On a rain-soaked night in the city of Thessaloniki, Detective Naya finally tracks down Ares Lygeros, the elusive former bodyguard and driver for VIP sex workers. But her victory is short-lived as she discovers Ares lying on the pavement, his life slipping away as his soul hovers between two worlds.
Despite his pregnant and adored wife’s pleas to quit his dangerous job, Ares can’t resist the well-paid thrills of working on the edge of the law, the poker tables, and the other charms of the alluring night. With his vintage black Mercedes and his quick wit, this urban wolf prowls the night streets, chasing the dream of opening the coolest jazz venue in town.
When a hitman’s bullet shatters his world and threatens to tear apart everything, he holds dear, Ares must confront the harsh realities of his choices. Was it Minos, his former boss, who ordered the hit, or someone else? And will Ares survive the attack, or will his dream of a better life crumble into dust?
As the investigation gains momentum, Detective Naya races against the clock to uncover the truth and bring the perpetrators to justice. But her pursuit takes her down a twisting path of concealed truths, illuminating how Ares is enveloped in the intricate web he has woven.
In the end, the question remains; will Ares emerge from the chaos with his life intact, or will he be swallowed by the darkness he has courted for so long?
Welcome to the enthralling world of Dark Paths, a novel that takes you on a journey through Greece's vivid and contrasting landscapes. From the bustling streets of Thessaloniki to the idyllic mountain villages of Macedonia and the vibrant city of Athens, Georgios has managed to create this gripping tale that weaves together the threads of an emotional drama, a thrilling detective story, and a mind-bending psychological thriller that will leave you mesmerized.
As you delve deeper into the story, you will be captivated by the complex and unconventional characters who are pushed to their limits, challenging their moral values and beliefs. With a non-linear narrative and a meticulously structured plot unfolding in three parts, the story will keep you on the edge of your seat, as you are drawn into its intricate web from the very first page.
In Dark Paths, the characters are forced to confront difficult dilemmas that challenge their fundamental beliefs and values. The novel raises thought-provoking questions that resonate long after the final page is turned; can love triumph over hate? Is violence ever truly the answer to our problems? Are our memories more powerful than reality? And perhaps the most profound question of all - is there life after death?
With their future hanging in the balance, the characters must navigate a treacherous path, avoiding the pitfalls of bad choices and the looming influence of fate. Will they find the solutions they seek, or will they be swept away by circumstances beyond their control?
As the tension builds and the stakes escalate, Dark Paths becomes an emotional rollercoaster that will leave you enchanted, intrigued, and spellbound until the subversive and unexpected finale.
This psychological masterpiece has all the ingredients to become a bestseller in Greece and beyond. With its depth, tension, and suspense, Dark Paths is a must-read for anyone who loves a good story. Get ready to embark on a journey that will challenge your mind and stir your heart and soul.
Enjoy the ride
As tight as scales on the snake
It’s late at night. An old man with wonder in his eyes steps out onto his balcony and looks down the street where the lights of police cars and motorcycle units are revolving in the damp night. As two cops direct the low flow of traffic, the old man feels an invisible threat oozing out of the scene.
“What’s the matter?” his wife asks, walking towards him and knotting the belt of her robe.
The old man’s gaze is fixed on two detectives speaking to a handful of eyewitnesses and taking notes. A photographer moves about the car taking shots while a drizzle falls onto a cluster of people standing behind the police tape. As the headlights of nosed-in police cars fall upon the scene of the accident, many people have come out onto the balconies.
With uneasy eyes, she closes the robe at her neck and huddles closer to her husband. “What in God’s name happened?”
“I think someone’s been shot.”
She turns her worried eyes back down to the street, and says in disbelief, “Someone’s been shot?” and asks her husband if he knows the young man lying on the sidewalk. His black trench coat is spread about him and low in the abdomen his black shirt is soaked with blood.
He tells her he doesn’t.
“Poor soul,” she says, feeling a knot in her stomach.
“Move back!” a tall police officer says in a tobacco-rough voice spreading his arms that look like two wings of a prehistoric bird. “Move back!” His breath comes out of his mouth like a puff of cigar smoke.
As the people move back, the old man watches a man with strong cheekbones. He wears a black rain jacket and a baseball cap. He’s the medical examiner. As he bends headfirst into the car with its shuttered windshield, his eyes shine like the eyes of a starved cat stalking a bird. He runs a beam of light at a man sitting at the wheel whose head is tilted to the side, eyes open. Once the examiner has studied the bullet hole in the man’s chest, he turns the beam of light over the stained with blood Smith & Wesson 686 revolver lying at the dead man’s feet.
It was Detective Naya who shot him. By the time she moved to the front of the car shouting, drop the gun! the hitman had already squeezed off three shots, hitting his target and sending a few passers-by ducking low behind parked cars frozen with fear. If the detective had come to the scene a moment earlier, tomorrow’s newspapers would have published a different story.
A scrawny dog stops and looks at the injured man lying on the wet sidewalk and at a young woman who kneels next to him and continues his way on the wet sidewalk.
