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Authors: Paul Johnston

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BOOK: Crying Blue Murder (MIRA)
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‘What…what happened?’ she said, staggering to her feet and moving towards the door.

Rena was quickly by her side. ‘Oh no, Kyra Maro, don’t go outside. They won’t…they won’t like it. Yiangos’s mother Popi is in a terrible state, what with her husband, Lefteris, in Syros…the other women are rallying round her and Nafsika’s mother, but it’s not…it’s not a good time to go out, Kyra Maro…’

She felt herself being taken back to the table, Rena’s arm around her back. ‘Thank you, my girl,’ she said, the words making her eyes flood again. My girl, my daughter. Maro had no daughter, no one to look after her in her decrepitude as was the custom. Her own family hated her, refused to have anything to do with her. Only Rena cared for her, came in every day to check that she had enough to eat and to refill her drinking-water bottle at the public tap; did her laundry, even swept the floor of her tiny two-roomed home in the metre- thick walls of the old fortress. Rena, who’d come from Serifos to marry a local builder and been left a widow, childless and barely tolerated in the village because she had refused to move out of the house her husband’s family wanted back after his death. She’d defied them, insisted on what was legally hers, and people hated her, said terrible things about her. But she was a good woman, she still wore the black of mourning and refused to return to her own island. She said she’d put down roots on Trigono and enjoyed renting her spare rooms out to tourists in the summer.

‘They were in the nets, Kyra Maro,’ Rena said haltingly. ‘It seems that Yiangos had taken his father’s
trata
to check the equipment or maybe to do some illegal fishing, and Nafsika went with him. Oh God, who knows what they were doing?’ She leaned closer. ‘They were both naked, clinging together. And the boat was drifting towards the rocks off Vathy inlet. Some fishermen from Paros came round the western end of the island and managed to get a rope on the
trata
before it was smashed to pieces on the rocks.’

Maro looked up and blinked, her vision more blurred than usual. ‘They were naked?’ she repeated.

‘Naked and caught in the nets,’ Rena said, nodding. ‘They were being dragged through the water.’

‘Drowned,’ Maro said softly. ‘My God, drowned. Not more victims of the sea. What happened? The wind isn’t so strong, is it?’

Rena shook her head. ‘Not very. And Yiangos knew how to handle a boat. Kyra Maro?’ She watched as the old woman’s head dropped forward till it was almost touching the embroidered tablecloth. ‘Are you all right, Kyra Maro?’ She lowered her own head and tried to see Maro’s face. The eyes were half open and there was a faint groaning coming from her mouth. Maro often sank into a reverie. She could remain in such a state for hours.

‘Ach, old age,’ Rena said quietly. ‘Yes, Kyra Maro, you go off into your own world. It can only be better than the one the rest of us have to live in.’ She got up and moved towards the door, cocking an ear. The wails were less strident now; the women would have moved to the houses of the bereaved. She was going to join them. Even an outsider like her could be of some use at a time like this.

A few minutes after the door closed behind her old Maro raised her head slowly and looked around. She ran her arm across her eyes, the sleeve of her ragged cardigan soaking up the tears. Then she walked carefully to the door and locked it. Now she was truly alone. No one could reach her except the ones she wanted.

Going into the small, musty bedroom with its single iron bedstead, she slid her hand into the pocket of her old lace apron and took out a box of matches. She lit two candles in the hollow in the wall that was used for icons in other homes. Her holy place contained a single framed black-and- white photograph. It was of a young man in military uniform, cap on his head and leather strap running diagonally across his chest. He was looking into the lens with a restrained smile.

Maro stared at the photograph from close range then stepped back. ‘My love,’ she said. ‘My sweet love. Come back to me now.’

She bent down and pulled a tin box out from under her bed. ‘Come back to me,’ she repeated as she opened the battered lid and lovingly lifted out a misshapen, blackened skull.

   

 

Mavros walked up the slope from Monastiraki, trying to ignore the blast of bouzoukia and the cheers of tourist groups as they took their turn at performing Zorba’s dance in the rip- off joints. That was the problem with living so close to the Acropolis. He glanced up at the great crag, the columns of the temples red in the floodlights of the
son et
lumière
. Obviously the narrator was describing one of the great battles, Marathon or Salamis.

