FIRE ON THE ISLAND is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a perilously damaged church, an arsonist invades their midst.
Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save a beloved truffle-sniffing dog. Hailed as a hero and embraced by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young bartender who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, a young Albanian waiter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and the village itself hides a violent history. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.
A long time devotee of the Greek islands, Smith paints the setting with gorgeous color and empathy, ushering in a new romantic thriller with the charm of Zorba the Greek while shedding bright light on the very real challenges of life in contemporary Greece.
Nothing had prepared Nick for the sheer beauty of the village perched above the purpling sea. The last rays of sunset licked Vourvoulos’ lofty castle walls. A necklace of red-tiled roofs clung to the cliffs below. He pulled the small car off the road and grabbed his binoculars.
His socks collected burrs as he trudged through the dried weeds to stand as close to the cliff ’s edge as he dared in the gusting wind. On the sea below, a fishing boat chugged toward the village’s small port. Through the binoculars, Nick slowly panned the houses that spilled down to the water’s edge. Exhausted from too many hours in economy class, he was glad to know that somewhere in that tangle of stone buildings was a bed with his name on it.READ MORE
He shifted the binoculars to search past Vourvoulos’ headland for black specks that might be approaching rafts. Nick didn’t expect to see one. The refugees usually arrived at dawn not sunset, and with winter approaching, the number coming had started to drop; though the traffickers, operating across the narrow channel in Turkey, would ensure that they didn’t stop altogether. Misery drove their business, and a few drowned refugees wouldn’t change that.
Nick was still watching for rafts when he smelled the smoke. The wind carried it to him. He panned the village again, looking for its source and saw nothing. Then he started along the cove-dotted shoreline. At first he mistook flames for the sunset’s reflection off a pile of limestone rocks, but with a second look, he saw the wind pushing the fire quickly uphill in the dry brush. Thistles, bursting open, sent sparks into the tops of the tall trees overhanging a lone house.
In its yard, a dog, barking frantically, strained at its leash.
Nick sprinted back to his car.
Shirley tootled along the coastal road with her backseat filled with nine dead cats. They weren’t dead exactly, only dead-to-the-world under anesthesia from being fixed, as if removing sensitive body parts could be considered a fix. Shirley didn’t think so. A cat meowed weakly and she sped up, wanting her daughter, who came up with the idea of fixing them, to have the pleasure of uncaging the maligned animals when they came to. A second cat meowed, and Shirley accelerated more, her tires complaining as she took a curve too fast.
In the same instant, Nick shot back onto the road. In a squeal of brakes, they barely managed to avoid a collision.
“Oh heavens!” Shirley exclaimed when she saw in her rearview mirror that he’d come to a stop with his front tires perched on the cliff.
Moments later, he was on her tail, trying to pass on curves with no shoulders and a long drop to the sea. When they reached a short stretch of straight road, Shirley edged over. It was also where she habitually caught the first glimpse of her house, and that evening, she couldn’t see it for the billowing smoke. Forgetting Nick, who was already alongside her, she stomped on the accelerator, leaving him in the wrong lane approaching another curve. He hit the brakes hard, and burning rubber, swerved back behind her.
He was still swearing at the stupid woman when she bounced off the road to park alongside a pickup truck with a swirling blue light fixed to its roof. Nick skidded to a stop behind her.
Shirley scrambled from her small car as fast as her generous body would allow. “Apostolis!” she cried. “Dingo is up there!”
The fire chief was busy directing villagers who had shown up to fight the fire, some scrambling from cars with shovels, others carrying water tanks and barrels in the back of pickups. “Are you sure only Dingo is there?” Apostolis shouted back.
Nick sprinted past them, unbuttoning his shirt while clutching a water bottle. “Is Ringo the dog?”
“Dingo!” Shirley shouted after him. “His name is Dingo!”
Nick disappeared in the smoke. He stopped running only long enough to stand on his shirt and rip off a sleeve, and doused it with water before tying it over his nose and mouth. Again he charged uphill. Airborne sparks had set the tops of the tall trees ablaze, but the weedy fire on the ground wasn’t especially hot. He moved too quickly for the flames to do more than singe his cuffs. “Dingo!” he shouted. “Dingo! Dingo!”
The dog stirred.
He struggled to stand, shaking feebly.
He barked once and collapsed.
Nick found the unconscious dog, unfastened his leash and slung him around his neck. His legs were long and bony, and Nick grasped his ankles while using his foot to slide open the patio door. “Hello! Hello! Is anyone here?” he shouted, moving quickly through the house, checking all the rooms. He kicked in a locked door. “Einai kanena etho?” The house was remarkably smoke-free, and the dog, bouncing on Nick’s shoulders, soon recovered, but he didn’t want to let him loose for fear he would bolt back into danger.
When certain no one was trapped inside, he ran back out. Dingo, unhappy to be in the smoke again, bucked hard as Nick jogged downhill through the burning brush. A glowing ember landed on his forehead, but he couldn’t risk letting go of the dog to brush it off. Once back on the road, he gladly rolled the unhappy animal off his shoulders.
“Dingo!” Shirley cried as he leapt up to kiss her.
Nick, between coughs, told the fire chief, “Kopsete ta megala dendra na pesoun pros to meros mas.” Cut the big trees to fall toward us.
“Not Lukas’s beauties!” Shirley cried.
“If they fall this way,” he continued, “they will suffocate the fire on the ground. Then your men can get above the house and shoot water down on the flames. But you can’t wait.”
Apostolis did a split-second assessment of the situation and agreed. He shouted an order, and trucks hauling water took the scrubby hill on both sides of the endangered house.
Two cars pulled up.
Lydia jumped out of the first one. “Mum! Are you all right?”
“Of course I’m all right,” Shirley replied. “It’s your father I’m worried about.”
That was Lukas, who got out of the second car. The flames played on the fisherman’s face permanently bronzed by years at sea.
“Lukas, you won’t believe what has to be done,” Shirley said. “You just won’t believe it!”
He asked the fire chief, “Can you save the house?”
“Only if we cut the trees.”
