Alan Furst: Spies of the Balkans

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Alan Furst Spies of the Balkans
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    Spies of the Balkans
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Alan Furst

Spies of the Balkans

In August of 1939, General Ioannis Metaxas,

the prime minister of Greece, told a Roumanian

diplomat “that the old Europe would end when

the swastika flew over the Acropolis.”


In Autumn, the rains came to Macedonia.

The storm began in the north-on the fifth day of October in the year 1940-where sullen cloud lay over the mountain villages on the border of Bulgaria and Greece. By midday it had drifted south, heavier now, rolling down the valley of the Vardar River until, at dusk, it reached the heights of the city of Salonika and, by the time the streetlamps came on, rain dripped from the roof tiles in the ancient alleyways of the port and dappled the surface of the flat, dark sea.

Just after six in the evening, Costa Zannis, known to the city as a senior police official-whatever that meant, perhaps no more than a suit instead of a uniform-left his office on the top floor of an anonymous building on the Via Egnatia, walked down five flights of creaky wooden stairs, stepped out into the street, and snapped his umbrella aloft. Earlier that day he’d had a telephone call from the port captain, something to do with the arrival of the Turkish tramp freighter Bakir-“an irregularity” was the phrase the captain used, adding that he preferred to pursue the matter in person. “You understand me, Costa,” he’d said. Oh yes, Zannis understood all too well. At that moment, Greece had been ruled by the Metaxas dictatorship since 1936-the length of women’s skirts was regulated; it was forbidden to read aloud the funeral oration of Pericles-and people were cautious about what they said on the telephone. And, with much of Europe occupied by Nazi Germany, and Mussolini’s armies in Albania, on the Greek frontier, one wasn’t sure what came next. So, don’t trust the telephone. Or the newspapers. Or the radio. Or tomorrow.

Entering the vast street market on Aristotle Square, Zannis furled his umbrella and worked his way through the narrow aisles. Rain pattered on the tin roofing above the stalls, fishmongers shouted to the crowd, and, as Zannis passed by, the merchants smiled or nodded or avoided his eyes, depending on where they thought they stood with the Salonika police that evening. A skeletal old woman from the countryside, black dress, black head scarf, offered him a dried fig. He smiled politely and declined, but she thrust it toward him, the mock ferocity of her expression meaning that he had no choice. He tore the stem off, flicked it into the gutter, then ate the fig, which was fat and sweet, raised his eyebrows in appreciation, said, “It’s very good, thank you,” and went on his way. At the far end of the market, a sponge peddler, a huge sack slung over his shoulder, peered anxiously out at the rain. Marooned, he could only wait, for if his sponges got wet he’d have to carry the weight for the rest of the night.

The customshouse stood at the center of the city’s two main piers, its function stated on a broad sign above the main entry, first in Greek, then with the word Douane. On the upper floor, the port captain occupied a corner office, the sort of office that had over the years become a home; warm in the chilly weather, the still air scented with wood smoke and cigarettes, one of the port cats asleep by the woodstove. On the wall behind the desk hung a brightly colored oleograph of Archbishop Alexandros, in long black beard and hair flowing to his shoulders, hands clasped piously across his ample stomach. By his side, formal photographs of a stern General Metaxas and a succession of port officials of the past, two of them, in fading sepia prints, wearing the Turkish fez. On the adjoining wall, handsomely framed, were the wife and children of the present occupant, well fed, dressed to the hilt, and looking very dignified.

The present occupant was in no hurry; a brief call on the telephone produced, in a few minutes, a waiter from a nearby kafeneion-coffeehouse-with two tiny cups of Turkish coffee on a brass tray. After a sip, the captain lit a cigarette and said, “I hope I didn’t get you down here for nothing, Costa. In such miserable fucking weather.”

Zannis didn’t mind. “It’s always good to see you,” he said. “The Bakir, I think you said. Where’s she berthed?”

“Number eight, on the left-hand side. Just behind a Dutch grain freighter-a German grain freighter now, I guess.”

“For the time being,” Zannis said.

They paused briefly to savor the good things the future might hold, then the captain said, “Bakir docked this morning. I waited an hour, the captain never showed up, so I went to find him. Nothing unusual, gangplank down, nobody about, so I went on board and headed for the captain’s office, which is pretty much always in the same place, just by the bridge. A few sailors at work, but it was quiet on board, and going down the passageway toward the bridge I passed the wardroom. Two officers, gossiping in Turkish and drinking coffee, and a little man in a suit, with shiny shoes, reading a newspaper. German newspaper. Oh, I thought, a passenger.”

“See his face?”

“Actually I didn’t. He was behind his newspaper-Volkischer Beobachter? I believe it was. Anyhow, I didn’t think much about it. People get around these days any way they can, and they don’t go anywhere at all unless they have to.”


The captain nodded. “You may just have to swim. Eventually I found the captain up on the bridge-a man I’ve known for years, by the way-and we went back to his office so I could have a look at the manifest. But-no passenger. So, I asked. ‘Who’s the gent in the wardroom?’ The captain just looked at me. What a look!”

“Meaning …?”

“Meaning Don’t ask me that. Life’s hard enough these days without this sort of nonsense.”

Zannis’s smile was ironic. “Oh dear,” he said.

The captain laughed, relieved. “Don’t be concerned, you mean.”

From Zannis, a small sigh. “No, but it’s me who has to be concerned. On the other hand, as long as he stays where he is … What’s she carrying?”

“In ballast. She’s here to load baled tobacco, then headed up to Hamburg.”

“You didn’t happen to see the passenger come this way, did you?”

“No, he hasn’t left the ship.”

Zannis raised an eyebrow. “You’re sure?”

“I’ve had a taxi waiting out there all afternoon. If he tries to enter the city, two beeps on the horn.”

This time the sigh was deeper, because Zannis’s plans for the evening had vanished into the night. “I’ll use your telephone,” he said. “And then I’ll take a little walk.”

Zannis walked past the taxi on the pier-the driver awake, to his surprise-then continued until he could see the Bakir. Nothing unusual; a rust-streaked gray hull, a cook tossing a pail of kitchen garbage into the bay. He’d thought about ordering up a pair of detectives, then decided not to get them out in the rain. But now the rain had stopped, leaving in its place a heavy mist that made halos around the streetlamps. Zannis stood there, the city behind him quiet, a foghorn moaning somewhere out in the darkness.

He’d turned forty that summer, not a welcome event but what could you do. He was of average height, with a thick muscular body and only an inch of belly above his belt. Skin a pale olive color, not bad-looking at all though more boxer than movie star, a tough guy, in the way he moved, in the way he held himself. Until you looked at his face, which suggested quite a different sort of person. Wide generous mouth and, behind steel-framed eyeglasses, very blue eyes: lively eyes. He had dry black hair which, despite being combed with water in the morning, was tousled by the time he reached the office and fell down on his forehead and made him look younger, and softer, than he was. All in all, an expressive face, rarely still-when you spoke to him you could always see what he thought about whatever you said, amusement or sympathy or curiosity, but always something. So, maybe a tough guy, but your friend the tough guy. The policeman. And, in his black suit and soft gray shirt, tie knot always pulled down and the collar button of the shirt open, a rather gentle version of the breed. On purpose, of course.

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