As the woman feels her heartbeats rise, she tells herself, hold your ground, and stokes the man’s oily stubbled face, marked with cuts and bruises obtained in a bar brawl a while ago. “Wake up, Ares. Wake up.” Tears stream down her pale face. If we had gone to my place instead, she thinks, none of this would’ve happened.
Ares finds it hard to breathe, difficult to speak and his eyelids feel like lead. He doesn’t remember passing out. It all went down like a bolt of lightning in a dark sky. Little by little his scattered thoughts take shape in his confused mind. He hears the gunshots again but the burning pain he felt as the bullets tore through his back has now faded to a dull numbness. What he feels now is his strength leaking out of him and onto the wet sidewalk, warm as blood.
As Ares wonders how long he has been unconscious, he hears a voice. The kind of voice you hear in documentaries, a deep, steady, and cultured one. Nice work, chief. Bravo. First class ticket to heaven or hell. Gourmet dinner and premium drinks. The works. Buckle down for take-off.
Before he processes the words, he hears Katerina’s desperate voice as if from afar. Ares half-opens his eyes.
“There you are,” Katerina says softly, squeezes his hand, wipes the tears from her face, and gives him a smile traced with hope.
Ares Lygeros turns his head right to left, eyes searching. He coughs and feels pain in his chest. Whoever that fucking coward was that shot me … his thought trails off. Realizing that he let his guard down, his anger burns his head.
“Ares, we’re going to get you to the hospital. You’re going to be okay.”
Ares can’t keep his eyes open.
Katerina says, “Hold on, baby. Please.”
When his hands and feet grow colder, the voice speaks to him again. That’s right. Hold on, chief. But, what for … huh? You burned down the last bridges, you set your house on fire and watched it burn to the ground. If you’d listened to your wife’s words and the old woman’s warning, if you’d taken advantage of the gift the Gods gave you, you could’ve dodged the bullets.
Here comes the damn voice again, Ares thinks.
He’s heard the same voice before when he hovered in the liminal space between sleep and wakefulness, an eerie condition known as the threshold of consciousness. The voice spoke to him after a bad dream revealing a specific date with chilling certainty. And within a few days, something bad would happen to him or to the people closest to him. Ares was a teenager when he first heard the voice, and soon after a friend of his got hit by a car in Los Angeles. And the last time the voice spoke to him, was a few days before Chink’s murder in January.
No matter how many times the voice warned him - bringing Ares face to face with his perceptions and beliefs in life - he refused to believe in the beyond. Ares was always a skeptic. The voice was just a gimmick of his mind. But today was different. For the first time, the voice spoke at length about things that had unfortunately happened in his life. Ares felt his beliefs and perceptions of life crumbling around him and wondered if there was something beyond this world.
With great difficulty, Ares reopens his eyes and rolls them from right to left, searching to put a face to the voice, but there isn’t a face close to him who could’ve spoken those words in his ear. He only sees Katerina’s beautiful face. Then his gaze sweeps over to the people standing behind her. It’s like he watches them from behind a rain-wet glass. They all seem taller than they are, way taller, and slimmer, like creatures from another space, another time, like creatures from another dimension.
Through his blurry vision, he sees Detective Naya. She wears a bulletproof vest and a black trench coat. She’s in her late thirties and has good-looking dark hair. She has been on his tail the past months and, despite her kind but sad brown eyes, is surely going to book, photograph, and print him. And the last thing he wants is for that to happen.
Detective Naya kneels and tells him that the charges against him have been dropped. Tells him that his wife went down the station two days ago and made a statement revealing in detail what happened that rainy night up in the village two months ago, in January.
Katerina smiles faintly.
“She did?” Ares manages to say.
“Yes. I never believed her statements.” She adds that they have an idea about who sent the goons to the tavern that cursed night.
Ares tells her in a weak voice, “It’s all my fault.”
The detective tells him to keep his strength and tells him that everything will be okay. As he tries to draw in a breath, he hears the siren of an ambulance.
Between parked cars and the uniforms, two paramedics, a man, and a woman rush to the scene. All eyes are on them. Ares feels their urgency and their tension as they kneel. They cut his shirt with scissors, press handfuls of gauze on the wounds, put him on a serum drip, and fit an oxygen mask on his face. They lift him onto a stretcher and as they rush him to the ambulance, the tensed energy trailing behind them is so thick that you can cut it with a knife.
When the images of his baby boy and his wife, Sophia, come to his mind, grief and remorse go to war inside him. Sorry, baby, he tells himself. I tried the best I could. I truly did. When the image of Sophia’s brother, Christos, comes to his mind as well, he wishes himself dead. At least he settled the bad scores.
As the ambulance howls in the damp night, followed by the car with the revolving light- detective Naya at the wheel, Petros, her partner sitting right next to her- on a knoll on the outskirts on the east side of the city of Thessaloniki, the image of a tall man reflects on the large pane glass of his villa, hemmed by a wall and tall trees.
Minos wears black pants, a dark blue shirt, and a silk crimson handkerchief around his neck. He has a stubble gray beard and gray hair slicked back.
