© Copyright Patrick Brigham – Evros Greece - 28th November 2014
This is a preview of my newest crime thriller and murder mystery, which takes place in Northern Greece, close to the borders of Turkey and Bulgaria. It is a poor region, occupied mainly by subsistence farmers, but it is also an area fraught with illegal immigrants from all over the Middle East, Asia and North Africa. Jam-packed with intrigue and many conspiracy theories, the little Balkan village of Kzenia harbours many dark secrets. But, because the age old smuggling profession has little or no conscience, it also means that the eyes of the world are often carefully diverted in the media but, not the probing eyes of MI6 or the careful investigations of British police detective, DCI Michael Lambert of Europol.
Chapter 1 - Down by the River Ardas
Dimitrios Pantzos was an old man. In his 80s, his thoughts not only dwelt on his own austere past, but also that of his parents. In 1923 they had been forced to move from Turkish Thrace, as part of the Great Migration, to the then newly fashioned country of Greece. As a first generation Greek National, he had little reason to love the Turks and felt a deep resentment for the damage they had caused his family and their lives.
Once from a wealthy family of landowners, his father - and those members of the family who managed to survive Ataturk’s bloody partition - had been forced to cross the River Evros into Greece, only to become a subsistence farmer.
In common with many in the Evros region, when he became a man, Dimitrios accordingly held a grudge, which his children grandchildren and great grandchildren, could never truly understand. Living in the little riverside village of Kzenia, overlooking the meandering River Ardas, he too had tilled the soil throughout his life. Witnessing Greece’s turbulent past, the various political upheavals - the rule of the Colonels and their cursed junta - and finally their spendthrift successors; somehow he had managed to survive.
Hidden in the northern reaches of Evros, the next door neighbour Turkey was literally five minutes away by road, and driving north - and twenty minutes by car - was the recently renamed, Democratic Republic of Bulgaria. He had heard these days that Bulgaria now had a King as Prime Minister, but Dimitrios Pantzos remained ardently unimpressed, believing them all to be, the Devil’s Children!’
He remembered the Communists during the troubles in 1948 and like many other Greeks, hated them like the plague. But, because he didn’t like the Turks either, he – akin to many from his country – felt isolated, and detached from the outside world.
The Greek newspapers glibly repeated the mantra, that Greece was now a fully fledged member of the EU, which - other than some minor help to subsistence farmers - had improved life very little, for him or his family. With worn out tools and increasingly arthritic joints, it had become a struggle to survive the recent past, and he was pleased when a neighbour - very reluctantly - agreed to rent his land from him. Now, all he could manage was to plant a few vegetables in his garden, exclusively for his own needs.
A widower for some ten years, the loneliness he felt was indescribable. Even with the other old men in the village, who daily inhabited the pensioner’s café, he had little in common. They rarely seemed mournful for very long, and when their loved ones died, somehow accepted their passing, as a matter of course. But Dimitrios Pantzos was different, because - although he had been a farmer all his life – he was also a musician, a philosopher and a poet.
The ever present grief, which for years had held him in its icy and unrelenting grip, often stopped him from performing even the most mundane daily tasks and rarely seemed to go away. This grey and numbing spectre had appeared the very same day that his wife died. It had happened quite suddenly, one Sunday morning, during the cruel month of April. The horror of waking up next to her cold and lifeless body, was a memory which could never be adequately described; even by a philosopher and poet such as himself. It was as though his life had also come to an end.
This had all happened some time before, but to the old man, it still seemed like yesterday. Many in the village thought him quite mad, because, as a self proclaimed intellectual, he appeared to inhabit some unfathomable and distant in-between world which they simply didn’t understand. And so, he learned to ignore the cruel whispers and jibes coming from his neighbours, and of course, all his so called friends.
They laughed at his claims to understand the very essence of Greece, which was something he described in his poems and songs. Maybe, this was because they were far too preoccupied reading their seed catalogues and farming magazines; that is, of course, if they could read at all.
