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She hadn’t managed to pull the syringe out of her inner thigh before the heroin slammed into her nervous system with the mindless ferocity of the snowstorms that race down from the Tian Shan mountains. Her body sprawled across a chaos of unwashed clothes, grease-stained pizza boxes, crushed Baltika beer cans, all the garbage junkies accumulate when nothing else in life matters but cooking up the next shot. Her cheap unbranded jeans were baggy and bunched around her knees, so I could follow the progress of her addiction by the track marks riding up and down her left leg like cigarette burns.

She might have been a pretty girl once, dreaming of true love and the next party, but that was all history now. Not for her the first kiss, summer evenings with friends by Lake Issy-Kul, the rich scent of cut lilies, the crunch of fresh snow underfoot. Now a different kind of snow had consumed her, buried her under a blizzard that blasted death across Central Asia and on into Russia.

The raw stink of iodine told me at least one person in the squat was brewing up krokodil. Easy enough to make at home, all you need is codeine, mixed with iodine, red phosphorus from matches, a subtle hint of gasoline, and whatever else you can lay your hands on.

Inject krokodil and your skin is transformed into something green and scaly as infection and gangrene bite. Your flesh dies and rots away, leaving unhealing sores that chew through tissue and muscle down to the bone. Hence the name.

The tracks on the girl’s leg were too distinct to be the tooth marks of the crocodile. More likely to be from smack; perhaps she was an old-fashioned sort of girl, kept her knees together except for a hypodermic. I knew Kenesh Usupov would have the answer; Bishkek’s Chief Forensic Pathologist has seen it all, and sliced it up as well.

I’ve found enough OD bodies to have reached the conclusion that ‘victim’ is the wrong word. As far as I’m concerned, injecting poison into yourself is an act of folly at best, and perhaps in the hidden recesses of the mind, a desire for suicide, a final ending. I prefer to save the ‘victim’ word for people who don’t bring their death upon themselves, people whose unfortunate paths happen to collide with someone else’s greed or cruelty or lust. Harsh? Maybe, but then you’re not the one clearing up the consequences. I haven’t lost my compassion for the dead, but it’s not a blanket coverage any more.


I turned round as Kenesh Usupov joined me to stare down at the shipwreck of what had once been a human being. I wouldn’t call Usupov a friend; he’s too humourless and dour to imagine sharing a drink or a meal with him, but we’ve worked together for a long time, and we respect each other’s skills. I could never spend my days opening up skulls and weighing parcels of meat. On the other hand, the people he encounters at work aren’t trying to kill him. To each his own.

‘The apartment’s empty, I suppose?’

I nodded. Standard procedure is to have a uniformed ment go through the scene, checking there’s no crazy guy with a hypo full of HIV blood looking to share. Hygiene and tidiness aren’t the only things an addict gives up on; they don’t hang around to face difficult questions from some disapproving police officer. And compassion for the body in the room leaves by the front door.

We were down in Alamedin, near the railroad tracks, in one of the old khruschyovka apartments in one of the prefabricated concrete blocks that sprang up throughout the Soviet Union in the aftermath of the Great Patriotic War against Hitler.

Every morning in the summer, a train trundles dispiritedly on a five-hour trek through the Boom Gorge towards Balykchy on the shore of Lake Issy-Kul, only to make the return trip the same evening. Further east, the lake is beautiful, clear calm water ringed by snow-topped mountains, but the town is a festering shithole you wouldn’t want to visit twice. I sometimes think if you’re Kyrgyz, you can travel – after all, we’ve traditionally been nomads – but you always end up coming back to where you started. I’ve never known if that’s a good or a bad thing.

Kenesh and I crouched down, squatting next to the body, my knees protesting as I did so. Another sign I’d been doing this too long. This close, I could smell the acrid urine from when her bladder had betrayed her. I felt a sudden wave of pity, guessing how ashamed and humiliated she would have been to have the emptying of her body displayed for the relentless, impersonal gaze of strangers.

Long streaks of damp stained the rough plaster of the walls, and the torn linoleum on the floor was scuffed and scarred, dirt ground into it until any original pattern had become a faint ghost of a memory, the faded photograph of someone long-forgotten. A cheap wooden kitchen chair lay on its side, and I guessed the girl had been sitting there before she took the hot shot and dived headfirst into death.

Usupov tapped my arm and pointed at the girl’s groin. A few dark flecks of dried blood had sprayed across white panties.

‘Significant?’ I asked.

Ususpov shrugged.

‘Hard to say. Maybe her period. Not from the syringe, since that’s still in place. I’ll know once she’s on the table.’

‘So you think this is a suspicious death?’

Usupov turned to me, and the autumn sunlight from the window flared off his glasses, his eyes hidden.

‘Unusual, is the word I’d use. Something doesn’t feel quite right.’

I looked back down at the corpse, but I couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary. The dark blue stain of lividity where gravity had pulled her blood back towards earth, the swelling and puffiness of pallid skin where old scars and blemishes traced a map of her life.

‘Look at the injection sites on her legs,’ Usupov said, ‘All fairly recent. It’s my guess she was right-handed, since the tracks are all in her left leg. Easier to shoot up.’

He reached over, pulled at her arm.

‘This is what’s unusual. No tracks on either arm, not even skin-popping. Most people only start looking for fresh veins on the legs when the arms give out.’

It was my turn to shrug.

‘So she didn’t want people to know she was using, maybe mummy and daddy wouldn’t approve. Maybe she was vain, proud of her soft skin and smooth forearms. It all seems a little thin to me.’

‘I’ll know better once I’ve got her on the table,’ Usupov said, ‘You’re welcome to come and watch. If you can be bothered, that is.’

I stood up and aside to let the stretcher men go about their work. Below the belt, Chief Forensic Pathologist, I thought. But maybe some truth in it.

I tried not to look as the horrible brokenness of death revealed itself in dangling limbs and a head thrown back. As the body was lifted up, I saw the dark smudge of a bruise on the left of her forehead.

‘What do you think?’ I asked Usupov, pointing at the mark.

‘Perhaps when she hit the floor? Her heart needn’t have stopped beating straight away, which would explain why she could have a bruise. But again, I’ll know more when she’s under the knife.’

The body hauled away, I could smell something else in the room; fear and despair, bitter and raw on the tongue, making the eyes water but not with tears. I knew better than to say anything to Usupov; he would have looked at me as if I’d gone mad and started spouting allegiance to Comrade Stalin. Instead, I filed the thought away in the dark recess where I store impressions, hints and dreams.

‘I’ll do the cut tomorrow morning,’ Usupov said, making for the door, ‘Ten o’clock’.

I nodded and waited until I heard his boots on the landing, then began to look for clues. Murder confessions, crumpled notes with dealers’ addresses, mysterious telephone numbers written in cheap lipstick; I’m not proud. It was while I was hunting through the pathetic remnants of a life that my phone rang.

A text. MEET SOONEST. From Mikhail Tynaliev. Minister of State Security.

And I knew I was in shit up to my chin.