Santorini stands as the southernmost of Greece’s Aegean Cycladic islands, one hundred forty-five miles southeast of Athens, eighty-five miles due north of Crete, and slightly smaller than the American island of Manhattan. Its official name is Thera, but Santorini, a contraction of Santa Irini from its Latin Empire days, is how it’s known to tourists worldwide. To romantics drawn to legend, it bears yet another name, one tied to a cataclysmic volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago: Atlantis, the lost island.
Two million years of volcanic activity created a round-top island of lava rock embracing three limestone mountain peaks created eons before the Aegean existed as a sea. Evidence of pottery from approximately six thousand years ago put the first settlers on the island in Neolithic times, and archaeological excavations at the prehistoric city of Akrotiri unearthed a prosperous, developed civilization in residence in the mid-sixteenth century BCE, at the height of the Minoan Civilization.
That’s when literally all hell broke loose, destroying everyone who’d not fled a prefatory warning earthquake, in likely the most catastrophic volcanic eruption in recorded history. Catastrophe still haunts the region, but of a different sort. One that threatens to tear apart the fragile fabric of a nation.
# # #
The last thing his mother told him when he left for school was, “Stay away from the demonstrations.” She’d been telling him the same thing for a week.
He didn’t mind the extra ten minutes the detour added to his walk. He had no interest in watching police in riot gear face down a herd of hooded demonstrators armed with paving stones and Molotov cocktails. He’d seen it all before and knew what tear gas smelled like. After all, he was eleven years old.
The Athens back streets edging around the battleground cen- tral square area stood quiet. Businesses stayed tightly shuttered during demonstration hours, at least those that might attract a rock through their windows and a quick grab and snatch by an opportunistic self-proclaimed champion of the long-suffering Greek people.
As the boy approached an intersecting narrow street winding back to the square, a slim figure burst around the corner and ran straight into him. The runner wore the standard demonstrator’s uniform of running shoes, jeans, and a loose fitting hooded sweatshirt covering all but the eyes.
The boy stumbled but stayed on his feet until knocked to the ground by two husky men in black charging around the corner close behind the runner, their faces covered in black balaclavas. Like the runner, neither stopped to look after the boy.
Looking up from the pavement, the boy watched the two men hound after the runner around the next corner. He knew where the chase was headed. Everyone in the neighborhood knew. For decades now, whenever demonstrations in the square turned violent, perpetrators fleeing police ran for the university grounds three blocks away, a place of guaranteed sanctuary from arrest under Greece’s Constitution.
He stood, wiped his hands on his pants, dusted off his shirt, and resumed his walk to school. It wasn’t supposed to be like this anymore. His favorite teachers had told his class that all would be different once the new government was elected and assumed power. There’d no longer be any reason for demonstrations. He caught a whiff of tear gas and heard spikes of shouting in the distance. Maybe his grandfather was right. If politicians are involved, there’s no hope for change. They’re all alike.
# # #
The university gates stood open less than a block away. A crowd of hooded onlookers watched from within, rooting the runner home with curses and epithets shouted at the pursuers.
The runner took a quick look back. The men had closed to within ten meters but suddenly stopped. A smile appeared beneath the runner’s hood. They’ll never catch me.
Seconds later the welcoming crowd scattered in panic from a spray of gunshots while the runner lay unmoving a few steps before the gates.
The pursuers jogged over to stare down at the body, glanced toward the gates, holstered their weapons, and trotted off in the direction from which they’d come.
No one tried to follow them.
# # #
A phalanx of police cars lined each side of the street leading up to the university gates, while four police motorcycles, two cops on each, stood between the gates and the body in the street. Beyond the body and back up the street, armored police buses discharged cadres of cops in full riot gear in a race to hold back the torrent of demonstrators streaming in from the square.
Smartphones had quickly spread the message that one of their own had been “executed” by police and a swell of angry youth risen up in the square raged through the side streets toward the university gates, shouting “Death to gourounia,” the Greek epithet for police as pigs.
“This isn’t looking good.” A lanky motorcycle cop nodded toward the crowd gathering behind them just beyond the gates. “No shit,” said his partner sitting behind him on the motor- cycle. “So far they’re only calling us names, but once their bomb- tossing buddies get here from the square, this could turn into a hell of a nasty crossfire.”
“Whose bright idea do you think it was to flood this place with cops while the body’s still lying in the middle of the street?” “Some newbie political idiot would be my guess. Nobody at GADA seems to be in charge these days.”
The lanky one nodded. “For sure, but it’s not just at police headquarters. If you ask me, the whole damn government’s run by amateurs appointed by their relatives.”