Dimitrios Pantzos had a small piece of land next to the River Ardas. It was good for nothing except for a few trees, and being next to the river path, it was occasionally prone to flooding in winter when the Bulgarians - usually quite gratuitously - opened up the sluice gates on their side of the border. But in spring and summer the land remained dry and usable - adjacent plots having become occasional barbeque sites - and so Dimitrios, in his loneliness and with little else to do, opened up a small riverside café.
The tables and chairs were an eclectic mixture; some tables simply being merely planks of wood on makeshift trestles, but many items were also donated to him free of charge – often with a smirk or a patronizing grin - by local people, who had never really taken him very seriously. Finally, he built a little wooden hut to house the coffee machine and the sink unit, both of which had been given by the owner of a defunct café in Orestiada.
By connecting a garden hose to a nearby tap and by plugging into the local electrical substation; he was finally able to open his café which he named after his late and beloved wife. He called it Café Marta.
On each and every table, he placed a candle and strung across the trees, the little outdoor café now had fairy lights, and a spotlight which shone high into the sky at night and Dimitrios was now set. for his long awaited opening. He advertised the event in the village post office, the supermarket and petrol station, but sadly on the day, nobody came.
Even the local Greek Orthodox Priest refused to come and bless the opening, claiming that he would be ridiculed by his local parishioners, were he to do so, and the villagers refused to come, because they said the old man was mad.
But, Dimitrios Pantzos defied their insults and the brutal humiliation handed out to him, and - despite the villager’s obvious scorn - he opened his riverside café early one summer evening. That night Dimitrios Pantzos loudly played his beloved Marta’s favourite traditional Greek love songs, sang with passion to the glittering stars; but seeing Marta’s smiling face before him, only he could hear her words of love.
Over the passing years, despite local derision and his increasing loneliness, he continued his daily walk each day to the river. There, he would patiently unlock his hut, play his favourite music very loudly and occasionally, Dimitrios Pantzos would even dance.
With arms held out straight, his fingers clicking, his face stern and full of the emotion which only Greek men can truly display when they weep, Dimitrios Pantzos would slowly twirl, jump and spin amongst the assorted tables and chairs, and in so doing he would reverently display the deep and painful loss he felt for his beloved Marta, and pray that one day, they would finally be reunited in heaven.
One summer’s day old Dimitrios saw a woman’s body floating face down in the River Ardas. Practically opposite his café, she was lying in a pool which had formed in the delta, and snagged by the bough of a tree which had fallen during the night, she was completely motionless. It was early one morning and as usual, there were no people around.
Knowing that it would take him some time to get to the village - due to his age - with great determination, he painfully ascended the steep hill leading up from the river to the centre of the village and then turned left towards the high street. Too early for the other village elders to be gossiping in their usual café by the bus stop, Dimitrios made for the post office which always opened early.
‘I have just seen a body floating in the river, by my café,’ he blurted out to the postmistress and her husband. They were sitting and drinking frappe, at a roadside table.
The man sucked noisily through his straw and then smiled at Dimitrios, ‘it is a bit early for you to be on the tsipouro isn’t it Dimitrios? Or, did you have a rough night drinking on your own, at your famous riverside café?’ The contempt in his voice was harsh. Punctuated by a spurt of tobacco smoke - which he blew from the corner of his mouth - and grinning at the old man, the postmasters brown coffee stained teeth displayed very little humour, and looked more like a sneer. ‘Was it one of your customers Dimitrios? I expect you poisoned them with that dreadful coffee of yours!’
The couple, both laughed at his poor joke, leaving the old man feeling humiliated. ‘I tell you I saw her. She was face down by the underwater bridge. She was caught on a tree. I know she was dead, you could tell, so you better call the police in Orestiada and they will send a detective.’
‘I’m not phoning anyone until I am sure what you say is true, you old loony. We can drive down to the river in my jeep, if you like, and then you can show me exactly where this body of yours is. But, I will only phone the police when I am convinced you are telling the truth and not before. It might just be one of your silly stories!’
