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The Secret οf Villa Saligaros

During fall, as part of a European program in which we participate with the Greek Cultural Institute, we visited Soverato in Calabria. Among the various activities, I promised my friends from Lithuania, Slovenia, Germany, France, and Taranto-Calabria (Italy) that I would write a detective story inspired by our meeting.

Indeed, when I was asked to participate in the book about crimes in Cholargos, I decided to fulfil my promise by writing a story that would be truly inspired by our meeting in Soverato.

Coincidentally, the release of the book “23 Crimes in Cholargos” (Kyfanta publications), which includes the story, coincided with a meeting of the groups participating in the program in Athens.

Therefore, Rafaella Ntana translated it into English so our friends coming in May can read it!

Punta di sabbia nel mare,

frange di sole nel golfo,

mattine paludate di brezza,

 sere incendiate di cremisi.

 Ottavio Rossani, Soverato Riti di Seduzione

 

[1]

If I’d known where this was going to end up, I would never have made the fatal move…

It was a sweet September, but it found me in a terrible mess. Everything had been going wrong for the past year. I’d been kicked out of the newspaper where I’d been working for the past decade, I’d recently been divorced, and on top of that, I had several health problems tormenting me.

Locked up at home I had no interest in anything.

My friend Evangelia brought me out of my lethargy.

One afternoon when I was on my second glass of ouzo – even though I was taking antibiotics – the phone, silent for days, rang.

After the formalities – which lasted for a while – he asked me the question that would change everything:

“How about a trip to Calabria?”

“What Calabria, Evangelia? I can’t even afford to go to Chalandri. You know that!”

“You’ll be a guest of our institute. It’s a European project. You’ll like it. We’re making trailers for books.”

I had no idea how he convinced me and I found myself on a plane to Rome and then to Lamezia Terme, an airport I’d never heard of before in my life.

The rest of the group probably felt strange both by my presence and my silence. They were all colleagues at the Institute of Cultural Tourism, except me. They were talking about various issues that I could hardly understand.

It’s true that the night before I had drained all the alcohol in the house and then I made the decision that when I was going to Calabria, I would detox. But my head felt like a block of flats had fallen on it.

With difficulty I picked up my small suitcase and found myself in the room I was to share with the only man of the group, Pantelis.

The first pleasant moment was when I raised the shutters and saw the sea.

The hotel was right on a vast sandy beach and the turquoise sea was sparkling in the sun. I didn’t think twice about it. I dropped everything, put on my bathing suit and ran to dive into the magic of the Ionian Sea.

Those who say that only in Greece we have beautiful beaches, have probably not been to Soverato. In fact, that’s what I used to say before I found myself surrounded by this sea. Incredible colour and clarity and a texture that brought an inexplicable joy. As I was swimming, I was born again.

In the evening the group, who would probably have said things to Evangelia about me – was surprised to see me talking, telling jokes, being completely sociable. People must have thought I was schizophrenic!

As I had promised myself, I didn’t drink a beer, even though I was tempted. For the first time ever, I ate until my belly bloated. Pizza, of course.

 

 

 

 

 

[2]

At breakfast I was already in high spirits and then I saw her crossing the room. Brunette with jet-black eyes, what we call classic Italian beauty. She was also wearing glasses, which, strange as it may seem to you, exerts a strange fascination on me.

“Beautiful girl!” I was taken out of my reverie by Pantelis.

“Yes, quite pretty. Do you think she’s in the program?”

“I don’t know at all. We’ll soon find out. In half an hour we have a meeting. In addition to the organizers, there will be teams from Slovenia, France, Lithuania, Germany and from some other region of Italy.”

The “some other region of Italy” was Taranto. So, for me to write these lines you may have already understood that Kiara – that was her name – was really on the program.

Of course, from the first moment I never stopped trying to be close to her. Not always successfully.

Things that I’d kept buried deep down for years began to surface. I was waking up from a slumber.

The years had brought me a cowardice. As daring as I was in journalistic reporting I was timid in my personal relationships.

The days went by and I was left with the flame smouldering. Until the third afternoon when we climbed up to the old town. She was wearing a dress the colour of the sea and when I dared to tell her how beautiful she was she laughed such a gurgling laugh and I lost my mind. Sunset found us all in the Botanical Garden that towered over the seaside town. Abandoned, it had a charm of lost hope. The view was breathtaking.

The team from Taranto had prepared a surprise. Kiara took a book out of her bag and there, looking down from above at the sand surrounded by the sea, she read us a poem about Soverato in the dusk. I understood quite a lot of the words, but more than that it was her voice that enchanted me. I felt the poem deep inside me. Everyone fell silent after the narration…

In the evening we sat on the deck chairs on the beach and watched half the moon come out faintly at first and then turn orange. The Greek-Italian company we had created exchanged songs and the atmosphere had something magical again.

