The Messenger of Athens (Seven Deadly Sins Mystery Series #1)by Anne Zouroudi
Then a stranger arrives, uninvited,
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Idyllic but remote, the Greek island of Thiminos seems untouched and untroubled by the modern world. So when the battered body of a young woman is discovered at the foot of a cliff, the local police - governed more by archaic rules of honor than by the law - are quick to close the case, dismissing her death as an accident.
Then a stranger arrives, uninvited, from Athens, announcing his intention to investigate further into the crime he believes has been committed. Refusing to accept the woman's death as an accident or suicide, Hermes Diaktoros sets out to uncover the truths that skulk beneath this small community's exterior. Hermes's methods of investigation are unorthodox, and his message to the islanders is plain - tell the truth or face the consequences. Before long, he's uncovering a tale of passion, corruption and murder that entangles many of the island's residents. But Hermes brings his own mystery into the web of dark secrets and lies - and as he travels the rugged island landscape to investigate, questions and suspicions arise amongst the locals. Who has sent him to Thiminos, and on whose authority is he acting? And how does he know of dramas played out decades ago? Rich in images of Greece's beautiful islands and evoking a life unknown to most outsiders, this wonderful novel leads the reader into a world where the myths of the past are not forgotten and forbidden passion still has dangerous consequences.
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The Messenger of AthensA Novel
By Zouroudi, Anne
Reagan Arthur BooksCopyright © 2010 Zouroudi, Anne
All right reserved.
It was the spring of the year; the air was light and bright, the alpines were in bloom. It was a fine day to be out.
She had been out there for two days.
They had found her, at last, but they were not treating her with reverence, or due respect. How could they? Beneath the rising helicopter, she dangled between a soldier’s khaki-trousered legs, arms flung wide like a welcome, her own legs spread, open to them all. The deafening beat of the rotors, amplified and echoing off the canyon walls, killed all talk; but the men of the search party had already fallen into silence, now they were bringing her up. Along the unfenced roadside, in small, somber groups they waited—soldiers, policemen, civilians—looking across the scree of landslips, down towards the dry, rock-strewn riverbed where she had lain.
Dropping low over the dirt road, the helicopter hurled out debris: dust, stones, vegetation ripped from its roots. Behind the windscreen of an old, black Toyota, the driver draped his arm around the shoulders of a man with tear-red eyes, who, flinching, turned away his face.
Shielding his own eyes from the debris, an army officer screamed orders at a group of young soldiers—Line up, four-a-side, line up!—but his words, lost in the roar of the rotating blades, failed to reach them. Running forward, mad with impatience, he seized one of the boys by the arm and dragged him into place, pushing and shoving the boy’s comrades into the two rows he had planned.
Catch her as she comes down, he shouted. And don’t screw up!
They didn’t hear him. They pulled faces and made obscene gestures at his back. New National Service conscripts, hair shorn gray and muscles still soft, they stood in two shambolic rows, hearts racing and self-conscious, arms outstretched to receive her.
Due respect, they had been told. Due reverence.
The other men looked on.
She began her descent. The wide canvas sling beneath her underarms set her at an angle, so her spread legs came first. At once, the boy soldiers were confounded: how to look up to receive her and not look up her skirt? Due respect, after all. But as she descended, the storm of whirling dust grew worse, more distracting. Snorting dirt from their nostrils, spitting grit into the road, when her legs came within their reach, none of them noticed. Above them, the winch man was yelling: Get hold of her, you cretins! They didn’t hear him. Then her legs were before their faces, changing their dilemma—no longer how not to look up her skirt, but how ever again to think of a woman’s legs without seeing these: the glistening of protruding, splintered bone, the foot angled bafflingly to the shin, the livid bruising spread over the yellow-tainted skin, the heaviness of purple at the backs of thighs and calves where her blood had pooled.
Steeling themselves to touch dead flesh, they took the weight. Her naked arms were cold, no worse than that. Preparing to remove the sling, they were coping, and confident that they had borne the worst. Then, the two boys at her head saw their mistake: her eyes were not closed as they had thought, but gone, eaten. Shrieking, they pulled their hands from under her. Her head snapped back. The officer, who had placed himself at a suitable distance, moved his mouth in curses they couldn’t hear; running forward, he bullied the gagging boys back into place, putting her head in their hands as the others struggled to free her from the sling.
It was done. The officer signaled to the helicopter crew, who winched up their man and slewed away, upwards and to the south, out towards open sea.
The silence in the helicopter’s wake seemed profound. Unprepared for the sudden quiet, the men coughed, ground out cigarettes, looked around. Some action was expected of them. She was here; now what? The boy soldiers held her at their waists, faces averted and grimacing.
Stepping up to the army officer, the Chief of Police brushed dust from the sleeves of his jacket and smoothed his hair. Now the air was clearing, the nauseating smell of her began to drift over them. Flies came from nowhere to settle on her face.
“Who’ll take her down?” asked the army officer. He knew their superstitions and beliefs, and the local taboos.
“I’ll ask Lakis.”