He lifted his eyes and took in the velvet of the night sky, the pinpricks of stars glinting through the pollution cloud. A breeze had got up so at least he’d be able to sleep easier. He inhaled deeply as he reached the corner of Pikilis. Even though he was only a couple of hundred metres from the snarls of traffic on the central boulevards, the air was already sweeter. The scents of bougainvillaea and hibiscus floated up from the ancient marketplace, mixing with the underlying aroma of pine needles dampened by the early autumn dew. Mavros felt his spirits lift. For all the clamour and the press of sweaty bodies, the city retained an irresistible hold on him. Then he saw the graffiti some moronic kid had sprayed on the wall— ‘Athens, I fuck the whole of you’.

He turned the key in the wooden door of number 18 and hit the stairwell light. Nothing. He swore under his breath. He’d replaced the bulb only last week. There was no light under his ground-floor neighbour’s door so Mavros had to feel his way up to the first floor. It was a pity he didn’t smoke; matches or a lighter would have been useful. Then, as he reached out for his door, he realised that his feet were catching in something sticky.

He cursed again, kneeling down in the darkness and tentatively putting a finger to the marble surface. The smell was familiar, a faint odour of thyme. He wondered what the cleaner had been playing at.

He managed to get the key in, the metal scraping the paint of the door, and fumbled for the switch. No light here either. He could see the glow of the streetlamp through the shutters that he’d left closed in the morning, so there hadn’t been a sudden power cut. His own fuses must have blown. He stepped inside then remembered his feet, bending over to pull off his espadrilles. The fuse box was in the kitchen. Moving in that direction, he blundered into something hard.

‘Shit!’ he exclaimed, clutching his right shin.

It was then that he heard stifled laughter from the armchair in the corner of the main room. A match flared and was applied to the thick candle on the coffee table.

‘Niki!’ he groaned. ‘What the hell are you doing?’ He moved the heavily laden magazine rack aside.

‘Didn’t you like my offering outside?’ Another throaty laugh. ‘I thought it was perfect. Sweet honey for my sweet man.’ The irony in the voice was lacerating.

Mavros swallowed hard and went into the kitchen to reengage the switch of the main circuit. The lights came on in the sitting room and he focused on the form curled up in his black leather chair. Andhroniki Glezou’s long legs, bare under a loose orange skirt, were drawn up beneath her, her arms crossed under the shapely breasts that her tight T-shirt emphasised. Her pale face with its delicate features and small straight nose was composed, but her dark eyes were as restless as ever beneath the crown of tousled, highlighted hair.

‘Well,’ Niki said, her tone softening. ‘Aren’t you pleased to see me, Alex?’ She caught his eye. ‘Why didn’t you call me? I left you a message.’

‘Did you? I never got it,’ Mavros lied. He’d turned his phone off when he was at his mother’s and hadn’t felt like returning the message after he left there. The truth was that Niki had begun to get him down. ‘I’ve been busy and…’ He let the words trail away, knowing that, whatever he said, he was in her sights.

‘Sweet man,’ she said lightly, smiling at him. ‘Of course you’ve been busy.’ Her eyes flashed. ‘Busy offering your arse to people who are rich enough to pay for it.’

‘Niki, I—’ He broke off when he realised that she was still talking.

‘Haven’t you realised, Alex?’ she said, unravelling her legs and standing up, right arm raised and left foot forward like an Amazon about to cast a spear. ‘You’re a whore, nothing more. All you care about is that your clients hand over the cash.’

He shrugged, knowing that any comment would only make the onslaught worse.

‘Because you only work for rich people, don’t you?’ Niki continued. ‘You only work for thieving businessmen and foreigners who’ve more money than Croesus.’ She held her position, the arm still up. ‘Well, you do, don’t you? How many poor people have you ever helped? Have you ever taken on a case for free, out of the goodness of your heart?’

Mavros was leaning against the door jamb, his eyes lowered. He’d worked without a fee on more than one occasion, but Niki wouldn’t believe that. She was a social worker and she spent her days with immigrants from the former Soviet Union who’d come to the home country with nothing to their name except their Greek blood-line. After six months with her, he had realised that she resented every evening she had to spend on her own. She was an orphan and had rejected her foster parents, though not until after they’d paid for her to go to university in London.

