"Nothing had prepared Nick for the sheer beauty of the village perched above the purpling sea..."
Read Excerpt >
Nothing had prepared Nick for the sheer beauty of the village perched above the purpling sea. The last rays of sunset licked Vourvoulos’ lofty castle walls. A necklace of red-tiled roofs clung to the cliffs below them. He pulled the small car off the road and grabbed his binoculars.
His socks collected burrs as he trudged through the dried weeds to stand as close to the cliff ’s edge as he dared in the gusting wind. On the sea below, a fishing boat chugged toward the village’s small port. Through the binoculars, Nick slowly panned the houses that spilled down to the water’s edge. Exhausted from too many hours in economy class, he was glad to know that somewhere in that tangle of stone buildings was a bed with his name on it.
He searched for what brought him to Vourvoulos—the Coast Guard’s fuel tank—and spotted it looming behind the buildings along the dock. If the tank blew, without a doubt it would take out the whole village. Presumably that was the arsonist’s intent, and why FBI Agent Nick Damigos had been sent to investigate. The Coast Guard station played too vital a role in rescuing refugees to risk a fire putting it out of operation. Nick’s task was to protect the fuel tank, and if he saved the village in the process, that was a bonus.
He shifted his gaze beyond Vourvoulos’ headland searching for a black speck that would signal an approaching raft. The weather had turned colder, with shorter days and rougher seas, which would slow the number of refugees coming but not stop them. The traffickers, operating across the narrow channel in Turkey, would make sure of that.
He was still watching for rafts when he smelled the smoke. The wind had carried it to him. He panned the village again, looking for its source and saw nothing. Then he started along the cove-dotted shoreline. At first he mistook flames for the sunset’s reflection off a pile of limestone rocks, but with a second look, he saw the wind pushing the fire quickly uphill in the dry brush. Thistles, bursting open, sent sparks into the tops of tall trees overhanging a lone house.
In its yard, a dog, barking frantically, strained at its leash.
Nick sprinted back to his car.
Shirley tootled along the coastal road with her backseat filled with nine dead cats. They weren’t dead exactly, only dead-to-the-world under anesthesia from being fixed, as if removing sensitive body parts could be considered a fix. Shirley didn’t think so. A cat meowed weakly and she sped up, wanting her daughter, Lydia, who came up with the idea of fixing them, to have the pleasure of uncaging the maligned animals when they came to. A second cat meowed, and Shirley accelerated more, her tires complaining as she took a curve too fast.
In the same instant, Nick shot back onto the road. In a squeal of brakes, they barely managed to avoid a collision.
“Oh heavens!” Shirley exclaimed, seeing in her rearview mirror that he’d come to a stop with his tires perched on the cliff.
Moments later, he was on her tail, trying to pass on curves with no shoulders and a long drop to the sea. When they reached a short stretch of straight road, Shirley edged over. It was also where she habitually caught the first glimpse of her house, and that evening, she couldn’t see it for the billowing smoke. Forgetting Nick, who was already alongside her, she stomped on the accelerator, leaving him in the wrong lane approaching another curve. He hit the brakes hard, and burning rubber swerved back behind her.
He was still swearing at the stupid woman when she bounced off the road to park alongside a pickup truck with a swirling blue light fixed to its roof. Nick skidded to a stop behind her.
Shirley scrambled from her small car as fast as her generous body would allow. “Apostolis!” she cried. “Dingo is up there!”
The fire chief was busy directing villagers who had shown up to fight the fire, some scrambling from cars with shovels, others carrying water tanks and barrels in the back of pickups. “Are you sure only Dingo is there?” Apostolis shouted back.
Nick sprinted past them, unbuttoning his shirt while clutching a water bottle. “Is Ringo the dog?”
“Dingo!” Shirley shouted after him. “His name is Dingo!”
Nick disappeared in the smoke. He stopped running only long enough to stand on his shirt and rip off a sleeve, and doused it with water before tying it over his nose and mouth. Again he charged uphill. Airborne sparks had set the tops of the tall trees ablaze, but the weedy fire on the ground wasn’t especially hot, and he moved too quickly for the flames to do more than singe his cuffs. “Dingo!” he shouted. “Dingo! Dingo!”
The dog stirred.
He struggled to stand, shaking feebly.
He barked once and collapsed.
Nick found the unconscious dog, unfastened his leash and slung him around his neck. His legs were long and bony, and Nick grasped his ankles while using his foot to slide open the patio door. “Hello! Hello! Is anyone here?” he shouted, moving quickly through the house, checking all the rooms. He kicked in a locked door. “Einai kanena etho?” The house was remarkably smoke-free, and the dog, bouncing on Nick’s shoulders, soon recovered, but he didn’t want to let the dog loose for fear that it would bolt back into danger.
When certain no one was trapped inside, he ran back out; and Dingo, unhappy to be in the smoke again, bucked hard as Nick jogged downhill through the burning brush. A glowing ember landed on his forehead, but he couldn’t risk letting go of the dog to brush it off. Once out of danger, he gladly rolled the unhappy animal off his shoulders.
“Dingo!” Shirley cried as he leapt up to kiss her.
Nick, between coughs, told the fire chief, “Kopsete ta megala dendra na pesoun pros to meros mas.” Cut the big trees to fall on us.
“Not Lukas’s beauties!” Shirley cried.
“If they fall this way,” he continued, “they will suffocate the fire on the ground. Then your men can get above the house and shoot water down on the flames. But you can’t wait.”
Apostolis quickly assessed the situation, and agreed. He shouted an order, and trucks hauling water took the scrubby hill on both sides of the endangered house.
Two cars pulled up.
Lydia jumped out of the first one. “Mum! Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” Shirley replied. “It’s your father I’m worried about.”
That was Lukas, who got out of the second car. The flames played on the fisherman’s face bronzed by years at sea.
“Lukas, you won’t believe what has to be done,” Shirley said. “You just won’t believe it!”
He asked the fire chief, “Can you save the house?”
“Only if we cut the trees.”
Lukas’s beauties. The four red eucalyptuses he had planted, one for each of their daughters, cutting notches in them as the girls inched up, until they stopped growing taller though the trees never did. Eventually even their tallest notches had towered over the house. Lukas clenched his jaw, tears welling in his eyes; and that was all the time he had to grieve for his beauties, or he’d be grieving for his home too. “Do you have a spare chainsaw?”
“In the back of my truck,” Apostolis told him.
Lukas grabbed it and trudged up the hill.
Lydia hardly slept all night. Every time she closed her eyes she saw fire, or smelled smoke, or imagined the scratch of a match by someone creeping up to the Coast Guard’s fuel tank not fifty meters from their front door. She finally left Lefteris alone in bed to make his gurgling sleeping noises and brewed a pot of tea.
She carried a cup to the terrace. The sun had yet to peek over the horizon. She felt like a zombie seeing that side of dawn, though growing up she had certainly seen it enough times. If a fisherman’s daughter didn’t know the sunrise, she’d have to be blind. Now Lydia worked halfway to it every night. She dreamed of lingering in bed until noon but never did. There was never enough time.
She watched the night fishermen chug into port and the day fishermen head out, and didn’t see Lukas among them. She would have been surprised to see him set out that morning after losing his beauties; but then, the solace of the sea might be exactly what he needed. They all needed solace. They had all lost their beauties.
A cloud of squawking seagulls announced Stavros rounding the jetty. No other fisherman attracted so many of the birds. They flocked around him competing for a chance to dive at his tubs of glistening sardines. Lydia felt a pang of desire for him. At some point most village women had. Stavros was a man to share, and none would complain that he shared himself too generously, including Lydia—who’d had all she wanted of him, though not necessarily all she desired.
Ping! she heard from the living room.
Ping! her daughter’s phone sounded a second time.
Lefteris grumbled in the bedroom.
Annoyed, Lydia went inside to find the phone. Her daughter had a habit of tossing her stuff anywhere on the way to bed, and that morning she found the girl’s bag scrunched on top of the microwave. She was rummaging through it when Athina came into the room.
The girl’s green eyes filled with disappointment. “That’s an invasion of privacy.”
“It’s an invasion of your father’s sleep is what it is.” Lydia handed the phone to her. “You better turn it off before he kills you because I’m too tired to clean up the blood.”
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill her!”
“See what I mean?”
“All right. Okay. Gee-sus.” Athina made a point of turning it off. “You were already up. I heard you.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Your grandparents’ house almost burned down last night.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“Maybe you could be more sensitive to other people?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Some people have good reasons why they don’t want to be woken up by someone sending you a heart message.”