Lakis, the Cretan, an outsider. Any job for cash. The Chief of Police beckoned to the tall, balding man standing beside a white pick-up and gestured—towards the corpse, towards the vehicle, a twist of the hand to ask the question in the silent language of the Greeks. Lakis bowed his head. Yes.
The army officer signaled to the boy soldiers. Staggering to the tailgate, they slid her into the truck, face-up on its dirty floor.
The Chief of Police called out to a black-robed priest—a young man, heavily bearded—who sat on a rock, smoking a thin, untidily rolled cigarette. The priest stood, flicking ash from the skirt of his robe. Approaching the pick-up, he looked in at her, and reached over the side to fold her arms across her breast. He raised his hand and made, slowly, the triple cross of the Orthodox church. Lowering their heads, the men all signed the same symbol, over their hearts.
Lakis took his seat behind the wheel. Hitching up his robes, the priest climbed in beside him, followed by the Chief of Police. Slowly, they moved away down the mountainside; one by one, the trucks, cars and jeeps of the search party followed.
It was no time for humor, but as he put the truck in gear Lakis could not resist a crude remark about the smell she brought with her; before they had reached the first bend in the road, the Cretan, the priest and the Chief of Police were all laughing.
Early morning, and a somber sky. The sea, stirred to sand slurry by a bitter wind, had turned opaque. The tires of the slow-moving garbage truck spread wide the pools of overnight rain; water ran through rusted guttering onto the steps of the National Bank and dripped onto the tables of the deserted fish market. On the café terrace, a stooping woman swept at wet leaves falling from a plane tree; in the church tower, a solitary bell tolled for mass. The small boats at their moorings rocked and tipped, pulling at their ropes. Beyond the headland, the horn-blast of the approaching ferry was lost in the rain-heavy squall.
On the upper deck, leaning on the railing which overlooked the stern, was a stranger, a fat man. He had stood there since the dim dawn had given enough light to show the dark sea passing beneath them, watching the foaming wake rise and fall away, waiting for the first view of their destination. From time to time, he took a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of the raincoat which flapped around his thighs, and smoked, the cigarettes burning down fast in the gusting wind; to every vessel he sighted he raised a friendly hand, as if acquainted.
As the boat docked, he did not join the small, impatient crowd waiting below for the ramp to drop, but waited, watching, as the passengers pushed onto the quayside.
A crewman, probing with a screwdriver into the workings of an anchor winch, called out to him.
“End of the line, friend.”
The fat man smiled.
“Good day to you, then,” he said, and, picking up the holdall at his feet, made his way down the iron staircase and onto the quay below.
He stood apart, sheltering from the rain under the portico of a butcher’s shop. He smelt blood, and chlorine bleach. The crowed thinned, shouting greetings and goodbyes, carrying away its strapped-up suitcases, its bags of groceries, its badly behaved children, its crates of fruit. Then the crowd was gone, and he was alone.
He stepped out from the shelter of the portico into the rain.
He had, at first, no clear idea of where he would find them; but they gave themselves away. At the harbor’s end, in the lee of the high sea wall, a dozen vehicles were haphazardly parked; amongst them, almost hidden, was a car in their distinctive livery. As he drew close, the car’s white signage became clear: Astinomia. Police.
The stone face of the building to his left was alive with flourishing, pale-trumpeted convolvulus; and there, wrapped around with tendrils, obscured by greenery, he found their sign—POLICE—and an arrow angled upwards, following the long line of a slender stone staircase.
The fat man ran, quite lightly, to the top of the steps, where he faced a heavy, unmarked door. He pulled it open and walked through.
Their office, grand in its proportions, was austere. The plaster coving beneath the lofty ceiling was ornate; but the unvarnished boards of the floor were bare, and dotted with hammer-bent tacks, as if some covering, carpeting or linoleum had been ripped out and not replaced. They might have moved in only yesterday, or be leaving tomorrow; or they might have been there for years, without caring or noticing that there were no blinds to cover the cracked panes in the high, narrow windows which looked out across the sea, no lampshade on the naked light-bulb swinging from its long length of cord in the draft from the door, no filing cabinets, no procedural manuals, no posters or notices pinned to the pale walls, no chairs for visitors to sit on as they made their complaints.
He stood at the center of the room and placed his holdall carefully at his feet, as if it might contain something fragile. The three policemen watched him, silent and unwelcoming, as if he had intruded at a crucial moment on some private conversation. The undersized man at the utilitarian, steel-topped desk behind the door (whose uniform, too large, diminished him further) tapped the lead of a blunt, chewed pencil on the desktop, setting a slow rhythm for the lengthening silence. His eyes moved from the fat man to the door, as if he planned to leave the moment an opportunity arose; the contents of his desk—a stapler, an ink-pad, a rubber stamp, nothing more—did not suggest there was anything to detain him here. Across from him, a broad-set man, bull-headed, heavy-jowled, with thick, white hair and comical, dark eyebrows, leaned his elbows on a similar desk, similarly empty: three ballpoint pens, all neatly capped, two opened letters in their envelopes, and an ancient Bakelite phone, whose plaited cord ran down between his feet and out through a hole drilled through the skirting at his back. His wet, red lips were slack, implying a bovine slowness and plodding wits. When the fat man entered, he shifted so his jacket’s upper arm—embroidered in silver with a sergeant’s chevrons—was forward, towards the fat man, ensuring that his rank would not be missed.
