The northeastern Aegean island of Lesvos, a place of quiet beauty, storied history, and sacred shrines, had long drawn the attention of tourists, though never quite the hordes of off-islanders that descended each summer onto some of its much smaller, but far more notorious, Cycladic neighbors to the southwest. Its reputation as the bird-watching capital of Europe, possessing the greatest array of wildflowers in Greece and one of the world’s largest petrified forests, drew a different sort of tourist.
Lesvos ranked as the third largest of Greece’s islands, behind Crete and Evia, with roughly one-third of its eighty-six thousand inhabitants living in its capital city of Mytilini, an alternative name used by many Greeks for the island. Most Greeks, though, knew very little about modern Lesvos and thought of it, if at all, as little more than the serene agrarian home of Greece’s ouzo and sardine industries.
That abruptly changed in 2015.
Virtually overnight, thousands of men, women, and children fleeing the terrors of their homelands flooded daily out of Turkey across the three-and-a-half to ten-mile-wide Mytilini Strait onto Lesvos. Tourists, who’d come to holiday on the island’s northern shores, found themselves sitting on the verandas of their beachfront hotels, drinking their morning coffee, watching in horror as an armada of dangerously overloaded boats desperately struggled to reach land.
Inevitably, tourists stopped coming.
But not the refugees, for they saw no choice but to come, no matter the predators waiting for them along the way: profiteers poised to make billions of euros off the fears and aspirations of desperate souls willing to pay, do, or risk whatever they must for the promise of a better, safer existence. In 2015, more than a half million asylum-seeking migrants and refugees passed through Lesvos, looking to make their way to other destinations in the European Union (EU).
The chaos of the modern world had spun out a rushing storm of profit for human traffickers of every stripe, and Lesvos sat dead center in its path.
• • • • •
The sea had always been Mihalis Volandes’ friend. He’d been born to it, the same as to his fortune. His father and father before him were islanders who knew the value of owning ships and trading in oil. They stood as part of the Greek elite, protected by the nation’s laws and by his countrymen’s enduring pride in their tiny country’s dominant role on the shipping world stage. The unpleasant fact that little of the shipping industry’s revenues ever made its way back to Greece was politely accepted as the nation’s cost for maintaining those bragging rights.
Mihalis lived in Kioski, one of Mytilini’s old aristocratic neighborhoods, tucked between the new harbor to the south and the 1,500-year-old castle dominating the city’s northeast border with the sea. He’d lived through many changes to his island and accepted or ignored most as a part of living in modern times.
One change, though, he could not bring himself to accept or ignore: refugees. Greece had not experienced immigration of the current magnitude since the early 1920s, when 1.2 million Greek Orthodox Christians were expelled from Turkey, an event to which most residents of Lesvos traced their ancestors.
He realized early on what had triggered his nation’s modern migration deluge. Under Greece’s prior government, the Greek Coast Guard intercepted and turned refugee boats back to Turkey, but in early 2015, Greece’s new government ordered its Coast Guard to allow refugee boats to pass into Greece. Germany’s later announcement that it would accept one million Syrian refugees that year made what followed inevitable. From that moment on, it would have been irrational for those caught up in war, Syrian or otherwise, to remain in danger rather than risk a journey toward the promised peace and security of a new life in northern Europe.
Mihalis had joined many of his neighbors in doing what they could to help lessen the suffering of the refugees, as did many tourists and off-islanders, but the onslaught soon overwhelmed them. With the arrival of the international media and their cameras, a world outcry arose, bringing non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in to fill the void left by the confluence of EU political paralysis, and Greece’s obvious inability to bear the financial burden of caring for hundreds of thousands of new arrivals, while so many of its own eleven million citizens struggled in the depths of a Great Depression-like economic crisis.
Mihalis saw the NGOs’ efforts as admirable but severely wanting in both coordination and execution. What troubled him most was the utter absence of an organized plan for addressing the chronic problem of processing and humanely caring for the masses fleeing to safety in Europe by sea.
Threatened bureaucrats entrenched in doing things their own way feared such change. Worried elected officials concerned with playing to their voters wanted no such plan. And, for sure, human traffickers and their allies, who profited from the status quo, didn’t want one.
Mihalis saw patience wearing thin on all sides, represented most dramatically in the riots and fires breaking out in the islands’ detention centers. Someone had to come up with a broader vision, one that looked beyond short-term expediencies. So Mihalis did just that, with an idea that struck at the heart of the highly lucrative refugee-smuggling business.
