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There’s nothing new in dying now,
Though living is no newer.
Sergei Esenin



Fresh blood is especially vivid against snow. Even on a moonless, starless night like tonight, when it spills thick and dark, like oil leaking from the rusting sump of an abandoned Moskvitch. But oil doesn’t steam. Oil doesn’t spatter red against white, until it trails back to a body half-hidden under silver birches. And oil doesn’t dribble from the lips of a wound already turning stiff and blue with cold.

The threat of dawn snow hangs in the sky like ash. A few stray flakes already shroud the woman’s upturned face, a scattering of lace like a bride’s veil across her forehead. Unless a drunk stumbling home from a bar stops for an urgent piss and spots her, a few hours will transform her into yet another snow drift, unnoticed, skirted around, anonymous until the spring thaw. Only when a single boot-clad foot or a mottled hand signposts itself out of grimy snow will people wonder why no-one heard anything…

Privyet, Inspector Borubaev, how are you?’

Cold, what do you think?

I waved away the proffered pack, noting the swathe of butts at the uniform’s feet, the stink of cheap tobacco rancid on the raw night air. Typical uniform, high-peaked green cap and no brains inside. I watched as he lit a fresh Classic from the stub of his last one, debated tearing him a new arsehole for contaminating the crime scene. But this is Kyrgyzstan. The forensic lab of the Sverdlovsky District Police is a cupboard with an assortment of cracked test tubes, some pre-independence medical textbooks and a box of out-of-date litmus paper. We’re still waiting for the electron microscope.

I’d put it off long enough; time to justify the fistful of som they pay me each month. A battered ambulance will turn up sooner or later, to ferry the body down to the morgue. No hurry: it would be a damn sight warmer in there than it was outside.

We were up on Ibraimova Street, just down from the Blonder Pub, on the unlit birch-lined path above the carriageway, where the moorzilki, the cheapest railway station whores, hang out in the summer, by the footbridge. Dumpy, surly women, big-bellied and chain-smoking, swigging cans of Baltika beer, dressed to depress in shapeless tee-shirts and tracksuit bottoms, easy down for instant access, easy up for a quick escape. No business ladies here now though, not at twenty below and more snow coming.

Not a good place to die, if there is such a thing.

I told the uniform to keep behind me and followed the droplets and smears of blood towards the body. They reminded me of the black cherry juice you get on ice cream cones in Panfilov Park, rich and appetising. I turned my collar up against the wind, but nothing keeps a Kyrgyz winter out. My feet felt like they belonged to someone else, but I consoled myself that at least the body wouldn’t stink. Not until Usupov sliced her up on the table. Or rather, sliced her up some more.

‘It’s a homicide, Inspector, right? It’s murder?’

The uniform seemed almost eager; maybe this is what he joined up for, not for pocketing on-the-spot traffic fines to pay for his breakfast. Whether he would want breakfast after this was another matter.

‘Could be a nasty shaving cut. Maybe running with scissors.’

‘You think?’

He nodded, impressed at the wisdom of the big city detective. Typical southern peasant, what we call a myrki, who should never have been let out of his village, a danger to himself.

A couple of steps further and the cherry juice started to join up into bigger puddles and splashes until it became a frozen river that welled up out of a small white hillock. The body.

‘Keep back,’ I said, unnecessarily. He’s already seen the body, and by the smell, left last night’s mutton stew at the scene of the crime.

‘This your spew?’

Better not to assume. Maybe we’ve got a weak-stomached murderer on our hands. Maybe he’d wiped his mouth using a piece of paper with his phone number scribbled on it. Maybe the lab could get a blood group. Maybe.

Da. I’m sorry.’

‘Your first? Don’t worry, we all do, our first time. You’ll get used to it.’

But you don’t.

I pushed back the memory of the old man, his one-room apartment turned into a slaughterhouse, gutted by his nephew in a vodka-fuelled row over god knows what, and focused on the present, on the ice-blue eyes glazed over with snow, staring up at the final mystery.

Ignoring the cold, I peeled off my gloves, and brushed away the snow covering her cheeks and nose. Gently, the way I used to brush Chinara’s hair away from her sleeping face, towards the end, once the morphine took away the worst of the pain. Tenderness is the least we owe the dead; we give them so little beforehand.

Not a girl, a woman, maybe late twenties, thirty at a pinch. Dyed blonde hair, professional, not a home job, a thin line of black roots showing. Slavic high cheekbones, good teeth, no gold. A long coat, wool, well-cut, cashmere scarf around her shoulders. No handbag, but that didn’t surprise me. Kyrgyzstan’s a poor country; no-one’s going to look a gift horse in the mouth. And it wasn’t as if she’d need her mobile where she’d gone, right? So not a moorzilka then. If she was a business lady, she was a long way from the 191 Bar in the Hyatt Regency when she died.

There were no marks on her face, no look of terror or surprise, just that frozen stare gazing up at the sky. Snow spilt away to the ground as I pulled back the wings of her coat.

A white, high-necked blouse, ripped open. A delicate lace bra, sliced apart at the front, revealing small breasts, nipples shrunken and indigo with cold. Still no wound, but that only made it worse. It was like undressing a shop window dummy, except you can’t mistake the feel of flesh, even when it’s dead.

Slim waist, leather belt with a metal designer buckle. And the skirt, pulled up to her thighs. Dark grey material, from what little I could see of the original colour. But otherwise a swamp of crusted crimson turning to black. White pants, shredded and coiled around one leg. And finally, the wound.

I looked down and wondered what lies and treasons lured her here, before I tugged my gloves back on and stood up. My knees cracked in the cold like ice splintering on a distant lake. My world is a hopeless, brutal place, a land peopled only by regrets and lost love. I fumbled for my cigarettes, waved away the offer of a light, sucked down the cancer.

‘Tell the blood waggon I’ll see them down the morgue. Oh, and don’t forget to mention we’re dealing with a double homicide.’

The uniform looked, if possible, even more puzzled. The fur earflaps on his hat gave him the appearance of a cartoon rabbit. He looked around, even peered behind the slender birches.

‘There’s only one body, Inspector.’

I exhaled, watching the smoke and my breath plume out together into the night, life and death weaving together. The first flakes of the threatened dawn snow kissed my face. I wanted a vodka. Badly.

‘You haven’t looked inside her womb.’