And at the back of the room, so far from the windows that the light was weak and the room was left in shadow, sat the third. He stretched his slender legs, crossed at the ankles, through the knee-hole of a capacious antique desk, between two ranks of small, brass-handled drawers with tiny locks. To left and right the desk held stacks of paperwork—cardboard files, blank forms, forms filled out and signed in duplicate and triplicate, applications for licenses, parking tickets, violation-of-permit notices, summonses, dockets, memos, letters, business cards, candy-striped computer printouts—and on the floorboards all around his feet were piled more files, their spines bearing dates, or numbers, or names. At the center of the desk, lying on the worn, gold-tooled leather, one file, closed, with a name handwritten in dense, black capitals: ASIMAKOPOULOS. And from between the stacks of paperwork, like a rat peering out from a hole, he watched the fat man, the skin of his face eerily pale in the shadows, the deep black of his narrowed eyes and clipped moustache stark as ink drawn on white paper.
The dark eyes looked the fat man up and down, taking in his bulk, admiring his suit—both the cut of it, which flattered his bulk, and the cloth, a fine, gray mohair of such quality that, as the fat man moved, it shimmered with a lavender sheen. The eyes approved of the sports shirt the fat man wore beneath the suit—rich purple, with a small, green crocodile over the left breast. They noted that the waistband of his trousers was belted with Italian leather. But the gray curls of the fat man’s hair were too long, and the prominent frames of his glasses were unfashionable, and dated. And his shoes, his shoes were baffling. For who but an eccentric, with such a marvelously tailored suit, would wear tennis shoes—old-fashioned, white canvas tennis shoes?
The fat man looked around at them all, and smiled.
The sergeant sat up straight in his chair, and shook the sleeve of his jacket so that the stripes lay flat on his arm.
“May I help you, sir?” he asked.
“I’m here to see the Chief of Police.” The fat man’s accent was clear, and well-bred. All his words were beautifully enunciated, like newscaster’s Greek; such clarity of speech told them he was not from these islands, nor from anywhere within two hundred miles of their boundaries.
“I am the Chief of Police.” The man in the shadows spoke quietly, but with arrogance. He pulled his legs in beneath his chair, and he too sat up straight.
The fat man stepped over his holdall and crossed the room to stand before the overladen desk. He held out his hand. His manicured fingernails were filed square, whitened at the tips and buffed almost opaque.
“My name,” he said, “is Hermes Diaktoros. I have been sent from Athens to help you in your investigations into the death of Irini Asimakopoulos.”
The constable behind the door dropped his pencil. It rattled on the floorboards, then rolled, as if making its escape, towards the door.
The Chief of Police, leaning forward to take the fat man’s hand, hesitated. The undersized constable jumped up from his chair to pick up his pencil, and the Chief of Police glared at him. Then he took the fat man’s hand, and shook it, firmly, and pursed his lips as if about to speak. But he said nothing.
So the fat man went on. “I expect you’re surprised at my name: Hermes Messenger. My father’s idea of humor. He was a classical scholar.”
The Chief of Police still didn’t speak. He had no idea what the fat man was talking about. The constable, back in his chair, tapped his pencil on his desk.
“I call these my winged sandals.” The fat man pointed to his tennis shoes, beaming at the joke. There was silence.
“I’m sorry,” said the fat man to the Chief of Police. “I didn’t catch your name.”
“Panayiotis Zafiridis,” said the Chief of Police. He indicated the bovine sergeant: “Harris Chadiarakis”—and the undersized constable—“Dmitris Xanthos.”
“A pleasure,” said the fat man.
The Chief of Police leaned forward across his desk.
“Why are the Metropolitan Police interested in Mrs. Asimakopoulos’s death?” he asked. “It was in no way suspicious. I’m afraid you have wasted your time coming all this way. Perhaps if you had telephoned first I could have saved you the journey.” He shrugged, and put on an expression of regret. “Your problem, now, is there’s no ferry out till tomorrow.” He hesitated as if thinking, then pointed to the phone on the sergeant’s desk. “Maybe we could requisition the coastguard launch to take you to Kos this evening. There is someone in their office who owes me a favor. You’ll get a flight to Athens from there with no problem at all. Harris, get me the Port Police Office.”
The sergeant’s hand went to the phone’s receiver, but the fat man turned to stop him.
“Just a moment, please,” he said. He looked back at the Chief of Police. “Where is the body?” he asked, in a low voice.
The pencil tapping became faster.
The Chief of Police reached, frowning, for a notepad and a plastic ballpoint pen.
“Who has informed the Metropolitan Police of this death?” he asked, scribbling with the pen until the ink began to flow. He sounded concerned. “I believe we should take action in this matter. Wasting police time is a serious offense.”
The fat man stepped forward and, placing the fingertips of both hands on the Chief of Police’s desk, leaned towards him.
“We were talking about the body,” said the fat man. “I’d like to see it as soon as possible. Then I can get on with my investigation.”
The pencil tapping ceased. The Chief of Police considered for a moment, then spread his hands.