“I guess I don’t have to ask who you voted for.”
“You’d be wrong. Like most of the country, I figured noth- ing could be worse than the malakas we’ve had in power since before I was born.”
“Live and learn.”
An ambulance snaked its way around the buses and stopped five meters from the motorcycle cops. The ambulance driver and another man, both wearing surgical scrubs, jumped out of the front seat and headed straight for the body. The driver looked to be in his late twenties, with close-cropped hair and built like a bull. The other man was dark-haired, half a head taller, and looked a dozen years older. The driver immediately began taking photographs as the dark-haired man stood motionless above the body, staring down at a face and torso still covered by an oversized hoodie.
Two more men climbed out of the back of the ambulance, one tall and muscular, in his early twenties and dressed in scrubs, and the second a fifty-year-old wearing a suit and carrying a canvas medical bag. The older man stood by the front of the ambulance while his companion slowly walked in expanding concentric circles staring at the ground, stopping every so often to pick up shell casings with tweezers, drop them into plastic bags, and make an entry in a notebook.
The dark-haired man in scrubs waved for the man in the suit to join him.
“Is that who I think it is?” said the lanky cop, nodding toward the waving man.
“Sure looks like him,” said his partner.
“What do you think Andreas Kaldis is doing here dressed like an ambulance attendant?”
“No idea. I thought he’d lost his job when the new govern- ment was elected.”
“Nah,” said the lanky one, “only the political appointment. The old minister of public order resigned because of health problems but convinced the Prime Minister to appoint Kaldis as his successor. When the Prime Minister’s party lost the elections, Kaldis was out on his ass like all the other ministers.”
“So you think he actually got his old job back?”
The lanky cop nodded. “Sure looks like it, but surprising. Especially since running Special Crimes means he’s in charge of investigating official corruption. There must be a real story there.”
“I heard he’s married to a big-time rich woman from one of Athens’ oldest, most prominent families. Maybe that’s the answer?” “Could be. These new politicians talk a big game about being all for the common people, but they still drive around in Mercedes limousines and hang out with the same big power and money crowd as the assholes they replaced.” “Who are the three guys with Kaldis?”
“The one in the suit is from the coroner’s office. The driver looks like Kaldis’ right hand guy, Yianni Kouros. I don’t know the big guy picking up shell casings, but he must be in Kaldis’ unit.” “I hear they’re tough guys. I wonder what they’re thinking.”
“I don’t know, but whatever they have in mind, they better do something fast.” The lanky cop shot a quick glance at the gates. “That crowd’s moving closer to us.”
“Let’s hope they’re just curious about what the coroner’s doing with the body.”
The two cops watched the coroner crouch down and calmly lift the victim’s hand. The crowd’s cursing faded a bit as he moved his fingers down onto the wrist. An instant later the coroner leaped to his feet, yelling for the big man to bring a stretcher and waving frantically for Yianni to bring the ambulance closer to the body.
The big man thrust the tweezers and plastic bags into his pocket, raced to the back of the ambulance, yanked out a stretcher, and ran with it to Andreas, the coroner, and the fallen runner.
Yianni edged the ambulance past the body, waving the police motorcycles out of his way as he nosed the front bumper in between the gates, forcing the crowd to step back a bit.
The coroner and the big man carefully moved the body onto the stretcher. Andreas watched them lift the stretcher, slide it into the back of the ambulance, and jump inside, closing the doors behind them.
Andreas waded into the crowd in front of the ambulance shouting, “Please move back. We need to get to the hospital. This is the only way out. Please clear a path for the ambulance.” Andreas kept walking ahead of the ambulance repeating his request until the crowd complied. He jumped into the front passenger seat and the ambulance sped across the grounds, siren roaring, toward wide-open gates on the far side, and an empty street beyond.
A moment later the lanky cop and his partner heard new orders come through on their radios.
“All police personnel are to immediately stand down and return to base at once. You are not, repeat not, to engage the dem- onstrators except as necessary to safely withdraw from the area.” “That Kaldis is one smart batsos,” said the lanky cop, using another of the many derogatory cop-names tossed at them that morning. “No more martyred body lying in the middle of the street and—poof—the demonstrators don’t become rioters and turn Athens into flames.”
“But the body’s dead. Been dead since long before we got here. What’s gonna happen once word gets out?”
“That, my friend, is not our problem, because by then you and I, and the rest of us will be safely away from ground zero.” He started the engine and pushed off. “And for that I say, ‘Thank you, Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis.’”