Her Own Devices: Part Two

Novel Excerpts by Geoffrey Dutton

Her Own Devices: Part Two

Part Two
Apprentice Anna

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, as if in thought. Such a good man. He took upon himself to keep us together, house us, feed us, and free George to direct a new mission. Had he not, I would still be alive to be a father to my son, but how can I fault him for how it ended?

As Andreas shuts the light and slides under his comforter, I find myself drawn to the taverna where we told him of our love and sealed our comradeship against his better judgment. I sense she still comes here. 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 and I hear what sounds like many children crying. Now he gets up to leave. As soon as he goes out, the wailing sound gives way to the heavenly host I am used to hearing. I think of my sleeping family a few blocks away and feel I must keep them away from such men and that disturbs me because I can’t.

Chapter Eight

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 at part-time, which gave her the pick of the litter at a significant discount; he himself sported such venerable threads. Telling him that 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 a cake, and while she would have loved to bake one of her grandmother’s Haselnusstorte, nuts to nuts she had to say once informed by Josef’s mom that he was allergic—or so she’d assumed after a candy bar hadn’t agreed with him. Just as well, Anna rationalized; a rich, delicious torte would be wasted on ill-prepared palates. In its stead, at a little artopoieío on Dimokratias Boulevard she placed an 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 outside, the Golden House’s owner waved her in with a hairy arm. Through a plastered-on grin he effused, “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.

Plastering on her dimples, Anna replied, “Quite all right, thank you,” and then effused, “Ooh, I see you have a new cold case. That’s terrific.”

“Why, yes. 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 slowly 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.”

His words stopped Anna’s breath. Ten seconds ticked past before she exhaled through a smile. “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 swift take with her phone ingested Police Warden Vassilios Laskaris’ contact data 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 over at her place to examine his pilfered Hellenic Police database. As an inducement, she texted again, promising a take-out dinner of his choice, to which he tersely replied souvlaki.

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, entranced.

I can almost 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. If I get right behind them I can read the computer screen. I know what they are doing. I was with her first time they met at the taverna. He looked her up in his police file to check if she was reliable. Now she shows him card for someone named Vassilios Laskaris on her phone. Seems to be policeman. Why would policeman be in that database of criminals?

“Can you tell if this guy is known to the police?” Anna asked.

Ottovio shoved a thumb drive into his infernal machine. “This copy of police suspect database is a little old,” he apologized, “but let’s assume he is old news to them.” Ramadi announced he felt cold and snuggled into Anna’s lap. Saying she felt chilled too, she hugged him and regarded the windows, but all were shut.

Ottovio opened an application, then a file, and started typing commands. 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.

“Okay, we search by name,” Ottovio muttered, entering a query. After a moment of study, he informed her that Vassilios Laskaris came to the attention of Hellenic Police after an incident in 2013 involving excessive force during an altercation with a shopkeeper for which he was held partly responsible and fined but not sentenced. No mention of being deputized as a warden. That was pretty much it, he said, disclaiming 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 job description on his calling card.

“What exactly is a warden?” she inquired.

“Kind of a junior detective,” he mansplained, “a supernumerary not sworn into the force, sometimes called stooge. Basically a paid informant doing piecework for law enforcement. 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 eyed 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. Another good reason for not baking a tort, Anna observed.

#

For closely guarded reasons, rather than calling the Nikaia police station from her own phone, the next morning found Anna standing in line, fondling spare change to drop into one of the few functional pay phones in the area, this at a Western Union storefront heavily used by locals for money orders and foreigners to transmit remittances. Awaiting her turn for it gave her time to consider what to say to whomever answers the phone at police stations.

Upon attaining the antiquated instrument, she wiped off the receiver with her bandanna, dialed the number Ottovio had given her last night, and deposited coins as instructed.

Bzzap, bzzap beeped the annoying ringtone. After a while, a female voice crisply 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 waited a spell.

“He’s not one of ours,” Sergeant Cristopoulos told her. “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—in translation, ‘navel of the world’—but there she was, taking advantage of 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 probably have sufficed for the three of them.

Nodding toward Ramadi, currently adsorbed 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 he up to? 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.”

“I remember, but how would he know that?”

“One of the two thugs could have described me to someone before he died. Maybe Laskaris was close to them and wants revenge. Whatever, it spooks me.”

Their food arrived. Anna poured catsup on Ramadi’s plate and dabbed yogurt sauce on her falafel. “Know what I think?” she said. “He’s definitely Golden Dawn. Same bad attitude as the guy who wanted my blood simply because my blogging offended his Greekness.”

“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 the guy he had with him 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, unleashing a cascade of crumbs from his beard. “Hmm. If so, why would he 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 online 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 a year 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.’ Maybe that’s who you’re dealing with.”

“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 Avenue. 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. Whether or not to keep stumping for it still weighed heavily upon her. On the plus side, she had just received her first paycheck after invoicing Prótos for twenty 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—back wages and hazard pay from her stint in central 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 used to 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 those 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 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 where the man sat regarding his phone. “Thanks,” he said without looking up. Anna’s Adam’s apple did a little dance up and down her throat as she hastened back to the service window, back turned to her customer, an 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! Trying not to hyperventilate, 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.” When 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 said 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 Peter 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, considering the situation. Presently she donned her glasses, extracted her headscarf from her handbag, shook it out, draped and knotted it primly under her chin, and, now more curious than fearful, waited.

About the Author

Geoffrey Dutton

Website

After a 30-year career in computer software design Geoffrey Dutton segued into technical writing and IT journalism. When high tech turned undeniably evil, he quit telling users what and what not to do, unlearned expository style, and wrote whatever suited his fancy. For over two decades he has littered the Web with hundreds of stories, articles, and memoirs as a regular contributor to CounterPunch, Medium, and Cowbird, and variously at Sisyphus, New Theory, The Write Launch, McSweeny’s, The Technoskeptic, and Atthis Arts. Since 2015 he has blogged at Progressive Pilgrim Review and in 2018 perpetrated the imprint Perfidy Press. His 2018 alt-thriller Turkey Shoot received the 2019 Courage in Fiction award from Independent Publishers of New England, to which he was subsequently elected a director. Geoff lives in the Boston suburbs with his wife, collegiate daughter, and two under-exercised white house cats who leave their imprint wherever they lounge.