The house looked like a block of melting strawberry ice cream against the intense blue of the Greek sky. The pink of the upper floors faded to cream near the door and scattered patches of reddish stone showed where the plaster had chipped. From the clay-tiled veranda, the vineyard sloped away to the Aegean. Dinah Pelerin gazed through binoculars at an enormous cruise ship docked in the harbor at Kusadasi, a mile across the Mycale Strait on the coast of Turkey. The ship had probably voyaged south from Istanbul, crossed the Dardanelles, and sailed past the ruins of ancient Troy, just two hundred miles from the spot where she was sitting. Inspired by her nearness to a place that had given rise to so many myths and legends, she imagined the still-smoldering ashes of the burned city wafting through space and time.
“It’s hot as blazes,” said her boyfriend. Thor Ramberg was a native of the Arctic and after less than twenty-four hours in residence, he seemed to be having second thoughts about spending his sabbatical on Samos, the sunniest of the Greek isles.
“Pull your chair into the shade and have another glass of iced tea.” Dinah had grown up in the American Deep South. Heat was her preferred milieu.
Thor took off his dark glasses and daubed another blob of white zinc-oxide on his nose. He was dark-eyed and dark-complected and, in Dinah’s opinion, overly fastidious about sun exposure. He scooted his chair closer under the mulberry tree that overarched the corner of the veranda. “Would you like to take the ferry to Kusadasi this afternoon?”
“We arrived just yesterday. I’d rather stay here in the village and relax.” The village of Kanaris was idyllic. Situated on a rocky hilltop overlooking the sea to the east and a deep, wooded gorge to the west, it afforded spectacular views, fragrant mountain air, and a friendly taverna that boasted a wine list of two reds and two whites.
Thor gave her a teasing look. “I thought you were the rest- less one, always itchy to be on the go. What’s gotten into you?” She put down the binoculars and reached for her book of Greek myths. She couldn’t say exactly what had gotten into her. Maybe it was the heady scent of wild thyme and oregano or the pleasant chirping of the parakeets in their cage beside the door. Maybe it was the power of the myths themselves. She had visited Turkey years ago on an archaeological dig in central Anatolia, but this was her first taste of the Aegean, Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” and she had never felt so drawn by the aura of a place. Samos was like no Greek island she’d read about or seen in picture books. Green and lush, with abundant water flowing down from the mountains, it was an agricultural paradise and the quiet serenity of Kanaris cast its own spell. She said, “You paid a fortune to lease this house for six months. It’s beautiful, it’s comfortable, and it came with a full-time servant. We should settle in and enjoy it.”
“I’d enjoy it more if it had air conditioning. And our so-called servant reminds me of a prison warden. Those beetle eyes of hers follow our every move as if she expects us to break bad, throw the silverware into our knapsacks, and book.”
Thor loved American cop shows, reruns of which he watched religiously on TV back in Norway. His forays into the lingo, delivered in his slightly singsong Norwegian accent, made her smile. She said, “I don’t think Alcina watches us to keep us from ripping off the silver. She’s not used to guests. That gossipy old guy at the taverna last night said she’s been the caretaker here for the last twenty years and this is the first time it’s been rented out. Don’t you think that’s strange?”
“The economy and the crisis with the euro have hit the Greeks hard. Taxes are going up. Everyone’s looking for ways to make extra money.”
“Yes, but to leave a lovely property like this vacant for so long makes no sense. It could have brought in bushels of tourist dollars over the years.” She took in the vineyard with its neatly staked vines leafed out in brilliant spring green. A bush of orangey-pink roses punctuated the end of each row and a small bird with a cinnamon-colored back and a vivid yellow belly alighted on top of a stake and warbled its heart out. Under the fluorescent rays of the Greek sun, every leaf and petal and feather radiated its own brilliance. “When you met the landowner this morning and signed the lease, did he give you any reason for keeping the house immaculate, but unlived in?”
“The owner is a she. A widow, quite elderly and hard of hearing. Her name is Zenia Stephanadis and the house once belonged to her sister Marilita Stephan, the actress.”
Dinah had seen Marilita Stephan in an old movie, The Fatal Stone or The Lethal Stone. Something deadly, as she recalled. Marilita had growled and purred and devoured the leading man with her huge, hot eyes. Her acting was operatic, almost laughably over the top. But she had conveyed a sort of tragic magnificence. “She must be in her eighties by now. Does she live with her sister?”
“She was executed by firing squad in 1973. Two days before her fortieth birthday.”
“Jerusalem! What did she do?”
“She murdered her lover, his mother, and one of the colonels responsible for the Greek military coup in ’67.”
“I didn’t think Greece had capital punishment.”
“They don’t now. But during the years when the military junta ruled, political dissidents and those regarded as criminals were routinely imprisoned, tortured, and executed.”
Dinah pictured three blood-drenched people gasping out their dying breath on the spot where she was sitting now and shuddered. “Where did Marilita commit these murders?”
