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. In the previous chapter, Anna fled the premises when one of the men who menaced her shows up at a table she serves in the taverna, afraid of being recognized. Once outside, she overcomes her fear to follow him when he leaves and becomes a witness to a felony that will change the course of her life.
Chapter Nine: Scene on the Street
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.
A few dozen paces down the boulevard Anna’s human shield stopped short, laying down her burden as her phone pealed, causing Anna to bump into her back. Anna apologized for her misstep. No problem, said the woman and attended to her call.
By then, the thin man had stopped to unlock a black sedan. As he stooped to get in, he glanced her way. Anna shrank behind her shopper, as the curly-headed man walked toward her, his thin lips in a Mona Lisa curl.
Worried she’d been made, Anna was about to flee when the man halted to pull something from his pocket and approached a boy of seven or eight squatting on the pavement. The boy, crisply attired in khakis and a button-down shirt, was petting a little brown dog tethered to a street sign in front of a nail salon. The man folded his frame to pet the dog and chat up the child, neither of whom seemed to mind the stranger’s aimiable attention.
Upon ending her call, Anna’s shopper hoisted her bag, and resumed her expedition. Abandoning caution Anna edged curbside to watch. She couldn’t overhear them, but she observed the man holding up some kind of a treat. Gaping expectantly, the dog watched as the small human, not he, received it. The boy tentatively unwrapped some sort of bon-bon, took a lick, then popped it in as the man continued to make conversation and patted the dog, who started licking his hand. When the man batted its muzzle away, taking this to be a game of kiss-the-fingers, the dog kept at it and his lanky playmate obliged.
After a minute or so of puppy play, the boy dropped an arm to the sidewalk to brace himself. The man grasped his shoulders to steady him, then tugged him to his feet and proceeded to shuffle him down the sidewalk, much as a child would walk a doll to its next exciting appointment. The boy neither cooperated nor struggled. His feet, she observed with mounting dismay, barely seemed to work.
Gaping after them, Anna felt for her phone, raised it, took a photo, and followed. Scant seconds later, she captured the man sliding the boy’s flaccid frame onto his car’s rear seat. As she drew closer, the man jumped in and fired the engine. Anna photographed the car nosing onto the boulevard and then, oblivious to passing cars, jumped off the curb to snap the receding vehicle before traffic obliterated it.
Just then she heard barking. The little dog was noisily straining against his leash at a well-appointed woman in a blue and yellow sheath hastily exiting a nail salon blowing on her maroon fingernails. Her heels click-clacked to the tethered dog, who rose on its haunches to paw her fashionable dress. She stepped away and scanned the sidewalk with apprehensive eyes.
Anna rushed up to to her. “The boy who was here was just kidnapped!” she panted, seconded by the dog’s yips. “I saw the whole thing. Was he your son?”
Now as agitated as her pet, the woman cried, “It cannot be! What did you see?”
Anna gulped, and rattled off the sordid sequence of events she’d seen. The woman’s hands came to her face and then fell away, balling into fists as she berated Anna,“You could have screamed, shouted for police! Oh Sami! I’ve lost my Sami! How could you let it happen?”
“I should have yelled,” Anna admitted. “Guess I was afraid of what he might do if I did. But I have photos. Look!”
Instead of looking at Anna’s phone, she was punching in 112 on hers, then shouting at the dispatcher loudly enough to gather passersby. “They are coming,” she pouted after clicking off.
“See, I have pictures. Evidence,” Anna said, scrolling through her four photos. “Sorry, no video.”
The first two showed the pair walking away and of the boy being lifted into the car. They were somewhat blurry and didn’t show faces. The two of the getaway car were crisper and featured a license plate.
“You must give those to the police,” the woman urged.
“Of course,” Anna said, unsure of how to do that.
She was further instructed to stand by until police came, and again assented, wondering who this somewhat imperious lady was and whether to divulge why she was paying attention to the man. In the distance, a siren warbled a discordant minor sixth. Listening to it approach, Anna could think of places she’d much rather be.
She spent the rest of her shift in the back of the taverna with the victim’s mother, Peter the manager, and two Hellenic Police officers, one in uniform, the other in a grey suit and loosened blue tie, bearing a name tag reading Lt. A. Nicolaides, Inspector. The plainclothesman was clean-shaven, trimmer than his rumpled suit, and had a hawkish beak. While pleasant enough, nothing about his grave demeanor charmed the ladies.