“She was buried yesterday,” he said. “There was no reason to delay. As I’ve said, the death was in no way suspicious.”
“It matters not,” said the fat man, easily. “I’ll make do with the autopsy report.”
Simultaneously, the sergeant and the constable opened drawers in their desks, found pieces of paper there and began to read.
“May I sit down?” asked the fat man, politely.
Sighing, the Chief of Police stood, and from the darkness of the corner behind him, lifted out a cane-bottomed chair.
“Thank you,” said the fat man, placing it at an angle to the policeman’s desk and sitting down. “I wonder if you might have an ashtray I could use?”
Opening one of the brass-handled drawers, the Chief of Police produced a heavy, cut-glass ashtray already half-full of gray ash and butts stained brown with filtered smoke.
The fat man reached into his pocket and took out a pack of cigarettes incongruous with these late years of the twentieth century—an old-fashioned box whose lift-up lid bore the head and naked shoulders of a 1940s starlet, her softly permed platinum hair curling around a coy smile. Beneath the maker’s name (Surely, thought the Chief of Police, they went out of business years ago?) ran a slogan in an antique hand: The cigarette for the man who knows a real smoke. Taking out a matchbox and shaking it, the fat man frowned when there was no answering rattle from within. He placed the matchbox on the desk and searched again in his jacket pocket. Producing a slim, gold lighter, he knocked the tip of a cigarette on the desk, lit it, and replaced the lighter in his pocket.
“The autopsy report,” said the fat man, exhaling smoke as he spoke. “I’d like to have my own copy, for reference.”
The Chief of Police smiled and leaned back in his chair.
“You know,” he said, “here in the islands, we do things a little differently from the way things are done in the city. We like to take a more personal approach. Being that much closer to the community we serve.”
“And where are you from originally, Chief of Police?”
“Patmos,” said the Chief of Police. “I come from Patmos.”
“And you’ve served here how long?”
“Over a year.”
“And you feel you have got to know the people here well, in that short time?”
The Chief of Police ignored the question. Instead, he went on: “In cases like this, part of our job is to avoid scandal for the family concerned. A good name is very important to these people.”
“Where is the autopsy report, Chief of Police?” The fat man was beginning to sound impatient.
“Well,” said the Chief of Police, “I decided it was unnecessary. No autopsy was performed.”
The fat man’s expression began to change, from genial to dangerous.
“How is that possible?” he asked. “Mrs. Asimakopoulos was a young woman in good health, was she not?”
The Chief of Police gave a sideways nod of assent.
“It was your duty to have an autopsy performed. You know full well it was. So explain to me why there was no autopsy.”
The Chief of Police, believing he held all the aces, smiled triumphantly.
“Because,” he said, acidly, “the cause of death was clear. Though not what was written on the death certificate. It was a delicate matter.”
“So what was written on the death certificate?”
“And what, in your opinion, was the true cause of death?”
“She jumped off a cliff.” He shrugged. “Absolutely no doubt. Cut and dried.”
“Even if it were suicide,” said the fat man, playing with the ash in the ashtray with the burning end of his cigarette, “what could possibly be ‘cut and dried’ about a woman in a small, close community like this one committing suicide? What possible motive could she have had?”
“It was a copycat suicide. She had the idea from the postman.”
“The old postman who committed suicide.”
“And what was his motive?”
“Who knows? Wife unfaithful, money troubles…”
“So was Mrs. Asimakopoulos’s husband unfaithful? Did she have money troubles?”
The Chief of Police sat forward again.
“Mrs. Asimakopoulos was herself an unfaithful wife,” he said.
“Really? With whom was she unfaithful?”
“I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to say.”
The fat man looked at him for a long moment. “Do all supposedly unfaithful wives here jump off cliffs?”
The Chief of Police laughed. “If they did, there’d be only us men left.”
The fat man did not smile. “So why this one?”
“She married a local man. She had relatives here who introduced her to her husband. But she wasn’t from here. She came from the mainland.”
“And you think that was sufficient reason for her to kill herself?”
“Possibly. Maybe she felt isolated. Homesick.”
“How long had she lived here?”
“I’ve no idea. One year or ten, what’s the difference? Harris!”
The ponderous sergeant, interrupted as he clipped one of his cheap ballpoint pens into the breast pocket of his shirt, flinched.
“I’ve no doubt you can enlighten us,” said the Chief of Police to the sergeant. “How long had Mrs. Asimakopoulos lived here?”
The sergeant looked from the Chief of Police to the fat man, pushing out his lower lip as he considered.
“Two years,” he said, at last. “I don’t believe it’s more.”
“It’s three, at least,” interrupted the undersized constable. “My mother-in-law’s brother lived in that house before Asimakopoulos rented it, and he’s been dead a while now. Three years at least. Maybe even four.”
The sergeant opened his slack, wet mouth to object, but the Chief of Police raised a hand to silence him and turned back to the fat man.
“In answer to your question, she hadn’t been here long,” he said.
“But certainly long enough to settle down and start a family?” suggested the fat man. “Did she have children?”
“I don’t believe so.” He looked back to the sergeant, who slowly shook his head.