Lukas’s beauties. The four red eucalyptus trees he had planted, one for each of their daughters, cutting notches in them as the girls inched up, until they stopped growing taller though the trees never did. Eventually even their tallest notches towered over the house. Lukas clenched his jaw, tears welling in his eyes; and that was all the time he had to grieve for his beauties, or he’d be grieving for his home, too. “Do you have a spare chainsaw?”
“In the back of my truck,” Apostolis told him.
Lukas grabbed it and trudged up the hill.
Nick woke up in a big brass bed in a white room and at first didn’t know where he was. A full-length mirror in the corner confirmed he was the only familiar thing in it. He lingered under the covers, recalling his last twenty-four hours: his grandfather’s funeral, a hasty departure for the airport to catch his flight to Greece, the long wait in Athens for his connection to the island, and the fire and the dog. When he’d finally found his room—and the bed with his name on it—he had sipped wine on the terrace watching moonlight spill across the sea to the dark shadow of Turkey. Slowly the village went to bed, and eventually he did too, crawling between sheets that smelled a lot fresher than he did.
Outside his window, the cawing birds that woke him could have been Baltimore crows. He got out of bed to open the shutters overlooking the small port with its restaurant umbrellas and brightly-colored fishing boats. Only the black fuel tank looming behind the buildings marred the otherwise idyllic scene. What sounded like crows were hundreds of noisy seagulls flocking around a fishing boat coming into the harbor. Nick moved quickly, wanting to get down the hill to see them. He had forgotten the burn on his forehead until he glanced in the mirror, and decided he should tend to it. That led to a shower, ointment, and a bandage. By the time he made it down the steep cobbled road, the birds had flown off.
Having eaten nothing except bad airline food for as long as his stomach could remember, he hungrily checked out the restaurants along the wharf. Most were closed, and the options for breakfast at those that were open appeared to be bread-and-honey or yogurt-and-honey, until Nick spotted English breakfast on a sandwich board outside Vassoula’s Bar. As a bonus, the place had a lush arbor of lavender roses that were especially fragrant in the warming sun. He sat at a table where he could watch Stavros untangle fish from his nets.
“What do you want, bread or yogurt?” he heard, and turned to Vassoula. Her eyes, as black as the thick hair falling down her back, were hardened by too much make-up, aging her beyond her thirty years; and despite a thin sweater buttoned against the morning chill, her cleavage wasn’t shy. “Honey comes with both,” she said, and flicked her cigarette into the water.
“I’ll take the English breakfast, please.”
“We don’t have an English breakfast. That’s the restaurant next door.”
Nick realized his mistake when he glanced over and saw a waiter shaking out blue tablecloths beneath a sign for Lydia’s Restaurant. His table had a yellow cloth. “You only have bread and yoghurt?” he asked.
“Stavros!” Vassoula called to the fisherman. “Do you have sardines?”
“I always have some for you!”
She said to Nick, “There are fresh sardines, too.”
“Sardines? For breakfast?” Fresh or not, Nick could not imagine eating them first thing in the morning. “I was hoping for something unhealthy, like sausage and runny beans. Sorry,” he said, and slipped from Vassoula’s yellow zone to Lydia’s blue one.
“She’s not really English,” Vassoula warned him.
“That’s okay. Neither am I.”
Lydia hardly slept all night. Every time she closed her eyes she saw fire, or smelled smoke, or imagined the scratch of a match by someone creeping up to the Coast Guard’s fuel tank not fifty meters from their front door. She finally left Lefteris alone in bed making funny sleeping noises and brewed a pot of tea.
She carried a cup to the terrace. The sun had yet to peek over the horizon. She felt like a zombie seeing that side of dawn, though growing up she had certainly seen it enough times. If a fisherman’s daughter didn’t know the sunrise, she’d have to be blind. Now Lydia worked halfway to sunrise every night. She dreamed of lingering in bed until noon but never did. There was never enough time.
She watched the night fishermen chug into port and the day fishermen head out, and Lukas wasn’t among them. She would have been surprised to see him set out that morning after losing his beauties; but then, the solace of the sea might be exactly what he needed. They all needed solace. They had all lost their beauties.
A cloud of squawking seagulls announced Stavros rounding the jetty. No other fisherman attracted so many of the birds. They flocked around him competing for a chance to dive at his tubs of glistening sardines. Lydia felt a pang of desire for him. At some point most village women had. Stavros was a man to share, and none would complain that he shared himself too generously, including Lydia—who’d had all she wanted of him, though not necessarily all she desired.
Ping! she heard from the living room.
Ping! her daughter’s phone sounded a second time.
Lefteris grumbled in the bedroom.
Annoyed, Lydia went inside to find the phone. Her daughter had a habit of tossing her stuff anywhere on the way to bed, and that morning she found the girl’s bag scrunched on top of the microwave. She was rummaging through it when Athina came into the room.
The girl’s green eyes filled with disappointment. “That’s an invasion of privacy.”
“It’s an invasion of your father’s sleep is what it is.” Lydia handed her daughter the phone. “You better turn it off before he kills you because I’m too tired to clean up the blood.”
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill her!”
“See what I mean?”
“All right. Okay.” Athina made a point of turning it off. “You were already up. I heard you.”
“I couldn’t sleep. Your grandparents’ house almost burned down last night.”
“What am I supposed to do about that?”
“Maybe you could be more sensitive to other people?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Some people have good reasons why they don’t want to be woken up by someone sending you a heart message.”
“You read my message?”
“I didn’t read your message. I saw your message. There’s a throbbing heart on your screen. So who is sending you his heart this early in the morning?”
“How should I know?”
“You could look.”
Exasperated, the girl checked her phone. “I can’t tell. It’s a blocked number.”
“Who do you think it is?”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Let me see your phone.”
“You don’t trust me?”
“We don’t have secrets in this house.”
“We don’t have any fun either!”
Athina, keeping her phone, stomped off.
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill that girl!”
Lydia considered aiding her husband. Their daughter’s terrible twos had continued unabated to the present, only days shy of her eighteenth birthday. She replenished her tea, picked up her map of the fires, and returned to the terrace, mulling over the land mines that could hijack her day. Was her daughter’s secret admirer one of them? If secret, he wouldn’t be for long. The competition for the girl was too fierce for the hapless boy not to declare himself. No, Lydia’s land mine was not a message with a beating heart, but the fires. They weren’t going to stop until the arsonist was caught or achieved his goal.
