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Short Stories


By February 1, 2023One Comment


My immediate instinct was to call the number, but decided to hold off, at least for a couple of hours. Being a foreign number, I wouldn’t be able to use my official resources to trace it. I was a blind man fumbling in darkness, knowing I was most likely walking into some kind of ambush, neither knowing the consequences nor the outcome. But like Guliya Sabirova, I knew I didn’t have a choice.

I wondered about getting a police artist to create a face based on her description, dismissed the idea. Even with the new computerised graphics, he was going to look like eighty per cent of Kyrgyz men of the right age. The mysterious mobile number was my only option if I wanted the case to move forward.

I realised I was outside the branch of my bank I always used. I went in, saw the manager, a pleasant enough woman in her mid-thirties, explained I was unable to withdraw any som from my account. She did the endless tapping on some computer keyboard, the screen kept well away from me. Finally she annoumced my account was empty. Well, not quite: I had a total of sixty eight som in the world. Maybe it had been retained to keep my account open.

I argued, showed my police ID, threatened the bank with a criminal investigation. I was ready to resort to using my Makarov to make a large and highly illegal withdrawal when the manager announced I could have seven thousand som on account, ‘as a gesture of goodwill, to be repaid from your next salary deposit’. I wasn’t sure quite how far a hundred dollars was going to get me, but at least it meant I could pay for a few more taxis.

I emerged from the bank with my new-found fortune, felt suddenly faint and dizzy. I needed to find somewhere to sit and rest, and fast. My missing finger was making itself felt with a nagging burning sensation that ran up over my wrist. Strange how a relatively minor wound hurts more than a major one. Saltanat told me the sensation might suddenly disappear or continue to haunt me for years: no one could tell. Pain; the gift that keeps on giving.

I managed to walk as far as an ashkana tea house, ordered bottled water and a couple of samsi meat pasties. I had no idea whether Saltanat was alive, no idea where she might be. The mobile number left by the shaven headed thug who hit Guliya could be the next step on the trail, or a red herring designed to lead me away. In either case, I felt sure I was the target, with Saltanat the bait to catch me.

I was desperately tired, wondered if the incision to remove my spleen had become infected. I needed somewhere quiet to change the dressing, check the stitches and rest. But there was no time for any of those luxuries, with Saltanat still unaccounted for.

I sipped the water through suddenly dry lips, stared at my phone, dialled the number. The signal went through, followed by a recorded message, in the same electronically altered voice I’d already heard.

‘Here we are again, Inspector. And I’m sure you’re wondering about your friend. She can’t come to the phone, the chain doesn’t stretch that far, but be assured she’s in good hands. Well, relatively good hands. We’ll be in touch.’

Then the phone went dead. I sat back, pushed the uneaten samsi away, thought about what had been said and left unsaid. It seemed likely that the phone was exclusively used to call me or take my calls. The voice had claimed Saltanat was still alive, but had given no proof. The chain suggested her captors knew she might be unarmed but she was still deadly. And not saying what their next move was meant I had no next move either. All I could do was wait. Which is exactly what I was doing when the phone rang again.


‘Inspector Borubaev?’

A woman’s voice, sounding middle-aged, authoritative.

‘Who is this?’ I asked, surprised at hearing a normal voice.

‘This is the National Republican Hospital,’ the woman answered, ‘We’ve just admitted a patient to our trauma unit, a woman found outside, unconscious with severe head injuries. There was a note pinned to her blouse giving your name and mobile number. No other identification.’

I felt like vomiting at the thought of Saltanat lying there, possibly even dying.

‘I’ll be there straight away,’ I said.

‘You know where we are?’

‘Togolok Moldo and Moskovskya, I know it,’ I said, throwing a handful of coins on the table, heading for the doot.

The taxi journey was a nightmare of fear, anger at the busy traffic, rage at whoever had put Saltanat in a hospital bed. Her uncle and his wife had disappeared from my radar, all that mattered now was Saltanat.

The driver swore at the intersection with Chui, where two cars had managed to hit each other, blocking the road. I thrust a five hundred som note over his shoulder, got out of the car, ran the remaining distance to the hospital.

The nurse in the reception are had been expecting me, gave me a professional once-over stare.

‘We’ll be admitting you next if you don’t take it easy,’ she said, ‘Heart attack waiting to happen, especially if you don’t quit smoking and take some exercise.’

‘It’s that obvious?’ I gasped, struggling to get my breath back.

‘I see it every day,’ she said, her tone matter of fact, ‘The ambulance crew carry them in, the family carry their bodies out.’

‘Thank you for your advice,’ I said, my heart starting to pound a little less like a steelworks hammer, sweat dribbling down my neck, ‘But right now I’d like to see the patient you called me about.’

‘Of course, you’re just in time. If you’d left it any later…’

Her look of resignation confirmed what I already feared.

The nurse led me though a maze of corridors, until we finally came to a ward with closed doors on either side. 

‘She’s in Room Six,’ the nurse said, ‘Stay as long as you want.’

I nodded my thanks as she turned away, my hand already on the door, when she looked back.

‘Inspector,’ she said, with a world of pity in her voice, ‘I’m very sorry.’

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