Evangelia, of course, had understood everything and was urging me to make a move.

Again I lacked courage.

There were only two days left until departure when we visited the medieval village of Badolato.

In the narrow streets, we got lost from the others. For the first time alone in a village that looked like the set of a Taviani film. I was humming the music from “Chaos”.

It was the beginning of the conversation. I was slowly relaxing.

Her beautiful laughter made me feel like I was flying a few inches above the ground.

Don’t imagine some passionate love scene to follow. I only dared to invite her to Athens.

“Whenever you come you can stay at my place. I have plenty of room” I told her in broken Italian.”

“Really?”

“Yes!”

“I’ll come then,” she said and looked me in the eyes.

It was as if she was reading the unspoken words.

The truth is that I never thought she would really come to Greece and even more so to stay in my house.

So the next morning we gave a hug – something I also didn’t expect. He was wearing, as if on purpose, the sea-coloured dress again.

[3]

It had been a difficult winter. We exchanged messages on Facebook without ever passing an imaginary line. The struggle for survival had consumed me. And the breaking of promises to myself. Tsipouro had become my best friend. The few articles I wrote for a magazine were just enough to pay the bills. The interest on the loan I had once taken out was choking me.

In the spring, a former colleague who had opened a “private investigation” office suggested that I should work with him. I had no other option. So I found myself playing detective and my finances improved somewhat. I was able to settle the loan.

With the help of Evangelia and a psychologist friend who I started visiting in April, I gradually stopped my relationship with tsipouro. Not that I stopped drinking some days.

All this until Easter – which was quite late – and a few days earlier a message had arrived on messenger: Kiara was coming to Athens for a week and asked me if my invitation was still open!

Of course, I told her yes.

In her next message she asked me something rather strange: If I live near an area called “Cholargos”.

I told her I live very close. In fact, the metro stop that is a few minutes from my house in Chalandri is the one in Cholargos. She seemed to like that a lot!

I was going to find out in a painful way why…

I don’t like to be long-winded, so I won’t describe in detail the various absurdities I made in the twenty days leading up to her arrival.

Exercise, diet, thorough cleaning of the house, buying bubble baths and cosmetics, buying a new shower gel and an espresso machine (traditional), limiting alcohol consumption –

wine only and only with food…

Of course, I went to pick her up at the airport. She was wearing that same dress again, and the hug was the warmest.

We were both embarrassed, though, especially when we crossed the threshold of my house. I showed her room, the bathroom, the various kitchen utensils.

While she took a shower I prepared dinner.

It was so beautiful. The most beautiful place in my house is the balcony overlooking all of Athens. Especially at night, it is delightful.

She had brought me several small gifts which I was happy to open. I think we both felt intimacy and we enjoyed the evening until we went to bed very late. Each to our own room.

In the morning I let her sleep and went to work.

[4]

I came back in the afternoon and found her waiting for me at home.

She had made pasta with black garlic and hot peppers that she had brought from Taranto.

At noon he had gone for a walk in Plaka and she was excited.

After we finished lunch, she asked me when we could go to Cholargos. She opened an app on her phone and showed me the spot. A building at the junction of Aetideon and Polymnia Streets.

I googled it and saw that it was an old mansion that belonged to the Municipality of Cholargos. During the Occupation it had housed the Italian Administration of the area.

I told her about the information I found.

“I know!”

“How do you know?”

“My grandfather was serving there. He lived in that building. That’s why I want to see it.”

“We need to find out when it’s open and if we can visit. I’ll call Evangelia. I think she has someone she knows in the municipality. Do you remember her from Soverato?”

“Yes, of course. We did the trailer for that book together. What do you call it?”

“The Tiger in the Shop Window.”

“Right!”

I called Evangelia and, indeed, she was able to find a way for us to visit the mansion the next afternoon. Of course she didn’t like that I had neglected to tell her about Κiara’s visit.

“And did something happen between you two?”

“Like what?”

“Come on, Sotiri!”

“Nothing at all!”

“Nothing? She came to stay at your house and… nothing?”

Kiara was watching me talk as if she understood what we were saying…

“I’m leaving you now…”

“Don’t be silly! Tell her something and if she doesn’t want to, forget it…”

“I know, regret what I didn’t do, not what I did! I’m hanging up now.”

In the evening we went to the bar on Chios Street, drank mojitos (no more promises) and when we got home we kissed for the first time.

And yet, we said goodnight and then we each went to our room.

Needless to say, I didn’t sleep. And I suppressed my strong impulse to go knock on her door. Evangelia’s right. Now I regret what I didn’t do…

But it’s too late.