“On a beach on the other side of the island. Come on, Dinah. I wouldn’t have booked us into a bloody charnel house.” He got up, pushed her hair aside, and kissed her neck. “You want to enjoy the house? Let’s go enjoy the upstairs.”
She shoved the thought of murder to the back of her mind and smiled. He really was handsome beneath the white goop on his nose. “We enjoyed the upstairs this morning. Twice.”
“We’re on holiday. Who’s counting?” He pulled her to her feet and kissed her.
“Telephone call for Miss Pelerin.” Alcina materialized at the door like a ninja. She was a black-haired, top-heavy woman of about fifty with a stealthy tread and suspicious eyes. The gold cross that dangled from a chain around her neck appeared some- what at odds with the blue-eye amulet she wore at her throat to ward off “the evil eye.” She stepped out onto the veranda, gave Thor a reproachful look, and handed Dinah the phone. “You left it in the parlor. It made music and I answered.”
“Thank you, Alcina.” She looked at the caller ID and groaned. It was Neesha Dobbs, her uncle Cleon’s widow in Atlanta. Since his death, Dinah had had the duty of trustee, doling out money from his bank account in Panama on an as-needed basis to his and Neesha’s two obnoxious children. It was a complicated, aggravating, and thankless task, but Cleon had left her no choice. If she hadn’t promised to administer his legacy, the children would have been cut off without a penny.
Alcina continued to hover.
“It’s all right that you answered, Alcina. Thank you.” Dinah waited. After a few seconds, the old busybody retreated, but only as far as the parakeets’ cage. She murmured to the birds in Greek, took some fruit slices out of her pocket, and fed them through the wires.
Thor grinned and cupped his hands to his ears.
Dinah stifled a laugh and tried to muster a semblance of cordiality for her caller. “Hello, Neesha. What’s up?”
“Katherine’s been arrested for burglary.” “Katherine who?”
“My daughter, of course.”
“I thought she’d changed her name to K.D.”
“K.D. was a phase. She’s changed her name back to Katherine and she’s giving me a nervous breakdown. She’s supposed to report to some juvenile hearing or other tomorrow, but I won’t have it. It’s bad enough she has to live with the stigma of her father’s criminality which, thank God, I’ve managed to keep quiet. She can’t go to jail. It would destroy her social standing. She’d never be able to come out with the other debs. You’ve got to help me.”
“Help you how, Neesha? I’m in Greece.” “I’m sending her to stay with you.”
“No, you’re not. That is one hundred percent out of the question. Use your head. Skipping a court hearing isn’t like skipping class. The judge will issue a warrant.”
“Not right away. It’ll take time. And Katherine likes you. She says you’re worldly wise, not a slave to convention.” Her voice fluted at the absurdity. She took an audible breath and resumed the smarmy tone. “You’re so good with words, Dinah. So persuasive. If only you’ll talk to her, she’ll realize that she has to straighten up and behave herself.”
“I’ve been invited to take part in an archaeological excavation in Turkey at the end of the summer. I can’t drop everything to babysit a teenager. I will talk to her by phone, although I can’t imagine that anything I say will make a difference.”
“She needs more than a phone call. She needs a firm hand.” “I’m sure she does.” Applied with brute force to her derrière, thought Dinah. “Maybe we can get her into one of those finishing schools in Switzerland. How are her grades?”
“They’ve slipped.” Neesha emitted a tremulous sigh. “You have to take her.”
“It’s not going to happen, Neesha. There’s nothing to do in this little village and besides, I’d be a terrible influence. I drink. I smoke. I swear. And I’m shacking up with a man who isn’t my husband.”
“I don’t care about that. Dinah, please. I have my hands full with her twin brother. His ADD is worse than ever. His psychiatrist thinks he may have complications, personality disorder or something. I’m begging you. Katherine’s sixteen. You can’t let her go to jail. She’d just die. I’d die. It’s too awful to think about.” “Can’t you send her to your mother in Calhoun? Isn’t she…?” “Not well. Not at all able to look after a girl like Katherine.” Dinah sympathized, but not so much that she was willing to take on the burden of a juvenile delinquent who, even before her descent into crime, was an insufferable pain in the hind quarters. “I’m sorry, Neesha. I will wire money from Cleon’s account so that you can hire an attorney. I will help you find a boarding school. I will do my best to reason with her. But I can’t play nanny.”
“I’ve already put her on a plane to Athens, flight 229.” “You did what?”
“She knows to transfer for a flight to Samos. She’ll arrive sometime tomorrow.” Neesha burst into tears and the phone went dead.
“Just shoot me.”
Thor looked up from his International Herald Tribune and rolled his iced tea glass across his forehead. “Trouble?”
Alcina turned around and stared. Dinah stared her down. The woman fondled her evil eye amulet, muttered something in Greek, and oozed back into the house.
“You look as if you could use something stronger than tea,” said Thor.
Dinah closed her eyes and took a deep breath. “It might not be a bad idea to do an inventory of the silverware, after all.”