The Kiss of Virgins
When Jack Christian found him, Derek Hazard was sitting in front of Spyridon's taverna, enjoying the hot Aegean sun and drinking Fix beer.
Fishermen occupied the other tables. They drank and played cards, waiting for sundown, when they would go down to the caiques beached at the foot of this steep, cobblestone street. Tonight, as they did each and every night, they would fish the fertile waters off Biathos.
They paid no attention to Hazard. He was an old friend of Spyridon's, and they accepted him as such. Every day for nearly a week he had spent some time here at the taverna. And this was not his first visit to the island, either. He did not behave like a tourist, for which the fishermen were thankful. He didn't bother them and they returned the favor.
From his vantage point, Hazard could see the natural harbor, and the ancient ruins of the medieval forest on a far point of land, the white beaches and the picturesque little whitewashed town on green and brown terraced slopes. A cruise ship lay at anchor in the harbor, along with a number of private yachts. In recent years Biathos had become popular with the holiday crowd.
In some ways, and for purely selfish reasons, Hazard resented the tourists. He had been coming to Biathos for many years now, and in the beginning it had been a safe haven, far from the madding crowd. He pictured her as the last virgin among the Greek Isles, being slowly yet inexorably seduced into selling herself. He felt a little like a man whose girlfriend has begun seeing other men.
Still, he kept coming back to her. He felt at home here. It wasn't the only place he felt at home in the world, by any means. But this was one of his favorite places. He knew the island as well as he did the streets of London or Manhattan or the southern coast of France. He spoke the language like a native. With his deep tan and black hair, he was often mistaken for a Greek.
His lean frame tilted in a hard wooden chair, Hazard perused a two-day-old Athen News and eavesdropped on the fishermen. He enjoyed the tales the old salts told. He also enjoyed being left alone. So it was with dismay that he saw Jack Christian appear around the corner of the old church down the street. Hoping against hope, he hid behind the newspaper, wondering if his Old Navy t-shirt, gabardine trousers and espadrilles would prove effective camouflage. But Christian knew right where to look. After all, Hazard was a regular at Spyridon's.
"Boy, am I glad I found you!" gushed Christian as he sat across the table from Hazard and flashed his most winning smile. "Reading the paper, I see."
Hazard sighed. "You're a trained observer, aren't you, Jack?"
Christian steamrollered that wry comment, leaned forward like a conspirator. "Listen to me, Derek. I finally got it."
Lips curling, Hazard asked if it was contagious.
Christian made a face. "Come on now. I'm talking about the story. The big scoop."
Hazard tried to appear interested. Christian made a living finding and selling news. Occasionally he worked on assignment for a news agency like Reuters or United Press. Like Hazard, he was roamer of the world. Their paths had crossed before. Hazard had pulled Christian's fat out of the fire in Thailand a few years ago, when the journalist's snooping had aggravated a Golden Triangle warlord. Christian was firmly convinced that they were buddies, and so far Hazard had been unable to disabuse him of that notion.
The big scoop. That exclusive story of earth-shaking importance. It was the pot at the end of every newshound's ink-stained rainbow. But Hazard doubted that anything remotely important in the global scheme of things could be found on Biathos. At least he hoped nothing earth-shaking happened on this tiny, sundrenched island.
But did it? From long experience Hazard knew that no place was so utterly mundane that nothing exciting ever happened. Tourists brought much-needed revenue to this island. Yet outsiders could also bring trouble. Crime. And crime, after all, was Derek Hazard's vocation.
Not that he considered himself a criminal. True, police forces around the world, from Scotland Yard to the FBI, looked on him with a jaundiced eye. It was their opinion that he broke the law, and he had to concede that, technically, they were right. The fact that the people he preyed upon were lawbreakers themselves was not a mitigating circumstance, where the authorities were concerned.
Hazard believed that those who committed crimes abrogated their rights and became fair game. He was no crusader. No knight in shining armor. Victimizing the victimizers could be as profitable as it was dangerous, and that was why he did it. Often, as a result,.he helped an innocent. That was all well and good. And while he could be quite generous with his twice-ill-gotten gains, he did not steal from the rich to give to the poor.
These days, money was no option. He'd made a fortune. But he couldn't stop playing the game. It was in his blood. Probably it always had been. The thrill was addictive. And now, listening to Jack Christian, he knew he still possessed the nerve and the inclination should Fate deal him the right combination of cards.