She unfolded her map and drew an X on it for her parents’ house. She shuddered when she thought of how different last night’s fire could have turned out. The danger was no longer theoretical but real. Initially, the fires had been attributed to refugees, careless with their cigarettes or cooking fires, who were hiking through the hills to reach the island’s capital—until a detonator was found at the site of the fourth fire. More thorough searches discovered that similar devices had started the three previous fires. People still came up with cockamamie reasons to blame the refugees, but Lydia never took the notion seriously. For one thing, all the fires had been in a craggy and steep valley that they mostly avoided, preferring instead to hoof it across the island on the flatter, albeit longer, main road.
The fires’ isolation had conveyed a sense of randomness, but once the detonators were discovered, Lydia felt something more sinister was afoot. After the ninth fire, she decided to map them, hoping to reveal some clue that would identify the arsonist. It took her time to find some sites, so she didn’t map them in their actual chronological order, which is why initially she overlooked how they relentlessly approached Vourvoulos. They jumped between the two sides of the valley, which further obscured their steady march. It was not until she numbered the fires that their pattern—and threat—revealed itself. Lydia was convinced that burning down the village was the arsonist’s goal, and what better way to do it than blowing up the Coast Guard’s fuel tank?
The sun pulled itself over the hills to promise another blistering day. Down the wharf, Stavros heaved his heaping tubs onto the wooden planks. A few lucky fish spilled out and flipped themselves back into the water. He hooted and playfully grabbed for them, not caring if he caught them; they’d be back in his nets tomorrow. He saw Lydia watching him and did a little jig imitating the slippery fish before lifting a tub and offering it to her. Do you want any?
Did she want any? Yes, she wanted some of his fish and some of him too. Lydia was perfectly content with her husband snoring away in bed; it didn’t mean that she couldn’t remember the fire the fisherman had once lit in her. She noticed that he wasn’t holding the tub as high as he used to—time had a way of showing itself at unexpected moments. But his smile was as bright as ever and she did want some. Raising an open hand, she shouted, “Five kilos!”
From the bedroom: “I’m going to kill them both!”
The waiter shaking out blue tablecloths was Ridi, an Albanian youth barely in his twenties, who had arrived in Greece six months earlier. To have a real shot at making a new life for himself, he was determined to learn fluent Greek, and not willing to settle, like so many of his compatriots, for getting by on a few easy phrases. Now he had a second language goal—to be able to woo Athina—and challenged himself to learn five new words a day. Topping his list that morning was the word for heart. Kardia. He looked it up before sending her a drawing of one in a message.
As he set up tables for breakfast, Ridi heard the word jump out in the argument between Athina and her mother in their apartment above the restaurant. They fought all the time, so he couldn’t be sure if they were arguing about his message, though he heard kardia enough times to assume they were. That worried the youth. He had taken a risk sending the girl his simple message, and he certainly never expected her mother to see it. At any moment, he worried Lydia might lean over the terrace rail and fire him on the spot.
“Coffee?” Nick tried to get his attention.
Ridi, ignoring him, strained to understand an especially quick exchange.
Denied coffee long enough, Nick looked for another option. Among the half dozen establishments scattered along the wharf, only Vassoula’s was open, and she had perched herself on a high stool at her front door, smoking a cigarette and watching him. She smirked when she saw him looking around for yet another option. He decided to stay put.
Overhead, the mother and daughter’s argument abruptly stopped. A door slammed, and Ridi stared at the corner of the building, waiting for one of them to appear. When he saw Athina, he grinned like the love-smitten kid he was, but she wasn’t smiling when she marched up to him.
“Now I’m in real trouble!” she hissed, and disappeared up the short steps into the kitchen.
“Coffee?” Nick ventured again.
“She sets up now,” Ridi told him.
That morning Athina’s setting up the kitchen sounded more like a teardown as she clanged pots, ripped open drawers and slammed cupboards. In Ridi’s estimation, no one pouted more endearingly, which was a good thing since the girl pouted frequently. When she flung a spoon into the sink, he stopped shaking out a tablecloth to admire her.
“Those tables won’t set themselves,” Lydia said, coming up behind him, “and there’s a man over there who needs breakfast.” She disappeared into the kitchen, and immediately mother and daughter were arguing again.
Ridi asked, “You want breakfast?”
“I’ll take the English breakfast,” Nick ordered.
“Yes, the English breakfast, and no sardines. With coffee.”
“What coffee you like?”
Scratching his head, the young waiter went into the kitchen.
Seated at her kitchen table, Shirley put a second drop of precious truffle oil on a cloth and offered it to Dingo. Again the dog turned his ungrateful snout away. He usually drooled at its funky odor—to Shirley, it reeked of something half-decomposed—but dogs liked to sniff anything, the stinkier the better. That day, though, Dingo wasn’t interested in smelling anything. Obviously he was put off by the pervasive smell of smoke. She hoped not for long. They had made a small investment of both money and hope in training the dog to sniff out truffles. Rare white ones, specifically, and their growing season would peak in a couple of weeks. They didn’t need much to replace what little money Lukas made from fishing, which he should have stopped doing years ago, but kept on as long as he could. Like everyone, they’d been punished by the chronic economic crisis, but by seventy, his knees couldn’t ride through any more the swells. For what people were prepared to pay for a nauseating white fungus, Dingo only needed to find a half dozen of the truffles a year to offset Lukas’s fishing income—itself dwindling in the overfished Mediterranean.
Shirley’s sense of smell was disoriented too. She felt plunged into an ashtray. Cutting a lemon in half, she inhaled its bitter freshness, and pressed it to the dog’s nose. He would have nothing to do with that either. “Oh, Dingo,” she fretted.
The dog hadn’t left her side all night even though Lukas didn’t like him sleeping in their bedroom. He claimed Dingo’s solemn eyes looked disdainfully at his every lovemaking move, but that night Lukas had relented. Sure enough, he awoke feeling amorous, surprising Shirley because she hadn’t spiked his usual nightcap of ouzo with Viagra, something she’d started doing some months earlier with results they both enjoyed. That morning he had managed entirely on his own with Dingo as a witness. Their sex had been good at every age, but that morning Lukas’s lovemaking was especially rough; driven, she knew, by the loss of his beauties. She gripped him tighter to encourage his pleasure, wanting him to forgive himself for the sawed-off trees in the yard. When they finished, he didn’t roll away but held onto her, and she nuzzled his broad hairy chest, enjoying their extra intimacy despite his stale breath. Only when the dog rested his chin on the bed, groaning pitifully for attention, did they stir themselves to face the reality of that first day after the fire.
