Revenge or Death.
That was all that the note said. It was found protected in a cylinder chained to the steering wheel of a van set on fire sometime before dawn. In the rear of the van was another surprise wrapped in chains: the remains of two bodies charred beyond recognition amid bits and pieces of an incinerated Greek flag.
“Freedom or Death” was Greece’s national motto and by noon enraged network talking heads relentlessly decried the horror as a national sacrilege, with shouts of justice for the yet unidentified victims and merciless punishment for those “unwelcome foreign elements” tearing asunder the fabric of Greek culture with “their criminal ways.” It did not matter that no one knew the truth.
# # #
“I’m sorry, but I can’t make it,” Andreas yelled into his cell phone over the whipping helicopter rotors.
“We must have a bad connection. I could swear I just heard you say you ‘can’t make it’ to the only meeting I asked you to attend with our wedding planner.” Lila’s voice was in decidedly frosty counterpoint to the heavy, late morning air of July’s last days.
Chief Inspector Andreas Kaldis, feared head of the Greek police’s Special Crimes Division, cleared his throat as he said, “I thought you’d understand.”
“Andreas—” Lila paused. “You can’t talk?”
“You better be a hostage.”
“You’re surrounded by politicians?”
“Just one. I have to go, kisses.” Andreas hung up and let out a breath.
“You’re a lucky guy,” said Andreas’ boss, Greece’s minister of public order. “My wife would have killed me if I’d done something like that to her less than two weeks before our wedding.” He smiled.
“There’s still time.” Andreas attempted to force a smile. Twenty minutes until they reached Tinos. “You do realize the press will be waiting for us?”
“It is their duty to report this massacre. We’re talking about mass murder on the island of the Church of Panagia Evangelistria, the Lourdes of Greece.”
Andreas could tell the minister was rehearsing his pitch for the cameras. Andreas preferred listening to the rotors.
Panagia was an Eastern Orthodox title for the Virgin Mary and Evangelistria referred to the Annunciation when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary the incarnation of Christ. Tinos’ Church of the Annunciation, Panagia Evangelistria, was the most revered religious shrine in Greece. More than a million pilgrims flocked there each year, many seeking healing from the Miraculous Icon of the Virgin Mary, the Megalochari. Megalochari meant “Great Grace” and was the Greek people’s unofficial name for The Holy Icon of the Annunciation of Tinos kept within the Church of Panagia Evangelistria.
Andreas stared at his minister. “Let’s just try not to make any promises we can’t keep.”
Minister Spiros Renatis glared back, but said nothing. His carefully cultivated public image depended upon Andreas staying on as Greece’s number one cop for all things nasty and both men knew that. And being incorruptible gave Andreas a bottom line freedom many in government did not share: knowledge that he could earn far more elsewhere, especially in these days of mandated deep cuts by the European Union, International Monetary Fund, and European Central Bank to every public servant’s pay. That gave rise to a simple arrangement: Andreas did things his way and Spiros took all the credit. They hadn’t yet worked out who’d take the blame if some day things went terribly wrong.
The helicopter came in from the west, passing over brown-green hills of wild oregano, rosemary, and sage, veined with narrow paths and ancient walls, and on into a valley on the northeastern coast peppered with cedars, olive, and fruit trees. Tinos was a largely undeveloped, narrow arrowhead-shape island pointing northwest. At three times the size of New York City’s Manhattan, it was the fourth largest island in the Cycladic chain and had a fulltime population of fewer than 9,000.
The helicopter eased in close-by the edge of a burned out field of wild summer grass. There wasn’t a building in sight. As soon as the rotors stopped spinning, Spiros jumped out and hurried off toward the TV cameras. He was wearing his serious face.
Andreas went in the opposite direction, toward a group of men gathered in the middle of a field around a flame-scorched van.
It was the smell that hit Andreas first. Gasoline mixed with charred flesh. The sort of thing he knew he’d never forget. He tried not to focus on the odor.
Revenge or Death. Okay, he could see revenge as the motive for something as brutal as this, but what’s the tie in to our national motto and battle cry? And why Tinos for a public execution? The minister was right about that part. Tinos was where desperate pilgrims from all over the world came bearing prayers and offerings to the miraculous curative powers of the Megalochari; many crawling the steep half-mile up from the harbor to the church, pushing before them candles they’d vowed to light to the holy icon.
A half-dozen police cars were parked unevenly across a deeply rutted, one-lane dirt road separating an olive grove from the field. Andreas walked toward a cop trying to keep the curious away. “Who’s in charge?”
