Every morning at nine, we would stare at each other. He would stand in front of my desk with his gaze fixed on me, not exactly at eye level, but somewhere between my forehead and my eyebrows. "I'm a moron," he would say.
He didn't say it with words; he said it with his eyes. I sat behind my desk and looked him straight in the eye, no higher and no lower. Because I was his boss and could look him in the eye, whereas he couldn't do the same with me. "I know you're a moron," I'd tell him. No word escaped me either; my eyes did the speaking. We had this conversation five days a week, every week of the year, excluding the two months that we were both on leave. From Monday to Friday, without our saying as much as a word, just through our eyes. "I'm a moron"-"I know you're a moron."
Every division has its share of losers. They can't all be high-flyers; you're bound to get stuck with a few dimwits like Thanassis. He entered the police academy but quit halfway through. With a great deal of effort, he managed to get to the rank of sergeant, and there he stopped. He didn't aspire to achieve anything higher. From his first day in the division, he made it clear to me that he was a moron. And I showed due appreciation, because his honesty saved him from difficult assignments, night duties, roadblocks, and car chases. I kept him in the office. An easy interrogation, filing, liaison with the coroner's office and the ministry. But because we had a chronic shortage of men on the force and simply couldn't deal with all the work, he made sure he reminded me every day that he was a moron, so that I wouldn't forget and assign him by mistake to a patrol car.
I glanced at my desk and saw that the coffee and croissant were missing. His only regular assignment was to bring me these every morning. I looked up at him questioningly.
"So, where's my breakfast today, Thanassis? Have you forgotten it?" When I first entered the force, we used to eat biscuits. We'd wipe the crumbs off the desk while some murderer or robber or common pickpocket by the name of Demos or Lambros or Menios sat across from us.
Thanassis smiled. "The chief phoned to say that he wants to see you right away, so I thought I'd bring it to you when that was done with."
He wanted to talk to me about that Albanian who had been seen lurking near the home of the couple we'd found murdered on Tuesday afternoon. The front door of the house had been open all morning, but no one had been inside. Who'd go into a decrepit hovel with one window missing and the other boarded over? Even burglars would turn up their noses at the prospect. Eventually, around noon, a neighbor who'd noticed the door open all morning with apparently no one around went to take a look. It was an hour before she contacted us because she had fainted. When we arrived on the scene, two women were still trying to revive her spirits by sprinkling water over her face, as if they were trying to make a fish look fresh.
A bare mattress was laid on the concrete floor. The woman was sprawled on it on her back. She must have been around twenty-five. Her throat had been slashed wide open, as if someone had cut her a bloody second mouth. Her right hand was clutching at the mattress. I couldn't tell what color her nightdress had been, but now it seemed to be dark red all over. The man beside her must have been about five years older. He was sprawled facedown and lying over the edge of the mattress. His eyes seemed to be fixed on a passing cockroach. He had five stab wounds in the back; three in a horizontal line from the level of the heart to his right shoulder and the other two beneath the middle horizontal stab wound, one after the other, as if the murderer had been trying to carve a T on the man's back. The rest of the house looked like the house of anyone else who leaves one hell to go to the next: a folding table, two plastic chairs, a gas stove.
Two dead Albanians is of interest to no one but the TV channels, and then only if the murder is sensational enough to turn the stomachs of those watching the nine o'clock news before sitting down to dinner. In the old days it was biscuits and Greeks. Now it's croissants and Albanians.
It took us the better part of an hour to get through the initial stage of photographing the two corpses, looking for fingerprints, putting the few pieces of evidence in plastic bags, and sealing the door. The coroner didn't even bother to come. He preferred to have the corpses delivered to the mortuary. There was no need for any investigation. What was there to investigate? There wasn't so much as a cupboard in the house. The woman's few rags were hanging on a hook screwed into the wall. The man's were lying beside him on the concrete floor.
"Should we check if there's any money?" Sotiris asked. He was a lieutenant and always did things by the book.