[5]

We passed by the Monogram bookstore to say hello to my friend Joanna – who before I broke my leg we were dancing salsa together – and then we headed up Aetideon Street.

I, the journalist and rookie …detective, did not realize for a moment that someone was watching us. In fact, from the very first moment Kiara arrived in Greece.

When we arrived at the old mansion we were met by a municipal employee who showed us around with kindness, but Kiara seemed completely distracted.

“I’m going out into the garden for a bit. I don’t feel well…”

“Do you want me to come with you?”

“No, no. I’ll take a breath and come back…”

The employee continued talking about the history of Cholargos, but I didn’t even listen to him. I was trying to find a polite way to stop him as the time passed and she didn’t show up.

Suddenly there was a terrible noise from the garden. A gunshot “It must be a tailpipe,” said the employee; but we went outside. The sight we witnessed shocked us both.

Kiara was lying bleeding beside the main entrance to the garden. Beside her were fallen bricks from the pillar that supported the door.

The employee went out into the street and as he told me later he saw someone running towards the park across the street.

I sat down next to Kiara. Her glasses were shaken to the side and the lenses were broken. I tried to push her chest – as I had learned in some first aid course – while someone next to me was calling for an ambulance.

My hands were covered in blood. I was talking to her and it was like she was trying to tell me something but she leaned back, exhausted from the effort.

There were sirens…

After ages, an ambulance came and took her away. I wasn’t allowed to go with her.

In the meantime two policemen appeared and I followed them to the station. I felt they suspected me of something, but what? I was in the building with the employee at the time of the shooting. I wanted to leave, to get close to Kiara.

Instead, from the nearby local police station they took me to the General Police Department of Athens…

There I learned that the man who had shot Kiara had been arrested by sheer bad luck, when he run into two policemen as he was leaving the park, who had already heard on the radio what had happened while they were there for a fight outside the school across the street.

He was an Italian, from Calabria, and he kept his mouth tightly shut, but he also had a gun on him and a precious necklace…

They let me go and of course I ran to Kiara.

She was in surgery. The doctors were struggling to keep her alive.

I never left for a minute… Everything was hanging by a thread…

Hours passed before the doctor came out and told me that the operation had gone well but the next forty-eight hours were critical…

I had fallen asleep in an armchair in the intensive care lobby when a ray of sunshine came to wake me up. It was dawning on a bright spring day and the birds were chirping outside.

Then a woman appeared. I immediately knew she was Kiara’s mother. She looked the same as she would have been – if she had lived – in about twenty years. She spoke only Italian, but I managed to communicate with her. She knew who I was.

We learned that Kiara was responding well to the medication and was regaining her strength.

I invited her for a coffee. She told me that her husband had left them when her daughter was young and raised her alone. The role of father had been played by her grandfather, whom she adored.

“He’s the reason!” she said suddenly, and I thought I didn’t understand.

But that’s how it was and by using my mobile phone to translate I was able to reconstruct a part of the story.

Two friends in the army – one was Kiara’s grandfather – when the persecution of the Jews began, they saved a family in exchange for a necklace that was of immeasurable value. They were then serving in Cholargos and decided to hide it. The hiding place they found was in a pillar of the garden entrance. When his friend was on guard duty one night they found the opportunity. They took out some bricks, created a gap and there they hid the necklace, rebuilding the wall.

After the war the two friends were lost. Kiara’s grandfather felt great shame for what they had done. He didn’t want to look for the necklace or say anything to anyone. And he learned that his friend had been killed in one of the last battles, so he buried the case in his mind.

But when the grandfather passed away, Kiara discovered the diary he kept and learned the story. As she was in a very difficult financial situation, she thought that this necklace – if it still existed – would be her salvation.

And then I got in her way and she made the decision. She made the mistake of talking about it to her fiancé (I felt a strong twinge in my heart when her mother mentioned the fiancé) and he, apparently, didn’t keep his mouth shut… In the following months I was to learn that nDrangheta had learned of the precious necklace and instructed one of its members – the man who tried to murder Kiara-to follow her to Greece…

Days passed as Kiara fought for her life, but she finally made it. Almost a month later she was discharged from the hospital and left for Taranto.

The hug of goodbye lasted an eternity. So did the last kiss…

The necklace, which the experts decided was from the Macedonian dynasty period, ended up in the Byzantine Museum.

As for her, I don’t know how and what her fiancé told her, but a few months later he announced that they were getting married. She even sent me an invitation. I’m not going, of course.

And I felt deep inside me the final stanza of the poem about Soverato:

 

…And yet this language of the earth,

With sun, salt and African winds

Is deeply hungry for love.

And drowns there, with no way out…

 

AUTHOR

Kostas Stoforos

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