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Short Stories


By December 26, 2022One Comment


A large part of my job is waiting. Waiting for the next crime to occur, for witnesses to come forward and speak, waiting in damp doorways or in run-down bars for a suspect to appear. And the worst part of waiting is being unable to do anything. It’s only when you put the pieces of the puzzle into some kind of pattern that you can act. But right then, there was nothing practical I could think of to help Saltanat. Which meant what I had to do was think.

I was pretty certain her abduction was connected somehow to the murders of Husam and Sayara. Which meant there was something about their deaths that could lead me to find Saltanat. I needed to know more about how they had died, and what they might have done to meet such a fate.

I made a call, arranged a meeting, stuffed the bloodstained pants into a plastic bag, headed out the door. 

The Bishkek morgue doesn’t advertise its presence. The visitors it receives are usually reluctant to enter, if they’re alive, that is. The entrance, mould-stained from last winter’s snows, the broken tiles, the corridor with half its lightbulbs burnt out, are bad enough. But it’s the knowledge of what lies beyond that fills people with dread. I’ve visited the morgue too many times to count, but it never fails to remind me just how near we all are to death. The indignities carried out on the dead in the search for answers is just another reminder we’re all meat, with a life that’s often too short.

Kenesh was delving into the brain of a young man when I entered the examination room, scraping away like a spoon in a half-full yoghurt pot.

‘Motorcycle,’ he said, ‘No helmet, of course.’

‘That’s not unusual,’ I said, all too aware of the scent of raw flesh.

‘It is when you add a bullet wound to the head.’

‘Biker gang?’

Kenesh shook his head.

‘Jealous girlfriend, I’m told. Seems she wasn’t the only girl to ride on his pillion.’

Ballistics can’t often to do much with a bullet; if you’re going to kill someone, best to use a small calibre gun, so that the bullet bounces around off the inside of the skull, getting deformed and unidentifiable along the way. I wouldn’t want to dig through the stew of a brain looking for fragments, but it seemed to suit Kenesh.

‘This isn’t your case, is it?’ he asked, not looking up, ‘I thought it had been given to Bekultanov?’

‘I can’t drop in for a chat and a cup of chai with my old friend?’ I asked.

Kenesh merely snorted and carried on scooping brain into a metal dish.

‘That would be a first.’

‘I wanted to see Husam Umarov’s body,’ I said, ‘I assume it hasn’t been collected yet?’

‘I’ll open the drawer for you,’ Kenesh said, dropping the spoon onto a stainless steel tray to join various other bloodstained instruments. It’s a sign of his meticulous nature that Kenesh installed hasps and padlocks at his own expense on the drawers where corpses are kept. In part it’s to ensure that any evidence isn’t tampered with or destroyed, but also to preserve the dignity of the dead. We’re colleagues, not friends, but I admire his belief that even the dead deserve respect; any assistant making jokes or fooling around with body parts would be lucky not to find himself in a drawer of his own.

The wheels on the drawer screeched on their runners as Kenesh pulled it open, a sound that always unnerved me. I knew one day it would be the noise that accompanied my own body.

I pulled back the plastic sheet that covered the body. The shotgun blast had erased the face, split the skull into fragments the size of five-som coins which Kenesh had collected in a clear plastic bag. There’s no point in ever trying to reconstruct a head after a shotgun blast. For a start, most of the soft tissue and blood gets hurled everywhere, walls, floors, ceilings. What remains of the bones and teeth that haven’t simply disintegrated make up an unsolvable jigsaw. I’ve often thought Death doesn’t carry a scythe but a sawn-off.

I looked over the rest of what remained of Husam Umarov’s naked body. Middle-aged, running to fat, a spare tyre circling his waist, poor muscle tone, the body of a man who worked with his brain rather than his hands, which were manicured, soft and uncalloused. A white circle on the ring finger of his right hand showed where his wedding band had been.

‘No distinguishing features, Kenesh? No tattoos, birthmarks?’

‘Nothing like that, just a middle-aged man with a fatty liver and an unhealthy heart, arteries silted up, smokers’ lungs.’

I stood back as Kenesh slid the drawer shut, encasing the body in the chill of death.

‘If the shotgun blast hadn’t killed him, he would have died in the next few years anyway, unless he changed his lifestyle.’

‘Who identified the body?’ I asked.

‘His wife. From the clothes he was wearing that day. It’s not right for anyone to see the person they loved in that condition.’

I nodded, knowing Sayara was beyond all further questioning.

‘You still have them in storage?’

‘The clothes? Yes, I’ll send someone down to the storeroom to bring them.’

I nodded, held up my cigarettes, made for the door. No one wants to breathe morgue air for too long.

I stood in the entrance, doing my best to ignore the light drizzle that matched my mood. I’ve seen too many corpses to be unaware of the intricacies inside our bodies, but there is something more disturbing about a headless victim. It’s as if whatever made a person human has been robbed from them. I threw the butt of my cigarette into a puddle, headed back inside to inspect the clothes.

The box was waiting for me on an empty morgue table, the lid taped shut. I knew as I opened it that the smell would be bad. The jacket was stained with black-dried blood, with the texture of an old scab. I checked the pockets, found nothing. The label told me the suit was from an Italian designer with a smart shop on Erkindik; clearly Husam had good taste as well as money. 

The silk tie had been shredded by the blast, and the collar of the white shirt had been ripped into pieces by shotgun pellets. I looked through the clothes, didn’t find what I was looking for.

‘Kenesh? His watch, cufflinks, wedding ring; you have them somewhere?’

‘In the safe. That’s where I keep the jewellery, personal items, valuables. That way, I can return them to the family when your investigations are over.’

Kenesh came back a moment later with a small square box, put it in front of me. I looked through it; expensive Breitling watch, the sort pretend aviators wear, cufflinks that looked to be gold. But no ring.

‘He wasn’t wearing one when they brought him in,’ Kenesh answered.

‘His wife didn’t take it with her when she identified him?’

‘She didn’t come here; we took photos of the clothes, went to see her, and she identified them.’

I looked through the box again, but with the same result.

‘Why does a married man take off his wedding ring?’ I said.

‘Washing his hands, gets distracted, forgets to put it back on?’

I shook my head, unconvinced. A man who wore an expensive watch and cufflinks wasn’t likely to forget a ring.

‘You take your ring off when you’re going to see someone who doesn’t know you’re married.’

‘A mistress, you mean?’

‘Most mistresses know about the little woman at home, even if they don’t like the situation,’ I said, ‘More likely, a potential girlfriend.’

‘Maybe whoever found the body took the ring?’

‘And left a valuable watch? I don’t think so.’

Kenesh took the box from me, closed it, prepared to put it back in the safe.

‘There is one other possibility,’ I said.

‘Go on.’

I looked over at the wall of drawers, wondered how many of them had an occupant.

‘Maybe that isn’t Husam Umarov’s body.’