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Short Stories


By January 23, 2023One Comment


The rain had decided to ease off when I left the morgue, with hints of clear blue sky over towards the mountains. The day was shaping up to be one of those unexpected treats, where the air is like glass and the sun turns a spotlight on the snow, casting deep shadows, highlighting every crag and crevice. In a month, the snow would reach the city outskirts, but for now, the day was dazzling.

I wanted to devote my thoughts to the double murder, but couldn’t. Instead I focused on Saltanat, on our unborn child, on my terror of losing them. The lawyer, Guliya Sabirova, was the closest thing I had to a clue or a way forward; it was time to pay her another visit.

On the way, Kenesh called me to say Sayara Umarova’s body had arrived for an autopsy, although I suspected there wouldn’t be much to examine that wasn’t smashed, splintered or crushed by her involuntary flight. I asked him to check the arms and legs for bruises, fingermarks, any other signs that she’d been thrown rather than jumped.

The comic book fan was still sitting at his desk when I arrived. He started to protest, gave up when he saw my face.

Guliya Sabirova hadn’t had an office makeover since I’d last been there, but from the bruises on her face, she’d obviously had a workover. Fear followed by anger skipped across her face in quick succession; I obviously hadn’t won a place in her heart.

I could see the mark on her cheek where she’d been slapped, the bruise on her forehead from a punch.

‘You’re not going to tell me, are you?’

Sabirova simply shook her head. Her smell was fear, not perfume.

I pulled up a chair, lit a cigarette, blew a plume across the desk just in case she was tempted to ask for one.

‘I’ve been Murder Squad for a long time,’ I said, ‘I’ve seen things you wouldn’t believe.’

She looked at me as if only half-sure I existed, almost certain I might add more bruises to her face if I didn’t learn what I wanted to know.

‘I’ve unearthed dead babies, dumped in plastic bags and left to rot. I’ve seen a man stagger from a car bombing, his one attached arm clutching the remnants of the severed one. I’ve found the body of a young girl sliced open and another woman’s dead foetus scooped into her womb.’

Sabirova stared at me as if I was the devil himself. All the confidence and ‘I know important people’ attitude had melted. A blow in the face will do that to most people.

I blow smoke at the ceiling, wondered if blowing smoke rings seemed too callous. I narrowed my eyes, gave her the hard Sverdlovsky basement stare.

‘The point is,’ I continued, ‘It was all part of the job. Yes, I didn’t like it; yes, it disturbed me and gave me bad dreams; yes, it made me realise more people are capable of anything if the stakes and rewards are high enough.’

I stubbed my cigarette out in one of those perspex and gilt awards that the professions hand out to each other; Winner of the Year for this, Best Team Leader for that. All as fake as the gold embossed lettering that sang someone’s praises, made them feel good about themselves, except for the dark hours when doubt slithered in through the curtains.

‘The thing is, Guliya,’ I said, trying for the conversational tone, a confident trying to forge bonds, build bridges, ‘They were all work. They touched my head but not my heart, if you understand what I mean.’

I was lying  –  every case was a cut that went deep into my mind, but I didn’t expect Guliya to understand that. After all, she was a lawyer, and it’s their profession and their curse they have to be objective. But she simply stared at me, terrified but unwilling to say a word to help me. Her eyes were three quarters shut, but I didn’t know if it was the beating or from fear.

‘You know I’m looking for a woman, Saltanat Umarova,’ I said, my voice emotionless, betraying no hint of my feeling.

‘Not my concern,’ she answered, her voice even more reptilian than before, maybe from the blows to her head.

‘It will be,’ I said, reaching over, patting her cheek, watching her flinch from my touch.

‘None of that was personal,’ I said, ‘But finding Saltanat is. Very personal.’

I lowered my voice.

‘Did you know she’s pregnant?’

Guliya shook her head, unable to speak. I nodded, gave a wistful smile.

‘As it happens, the child is mine. My son, or my daughter. And if anything were to happen, I’d look around for someone to blame. Someone to make pay for it.’