Eschewing pleasantries, the inspector took a seat with Peter and the two women as his partner jotted in a notebook. In turn patting her eyes and wringing her handkerchief, the woman identified herself as Fotini Evangelatos and her kidnapped son as Sami, eight, who resided on a seaside boulevard in Piraiki. When Anna’s turn came, she tersely identified herself and stammered through what she’d witnessed before shoving her phone across the table and urging Nicolaides to track down that car now, please, to Fotini’s nodding approval. Faintly glowering, he perused her photos and then placed a call to pass on the facts. Handing back her phone, he said that they will consult motor vehicle records, broadcast a bulletin, and stake out his address in short order.
“Don’t let them go in shooting, please,” cried Fotini. “Oh, Sami!”
“Don’t worry, ma’am,” Nicolaides said, and swerved to interrogate Manager Peter, who confirmed that the man had eaten there and left within the past hour. Anna had been waiting on him, he added, and had abruptly fled the premises after taking his order, citing a sudden illness. Kneading her hands under the table, Anna confirmed Peter’s version of events, except to say that she hadn’t gotten sick, just terrorized by the sight of him, sir.
Asking Anna to “call me Antonio,” the inspector inquired why was that. Under his investigatory gaze, she related being followed by him one afternoon maybe a week ago while walking home .
“Was he alone?” Antonio wanted to know.
“There was nobody with him at the time,” she replied, eliding the presence of Police Warden Vassilios Laskaris. “He was down at the street corner as we walked up the hill. When I turned and saw him, he ducked away.”
“You said ‘we.’ So, you were not alone?”
“No, I was with my four-year-old son.”
“Why were you out?”
“We were on our way home after shopping.”
“Which is where?”
She had already given him her address, but she told him again.
“Can you think of any reason he might have followed you? Had you ever met or exchanged words?”
As Anna dithered between yes and no, Fotini interjected. “I’ll bet he was after your son!”
Those seven words sent Anna’s gaze sailing up toward the ceiling fixtures to rest a moment before admitting she’d never considered that. She just assumed the creep was stalking her.
Nicolaides might have asked why she assumed that, but instead took another tack. “So, today, you fled at the sight of him, but then waited outside to follow him, is that right?” he asked, not waiting for an answer. “If you were so afraid of him, why did you do that?”
Noticing her fingers drumming the table, Anna lowered her hands to drum her lap. “I panicked. Wanted to put distance between us,” she allowed. “But outside, it hit me that he hadn’t seemed to recognize me. Curiosity got the better of me, I guess, and decided to tail him, maybe get a look at his car. But I never expected he would do something like that.”
Nicolaides wouldn’t let go. “You knew he had a car, then?”
“How could I?” Anna replied as a rivulet of moisture trickled down her torso. “But if he had come by car, I wanted to see it.”
“So you just ...”
Anna stiffened and pushed back. “Look, he snatched a child. I saw it. I told you what I know. I showed you his car. So, stop grilling me and go find Sami."
“Yes, please!” Fotini bleated. “There’s no time to waste!”
Nicolaides growled, “Don’t worry, we will” and tilted his chin to Anna. “Consider yourself a key witness. If we prosecute this guy, you’ll need to give a deposition, this time under oath—the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but.”
“No problem,” Anna replied, desperately wanting the interrogation to end, which shortly it did, as “Never on Sunday” pealed from Nicolaides’ phone. “Yes, it is,” he said. “Any news? ... Where?” ... “Right away.” He pocketed his phone and told them he had to go but there might be good news. “We’ll be in touch soon,” he told Fotini as he stood up and signaled his partner to follow him.
Peter arose and tucked his chair., “I’m so sorry. Both of you, stay as long as you like. Anna, take the rest of the day off. Appetizers are on the house,” he told them before retreating to the kitchen.
Anna reclined in her chair and expelled a breath through pursed lips, wishing she still smoked. Her eyes sought the ceiling as Fotini blotted hers, and they sat in silence until some dishes clattering into a washtub made Fotini jump.
“Are you okay?” Anna asked. “Do you have anyone to come home to?”
“Yes, Ilias, my husband. He’s on his way home. Have you?”
Anna shook her head. “But soon I have to get my boy from preschool. Can I get you something to eat before I leave?”
“Thanks, no. I have your number. I’ll let you know what develops. I can’t tell you how much what you did means to me.”
“I wish I could have done more, Fotini. Take care getting home and let’s hope for the best.”
While she did hold out hope, something was telling Anna that this wasn’t going to end well.