In the spacious living room, the lights are dimmed, and a log crackles in the fireplace. The man drinks bourbon from a crystal glass and hears violins playing on low from the speakers mounted in the ceiling. It’s The Hours by Philip Glass.
Minos’ expression is preoccupied, and the lines on his face not only betray lack of sleep but also a hazy surprise. His piercing blue eyes are fixed on the lights of Thessaloniki that glitter like giant fireflies, where the siren of the ambulance screams, where the thick darkness lies silently on the Thermaikos bay. He drinks and, as he hears an airplane coming in for a landing, he lets out a heavy breath and feels his despair swelling like a dark wave.
In a week, he and his younger wife were supposed to leave for a tropical spot that most people would give an arm and a leg to go to. The plan was in the making for years. A month ago, it seemed that their dream was going to be realized; contracts were signed, money was wired to an offshore bank, tickets were bought, and champagne was popped. They were both over the moon. The last chapter of their book of life in this part of the world was written and put away, and an empty one with white, crispy pages was spread open and waited to be filled with bright moments and vivid images. It was going to be a fresh start in a beachfront house with palm trees moving in the breeze, and a boat gently bobbing on the crystal-clear water by a wooden pier.
But your past doesn’t forget you. Your past is like water. One moment it evaporates up in the tall blue sky, where it gets lured by the wild wind, and together, they travel all the corners of the globe picking up mesmerizing scents and colors, ruminative voices and emotions, picking up wild laughter and cries and turning all that into a powerful fusion of past, present and future. And when the traveling days are over, your fused past takes a good long look at the depths of the cosmos, picks up your scent, forms into heavy clouds, and begins to rain down on you, mercilessly.
Minos frowns and takes an inquisitive look at his bourbon as though the answer he is searching for is written on the ice cubes. A surprised smirk forms at the edge of his lips. “I’ll be damned,” he says again, for the umpteenth time in the past week. “Who would’ve thought of it?” There is exhaustion in his voice. Murmuring, he clenches his teeth, knocks back the bourbon, and puts the cold glass against his forehead.
He still can’t get his head around the unbelievable fact of life, revealed to him a week ago. The chances of such a revelation were like winning the Sunday lottery. Even though he had employed the services of the best private eye in the city - who turned every stone and pebble, both in Greece and abroad - to investigate a man who’d worked for him for years, and even though the answers covering every angle came back to hit his head like a hammer, Minos continues to wonder whether all this is a deceptive dream.
How could that be true? he tells himself. The pompous force of the violins makes his chest heaving with emotion. What the fuck am I supposed to do? Turn tail and run again?
Minos lets his gaze skim over a wooden table. On it, thick candles are burning, an empty bottle of wine, and an ashtray half-filled with butts stained with red lipstick. His gaze rests on the dark-haired woman sleeping on the sofa, covered with a green woolen blanket. As he watches her face, his worried gaze turns soft and tender. Minos feels adoration and pride, lust, and love. But is it really love he feels for that beautiful young woman?
He moves behind the bar in the corner of the room and pours bourbon into his glass. As he drinks, all the while watching the woman, the lyrics of a song by Chet Baker, which he first heard in a bar in London when he was a young man and lived there, come to his mind:
There’s a line between love and fascination
That’s hard to see ...
For they both have the very same sensation
When you’re locked in the magic of a kiss.
Glass in hand, Minos moves over to the sofa. As he bends over his wife, he smells her body lotion and her shampooed hair. He reaches down a hand towards her serene face but in a few breaths, he pulls it back, now seeing himself at the wheel of his Cherokee driving through the city, finishing his bourbon, and listening to classical music. And with this picture locked in his head, Minos leaves the room, as quietly as a burglar.
The ambulance’s siren keeps on screaming on a cold-damp night. Katerina stands next to Ares’ stretcher holding his hand. When he senses his heart slowing down, he looks up at Katerina, eyes asking her over.
She watches that serenity begins to spread on his face until all traces of tension and pain are completely gone.
From the inside pocket of his trench coat, he pulls out a stack of five-hundred-euro bills and puts it in her hand. “Take it …” He closes his eyes and little by little he hears her voice and the voices of the paramedics drifting away. Ares feels lighter now and wishes that the faint light in his bulb would burn out soon. And he is looking forward to it; he is looking forward to being who he was before he was born.
When the man paramedic notices the flat line on the screen, he says, “Get the AED … Come on, come on … We’re losing him!”
Katerina closes her eyes and feels a knot in her throat. Please, God, she thinks. Don’t let him die, please, while 360 joules of electricity rush through his body.
Ares feels as if he is in a soundproofed room. But he doesn’t know he has drifted into a zone where the four dimensions, one of time and three of space, have been pulled apart; a zone where he feels neither pain nor cold, thirst or hunger, happiness or sadness; a zone where the concepts of past, present and future don’t exist on account that in this plane of existence, time doesn’t run like falling dominos. In this plane of existence, time runs like falling rain.
Ares sees soft, fleeting images in the warm sunlight; boats floating in the air; a flock of colorful birds crossing the blue sky; a woman with closed eyes and an unemotional face; a boy with wavy chestnut hair. Before the voice speaks to him again, Ares hears a trumpet as if its sound comes out of a gallery.