“You read my message?”
“I didn’t read your message, I saw your message. There’s a throbbing heart on your screen. So who is sending you his heart this early in the morning?”
“How should I know?”
“You could look.”
Exasperated, the girl checked her phone. “I can’t tell. It’s a blocked number.”
“Who do you think it is?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Let me see your phone.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“We don’t have secrets in this house.”
“We don’t have any fun either!”
Athina, keeping her phone, stomped off.
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill that girl!”
Lydia considered aiding her husband. Their daughter’s terrible twos had continued unabated to the present, only days shy of her eighteenth birthday. She replenished her tea, picked up her map of the fires, and returned to the terrace, mulling over the land mines that could hijack her day. Was her daughter’s secret admirer one of them? If secret, he wouldn’t be for long. The competition for the girl was too fierce for the hapless boy not to declare himself. No, Lydia’s land mine was not a message with a beating heart, but the fires. They weren’t going to stop until the arsonist was caught or achieved his goal.
She unfolded her map and drew an X on it for her parents’ house. She shuddered when she thought of how differently last night’s fire could have turned out. The danger was no longer theoretical but real. Initially, the fires had been attributed to refugees, careless with their cigarettes or cooking fires, who were hiking through the hills to reach the island’s capital—until a detonator was found at the site of the fourth fire. More thorough searches discovered that similar devices had started the three previous fires. People still came up with cockamamie reasons to blame the refugees, but Lydia never took the notion seriously. For one thing, all the fires had been in a craggy and steep valley that they mostly avoided, preferring instead to hoof it across the island on the flatter, albeit longer, main road.
The fires’ isolation had conveyed a sense of randomness, but once the detonators were discovered, Lydia felt something more sinister was afoot. After the ninth fire, she decided to map them, hoping to reveal some clue that would identify the arsonist. It took her time to find some sites, so she didn’t map them in their actual chronological order, which is why initially she overlooked how they relentlessly approached Vourvoulos. They jumped between the two sides of the valley, which further obscured their steady march. It was not until she numbered the fires that their pattern—and threat—revealed itself. Lydia was convinced that burning down the village was the arsonist’s goal, and what better way to do it than blowing up the Coast Guard’s fuel tank?
The sun pulled itself over the hills to promise another blistering day. Down the wharf, Stavros heaved his heaping tubs onto the wooden planks. A few lucky fish spilled out and flipped themselves back into the water. He hooted and playfully grabbed for them, not caring if he caught them; they’d be back in his nets tomorrow. He saw Lydia watching him and did a little jig imitating the slippery fish before lifting a tub and offering it to her. Do you want any?
Did she want any? Yes, she wanted some of his fish and some of him too. Lydia was perfectly content with her husband snoring away in bed; it didn’t mean that she couldn’t remember the fire the fisherman had once lit in her. She noticed that he wasn’t holding the tub as high over his head as he used to—time had a way of showing itself at unexpected moments. But his smile was as bright as ever and she did want some. Raising an open hand, she shouted, “Five kilos!”
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill them both!”
Nick woke up in a big brass bed in a white room and at first didn’t know where he was. A full-length mirror in the corner confirmed he was the only familiar thing in it. He lingered under the covers, recalling his last twenty-four hours, starting with his grandfather’s funeral and a hasty departure for the airport to catch his flight to Greece, the long wait in Athens for his connecting flight to the island, the fire and his rescue of a dog. When he’d finally found his room—and the bed with his name on it—he had sipped wine on the terrace watching moonlight spill across the sea to the dark shadow of Turkey. Slowly the village went to bed, and he had too, crawling between sheets that smelled a lot fresher than he did.
Outside his window, the cawing birds could have been Baltimore crows. He got out of bed to open the shutters overlooking the small port with its restaurant umbrellas and brightly-colored fishing boats. Only the black fuel tank looming behind the buildings marred the otherwise idyllic scene. What sounded like crows were hundreds of noisy seagulls flocking around a fishing boat coming into the harbor. Nick moved quickly, wanting to get down the hill to see them. He had forgotten the burn on his forehead until he glanced in the mirror, and decided he should tend to it. That led to a shower, ointment, and a bandage. By the time he made it down the steep cobbled road, the birds had flown off.
Having eaten nothing except bad airline food for as long as his stomach could remember, he hungrily checked out the restaurants along the wharf. Most were closed, and the options for breakfast at those that were opened appeared to be bread-and-honey or yogurt-and-honey, until Nick spotted English breakfast on a sandwich board outside Vassoula’s Bar. As a bonus, the place had a lush arbor of lavender roses that were especially fragrant in the morning’s warm sun. He sat at a table where he could watch Stavros untangle fish from his nets.
“What do you want, bread or yogurt?” he heard, and turned to Vassoula. Her eyes were as black as the thick hair falling below her shoulders, and despite a thin sweater buttoned against the morning chill, her cleavage wasn’t shy. She flicked her cigarette into the water. “Honey comes with both.”
“I’ll take the English breakfast, please.”
“We don’t have an English breakfast. That’s the restaurant next door.”
“You only have bread and yoghurt?”
“Stavros!” she called to the fisherman. “Do you have sardines?”
“I always have some for you!”
She said to Nick, “There are fresh sardines, too.”
“Sardines? For breakfast?” Fresh or not, Nick could not imagine eating them first thing in the morning. “I’m sorry, but I was hoping for something unhealthy, like sausage and runny beans.” It was then that he noticed the young waiter next door shaking out blue tablecloths, and moved from Vassoula’s yellow-clothed tables to one on the blue zone.
“She’s not really English,” Vassoula warned him.
“That’s okay. Neither am I.”
The waiter was Ridi, an Albanian youth barely in his twenties, who had arrived in Greece six months earlier. To have a real shot at making a new life for himself, he was determined to learn fluent Greek, and not willing to settle, like so many of his compatriots, with getting by on a few easy phrases. Now he had a second language goal—to be able to woo Athina—and challenged himself to learn five new words a day. Topping his list that morning was the word for heart. He looked it up before sending her one in a message.
As he spread out the blue tablecloths, Ridi heard the word jump out in the argument between Athina and her mother in their apartment over the restaurant. They fought all the time, so he couldn’t be sure if they were arguing about his message, though he heard kardia enough times to assume they were. That worried the youth. He had taken a risk sending the girl his simple message, and he certainly never expected her mother to see it. He half-expected Lydia to lean over the terrace rail and fire him on the spot.
Nick tried to get his attention. “Coffee?”
Ridi, ignoring him, strained to understand an especially quick exchange.
Denied coffee long enough that morning, Nick looked for another option. Among the half dozen establishments scattered along the wharf, only Vassoula’s was open, and she had perched herself on a high stool at her front door, smoking a cigarette and watching him. She smirked when she saw him looking around for yet another option. He decided to stay put.
Overhead, the mother and daughter’s argument abruptly stopped. A door slammed, and Ridi stared at the corner of the building, waiting for one of them to appear. When he saw Athina, he grinned like the love-smitten kid he was, but she wasn’t smiling when she marched up to him.
“Now I’m in real trouble!” she hissed, and disappeared up the short steps into the kitchen.
“Coffee?” Nick ventured again.
“She sets up now,” Ridi told him.
That morning Athina’s setting up the kitchen sounded more like a teardown as she clanged pots, ripped open drawers, and slammed cupboards. In Ridi’s estimation, no one pouted more endearingly, which was a good thing since the girl pouted frequently. When she flung a spoon into the sink, he stopped shaking out a tablecloth to admire her.
“Those tables won’t set themselves,” Lydia said, coming up behind him, “and there’s a man over there who needs breakfast.” She disappeared into the kitchen, and immediately mother and daughter were arguing again.
Ridi asked, “You want breakfast?”
“I’ll take the English breakfast,” Nick ordered.
“Yes, the English breakfast, and no sardines. With coffee.”
“What coffee you like?”
Scratching his head, the young waiter went into the kitchen.
Shirley put a second drop of the precious truffle oil on the cloth and offered it to Dingo. Again the dog turned his ungrateful snout away. He usually drooled at its funky odor—to her, it reeked of something half-decomposed—but dogs liked to sniff anything, the stinkier the better. That day, though, Dingo wasn’t interested in smelling anything. Obviously he was put off by the pervasive smell of smoke. She hoped not for long. They had made a small investment of both money and hope in training the dog to sniff out truffles. Rare white ones, specifically, and their growing season would peak in a couple of weeks. They didn’t need much to replace what little money Lukas made from fishing, which he should have stopped doing years ago, but had kept on because of the chronic economic crisis. At seventy, he had become too old for such hard labor. For what people were prepared to pay for a nauseating white fungus, they only needed to find a half dozen truffles a year to offset his fishing income—itself dwindling in the overfished Mediterranean.