‘Leave it, Niki,’ he said, turning away and taking a bucket and sponge out of the cupboard. His upstairs neighbour was a ballet dancer and he knew she was performing these evenings. If she came back and dragged her precious feet through the honey Niki had smeared on the landing, he’d be in even deeper trouble.

‘No, I won’t leave it!’ she shouted, her voice breaking. ‘You’re a freak, Alex, with your two-tone eye and that brother you’re forever hero-worshipping. Why can’t you pay attention to someone who’s alive for a change?’

Mavros froze.

She came over to him quickly and clutched his arm. ‘I’m sorry, Alex, I’m sorry,’ she said, tears welling up. ‘Let me clean up, I was only…I was only trying to make a point.’ She pulled the sponge from his hand and went out into the stairwell. Mavros took a deep breath then filled the bucket and followed her. ‘Bit of a sticky situation,’ he said in English as he squatted down on the marble. He knew there was no point in arguing with Niki. She would only become more hysterical and, besides, she was right—he was a freak. The worst thing was that, most of the time, it suited him.

Niki let out a sobbing laugh and brushed the hair back from her face with a forearm. ‘Oh, Alex,’ she said. ‘What are we going to do?’

He smiled at her, then left her kneeling on the floor as he went to screw the stair light back in. He didn’t have any thoughts about what they were going to do as a couple. Although he found Niki sexually exciting—she was a wild woman between the sheets or anywhere else—he struggled to handle her mood swings. He knew what was going to happen tonight. As she was hopeless in the kitchen he’d cook something for her and they’d go to bed, but they’d got to the stage where that wasn’t enough. Niki wanted him to share the large flat in the coastal suburb of Palaio Faliron that she’d been left by her long-suffering foster parents. The one thing he was sure about was that he was staying in Pikilis.

As Mavros balanced himself on the ladder he was gripped by panic. If she shook the legs now, he’d go head first down the stairs. He lowered his eyes and was confronted by Niki’s raised backside. Shaking his head at the injustice he’d done her, he climbed slowly down. It was time he sorted himself out.

Then he remembered Deniz Ozal and his missing sister. An island in the Aegean. Trigono came at him out of the shimmering blue with a whispered promise of sanctuary.

In that second he made the decision.

     

 

The old man in the tower on Trigono ran a trembling hand through his sculpted white beard. It was time. He’d been sitting in front of the tattered leather-bound volume for hours, but he hadn’t been able to open it. Yes, it was time to lay the ghost once and for all. But he still couldn’t bring himself to touch the book, as if it were infected with some deadly virus.

Running his eyes around the sumptuously decorated room with its circular walls in an attempt to distract himself, he rested them on the framed poster by the door. Larger versions of it were all over Athens, advertising the museum’s latest exhibition. The lekythos with its exquisite lines, the painted figure of Charon on his boat, the icons of death that had haunted him for as long as he could remember and had inspired him to establish the museum—now they seemed to be mocking him. ‘What do you know about death?’ they were asking. ‘What do you really know?’

Panos Theocharis forced himself to look at the book that was in front of him on the antique mahogany desk. What he knew about death, what he had experienced, was largely contained in this compact volume. But not in his words. These were the words of the man he’d tried to destroy. How bitter would the story they told be to him? Did he have any right to read another man’s private confessions?

He turned his head towards the high window and took in the lights of the village that lay beyond the expanse of cultivated fields. He’d been told about the deaths, the drowned boy and girl, but even that news had failed to distract him from the diary. No, he couldn’t put it off any more. He had to do it now.

Taking a deep breath that rattled in his lungs, Theocharis put his fingers on the soft, dark leather and opened the book. The man he had forgotten for decades flew out like an avenger from the lines of faded blue ink and seized him by the throat.

CHAPTER FIVE

 
 

‘Y
EAH
? Who is it?’ Deniz Ozal was breathless.

‘This is Mavros.’

‘What the fuck happened to you, bud?’ He grunted. ‘Get off me, you—’

‘Is this a bad time?’