They glanced out the windows to confirm that the nightmare had been real not imagined, and tried not to look again. They had seen enough by moonlight to know the extent of the heartbreak. They went about their routine as if nothing were different—using the toilet, brushing their teeth, making coffee—but it was all different because of their lack of annoyance at getting in each other’s way or hogging the bathroom. They remarked how much worse the fire could have been: the house had been saved, the smell of smoke wasn’t too bad, luckily a stranger had rescued Dingo.
Lukas left to have his usual coffee with “the boys,” the old men who gathered every morning in the port to rant about the news in general and the government in particular, all the while puffing on cigarettes that stained their bristly moustaches yellow. Village life didn’t offer much stimulation—Stavros accidentally shooting himself in the foot while hunting rabbits was about the most exciting story of the year—so the boys would exaggerate anything, turning their small sardines into Moby Dicks; but that morning the only story told would be last night’s fire, and that needed no embellishment. Out the window, Shirley watched her husband pause on the porch judging his Pyrrhic victory. He had saved his home by sacrificing what he loved the most about it. Lukas would get no pleasure exaggerating that story.
He walked slump-shouldered to his car, and that’s when Shirley finally broke down and cried. Dingo pressed against her leg to comfort her. His snout sought her hand and licked it, and that made her weep more. “Oh Dingo! Dingo! Our beauties!” But they weren’t their real beauties, Shirley reminded herself—though sometimes the three of their four daughters who had left for jobs in Germany felt as lost to her as the fallen trees outside. She sighed, pulling herself together. “What’s done is done,” she murmured.
She fluffed a couple of wispy scarves around her neck, hoisted her shoulder bag, and braced herself for her first foray into the charcoaled landscape. Her car was still parked on the road, and she waded to it through ashes piled ankle deep by the breeze. Dingo dogged her heels, nose to the ground, sniffing the singed earth. Fretful that his sense of smell was permanently doomed, she hoped to rouse the dog’s enthusiasm by flinging open the car’s back door and exclaiming, “Let’s go truffling!”
Apparently the dog’s sense of smell was seriously compromised. Not noticing the cats, he jumped into the back seat and provoked an explosive hiss as the nine animals attacked their cages intent on shredding him. If Dingo had wings, he couldn’t have flown any faster out of the car.
Lydia stepped onto the restaurant’s small porch. She stopped and checked inside her shoulder bag to make sure she hadn’t forgotten the map.
Athina followed her outside. “I can’t do the whole shift,” she whined. “What about my costume?”
“What about your costume?”
“It’s not finished.”
“Is that my problem?” Lydia glanced over at Nick. “Why hasn’t that man been served?”
“His order confused Ridi and I haven’t had a chance to straighten it out because I had to talk to you.”
“What did you order?” Lydia called to him.
“English breakfast with coffee,” Nick called back.
“English breakfast with coffee,” she repeated to her daughter. “How complicated is that?”
“He asked for ‘kafeneion’ coffee and we don’t know what kafeneion coffee is.”
“Caffeinated coffee,” he corrected her. “Even one bean will do.”
Lydia said, “I think the man wants his coffee.”
The girl went back inside in a huff.
Lydia went down the short steps and approached his table. “You’re the man who saved my mother’s dog last night, aren’t you?”
“If his name is Dingo and he’s a heavy smoker, I am.”
“People are calling you Superman, the way you showed up, saved him, and then disappeared before anyone could thank you. I’m Lydia, and thank you.”
“I’m Nick. Nick Damigos.”
They shook hands.
“Damigos? Are you Greek?”
“Greek-American. Are you Greek?”
“I know, I don’t look it.” Lydia didn’t. She had carrot hair and freckles, certainly a Greek’s typical olive skin and black hair. “Around here it’s usually best to blame that on Alexander the Great. But in my case, I’m half English. My mother married a Greek. You seem to know something about fires.”
“It’s bad luck having one, that’s for sure. Is Dingo okay?”
“Mum says he won’t eat anything.”
“That happens with dogs and fires.”
“So, are you visiting for a few days?”
“I’m working on a novel,” Nick lied. He had used the cover before, finding it easy to pull off, and giving him an excuse for asking questions; and as the FBI’s agent posted to Athens, he frequently had to ask a lot of them.
“A novel set here?” Lydia asked.
“It might be. I’m still looking for my story.”
“Not very far along, are you?”
“You sound skeptical.”
“We get a lot of writers.”
“You’re too young to have met him.”
“My mother met him.”
“He wrote Lord of the Flies here?”
“No. Like you, he was still looking for his story.”
Nick laughed. “Okay, you got me. Who knows? Maybe I’ll come up with one as good as his.”
“Write about the fires.”
“Let me show you.” Lydia unfolded her map and pointed to where there had been eleven fires in as many months, dotting both sides of a narrow canyon, each one a step closer to the village. “Each fire has come closer, and last night’s was the first to threaten a house.”
“Any clue who’s the arsonist?” Nick asked.
“None, though some people want to blame the fires on the refugees.”
“The refugees? Why?”
“When they walk to the main town, sometimes they cross through the hills.”
“Refugees walking through the hills wouldn’t be starting fires in a pattern, and it’s clear there is one.”
“Try telling that to people who want to believe anything bad about other people, especially other people who aren’t exactly like them. So no, I don’t know who the arsonist is, but I do know that that is his ultimate target.” Lydia pointed to the top of the fuel tank looming behind the buildings.
“A water tower?” Nick asked, playing dumb.
“It’s for petrol,” she corrected him, and pointed to the building next door. “That’s the Coast Guard’s office. That’s its fuel tank. And that’s its boat that uses the fuel.” With the last remark, she indicated a battleship grey cruiser as it rounded the breakwater and cut its speed to enter the small harbor. “Shit,” she muttered when she saw the refugees, some fifty of them, in orange life jackets and crammed together on the deck. “A raft must have capsized.”