Shirley’s sense of smell was disoriented too. She felt plunged into an ashtray. Cutting a lemon in half, she inhaled its bitter freshness, and pressed it to the dog’s nose. He would have nothing to do with that either. “Oh, Dingo,” she fretted.
The dog hadn’t left her side all night even though Lukas didn’t like him sleeping in their bedroom. He claimed Dingo’s solemn eyes looked disdainfully at his every lovemaking move, but that night Lukas had relented. Sure enough, he awoke feeling amorous, surprising Shirley because she hadn’t spiked his usual nightcap of ouzo with Viagra, something she’d started doing some months earlier with results they both enjoyed. That morning he had managed entirely on his own with Dingo as a witness. Their sex had been good at every age, but that morning Lukas’s lovemaking was especially rough; driven, she knew, by the loss of his beauties. She gripped him tighter to encourage his pleasure, wanting him to forgive himself for the sawed-off trees in the yard. When they finished, he didn’t roll away but held onto her, and she nuzzled his broad hairy chest, enjoying their extra intimacy despite his stale breath. Only when the dog rested his chin on the bed, groaning pitifully for being ignored, did they stir themselves enough to face the reality of that first day after the fire.
They glanced out the windows to confirm that the nightmare had been real not imagined, and tried not to look again. They had seen enough by moonlight to know the extent of the heartbreak. They went about their routine as if nothing were different—using the toilet, brushing their teeth, making coffee—but it was all different because of their lack of annoyance at getting in each other’s way or hogging the bathroom. They remarked how much worse the fire could have been: the house had been saved, the smell of smoke wasn’t too bad, luckily a stranger had rescued Dingo.
Lukas left to have his usual coffee with “the boys,” the old men who gathered every morning in the port to rant about the news in general and the government in particular, all the while puffing on cigarettes that stained their bristly moustaches yellow. Village life didn’t offer much stimulation—Stavros accidentally shooting himself in the foot while hunting rabbits was about the most exciting story of the year—so the boys would exaggerate anything, turning their small sardines into Moby Dicks; but that morning the only story told would be last night’s fire, and that needed no embellishment. Out the window, Shirley watched her husband pause on the porch judging his Pyrrhic victory. He had saved his home by sacrificing what he loved the most about it. Lukas would get no pleasure exaggerating that story.
He walked slump-shouldered to his car, and that’s when Shirley finally broke down and cried. Dingo pressed against her leg to comfort her. His snout sought her hand and licked it, and that made her weep more. “Oh Dingo! Dingo! Our beauties!” But they weren’t their real beauties, Shirley reminded herself—though sometimes the three of their four daughters who had left for jobs in Germany felt as lost to her as the fallen trees outside. She sighed, pulling herself together. “What’s done is done,” she murmured.
She fluffed a couple of wispy scarves around her neck, hoisted her shoulder bag, and braced herself for her first foray into the charcoaled landscape. Her car was still parked on the road, and she waded to it through ashes piled ankle deep by the breeze. Dingo dogged her heels, nose to the ground, sniffing the singed earth. Fretful that his sense of smell was permanently doomed, she hoped to rouse the dog’s enthusiasm by flinging open the car’s back door and exclaiming, “Let’s go truffling!”
Apparently the dog’s sense of smell was seriously compromised. He jumped into the back seat, forgetting the cats, and provoked an explosive hiss as the nine animals attacked their cages intent on shredding him. If Dingo had wings, he couldn’t have flown any faster back out of that car.
Lydia stepped onto the restaurant’s small porch. She stopped and checked inside shoulder bag to make sure she hadn’t forgotten the map.
Athina followed her outside. “I can’t do the whole shift,” she whined. “What about my costume?”
“What about your costume?”
“It’s not finished.”
“Is that my problem?” Lydia glanced over at Nick. “Why hasn’t that man been served?”
“His order confused Ridi and I haven’t had a chance to straighten it out because I’ve had to talk to you.”
“What did you order?” Lydia called to him.
“English breakfast with coffee,” he called back.
“English breakfast with coffee,” she repeated to her daughter. “How complicated is that?”
“He asked for ‘kafeneion’ coffee and we don’t know what kafeneion coffee is.”
“Caffeinated coffee,” Nick spoke up. “Even one bean will do.”
Lydia said, “I think the man wants his coffee.”
The girl went back inside in a huff.
“You’re the man who saved my mother’s dog last night, aren’t you?” Lydia asked, coming down the short steps.
“If his name is Dingo and he’s a heavy smoker, I am.”
“People are calling you Superman, the way you showed up, saved him, and then disappeared before anyone could thank you. I’m Lydia, and thank you.”
“I’m Nick. Nick Damigos.”
They shook hands.
“Damigos? Are you Greek?”
“Greek-American. Are you Greek?”
“I know, I don’t look it.” Lydia didn’t. She had carrot hair and freckles, certainly not the Greeks’ dark complexions. “Around here it’s usually best to blame that on Alexander the Great. But in my case, I’m half English. My mother married a Greek. You seem to know something about fires.”
“It’s bad luck having one, that’s for sure. Is Dingo okay?”
“Mum says he won’t eat anything.”
“That happens with dogs and fires.”
“So, are you visiting for a few days?”
“I’m working on a novel,” Nick lied. He had used the cover before, finding it easy to pull off, and giving him an excuse for asking questions.
“You mean a novel set here?”
“It might be. I’m still looking for my story.”
“Not very far along with it, are you?”
“Maybe I’ll write about the fire last night.”
“Write about all eleven of them.”
“Let me show you.” Lydia pulled out her map and pointed out the eleven fires in as many months, dotting both sides of a narrow canyon, each one a step closer to the village—last night’s fire the closest and the first to threaten a house.
“Any guess who is the arsonist?” Nick asked.
“No one has a clue, though some people want to blame the fires on the refugees.”
“The refugees? Why?”
“When they walk to the capital, sometimes they cross through the hills.”
“Refugees walking through the hills wouldn’t be starting fires in a pattern, and it’s clear there is one.”
“Try telling that to people who want to believe anything bad about other people, especially other people who aren’t exactly like them. So no, I don’t know who’s the arsonist, but I do know that is his ultimate target.” Lydia pointed to the fuel tank.
“A water tower?” Nick asked, playing dumb.
“It’s for petrol,” she corrected him, and pointed to the building next door. “That’s the Coast Guard’s office. That’s its fuel tank. And that’s its boat that uses the fuel.” With the last remark, she indicated a battleship grey cruiser as it rounded the breakwater and cut its speed to enter the small harbor. “Shit,” she muttered when she saw the refugees, some fifty of them in orange life jackets, crammed together on the deck. “A raft must have capsized.”
Refugees were nothing new for Nick. They were part of his job. As the FBI’s agent posted to Athens, he assisted his Greek counterparts on cases involving human trafficking, drug trafficking and terrorism, and the refugees potentially created opportunities for perpetrators of any of the three to enter Europe by hiding among them. Nick had witnessed other Coast Guard rescues, and knew they only picked up refugees already tossed in the water or in dire likelihood of capsizing. From what he could tell, the arriving group was the norm: soaking wet, huddled together for warmth and comfort, and totally silenced by the enormity of what they were experiencing.
Ridi arrived with Nick’s coffee.
“You forgot the sugar,” Lydia said.
“That’s okay,” Nick said. “I drink it black.”
“It’s not okay because he shouldn’t have forgotten it.”
“I bring your breakfast now?” the young waiter asked.
“Of course you bring his breakfast now. He’s been waiting for it.”
Nick said, “I’m good as long as I have coffee.”
“And he’s not to pay for it,” Lydia added.
“That’s not necessary.”
“Of course it is.”
Across the port, the Coast Guard cruiser edged up to the breakwater, and a guardsman jumped off to tie it up. He moved to the stern to secure a second line. The two guardsmen still on board stopped the refugees from standing up all at once, then pointed to people when they should disembark. Infants were passed over heads to hands reaching for them from the shore.
“Athina!” Lydia called.
The girl stepped onto the porch, and glanced across the harbor at the group of mostly men, some women and children, as they fell into a line on the breakwater. A baby’s plaintive cry came to them from over the water. “How many are there?” Athina asked.
