You die – but start up once more.
It all repeats, just as before.
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.
I’d called Kenesh Usupov, Bishkek’s Chief Forensic Pathologist, as soon as I was told that there were ‘multiple objects of interest’, and asked him to make his way to Karakol straight away. It’s a ten-hour drive from Bishkek, but by late spring, the roads are clear of snow and any rock falls. With the police flashers on all the way, he’d have no problem making the journey.
Even so, I was surprised when I saw the ambulance making its way up the rutted track towards the farmhouse nearby, stopping in the yard beside the police car that brought me here earlier. Usupov got out of the back, clutching the black leather briefcase he takes with him whenever he’s called out on a case. It contains the basics for a scene of crime investigation, basics because that’s all we have in this country.
As Usupov walked through the field towards us, the last of the sunlight flashed and gleamed off his glasses, making his usual impassive expression even harder to read. His sense of humour is best described as black, and spending an evening over a few drinks with him would not be my ideal night out, but he’s good at what he does, methodical, and for what its worth, honest and incorruptible. Like me, he thinks that the dead deserve better than to be chess pieces for the living, that we owe them the dignity we never bestowed upon them when they were alive.
I smiled when I saw that our Chief Forensic Pathologist, ever immaculate, had tied two plastic shopping bags over his shoes, to protect them against the elements. And then the smile faded into a grimace as I looked down at the other plastic bags by my feet.
‘Inspector,’ Usupov nodded as he joined us. He didn’t offer to shake my hand: the burns from my last case were pretty much healed by then, but the scarring still looked bad, as if I’d been bitten by one of our mountain wolves. Instead, he looked at the two self-important junior officers, watching from a few feet away, and raised an eyebrow.
‘They were here before me,’ I explained, ‘They’ve heard what a great crime scene expert you are, and they wanted to trample all around, to give you a bit more of a challenge.’
Usupov only grunted in response; clearly, my own sense of humour was a little too frivolous for him. Instead, he squatted down on his heels, the plastic bags rustling like the leaves on the boughs above us.
‘How did you get here so quickly?’ I said.
‘US Army helicopter,’ he replied, ‘from Manas Air Base. Then ambulance from Karakol. I thought it made sense, if there are several bodies to transport.’
I didn’t tell him that a large suitcase would have been sufficient, and pointed towards the apple trees.
I did my best not to show that I was surprised about how he got there. Although America has had an air base in our country for several years, a vital part of keeping the army in Afghanistan supplied, they operate a strict hands-off policy in our internal affairs. Which made me wonder what was so special about a report of finding some bodies the other side of Kyrgyzstan, and who had the pull to respond so quickly.
Now it was my turn to raise an eyebrow, but Usupov simply lowered one eyelid in an almost imperceptible wink, and turned his attention back to the bodies. He reached into his briefcase, put on a pair of latex gloves, and with fingertips that barely skimmed the surface of the soil, he brushed away loose earth from the nearest corpse. Not for the first time, I thought his delicate, precise touch was more like a lover than an uncoverer of the secrets of the dead.
‘Did you find the girl?’ he asked.
‘Girl?’ I said, wondering what he meant, what clue he’d spotted that had eluded me.
‘Snow White,’ he said, never taking his eyes off the ground, ‘You’ve found her seven dwarves, so she must be around here somewhere.’
A black sense of humour may not be essential if you’re a forensic pathologist, but I don’t imagine it’s a handicap either.
‘This is where they were found? In the same position, I mean?’ he asked.
‘We uncovered them one at a time,’ and I pointed out the order in which the bodies came out of the ground.
‘All buried at the same time, do you think?’ I asked.
Usupov got to his feet, and I heard his knee joints crack. Like me, he was getting too old for exposing other people’s cruelties and betrayals.
‘Hard for me to say here, better to get them back home and on the slab, but I don’t think so. See for yourself.’
He pointed at the smallest of the packages, with virtually nothing visible inside except what looked like thick, creamy mud and fragments of bone, like some pre-assembled meal that you’d boil in a bag. He prodded it with a gloved finger, and the viscous squelch and give made my stomach rise.
‘They all seem to be at different stages of decay. But that could be due to having been buried in different locations, in soils with different levels of acidity. Tightly wrapped until the bags split, so we won’t get a straightforward timeline from insect and predator activity. But if they weren’t transported here all at once, I’d guess they’ve been buried here one by one, over a long period of time. Five years perhaps, maybe more.’
That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. Seven bodies over five years suggested intent, determination, and maybe some ritualistic choice behind the location. It also pointed the finger at a local, and village people are infamously close-mouthed. ‘Mne do lampochki,’ they say, ‘I don’t care.’
‘Murdered?’ I asked, knowing what his answer would be.
‘Can’t say. Cot deaths? Stillborn? Who knows, the way infant mortality is around here? But certainly, disposed of in suspicious circumstances.’
Usupov turned to the nearest ment, and beckoned him over. A burly man, with the brown face and hands of a local farm boy, he didn’t seem keen to approach until Usupov frowned.
‘I want plastic sheeting and tent poles to cover the site, a guard here overnight, and the use of a room in your station, understand?’
The ment looked puzzled, as if Usupov had asked for a magic carpet and a dozen Kazakh dancing girls.
You’re leaving them here overnight?’
Usupov sighed; like me, he’d spent a career explaining himself.
‘They’ve been here for quite some time, officer, another night won’t hurt if we cover them properly, and we can examine them when there’s enough light to do the job properly. Uproot them fully and we might destroy vital evidence. And it’s almost dark now.’
We all turned and looked at the last of the reflected light on the snow fading away into darkness, as wind whipped the branches above our heads. It wasn’t a spot where I’d like to spend a long moonless night, alone but for the company of seven dead children, fingers clawing to escape the earth.
We left one unhappy ment to his vigil and trudged back down to the farm courtyard. I was staying at the Amir Hotel in the centre of Karakol, and I’d booked Usupov in there as well. It’s wasn’t the Hyatt, but at least there was hot water. But right now, washing off the stink of the dead was the least of my concerns.
I wanted to find out who was powerful enough to send a helicopter, what they knew, and why they weren’t telling me.