‘You were meant to call me at ten, weren’t you?’ Ozal had raised his voice. ‘I said get off me. Jesus.’

Mavros was on his balcony with the mobile. Niki had stayed and he’d waited until she was asleep before phoning. He didn’t want her to hear that he was about to leave the city. ‘I can call again in the morning if you’ve got company.’

There was a rustle followed by a high-pitched giggle. ‘Nah,’ Ozal said. ‘It’s just a hooker who’s bitten off more than she can chew, if you get my meaning.’ He gave a humourless laugh. ‘Anyway, how d’you know I didn’t give the job to the competition?’

Mavros raised his eyes to the night sky. ‘Because there isn’t any competition worth the name, Deniz.’

‘Is that right?’ There was a heavy slap. ‘I told you to wait, goddammit. So, d’you want the job or not, Alex?’

‘If you promise to stop hitting the woman. The Intercontinental’s pretty strict on visitors in guest rooms at this time of night.’

Ozal grunted. ‘You think I didn’t square it with the desk? Hey,’ he said, his tone hardening, ‘you threatening me?’

‘Of course,’ Mavros replied. ‘I always threaten potential employers.’

The irony silenced Deniz Ozal for a few moments, then he laughed again. ‘Funny guy. But can you use that mouth of yours to find my sister?’

Mavros took the plunge. ‘I’ll give it a go. My rate’s a hundred thousand Greek a day plus expenses. In this case, as there’s travel involved, minimum five days, up front. Okay?’

‘Jeez, that’s pretty fuckin’ steep, my friend.’

‘Take it or leave it, Deniz.’

There was a long pause.

‘Okay, done. You got a mobile phone?’

‘No, I prefer to use carrier pigeons.’ Mavros gave the number.

‘I’ll be travelling so I’ll call you when it suits me. Since I can’t rely on you to call me when I want you to. And give me your bank details. I’ll transfer half a million tomorrow, okay?’

Mavros passed on the information, letting the jibe go unanswered. ‘Let me talk to your guest.’

‘What?’

‘You heard me.’

There was rustle of sheets.

‘Yes? What can I do for you?’ The voice was young, female and brash, the English smooth. She probably thought he wanted to arrange a rendezvous.

‘The name’s Alex Mavros,’ he replied in Greek. ‘I’m the only one in the phone book. If he hurts you, call me.’

There was silence for a while. ‘All right.’ The girl sounded less sure of herself. ‘Thanks.’

The connection was cut.

Mavros got on to Olympic Airways and booked a seat on the morning flight to Paros, the nearest island to Trigono with an airport. Then he went back to bed, lowering himself carefully on to the mattress to prevent the bed frame creaking. Niki stirred, her arm moving against his thigh. Apparently comforted by making physical contact, she sank back into her usual deep sleep. Before he went the same way, Mavros wondered about what he was doing—not just the Ozal job, but the fact that he wasn’t going to tell Niki where he was headed. He knew it was wrong, knew that he should have had the nerve to face her and say that he didn’t want to see her any more, but he shrank from the inevitable confrontation. It wasn’t a question of gutlessness, he told himself. He didn’t want to hurt her, but he didn’t know how to avoid it. Being in a relationship was hell, he thought as his eyes closed. And then you started another one.

Before the first tinges of dawn had crept down the street from the ruins of the Roman marketplace to his windows, Mavros got up and, keeping one eye on Niki’s lightly breathing form, put some clothes in a leather satchel. He reckoned his usual outfit of T-shirt, jeans and espadrilles, supplemented by a pair of shorts that could double as swimming trunks and a pair of trainers, would do for the Cyclades. Not that he had much recent experience of the islands. He rarely took holidays and his last trip off the mainland had been to find an Austrian woman on Zakynthos a couple of years back; her local husband had decided that she would benefit from an enforced stay in a hut in the hills. Mavros also had a major dislike of travelling with anything other than hand luggage. Deniz Ozal could pay for anything else he needed on Trigono.

Padding noiselessly into the kitchen, he wrote a note for Niki:

Urgent job—probably away for a week. I’ll be in touch.
A.