Refugees were nothing new to Nick. They were part of his job. He assisted his Greek counterparts on cases involving human trafficking, drugs and terrorism. Refugees, trafficked themselves, were increasingly viewed warily for fears that terrorists might mingle with them to sneak into Europe. In fact, they already claimed to be doing so, and that’s why he’d come to the island. It might be the arsonist’s intent to destroy the village, but the fire would also put the Coast Guard station out of operation for an indefinite period of time, and it was in too strategic of a location to risk that.
Most refugees landed safely on the rocky coast, albeit beleaguered and scared, and made their way on foot the forty-some miles to the island’s capital, where they were incarcerated, screened, and eventually freed to continue their journey to northern Europe where they hoped to find jobs. The Coast Guard only picked up refugees in distress—those already tossed into the water or in dire likelihood of capsizing—which was frequent enough to tax the local station’s capacity. Nick had witnessed other Coast Guard rescues, and it looked like the group on the cruiser’s deck was the norm: soaking wet, huddled together for comfort, and totally silenced by the enormity of what they were experiencing.
Ridi arrived with Nick’s coffee.
“You forgot the milk and sugar,” Lydia said.
“That’s okay,” Nick said. “I drink it black.”
“It’s not okay because he shouldn’t have forgotten them.”
“I bring your breakfast now?” the young waiter asked.
“Of course you bring his breakfast now. He’s been waiting for it.”
Nick said, “I’m good as long as I have coffee.”
“And he’s not to pay for it,” Lydia added.
“That’s not necessary.”
“Of course it is.”
On the other side of the port, the cruiser edged up to the breakwater, and a guardsman jumped from its bow to tie it up. He secured a second line at the stern. The two guardsmen still on board stopped the refugees from standing up all at once, then pointed to people when it was their turn to disembark. Infants were passed over heads to hands reaching back for them.
“Athina!” Lydia shouted toward the kitchen.
Her restaurant only consisted of a kitchen, up a couple of steps with a tiny porch. All the tables were on the wharf out front. The girl came outside, and immediately saw the refugees disembarking across the harbor. Mostly men, they fell into a line along the breakwater. The only sound was a baby’s plaintive cry.
“They’ll be hungry,” Lydia said. “I have to go see the mayor, so you’ll have to make the sandwiches. It looks like there’s around fifty of them. There’s enough chicken and cheese in the cooler, and stretch the tomatoes as far as you can.”
“I know what to do, Mom. I know the sandwich recipe and I know about the eggs.”
“You should start boiling those now.”
“What about my costume? I need time to work on it.”
“Feeding these people is a little more important this morning than working on your costume.”
“To you, maybe,” the girl said, and went inside.
Lydia turned to Vassoula still on a stool outside her bar next door. “Is your brother awake yet?”
“Takis!” she called inside. “Are you awake?”
He appeared in the doorway combing his fingers through a full head of black curls. “I’m awake. What is it?”
“More of them arrived,” Vassoula replied.
He glanced across the water and saw the refugees. “How many are there?” he called to Lydia.
“Over fifty. Maybe a dozen kids. Do you have enough juice?”
“I restocked everything yesterday.”
Nick guessed the handsome youth to be in his early twenties. His eyes were startlingly blue, and they exchanged glances a couple of times before he went back inside.
“Can I do anything to help?” he asked.
“I’m sure Athina would appreciate help with the sandwiches. Sometimes people are so hungry they grab for them. Ridi will help too. But eat your breakfast first. You’ve got a few minutes before they come this way.” Lydia folded her map and tucked it into her bag. “Wish me luck finally convincing the mayor to relocate the tank.”
“Good luck. And thanks for the idea for a story.”
“You better write it fast. Unless that tank is moved by the end of next month, we might not be here.”
“Why next month?”
“It’s already been eleven months. To some people, twelve months sounds like a round number, or an anniversary, or simply a compelling date. Enjoy your breakfast.”
No sooner had Lydia walked off than Athina reappeared with a plate of runny eggs, runny beans, and a ruinous baked tomato. “So it is a proper English breakfast,” Nick said.
The girl scowled at Vassoula. “I suppose she said my mom’s not really English, too. She’s always saying stupid things like that. Just because my grandma grew up in Australia doesn’t mean we’re not English if my grandma was English to start with. My mom is so ready to kill her!”
“Then maybe you shouldn’t tell her. I don’t want my breakfast to be implicated in a murder.”
“Are you Superman? I bet Ridi that you are, so I hope you are.”
“What did you bet him?”
“We each bet a kiss.”
“So who loses?”
“I like your odds.”
“You’re funny, Superman. I bet you have to work at it.”
“Because you look so serious when you’re thinking.”
“If you call me Superman again, you’ll learn just how serious I can be.”
Next door, Takis came outside lugging a case of plastic-wrapped water bottles in each hand. He dropped them heavily on a table and went back for more.
“So you hand out sandwiches and they give them water, is that the system?” Nick asked Athina.
“She doesn’t do anything,” the girl replied, referring to Vassoula. “She just sits there and watches. It’s weird, but they’re both a little weird.”
“So you don’t like him, either?”
Athina shrugged. “Most of the time he’s okay. I don’t know. People say weird things about him. What happened to your face?”
“Did something happen to my face?”
“You have a plaster on your forehead.”
“Oh, that. I burned myself shaving.”
“On your forehead?”
“I was careless.”
“You’re burned here too.” Athina reached out to touch a pinkish spot on Nick’s jaw that his beard only partially concealed.
He leaned away. “That’s from another fire.”
“Okay, I’ll stop bothering you. I need to make sandwiches anyway. I hope you enjoy your kafeneion coffee and non-English English breakfast.” The girl returned to the kitchen.
Nick set about eating, and watched as Takis carried out more cases of water. He ripped the plastic wrapping off them and balled it up, and headed for a trash bin between the two buildings. On his way, he caught Nick’s eye again, and that time he smiled before disappearing out of sight.
Nick continued eating his breakfast. He couldn’t guess all the weird things that might be said about Takis, but he was pretty sure about one thing: he was gay, too.