“That’s quite unusual for this part of the world, wouldn’t you say—a young woman, quite recently married, and no offspring? If she was barren, that might be an important causal factor in depression. But you’ll have spoken to her doctor about her mental health, I’m sure; if there were physical problems, I’m sure he would have mentioned them, would he not?”
The sergeant returned all his attention to his ballpoint pens, while the constable bent below his desk to retie his shoelaces.
“Our doctor is a very busy man, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate,” said the Chief of Police, smoothly. “But Mr. Asimakopoulos was his wife’s senior by some years. Some would say he was a lucky man, to have a younger woman to keep him warm at night. But who knows? Perhaps he was lacking the… potency… of someone younger. A younger man might well have succeeded where he failed, the right man for the job…”
His expression brightened with lascivious speculation, but when the fat man frowned he averted his eyes, and rubbed at an invented itch behind his ear.
“How old was Mrs. Asimakopoulos,” asked the fat man, “exactly?”
“Twenty-five, twenty-six, thereabouts. Maybe a little more, maybe a little less.” The Chief of Police smiled. “I don’t know exactly. In my experience, you can’t force corpses to answer questions about themselves just because there are forms to be filled in.”
“You didn’t ask the family?”
“What did you ask the family?”
“I thought it better to let them get on with their lives in peace.”
“Your consideration does you credit, Chief of Police, but it makes you look a poor policeman. And perhaps you would be good enough to tell us all”—he turned and gestured at the two men apparently absorbed in paperwork—“if we don’t all know already, how much you charged for your consideration?”
Color flooded into the Chief of Police’s cheeks, but the fat man, clearly expecting no answer to his question, stood and stubbed out his cigarette.
“As a man worthy to wear your badge, perhaps you should be asking yourself the question you seem to have neglected, Chief of Police. Perhaps you should be asking yourself, did she jump, or was she pushed?”
The Chief of Police forced a laugh of derision. “Such drama, Mr. Diaktoros! Murder, and bribery! These are the sleepy Greek islands! I’m afraid you have been too long on the mean streets of Athens.”
The fat man picked up his holdall and addressed the undersized constable.
“I wonder,” he said, “if you could recommend a hotel with a decent room?”
But the Chief of Police interrupted his reply.
“As I suggested, the Port Police launch…”
The fat man went to place a hand on the constable’s shoulder.
“Walk with me,” he said. “Show me the way.”
As the door closed behind the fat man and the constable, the Chief of Police pulled his ashtray towards him, and, taking a cigarette from a crumpled pack, bent it to straighten the curve it had acquired. He picked up the matchbox the fat man had left on his desk and slid it open.
Sleek, with long feelers flailing, a huge cockroach darted forward out of the matchbox and scuttled at speed across the back of the policeman’s hand, onto the file which lay on his desk.
In revulsion, he swiped the vile creature to the floor, where it ran for cover amongst the candy-striped computer printouts.
As the bewildered sergeant looked on, the enraged policeman pursued it, stamping here, there, here, until the cockroach at last evaded him and disappeared amongst the stacks of official files.
The undersized constable took the fat man to the Seagull Hotel, an open-all-year rooming house owned by the policeman’s second cousin. They walked side by side around the harbor, the constable full of questions he dared not ask, his anxious eyes scanning doorways and balconies, alleys and stairways, to see who observed them. The fat man strode with confidence, nimbly sidestepping the rain-filled potholes, and genially greeting everyone they met.
At the hotel door, the fat man thanked the constable and dismissed him, then watched as the man in uniform made his way slowly back to the police station, stopping here and there to speak: to the stallholder selling fruit and vegetables, to the proprietor of the electrical shop, to the patrons at the tables of the outdoor café. As he spoke, he pointed towards the hotel, and heads turned in the fat man’s direction, so the fat man knew he had chosen well: the constable would be an excellent emissary in spreading word of his arrival.
The lobby of the hotel was dark, and unheated, and the dour woman behind the reception desk was buttoned into heavy, home-knitted woolens. The desk was covered in yellowing newspaper, on which stood four squat candlesticks and an uncapped tin of Brasso. The woman looked him up and down over stern, half-moon glasses and smiled a lupine, hand-rubbing smile. Beyond her canines there were no teeth in her upper jaw; when she spoke, the fat man caught the fetid whiff of halitosis.
“Good day, sir, good day,” she said, laying down a cleaning rag. “Are you looking for a room? I have one nice room free on the first floor, very clean, lovely view. No finer view in Greece.”
She lifted the edge of the newspaper and pulled towards her a leather-bound register. With Brasso-blackened fingers she flicked week by week through its pages, from January towards this day’s date. All the pages were empty.
“Will you be staying long?”
He glanced around the lobby, at the rows of unused glasses on the shelves behind the little bar, at the bowls of dusty, artificial flowers in the window recess, at the icon of the suffering Christ above the entrance to the WC.
“A few days, perhaps,” he said. “Not longer than a week, certainly.”
“If you’re staying more than two nights, I can give you a special rate. It’s the cost of doing laundry that’s expensive, on short stays.” She named a price. It was extortionate. “Much cheaper than hotels in Athens, I’m sure.”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. “In Athens, I don’t frequent hotels. I’ll pay you half that, if you’re including breakfast and a daily change of linen.”
