Authors: Alex A. King
© 2015 by Alex A King
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
or Bill and Corinne
, who don’t mind eating leftovers. I love you. Guess what’s for dinner …
f you tilted
a map of Europe sideways, Greece looked like a wonky Tyrannosaurus rex. Athens was the tip of one of its stumpy arms. Kalamata was its beady eye. And the city where my father was born was near the base of what was, unmistakably, the male dinosaur’s wang.
When my seventeen-year-old self pointed this out to my parents, my mother had immediately begun to rumble like Krakatoa. Laughter poured out her, until she was drowning in her own lava flow of tears.
Dad wasn’t cackling with her.
He sat at the kitchen table, picking at his Greek salad (onions, tomatoes, olives, olive oil, vinegar, and enough salt to send a monk’s blood pressure skyrocketing toward the stroke zone) his mouth sagging in an exaggerated frown.
“You mock Greece now,” he said, “but if Alexander the Great had not died so soon, he would have eventually conquered America, and you would both be speaking Greek right now.”
Dad had a sense of humor, but not about Greece.
“First he would have had to discover the Americas,” Mom said.
“Greeks already knew, trust me.” He tapped a finger on his temple. “They knew. It was the other countries that took their time discovering the rest of the world. I don’t call them civilizations because no one was civilized before the Greeks.”
That had launched a playful argument between my parents about whose country was better. Normally Dad won their mock battles because of his tendency to become morose when dwelling on Greece for too long. Mom felt sorry for him. That and she could only take so much of his wallowing.
“Kat, walk away from the sad man,” she would often say. “No sudden moves, or he might start singing folks songs.”
The singing of the Greek folk songs was something to be avoided, preferably at a run. When he told stories they were fantastical, elaborate, and horrifying tales about Greece’s boogeyman, a creature named Baboulas. When he sang, his lyrics turned strange corners, winding up in dark alleys and atop high peaks, often with nothing but a sheep or goat for company. And he packed those lyrics into the whining style of
, a popular Greece folk genre that shares a common ancestor with the screech of a handsaw when it scrapes green wood. One of his most popular compositions was a grating ditty he called
I Have a Sheep and a Gun, Now Where is My Souvlaki
? Another favorite was
I Left Her Foot in a Box and Carried With Me Her Shoe
That night, he launched into the second one at the dinner table, mid-bickering.
Mom had clamped her hands over her ears. “Let’s make a run for it!” she yelled at me. I was ready to rocket out of the room to get escape the noise when the singing—if you could call it that—stopped. Dad’s face split into a grimace.
“If he puts your foot in a box, you cannot run—trust me. You will hobble, hobble, hobble to your grave.”
I remembered gripping the curved rim of the chair’s back, as I hovered between running and staying. “Who?”
This was a story I didn’t know. Oh, I’d heard the song, but his songs had a tendency to be isolated incidents. They were self-contained; his stories about Baboulas never bled into the verse. This was the first time he’d referred to the
outside of the song.
“They called him the Rabbit, because he was quick! And he delivered messages for Baboulas in puzzle boxes. Sometimes words, sometimes gold, sometimes a foot or an ear.”
My butt slid back onto the chair. I leaned forward on the table, elbows pressing into the wood. “Where did the feet and ears come from?”
He made a face. “Sometimes Baboulas supplied them. Other times, he cut them fresh himself.”
Mom stopped to gawp at him. “Seriously? That’s what you’re going to tell her?”
His gaze had flicked to me then snapped back to Mom. The grin died, as grins do, when they run headlong into an unhappy woman.
“What?” he said, two palms up. “It’s a story. She sees worse at school and on the TV.”
“We dissected frogs once …” I started.
I had been about to say that going to public school in Portland, Oregon, frog dissection was as violent as things got outside the school gymnasium.
“No more talk of body parts shoved into boxes.” Mom underlined her meaning with the swish of the fork she’d snatched up off her plate. “Ease up on the stories, okay, Mike? I don’t want Kat thinking its normal to chop off body parts and post them to your enemies.”
“These are the same stories I have always told her!”
“I haven’t heard this one,” I chimed in.
“And you won’t,” Mom said. She gave Dad a look loaded with shrapnel.