Not many years earlier, when money seemed to arrive in buckets flown in on northern Europe’s national airlines, the villa that served as City Hall had been restored and painted the frivolous colors of a Venetian palace: lavender walls with orange trim and teal balconies. That morning, as Mayor Dimos Elefteros clutched an iron rail overlooking a decidedly turquoise sea, his thoughts weren’t on the beauty of the building’s colors but their costs. The shipping charges alone for the imported paint could have paid to repair the lengthening crack in the church’s bell tower, from which, at that moment, Father Alexis was ringing the hour. To the mayor, each toll was an insistent reminder of the thousands of euros the priest expected the bankrupt village to ante up for exactly that purpose.
Mayor Elefteros believed the priest should repair his own damn tower. The Church had enough money even if the local parish did not. Unfortunately, as Father Alexis had painstakingly documented, the tower was situated on municipal property. Since ancient man started building pillars of worship, there had been one erected on that spot; so it was only natural, when early Christians built a church adjacent to it, they appropriated the tower for their bell. For centuries nobody cared, in Vourvoulos or the many other villages where the same situation existed. Ownership for such inconsequential parcels of land didn’t matter when their use would never change. What had changed were new European Union rules, governing everything from outhouses to public safety. When stones fell from a couple of the towers and hurt people, who successfully sued for personal injuries, suddenly no one wanted ownership of them—though the Church never stopped using them, instead gladly ringing the bells at civic liability.
There was a knock on the office door and Apostolis let himself in. The mayor came off the balcony to shake the part-time fireman part-time policeman part-time waiter’s hand. A little plump, a little bald, and blinded in one eye from an accident, Apostolis embodied civic spirit, volunteering for everything. He set a blob of charred Styrofoam on the mayor’s desk. Several cigarette butts were still poking from its top; others had fallen over and become encased in the milky white plastic.
Mayor Elefteros didn’t need to ask what it was. Every fire had been started with a similar crude detonator. Styrofoam, soaked in gasoline to make it soft and gooey, was then molded into a big egg shape, with lit cigarette butts stuck into it and left to burn slowly down before igniting the fuel-soaked plastic—giving the culprit time to get away. There were never fewer than a dozen cigarettes used. Whoever was setting the fires wanted to ensure the gasoline would catch, and that was about the only thing anyone could say with certainty going on a year since the first fire—except that they were getting dangerously close to the village.
“We had to cut down Lukas’s trees to save his house,” Apostolis reported.
“I don’t suppose he was happy about that.”
“He used my chainsaw to help.”
The mayor nodded, not surprised; he wouldn’t have expected otherwise. He and Lukas were of the same white-haired generation for whom honor and tragedy were synonymous. But he was surprised when the volunteer fire chief added, “A stranger saved their dog. He got there first.”
At that moment, Lydia burst in. “Dimos!”
Immediately Apostolis’s neck sunk into his round shoulders and he made to leave. “I’ll let you two talk.”
“You stay, Apostolis. This concerns you.”
“Good morning, Lydia,” the mayor greeted her.
“Don’t you ‘good morning’ me, Dimos!”
“I know you’re upset.”
“Of course I’m upset! Tonight the whole village could burn down”—she picked up the Styrofoam detonator on his desk—“because of a fire started by one of these!”
“There is no point exaggerating the situation.”
“As long as that fuel tank is where it is, am I exaggerating the situation, Apostolis?”
“I am not officially trained to say.”
“Well, I don’t need official training to know that I am not exaggerating. What is it going to take to convince you to move that fuel tank, Dimos?”
“I’m waiting for a reply—”
“From Athens. You’re always waiting for a reply from Athens.”
“We don’t have enough money—”
“Of course we do. Only you’re thinking of giving it to the church, which God knows doesn’t need it!”
“If the bell tower falls down, someone could be hurt.”
“If the fuel tank is blown up, a lot more people than some one will be hurt.”
“People can see the crack in the tower, Lydia. They can’t see an anonymous threat.”
“How anonymous is this?” She unfolded her map, and tapped her finger on it saying, “The first fire was here. The next here and here and here until last night’s fire here that almost burned down my parents’ house. How could the pattern be any clearer? The village is next. Isn’t it clear to you, Apostolis?”
“I can see the pattern.”
“I can see the pattern too,” the mayor added, “but you forget, relocating the fuel tank will disrupt the Coast Guard’s operation at a sensitive time. It is a decision for the Ministry of Defense. I don’t have the authority to act unilaterally even if we had the funds.”
“By the time you finally decide that you have the authority to protect this village, there won’t be anything left to protect! That’s the pattern I see.”
Lydia stormed out, leaving her map opened on the mayor’s desk.
Father Alexis, pulling the rope hanging down the side of the bell tower, tolled the hours especially vigorously that morning, wanting the heavy bronze bell to resonate through every conversation in the village, the subject of each surely being the fire the night before. He didn’t want some paranoid suspicion about an arsonist to sway public opinion in favor of relocating the fuel tank over repairing the bell tower.
In reality the priest couldn’t give a fig for the ugly tower, hastily rebuilt with concrete blocks after an earthquake toppled an ancient handsome one. In fact, he rather wished that it would fall down. It wasn’t the structure but his status—indeed, his future in the Church—that was at stake. Historically the island had been a communist hotbed, and the youthful priest had taken on the challenge of bringing Vourvoulos’ renegade congregation into the fold. Convincing the village to pay for the bell tower’s repair would be proof that he had succeeded. In exchange, he had been promised a post in a respectable city, not another hovelish village on the priestly circuit. With that promotion would come a salary enabling him to move his mother to another apartment, out of her dead husband’s house, the oily stench of whose murder laced every sea breeze; a stench that Father Alexis—back then a seventeen-year-old called Manolis—had caused with a flick of a cigarette; consciously or unconsciously, he forgot if he ever knew.
Indeed Vourvoulos was a hovel where people ate sardines for breakfast! The thought nauseated the young priest, as did the villagers’ insistent fish breath, which was especially virulent at noon prayers when their ichthyological halitosis disagreeably peaked. His good looks and calculated charm were his own undoing by attracting unsatisfied housewives to every service. He retaliated by strategically placing bowls of mints around the church, which several people had mistaken for incense and tried lighting the pale green lozenges. The locals soon caught on, but not the occasional stranger who wandered in, and the priest had taken to sneaking up on them, plucking the singed mint from their fingers, and popping it into his mouth. “It’s a mint!” he would cry. “Try one! You’ll like it!” Unfortunately on one occasion, it had been incense, ignited by an Indian family who somehow found their way into Vourvoulos’ church with their own pale green tablets. Christians from Goa, they later explained; as if Father Alexis, suffering with a blistered tongue, gave a hoot for their primitive origins.
