Yiannis Ragos was born in Athens in 1966. On his mother’s side (Kaiti Ragou-Alibranti) he has ties with Paros and especially Marpissa. He is a writer and journalist. He has written crime novels, novellas and short stories, essays on crime fiction, investigative journalism books, scripts for films, the TV and for graphic novels, as well as texts for theatre performances. His latest book is the graphic novel “In the Secrets of the Swamp” (based on the homonymous novel by Penelope Delta, ed. Polaris 2018) –script by him, illustrated by Panayiotis Pantazis.
* The title of the story has been borrowed from the Greek title of a film by the Czech director Milos Forman (1932-2018) Hori, ma panenko (1967).
A crime story by Yiannis Ragos | Illustration: George Gousis
[Note: Any similarity to actual persons and events is purely coincidental]
A sickly smell of burnt human flesh still lingers over Marpissa. Many idle locals, holiday makers and some astonished tourists have gathered at the site of the incident, taking photos or videoing the activity with their mobiles.
At the centre of this activity there are some firemen who have finished their work and collect the hoses, a group of policemen headed by the Parikia police station chief talking among themselves, two paramedics who were hardly needed and the worried President of the local community who tries to make heads or tails of the events.
The event: One and a half hour earlier, 56 year old Eleni K. had finished her morning coffee and having put the pot in the oven –chickpeas in earthenware pot– had gone to the balcony of her house, near St Nicholas church, to hang her washing. A faint but unusual smell mingled with August’s warm air attracted her attention. She left the clothes jumbled in the basket and looked more carefully around her: the elevated position of her house allowed her to have a view of a large part of the village. A light smoke, its colour alternating between white and blue was rising from a ruin some scores of meters away. A fire in the village? A rare event. Alarmed, Eleni K. turned off the oven, grasped her mobile and the house keys –at that time there was no one else with her– and ran to the site before anyone else. What she saw there made her gasp.
In the old 19th century house which long ago had collapsed in a rubble of stones with all kinds of weeds and flowers and a fig tree growing in between, there was the right leg of a male, but not the whole of it –only the part below the knee– and a human skull with no flesh on it. It was evident that the man had been burnt, but the strange thing was that there was no burnt body, only a pile of ashes. The part of the leg which had been left unburnt was charred in the upper part but the shoe and the nearby weeds were intact.
An appalled Eleni K opened her mouth like a figure in a Munk painting. She barely managed to call the police and then fainted.
2. Thomas L.
Thomas L., 28, is a typical example of a person for whom reality has a depth deserving a strong interest; it is not just a surface on which human life only glides. For the rest, Thomas L. is a fireman serving in the Paros Firefighting Unit –he is from Fthiotida, though– and these days he has to stay at home because of a fracture in his leg suffered during a firefighting operation in undergrowth near Lefkes.
Now, late in the afternoon as the sun diffuses a faint light, he is seated at the small shaded veranda of his house which offers a view of the street and, at an angle, of a small slice of the port and drinks souma accompanied by sea appetizers, brought by his girl friend from a renowned local tavern. Seated opposite him is his colleague Antonis R. a bit older, born and raised on the island –at Prodromos– who is already a bit tipsy from the alcohol. For some time now they have been playing at being detectives.
“And B., what does he say?” asks Thomas L. while chewing the last bite of a mackerel.
Antonis R. gives him an uncertain look.
“He, too, is at a loss. He is a fire lieutenant, not detective Bekas”.
He takes another sip of souma and carries on, undauntedly.
“They’ve sent the body –so to speak– to the medical examiner at Syros. As B. has told us he too couldn’t make sense of it. Arson, ok. But how was it possible that the whole body melted and not even the bones remained. As you know only too well for a body to burn like that, it takes 3-4 hours in temperatures of 2000 C.
In such a temperature the entire village would have caught fire! But in our case, even one of the victim’s shoes stayed intact”.
Thomas L.: “Have you learnt anything about his identity?”.
Antonis R.: “They identified him from his denture, nothing else had remained. He was called Lefteris something, about 50 years old, from Athens”.
Thomas L. “Had he any relation with Paros or was he on holiday?”.
Antonis R. fills his glass with souma again and takes a gulp. He says: “Neither”. Thomas L. takes the bottle. He says: “Come on, stop drinking you’ll be driving”.
Antonis R. grasps back the bottle. “I can hold it”. Suddenly his smile grows bigger, an indication that he is heading for heavy drunkenness. “Just don’t light a cigarette near me or I’ll catch fire like Lefteris”.
Thomas L. whose interest in the case has been rising, returns to the subject.
“Well, why had he come to the island?”.
Antonis R. leans towards him with the expression of someone ready to disclose to mankind the invisible mysteries of the world. “For business. He was a businessman with big capital –that’s what I’ve heard– and was planning to buy houses in the village, turn them into luxury residences for tourists at an extravagant rent”.
Thomas L. is astonished: “Where? In the traditional settlement?”.
Antonis R. fills his glass clumsily, some drops spill on the table: “Sure, you bloody fool! He didn’t give a shit about the traditional settlement. Apparently he wanted to turn the entire village into a hotel. Only tourists and money count. Wake up! They’ll leave a hovel or some small picturesque shop just for show, but that’s it”.