Chief, I wish you could take a good look at yourself. All the doctors in the world won’t be able to put you back together again.
Feeling an indescribable euphoria and an emotional and spiritual clarity out of this world, without wondering whose voice it is, Ares answers:
“I bet they won’t.”
“Aren’t you afraid, chief?”
“I’ve never been afraid of anything. Fear is rooted in the weak and the cowards, it’s rooted in those who don’t dare live their lives and simply exist.”
“But look at you now, Maverick.”
“It don’t matter one bit.”
“You don’t say.”
“In this one black and white drama, I played my role with the devils the way I chose to, done my time in this manmade, low-rate comedy.”
“You sure did.”
“Kafka was right. God made man on one of his worst days. And when God realized his botched job, he tried to fix his creation. But he couldn’t. It was a one-time shot and he’d messed up. But before God hid in the depths of the cosmos, he at least managed to put a spark in the man’s muddy head.”
“Is that what you think?”
“It’s what I believe.”
“Well, then, Maverick, enjoy the ride.”
There is a storm brewing
January 15, 2016
It was pleasantly warm in the reception. It smelled of roses and Claude Debussy’, The Sea, wafted from the speakers. Behind a desk, a secretary worked on her computer.
On a leather sofa pushed against the wall under a black and white photograph, showing a baby lying in a woman’s hands, sat a man thumbing through a hunting magazine. He had broad shoulders, a dense beard, thick black hair, and a narrow forehead. Pictures of dogs holding ducks in their mouths, hunters holding rifles, and standing next to a wild boar, put glitter in his eyes and a feeling as light as a gust of mountain wind spread in his muscular chest.
Christos was an excellent tracker and a hunter. He had a vast knowledge of geography and the fauna and flora of his country. When he had the time he read world history books, but his favorite subject was the Civil War in Greece.
When he saw his sister come out of the office talking with the doctor who happened to be her best friend, he stood. Sophia wore brown rain boots and a green knee-length dress. Her hair, the color of chestnuts, was tied with a chopstick and hung loosely at the top of her head.
“Is everything okay?”
She smiled at her brother and continued talking to the doctor who assured her that her symptoms were normal. “Get plenty of rest and stay calm.”
The two women embraced each other and kissed on their cheeks.
Christos helped his sister slip into her coat. “Thank you.” She looked up at him with happy eyes.
Holding the door open for her, he said in a husky voice, “Tell me.” “There’s nothing to worry about. The baby’s as healthy as a fish and so am I.” She pointed her finger at the paper scan. “Look at my baby boy. And this here … is his willy. Isn’t that amazing, huh?” “Lemme see.”
When she brought the scan closer to his face, his hearty laugh echoed along the floor. “I’ll be damned.” He gave another hearty laugh.
When Christos kissed Sophia on her forehead, a good feeling settled in her chest and when she felt her baby move, she took his strong hand, put it on her belly, and saw the emotion in his eyes.
Since the day he got to know he would become an uncle, he had begun carving wooden animals. So far, he had carved a barn, a few goats and sheep, a cat, a dog and, lately, he had been working on a pair of horses. When she asked him about it, he said he planned to fashion a farm. “Once I’m done with the project, I’m thinking of carving a bear, a wolf, and a fox … wild boars too.” He was excited as a little boy.
In the basement of their house in the village, there was a large wooden table with tools for her brother’s carving. Despite his thick fingers, he was dexterous. From a young age, he loved to carve wood and make slingshots and rifles for himself and his friends.
As they got into the elevator, Sophia telling him about the woolen clothes she had been knitting for her baby, a flash of memory surfaced in her mind. When she was a little girl, she found a large package with a red ribbon about it on her bed. After she unwrapped it, her eyes widened in amazement at a fully furnished dolls’ house with tables, and a few tiny dolls, all made of wood. She could still remember the exhilaration she had felt that morning. It was better than Christmas. Christos was fifteen years old at the time. The memory swelled up her chest with feelings of gratitude and love.
Holding her brother’s brown eyes, she felt tears in her eyes.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing.” She tried to hold back the tears. “I’m just happy,” she said and felt sadness closing in on her heart.
She surely was happy that all was well with her and the baby and had her brother by her side. But what she wanted the most was for her husband, Ares, to be next to her. The day he left for the city, they argued again, shreds of which still barnacled in her heart. When she asked him to stay home, he said that it was important for him to go out there and plug it. When she told him that money wasn’t an issue – because she had asked her father and he wanted to help - he banged the table with his hand making the half-full plates jump and the red wine slop on the white tablecloth. Now Sophia pictured his angry gaze as he moved out of the kitchen and heard his vexed voice saying, I’m capable of earning my own money. She couldn’t remember seeing him in such a state before. In the end, not only did he go to the city to work that job of his, but he also called her and told her that he was going to stay away a few more days.
As the elevator went down, Sophia leaned her head on her brother’s shoulder and thought, I should’ve told him how stupid he sounded, maybe get mad, yes, get mad, why not, and then hurtle the glass of wine at him. This scenario felt so real to her as if she had done it.