Dad stabbed a chunk of pale feta, trapped it on the fork with a curl of raw purple onion. “Have I told you the one about the wife who defied her husband?” He shoveled the food into his mouth.
“No,” I said.
Mom rolled her eyes at me. “This I’ve got to hear.”
“Because that never happened in Greece,” Dad said, his mouth full. “Only in America.” A slice of whole wheat bread flew at him frisbee-style. Mom had been the queen of frisbee golf, so the bread nailed him, despite a decent feint on his part.
He swallowed, shook his head. “You both laugh now, but Greek wives respect their husbands.” He winked and went back to eating.
Not Mom, though. She had a funny look on her face. Normally lightly tanned in summer, the color had suddenly bled out of her skin.
“You okay, Mom?”
“Yeah, I’m fine. Tired, that’s all”
She was lying, I knew it. Up until then, bullshit had been Dad’s domain. A simple lie slipping out of my mother’s mouth had the emotional impact of the San Andreas Fault cracking up for California’s finale.
Change was coming. It was two years away, but even back then I could feel the static as the malignant storm began mustering its anomalous army.
I wasn’t a fan of change. I’d never tasted more than a spoonful before.
its damp head out of my pores to see if it was safe to roll away, and was immediately sucked out of my skin by a thirsty sun scraping its hot tongue across Greece.
July was a mean girl, and she was showing off. My epidermis was sloughing like a leper’s back because I’d recently left it in July’s oven too long. Now here I was baking it again, for a good cause.
The Family had swarmed the roads of Mount Pelion to do their biannual litter pickup, because Grandma believed one should always balance organized crime with acts of benevolence and civic duty. People flocked to the mountain for the vistas, and when they mounted their buses and prepared to ride off into the sunset they had to have somewhere to stuff all those souvenirs, so their litter had to stay. The locals weren’t much better. One man’s trash was another man’s trash, and so nobody got around to picking it up.
The spike in my hand jabbed the ground … and missed. I went at it again, this time nailing the sheet of newspaper.
“You need a new tradition,” I said. “Maybe something indoors, with air conditioning.”
There was a pause. A big one. The kind a granddaughter could fall into. And my grandmother wasn’t the kind of person who did ladders if she’d pushed you into the hole to begin with.
After a short eternity had passed she said, “This is the tradition. If we did something new it would not be a tradition.”
“Eventually it would be. Traditions have to start somewhere, you know.”
“Pick up the garbage, Katerina. Put it in the bag.”
My name is Katerina Makris, I’m twenty-eight, and recently I discovered my grandmother—the grandmother I didn’t know existed until a week or so ago—is the head of a crime syndicate in Greece. My mother is dead—cancer; my father is presumed kidnapped—crooked-nosed men; and my uncle’s name is Rita.
All the twitching I was currently doing wasn’t because of my family situation. I’d punctured the front page of yesterday’s newspaper, and I was on it, in black and off-white.
“Hey, I’m on the front page,” I said, waving the spike under Grandma’s nose. I had to aim low, because for a larger-than-life character she was built short. My paternal grandmother was me, if we were identical sweaters, but I’d been saved for special occasions, while she’d been worn nonstop for fifty years by a slightly overweight homeless person. Gravity’d had its way with her repeatedly, then stuffed her into a black dress, hoping the cotton blend would contain the fallout. Looking at her reminded me that at five-four I had nowhere to go but down.
She squinted at my mug on the crumpled newspaper. “Are you sure?”
I plucked the paper off the spike and smoothed it on my chest to show her.
The headline read,
Greek Mafia Princess Returns Home
. A puff piece, filled with baseless speculation about why I was in Greece after living my first twenty-eight years in the United States. They’d published pictures of Grandma’s main henchman, the silent but deadly Xander, carrying me like a handbag, moments after a psycho ex-cop called dibs on my head. And they had a photo of me dining al fresco in one of the coastal villages with Detective Nikos Melas, the local hot cop. Not a date, more like a business proposition. He had wanted me to be bait.
She made a noncommittal sound.
“Did you know about this?”
She shrugged. “Yes. I asked them not to run it, but they refused. I will be having words with this reporter.”
“Define words.” Words, to Grandma, could mean bullets or knives or poison.