“Around fifty,” her mother answered. “I have to go see the mayor, so you’ll need to make the sandwiches for them. There’s enough chicken and cheese in the cooler. Stretch the tomatoes as far as you can and give those to the—.”
“I know what to do, Mom,” Athina interrupted. “I know the sandwich recipe and I know about the eggs.”
“You should start boiling those now.”
“What about my costume? I need time to work on it.”
“Feeding these people is a little more important this morning than working on your costume.”
“To you, maybe,” the girl said, and went inside.
Lydia looked over at Vassoula still seated on a stool next door. “Is your brother awake yet?”
“Takis!” she called into the bar’s open door. “Are you awake?”
He came outside, combing his fingers through a full head of black curls matted down from sleep. “I’m awake. What is it?”
“More of them arrived,” Vassoula replied.
He glanced across the water and saw the refugees. He asked Lydia, “How many are there?”
“Over fifty. Maybe a dozen kids and six women. Do you have enough water and juice?”
“I restocked yesterday.”
Nick guessed the handsome youth to be in his early twenties. His eyes were startlingly blue, and he glanced at Nick a couple of times before he went back inside.
“Can I do anything to help?” Nick asked.
“I’m sure Athina would appreciate help with the sandwiches. Sometimes people are so hungry they grab for them. Ridi will help too. But eat your breakfast first. You’ve got a few minutes before they come this way.” Lydia slipped her map bag into her bag. “Wish me luck finally convincing the mayor to relocate the tank.”
“Good luck. And thanks for the ideas for my book.”
“You better write it fast. Unless that tank is moved before next month, we might not be here.”
“Why next month?”
“It’s already been eleven months. To some people, twelve months sounds like a round number, or an anniversary, or simply a compelling date. Enjoy your breakfast.”
No sooner had Lydia walked off than Athina reappeared with a plate of runny eggs, runny beans, and a ruinous baked tomato. “So it is a proper English breakfast,” Nick said.
The girl scowled at Vassoula. “I suppose she said my mom’s not really English, too. She’s always saying stupid things like that. Just because my grandma grew up in Australia doesn’t mean we’re not English if my grandma was English to start with. My mom is so ready to kill her!”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t tell her. I don’t want my breakfast to be implicated in a murder.”
“You’re funny, Superman. I bet you have to work at it.”
“Because you look so serious when you’re thinking.”
“If you call me Superman again, you’ll learn just how serious I can be.”
Next door, Takis came outside lugging a case of water bottles in each hand. He dropped them heavily on a table and went back inside.
“So you hand out sandwiches and they give them water, is that the system?” Nick asked Athina.
“She doesn’t do anything,” the girl replied, referring to Vassoula. “She just sits there and watches. It’s weird, but they’re both a little weird.”
“So you don’t like him, either?”
Athina shrugged. “Most of the time he’s okay. I don’t know. People say weird things about him. What happened to your face?”
“Did something happen to my face?”
“You have a plaster on your forehead.”
“Oh, that. I burned myself shaving.”
“On your forehead?”
“I was careless.”
“You’re burned here too.” Athina reached out to touch a pinkish spot on Nick’s jaw that his beard only partially concealed.
He leaned away. “That’s from another fire.”
“Okay, I’ll stop bothering you. I need to make sandwiches anyway. I hope you enjoy your kafeneion coffee and non-English English breakfast.” The girl returned to the kitchen.
Nick set about eating, and watched as Takis carried out more cases of water. He ripped the plastic wrapping off them and balled it up, and headed for a trash bin between the two buildings. On his way, he caught Nick’s eye again, and smiled faintly. Then he was behind the buildings and out of sight.
Nick continued eating his breakfast. He couldn’t guess all the weird things that might be said about Takis, but he was confident about one thing: he was gay too.
Not many years earlier, when money seemed to arrive in buckets flown in on northern Europe’s national airlines, the villa that served as City Hall had been restored and painted the frivolous colors of a Venetian palace: lavender walls with orange trim and teal balconies. That morning, as Mayor Dimos Elefteros clutched an iron rail overlooking a decidedly turquoise sea, his thoughts weren’t on the beauty of the building’s colors but their costs. The shipping charges alone for the imported paint could have paid to repair the lengthening crack in the church’s bell tower, from which, at that moment, Father Alexis was ringing the hour. To the mayor, each toll was an insistent reminder of the thousands of euros the priest expected the bankrupt village to ante up for exactly that purpose.
Mayor Elefteros believed the priest should repair his own damn tower. The Church had enough money even if the local parish did not. Unfortunately, as Father Alexis had painstakingly documented, the tower was situated on municipal property. Since ancient man started building pillars of worship, there had been one erected on that spot; so it was only natural, when early Christians built a church adjacent to it, they appropriated the tower for their bell. For centuries nobody cared, in Vourvoulos or the many other villages where the same situation existed. Ownership for such inconsequential parcels of land didn’t matter when their use would never change. What had changed were new European Union rules, governing everything from outhouses to public safety. When stones fell from a couple of the towers and hurt people, who successfully sued for personal injuries, suddenly no one wanted ownership of them—though the Church never stopped using them, instead gladly ringing the bells at civic liability.
There was a knock on the office door and Apostolis let himself in. The mayor came off the balcony to shake the part-time fireman part-time policeman part-time waiter’s hand. A little plump, a little bald, and blinded in one eye from an accident, Apostolis embodied civic spirit, volunteering for everything. He set a blob of charred Styrofoam on the mayor’s desk. Several cigarette butts were still poking from its top; others had fallen over and become encased in the milky white plastic.
Mayor Elefteros didn’t need to ask what it was. Every fire had been started with a similar crude detonator. Styrofoam, soaked in gasoline to make it soft and gooey, was then molded into a big egg shape, with lit cigarette butts stuck into it and left to burn slowly down before catching the fuel-soaked plastic on fire—giving the culprit time to get away. There were never fewer than a dozen cigarettes used. Whoever was setting the fires wanted to ensure the gasoline would catch, and that was about the only thing anyone could say with certainty going on a year since the first fire—except that they were getting dangerously close to the village.
“We had to cut down Lukas’s trees to save his house,” Apostolis reported.
“I don’t suppose he was happy about that.”
“He used my chainsaw to help.”
The mayor nodded, not surprised; he wouldn’t have expected otherwise. He and Lukas were of the same white-haired generation for whom honor and tragedy were synonymous. But he was surprised when the volunteer fire chief added, “A stranger saved their dog. He got there first.”
At that moment, Lydia burst in. “Dimos!”
Immediately Apostolis’s neck sunk into his round shoulders and he made to leave. “I’ll let you two talk.”
“You stay, Apostolis. This concerns you.”
“Good morning, Lydia,” the mayor greeted her.
“Don’t you ‘good morning’ me, Dimos!”
“I know you’re upset.”
“Of course I’m upset! Tonight the whole village could burn down”—she brandished the Styrofoam detonator on his desk—“because of a fire started by one of these!”
“There is no point exaggerating the situation.”
“As long as that fuel tank is where it is, am I exaggerating the situation, Apostolis?”
“I am not officially trained to say.”
“Well, I don’t need official training to know that I am not exaggerating. What is it going to take to convince you to move that fuel tank, Dimos?”
“I’m waiting for a reply—”
“From Athens. You’re always waiting for a reply from Athens.”
“We don’t have enough money—”
“Of course we do. Only you’re thinking of giving it to the church, which God knows doesn’t need it!”
“If the bell tower falls down, someone could be hurt.”
“If the fuel tank is blown up, a lot more people than some one will be hurt.”
“People can see the crack in the tower, Lydia. They can’t see an anonymous threat.”
“How anonymous is this?” She unfolded her map, and tapped her finger on it saying, “The first fire was here. The next here and here and here until last night’s fire here that almost burned down my parents’ house. How could the pattern be any clearer? The village is next. Isn’t it clear to you, Apostolis?”
“I can see the pattern.”
“I can see the pattern too,” the mayor added, “but you forget, relocating the fuel tank will disrupt the Coast Guard’s operation at a sensitive time. It is a decision for the Ministry of Defense. I don’t have the authority to act unilaterally even if we had the funds.”
“By the time you finally decide that you have the funds and authority to protect this village, there won’t be any Coast Guard station or anything else left to relocate. That’s the pattern I see.”
Lydia stormed out, leaving her map opened on the mayor’s desk.
Father Alexis, pulling the rope hanging down the side of the bell tower, tolled the hours especially vigorously that morning, wanting the heavy bronze bell to resonate through every conversation in the village, the subject of each surely being the fire the night before. He didn’t want some paranoid suspicion about an arsonist to sway public opinion in favor of relocating the fuel tank over repairing the bell tower.
