Anna Burmeister, single mom and lapsed radical, is a Swiss expat living in Piraeus, Greece. Ramadi, her four-year old, is named after his late Iraqi father, Mahmoud Al Ramadi, who sired him on his deathbed in Turkey. To know why they were there, how he died, and why she’s so remorseful, you’ll need to read more of the story. But Mahmoud’s not totally out of the picture. Languishing in limbo, his spirit remotely views people and places he knew in life, especially Anna, whom he knew by her activist nom de guerre, Katrina. Throughout the book he pops up, invisibly, with soliloquies only we can hear. Part Two begins with one of them before we follow Anna as she tries to identify the two men who recently menaced her, only to encounter one of them.
A tour guide without tourists, that’s me. All I can do here is revisit familiar places with nobody to relate them to. Save for the never-ending astral chorus I constantly hear, they appear as silent movies in the muted colors of old postcards. I am free to approach the screen but not to penetrate it to where life is being lived.
Now—for it is always now, just as in pre-afterlife—I visit her flat in Piraeus. It is dark and they are sleeping in the room where we first made love. There is my son, whose name I do not know. Look at him! Strong, healthy, full of life! Though asleep he seems to speak, perhaps in a dream. I remember the words of the poet: "Love itself describes its own perfection. Be speechless and listen." I do, but no words come to my ears.
And look at Katrina, curled up. Now she stirs to embrace herself, or is it me? Why did I never tell her I loved her when I could? I tell it now, in case she hears. I also tell her what happened to me was not her fault. It was mine and George’s. I was careless, but he was callous to charge her with executing me if I couldn’t escape. Preparing the instrument that sealed my fate was not her intention. How full of sorrow she must have been as she made it ready.
Now I visit Andreas. He too is in bed, alone, reading a book. It is in German. He looks up, his eyes sweep the room as if sensing a buzzing fly, then flit back to his open page. Soon he closes it and rubs the point of his chin in thought. Such a good man. He took upon himself to keep us together, house and feed us and drive us to organize a new mission after George was arrested and his plan collapsed. How he managed to free George before they could deport him I will never know. Had he not succeeded, George would be rotting in a Turkish prison and my bones would not be rotting in a Turkish necropolis.
As Andreas shuts the light and slides under his comforter I find myself drawn to the taverna, where Katrina and I told him of our love and she became our comrade against his better judgment. The hour is late and it is almost empty. A tipsy young couple sit at one table staring into their empty glasses. At another table a thin man with hollow cheeks sits alone. He downs a milky liquid, Arak or Ouzo perhaps, lowers his glass, and looks upward, and when he does his dark eyes project coldness. The same revulsion I felt for the nationalists who threatened Katrina comes over me. Whether he is like them or not, I sense he is bad news.
Chapter Eight: A Couple of Bad Eggs
For his imminent fifth birthday Ramadi told Anna he would like pizza and cake and an airplane and certain of his preschool pals in attendance. That would be awkward, Anna explained, as Daria, the mother of Yasmin, the girl he wished to exclude, had volunteered her four-room flat for the festivities. Ramadi considered Yasmin a bit of a show-off, he had complained, who went on and on about the clothes she wore and the clothes she wanted next. The garments came from a resale shop where her mom worked part time, which gave her the pick of the litter at a significant discount; he himself sported such venerable threads. After explaining why dissing classmates was bad politics, Anna managed to persuade him to make it an open invitation.
Anna had assigned herself the pizza detail and volunteered to bake a cake, but on second thought visited the old lady at the little artopoieío on Dimokratias Boulevard and put in a order for a blue-and-white checkerboard of a birthday cake decorated with fondant in the form of a blue airplane and lettered in Greek, Charoúmena Genéthlia Ramadi. Then she trucked down to her son’s favored Golden House of Pizza to order the entrée.
Noticing her warily regarding his cramped establishment from beyond, the Golden House’s owner waved her in with a hairy arm. Through a plastered-on grin he queried, “Hello, how have you been? It’s good to see you, how is the boy?” and remarked on the weather, which hadn’t changed for a week.