So, shedding his dark, wrap-around Carreras and pinning Christian with striking, slate-gray eyes, he said, "Tell me all about it, why don't you?" As benevolent and patient as a father confessor, inspiring candor.
"Well, you might wonder why I'm on Biathos and not in, say, Bosnia or the Ivory Coast or some other hotspot. I'm ashamed to admit it, but I took an advance to write a piece on the Greek Isles for a travel magazine." Christian did his best to put on a brave face. "Hey, you've got to keep food on the table, right?"
"Having to work for a living is nothing to be ashamed of."
Christian grinned. "How would you know? Biathos is an up and coming little rock -- God help it. Anyway, I was driving along the coastal road yesterday when I had a blowout. I ended up in a ditch, on the other side of which was this wall that seemed to go on forever, like the Great Wall of China, you know? I knew it had to be a private estate. The only other thing I'd seen for a while were old ruins. So, being the intuitive guy that I am, I figured the estate was the best place to look for a phone so I could call the rental people for help. There wasn't a spare, of course."
Christian paused and look at Hazard's beer as though he had just survived a crossing of the Sahara. Hazard, as intuitive as the next guy, captured Spyridon's attention so discreetly that Christian though he must have missed some secret signal. The stocky old islander hustled over with a happy grin splitting his creased and sunwhacked face. Nodding at Hazard's order of two more bottles of Fix, he disappeared into the dim coolness of his taverna.
"So then what happened?" asked Hazard, elbows on the table, fingers laced together, with the polite attentiveness that storytellers only dream of.
"There was no gate in sight, so I went over the wall. The grounds were thickly wooded, and it was getting late in the day. I couldn't see the house, but I figured it would be down by the sea, and I headed for the sound of breakers. I'd gone maybe fifty yards when the dogs came at me."
Christian's voice trembled slightly. Obviously it had been a frightening experience, one Hazard could clearly envision, as he'd been confronted by attack dogs on an occasion or two himself. Dark, lethal streaks, fangs bared, in the gloom-shrouded trees.
"I went up the nearest tree like a lumberjack in a pole-climbing contest," continued Christian. "Three men arrived a minute later. Two of them carried Uzis, or something. They looked like Greeks, those two. The one who spoke, though, was an American."
Spyridon returned with the beers. Not a moment too soon, mused Hazard, as Christian's throat sounded awfully parched.
After a few healthy swigs, the journalist went on. "The American told me to come down -- one of the others had the dogs on chains by then. He asked me who I was and what I was doing there. I think he believed what I told him, and I told him the truth. He could see I was scared shitless. He wanted to see some identification. I gave him my wallet. Then he stepped away and spoke into a small handset, too softly for me to hear. Derek, I'll be honest, I wanted to run but I couldn't get my legs to move. I could hardly breathe. I couldn't take my eyes off those guns, or those dogs."
"I don't blame you."
"You're patronizing me. How many gunbarrels have you looked down?"
"A few. Still, you never quite get used to it."
"Finally, the American came back and told me they would escort me to the road. Said I should stay with my car, and that they would arrange for help to be dispatched from town. Also, that under no circumstances was I to set foot on the grounds again. They marched me back to the wall and hoisted me over."
Christian sucked thirstily on his beer bottle, watching Hazard expectantly. He seemed disappointed that Hazard's only response was to light a cigarette.
"So, what do you think about my little adventure?" asked the journalist.
"I think you guys are always treading on the wrong toes. Then you get bent all out of shape when a person exercises his right to privacy. You know perfectly well they've got as many millionaires as olive trees on these islands. They come from all over the world. This is the playground of the rich and famous, and sometimes they grow weary of all the attention you and yours lavish on them."
"Guns and killer dogs -- a little extreme, don't you think?"
"Ever been to Skorpios?"
"The Onassis family's private island? No. Have you?"
Hazard nodded. "Once."
"Were you invited?"
Hazard chose not to dignify that wry comment with an answer. "It's security makes Fort Knox look like a pawn shop. Some people put a high premium on peace and quiet."
"Then tell me this. How come everyone I ask about that estate suddenly clams up and stares at me like I'm Typhoid Mary's kid brother?"
Hazard beckoned for Spyridon.
"What can be done for you, Kyrie Derek?"
"Nico, there's a walled estate near the old fortress, on the coastal road. Who lives there?"