"If you find any, it's yours, but you won't find a cent. Either they didn't have any, or the murderer took it. And that doesn't mean that he killed them for their money. He'd have taken the money even if it was revenge. His kind wouldn't find money and leave it." Nevertheless, he poked around and found a hole in the mattress. No money.
None of the neighbors had seen anything. Or so they said. They may well have been hiding something for the cameras in order to make a little money for themselves. All that was left for us to do was to get back to the station for the second and final stage: a report that would go straight to the files, because looking for whoever killed them would be a waste of effort.
She popped up just as we were sealing off the house. Chubby-faced, wearing a sparkling blouse that looked about to burst open and her breasts spring out of it, plus a tight skirt that was shorter at the back because her backside stopped it from hanging properly, and with mauve slippers. I was sitting in the patrol car when I saw her approaching the two men boarding up the door. After she said something to them and they pointed to where I was in the car, she turned and came over to me.
"Where can I talk to you?" she asked, as if expecting me to make her a private appointment.
"Here. What is it?"
"Over the past few days I've seen a man snooping around the house. Every time he knocked on the door the woman would slam it in his face. He was average height, fair-haired, and had a scar on his left cheek. He was wearing a blue anorak, jeans that were patched at the knees, and tennis shoes. The last time I saw him was the day before yesterday. It was in the evening, and he was knocking on the door."
"And why didn't you tell all this to the officer who took your statement?"
"I needed time to think. The last thing I need is to be bundled off to police stations and courtrooms."
How long did she sit and stare at the street, at the neighbors and passersby? Evidently, she made her bed in the morning, put the pan on the stove, and then took up her watch at the window.
"Okay. If we need you, we'll contact you."
When I got back to the office, my first thought was to have the case put on file. What with terrorism, robberies, and drugs, who has time to worry about Albanians? If they'd killed a Greek, one of ours, one of the fast-food and crêpe-eating Greeks of today, that would be different. But they could do what they liked to each other. It was enough that we provided ambulances to take them away.
Who says we learn from our mistakes? I sure don't. At first, I always say I'm not going to do anything, and then something starts needling me. Either because the office gets to me and I feel bored, or because, despite the routine, I still have something of the policeman's instinct left in me, I'm overcome by an urge to take it a stage further. So I put out a call to all the other stations with the woman's description of the Albanian. To be honest, you don't need to carry out prolonged investigations. All you have to do is go around all the squares: Omonoia Square, Vathi Square, Kotzias Square, Koumoundouros Square, the Station Square in Kifissia, all the squares.... The place has become an ass-backward zoo. They've shut up the people in cages, and the animals stroll around the squares staring at us. Even before I began, I knew that any efforts I made would come to nothing. Finding him was hopeless. And yet within three days, they'd sent him to me gift-wrapped from Loutsa.
The chubby woman came to see me wearing the same striking getup. Except that this time she was wearing shoes, old-fashioned ones with high heels that sagged under her weight so that the heels slid first inward, then outward, as if about to embrace each other, before changing their minds and going their separate ways. "That's him!" she cried as soon as she saw the Albanian. I believed her at once and thanked God that she wasn't my neighbor watching me from morning to night. He was just as she'd described him to me. She'd missed nothing that mattered.
This was why the chief wanted to see me. To ask how the case was going. And Thanassis hadn't brought me my breakfast, because he was certain that once I heard that the chief wanted to see me, I'd drop everything and rush upstairs.
"Your job is to bring me my coffee and croissant. I'll decide when I see the chief," I told him angrily and leaned back into my chair to show him that I had no intention of budging from my desk all morning.
The smile immediately vanished from his face. All his assuredness went out the window. "Yes, sir," he mumbled.
"Well-what are you waiting for?"
He turned on his heel and bolted. I waited a minute or two and then got up to go see the chief. I wouldn't have put it past Thanassis to let it be known that the chief wanted to see me and that I was playing the smart alec. And the chief knew every trick in the book; you had to watch your back with him. Not to mention that he was a bundle of neuroses.