His energetic ringing of the bell served a second purpose: to cause bits of the tower’s cracked stucco to fall off. He watched as flecks sprinkled the choked grass, and let go the rope to gather them in a plastic bag. It felt lighter than air. Certainly they were not substantial enough to convince the skeptical mayor that the bell tower’s imminent collapse was a greater threat than a catastrophic fire.
The priest glanced around. No one was looking. He picked up a stone and knocked a couple of chips off the tower’s corner. Deciding they gave him sufficient evidence to keep his cause alive, he rubbed dirt onto the chip marks to conceal them, and walked out the churchyard gate.
Koufos left his hiding place behind the ossuary when the priest was well down the winding path. The deaf boy had been caught one hungry afternoon stuffing his pockets with mints, and ever since, Father Alexis ran him off whenever he saw him. Being run off was something Koufos was used to, but he couldn’t stop himself from going to the church when certain natural urges overcame him. Though unable to hear a word, he could “hear” the bell’s tolling—or rather, he felt its sound—and its resonance, buzzing through his body, aroused him. On Sunday mornings, when the priest freely rang it, sometimes Koufos would come without touching himself. That morning, though, hunger, not hormones, had driven him to the church. The mints made for an unsatisfactory meal but stopped his empty stomach from growling. He darted inside and made a quick circuit grabbing handfuls of them.
It wasn’t easy living off the few coins he begged in the restaurants or the scraps that diners left behind, which had recently grown more meager, as had the mysterious packages of food he would occasionally find wrapped in aluminum foil. He had no way of knowing about the country’s economic crisis; he only knew he was hungrier. He couldn’t read or speak, and didn’t have a proper name. He had been abandoned in the port like dogs sometimes were at the end of summer by yachtsmen bored with that season’s man’s best friend. No one could remember precisely when Koufos showed up, but the villagers collectively blamed the Gypsies for exchanging the boy for a few stolen chickens. He never spoke a word so they christened him Koufos. Deaf. He’d already been in the village three years though his actual age was a matter of guesswork. The prior year he’d started sprouting dark hair where none had been before. He was turning into a man and all that meant.
He crawled into a cubbyhole under wooden seats attached to the wall. He wouldn’t be seen if someone entered, and the boy sensed that what he wanted to do was a private matter because he never saw anyone else doing it. Only the woman in a painting high on the wall could see him; and he believed she did see him because her eyes roved, following him from mint bowl to mint bowl, and finally into his hiding place. If he expelled his breath in a certain way, he felt the same erotic flutter as when he sensed the satisfying resonance of the church bell. He did it then, and took care of himself with Mary watching from her spot above the altar.
Then like guys are inclined to do afterward, he dozed off.
Nick finished his breakfast watching the Coast Guardsmen go down the line of refugees, checking their IDs and taking down their names. He carried his dishes into the kitchen where Athina and Ridi were lining up the makings for sandwiches: loaves of sliced white bread, squares of yellow cheese, rounds of unidentifiable processed meat, and a mound of tomatoes. “Just put your dishes in the sink,” the girl told him. “And can you drain the eggs and run cold water over them? I don’t want them to be too hot for the kids to hold.”
He did that, and joined them at the counter where they started slapping the sandwiches together. “It looks like you need more tomatoes. Should I slice some more?”
“The grocery ran out. So only women and children get tomatoes.”
“I don’t forget this time,” Ridi said.
Nick followed the young waiter down the assembly line. “What’s this?” he asked about the meat.
“Chicken,” Athina answered. “Oh shit, here they come!”
They scrambled to finish enough sandwiches as the refugees shuffled along the breakwater. They stacked them on trays and carried them outside along with the eggs. Ridi went back for a carton full of oranges. “Everybody gets a sandwich and an orange, and women and children get eggs,” Athina instructed them. “And everybody gets a bottle of water from Takis. Yeia sou, Takis!”
“Yeia sou, Athina!” he said from next door.
As they stepped off the breakwater, the refugees slung their lifejackets into a garbage bin. Then the miserable lot was upon them—soaked, somber, and suspicious when the three offered them food. One man rubbed his thumb and forefinger together to ask how much. Athina made him understand it was free. Their initial suspicion over, the refugees had a second one: what was in the sandwiches? They peeled back the spongy white bread and looked unhappily at the unidentifiable meat. Athina was ready for that question, too, and held up two photos: a picture of a pig with a big X through it, and a picture of a chicken. Word spread: free food, chicken no pork. Then everyone wanted some, but despite how hungry they were, they let families with youngsters go first. In the few words they knew in English, they told how their trafficker had launched them with too little gas and they ran out in the middle of the channel. Unable to steer the raft, they were soon swamped by high waves in the stiffening wind. Fortunately they capsized in Greek waters. The Coast Guard was able to rescue everyone without risking an international incident at a time when Turkey found it expedient to hamper even humanitarian aid.
Some gobbled down their sandwich on the spot while others saved it. Mothers and fathers clutched three or four for their children. Mostly Syrians, the women were predictably wary and shy, but the men touched their hearts and thanked them profusely.
Juggling sandwiches, oranges and eggs, the refugees passed next to Takis, who handed out sturdy plastic bags in addition to the bottled water. Often the bags were appreciated more than the water, especially by young parents who had so much more in their hands than infant children. Takis helped them load things into the bags, which slowed down the whole process, and some refugees, wet and tired, started to complain.
“I’ll go help him,” Nick offered.
In a few steps, he was asking Takis, “Do you speak English or Greek?”
“Both. I live in Melbourne.”
“That’s right, mate.”
“It looks like you could use some help.”
Nick pressed one of the blue plastic bags into a woman’s hand. “How many children do you have?”
“Three,” her husband answered for her.
“Kids get the juice, right?” he asked Takis.
Nick put three small cartons of juice in the bag, and then added a fourth, pointing to the young mother to indicate it was for her.