“Sis, you sure you’re all right?”
“I’m good. My hormones are throwing a party.”
Christos frowned in disbelief, but when she assured him again that it was her hormones messing up with her head, he nodded in understanding.
“I love you, brother.”
“I love you too, sis,” he said and opened the door of the elevator.
Outside it was dark. They stood at the threshold of the building, right across from the main square of Grevena, a northern city near the mountains, and felt January’s cold wind rush through their faces and turn their breaths foggy. The clock of the steepled tower said seven. A few people huddled in their jackets crossed the square carrying shopping bags, while two stray dogs chased each other playfully.
Earlier in the square, there had been a street market that was held every Friday. Farmers sold fresh vegetables and fruits, cheese, milk, eggs, meat, and poultry. There was also a stand where you could buy virgin olive oil shipped from the island of Crete and olives of different varieties. A lot of people, by which I mean wives, came over to fill their shopping trolleys with one week’s worth of supplies. The market usually broke down around early afternoon and the later you came to buy food the cheaper the goods were sold, but their quality was way lower.
At this hour in the summertime, the square would be crammed with people sitting on the benches under fully bloomed acacia trees, drinking coffee from paper cups, talking and watching their kids cycle, skate, or kick a football. The balmy late evening air was steamed with excited voices and sweet scents wafting from the shops located around the square.
Christos raised his eyes to the sky and smelled the air like bears do to trace potential prey. “There’s a storm brewing,” he said. “It’ll rain tonight.”
He had been living in the village for the past twenty years and knew the mountains like the back of his hand. He glanced at his sister as she adjusted her scarf around her neck. “Mr. Stomach, here…” he patted his belly. “Got the munches, sis.”
“I bet your baby boy would like a piece of fine lamb, oven-baked potatoes, and a good salad.” He smiled revealing a slice of white teeth. When he saw a slight hesitation in her eyes, not because she wasn’t hungry, but because she had a burning desire to go back home and carry on with her writing, he cleared his throat and went on. “And for dessert, we could have us as much pistachio ice cream as that fine-looking belly of yours can hold. My treat. What you say, eh?”
Sophia put a hand on her belly. “Did you hear what your uncle just said?” When she felt the baby move, she looked up at her brother and smiled at him.
“My nephew’s smart.” He gave another of his booming laughs.
Christos told her about a tavern that was ten minutes away on foot. Sophia gripped his arm, and they began to walk.
On the way, Christos nodded at Petros the butcher sporting a thick mustache, waved a hand at a few taxi drivers drinking coffees from paper cups, grinned at Manolis who was mopping the entrance to his food store, and made a V sign to a couple of football fans sitting by the stand of a lottery shop who came to his tavern, MYTHOS, every Wednesday night to watch football. Many people who lived in the town knew one another and many knew Christos because he ran a tavern in the square of a nearby village and, usually on the weekends, holidays, and in the summer, they would go to his place to drink local wine, raki, and eat game. He also prepared meals for baptisms, weddings, and funerals.
On weekdays, owing to slow nights, his godfather helped him run the tavern, especially in early summer when Christos went to the mountains for a month and work from dawn to dusk as a lumberjack. It was a back-breaking job, but the money came in handy, particularly in today’s wounded Greek economy. His godfather was best friends with his grandfather, with whom he had fought in the second world war and the civil war in Greece.
For the past two years, Christos had lived with his fiancée in an apartment in the city, but he also had a one-bedroom flat next to the tavern where he stayed on weekends. Both siblings grew up in Thessaloniki and, save for spending two weeks on the island of Crete, where their father came from, they spent the rest of their summer vacation in the village, where their mother was born.
Many moons ago, Christos realized he wasn’t cut out to live in Thessaloniki. It was too big for him. And the realization was in the making from the day he was a boy running wild with other boys up in the village - a village one thousand meters above sea level, surrounded by wild fields, vineyards, mountains, and tall skies - going down to the Venetiko river to swim and fish trout and mullet. And hunt blackbirds and finches with slingshots, play pranks on one another, and fall in love with girls. Despite his mother’s objections that many a time had turned into heated arguments - she was a wonderful mother but overprotective, and suffered from her untreated OCD, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder - Christos had dropped out of his topography course at the university and moved to the village. And to this day he hadn’t regretted it.
Halfway to the tavern, when Sophia felt a cramp in her belly and pain in her lower back, she leaned a hand on an acacia tree, face creasing. She loved to walk and did that every day in the village, but with all the extra weight it was getting more difficult day by day.
She gave the lower part of her back a careful stretch, took a step towards her brother, and handed him her bag. He pantomimed as if he was going to drop it, catching the bag inches above the sidewalk.
Sophia’s eyes went wide.
Weighing her bag in his hand he said, “Jesus Christ, Pippi. What on earth you got in here, eh?”
She smiled playfully. “Women’s stuff.”
“No wonder you’re beat.”
“Stop it, silly!”