To his unexpected pleasantry all Anna could muster was “We’re good, thank you.” Taking a sidelong glance to assure herself they were alone, she noticed a cooler hugging the wall and remarked, “Ooh, I see you have a new cold case. Good for you.”
“Why, yes,” he replied as proudly as if it were a Mercedes Benz. “The cooler came from a corner store that went out of business. I got it for almost nothing. And it has lots of very fresh salad, just for you. Want to take some home?”
“Next time, promise. I’m not here to eat. I came in to order pizza for a kid’s party. Next Sunday afternoon.”
Pen wavering over pad, Stavros said “Okay. How many kids? How many adults?”
“Best case, six of each. Three large should do it. Two plain, one spinach, mushrooms, and olives. Eight pieces each.”
“Okay. Where to?”
“I’ll pick up.”
He was staring out the shop window. “We do free delivery. You sure you don’t want?”
“It’s a little out of the way, like two bus rides. I have to go there anyway. But thanks for the offer.”
Stavros let his pen fall. He gazed out to the street, hands hovering above the counter, kneading his knuckles.
“You okay?” Anna asked.
Hands still clasped, he cried “I cannot do this, nice lady.”
“Do what? I don’t understand. You can’t make pizza for me?”
“I tell you. Hold on please.” He straightened up and retreated to paddle a pie from his oven, slid it onto his cutting board, and slashed at it with his cutter disk. Averting his eyes, he said “I was asked to keep eye on you. By policeman. He see you here, say you might have something to do with old crime.”
“Is ... that ... so,” she icily exhaled.
He returned to the counter, opened his cash drawer, and fished out a business card. “He leave his card. It say he is Warden.”
Her brow furrowed. “I see. Whatever that is. Did he say what he wanted with me?”
“Some unsolved crime. Maybe you were witness, I don’t know. Anyway, I have no use for police. They walk in, think I owe them a slice and a Coke. This one wanted to deliver your pizza. He give me a hard time. Don’t want him give you hard time too.”
Ten seconds ticked past before her smile returned and she said. “I can’t tell you how much I love you for that. You didn’t have to tell me.”
Pinning the card under an index finger, she asked, “May I copy it, please? It would mean a lot.”
Stavros shrugged. “Sure, lady, but be careful with it.”
A pass of her phone ingested Police Warden Vassilios Laskaris’ card into her photo gallery. “Don’t worry. I’m not going to call him. He’ll never know I saw this. My only goal is to keep away from him. I hope you will too.”
She pocketed her phone and offered her hand. “You are very kind. See you next Sunday around one.”
He took and gingerly shook it. “Okay. What name I put on order?”
“Make it out to Katri… um, Katniss,” and with a sly wink added “and don’t tell that warden, okay?”
Smiling through his eyes, Stavros nodded and said “See you Sunday.” After she left, he studied Laskaris’ card before returning it to the back of his drawer, muttering “Whatever that’s about, I don’t need to know.”
Sitting on the bus going to pick up Ramadi, Anna fretted over the pizza chef’s awkward revelation and fingered a message to Ottovio asking to get together at her place to check police records. As an inducement, she texted again, promising homemade fish stew with dumplings that she pulled from her freezer when they got home.
That evening was not the first time that Ramadi had encountered Ottovio, but for the boy it was all new, as was his impressive black laptop that dwarfed his mom’s brushed silver one. He watched as she and the Greek geek huddled in front of it on the kitchen table after supper, unable to decipher the glyphs its screen displayed, seeming to sense they meant something worth knowing. He hovered nearby, antennae out.
I wish I could smell the food she got from the taverna. It’s good to see Ottovio. He really hasn’t changed but for flecks of grey in that big curly beard. They huddle at his computer staring at lines of text.
Anna displayed Laskaris’s card. “Can you tell if this guy is known to the police?”
Ottovio shoved a thumb drive into his infernal machine, disclaiming “This copy of police suspect database is a little old, but let’s assume he is old news to them.” Ramadi announced he felt cold and crawled into Anna’s lap. Saying she felt chilled too, she wrapped him in her arms and checked the windows, but all were shut.