He presented his plan to various government authorities, each time receiving a polite thank you from shortsighted apparatchiks who had no intention of considering the proposal but dared not offend someone of Mihalis’ stature and influence.
Now, though, with the world even more at war with itself, and no end in sight to the masses fleeing for safer shores, he hoped those capable of instituting change might be more amenable to adopting a sensible, dignified process for integrating refugees into their societies. It struck him as sheer madness to blindly adhere to practices that only engendered anger, resentment, and distrust across generations of souls soon to be part of European society—or returned to their homelands with attitudes forever shaped by their experiences.
But, then again, madness seemed to be in fashion.
Mihalis had spent the day on the neighboring island of Chios, the place of his birth and origin of his family’s shipping fortune, trying to stir up support among shipowner friends. He would need their cooperation for his plan to work, and with Chios also a prime target of refugee smugglers, he hoped to get it. For the most part, his friends were receptive to his ideas, and though he would have preferred wild enthusiasm, he sensed they’d ultimately come on board.
It had been a long day, and rough seas made the boat ride back from Chios take longer than expected. His walk from the harbor along the ramble of cobbled and paved streets twisting back toward the old castle also took him longer than usual, but then again, he was tired.
“Whatever,” he mumbled as he approached his home. Things finally seemed to be looking up for his project. But if, yet again, no one listened and the situation continued to deteriorate, he could always move to any number of other places in the world. They’d welcome him with open arms, a refugee possessing great wealth. That didn’t strike him as fair, but he was a realist—something he wished he could call the EU and his own government.
He fumbled in the dark for his key to the gate in the tall iron fence separating the street from his courtyard and gardens. He wondered why the garden lights weren’t on at this hour. Security lights were a relatively new phenomenon here, representing yet another casualty to an island way of life under siege.
He doubted whether, at seventy years old, he’d live to see the world a better place, but with the help of his shipowner friends, he might at least be able to help some of those fleeing its worst places to find a better life, perhaps returning his beloved Lesvos to some sort of normalcy in the process.
But not tonight, he thought as he opened the gate. Tonight, it would be straight to sleep. There was always tomorrow.
He smiled at the thought. “Forever the optimist,” his late wife used to call him. She’d have been proud of what he sought to accomplish.
Mihalis sighed as he closed the gate behind him. By memory, he carefully made his way along the marble path to his right. Ahead lay the entryway to his house, off to the right, the tall dark hedges running up against the perimeter fence. He paused for a moment to look up at the sky. Too cloudy for starlight. Just a silent pitch-black night. And the scents of April flowers in the air.
That’s when he heard the swish.
• • • • •
Dana McLaughlin heard the ping-ping-ping of a tiny bell long before she saw the battered trash-filled pushcart rambling unsteadily along on two wheels over the flagstones. A blank-eyed, dark-skinned youth edged the pale blue cart through the crowd, tweaking his thumb at the frayed bell cord dangling from its right handle. Mykonos’ old-town lanes were far too narrow to safely navigate motorized trash collection vehicles through the tightly packed Easter crowds, and the once-common donkeys only drew gawkers into the jumble. Besides, donkeys were relatively hard to come by these days, and costly compared to Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, North Africans, and virtually every other dislocated national struggling to find a life in the EU refugee filter trap known as Greece.
She sighed. So many doing whatever it takes to survive. Even here, on this playground for the rich and sometimes-famous.
This trip was supposed to be a few days of R & R away from the disheartening campaigns she’d been waging along the front lines of Greece’s refugee crisis. If battle ribbons and medals existed for her brand of NGO service in the country’s inundated northeastern Aegean islands, besieged urban centers, and mainland relocation camps, she’d have been among the most highly decorated of her under-thirty generation.
In her experience, the effectiveness of NGOs varied broadly. Some, such as her own, performed with dedicated excellence. Others seemed invested in facilitating political positions, rather than in tending to the humanitarian needs of the refugees, while still others seemed more motivated by profiting from their donors’ largesse than by doing good works. Then, too, some NGOs, and others who’d come to help, fell victim to unproductive, internecine turf battles that so often plagued competing efforts to do good. It was the infighting that troubled her most, because it so widely missed the mark of the purpose of their work.