“Words. They come out of my mouth, Katerina.”
“Is any of that a euphemism for torture or murder?”
Behind us, laughter burst out of a pie hole. The mouth that found this all so amusing belonged to my cousin’s cousin’s cousin, Takis. If a wizard came along and breathed life into a short stick figure, then dipped it in grease, it would be Takis. Personality-wise, the thirty-something henchman was the result of an unfortunate coupling between a Jack Russell Terrier and an asshole.
Until Takis and my second cousin Stavros, who resembled a mangy, dark-haired Pooh Bear, snatched me from my Portland home I hadn’t even known my Greek family existed. Prior to that they’d been fodder for occasional speculation, like leprechauns and their pots of gold.
“Poor Katerina, she’s worried you’ll whack the reporter,” he said.
He was right. With this family I had every reason to be concerned.
“I mean … it’s one article,” I said. “I guess the pictures don’t even look that bad …”
Grandma said, “We do not kill reporters, Katerina.”
“There was that one …” Takis started, but Grandma blasted him in the face with a withering glare. “Maybe there was no reporter,” he muttered. “Heh. I was mistaken. It happens sometimes. But don’t tell Marika that, eh? Already she makes my life miserable.”
Marika was his wife. She was too good for him, but so was most of humanity.
None of the wives were with us today. The only women standing in the weeds at the side of the road were Grandma, Aunt Rita, and me. Earlier, when I’d asked Grandma why it was the three of us amidst a sea of men, she told me the wives had their hands full wiping their husbands’ butts. The last thing they needed was to pick up more garbage.
I pocketed the front page. “Let it go,” I said, gathering my hair into a damp ponytail. Like the rest of my family I had dark hair, and a lot of it—most of it on my head. Genetics had kept the mustache and given me the Greek hips. An unimaginative person might comment that I had curves in all the right places. A clever person would point out that everyone has curves in the right places, because that’s the way the human body is put together. So what I had was nothing special.
Takis was winding up for another smart-ass remark when our heads all turned. Something with a powerful internal combustion engine was rumbling our way.
We all gravitated deeper into the weeds, waited for the vehicle to swerve around the tight twist in the road. Mount Pelion’s roads were steep and even more crooked than my family. Take the corners too quickly, you’d fly the rest of the way home.
A bus nosed around the curve. It rattled past, blasting smut from its tailpipe in a thick, chewable cloud. The bus had barely gasped around the next corner when an SUV sailed up the incline, using the bits of the road that weren’t filled up with bus. The gas-guzzler crunched to a stop on the … Well, it wasn’t really a shoulder. It was more like the guy painting lines on the road sneezed, creating an extra couple of inches of what wasn’t technically road. Anyway, that’s where the SUV stopped. The driver’s side door opened and one of the lesser Greek gods climbed out and planted himself in front of me.
Xander. Grandma’s go-to henchman. He had been with her since he was a baby, after something went terribly wrong and his whole family was killed on her command. He was tall, dark-haired, with skin the color of burnt caramel. Walls wished they were built as tough as Xander. Maybe ten years ago, he’d been a pretty-boy, but today, in his early 30s, his edges were too hard and too lived-in to be beautiful. Most of the time he schlepped around in casual wear, which was good. He was intimidating at the best of times, but dressed up he was deadly. Today he was doing me a favor: Hawaiian shirt and jeans.
“Do you have a last name?” I asked him, suddenly curious. “Or is Xander like a Madonna or Cher thing?”
He didn’t say anything. He never did. But he looked good while he wasn’t doing it. He took the garbage bag from Grandma, the litter spike from my hand, and passed them off to one of the cousins.
“Time to go,” Grandma said. “I have an appointment I cannot miss.”
Xander turned around and reached for something in the glove box. He drew out a small, square package. It was wrapped in brown paper and tied with jute twine. The sender was either profoundly lazy, or moderately clever, because there was no return address, or any address, unless it was in invisible ink. Nothing on it but Grandma’s name, penned with a flamboyant hand. If I was mildly envious it’s because my handwriting hadn’t evolved past middle school.
It wasn’t until Xander didn’t hand over the package that synapses twanged in my head. Something wicked had come this way, and it had arrived in this box.