 

He knew she’d immediately notice the lack of ‘with love’ or the like, but he couldn’t bring himself to do anything about it. He propped the piece of paper against the coffee jar—Niki couldn’t function in the mornings without a substantial caffeine shot—and let himself out of the flat. As he went down the stairs he felt a weight come off his shoulders and shook his head. That was his problem. He was cold-blooded enough to walk away, but not callous enough to avoid the remorse.

He found a taxi in Monastiraki Square and asked for the airport. At least the driver wasn’t a talkative one. That turned out to be a mixed blessing. The swarthy, unshaven type must have seen
Bullitt
recently. He raced up the central avenues, cutting through the sparse traffic flow with rapid movements of his head and hands.

Mavros spent the journey with his lips pressed together, his legs braced and one hand clamped on the door rest, but he didn’t risk putting on his seat belt. That insult to the driver’s abilities could have been fatal. By the time they arrived at the gleaming new terminal beyond the ring of the city’s mountains, his white T-shirt was sodden.

After he’d collected his ticket and checked in—the Olympic staff as supercilious as usual—he glanced at his watch. Ten to six. His mother would be up already. She was the opposite of Niki, a sleeper so light that even earplugs were no use to her, and she usually started work editing typescripts or writing letters to aspiring authors before the nightclubs had emptied. He highlighted her entry in the phone’s directory.

‘Morning, Mother.’

‘Alex, good morning,’ she said, her voice conveying alarm. ‘So early. What’s the matter?’

‘Nothing,’ he replied hastily. ‘Just to say that I’ll be away for a few days. I’m at the airport.’

‘Oh. Are you taking my advice and having a holiday?’

‘Uh-uh. Work.’

Dorothy let out an impatient sigh. ‘Really, Alex, you need a rest. Where is it you’re going?’

‘Trigono.’

‘In the Cyclades? How lovely. Those islands are wonderful, so full of history. Remember what Byron said about—’

‘Sorry, Mother, I’ve got to go,’ Mavros interrupted. A blast of philhellenic zeal was not what he needed right now. ‘Oh, and Mother? If Niki calls, don’t tell her where I am.’

‘Whyever not? I don’t know how that girl puts up with—’

‘Talk to you soon. Bye.’ Mavros flinched as guilt buried its teeth in him again. The screens were showing his departure gate, so he called his sister as he walked towards the security checkpoint. She was another early riser, because of kids and the pressure of work rather than any particular love of the morning sun.

‘Trigono?’ Anna said. ‘I suppose it makes a change from lurking behind cars in the suburbs. Did you see the island was on the news last night?’

‘No.’ Mavros got his intelligence from the midday papers rather than the overdressed TV newsreaders. ‘Why? What happened?’

‘There was a terrible tragedy.’ She broke off. ‘Hurry up, Evridhiki! Have you got your ballet bag? Sorry, Alex. Yes, a tragedy. A local couple, teenagers, were drowned.’

‘Bloody hell,’ Mavros said under his breath, wondering how his investigation would be affected by an outpouring of grief on the small island.

‘You know who lives there?’ Anna continued smoothly. She often gave her brother information before he asked for it. ‘Panos Theocharis, the mining tycoon.’

The oil flask from the hoarding with the image of Charon on his boat flashed up in front of Mavros. ‘The guy with the museum?’

‘Mmm. Laki, if you don’t drink that milk you’re not playing basketball after school, do you hear? Yes, the Museum of Funerary Art. He’s sunk billions into it and—’

‘Got to go, Anna,’ Mavros said, looking at his watch. ‘Say hello to the kids.’

He broke the connection and put his bag through the X-ray machine. A double drowning and the founder of a museum that celebrated death on the same island. This case looked like it was going to be full of laughs.

Then he looked out of the tinted glass and saw the small aircraft on the tarmac outside. Holy shit. So far he’d managed to suppress his fear of flying, but not any more.

   

 

October 11th, 1942, Beirut

   

 

I’ve decided to take the risk. The keeping of diaries is, of
course, strictly against regulations but this is too good an opportunity
to miss. I will have plenty of time to myself in the
coming months and will take every precaution to hide these
writings in places where even the most scrupulous Italian intelligence
officer will never think to look. Besides, as
numerous masters and tutors have pointed out, my handwriting
is minuscule enough to put even the most avid of readers
off. No, this is the great adventure of my life and I must record
it. I spoke to Larry
Durrell
before I left Cairo and he told me
how much he envied me. Not as much as I envy him. He showed
me some of the stuff he’s written about Corfu. God, what
wouldn’t I give to have lived in that paradise before the war?