This is the second time something strange has drawn me here. First, that unpleasant man getting drunk and now it seems a crime has been committed. Who’s that woman with her? She looks like she has money but she’s sad. Why the police? Was there a crime? Katrina seemed agitated. When she handed over her phone, I saw a picture of a man dragging a boy along a street, not our son, praise Allah. It must have been the other woman’s boy and Katrina was there. I project love to comfort them. They may not receive it, but it’s all what I can do.
The day after next, Sunday, belonged to Ramadi and his eagerly anticipated birthday party. Anna too had something to celebrate; Fotini had called the night before relating that her son had been safely recovered, thanks to Anna’s snapshots. Police had pulled over his abductor’s car somewhere in Nikaia, where they took him into custody and Sami to a hospital. There, doctors declared the boy unharmed, at least as far as his body was concerned. Both women remarked on the unexpected efficiency of the police’s dragnet. Maybe they just got lucky, Fotini said.
The happy news helped Anna enjoy the party at Daria’s. Most of Stavros’ pizza was wolfed down, and the cake with the blue fondant figurine of Jay-Jay the Jet Plane was a big hit, especially with the birthday boy. Ramadi extinguished its five candles in one go to a discordant rendition of Xronia Polla, the Greek birthday song that makes “Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you...” seem pretty lame:
May you grow old and have white hair,
give to everyone the light of knowledge,
and may all say here is a wise person
Andreas had asked them to drop by after the party for tea and snacks. He too had a gift for the boy. They munched popcorn as Ramadi wrestled open a brown box big enough for him to hide in, which of course he later did. Peering under a pulled-up flap he beheld the handlebars of a little blue bicycle with training wheels and a clown’s horn, a pint-sized water bottle clipped to its frame. Andreas started to help him lift it out, but Ramadi was already upending the box and heaving it off, not considering that the bike would also be on its head.
Catching the bike before it toppled over, Andreas further obliged with, “If it’s too big for your flat, I can keep it downstairs. I rearranged my living room to let him make a circuit.”
Anna grinned, leapt up, embraced his shoulders, and bussed his cheeks. “This is super! Ramadi, give a big thank-you to Onkle Andreas.”
“Tank you Onkle. I love it!” the boy echoed, eagerly righting his riding machine.
“Vielen Danke, Onkle,” seconded Anna and blew a kiss.
The adults retreated to the kitchen to converse as Ramadi cranked his gleaming handlebars left to wobble anti-clockwise about the parlor. Over mugs of Ceylon tea, Anna afforded Andreas a three-minute synopsis of her recent adventures, from being followed home from a pizzeria to witnessing the stalker commit a kidnapping to a police interrogation and the child’s rescue within the hour.
Andreas was spellbound. “That’s incredible,” he said as he sipped his tepid tea. He too marveled over how quickly the police had sprung into action.
“Fotini was told a cop spotted the car after a bulletin went out. When he pulled it over, the boy was still in the back seat. They took him to hospital and his parents brought him home the same day.”
“I’m still amazed. Was he okay after that? I mean, the drug, the trauma.”
“Don’t know about side effects, but Fotini thinks he slept through the whole thing and woke up in an ambulance. Maybe that counts as trauma.”
“What about the kidnapper?”
“Just what’s in the police log. Date, time, name, location. Name is Theodoros Servopoulos, Greek citizen. They picked him up in Nikaia.”
Petting his hairless chin like a cat, Andreas wondered aloud what the miscreant might have had in mind for that kid.
“Could be for ransom or unmentionable acts. What do you think?”
“Ugh. Hope it was ransom, but if you do that, it helps to know your victim’s name, address, and next of kin. Seems like this fellow didn’t, so ugh again. Anyway, now you’re a local hero. How does it feel?”
“Not great. Speaking of ugh, now I’m a crime witness. Detective told me to expect to make a statement, maybe testify. As if that’s not enough exposure, Fotini said a reporter called her about the kidnapping. I hope she didn’t drop my name.”
Andreas seemed puzzled. He asked why she chose to be inaccessible.
“I need to keep out of the media. Laskaris still stalks the land and I bet he’ll be pissed. If he finds out who furnished evidence, who knows what he’d do?”
He was caressing his chin again. “Not much, maybe. Laskaris must be running scared or should be once he finds out where his partner is.”
“Hopefully, too scared to bother with me,” she said, as arrhythmic thuds of falling objects issued from the next room. They rushed in to find a pile of books on the floor and Ramadi harmlessly pinned under his bicycle, sleepily murmuring “Airplane crash.”
Shafts of waning sunlight fragmented the streets of Piraeus into jagged silhouettes, casting darkness on the plants lining Andreas’s kitchen windows and on two occupants tucking in slices of rewarmed birthday pizza. Anna wiped her hands and got up to put a blanket over Ramadi, curled up on Andreas’s daybed sleeping off his big day. Would it be too much trouble, Anna asked, if they stayed over—just in case?