Apprehension clouded Spyridon's rugged countenance. Hazard was surprised. Spyridon was a brave man. He'd been the island's foremost sponge diver until crippled by a shark attack. Having traded one leg for a prosthetic device, he'd given up one of the world's most dangerous vocations to become a tavernkeeper. Hazard knew him well, and to see him afraid was a shock.
"Kalispera. Very sorry, Kyrie Derek. I have not the idea."
"I thought you knew everything that went on around here, Nico."
Hazard's tone was one of mild reproof, and Spyridon was ashamed.
"Some things one does not wish to know, my friend."
A fisherman at another table looked up from his game of Xeri and ordered ouzo.Rescued, Spyridon hurried off to fetch a bottle of Boutari. Christian was gloating.
"Now do you believe me? Everybody is afraid of that place. And I want to know why." He leaned forward with a sly smile. "And you -- a good mystery makes your heart pump a little faster, too, doesn't it. Come on, fess up."
Hazard could not deny that he was curious. His appetite for adventure was insatiable, even though it sometimes got him into unhealthy situations. But he was confident that the road Christian was trying to lead him down was a dead end.
"I'm afraid guns and guard dogs are pretty old hat to me," he replied. "They don't stick in my craw, like they do in yours. I think all you've got is a rich tycoon who's allergic to snoops and has the local folks spooked, and who doesn't particularly care to be on the front page of next week's National Enquirer."
Christian stubbornly shook his head. "My instincts tell me there's a scoop behind those walls, and I intend to get it. That's why I looked you up. I heard you were on Biathos, and I just wanted you to know."
A commotion in the street interrupted them.
Her name was Caitlin Belleau. Like Hazard, she was a guest at the Delfinia, the island's long the street past Spyridon's tavern. She was an extremely attractive woman. her white Danskin emphasized the deep copper hue of her flawless skin and accentuated the perfection of her figure. A beach towel, adorned with the brightly polychromatic images of jungle birds perched in lush tropical greenery, was wrapped around her waist, but the young men in the vicinity knew a good thing even when they only partially saw it. Several Greeks trailed in her wake, openly admiring her attributes, and uttering a profusion of passionate declarations.
Caitlin Belleau was not at all bothered by this effusive display of uninhibited appreciation. She knew she was breathtakingly beautiful, and she was neither bashful nor conceited about it. It was just a fact of life and she didn't consider it either a blessing or a curse. Hazard liked her for that. The world was filled with beautiful women. But too many, in his opinion, squandered the gift, either by being too conceited about it, or denying it altogether.
She stopped at Hazard's table -- and smiled. Spellbound, Jack Christian gaped at her. Hazard's answering smile was casual. Her entourage fell silent, poised in the sunlit street, watching intently.
"Oh hello, Derek," she said, brushing a wet tendril of cinnamon-brown hair out of sea-green eyes. "Are we still on for tonight?"
Christian glared at Hazard, green with envy. A murmur of disappointment rippled through the pack of young Greek wolves. They began to disperse. A couple lingered -- in the faint hope, Hazard supposed, that he would suddenly drop dead.
"Absolutely," he said, unfolding his tall frame from the chair. "I'll walk with you."
She glanced over her shoulder. "I've gotten used to having an escort," she said wryly.
"Harmless flattery. The Greeks are generous in all things, including admiration."
He introduced her to Jack, went off to intercept Spyridon, and pressed a generous quantity of 100-drachma notes into the old Greek's palm, enough to pay for the beers and a new room on the tavern. Spyridon shook his head, but made no protest. He was Greek, therefore a pragmatist, and he knew arguing with Hazard was a waste of time.
As Hazard and Caitlin parted company with Christian and proceeded up the street toward the Delfinia, she said, "Your friend says he's about to get his big break."
"Yes. It remains to be seen whether it'll be an arm or a leg."
He looked back, saw Christian walking briskly in the opposite direction, down toward the waterfront -- and toyed briefly with the idea of catching the journalist and trying to dissuade him from his preoccupation with the walled estate. But he didn't.
And it was the last time he saw Jack Christian alive.
Copyright 1992, 2015 by Jason Manning. All Rights Reserved. No unauthorized reproduction for any purpose whatsoever is allowed without permission of copyright holder. This copyright notice to cover all text found in this post except that attributed to others. Copyright is not claimed on any images included in this post.