He had swung her bag over his shoulder and made it as if he was a bimbo, wiggling his hips, bending his wrist, tilting his head, now fluttering his eyelids and pouting his lips.
She laughed. And when she noticed a couple sitting at a cafe laughing as well, she raised her eyebrows and twirled her forefinger around her temple.
Christos now walked on invisible stiletto shoes; her bag clasped under his armpit.
“Because I’m about to pee on myself.”
He went on.
She laughed some more.
He stopped and took a good look at her as a gust of wind ruffled her hair. “My gorgeous, sister. You done stretching?”
“Give me a minute.”
“Take your time, Pippi.”
“Stop calling me, Pippi.”
“I’ll … Pippi.”
They laughed again.
Then he turned and began to talk to a couple who had just happened to pass by.
Watching him, Sophia saw a bit of her father in him. Athanasios was a retired tanker captain with whom she had a harmonious relationship. And on his straight nose and full lips, the color of cherries, she saw a bit of her mother who, since the day she learned that Sophia was pregnant, her overprotectiveness had turned into something between neurosis and psychosis. But watching at his height, his thick hair, and his narrow forehead, Sophia realized that they were characteristics taken after their mother’s father and it was then that it dawned on her that the way he moved was taken after their grandfather too.
Sophia remembered the night her grandmother, Niki, told her about how brave her grandfather, Christos, was. He had fought in the second world war and the civil war in Greece. Sophia remembered feeling proud of him, the same way she felt about her brother now, looking at him talking to the couple and laughing his laugh.
As the evening wore on, the air had grown colder. With their breaths thicker in the air, the siblings were now standing outside the semi-fogged sashes to the tavern. The hum of people eating, drinking, and talking hung in the cold night air. Sophia found the image as pretty as a picture. Coming here was a good idea, she told herself. And stop worrying about Ares. Smelling the grilled meat her stomach rumbled.
She looked so much forward to sitting and having a warm meal and a little wine with her brother, something which they hadn’t done together in a long time. But little did she know that their dinner was to be ruined, that their evening was to end on a bad note because of a brutish breeder who sat at a table slugging back bottle after bottle of beer, his behavior growing vulgar and vicious.
As tight as scales on the snake
January 15, 2016
At the same time as Sophia and Christos were going to see her doctor, Ares stood at the edge of the dock with the collar of his black coat turned up. The freezing cold tried to drill into his muscles, but the booze in his blood kept it at bay. Even though the temperature in Thessaloniki was plus seven degrees, it felt as though it was below zero. The wind that just blew in his face smelled of seaweed and rusty iron.
Ares lit a cigarette. The trembling flame of the Zippo lighter illuminated his four-day growth of beard, the weary lines in his face, and his pensive green-blue eyes. Looking at the wind-chipped sea he thought of his mother. “I’ve messed up again,” he murmured. The words left a trace of shame in his mind and stiffened his face.
He drew on his cigarette and sucked the smoke greedily. Dark cumulus clouds had begun to bank in the sky and some seagulls flew low over the water, eyes vigilant, yellow beaks at the ready. Yet others hovered about a few fishermen with cigarettes wedged in their mouths as a cat skirted about their buckets.
Ares’ gaze climbed up the cranes that stood near him, high and mighty, like two giants gazing toward the sky where darkness rubbed out the last daylight.
The nightmare he had had last night surfaced in his mind. He lay naked in a coffin and looked at the people huddled about with their fingers knotted in front of their buttoned-up black coats. As the towering priest with a grey-chest-long-beard, said, may the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord makes his face shine upon you and be gracious unto you, the sky roared, the ground shook and thick drops of rain, red as blood, pounded on his body. Just as they lowered the coffin into the hole in the ground, Ares jerked awake, gasping for air. And before he opened his eyes, a voice told him three times: Eighteenth of January.
For the umpteenth time, his logic and his beliefs were challenged again. The same voice had spoken to him last year, a few days before the car crash, and instead of taking the message on board, once again, he assured himself, there is nobody out there who can control my mind. Nobody.
Little did he know that since he had started to grow in his mother’s belly, the Gods had given him a gift. Besides his strong genes and kind heart, Ares was endowed with an exceptional mind. But unfortunately, that charisma alone didn’t guarantee success over the challenges life threw in his path. To be able to acknowledge how to use his unique gift to make his own life and the lives of others better, he had to have another charisma; that of emotional intelligence, which would help him to understand in depth the gift the Gods had given him.
As he gazed at the snow-capped Mount Olympus standing tall, Ares took a drag from his cigarette and remembered Sophia’s words on her phone earlier today. There were words enhanced with enough frustration and anger, now making him realize that his lying to her for the past months had reached a dead end. His wife had understood that he was keeping her in the dark for she was well-wired with herself and her surroundings. Often, her sound instinct and her emotional intelligence could pick up the slightest shift in people’s behavior.
If Sophia finds out about all of my shenanigans, Ares thought, she sure will want to divorce me.