He had expected argument, but none came. Instead she smiled at him, and he knew he had been fleeced.
“I’ll get my husband,” she said. “He’ll show you to your room.”
His room was cold, with no comforts: the floor was bare-tiled with no rug to warm the feet; the faucets in the poky bathroom dripped onto stained porcelain; the bed was hard and narrow and, beneath its starched white pillowcase, the single pillow was discolored with the secretions of many strangers’ heads. The doors out to the balcony were swollen with winter rain, and needed a sharp kick to open them. Outside, leaning on the rust-spotted, cast-iron railing, he lit himself a cigarette and let his eyes travel beyond the harbor across the open sea, towards the outlines of the snow-capped Turkish mountains. But the beauty of the view was diminished by the lack of sunlight, and the low, cobweb-gray clouds hid the far horizons. He shivered and, stepping back into the room, stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray at his bedside; then, picking up his holdall, he made his way out of the hotel and along the harborside.
The windows of the tourist emporiums were shuttered closed; the unswept backstreets were spoiled with wind-blown litter. Too early in the year for Easter’s rejuvenations, in places the flaking whitewash had dropped like scurf from the walls of houses, exposing raw stone and brick beneath.
He came to the café where the undersized policeman had spoken with the patrons. It was a small kafenion of the old Greek style; a sign over the door gave the proprietor’s name: JAKOS KYPRIOTIS. The wooden tables, outside and in, were covered in sheets of gingham-patterned plastic, held down against the wind by elastic knotted under the table rim. Between the glass-fronted fridges of imported beer and Fanta orange soda, a once-handsome man with Brylcreemed hair and an Errol Flynn moustache leaned on a stone sink; he gazed through the open doorway and across the sea, as if his heart and thoughts were very far away.
One of the terrace tables was occupied by three old men. A half-liter bottle of cheap retsina, almost empty, stood between them; before each of them was a tumbler well-filled with the yellow wine. The fat man pulled out a chair at a neighboring table and sat down, and as he sat, the old men fell silent. The fat man glanced behind him for the proprietor.
Then one of the old men turned in his chair.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, and he smiled a broad simpleton’s smile, raising his hand in a cheery wave. The fat man inclined his head, politely, and glanced again into the café, where the proprietor was still absent in the distance.
The old man stood, and, holding out his hand, took an unsteady step towards the fat man. The two remaining at the table shook their heads.
“Sit down, you old fool!” said one. “Leave the man alone!” But the simpleton, grinning, still proffered his hand to the fat man.
“Pleased to meet you,” said the simpleton.
The fat man took his hand and shook it.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. Beaming, the simpleton stumbled back to his seat. The fat man looked again over his shoulder to where the proprietor had not moved.
The man who had not yet spoken raised his glass with a trembling hand and sipped at the wine. He leaned towards the fat man.
“You’ll have to shout,” he slurred. “He’ll stand all day, pretending he doesn’t know you’re there. Jakos! Customer!”
The proprietor withdrew his reluctant eyes from the horizon and came to the doorway. He looked resentfully at the fat man, and raised his eyebrows in question.
“Greek coffee, please, no sugar,” said the fat man. “And a bottle for the gentlemen.” He indicated the old men, and the proprietor tutted his disapproval as he turned to go inside. The simpleton jumped up, and grasped the proprietor’s arm.
“Jakos, pleased to meet you, pleased to meet you!” The simpleton held out his hand, but the proprietor ignored it and, wrenching his arm from the old man’s grasp, went scowling to the stove.
The simpleton, dejected, sat down.
The third man drank again from his glass and, squinting, viewed the fat man. His eyes were deeply lined, as if the squint were habitual to him—perhaps through myopia, perhaps from the irritation of cigarette smoke: one cigarette, freshly lit, burned between his nicotine-stained fingers, while a forgotten second was a still-smoking, ashy remnant in the foil ashtray before him—or perhaps he was trying to pick the fat man’s true image from two or three which split and swam before him. His rail-thin body was wasted from long-term abuse; the hand holding the cigarette shook.
“You’ve a friend for life, now you’ve shaken his hand,” he said, clapping the simpleton hard on the back. “But you’ll struggle to get much out of him except, ‘Pleased to meet you.’ He’s an old fool. I say that as one who’s known him man and boy. When he was young, he was a young fool. Now he’s old, he’s an old fool, and a pain in the arse. Still. We’re all what God made us.”
“Indeed,” said the fat man.
“You’ll be from Athens.” The old man spoke triumphantly, as if he expected to impress the fat man with his perception. So the fat man put on a look of surprise, which made the old man smile. “I went to Athens once,” he said.
But his companion contradicted him.
“You’ve never been to Athens, you lying bastard. You’ve never been further than St. Vassilis.” He named the monastery and its hamlet five miles away, at the far side of the island. This man had a curious disability, a fusing of the vertebrae at the top of his spine. Unable to turn his head, when he spoke, his eyes swiveled towards the target of his remarks, but his torso remained rigidly facing forward. It made him both comical and grotesque, yet he might once have been an attractive man.