Ottovio opened an application, then a file, stubby fingers flying inscrutably. Ramadi followed his actions with interest, understandably unaware of the extreme efforts he’d undertaken to liberate a three-gigabyte relational database from a Hellenic Police file server.
I think I know what they are doing. After Katrina and I told him we were lovers, Andreas asked Ottovio to look her up in his police file to see if she had a record. Now she shows him card for someone. Seems to be policeman. Why would policeman be in that database of criminals?
“Okay, we search by name,” Ottovio muttered as he typed a query. A few seconds later he informed her that Vassilios Laskaris came to their attention after an incident seven years back involving excessive force in an altercation with a shopkeeper for which he was held partly responsible and fined but not sentenced. Nothing about being deputized as a warden. That was pretty much it, he said, allowing that things may have changed since he last pilfered the database.
Laskaris’s record included a home address, somewhere down by the docks in the adjacent Perama district, a known Golden Dawn Party stronghold. Anna typed it into her phone’s address book along with the phone number and his putative title.
“What exactly is a warden?” she inquired.
They’re supernumeraries with limited authority, he maintained. When not directing traffic or serving papers, they prowl around rounding up tips for police. Wardens come and go. Maybe he still is, maybe not.
“We can check,” she said. “Call police. What’s the closest station to here?”
“Would be the one over in Nikaia, just north of here” he replied, activating his wi-fi and searching anonymously. “This,” he said, pointing to the bottom of the screen. She took down its address and phone number, saying she would call from a pay station tomorrow. Ramadi intently studied the web page until Ottovio closed the laptop. Noticing the boy’s interest, he told him “Can do a lot with this machine. Maybe you be hacker someday, have even better one.”
“Hacker,” the boy cheerily responded, seizing upon a new word.
Ottovio had brought a tub of pistachio ice cream, a new flavor for the boy. Anna divvied it up and handed bowls around. Ramadi sniffed and prodded it like a cat dubious about a new kitty concoction, tasted it, and proceeded to tuck it in, leaving the nuts behind. When Anna asked him why, he opened wide to display one stuck where a baby tooth had gone missing. She fished it out, hoping his teeth would come in straight and his overbite would take care of itself.
As she reaches in, I am possessed by a powerful urge to fly into the boy’s mouth, as if doing that could return me to the physical plane. But that would not be good for either of us. I had best go before I change my mind.
For closely guarded reasons involving “something to do with old crime,” rather than calling the Nikaia police station from her own phone, the next morning found Anna at a Western Union storefront heavily used by locals for money orders and foreigners to transmit remittances. She stood in a listless line clutching spare change to drop into one of the few functional pay phones in the area. Awaiting her turn afforded her time to consider what to say to whomever answers the phone at police stations.
Upon attaining the outworn instrument, she wiped off the receiver with her bandanna, dialed the number Ottovio had given her last night, and deposited coins as instructed.
After suffering the squawking ringtone for thirty seconds and counting, a crisp female voice announced “Hellenic Police Nikaia Station, Desk Sergeant Cristopoulos speaking. What can I do for you?”
Anna could hear raised voices and percussive sounds in the background. “Um, I called to see if you could help me find one of your officers, but it sounds like a lot is going on there. Should I call another time?”
“No, it’s fine. This is normal. Who are you looking for?”
Reading from her phone, she replied, “Police Investigations Warden Vassilios Laskaris. He gave me his card but I lost it. Do you know him?”
“No, I don’t. Wardens don’t spend a lot of time here. Let me look him up. Spell last name please.”
Anna spelled and then hummed the Marseillaise while awaiting the Desk Sergeant’s verdict.
“He’s not one of ours,” Cristopoulos told her after the second chorus. “Perhaps he works out of another precinct. I’ll give you over to Central Records. They should have a complete list.”
A couple of coins later, Anna had her answer. No one had heard of Laskaris. Whoever he was, he wasn’t a cop.
She called the Greek geek to impart that news and suggested a quick rendezvous.
Friday was Anna’s day off at the Taverna Omphalos (‘Navel of the World’) but there she was, leveraging her employee discount to treat Ramadi and Ottovio. Today the boy’s sights were set not on pizza but on crispy chicken tenders and French fries, which he was told he could have if he ate his peas. Last to order was Ottovio, whose menu selections would likely have sufficed for the three of them.
