Skip to main content



We uncovered the last of the dead children in the red hour before dusk, as the sun stained the snowcaps of the Tian Shan mountains the colour of dried blood and the spring air turned sharp and cold.

Seven small bundles, tightly swaddled in plastic bags, all buried in a hurry, just a few inches under the soil. They lay huddled together, as if for warmth or comfort, at the foot of an apple tree, one of three bunched in the north corner of a potato field next to the canal. Not a clever move: the bags had swelled with the gases of decay, and elbowed their way through to the surface of the thin earth, like a crop of misshapen mushrooms.

It was the rancid smell hanging in the dawn air that had caught the attention of the farmer who found the first corpse. To begin with, he thought it was a dead hare and wondered why anyone would go to the trouble of burying it. A closer look had shown insect-gnawed eye sockets, a head of thick black hair and one small hand, fingers curled into an ineffectual fist. And then he noticed a couple more waxen bundles, and decided to go against all his myrki peasant instincts and contact the authorities.

He called the local cops, the menti, and they called Murder Squad and asked for an Inspector. Not a difficult choice, since there’s only one Murder Squad officer in Karakol. Me.

I’d only been in Karakol for three months, serving out a sort of unofficial internal exile in the far east of Kyrgyzstan, to pay for all the chaos I’d caused investigating the brutal mutilations and killings of several young women the previous winter. A lot of blood and trouble had been splashed around the city in my attempts to head off a potential coup by the politicians deposed in the last revolution. The local head of the Circle of Brothers mafia ended up face-down in a snowdrift, and I helped the Minister of State Security ‘disappear’ the man who’d ordered his daughter’s murder and mutilation.

Who also happened to be the Chief of Sverdlovsky Police Station, and my boss.

The public were given some nonsense about a tragic car accident in the mountains that claimed the life of one of Kyrgyzstan’s top policemen, and there was talk of posthumous medals and even a state funeral. Being Kyrgyz, everyone greeted the news with all the scepticism for which we’re famous. The truth is, unless it affects our lives or our pockets, we’re not too interested in who sits at the big desks and collects the vziatka for favours done. We’re too busy wondering how to put plov on our plates and vodka in our glasses.

The top guys, the nomenklatura, decided it was best if I was out of Bishkek, the Kyrgyz capital, for some time, and Karakol was the ideal spot, being about as far away as you can get in my country without a visa. I really should have been grateful that I hadn’t been posted to the Torugart Pass, the desolate mountain crossing between Kyrgyzstan and China.

And that was how I came to be an hour’s rough drive north of Karakol, outside Orlinoye, one of the small villages that cling onto the landscape like burrs on a sheep’s wool. I was watching the faint evening mist spill over the edges of the irrigation canal, a half-transparent shroud over the damp grass and the seven relics of lives ended before they’d really begun.