Guliya’s eyes told me she was trapped in a nightmare, praying to suddenly wake and find herself at home.

‘Now in most things in life, you always have choices. Innocent or guilty. Faithful or a cheat. Straight talker or liar. Choices.’

Guliya didn’t know where I was going with this, but she nodded.

‘The thing is, sometimes you don’t get to choose. The decision’s made for you. I want to find Saltanat, so I’ll do anything to achieve that. Someone’s going to have to pay, and if you don’t help me…’

I paused, reached for a pencil on the desk, stared at Guliya without blinking, then snapped the pencil in two. 

She started to weep, making no sound, the tears leaving a mascara trail down her cheeks. I didn’t feel happy about threatening a woman, but then I remembered Guliya had helped murderers, rapists, robbers keep their freedom and the ability to offend again.

‘It’s as easy to snap a neck in two as pencil,’ I said, ‘As I’m sure your clientele can confirm.’

Guliya simply stared at me, her mind driven blank by my threat. I found a bottle of Issyk-Ata water, poured her a glass, watched her fight to swallow the contents. I lit a cigarette, did my best to look nonchalant. After a moment she looked up. She looked as if you’d lived a hundred years, all of it hard.

‘Let’s start with the easy questions. Do you know where Saltanat is being kept?’

She shook her head.

‘Who gave you the beating? I notice Superman out there didn’t fly to your rescue.’

‘I don’t know; I’d never seen him before. He didn’t say who he was, just walked over to me and began punching.’

I nodded as if I sympathised. It’s a terrible thing to be attacked, for no reason that you can think of, to have your life turned inside out. Victims live with fear, and we police assure them the culprits will be caught, punished. But people like Guliya Sabirova use all their skill to keep them out of the penal colony and on the streets. And then all the promises the police made count for nothing, as you wonder when it’s all going to happen again. A lot of people never recover from it; some even kill themselves. Everyone is harmed one way or another. 

Except the people who deserve it.

‘What did he look like?’

‘It’s hard to say,’ she said.

This, from a woman who regularly used to browbeat witnesses into saying they were unsure about an identification often just days after they had made it.

‘Was he tall, short, old, young, with a beard, bald, what?

Maybe my tone was a little harsh because the tears started up again. I suspected Guliya Sabirova wasn’t just a consummate actor in the courtroom.

‘He was about your height but much heavier, maybe a hundred kilos, shaved head shaved.’

She paused a moment, shut her eyes in concentration.

‘He had dead eyes, the sort than never change or show any expression.’

‘What about his clothes?’ I asked.

‘A denim jacket and jeans.’

It was a description that could have fitted half the mug shots down at Sverdlovsky station.

‘Did he say anything to you?’

‘Not a lot, just ”You know this is who it’s from, and you know what it’s for.”’

‘That’s all?’

‘Did you recognise his voice?’ I asked.

‘No, I’m positive,’ she replied.

‘Did he have an accent?’

‘From the south,’ Guliya answered, ‘Not from the city, not Osh, a village voice but he spoke Kyrgyz with an accent, like it wasn’t his first language.’

‘Maybe Uzbek?’ I guessed. It wouldn’t be unusual; in Osh half the people are Uzbek. Osh might be a melting pot but every now and then the pot boils over.

‘Maybe, but I couldn’t swear to it.’

I was getting nowhere at the speed of an express train. She was obviously much better at questioning witnesses than being one.

‘Could he have been involved with any of your cases?’

She shook her head.

‘No, I’m quite certain about that.’

‘What makes you so sure?’ I said.

‘He left this,’ she replied, holding out a piece of paper. I took it, read it. Ornate copperplate handwriting, the sort taught in every school in the Soviet Union, so that didn’t give me any clues. She was right about it not being about one of her other cases though.

The message read ‘For Inspector Borubaev’, followed by a mobile number, with an area code for Tashkent. It looked like I was on the move again.

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