But now I am to have my own Greek island to experience
and describe. There will be a book in it, maybe a series of
books. George
Lawrence’s
Trigono Days,
a masterly evocation
of wartime life on a Greek island
. Farmers, Fishermen and Fables,
the finest description of island society this reviewer
has ever come across. Come on, man, control yourself. The
books have yet to be written. The important thing is that I will
have my own material and experiences to work on
.

Tomorrow we set sail in a battered but apparently seaworthy
kaïki. I won’t put down her name in case she runs into
difficulties later. The point is that in a few days I’ll be in the
Aegean! My God, I’ve been waiting so long to see the shores
where Western civilisation began. It’s as if my whole life has
been a preparation for this moment; the years learning Greek
at prep school and Big College, the courses of literature and
archaeology at Cambridge. Even the modern Greek I picked
up from my fellow student
Aristotelis
T. now seems part of
some hitherto unfathomable design. And what used to be the
frustration of never visiting Greece in the long vacations
because of poor
Pater’s
straitened circumstances is now
something I’m grateful for. Because the wait has made my
appetite for the land and sea of the Greeks even keener. They
are about to become
my closest companions. At last!

   

 

October 15th,
1942

    

 

The navy boys who run the flotilla are wonderful seamen, but
this voyage has turned into a test of
everyone’s
endurance. The
wind has been from the north since we set out, strong enough
to prevent writing until we finally took shelter in this cove on
the island of A. Even now it’s blasting over the hills, making
the boat rock and pull against the mooring ropes. The crew
erected spreader poles and hung camouflage sheets over them
so, in theory, we blend into the cliff side and are invisible to any
passing peasant. Apparently the nearest garrison is fifteen miles
away. Having been unable to keep anything except water down
for over two days, I’m now looking forward to the corned beef
and hard biscuits that are being broken out. There’s rum as well,
though I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust my stomach with that.
It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. I wanted to get out and have
a look at the surrounding countryside, but the skipper wouldn’t
allow it. So frustration mounts again! It looks like Trig will be
the first Greek soil, or rock, that I touch after all. I’d better check
my radio and my weapons before the light goes. If the wind
drops we’ll be on our way again tonight.
I’m almost there.

    

 

October 16th, 1942,
Trig

   

 

We have arrived! We were lucky with the wind and the skipper
brought us into the long, narrow inlet on the south coast of
the island an hour before dawn. Then we spent the day under
the shrouds again. The longing I felt to jump into the clear
blue water and strike out for land was almost overwhelming.
I managed to restrain myself and wait till nightfall. I even
managed to get some sleep, my face crushed up against the
timbers of the hull. The old kaïki did a fine job. I only hope
she gets the boys back in one piece. As soon as it was dark,
the Greek liaison chap, a sour-faced veteran of the Albanian
campaign and the German invasion who worked in the mines
here before the war, headed off to check that the hills were
clear and to let the local resistance leader know I’ve arrived.
When we got the signal from the ridge, the crew and I lugged
my gear up. I didn’t have time to rejoice over finally touching
sacred soil. We were too busy scrambling up the steep slope
from Vathy. I managed much better than the Jack Tars, the
training I was put through in the desert standing me in good
stead. Fortunately my map-reading skills survived the voyage
as well. I located the herdsman’s hut below the ridge between
Profitis Ilias and Vigla without difficulty and we dumped everything
there. My first job will be to find a more secure
hiding place for it. Then, under a brilliantly starlit night, with
the Milky Way curving across the velvety dome like a royal
road, I said my farewells to the sailors. They’ll lay up at the
mooring till nightfall, waiting for the liaison chap then set
off again, so I’ll be alone until the others arrive in the near
future. Now all I have to do is glory in the evocative code-
name I talked the brass hats into assigning me—Achilles,
greatest of Greek warriors before the walls of Troy—and
wait for the dawn
.

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