open to show my gun, watched him debate the issue, put his hands flat on the bar. 

 ‘Remember me?’ I asked, walking towards the bar, ‘How very nice to see you again.’

The barman glared at me, saying nothing, his shaven head glistening with sweat. I could smell travka on his breath; marijuana grows wild by the roadside up around Lake Issyk-Kul. I didn’t blame him; if I worked at the Kulturny, I’d want to be stoned as well.


He said nothing, gave me the typical ‘know nothing, say nothing’ impassive stare, so I repeated the question, resting my hand on my gun and making sure he saw it.

‘Asylbek,’ he replied, his voice surprisingly high and grating, a fingernail scraped down glass.

He pulled down the sleeves of his sweatshirt, doing his best to hide his prison tats. Criminals use their ink as a form of resume, telling each other the crimes they’d committed, the jail time they’d served. A church on the chest tells you the number of convictions by the number of cupolas, a group of skulls indicates how many murders a convict has committed. Some of them were works of art, done inside by prisoners who had decades of experience at burning cotton soaking in baby oil to make soot, then adding spit.

Convicts call their tattoos mast, a ‘suit’ that vouches for your status amongst other prisoners. Everyone knows if you get inked with tattoos you haven’t earned, the consequences are brutal. At the very least, you have to cut away the offending skin. So tattoos are a very useful way of telling you just exactly who or what you’re dealing with.

I reached over the counter, took hold of Asylbek’s wrist.

‘Don’t be shy, I want to look at the suit you’re wearing,’ I smiled.

I pulled up his sleeve, looked at the black ink manacle around his wrist that indicated the length of his prison sentence, let go of his arm.

‘Five years inside,’ I said, ‘Which penal colony?’

‘Thirty one. Moldovanovka,’ was Asylbek’s surly reply.

I knew the place, having taken a few prisoners to serve their sentence there during my uniformed days. Like a lot of our prisons, there’s a considerable variation in conditions, depending on whether you’re a common prisoner or a vor v zakone, a king of thieves. Basically, you either starve, freeze in the winter and boil in the summer, or live like a tsar surrounded by your courtiers and every creature comfort.

I didn’t regret not getting Kenybek Aliyev locked up in Moldovanovka, knowing that he’d have enjoyed a comfortable cell, good food, TV, alcohol, maybe a woman brought in from the outside. He would even been able to run his empire from inside. Far better he was buried near his home town of Talas, his face engraved on some fancy black marble headstone. My only regret was being too badly wounded to attend his funeral and spit in his grave.

The barman scowled at me, doing his best to show I didn’t intimidate him. 

‘What do you want, officer?’

‘Inspector,’ I corrected him, ‘I want to talk to the new pakhan. We both know Aliyev is out of the picture and sleeping soundly. And I tucked him up in bed.’

The barman shrugged.


‘So who’s parked their arse on the big gold throne?’ I said, and took hold of his wrist once more, spreading his hand out on the bar, taking hold of the index finger. It’s very easy to bend a finger back to the wrist until you tear it out of the joint, and we both knew it.

‘I’m in a hurry here Asylbek,’ I said, putting menace into my voice and lifting his index finger clear of the beer-mottled counter.

‘It’s not really been decided, inspector,’ he said, ‘Everyone’s waiting to see who makes the first move. No one wants a war, it gets in the way of business.’

I lifted his finger a little higher, saw him wince as the pain seeped through his drug haze. The smell of garlic and decay on his breath was overwhelming.

‘I’m not looking for one of the troops; there’s an independent torpedo working the city, hits for hire, and I want to find him.’

‘Nothing to do with me  –  shit, that hurts.’

For all I knew, Saltanat might be hurt, wounded. My mind shied away from the thought she could be dead. Sometimes you do what you have to do, like it or not.

‘I could make a few calls, but the bosses won’t like you sticking your nose in.’ 

Another grunt of pain, rising higher, louder. One of the alkashi raised a head, decided my private business should stay that way, poured another shot.

‘I want a name, Asylbek. Or kiss goodbye to those piano lessons.’

‘I told you, I’ll ring around. But I can’t promise anything.’

‘I don’t have time for that shit, you’ve got an hour to give me that name,’ I said, tightened my grip, heard his finger snap like a dry twig, took hold of his thumb. While Asylbek clutched at his hand, I scribbled down my mobile number, thrust the paper into his pocket.

‘One hour, or I’ll take care of the other fingers.’


I could only agree.