In reality the priest couldn’t give a fig for the ugly tower, hastily rebuilt with concrete blocks after an earthquake toppled an ancient handsome one. In fact, he rather wished that it would fall down. It wasn’t the structure but his status—indeed, his future in the Church—that was at stake. Historically the island had been a communist hotbed, and the youthful priest had taken on the challenge of bringing Vourvoulos’ renegade congregation into the fold. Convincing the village to pay for the bell tower’s repair would be proof that he had succeeded. In exchange, he had been promised a post at the major cathedral in a respectable city, not another hovelish outpost on the priestly circuit. With that promotion would come a salary enabling him to move his mother to another apartment, out of her dead husband’s house, the oily stench of whose murder laced every sea breeze; a stench that then-young Manolis had caused with a flick of a cigarette, consciously or unconsciously—he forgot if he ever knew.
Indeed Vourvoulos was a hovel where people ate sardines for breakfast! The thought nauseated the young priest, as did the villagers’ insistent fish breath, which was especially virulent at noon prayers when their ichthyological halitosis disagreeably peaked. His good looks and calculated charm were his own undoing by attracting unsatisfied housewives to every service. He retaliated by strategically placing bowls of mints around the church, which several people had mistaken for incense and tried lighting the pale green lozenges. The locals soon caught on, but not the occasional stranger who wandered in, and the priest had taken to sneaking up on them, plucking the singed mint from their fingers, and popping it into his mouth. “It’s a mint!” he would cry. “Try one! You’ll like it!” Unfortunately on one occasion, it had been incense, ignited by an Indian family who somehow found their way into Vourvoulos’ church with their own pale green tablets. Christians from Goa, they later explained; as if Father Alexis, suffering with a blistered tongue, gave a hoot for their primitive origins.
His energetic ringing of the bell served a second purpose: to cause bits of the tower’s cracked stucco to fall off. He watched as flecks sprinkled the choked grass, and let go the rope to gather them in a plastic bag. It felt lighter than air. Certainly there were not substantial enough to convince the skeptical mayor that the bell tower’s imminent collapse was a greater threat than a catastrophic fire.
The priest glanced around. No one was looking. He picked up a stone and knocked a couple of chips off the tower’s corner. Deciding they gave him sufficient evidence to keep his cause alive, he rubbed dirt onto the chip marks to conceal them, and walked out the churchyard gate.
Koufos left his hiding place behind the ossuary when the priest was well down the winding path. The deaf boy had been caught one hungry afternoon filling his pockets with the mint lozenges, and ever since, Father Alexis ran him off whenever he saw him. Being run off was something Koufos was used to, but he couldn’t stop himself from going to the church when certain natural urges overcame him. Though unable to hear a word, he could “hear” the bell’s tolling—or rather, he felt its sound—and its resonance, buzzing through his body, aroused him. On Sunday mornings, when the priest freely rang it, sometimes Koufos would come without touching himself. That morning, though, hunger, not hormones, had driven him to the church. The mints made for an unsatisfactory meal but stopped his empty stomach from gurgling. He darted inside and made a quick circuit, filling his pockets with them.
It wasn’t easy living off the few coins he begged in the restaurants or the scraps that diners left behind, which had recently grown more meager, as had the mysterious packages of food he would occasionally find wrapped in aluminum foil. He had no way of knowing about the country’s economic crisis; he only knew he was hungrier. He couldn’t read or speak, and didn’t have a proper name. He had been abandoned in the port like dogs sometimes were at the end of summer by yachtsmen bored with that season’s man’s best friend. No one could remember precisely when Koufos showed up, but the villagers collectively blamed the Gypsies for exchanging the boy for a few stolen chickens. He never spoke a word so they christened him Koufos. Deaf. He’d already been in the village three years though his actual age was a matter of guesswork. The prior year he’d started sprouting dark hair where he had none before. He was turning into a man and all that meant.
Near the altar, he crawled into a cubbyhole under the wooden seats fastened to the walls, where he wouldn’t be seen if someone entered. The boy sensed that what he wanted to do was a private matter because he never saw anyone else doing it. Humming to simulate the resonance of the church bell, he took care of himself with Mary watching from her spot above the altar. Then like guys are inclined to do afterward, he dozed off.
Nick carried his breakfast dishes into the kitchen where Athina and Ridi were organizing the ingredients for the sandwiches: loaves of sliced white bread, squares of yellow cheese, circles of processed chicken, and a mound of tomatoes. “Just put the dishes in the sink,” the girl told him. “And can you turn off the stove and drain the eggs, and cool them with cold water? I don’t want them to be too hot for the kids to hold.”
Nick did, and then joined them at the wide counter to help slap together dozens of sandwiches and stack them in boxes. As they worked, they watched two guardsmen go down the line to examine the refugees’ IDs and take down their names. When that task finished, they started walking them along the breakwater toward the village.
“Here they come,” Athina said.
They carried the sandwiches outside, and Ridi went back in for the eggs and a carton of oranges. “Everybody gets a sandwich, and try to give the sandwiches with tomatoes to children and mothers,” Athina instructed them. “Men get oranges, and women and children get eggs. And everybody gets a bottle of water from Takis. Yeia sou, Takis!” she called to him.
“Yeia sou, Athina!” he called back.
They all watched as the refugees came down the steps off the breakwater and slung their lifejackets into a garbage bin. “Where do they take them?” Nick asked.
“To a field behind the old police station,” Athina replied. “That’s up the hill. There are some blankets for them, and sometimes a tarp to protect them from the sun, if it hasn’t blown down in a storm.”
“What if it rains?”
“They become wet,” Ridi said grimly.
Then the miserable lot was upon them—soaked, somber, and suspicious when the three tried to hand out food. One man rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to ask how much. Athina made him understand it was free. Their initial suspicion over, the refugees had a second one: what was in the sandwiches? They peeled back the spongy white bread and looked unhappily at the unidentifiable slice of meat. Athina was ready for that question, too, and held up two photos: a picture of a pig with a big X through it, and a picture of a chicken. Word spread: free food chicken no pork. Then everyone wanted some, but despite how hungry they were, they waited their turn respectfully, never disobeying the generosity of letting families go first. In the few words they knew in English, they told how their trafficker had launched them with too little gas and they ran out of it in the middle of the channel. Unable to steer the raft, they were soon swamped by high waves in the stiffening wind. If there was anything fortunate about the incident, it was that they capsized in Greek waters. The Coast Guard, which had spotted the raft on its radar, rescued everyone without risking an international incident at a time when Turkey found it expedient to prosecute incursions of any kind.
Some gobbled down their sandwich on the spot while others saved it. Mothers and fathers clutched three or four for their children. Mostly Syrians, the women were predictably wary and shy, but the men touched their hearts and thanked them profusely.
Juggling sandwiches, oranges and eggs, the refugees passed next to Takis, who handed out sturdy plastic bags in addition to the bottled the water. Sometimes the bags were appreciated more than the water, especially by young parents who had so much more in their hands than infant children. Takis helped them load things into the bags, which of course slowed the whole process, and the refugees backed up in line, soaked and exhausted, started to complain.
“I’ll go help him,” Nick said. “His name is Takis, right?”
In a few steps, he was asking Takis, “Do you speak English or Greek?”
“Both. I live in Australia.”
“It looks like you could use some help.”
Nick pressed one of the blue plastic bags into a woman’s hand. “How many children do you have?”
“Three,” her husband answered for her.
“Kids get the juice, right?” he asked Takis.
Nick put three small cartons of juice in the bag, and then added a fourth, pointing to the young mother to indicate it was for her.
“Please, one for my husband,” she asked. “He is so very sick.”
The man did look ill: gaunt, pale, and drooping with exhaustion.
“It’s okay, give him one,” Takis said. “Give one to anybody who asks. They aren’t used to asking for anything, so if they want juice, they really need it, and I have more inside.”
Later, Nick would remember the refugees as a tsunami that swept over them and washed as quickly back out. In less than fifteen minutes, they had come and gone, carrying away something to eat and water to wash it down. He had investigated crimes and witnessed despicable acts, but he had never handed out simple meals to such bereft people, who thanked him as if he had offered a feast. They were so sincere he felt a fraud for not giving more.
“That was really something,” he remarked when the last refugee had passed. “How often does that happen?”
“Every two or three days, the Coast Guard rescues a boat and we feed them. The other rafts make it to the beaches and the people walk to the main town from wherever they landed.” Takis stuck some leftover water bottles into a plastic bag. “Thanks for helping. Not everybody does, and not everybody wants us to help.”