They climbed into the Suzuki jeep and the postmaster drove back down the steep hill to the underwater bridge, where they got out. ‘Well, I can’t see any bodies you old fool, you must have been seeing things.’
The old man looked bewildered and then started along the river towards the local council dump. ‘There she is, she must have been freed by the current. The Bulgarians must have opened up their sluices, while I was away, and the body must have been carried on down the river.’ The brown toothed man looked with considerable apprehension at the woman’s unmoving body, now bobbing gently in the undulating water.
As his face gradually turned white, the village postmaster began to feel nauseous. Finally he blurted out, ‘okay you old fool, I believe you now,’ and turning back towards his jeep in haste, in a hoarse whisper, ‘I’d better get back to the post office now, and phone the police.’
Knowing full well that the postmaster wouldn’t dream of mentioning his name in his report to the police, old Dimitrios slowly walked back towards Café Marta and got on with his daily chores.
Minutes later and sitting behind the post office counter, the self important postmaster leaned back in his chair and with great authority, explained the situation to the Orestiada police. ‘It is definitely a woman, Warrant Officer Panagos and judging by her clothes, she is probably one of those illegal immigrants who occasionally get washed up these days. I wish those bastards would go to Italy or Bulgaria instead; bloody foreign scum.’
Old Dimitrios sat outside his little shed, drinking strong, sweet Greek coffee, which he had prepared on his little camp-gas stove. He did this every morning, despite the fact that the coffee grains, sometimes got stuck under his denture plate. Lighting up a strong Balkan cigarette, he looked at the day and at two Grey Herons who - seemingly fearless - strutted along the nearby underwater concrete bridge, as if they owned it.
In the distance he watched a noisy moped driving onto the bridge, splashing water into the air. The young rider was nonchalantly resting his legs on the front mudguard as he crossed the bridge, before cycling on, up to the village. The two Grey Herons casually stepped to one side, as he passed, and continued fishing for minnows.
Half an hour later, a distinctive blue and white police car arrived at the river scene, driven by a uniformed police officer, with a young woman sitting in the front passenger seat. Occupying the rear seat was the postmaster. He appeared to be having an animated conversation, with the two front seat passengers, whilst waving his arm in the general direction of the woman’s floating corpse.
Old Dimitrios was completely ignored, but even so, he watched events very closely. Meanwhile, the postmistress had arrived in the Suzuki jeep, in order to collect her husband – who, having waved goodbye to the two officers - gladly left the tragic scene, both ignoring the old man as they swiftly drove past.
After a few minutes discussion, the woman - who may well have been a police detective - returned to the car and holding a microphone, she proceeded to talk to someone over the radio. Fifteen minutes later, a Mercedes mortuary ambulance arrived, followed closely by a red painted emergency vehicle, out of which four burly men immerged. Later still, a shallow river punt appeared from downriver, and manned by two tough looking men in wetsuits, they moored up to a nearby post.
The two men in wetsuits, then - after donning tanks and masks - searched the area underwater, while the four men from the emergency vehicle manhandled the woman onto the riverbank. Having put on latex gloves, the two police officers then appeared to briefly search the body, presumably for some sort of identification, which – judging by the way they shook their heads - they couldn’t find. Then, having taken photographs of the scene and the woman’s corpse, the body was duly zipped up in a green body bag and carried by stretcher to the awaiting mortuary ambulance.
To old Dimitrios, these events had happened so quickly that; before he knew it, he was once more alone on the riverbank and left to his own devices. He thought how strange it was that old people become invisible to others, even over matters of life and death. Dimitrios Pantzos wondered who the poor unfortunate woman might have been, and how she had come to be drowned in the river? But, with his limited knowledge of the world, he finally concluded that she must have either been an Ottoman or a Frank. Either way, the river was better off without her, whoever she might have been.