Nodding toward Ramadi, currently absorbed in jousting fork against knife, Anna shifted languages. “Let’s talk in English, if you don’t mind. Some things he shouldn’t hear.” Ottovio returned a nod.
“So, the cops say Laskaris isn’t one of their wardens,” she continued. “If he is, he’s under deep cover and nobody’s talking.”
Ottovio stroked his beard. “Well, if he’s not, what’s his game? Maybe that cold case he mentioned is double murder by poison dart. He called you witness, not suspect, you said.”
She shifted in her seat and lowered her voice. “Well, that’s what the pizza guy said he heard from Laskaris. But he might suspect I was more than a witness.”
“Well, you did set up the ambush, but how would he know that?”
“Either of the two thugs could have described me to someone before he died. Maybe even Laskaris. But even if he’s not after revenge, he spooks me.”
As their server dished out their fare, she said “You know, maybe Laskaris fingered me in the No Name. We argued. I mentioned I was Swiss. It could have rung a bell with him. Maybe not then but by the time we ran into each other at the pizza place.”
More absorbed in his souvlaki than her hypothetical, Ottovio didn’t reply. Anna poured catsup on Ramadi’s plate and dabbed yogurt sauce on her falafel. “Whoever he is,” she said, “he’s definitely Golden Dawn. Same bad attitude as the troll who wanted my blood simply because my blogging offended his Greekness.”
Struggling to liberate a chunk of lamb from its skewer, Ottovio observed, “Nationalists still haven’t gotten over the Ottoman Empire and tend to nurse grudges. But why would they wait years to come after you?”
“Dunno. A few days after those two expired we slipped into Turkey. I was there almost a month. Maybe they thought I was gone for good and only recently suspected I was still around.”
“Who you mean, they? Those guys were already dead.”
“I mean Laskaris and his creepy buddy who tried to follow us home.”
“Goal!” Ramadi cried out. On his plate he had formed a U with three French fries and was batting peas into it with his knife.
“Eat some more footballs,” Anna instructed, “so you will grow up strong and be a star striker.”
“Wanna be airplane pilot,” Ramadi explained. “Spaceman too.”
“Okay, then eat your space helmets,” Ottovio appetizingly suggested.
“Anyway,” Anna said, going back to English, “if he’s not a cop, he forged that business card, right? Maybe his identity is forged too. He could be somebody else entirely.”
Ottovio scratched his chin, dribbling crumbs from his beard. “Hmm. If so, why pick a real person’s name? Seems risky.”
“Well, maybe that person is no longer with us. You know how to raise the dead. How many zombies have you signed up on Altogether?”
As a favor to her and probably for later reference, to boost enrollment at the fledgling social media site, he’d signed up a number of recently departed Athenians, with the date they met their maker for passwords.
“Maybe a dozen. Come from death notices in newspapers.”
“Since you’re so good at that, maybe you can find one for this guy.”
Ottovio brandished his phone. “Easy enough.”
Anna finished her falafel, spooned some peas into Ramadi’s hangar, and was attacking her salad when Ottovio gave a little chuckle. “Good thinking. The Laskaris from Perama with a police record died over two years ago.”
“No shit? So, someone is pretending to be him pretending to be a cop?”
“Possibly. Lemme finish reading the obit.”
Shortly he looked up, no longer smirking. “He was 67 when he died. At the end it says ‘He is survived by Isis Laskaris, loving wife of 46 years, and one son, Vassilios Laskaris II.’ Could be your guy.”
“Aha! So maybe he’s not a zombie. Does it say where his badass son lives?”
“No data. Maybe in his mom’s basement.”
She laughed. “Funny, but somehow I doubt that. So what’s his game? What does he want from me?”
“Well, he’s not a cop so can’t arrest you and he’s not a zombie after your brain. Revenge maybe?”
Saturday came, and with it another opportunity for Anna to serve and schmooze customers. Tables at the Taverna Omphalos spilled from its folding glass front onto the sidewalk along teeming Dimokratias Boulevard. It was a popular watering hole with a menu of standard fare served up from a fairly decent kitchen. This was only Anna’s second week of serving, but already she had come to recognize some of her diners and they her.