“I’m glad to do it anytime,” Nick replied, and stuck out his hand. “I’m Nick Damigos.”
They shook hands.
“You work here?”
“It’s my sister’s bar. I’m back helping her for a while. What about you?”
“I’m here for a few days working on a book. I’m a writer.”
“Are you famous?”
“Come by later and tell me about your books,” Takis suggested. “We open for sunset. The first drink is on the house.”
“The first drink every night, or just the first night?” Nick asked.
“I could make it happen every night,” Takis replied.
Nick smiled. “That sounds like a plan to me.”
Lydia fretted her way down the stony footpath catching glimpses of the port between the angled red-tiled roofs. Still fuming over Apostolis’s “I’m not officially trained to say,” she came to a spot where the village lay revealed before her: the small harbor, the arc of cafés and restaurants that lined it, the jetty jutting out like an angled exclamation point, and looming over it all, the Coast Guard’s fuel tank—a malevolency that in a spark could destroy everything else. Lydia scowled at it around every corner; and around the next one, she ran into Father Alexis.
“Good morning, Lydia,” he greeted her.
“Good morning, Father.”
“I certainly hope that frown is not for me.”
“Of course not, Father. I have a special frown for priests.”
Father Alexis was never quite sure what to make of her, but nevertheless held out his hand. “I may have a cold,” he cautioned, “but if you want to kiss my ring—”
“I don’t want to kiss your ring,” she assured him.
“You’d be surprised how many people do, even after I warn them.”
“I have a restaurant to run. I have to be careful about catching a disease.”
Disease! The very word offended the priest. In fact, he didn’t have a cold; he had lied to dissuade her from the unhygienic practice. The older Vourvouliani women especially had taken to kissing his ring hungrily and tickling the back of his hand with their rogue whiskers. “I am obliged by canon to offer my ring to be kissed,” he reminded Lydia. “But here I am worrying about giving you a cold, when your parents almost had a tragedy last night.”
“My parents did have a tragedy last night. Lukas had to cut down his beauties to save the house.”
“Trees grow back but not lost lives.”
“Not my father’s trees. Not in his lifetime. He planted the first one the day I was born. That’s forty-three years ago. He won’t see another tree grow for forty-three years.”
“He will if he has faith.”
“Well, if you are talking about watching it grow from heaven, that’s not the perspective he wants. He likes to look up at his trees from down here on Earth.”
“Do you, Father? Because if you did, I don’t think you would worry about your bell tower more than all of this.” Lydia opened her arms to embrace the whole village.
“It’s not the tower that I worry about, but public safety.” Father Alexis showed her the chips in his plastic bag. “More than this falls off each time I ring the bell.”
Lydia shook her head incredulously. “You’re worried about those flakes?”
“It adds up. Think about it.”
“I am thinking about it, and the solution is remarkably simple. Stop ringing the bell.”
“It’s my job to ring the bell. People expect it. God expects it. It’s how He hears our communal prayers.”
“He might be glad to hear less communal bellyaching. Anyway, the mayor doesn’t have any more money to fix your tower this week than he had last week, if that’s where you are headed with your bag of flakes.”
“These flakes, as you call them, add up,” argued the priest. “The situation becomes more dangerous every day, to the point that it’s become dire!”
“Dire my ass,” Lydia replied. “Which I would ask you to kiss, except I don’t want to catch your cold!”
Father Alexis shook his chips of stucco onto a sheet of paper. “This is less than half of what falls off each time I ring the bell, so you can see how the situation is becoming more dangerous every day.”
“No matter how dangerous it is becoming,” replied Mayor Elefteros, “the town has no money to repair your bell tower.”
“Of course there is money,” Father Alexis argued, “only you’ve chosen to use it for another purpose.”
“I must be prepared to move the fuel tank if I am instructed to do so by Athens.”
“Then Athens should pay for it.”
“Athens has no more money than we do. And Athens is not endangered by the fuel tank. If Athens wants the tank moved, it is because it’s decided it is too dangerous for Vourvoulos where it is, and Vourvoulos is my responsibility. I will need whatever money I have at my disposal, and whatever surplus money I can find, to protect the whole village, and not some unfortunate person or two standing next to the bell tower when it decides to collapse.”
The priest grunted. “The town is lucky to have ‘surplus’ money.”
“It’s my term for costs not in the budget. I still need to take it from somewhere, and with the tax base shrinking, that’s harder and harder to do.”
“My ‘tax base’ is shrinking too. Attendance at services is way down.”
“I’ve heard just the opposite,” the mayor replied.
“You are always welcome to come to a service to find out for yourself.”
Father Alexis smiled insincerely. They both knew that attendance had shot up ever since the handsome, stubbly-bearded priest had taken up his post in the village. The women jockeyed to glimpse him through clouds of incense during the overcrowded services, not one complaining about her tired feet, and each finding coins she didn’t have to spare to drop into the collection box.
The mayor reached for the sheet of paper holding the bits of stucco. “Have you weighed these?”
The priest had not, but added confidently, “They are not as insignificant as they look.”
The mayor placed a postage scale on his desk. “We shall measure exactly how significant or insignificant they are, so as not to be accused of making wild claims.”
Father Alexis bristled. “With all the evidence I have provided you, I don’t think I can be accused of making a wild claim.”
“We shall see how wild or not. Ultimately it is a matter of numbers.”
“Mathematics. By profession, I was a structural engineer.”
The priest paled hearing that, and worried even more as he watched the mayor weigh an empty sheet of paper and then weighed the one holding the flakes. After some quick calculations, he muttered, “Hmm.”
“Let me double check my numbers before I say more.”
It was hardly a question of saying more when the mayor had said nothing at all, but Father Alexis kept his complaint to himself while watching the old man recalculate everything. His whole future was balanced on that scale.
“So you estimate this is about half of what falls off when you ring the bell?”
“Or less. It’s hard to find all the pieces in the grass.”
“So what if we call it a third?”
“That would be more precise.”
“You ring the bell how many times daily?”
“Twice for services, and then for the hour.”
“Yes, but you ring it one time for one o’clock, and twelve times for noon, and miss most hours during the night.” Or sometimes you ring it thirteen times for midnight after finishing off the communion wine, the mayor wanted to add.
“It is true, of course, that noon is more wear and tear on the tower than one o’clock,” agreed the priest, “but don’t forget, I also ring it for early services on Sunday.”
“Who could forget? Shall we say you ring the bell three times a day?”
“Five would be more accurate.”
“Four,” the mayor conceded, and again made some quick calculations. “Well, now we have that.”
“Now we have what?”
“The loss of mass.”
“The loss of mass? What exactly does that mean?”
“Let’s exactly find out.” The mayor searched through his piles of teetering files. “Here it is,” he said, and blew dust off a folder.
“Here is what?” Father Alexis asked, his jaw clenched, impatient with the cryptic mayor.
“Your application for money to repair the tower. I recall your measurements were very precise.”
“To the millimeter where I could.”
“That should make my job easier.” The mayor flipped through the file until he found the drawing of the bell, and took a moment to study the priest’s notes. “Does the bell really weigh so much?”
Father Alexis proudly clasped his hands on his chest. “That is why its resonance is so deep and satisfying.”
“At the time you reported the crack to be eighty centimeters long. Has it worsened?”
“It must be at least ten centimeters longer.”
“To be on the safe side, shall we call it one meter?”
The priest smiled unctuously. “Of course we should error on the side of public safety.”
“Then we agree on that.” The mayor finished his calculations and leaned back in his chair. “We can also agree that you are not making a wild claim. In fact, given the evidence you have presented, it is a mathematical certainty that the tower will collapse.”
Father Alexis wanted to leap for joy. He had won his case! Instead, he reigned in his enthusiasm and simply said, “I am glad that you finally agree.”
“In fact,” the mayor continued, “it is an engineering miracle that it has not collapsed already. I have no choice but to order you to stop ringing the bell until the tower is repaired.”
“By ringing it, you are endangering the public.”
“You have no authority over church property!”
“That’s right, but as you have so ably documented, the bell tower is on municipal land. It is my legal duty to ensure public safety, so I am ordering you to stop ringing the bell. If you do not, I will have no choice but to arrest you.”
Father Alexis was dumbfounded. “You would arrest me for ringing the church bell?”
Mayor Elefteros grinned. “It would be a pleasure.”