The choices he had made in recent months were like playing poker at the final table of a tournament. And while he knew he was an underdog - he waited for a single card to win the hand - he was ready to move it all in. And the result would bring him face to face with the angel of destruction. And the angel was real. He had seen the angel’s claws and his eyes filled with fury. But Ares wasn’t afraid of him. What worried him the most was that the chances of him gathering the money he owed to his ex-boss by tomorrow afternoon were slim.
As he watched the seagulls, for a moment or two, he felt detached, too separated from the world about him like a dislodged arm in a weary body. He told himself, hold your ground, and from the pocket of his coat, he fished a silver flask. His nickname, Maverick, was carved on its side. To his wife and family, he was Ares, to the people on the streets he was Maverick, nicknamed by his best friend Big Frank when he lived and worked in L.A.
As Don Papa, the dark rum, warmed his chest, he heard a whisper, I’m here for you, old friend. Realizing that he was falling back into his old ways, he made a face of displeasure. But this time he needed something to hold on to, keep his mind in a higher gear, and find a way to work himself out of the ropes.
In a few breaths, his mind went back to years ago. He remembered the words of an old man he had met at a bar in Los Angeles. “Ares, listen to me. Life is a one-way ticket stamped at birth. Your choices gonna map out your journey. Best choices reward, bad choices punish.”
After a moment, the drone of an airplane pulled him out of that bar. He looked up in the sky and saw its big belly flying over the water, his eyes following its trajectory until the plane turned into a dot at the edge of the east coast where lights flickered and where he was to meet with a loan shark soon.
He drank a mouthful of rum and pushed his fingers through his straight black hair. If only there was another way through this mess, he thought. If only.
Yes, if only he could have put his unique mind to better use. When he lived in L.A. a great opportunity had offered itself to him, but he chose a different path to walk on; a dark path that led him to the tense and stressful situation he stood in now.
In the last light of the day, he saw a horizontal line of ducks in the sky. There were about twenty-five and Ares knew that the strongest and the most experienced of them led the way. His face softened and a glint surfaced in his eyes. Ηe knew that they were going to fly over Aristotelous Square in the city, and to the northeast where Lake Volvi rested. He wished he were out there in the open with Christos, who had broken him in and taught him the ropes about hunting, both sitting on their heels behind reeds, guns at the ready. Ares loved Christos like the brother he wished he had. And trusted him with his life. “They don’t make men like him anymore,” he had said to Sophia. “After he was born, his cast broke.”
He let his gaze wander along the waterfront and Nikis Avenue where a streak of cars, their headlights on low, moved along the lit buildings and bars, cafes, and restaurants of this city where his boyhood memories breathed. Along the waterfront, some people walked huddled in coats, a few rode on bikes.
Ares watched the White Tower, the landmark of the city - once upon a time a fortress and a notorious prison where thousands were killed during the period of Ottoman rule - standing tall and proud. From the top of the tower you get great views of the remnants of Byzantine walls on the hills, the anchored boats in the bay of Thermaikos, and the waterfront stretching away and towards the Aegean Sea.
He had missed living in the city. Although he enjoyed the village life, moving there in August last year had been Sophia’s decision. Besides spending her pregnancy in the village, she had other reasons. The first one was to stay away from her problematic mother who lived in the city in an apartment near theirs, and the second reason was to keep Ares away from the poker tables and his job. But despite his objections, in the face of her rigid persistence, in the end, he had given in. Isn’t marriage a compromise? Oughtn’t we be patient and understanding, devoted, and loyal?
Ares remembered the day they had loaded a van with personal stuff: suitcases, plants, framed photographs, a turntable, boxes of vinyl records and books, and Sophia’s knitting basket. On the way to the village, they drank coffee and listened to jazz tunes. With a smile brightening Sophia’s face, the wind in her hair, and the sun on her lean legs, the van roared out of the noisy city and onto the wide road ahead of them.
His ringing cell phone pulled him out of his reverie. He walked toward a red brick depot, fished his cell phone from his pocket, leaned a hand on the brick wall away from the wind, and waited for Minos to speak.
Ares imagined him sitting in the leather armchair at the oak desk in his office at the strip club near an abandoned beer factory.
“Got my money?” Minos said in a cigar-rough voice.
“I knew it, Maverick.”
“Working on it.”
“I’m doing my best.”
“Your best isn’t good enough.”
“Need more time.”
“Gave you three months.”
There was a stretch of tense silence, just the wind blowing.
“Maverick…you’ve got till tomorrow afternoon. Otherwise, you’ll get in serious trouble. You hear me?”
Ares rolled his shoulders to work an ache out of his neck he got at the ring while he was kickboxing yesterday. “I worked for you for five years. Doesn’t that count for anything? I made you lots of money-”
“You got paid well, didn’t you? And you worked over two of my best clients. Remember? Bye, bye teeth. Bye, bye noses. Their eyes swelled and bruised. Did you know they were spoon-fed baby food for a month and drank through straws? And you know why? Because you shattered them, Maverick. That’s why. You shattered them with a baseball bat. The damage cost me an arm and a leg.”
Ares said with a hit in his voice, “You were paying me to drive the women to places and make sure to bring them back safe and sound. Those two creeps crossed the line,” and pictured the night at the villa - him standing tensed and sweaty by the bed holding the baseball bat, linen splotched with blood, them creeps on the floor lying wrong, the women crouching in the corner like scared animals.