“In case of what?”
“In case someone bangs on my door in the middle of the night.”
“And who might that be?”
“I dunno. The police, a crime reporter, maybe even Laskaris, whoever might want a piece of me. I’m not used to being a person of interest.”
“I doubt that, but sure,” Andreas said atop a nonchalant shrug, “if you don’t mind sleeping next to me.”
She followed him into his chambers with its queen bed and sat on its pale-yellow comforter as he entered the bathroom, admiring the Danish Modern furnishings Kosta had left behind and the way the Wedgwood mauve walls complemented the teakwood. Above a double-wide chest of drawers a dusty mirror reflected her concerns.
Andreas exited from the bathroom in baggy hemp pajamas bearing a garment. “You can use this bathrobe.” Nodding at the water closet, he advised, “You’ll find a nightshirt in a basket in there.” He had unshackled his ponytail to let his ash blonde hair unfurl across his shoulders.
She accepted the crimson robe with flaring lapels and navy-blue piping and took her turn in the loo, remembering Mahmoud telling her he had slept in this bed with Andreas one night when he and George had to lie low. Now she was on the run, but was it away from or towards something? The bathroom mirror wasn’t telling.
She shed her clothing slowly, remembering a similar scene at her place back then—Mahmoud exiting her bathroom in striped pajamas that she had bought for him before shyly joining her in bed, only to shed them along with his virginity. She found the saffron nightshirt embroidered with green vines and slipped into it. Placing her spectacles on the shelf under the deadpan mirror, she returned to the bedroom to circle around the bed and ease under the comforter.
Andreas lay upon his back silhouetted by his reading lamp, hands folded upon the coverlet. She fluffed her pillow and turned to him. Propping herself on her forearm, she said, “You know, I’ve never been in bed with a gay man. Have you ever slept with a woman?”
Gazing at the ceiling, Andreas stroked his stubbly chin. “Oh yes, before I came to Greece. I was eighteen and at college. Three girls, in fact...”
“I never thought of you that way. Did anything ever develop, other than swelling?”
After studying the ceiling, Andreas said, “Two of them quickly lost interest. The third one, Angela, lasted a couple of months.”
“What made it end?”
Eyes still averted, Andreas said, “Sex felt, well, awkward. We talked about it. I told her I felt ambivalent. Angela understood, said she herself wanted to try it with a woman and suggested we go to an LGBQ Alliance meeting to help sort things out.”
“And did it?”
“I would say so. Angela paired off with a woman we met, and I ended up falling in love with one of the panelists. That was Ivan. We just clicked.”
“Ja, such a handsome guy. Too bad it didn’t work out when you got together again here.”
He turned to her. “We’d never had a chance to live together until his company transferred him to Athens. His showing up seemed a godsend. Kosta was serving his sentence and I was stressed out trying to salvage our mission. George had just been arrested and I thought I might be next.”
“And so, you got him to lease that fancy condo on his company’s tab. Must’ve made you happy.”
“Sure, it did, and not just because I was with Ivan. It also pleased me to shelter Mahmoud and Kaan.”
“And then me, taking refuge from a berserk nationalist. Nice happy family.”
“Ja ... until everyone split to Turkey, and before long Ivan and I split up.”
“Why did you have to break up? Was it just the separation?”
“That and the stress of shielding him from knowing what we were up to. And my guilt.”
“For using Ivan that way. On top of exploiting his generosity, we sent Kaan to live with him in Turkey as his translator, but he was actually scouting out logistics for our mission. Even though Ivan never knew, I worried he would get dragged into it. And then, when he flew back to visit me, I was so preoccupied he said hey, this isn’t fun anymore. I was in no position to disagree, and so we called it off.”
“But he’d already walked out on you. That wasn’t your fault.”
“Nor was it his. He had to relocate for work. Also, Kosta was languishing in prison, and I had ignored him. And sure enough, after his release he walked out, too. It was all my own damn fault.”
She squeezed his shoulder, seeking his elusive eyes. “I’m sorry. I hope you find what you’re looking for. You deserve to be loved.”
“I’m not sure what I’m looking for. I’ve sort of given up looking.”
He turned off his lamp and they lay side by side in the darkness. Her hand found his.
“Me too,” she said, “in case you hadn’t noticed.”
Continue reading Geoffrey Dutton's novel Her Own Devices. Click on the links below to read additional chapters published here in The Write Launch.
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.
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.