Thankfully, in Mihalis Volandes, she’d found a benefactor who shared her vision of what must be done to make relief efforts more effective. There would always be critics and turf-protectors to fight, but together they stood a real chance of bringing much-needed change and sanity to the process.
For this weekend, though, she’d promised herself to put all of that out of her mind and lose herself amid Mykonos’ eerily surreal detachment from the ills that haunted the rest of Greece. Here, the nation’s chronic financial crisis, and the tourist drought plaguing islands unlucky enough to be headlined in the media’s frenzied coverage of refugees in flight, seemed a million miles away.
Mykonos had been a friend’s idea, but the friend cancelled at the last minute, leaving her to travel alone. She lay on the beach during the day and wandered through the old town’s shop-filled lanes at night. Both left her with too much time to think. She decided she needed to get drunk—but knew that would be unwise for a single woman surrounded by cruising men.
So, instead, she found a gay bar featuring live piano music and sat listening to Broadway show tunes, slowly sipping Kir Royales, not bothered by a soul, and losing herself in childhood memories of growing up in rural northwestern New Jersey.
The gentle buzz of her holiday trance ended abruptly at two, courtesy of the cell phone vibrating in her bag.
• • • • •
Andreas Kaldis had just walked into his office when he heard his phone ringing. He picked it up before sitting down.
“Hello, Kaldis here.”
“Is this Chief Inspector Kaldis?” The caller struggled to speak Greek.
The question surprised him. “If you have to ask, I guess I should ask how you got my direct number?”
“I’m just…uh…I don’t know the word in Greek…anxious right now.”
Andreas switched to English. “Would you prefer we speak in English, Miss?”
“Yes, thank you. I’m sorry for calling so early.”
“It’s six-thirty, and you have me now, so why don’t we start with who you are, and how you got my number?”
He heard an audible sigh. “Sorry, sir. My name is Dana McLaughlin and I got your number from the Mytilini harbormaster.”
“How is Pavlos?” Andreas walked around his desk and sat in his chair.
“He’s fine, and said to pass along his regards.”
Andreas leaned back. “How can I help you, Ms. McLaughlin?”
“I’m in charge of refugee operations on Lesvos for SafePassage.”
He nodded. “I’ve heard of your organization. My wife tells me it does good work.”
“Thank you. That’s nice to hear. We try our best.”
Andreas heard a deep swallow.
“Last night around two in the morning, I received a call from a coworker that one of our native refugee workers had been arrested.”
Andreas picked up a pencil, and began tapping it on his desk. He guessed he was about to be pitched to use his position as head of the Greek Police’s Special Crimes Unit to intervene in a local police matter. He wondered why she hadn’t asked her harbormaster friend for help. Harbormasters were Coast Guard officers in charge of their jurisdiction’s port police. It should be a simple enough favor for him to do for her…unless it wasn’t so simple.
“What’s a native refugee worker?”
“Some refugees fleeing their homelands find a calling in helping others like themselves. Sometimes they come to work for NGOs like mine. They add a much-needed dimension to our work.”
“Sounds admirable. What’s your refugee worker accused of?”
She cleared her throat. “Murder.”
Andreas stopped tapping. “Oh.”
“But he couldn’t have done it.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Murder is not in his character.”
Andreas figured pursuing her basis for that observation would likely take up his entire morning. “Ms. McLaughlin, what is it you’d like for me to do?”
“Investigate. He won’t stand a chance if you don’t.”
“I’m sure the police will be thorough.”
“There’s too much at stake for the politicians to stay out of it.”
He sensed a political diatribe in the offing. “This is not the first time a refugee has been involved in a crime like this in Greece.”
He heard her pause and clear her throat.
“It’s the first time the victim’s been a seventy-year-old Greek shipping tycoon, sliced cleanly in half from neck to crotch with the single stroke of a sword.”
Andreas sat up in his chair. “Run that by me again.”
“Late last night, Mihalis Volandes, the patriarch of an old-line shipping family, was killed, just as I said, in the garden outside his Mytilini home.”
Andreas crossed himself. “My God.”
“Why are they accusing your guy?”
“The police found him at the scene.”
“Holding the sword?”
“This isn’t funny, Chief.” Her voice took on an edge.
“It wasn’t meant to be. What’s his name?”
“Ali Sera, and, no, he wasn’t holding a sword.”
“Why was he there?”
“He said he’d received a call telling him to meet Mr. Volandes at his home.”