The cop nodded in the direction of a man in plainclothes standing by the open rear doors of the van. Andreas knew him; they’d been together in the police academy.
The odor grew stronger as Andreas approached the van. He struggled not to gag. The man saw Andreas coming and turned to face the van. Andreas stopped next to him and stared inside.
“This tells it all, my friend,” said the man. He was Tinos’ police chief.
Andreas had been wrong. The odor was not what he would remember for the rest of his life. It was this, an image impossible to fully grasp in the abstract or ever forget in its unfathomable reality. Two shapes entwined in chains. Whatever flesh he could see was charred and blackened to the bone.
Neither man spoke for a moment. Andreas quietly said a prayer.
“Amen,” said the police chief. “I’ve never seen anything like this.”
“Me either, and I hope never to again.” Andreas swallowed hard.
“This is one for heavy forensics. I called in for help from Athens, but you beat them here.”
Andreas waved his hand in the direction of the minister. “Yeah, politics takes precedence over police work. Forensics should have been with us on that helicopter. But he didn’t want to wait. They won’t get here for hours.”
“Same old shit, no surprises there.”
Andreas nodded. “So, what do you think?”
“That we’ve got one hell of a problem and nothing to go on. Two victims chained together amid remnants of a Greek flag. Don’t know why the flag didn’t burn.”
“Probably because someone didn’t want it to,” said Andreas.
“And then there’s that cylinder chained to the steering wheel. We probably shouldn’t have gone near it until after the bomb boys had a go at it.”
“Not smart. If this was terrorists, that thing could have been set for another surprise.”
The police chief shrugged. “Sometimes we Greeks are just too curious for our own good.”
Andreas pointed at the ground. “Any foot prints?”
“Hundreds. What with firefighters, cops, and the locals, no way to tell what we have, if anything.”
“None so far as we can tell. This area is deserted at night. And the fire started just before sunrise. A farmer over that hill,” he pointed southwest, “saw the smoke and called it in. But I’ve got uniforms talking to everyone who’s here.” He gestured at the crowd. “Maybe we’ll get lucky, find something to go on.”
Andreas nodded. “Let’s hope so.” He patted the police chief on the back. “Be safe, Odysseus. Let me know as soon as you come up with anything.”
Andreas walked to where Spiros was holding court and stood just outside the circle of reporters and cameras. He wasn’t worried about being drawn into that zoo. Spiros shared the media spotlight with no one. As for the real mess—the one amid the field behind him—Andreas had no idea what Spiros had in mind for him, but he’d find out soon enough because Spiros was just wrapping up his prime time TV performance.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you understand I must get on with the investigation, so please excuse me. But I give you and the Greek people my word that the ruthless murderers behind this heinous crime will be apprehended and punished. Greece cannot tolerate such crimes against its citizens.”
The reporters kept shouting questions, but Spiros walked toward Andreas, motioning as he did for three cops to keep the press from following him.
“So, what do you think? Sounded pretty good, didn’t I?”
Andreas shrugged. “I’m glad you followed my advice.”
Spiros’ voice bristled. “Sometimes I don’t understand you. The van is Greek so we can trace it, but even if it’s stolen we have two victims. One execution style murder might be hard to solve, but we’ve got two dead bodies and a message. There has to be an obvious motive for this, one that will point straight to whomever is responsible. And once we start pressing for leads informants will be falling all over themselves trying to make deals and score points with us.” He shook his head.
“Frankly, Andreas, I don’t understand your negative attitude. I don’t want you involved in any of this. The only thing I want from you is your opinion on the local cops. Do you think this is something they can handle or not?”
At times Andreas wondered if he and his boss shared the same planet. As Andreas saw it, the bottom line to Spiros’ little temper tantrum was one less mess for Andreas to worry about. But, for Spiros, he’d gone so far out on a limb with the media that absent extraordinary luck his career would be toast.
“Odysseus is a good man. He knows his job.”
“Good, then I’m leaving this in his hands.”
# # #
By the late afternoon the facts, or rather the lack thereof, started rolling in. No identifiable footprints or other signs were found in the area, the van had been stolen that night from the port without a clue as to who did it, and forensics could not identify either victim. Neither the curious present at the scene or snitches had anything to tell. There was not a lead to be found anywhere.
With Spiros having nothing left to feed the press, the media followed its natural instincts and began clamoring for his head.
Spiros’ had no idea what to do next. His limb seemed about sawed clear through and his career toasted to just this side of charcoal when two days later relatives of the victims stepped forward and identified the bodies: tsigani—known in other languages as Gypsies or roma.
And with that the story seemed to fall off the face of the earth.
Lucky bastard, thought Andreas.