He was born precisely one year after his mother’s death. At least that’s what the birth certificate read. His father wasn’t around to notice the mistake, having vanished immediately after his fateful one-night stand. Nor did the orphanage pick up on the error; they simply treated him as the child of an unidentified itinerant mother, born on the day she died giving birth in one of Athens’ worst public clinics.
He learned of the mistake a dozen years ago, slightly shy of what he believed to be his fourteenth birthday. The surprise came in the form of a copy of his birth certificate shown to him just before his lawyer presented it to a court along with a citation to provisions of the Greek Criminal Code absolving a minor under thirteen from any criminal responsibility for his acts. He stood expressionless as a visibly angry judge ranted on and on before ordering him to spend his next five years in programs alongside other minors deemed in need of reformative measures.
But he never spent a moment in confinement for the murders.
# # #
“I don’t usually pick up hitchhikers, but I figured anyone out here in the middle of nowhere carrying a puppy in his arms must be local. Sorry, you probably don’t understand a word I’m saying.”
“I live in the next village.”
“You understand English?” said the driver. “Wonderful. I’m new to this part of the world. Just passing through.”
The passenger nodded.
“I’m headed back to Athens. Been down to Galaxidi on the Gulf of Corinth for a couple of days. Beautiful harbor, beautiful town, beautiful sea. I think I’ll do a quick stop in Delphi. Mythology stuff isn’t my thing, but at least I’ll be able to tell my friends I saw the place. Ever been there? Of course you have. You live right next to it.”
Again the passenger nodded.
“Gorgeous place, Greece, especially now in June. Maybe you can answer a question for me. Everywhere I go I see wide-open countryside. Makes me wonder why with so much beautiful, available space, almost half the country chooses to live jammed together in Athens?”
The passenger stroked the puppy. “I wouldn’t know. I haven’t been to Athens. Matter of fact, I haven’t been much farther away from my home than the place where you picked me up.”
“Really? A nice looking, well-built young man like you stuck here in the middle of nothing but olive groves all your life? Someone ought to take you to Athens and show you a good time. After all, it’s only a couple of hours away.” The driver shot a quick glance at the passenger.
The passenger nodded and smiled.
The man touched his right hand to the passenger’s left thigh. “I’m from Georgia.”
The passenger took no notice of the touch. “I wouldn’t have taken you for a former Soviet.”
The driver paused for a moment, laughed. “No, not that Georgia, the one in the United States.” He rested his hand on his passenger’s leg.
“Oh yes, the place of the United States Olympics.” “Atlanta, 1996. But you couldn’t be old enough to remember that.”
He tugged at the puppy’s ears. “A bomb went off. People died, many injured. The hero who saved a lot of lives was accused of being a terrorist.”
The driver stared at his passenger. “His name was Richard Jewell. The government apologized and he was cleared.”
“Hard to get back your reputation once the media tells the whole world you’re guilty.”
“The world’s not perfect.”
“He had to sue to get apologies from the press and died trying.” “As we say down Georgia way, ‘Shit happens.’”
The passenger nodded.
The driver gave his passenger’s thigh a squeeze. “You’re a pretty interesting fella. How do you know all this stuff living all the way out here?”
The passenger shrugged and looked out the side window. “Tele- vision keeps us middle-of-nowhere folk in touch with the world.”
The driver laughed. “Touché.” He squeezed harder. Without turning from the window the passenger asked,
“What’s your name?” “Michael.”
“Michael is a nice name. In Greek it would be Mihalis.” “My mother was Greek.”
“It’s good you know who your mother was.” He turned and looked at the driver. “You look about my age.”
The driver pulled in his belly. “Maybe a few years older. And your name?”
“Did you say ‘Karen?’ That doesn’t sound like a Greek man’s name.”
He smiled. “It is. Believe me, it is.” “Okay.”
Kharon fixed his eyes on Michael’s.
Michael bobbed his head in glances between Kharon and the road. “What are you staring at?”
“Would you like to have sex with me?” Kharon smiled. “What?”
“Do I have to ask twice, Michael?” “Where do I pull off?”
“The next left. It’s not far. Just keep driving into the olives until I tell you to stop.”
“I really do like your country.”
Kharon smiled and stroked the puppy. “I’m sure.”
# # #
They drove between two rows of hundred-year-old olive trees toward the base of a gray limestone mountain splotched in myrtle and gorse a half mile or so off the highway. Kharon told him to stop by a pair of cypress trees and led him to a grassy spot enclosed on three sides by soaring cliffs. A private place. He pointed for Michael to lie down. Michael hesitated. Kharon slowly undressed, then lay naked on his back, glancing up at a light blue sky and stray cotton clouds before gesturing for Michael to come to him. Michael grinned as he dropped down.
By the time Kharon finished, Michael lay smiling from ear to ear—directly across his throat. Kharon had slowly stripped the American naked before killing him. No reason to bloody the clothes. He might be able to use them. At least give them away to someone who could. Waste not, want not.
He hadn’t planned on killing him. Things just evolved that way. It was hard enough getting strangers to pick up hitchhikers in the backcountry, even with the borrowed puppy routine. Word of something like this getting around would make it even tougher. He decided to bury the man and take his car. He’d return the puppy and drive the car to Athens, so the city would be blamed for the disappearance of—he pulled a driver’s license out of the dead man’s wallet—Michael C. Dillman. The money in the wallet would pay for a rental car to get him back to Delphi. He wouldn’t stay long in Athens. Too many bad memories there. He’d lied about not knowing Athens. He’d lied about other things too. But, for sure, so had the dead guy. Too bad Dillman wasn’t up on his Greek mythology. Had the Georgian known of the mythical ferryman of Hades who transported souls from the land of the living to the land of the dead across the rivers Styx and Acheron, he might not have been so quick to go off with a stranger bearing the ferryman’s name.
Kharon had always tried giving a choice to the people he killed. It just seemed the right thing to do. He’d even given a choice to the two older boys in his orphanage who liked raping the young ones. He told them to stop. They hadn’t.
The ministry in charge of the orphanage thought widespread rape within a government institution would trigger a bigger scandal than an isolated murder incident, so it portrayed the killings as the unprovoked mutilation murder of two fine, upstanding young men. He would still be in prison if it weren’t for his lawyer’s last-minute gambit.
The Justice Ministry, as angry as the judge at the unexpected turn, encouraged the press to vilify the boy mercilessly. Yes, he knew firsthand what the media could do to a reputation. He’d become a household word for “injustice,” and in the process, a celebrity among his aspiring criminal peers.
Once released from supervision and on his own, he couldn’t find work. Everyone knew his name. Two years in the military taught him other skills, but when he returned to civilian life he again faced the same closed minds each time he sought work in his own name. That’s when he went to work for his former associates, doing jobs consistent with his reputation.
Now he lived without a name. Except when they called him.
And when they did, they called him Kharon.