Ares spoke into the phone again. “Those two are filthy fucks … I put a stop to Valeria and Svetlana from getting badly hurt. And you sure made back more money off their backs than you spent to get things fixed.”
“Yeah, well, they’re filthy fucks all right but -”
At this point, a man walked into the office and said something to Minos who snapped, “Get that princess in here,” and spoke back into the phone again.
“You know what happens in our line of work if you don’t pay your debt?”
“Money don’t exchange hands. You know the score better than I do.”
After a moment, Ares heard the woman’s stiletto shoes on the wooden floor. A long-legged, Baltic woman in a black bikini and a red shiny shawl draped over her slender shoulders had walked into the office.
“I given you enough rope, Maverick.”
“It’s hard times, Minos.”
“You fucked up. Eighty grand. I want my money.”
Ares waited a moment. “You get forty tomorrow-”
“Hey, wait a minute … say again?”
“You heard me right.”
“You got to be shitting me.”
Ares felt the hit of his angry voice oozing out of his phone. He waited for Minos to speak again. But he didn’t.
Ares said, “Fifty tomorrow, fifty in a few months. That’s the best I can do. Take it or leave it,” and looked off at the dark sky, being certain that Minos would agree to it because he’d see it as better than nothing deal.
Then he heard Minos lighting a cigar, picturing the thick blue plumes of smoke curling about his face and his piercing blue eyes, heard Minos’ fingers tapping on the desk, and heard his breathing.
“OK, Maverick,” he said slowly. “But if you don’t come through by tomorrow … you do the math.”
His brow wrinkled. “You threatening me again?”
“Yeah, I do.” His tone was sarcastic, the personal pronoun slightly pitched.
Ares’ eyes turned cloudy. “Go and fuck yourself!”
“Fuck me? … Listen punk. You better bring me my money tomorrow cause I’m on you like a fly on shit. You hear me, Maverick? Like a fly on shit!” Minos hung up.
“Goddamn!” The rage in his voice went to his eyes and then to his forehead where his thick vein seemed to burst open. He punched the wall, drank from his flask, looked out at the dark sea, and heard the sky rumble.
Knowing that he had to take Minos’ threat seriously, he let out a long-tensed breath. A few years back, when another boss had started to act as though he was the biggest gorilla in the jungle, a word around the campfire said that he was nailed to the floor in a cellar of a rundown hunting cabin in the mountains. Years later a few hunters found his skeleton. The rumor said that in the kingdom of terrestrial reptiles, Minos was a tyrannosaurus.
Maybe the rumor was an urban myth, or maybe it wasn’t. Either way, Ares had to come true to his promise. Though he held an ace up his sleeve - he could turn Minos in for the lucrative side business he ran – he wasn’t going to use it.
Ares had worked for Minos as a bodyguard and a driver for VIP sex workers for five years. At the same time, every month he would pay a visit to a Jewish goldsmith, pick up a toolbox filled with stolen and processed jewelry and hand it over to another man who would smuggle the goods into Turkey where he’d turn it into gold bars, and either he would bring the bars back to Greece or launder them by investing in companies or buying villas, expensive cars, and yachts. Each of the shipments Ares picked up was worth thousands of euros and, for being a runner, he got very well paid for it.
When he lost his job last year, save for running a one-man, small-time operation, something which kept his head above water, he also began to draw unemployment. It was a meager amount, but it patched up a few holes in his fabric.
Ares glanced at his wristwatch, his prized Yuri Gagarin Mechanical Chronograph. Gagarin said half past six. Soon he would be meeting a loan shark at a hotel on the outskirts of the city, a man who was willing to help him but, of course, at great cost.
These last few days, Ares had knocked on doors, called and met people, and tried to sell a plot of land near the sea. But nothing had come of any of it. Because of the nature of his job, people owed him lots of money and favors, but most of them were dried up. Five years ago, he wouldn’t have batted an eye; five years ago, gathering up the money would have been as easy as picking apples from the lower branches but, nowadays, things were as tight as scales on a snake. The economic crisis had gone through the country like a landslide, had brought most of its business to a halt, and turned the Greek dream into a nightmare.
And now Greece was on her knees. Unless a miracle happened - and Ares didn’t believe in miracles - it seemed the loan shark was his lifeboat. A friend of Ares had arranged the meeting. No matter how much he had resisted this scenario, he had given in in the end.
The darkness had deepened. Ares strode from behind the wall of the depot, hands deep into the pockets of his coat, eyes squinting against the stiff wind and still hearing Minos’ last words echoing in his ears. I’m on you like a fly on shit.
The fishermen and the cat had left. Ares pushed ahead, the hems of his trench coat rippling behind him as a few blackbirds perched in the gutter of the depot watched him.
When the sky roared, Ares threw a glance over his shoulder at the dark horizon and saw successive flashes of lighting tearing the sky and illuminating the Thermaikos bay and a few tankers. As he walked away, the sea roared a wild song, and its roughness rushed upon him.