Every time her daughter convinced Shirley to drive the cats to the veterinarian’s to get them fixed, she swore that she would never do it again. There was always an upsetting event, and that morning was the last straw. The miserable animals, forgotten overnight, had horribly messed themselves; and now, moaning like witches in heat, clawed at their cages until their paws bled. The car reeked despite having the windows open and the air conditioning at full blast. To no avail, Shirley pressed a lemon to her nose. Dingo, upright in the passenger seat, trembled each time the cats’ tortured chorus swelled.
Shirley pitched into the harbor’s tiny parking lot. “Oh, thank God!” she heaved when she saw a free space. She fled the car, gulping fresh air. “What a horror! A dreadful horror!”
Dingo bounded out after her. The cats howled in unison, and Shirley slammed the door on them. “Oh shut up!” she yelled, when in fact she felt sorry for the animals. If she had lost what they had lost, she’d be howling too; and a moment later she was howling “Lydia!” all the way down the wharf, her scarves trailing behind her.
Her daughter glanced up from taking an order. “What now?”
Shirley collapsed into a chair. “I am never never never taking your cats to the vet’s again. My car is ruined. Ruined!” She pressed the lemon to her nose and tossed it into the harbor. “Even my lemon smells like cat piss!”
“Ridi!” Lydia shouted.
He peered from the kitchen.
“Bring Mum a fresh lemon!”
“Bring Mum her wine!” Shirley bellowed. “And remember my ice!”
“Isn’t it a little early for wine?”
She scowled at her daughter. “It’s too early for cat piss, too!”
When Ridi brought the wine, Lydia told him to get the cats out of Shirley’s car and clean up their mess. He went back inside for a bucket and rags.
Athina, fuming, said to her mother, “They’re your cats and Grandma’s car. Why does Ridi have to do it?”
“They are not my cats. They are wild cats, and Ridi works for me.”
“He’s a waiter. He’s not your slave.”
“Whose job should it be? Your grandmother’s?”
“Do all the worst jobs always have to be Ridi’s because he’s an Albanian?”
Her daughter’s question brought Lydia up short. She didn’t want the girl to have an affair with the boy, or worse, marry him. She admitted she felt that way because he was an Albanian, but she didn’t like to think that she singled him out for the worst jobs, either; that would be unfair. “I give him the jobs that I think are appropriate for him,” she finally said.
“Like I said, you give him only the worst jobs to do.”
Ridi came back sloshing sudsy water out of a bucket. “Is the car open?”
“Open? Can’t you smell it from here?” Shirley asked. “And you’ll need more water than that.”
“Maybe you’re right,” Lydia said to Athina.
“I’m right?” The girl was immediately suspicious. Her mother hardly ever conceded anything, and nothing so easily.
“I need Ridi at the restaurant.” She took the bucket and handed it to her daughter. “I want you to clean your grandmother’s car.”
Athina looked incredulously at the bucket she suddenly found herself holding. “You are kidding, right?”
“No, she cannot,” Ridi protested. “It is a job too dirty.”
“We all have to do dirty jobs occasionally.”
“But the cages are too heavy for her to carry.”
“Well, she manages to carry trays of food when it suits her mood, so I think she can manage a cat. Only be careful of their claws when you let them out. As soon as you’re done, we’ll rehearse for the procession.”
“I hate you,” Athina said, and stomped off.
As Lydia watched her go, she saw her hips in her daughter’s, and recognized her own strong will as well. She was determined that they would be friends—someday.
The frivolously painted City Hall was easy to spot between the stone houses. Nick swung open its gate and stepped into a garden of statuesque rose bushes, pruned and contorted over the centuries to grow as tall as small trees. A gardener, hidden from view on a ladder, clipped off the dying blossoms, blanketing the ground with their withered petals of exotic colors—eggplant, tangerine, aqua.
“Kalimera sas,” Nick said, bidding the man a good morning.
The man peered around the tree to see him. He had a beakish nose and thick silvery hair, and was surprisingly old to be a gardener. “Kalimera,” he said back.
“Is this City Hall?”
“Is the mayor here?”
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No. Do I need one?”
“Of course not. Come with me.”
The old man led them onto the veranda. He brushed dirt from his hands and swung open the villa’s door. A puff of cool air escaped. “Please,” he said, and motioned Nick inside.
Passing under a chandelier, they entered a formal reception room with dark, heavy furniture pushed against whitewashed walls. Displayed on them was a museum’s cache of old black-and-white photographs. A spiral staircase in a corner descended to the basement. Another door led into an office streaming with sunlight. Stacks of books and file folders tilted in the corners and on every flat surface.
The old man removed a suit coat from a hook and slipped it on. “Welcome,” he said, extending his hand to Nick.
“You are the mayor?”
“We have no budget for a gardener, but the roses do not stop growing. I also have no secretary, so unfortunately I cannot offer you coffee.”
“Do you have coffee?”
“Yes, but I am not adept at making it.”
“I grew up in a restaurant. Show me where it is.”
The mayor, skeptical, asked, “Can you make Turkish coffee?”
“If you mean Greek coffee in one of those spouted pots, then yes, I can.”
The mayor took Nick to the villa’s kitchen, still traditional with decorative plates on the walls. While he stirred water and coffee in a briki, and placed the small brass pot over a flame, the mayor sat at the heavy wooden table and mused aloud over whether the coffee rightfully should be called Greek or Turkish. “Of course you wouldn’t know about it because it was before you were born,” the old man said, “but there was an advertising campaign to get people to call it Greek coffee. Then einai Turkiko, einai Elliniko!”
Nick laughed. “‘It’s not Turkish, it’s Greek!’ I remember my mother saying that, but I never knew where it came from.”
“I don’t know why anyone thought it was so important. Of course, the whole campaign made no difference. Most people, at least in my generation, still call it Turkish coffee, though it may be changing for younger people.”
The coffee boiled up and Nick turned off the burner. “The Greeks are stubborn,” he said, and poured the thick brew into demitasses that he carried to the table.
The mayor held the small cup between his slender fingers. Everything about him bespoke his patrician class—his diction, his thoughtfulness, the white hair brushed back from his temples. “It’s not that we are stubborn,” he replied. “Our coffee is bitter, and we call it Turkish to remind us of our bitter history under their occupation. But you know our history, if you are Greek.”
“Perhaps your coffee is less bitter.” The mayor ventured a sip of the coffee and nodded appreciatively. “So why have you come to Vourvoulos at this time of year? Most tourists have already left.”
Nick reached into his pack and passed him an envelope. “Did you write this letter?”
The mayor, fingering it, smiled conspiratorially. “I wasn’t sure if I had sent it to the right place.”
“You did,” he assured him.
“I know it’s all secret and everything, but who is she going to be?” Shirley asked, plopping into one of Lydia’s easy chairs, careful not to spill her wine. “I know she wants us to guess, but if we don’t know who she’s supposed to be, how can we criticize her costume?”
“I think she’s asking us for helpful hints, Mum, not criticism.”
“You know what I mean.”
“Yes, but will Athina know what you mean?” Lydia sat in another armchair, sighing as she did, under a weight of worries. The lunch crowd had gone almost before it arrived; no latecomers, no lingerers over an extra bottle of wine, no last-minute changes of mind to scrap the diet while on vacation and order dessert. Her few midday customers had been as lean as the whole mean season. “I need this,” she said, and sipped from her own glass of wine.
“Isn’t it at least two hours until your approved cocktail hour?” her mother pointed out.
“Is it so bad that I take after my mother?”
“Oh darling, of course it’s all right! But did you have to marry a fisherman, too?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“There are never enough fish.”
Lydia set down her glass. “Half the time I don’t know what you mean.”
“And the other half the time, you’re too afraid to ask!”
“Then you do hear yourself. I always suspected so.”
From the hallway, Athina called, “Are you ready?”
“We’re waiting!” Lydia answered.
Athina stepped into the room, draped in a nun’s habit, hands clasped in prayer, eyes piously cast heavenward. She held a teddy bear tucked under an under arm.
“She’s so pretty, isn’t she?” Lydia whispered.
“Yes, but I don’t know who she is supposed to be! Not everyone knows all that hocus-pocus well enough to recognize Saint Hoozits at her spinning wheel, or Saint Peter turning himself into a fish, or maybe it was a fish into wine—or whatever they all supposedly did.”
“Try to be helpful,” Lydia urged.
“I could be more helpful if I knew which saint had a teddy bear!”
“I’m sure it’s only symbolic.”
“That’s my point. Symbolic of what?”
Athina stopped in the middle of the room, and stood for a long, mysterious moment, before suddenly adopting a fierce expression and flinging open her sheet.