“I might’ve been to Athens,” protested the smoker. But, anxious not to pursue the matter, he decided the moment was right for introductions.
“Thassis is the name,” he said to the fat man. “Thassis Four-Fingers.” He held up his left hand to show the stump where the index finger should have been. “This is my friend Adonis”—the fat man’s eyes widened at the irony of the deformed man’s name—“Adonis Spendthrift they call him. Tight as a nun’s cunt on Good Friday. And this,” he gestured towards the simpleton, “is Stavros Pleased-to-Meet-You.”
Stavros, beaming, jumped up.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said, and the fat man shook his hand.
The proprietor placed a glass of water and a small, white china cup before the fat man; the tarry coffee had the caramel scent of burned sugar. He nicked the cap off a bottle of retsina beaded with condensation and stood it at the center of the old men’s table, then leaned his shoulder against the doorframe and looked out to sea.
Thassis Four-Fingers seized the cold wine and held up the bottle to the fat man.
“Thank you, sir,” said Thassis, “and good health to you, sir.” He splashed cold wine into their glasses; all three raised their glasses to the fat man, and drank.
The fat man sipped at his coffee.
“You’ll have business here, I expect,” said Adonis, twisting his eyes towards him.
The fat man bent down to his holdall, unzipped it and fumbled inside. He pulled out a bottle of shoe-whitener. Like a dancer, he pointed his left foot, then his right, inspecting his tennis shoes. Removing the plastic cap, he dabbed the sponge applicator carefully on a scuff mark on the toe of the right shoe, and on a small splat of mud on the left. He twisted his feet, first the left, then the right, examining the shoes for further blemishes. Finding none, he replaced the cap, placed the shoe-whitener inside the holdall and zipped it up.
In fascination, the old men watched him. They had forgotten Adonis’s question when the fat man sat back in his chair and answered it.
“I’m here to investigate the death of Irini Asimakopoulos.”
The proprietor brought his eyes back from the far horizon.
“What’s to investigate?” he asked. “Fell off a cliff, didn’t she? Could happen to anyone.”
Laughing, Thassis spluttered into his drink, but the fat man said nothing.
So the proprietor asked him, “What’s your idea, then?”
Adonis, a shrewd man, smiled.
“He thinks somebody pushed her,” he said.
“Who’d push her?” said the proprietor, derisively, and immediately from his uninhibited drunkenness Thassis provided an answer.
“Theo Hatzistratis’s wife would!” he said. And he laughed again.
No one joined him in his laughter. Digging him with his elbow, Adonis turned his eyes towards the vegetable stall, where a woman was complaining at the number of caterpillars in the cauliflowers.
“What’d I say?” asked Thassis.
Silently, the proprietor disappeared into the back of the café.
“Why would Theo Hatzistratis’s wife want to push Mrs. Asimakopoulos off a cliff, Thassis?” asked the fat man.
“Why’d you think?” asked Thassis. He dropped his head, suddenly maudlin. “Women. All the same. I’d sooner put my hand in a bag of snakes than trust a woman.”
“Are you saying that Mrs. Asimakopoulos was having a relationship with Theo Hatzistratis?” the fat man asked Adonis.
“I’m saying bugger all,” said Adonis. He emptied his glass and banged it down on the table.
There was silence for a while. Thassis began to hum a tune, a morbid song of a man’s doomed love for a faithless girl; his humming grew louder until he broke into song, then shouted the lyrics at the top of his cracked old voice.
The fat man walked inside and paid what he owed. When he wished the old men goodbye, he received no reply.
Excerpted from The Messenger of Athens by Zouroudi, Anne Copyright © 2010 by Zouroudi, Anne. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Anne Zouroudi was born in England and has lived in the Greek islands. Her attachment to Greece remains strong; the country is the inspiration for much of her writing. She now lives in northern England.
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A new detective is on the scene -- part Hercule Poirot, part Count of Monte Christo. The plump and white-shoed Hermes Diaktoros has come to the island of Thiminos to unravel the mystery of a woman, found dead at the bottom of a cliff. The police don't like him. Neither do many residents. No matter. His techniques, counterpointed with the thoughts and actions of the island's residents, gradually unveil the answer, and everything counts toward the denouement. This is the first of several books by the author with Diaktoros, so get in on the ground floor with The Messenger of Athens.
I decided to buy this book (the first in a series) after attending a talk given by its author, who spoke very candidly about how she came to create the series. That she once lived in Greece shows in her evocative description of the country and its people. A page turning plot which kept me to its end – an end I certainly didn't see coming. For me, a series to follow.
Untapped locale, interesting culture, an eccentric detective, ironic plot twists, a good start for what may be an excellent series.