“Please, one for my husband,” she asked. “He is so very sick.”
The man did look ill: gaunt, pale, and drooping with exhaustion.
“It’s okay, give him one, too,” Takis said. “Give one to anybody who asks. They aren’t used to asking for anything, so if they want juice, they really need it, and I have more inside.”
Later, Nick would think of the refugees as a tsunami that swept over them and washed as quickly back out. In less than fifteen minutes, they had come and gone, carrying away something to eat and water to wash it down. They thanked him profusely, as if they had been given a feast, and Nick felt somewhat of a fraud for not giving more. “How often does that happen?” he asked.
“The Coast Guard rescues a raft almost every day. We feed them here in the port when they arrive. If they spend the night, there’s a volunteer committee that makes more sandwiches for dinner.”
“Where do they go now?”
“To a field up behind the old police station. There are some blankets and a couple of plastic tarps they can crawl under if it rains.”
“Sounds pretty basic.”
“For this village, it’s pretty good. A lot of people would prefer they drown than be rescued.” Takis stuck the leftover bottles of water into a plastic bag. “Thanks for helping.”
“I was glad to do it.” Nick stuck out his hand. “We never really met. I’m Nick Damigos.”
They shook hands.
“You work here?”
“It’s my sister’s bar. I’m back helping her for a while. What about you?”
“I’m here for a few days working on a book. I’m a writer.”
“Are you famous?”
“Come by later and tell me about your books,” Takis suggested. “We open for sunset. The first drink is on the house.”
“The first drink every night, or just the first night?”
“I could make it happen every night.”
Nick grinned. “That sounds like a plan to me.”
Lydia fretted her way down the stony footpath catching glimpses of the port between the angled red-tiled roofs. Still fuming over Apostolis’s “I’m not officially trained to say,” she came to a spot where the village lay revealed before her: the small harbor, the arc of cafés and restaurants that lined it, the jetty jutting out like an angled exclamation point, and looming over it all, the Coast Guard’s fuel tank—a malevolency that in a spark could destroy everything else. Lydia scowled at it around every corner; and around the next one, she ran into Father Alexis.
“Good morning, Lydia,” he greeted her.
“Good morning, Father.”
“I certainly hope that frown is not for me.”
“Of course not, Father. I have a special frown for priests.”
Father Alexis was never quite sure what to make of her, but nevertheless held out his hand. “I may have a cold,” he cautioned, “but if you want to kiss my ring—”
“I don’t want to kiss your ring,” she assured him.
“You’d be surprised how many people do, even after I warn them.”
“I have a restaurant to run. I have to be careful about catching a disease.”
Disease! The very word offended the priest. In fact, he didn’t have a cold; he had lied to dissuade her from the unhygienic practice. The older Vourvouliani women especially had taken to kissing his ring hungrily while tickling the back of his hand with their rogue whiskers. “I am obliged by canon to offer my ring to be kissed,” he reminded Lydia. “But here I am worrying about giving you a cold, when your parents almost had a tragedy last night.”
“My parents did have a tragedy last night. Lukas had to cut down his beauties to save the house.”
“Trees grow back but not lost lives.”
“Not my father’s trees. Not in his lifetime. He planted the first one the day I was born. That’s forty-three years ago. He won’t see another tree grow for forty-three years.”
“He will if he has faith.”
“Well, if you are talking about watching trees grow from heaven, that’s not the perspective he wants. He likes to look up at them from down here on Earth.”
“Do you, Father? Because if you did, I don’t think you would worry about your bell tower more than all of this.” Lydia opened her arms to embrace the whole village.
“It’s not the tower that I worry about, but public safety.” Father Alexis showed her the chips in his plastic bag. “More than this falls off each time I ring the bell.”
Lydia shook her head incredulously. “You’re worried about those flakes?”
“It adds up. Think about it.”
“I am thinking about it, and the solution is remarkably simple. Stop ringing the bell.”
“It’s my job to ring the bell. People expect it. God expects it. It’s how He hears our communal prayers.”
“He might be glad to hear less communal bellyaching. Anyway, the mayor doesn’t have any more money to fix your tower this week than he had last week, if that’s where you are headed with your bag of flakes.”
“Because of these flakes, as you call them, the bell tower becomes more dangerous every day, to the point that it’s become dire!”
“Dire my ass,” Lydia replied. “Which I would ask you to kiss, except I don’t want to catch your cold!”COLLAPSE
Maria Karamitsos on My Greek Books wrote:
FBI agent Nick Damigos, the hero of this enjoyable crime novel set on an unnamed Greek island from Smith (The Fourth Courier), comes to Vourvoulos at the request of the village’s mayor to go undercover and investigate a series of mysterious fires that threaten a Coast Guard station. Nick, a Greek American who speaks the language, soon immerses himself in the daily flow of the village and begins an affair with a local bartender, Takis. Nick’s inquiry brings him into contact with a host of distinctive characters—including the owners of a failing seaside restaurant, a village priest with a talent for art forgery, and Takis’s sister, a bar owner out to avenge the death of her husband, an apparent suicide—some of whose stories are stronger than others. Along the way to the uplifting ending, Nick learns about the centuries-old scars left from the expulsion of Turks from Santorini and the current plight of refugees who pour onto the island desperate for new lives. Smith offers the perfect blend of intrigue, romance, and travelogue.
Fire on the Island sends us to a fictional Greek island. The residents already have their fair share of drama, revealed through several subplots. The island has also struggled with the refugee crisis, trying their best to help, but also to protect their families and livelihoods. When a series of fires break out on the island, a disturbing pattern is discovered. An American FBI agent with a troubled past stationed in Athens heads to the island to investigate.
There’s a lot going on here, with a diverse set of characters. The tension and the stakes build through them, including a wayward priest and a young Albanian who has much to hide. Add to the intrigue, it’s difficult to discern the good guys from the bad. Plus, the island has its own secret—a violent past that residents are desperate to transcend. Can the FBI agent discover the arsonist and the plot before the entire island is destroyed? What does all that mean for the residents and the future of the island? You’ll have to read it to find out.
Check out this complex thriller for a mix of current events, romance, modern-day challenges, and intrigue, set on a small Aegean island.