In a gulp he empties half his glass, while Thomas L. now in a sulky mood puts his on the round cast-iron table. As if speaking to himself he says: “Just think that once we were annoyed when they called us the waiters of Europe”.
The other man had not caught it: “What are you mumbling about?”.
Thomas L. turns towards him deep in successive thoughts.
“I wonder who would want to burn him”.
Antonis R. is indignant:
“How can I know? Go ask the police at Parikia and Siros”.
He clinks their glasses. “Cheers!”.
3. Revenge from nowhere / A solution?
To tell the truth, the talk with Antonis R. about the causes of Lefteris’ death and the motive of the alleged criminal action had excited the thoughtful temperament of Thomas L. Thus, confined at home because of his injury, he carried out extensive searches in the internet about cases similar to that of Marpissa while many a time he consulted a friend of his from Athens who had a personal interest in the study of phenomena on the borderline between physics laws and a supernatural interpretation.
When by the end of September he got much better and was able to walk out of the house, even though with the aid of crutches, he expanded his research field: he sought the relevant bibliography at the island’s Municipal Library, where he was welcomed since he was a member and a regular visitor, had an informal meeting at a coffeehouse near the Taxiarch Church, at Parikia’s market with the policeman Yiannis Fr. from the local police station with whom he was acquainted and learnt from him that the interest in the case in which originally the Security Unit from Siros and a police team from Athens had been involved, had virtually faded and the file had been shelved without being officially closed. Finally, he visited the site of the event but he couldn’t find any evidence –almost one month had passed.
Now having succeeded in guiding his thoughts to a full conclusion, he is seated across the Fire Lieutenant B., 42 years old, at the latter’s office in the Fire Department on the road from Parikia to Naoussa. Holding a file filled with paper, he is ready to come out with his conclusion.
“Chief, we are firemen and we have to investigate thoroughly all deaths due to fire. Isn’t that so? Well, the victim wasn’t murdered. It was an accident!”.
B. looks at him doubtfully.
“The police have been combing the case and they haven’t found either suspects or a motive, no nothing, and you managed to find the solution from home?”.
Thomas L. adopts a thoughtful look.
“There are similar examples in literature. The American writer Rex Stout had his hero, detective Nero Wolfe solve the mysteries from his home. And Borges has written a collection of detective stories with the title “Six problems for Don Isidro Parodi”, in which the hero solves various cases from inside a prison”.
B. frowns and lets Thomas phrases pass by.
“These things happen in police fiction not in real life. Anyway, what do you think?”.
Thomas L. takes off.
“This Lefteris was a victim of what in English is called Spontaneous Human Combustion. They are instances, usually fatal, in which a human being suddenly catches fire without an apparent external cause. In these cases, the body burns in a few minutes, the temperature is very high but the fire does not expand to the surrounding space and almost always some part of the body remains intact. Hundreds of such cases have been reported all over the world in the recent centuries”.
B. deciding to refrain from sending his subordinate to hell, asks him:
“And how does this happen?” “The prevailing scientific, I stress this, explanation is that some molecules suddenly get out of control and speed up the body metabolism at a tremendous rate, abruptly increasing its temperature. However, no one can be certain”.
Thomas L. puts the file on the desk.
“Here, I have all the evidence I’ve collected and which supports my view. I leave it here for you to see”.
B. finds the story hard to swallow and spits out a choleric response.
“What, God burns them for their sins?”.
Unruffled, Thomas L. leans on the back of his chair.
“I believe the village itself burned him!”.
B. is fuming.
“Have you gone out of your mind, Thomas, or is it bullshit time, now?”.
Thomas L. remains calm.
“Neither. Do you remember when the victim died? Two days before the “Routes in Marpissa” Festival. Do you know that?”.
B. lights a cigarette to calm down.
“Certainly. But what’s the connection?” “From what I’ve heard, the victim was planning to buy many buildings in the village and turn them into luxury residences for rent or sale to the tourists. That is, he wanted to completely change its character.” “So, what?” “What are the “Routes” doing? They want to highlight the village’s authenticity and the live relationship of the inhabitants and visitors with it, leaving no room for picturesque frivolities or cheap commercial exploitation. So…”.
“So, what?” an incensed B. asks.
“So, in my opinion, the guy was at the wrong place at the wrong time. In some way the village took its revenge”.
B. throws his half-smoked cigarette to the ashtray, leans on the back of his chair, ready to drop dead.
“Thomas, if I hadn’t known you for so many years, I’d say you’re either a fucking fool or a nutter”.
Thomas L. smiles lightly, gets up with some difficulty and is ready to leave.
“Anyway, the point is that this Lefteris burnt by himself. I’m sure of it. You can do what you think. I’ll return to the service on October the 15th when my sick leave expires. Good bye, sir”.
Walking slowly and with a slight limp, heads for the door.
The voice of B., now in a mellow mood, stops him.
“Well, Thomas if what you say proves to be true… I want to say… I know some people at the Headquarters. I can ask them to take you to the Investigations Division. Would you be interested?”.
Thomas L. looks at the other man in a triumphant and calm manner. Then without saying a word, gets out of the room and closes the door behind him.