“Who called him?”
“He didn’t know the caller.”
“Did your guy know Volandes?”
“I can’t say for sure that they ever met, but he certainly knew of him, because our organization publicly supported Mr. Volandes’ efforts to develop a new approach for processing refugees.”
“Was Ali for or against Volandes’ efforts?”
“I’m positive he was for them.”
“Because they made sense and would work.”
Andreas rubbed at his forehead with his free hand. “Who’s in charge of the investigation?”
“I don’t know, but I can ask.”
“That’s okay,” said Andreas. “I’ll find out.”
“So you’ll investigate?”
“No promises. For now I just want more details.”
“I understand. Thank you so much, and please let me know what more I can do to help.” She gave him her cell and office numbers. “I’ll be back on Lesvos late Monday, and can get you more information once I’m there, if you need it.”
“Where are you now?”
“On Mykonos, for Easter.”
“Ah, yes, an island I know well.”
“Do you think I should return to Lesvos sooner?”
“Not for my purposes,” said Andreas. “I’ll give the local police your contact information in case they want to get in touch with you before you’re back on the island.”
“It’s all so unbelievable. I feel so sorry for everyone involved. Mr. Volandes, his family, Ali….”
She seemed to be holding back a sob. “We’d been so close to changing so many lives––an old Greek man and his American granddaughter they used to call us––united in doing good works for the world.”
Andreas cleared his throat. “I understand. May I suggest you spend some time in church? After all, it’s Easter time and that might help you to process this.”
She sighed. “Thanks for the advice, Chief. Kalo Paska. Bye.”
“And a Good Easter to you, too.” Andreas hung up the phone. He looked out his window at his own building’s reflection in the neighboring building’s windows.
Sliced in half. He crossed himself again.
• • • • •
“You’re in early, again, I see,” said Maggie Sikestes, poking her sturdy, red-haired, five-foot-three-inch frame inside the doorway to her boss’ office.
Andreas shrugged. “Lila’s feeding schedule for the baby has me up at five anyway. No reason for me to hang around the house.”
“Is that your idea or Lila’s?”
“Cute. Maybe I should ask my loyal secretary to consider coming in earlier too?”
Maggie feigned a smile. “Feel free to ask.”
They’d been bantering back and forth like this since Andreas’ return to Greece’s Central Police Headquarters in Athens (better known as GADA), following a brief stint on Mykonos as its police chief. He’d returned to assume command of the unit charged with investigating matters of national concern or potential corruption. That’s when the luck of the draw landed him with Maggie, GADA’s mother superior and source of all knowledge of its many secrets and intricate ways.
Andreas shook his head. “If you’d been here when I got in, you could have screened my calls.”
“Ever hear of letting them go through to voicemail?”
“It’s the kid in me. I can’t resist a ringing phone.”
“Why do I sense you’re about to tell me something unpleasant?”
“Good guess. A half-hour ago, I received a call from a woman who heads up a refugee operation on Lesvos. Someone who works for her, who happens to be a refugee, is accused of using a sword to murder one of the island’s most distinguished citizens.”
“And she wants me to look into it.”
Andreas shrugged. “I’ve left a message with the Mytilini police commander to call me when he has the chance. Let’s hear what he has to say. If it’s an open-and-shut case, no reason for us to get involved.”
“I sense you don’t think it is.”
Andreas raised and dropped his hands. “The victim was sliced in half, top to bottom.”
“Oh, my God. That sounds like terrorists.”
Andreas nodded. “Up to now, we’ve been blessedly spared that sort of thing in Greece. At least of the foreign-born sort.”
“Could it be?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know. That’s what I want to find out. Tell Yianni to see me the moment he gets in.”
“Can I make you some coffee?”
Andreas held up a paper cup. “I got some from the cafeteria.”
“Also, see what you can find out about the victim, Mihalis Volandes.” Maggie’s eyebrows rose at the name. Andreas nodded. “There should be a lot. But concentrate on his efforts to help refugees. Also, see what you can find out about the accused, Ali Sera, though I doubt you’ll find much, if anything, on him.”
“Yes, while you’re at it, look into the background of Dana McLaughlin.” He wrote the name on a sheet of paper and slid it across the desk to Maggie.
“And who would she be?”
“The one who’s asked for my help.”
“Ah, the ever-trusting soul of my boss.”
“Just being careful.”