The teddy bear went flying and hit the wall.
Lydia gasped. Her daughter’s black miniskirt started and ended in the six inches above patterned stockings that disappeared into red tennis shoes. A shoulder harness resembling a huge one-cupped brassiere held a pillow against her stomach.
“I’m not finished with it yet,” the girl said. “I didn’t have time to work on it because I had to make sandwiches this morning.”
“I know who you are! You’re the Panayia!” Shirley exclaimed, using the popular name for the Virgin Mary.
“How did you guess so fast, Grandma?”
“It’s obvious. Mary is the only saint who got pregnant.”
“It’s not the Miss Saint Contest, Grandma. It’s the Miss Icon Contest.”
“Saint or icon, it doesn’t matter,” Lydia interjected. “You are not dressing like that. I’ll not have you embarrass this family.”
“I’m part of this family too.”
“It will embarrass your father.”
“Why will Dad care? He’s not religious.”
“In villages, people care about these things.”
“That’s because they’re old-fashioned. I’m portraying Mary as a modern woman.”
“Don’t you ‘Mary’ me when you look like a knocked-up whore.”
“That’s my point exactly,” Athina defended herself. “Mary, a virgin? How real is that? Too embarrassed to admit she had sex with Joseph so she blamed it on God? How repressed is that? It’s like she had to hide the fact that she was straight. I want to show both sides of Mary because women have two sides: the side society allows them to show, which means what men allow us to show, and our other side. Our natural side.”
“It’s rather wonderful!” her grandmother exclaimed. “Like one of those Shakespeare plays set in modern times to be symbolic that nothing has changed for people.”
“You stay out of this, Mum,” Lydia said. “You’re only here to criticize.”
“At least one of you gets it,” the girl said. “But will everybody? Will they think ‘Mary’ or just see a ‘knocked-up whore’ like you do? Do you think I should hold my teddy bear like she is always holding Jesus, you know, feeding him?”
“You will not make a mockery of things people respect,” Lydia said firmly.
“I’m not mocking anything. I’m trying to make a point about men.”
“You’re too young to know about men.”
“Are you kidding me? I’m eighteen.”
“Not until next week. If you participate in the procession dressed like that, Father Alexis will use it to convince everyone that we are heretics. We will never get the fuel tank moved.”
“Is everything in life about the fuel tank?”
“If it explodes and kills us, yes it is.”
“O. M. G. You can be so dramatic.”
“You need a crown, that’s all,” Shirley suggested. “Whores don’t wear crowns. That way everyone will get it instantly that you are a Mary for our times. I’m sure you will win the contest on creativity alone!”
“Do you see, Mom, how that’s a helpful suggestion, and not criticism?”
“Uncle Sam’s policy is to help Greece however we can,” Nick said, repeating the Embassy’s official line, if not always its actual response. “The Ambassador thought the FBI should help on this case, and we agreed. Your Coast Guard station rescues too many refugees, and it’s too strategic, to risk being put out of operation for any time at all. Islamic State— You know what that is?”
“IS claims that it has mixed jihadists in with the migrants crossing from Libya. Even though the Coast Guard here doesn’t intercept or ID every refugee, it still has a deterrent effect. If word got out that it had been destroyed, IS would flood this route with jihadists.”
Mayor Elefteros fingered the letter on the desk, still astonished that his simple request had yielded a full-fledged FBI agent. “You came all the way from the FBI to help us?”
“If you mean Washington DC, no. I’m assigned to the American Embassy in Athens. We have agents in most countries important in the war on terror. But I did actually fly here from DC. I went back for my grandfather’s funeral.”
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“So if I understand correctly,” the mayor said, “if you want to keep the Coast Guard in operation, as you say, then you oppose moving the fuel tank?”
“I’d rather stop the arsonist,” Nick replied. “Tell me about the fires.”
The mayor did, starting off with why he had written for help. No one in the village—or on the island, for that matter—was competent to investigate the case; and the small village didn’t have the money to bribe officials in Athens to get the aid they needed.
Nick asked, “Why did you send your letter to the American embassy? Why not a European one?”
“The Europeans are in no mood to help Greece, and the Americans always try.”
“Sounds like good reasoning to me.”
The mayor launched into his account of the fires. They all straggled down a narrow valley, zigzagging along the road in rough terrain. Farmers working the hills, or tourists hiking in them, had discovered most of them; or sometimes, like last night’s fire, their flames had been seen from a distance and called in.
“Who called in last night’s fire?” Nick asked.
“Who is he?”
“A fisherman. He took some tourists to Bird Island, and was coming back at sunset when he spotted the flames.”
“Could he have set it?”
“Only if the tourists were accomplices.”
“It is not the right word?”
“It’s not a common word.”
The older man smiled proudly. “I watch American TV.”
Nick picked up the blob of Styrofoam from the mayor’s desk, gingerly so as not to knock out any of the cigarettes still lodged in it. “Did this start last night’s fire?”
“Something like that started every fire.” The mayor pulled open two file drawers to reveal his collection. Even though they were sealed in separate plastic bags, the room immediately reeked of stale ashes. “You have seen these before?”
“You can get the design off the internet. Did you date them?”
“Good. I’d like to examine the first one, the fifth or sixth one, and last night’s. In your letter, you said you have proof that the arsonist plans to burn down the village. What proof?”
Mayor Elefteros opened another file drawer and lifted out a box. Inside it, spilling out of envelopes, were many strings of colorful worry beads, the cheap plastic kind found in souvenir shops. “One of these has arrived after each fire.”
Nick anchored a string of orange beads around his thumb and deftly snapped it back and forth. “We call them worry beads in English, but I didn’t think it meant that for the Greeks. In fact, I made fun of my dad, calling them his non-worry beads. He always said he used them to relax, not to worry.”
“You’re right, of course, that the beads do not represent a worries,” the mayor said. “But our Greek beads—our komboloi—come from Turkey tesbih, which are used for prayers, and most people pray because of their worries. So symbolically, I think it is no mistake that the arsonist sends these to me.”
“You’re probably right,” Nick agreed. “We should be worried. Very worried. Were there are any notes with them?”
The mayor shook his head. “Only the beads.”
Rifling through the envelopes, Nick checked the postmarks. “Were they all sent from Australia?”
“In fact, they all come from Melbourne,” the mayor replied.
“How could the arsonist arrange to do that?”
“We have many tourists from Australia.”
“Enough from Melbourne to ensure a letter could be sent once a month?” As soon as he asked, Nick realized there were endless possibilities for how it could be arranged, including having an accomplice.
“Lydia’s mother grew up there,” the mayor told him. “She has many friends who come to visit.”
That information reminded Nick that everyone was a suspect until conclusively ruled out. “Is there even a farfetched chance that Shirley or Lydia is the arsonist?”
“Lydia? She wants to move the fuel tank, and last night it was Shirley’s house that was almost burned.”
“The arsonist is teasing the village. Each fire is a little closer. Anonymous worry beads arrive in the mail. What bigger joke than Lydia or Shirley turning out to be the arsonist? It’s a crazy idea, I agree, but arsonists often turn out to be the least likely person. Who else has a connection to Melbourne?”
“Takis Vatis,” the mayor replied. “Vassoula Vatis’s brother. She owns the bar next to Lydia’s Restaurant.”
“I met him. He said he lived in Australia. So he’s from Melbourne?”
“He moved there three years ago, then returned to help when Vassoula’s husband died.”
“When was that?”
“A little over a year ago.”
“Just before the fires started.”
“Then you might as well include the priest. The fires started a month after he arrived.”
“What do you know about him?”
“It’s enough to know that he is a priest.”
Nick chuckled appreciatively. “Anyone else?”
“Every Greek has a connection to Australia.”
“And all roads lead to Melbourne.” Nick looped a string of orange beads around his thumb and flicked them back and forth. “Why didn’t you mention these in your letter to the embassy?”
“I thought it was better not to write everything.”
“When the next envelope comes, don’t open it. Who else knows about the beads?”
“Not even Lydia?”
“In such cases, it is useful to have one secret that no one else knows.”
“You should be working for us. Who else knows about your letter?”
“Also no one.”
“That’s two secrets, and let’s keep it that way. As far as you know, I’m doing research for a novel. That gives me an excuse to ask questions.”
The church bell started ringing clamorously.
The old man stepped over to the window to look up the hill at the massive bronze bell swinging in the cracked tower. Shaking his head, he swore, “God damn that priest!”
Photo by Michael Honegger @ www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com
#fireontheisland #timothyjaysmith #greece #michaelhonegger