My office was on the third floor, number 321. The office of the chief of security was on the fifth. The elevator usually took five or ten minutes, depending on whether it had decided to get on your nerves. If you got irritated and started pressing the button continually, it could take up to fifteen minutes. You heard it on the second floor, thought it was coming up, and then, without warning, it changed direction and went back down. Or the other way around. It came down to the fourth floor and instead of coming on down, went back up again. Sometimes I'd decide "To hell with it" and take the stairs two at a time, more to blow off steam than because I was in a hurry. At other times, I dug in my heels and reflected that since no one else was in any hurry, I'd have to be insane to rush. They'd even calibrated the elevator doors to open slowly, enough to drive you crazy.
All the big brains are on the fifth floor, either so they can think collectively or so they'll be isolated before they ruin our brains too. It depends on how you look at it. The office of the chief of security is number 504, but he's had the number removed from the door. He considered it demeaning to have a number on his door like in hospitals or hotels. He had a plaque put up in its place: nikolaos ghikas-chief of security. "In America, there are no numbers on the doors. Just names," he went on saying crossly for a good three months. He said it again and again till he finally had the number removed and his name put in its place. And all because he'd spent six months on a training program with the FBI.
"Go straight in, he's expecting you," said Koula, the policewoman who did the job of his secretary but looked more like a supermodel.
The office was large and bright with a carpeted floor and curtained windows. They intended to give us all curtains, but the money ran out, so they limited them to the fifth floor. Just inside the door was an oblong conference table with six chairs. The chief was sitting with his back to the window, and his desk must have been all of three yards long. One of those modern ones with metal corners. If you want to get a document lying at either edge of the desk, you need a pair of tongs to reach it.
He looked up at me. "What more on the Albanian?" he said.
"Nothing more, sir. We're still interrogating him."
"Incriminating evidence?" Short sharp questions, short sharp answers; just the basics to show that he's (a) busy as hell, (b) efficient, and (c) direct and to the point. American tricks, we told ourselves.
"No, but we have an eyewitness who recognized him, like I said."
"That's not necessarily going to get you a conviction. She saw him in the vicinity of the house. She didn't see him either entering or leaving. Fingerprints?"
"Lots. Most belonging to the couple. But none to the suspect. No trace of a murder weapon." The ass had me speaking in shorthand, like him.
"I see. Tell the reporters that there'll be no statement for the time being."
He didn't have to tell me that. If there was a statement to make, he would have made it himself. And not only that, but he would have got me to write it all down for him so he could learn it by heart. I'm not complaining; it doesn't bother me in the least. Reporters are always on my back. It's just like the biscuits and croissants. Once it was newspapermen and newspapers; now it's reporters and cameras.
Using the secretary's telephone, I sent word for the Albanian to be brought to me for questioning. Interrogations take place in an office with bare walls, a table, and three chairs. When I entered, the Albanian was sitting handcuffed in one of the chairs.
"Should I remove the handcuffs?" asked the officer who'd brought him.
"Leave him and let's see whether he's cooperative or wants to play tough."
I looked at the Albanian. His hands were resting on the table. Two calloused hands, with thick fingers and long nails, black around the edges; misery's mark of mourning. He was staring at them as if seeing them for the first time, as if surprised. Surprised at what? That he'd killed with them? Or that they were rough and dirty? Or that God created him with hands?
"Are you going to tell me why you killed them?" I said to him.
He slowly raised his eyes from his hands. "Got cigarette?"
"Give him one of yours," I said to the officer.
He looked at me in shock. He thought I was messing with him. That's how sharp he was. He smoked Marlboros, whereas I'd stayed with the old Greek Karelia. I was giving the Albanian a Marlboros, to win him over. The officer put it in the suspect's mouth and I lit it for him. He took a couple of drags, beaming with satisfaction. He held the smoke as if to imprison it, and then let it out as sparingly as possible, not wanting to waste any of it. He raised his hands and squeezed the cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of his right hand.
"I no kill," he said, and, at the same moment, his two hands moved like one lizard and wedged the cigarette between his lips, while his chest heaved to make space for the smoke.
Excerpted from Deadline in Athens by Petros Markaris. Copyright 2004 by Petros Markaris. Excerpted by permission. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.