Today her tables were inside. Her shift was yet to get busy, allowing her time to ruminate, focusing on Altogether and whether to keep stumping for it. On the plus side, she had just received her first paycheck after invoicing Prótos for 20 billable hours. Even after the government’s cut, it was a considerable chunk of change compared to the less than two hundred euros she took home from the Taverna at the end of last week, tips included. Money had never particularly attracted her, but she had a child to raise, dammit, responsibilities. Her nest egg—wages, hazard pay, and hush money from her stint in West Africa—was about to hatch and fly away.
Given that the alternative seemed to be penury, then and there she resolved to stick it out. That would mean getting better acquainted with the system and to Irene’s gung-ho supervision. Currently she seemed to be in Irene’s good graces, thanks to a recent uptick of sign-ups, a salutary trend that Anna was happy to let her boss attribute to her marginal evangelizing efforts, not to Ottovio raising the dead. Although his zombies couldn’t animate Altogether, Anna greatly appreciated the geek’s obsessive attention to detail in her behalf, though suspected he might have unannounced plans for them.
Her reverie ended when Damon the manager tugged at her arm and pointed to a customer at one of her stations. She grabbed a menu and ran it over to a man caressing his phone. When he accepted the menu without looking up, Anna’s Adam’s apple did a little dance up and down her throat. She hastened back to the service window, back turned to her customer, a lanky unshaven forty-ish man with a mop of curly black hair. It’s Laskaris’s buddy, the creep who tried to follow me home from the pizzeria! After inhaling and exhaling for eight counts a few times, she deposited her eyeglasses in her shirt pocket, pulled her frilly waitress cap down over her forehead, and waltzed to his table to trill “May I take your order?”
This time he did look up, his face betraying no recognition, either because she was too incognito or out of context. “I’m not sure what I want. You have suggestion?”
“Well,” she said in her best Greek, “the special today is grilled octopus and pilaf. Comes with salad. People really like it. We might be out of it soon. See it over at that table,” As his gaze followed her finger she shifted position toward his back.
“Okay, I’ll have that,” he said, eyes returning to his phone. “Oh, and a double Ouzo with two ice cubes in it.”
“Right away,” she assured him as she fled.
She told the barkeep to fix the drink and bus it to table nine if he would; she needed to run to the bathroom. Instead, she ran to the kitchen, whisked off her cap and apron, grabbed her handbag from its hiding place, and exited the back door, shouting to the chef, “Just pinned up an order for table nine. I’m about to be violently ill. Tell Damon that I went to the clinic. I’ll check in later.”
She wasn’t sure where to go. Halfway to the next intersection her frantic pace slowed and then stopped. She turned back toward the taverna and sat on a concrete wall festooned with graffiti with her back to a rubble-filled lot to consider the situation. Presently, she donned her glasses, shook out her headscarf, draped and knotted it primly under her chin, and, now more curious than fearful, waited.
Continue reading Geoffrey Dutton's novel Her Own Devices. Click on the links below to read additional chapters published here in The Write Launch.
For fifteen minutes Anna sat on the concrete wall, fingers interlocked, rhythmically rubbing her thumbs, until the curly headed man emerged onto the taverna’s patio. He was as thin as she had remembered, but taller, with that stooped bearing tall men fall into from peering down at the world. After briefly stabbing and stroking his phone, he put it in a back pocket, glanced in her direction, and sauntered down the sidewalk. Sensing he still hadn’t recognized her emboldened Anna to get up and warily trail after him. Then, feeling exposed, she fell in behind an older woman lugging a shopping bag.
Or start at the beginning and read...
That unseasonably warm October day marked the first, but not the last, time Anna leaned on Andreas to mind the boy. She tried to minimize the inconvenience, rewarding him with bottles of wine, home-cooked meals, and Swiss cheek kisses. By the following autumn, she’d stashed a playpen and stroller from a thrift shop in his storage room for his convenience, she told herself. Andreas said he didn’t mind keeping the items and now and found the playpen a handy restraint, but drew the line at strolling.