Title: The Messenger of Athens - Seven Deadly Sins - Hermes Diaktoros Series 1 Published: 1-29-10 Publisher: Little, Brown & Company/Reagan Author Books/Hachette Book Group Pages: 348 Genre: Mystery, Thrillers & Suspense Sub Genre: Police Procedural; ISBN: 9780316084130 ASIN: B003JTHXS6 Reviewer: DelAnne Reviewed For: NetGalley My Rating: 4 Stars . Idyllic but remote, the Greek island of Thiminos seems untouched and untroubled by the modern world. So when the battered body of a young woman is discovered at the foot of a cliff, the local police - governed more by archaic rules of honor than by the law - are quick to close the case, dismissing her death as an accident. Then a stranger arrives, uninvited, from Athens, announcing his intention to investigate further into the crime he believes has been committed. Refusing to accept the woman's death as an accident or suicide, Hermes Diaktoros sets out to uncover the truths that skulk beneath this small community's exterior. Hermes's methods of investigation are unorthodox, and his message to the islanders is plain - tell the truth or face the consequences. Before long, he's uncovering a tale of passion, corruption and murder that entangles many of the island's residents. But Hermes brings his own mystery into the web of dark secrets and lies - and as he travels the rugged island landscape to investigate, questions and suspicions arise amongst the locals. Who has sent him to Thiminos, and on whose authority is he acting? And how does he know of dramas played out decades ago? There was no way I could entice you with what the book is about more than the author has already done so with her blurb so I copied it here. Now let me tell you what I found I liked and disliked about the book personally. Let us start off with the good things. The description of if the island and island life is very in depth, which for me was something I enjoyed as it brought the scene to life, but to some may slow the story down. I had immediate likes and dislikes of the characters. I was upset with the two police for the village as they themselves seem to quick to find the scene clear of any possible foul play and then try impede Hermes Diaktoros. Little is revealed in the story about our protagonist, but a search revealed the following : Anne Zouroudi has a series revolving around Hermes Diaktoros based on the Greek God Hermes, son of Zeus and the nymph Maia. He is the messenger of the Olympian Gods, the guardian of roads, commerce, invention, cunning and theft. As a god he can alter his appearance. He has superior reflexes, immune to human diseases, does not tire, and superior strength and speed. Perfect as the main character in a mystery series. I was a bit put off with the scenes depicting the slaughtering the goat and octopus, but understood it to be part of the daily life in Greece culture. The over abundance of English based idioms is out of place for the novel, but seeing as the author is English it is understandable. As a first book in the series there are some kinks to work out. I will be looking to see where the series goes in the future. My rating is 4 out of 5 stars at the end of my reading and research which explained a lot of the questions I was left after finishing the book.
I had great hopes for this book. It is the first in a series of mysteries with each focusing on one of the seven deadly sins. The title and lead character's name make an interesting reference to Homer. My disappointment ... The story takes place on an imaginary Greek island. Everything about the island is shabby, run down, grubby. That includes most of the characters - males who mistreat their wives and cheat on them (appears to be a near universal trait on the island), females who, if they are not revengeful connivers themselves, are trapped in bad marriages from which they cannot escape. This does not make for pleasant reading. The lead character apparently shares more than a name with a Homeric god. He appears to have some sort of second sight and has no qualms over becoming the arm of justice on his own. A lot of reviewers talk of him as a person of mysterious background. I have to assume he is suppose to be a Homeric god having disguised himself as a human (which Homeric gods often did). Lacks believability. Endless descriptions, many of which do not advance the story line in any meaningful way.
4.5 stars I received for review the next two books in this series, so I read The Messenger of Athens to be fully conversant with protagonist Hermes Diaktoros. I fell in love with "the fat man" immediately, particularly his wit and his sense of poetic justice. I also love Greek mythology and enjoyed Zouroudi's allusions to various gods and goddesses. During my career as an attorney, I grew to appreciate the very real distinction between law and justice. I enjoyed discovering a detective who is not bound by the former but zealously defends the latter. While this may make Diaktoros less appealing to mystery fans who like their heroes hard-boiled, he should attract readers from other genres (fantasy, horror, and paranormal fiction), such as those who enjoyed F. Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack series.
Hermes Diaktoros, aka The Fat Man, is quite the quandary of a man. He is most certainly not with any branch of law enforcement nor a certified private investigator. But he assuredly is man who can take a mystery, get the silent to start talking and solve the crime while keeping his shoes nice and white. This time the case presented to him is the mysterious death of a young married woman and trying to determine whether she murdered or did she commit suicide as the police were so quick to conclude. Irini was both sweet and innocent with her one mistake in life to fall in love with one man while married to someone else. She made some poor decisions based on innocence and dreams of a better life but when she became rejected by her lover did she commit suicide or was she pushed off that cliff? Hermes thinks the police refused to investigate due to laziness and corruption and while he will tolerate some incompetency it appears the police force does not have the proper respect for the dead is not above coercion to obtain its goals and this he will not tolerate. The Fat Man has unique methods of getting people to talk and once they start talking it becomes impossible to get them to stop and when the truth comes out about what happened to sweet Irini even he is shocked and the actions he takes against those that ruined her and took her life are well deserved and quite unique. This first book in The Mysteries of the Greek Detective Series is unique and interesting and I look forward to those that will follow. The Fat Man is colorful and interesting but always maintains such a high respect for the dead that you always admire his unique gift and ability to solve the crime. The setting here is described with such detail you feel you can taste the salt on your tongue and the sharp snap of the strong coffee. Amazing! Mary Gramlich is The Reading Reviewer located at www.marygramlich.com