Book Three - The Mangrove 

A Most Extraordinary Island

   The remnant of an ancient swamp volcano, Mangrove Island grips the ocean floor like a ginormous octopus, its crater oozing primordial goo through fissures in the hardened black lava. It is a playground for scientists of all callings armed with glass jars, sharpies and unrestrained enthusiasm. There’s no ferry but a slew of small vessels can take you there from Patras, twenty to thirty minutes depending on the currents. Painted in cheerful colors, they lend a festive character to the small fishing town.  

  The boats dock on the east side of the island, facing the mainland. The west side is sparsely populated by mangled oak trees, and to the north is the coconut grove. The entire south side is mangrove marshland, the roots so tightly woven over the murky water you can walk across without ever getting your feet wet. Countless species of birds share the branches, attracted to the cool shade and abundance of bugs. Alligators are rare, but snakes are not uncommon.  

  The island was purchased in 1972 by the shipping tycoon Demetrius Calisto as an experiment in self-sustainability. His first step was to drill an underground aqueduct to contain the rain, thus supplying a steady flow of fresh water filtered through the mineral-rich lava. Electricity is produced with hybrid solar panels, windmills, and a back-up grid generated by the ocean’s currents. 
​   Two miles south of the boat dock is the village for employees and their families, where visitors can stop for lunch, shop and rent rooms at a reasonable price. The village supplies the island with fresh bread, eggs, goat’s milk, yogurt, butter, fruits, vegetables, jam, and honey. Chickens roam unhindered, and it is not unusual to find a hen roosting on a shelf at the general store. Calisto has his own compound further down the road, with its own private pier surrounded by a whitewashed wall.

    The  There was one building standing when Calisto purchased the island, The Mangrove, which he restored as a guesthouse. ‘Guesthouse’ is a discreet way of saying if you have to ask how much a room costs, you can’t afford it. The three-tiered structure looks to be straight out of Arabian Nights, with its numerous arches and indoor fountains.

  On the ground level, the dining room and lounge face the coconut grove with a decent view of both the rising and setting sun, depending upon which side you’re sitting. A fountain populated by koi-fish separates the lounge from the reception area. The only décor is a full-length mirror in the main hall, tinted and spotted with age, framed by layers of transparent shells that change color depending on the time of day. It was made by Sir Edward, a Shakespearean stage actor who had taken up residence the last months of his life.  

  Every year, in mid-summer for his birthday, Calisto organizes a party for family, friends and employees, with music, games and enough food to satisfy all the gods in Olympus. At the end of the day, the guests gather in the coconut grove to watch the fireworks. For his fortieth birthday he doubled the display, and the grand finale set the entire sky ablaze. To folks lined along the mainland, the aerial explosion was something they would never forget, and not only because it was unbelievably awesome.

    The Mystery

   The next day Calisto’s manservant went to the authorities in Patras to report that his employer had disappeared. The former oil magnate was a notorious eccentric and the officers were inclined to believe there was no need to worry, except they had to admit that Bruno had been in his employ twelve years, and knew his habits by heart. They put aside their coffee and newspapers, and filed a report.

   Patras had only two officers, and in a community where everyone was pretty much related, disputes were more likely to be settled around a kitchen table rather than in a courtroom. Anything serious was passed on to Chief Masterson at the Half Moon Police Department, and Masterson sent his forensic team to check Demetrius Calisto’s room. They went through the standard procedures looking for fingerprints, blood spatter and so forth, and found no clues except that he hadn’t taken his morning coffee, as the grinds were still fresh in the machine.

    About a week after the ill-fated party, word got around there was something of value hidden somewhere in the guesthouse. Most people put it off as a rumor, some took it seriously. Over the years his pranks were well documented. When staff at The Mangrove took a disliking to an unpleasant guest by the name of Dottor Virgilio Bolzano, he placed a lizard under a silver cloche and sent the waitress with the tray to his table.

    Calisto hadn’t calculated that, when the dome was lifted, the lizard would sprint unnoticed into Dottor Bolzano’s underwear. Bolzano called the waitress, justifiably upset, to complain that there was no food on his plate when suddenly he jumped, swinging his behind with great energy. The guests in the dining room initially thought it was a variation of the chicken dance until, shouting like a lunatic, he knocked over the table and shook his leg as if he were being mauled by an alligator. Horrified, the diners stepped back in unison while the frantic lizard scurried from Bolzano’s boxers, down his leg and out the door.  

   It is hard to imagine this frightfully elegant man that loved to cause mischief, with a face that never lost its childlike softness, making cutthroat decisions for shipping vessels weighing seventy-thousand tons with five hundred thousand barrels of oil. Pirates, natural disasters, faulty equipment and human failure were constant companions in this selective business.

   What concerned him were the consequences of oil spills, evermore frequent, and after witnessing one first-hand he sold his vessels and put his fortune into finding alternate energy solutions, which also meant cutting dramatically into fossil-fuel dependency.

   Predictably his proposals, which included costly safety measures, were not well received by the oil and shipping industries. You can never have too much money, and lobbyists were standing ready to spread goodwill amongst politicians so any regulations would be voted down. For this reason he kept his research a secret.

   Calisto’s scientists came from different countries and met in secluded corners of the world. His personal staff besides Bruno were his secretary Sam, his architect Ahmad, his technician Dakota, and the cook Shawana who doubled as his bodyguard. They liked and respected their soft-spoken employer. They were aware that his outrageous antics, which made him the darling of tabloids and celebrity pages, were a decoy.
- Chapter One -

     “Well tie me down and call me Sally,” said Tom Hasling under his breath. 

    The object fell with a soft thud in a clearing about three hundred yards from where he anchored his boat. He was sitting in his habitual spot on Mangrove Island where he could relax, drink a beer, read the newspaper and smoke without his wife nagging him. He stood and put his hand up to shade his eyes from the sun. Difficult to tell what it was. Maybe a kite that lost its wind? Some sort of experiment on the weather? Demetrius Calisto was known to experiment.

   Thirty years ago, yes thirty years ago Tom would have been curious enough to investigate but life, and his wife, taught him to mind his own business. He took a bite from his sandwich and for a minute was engulfed in pleasure as the mustard watered his eyes and cleared his sinuses. Then he saw the second darndest thing. Two gorillas loped across the clearing and stopped where the object had fallen.

  Tom looked accusingly at his sandwich as if it were somehow responsible. The primates gathered the object and before vanishing into the swamp turned and stared straight at him. Seriously spooked he stepped back and fell over his foldable chair. He swore, hitched his overalls, packed his belongings, got on his boat and headed home. He was going to keep his astonishing experience to himself but that evening, human nature being what it is, he told his buddies what he saw. They laughed. What did Gertie have to say? Was one of the gorillas a female?

   Tom laughed with them like he was kidding all along. He never mentioned it again.
- Chapter Two -

    A week passed with no news of the shipping tycoon, and after all the guests from the party had left, Calisto’s sister invited her old friend Countess Katrina Katro to the island. Thalia was thinking about hiring a private investigator, and Katrina said she’d see if Harry Maddock or Zahni were free.

   “There are enough rooms in the compound for your young friends,” said Thalia. “Maybe with a fresh mind-set we can find out what happened to Demetrius.”

   The Countess called Zahni who said, regretfully, that he could not come to the island because he was on a case, and Harry was out of town. Mario was thick as thieves with his partner Nasir, setting up their new business. Their Palmetto Springs Wildlife reserve project brought a good deal of publicity, and they started a company dedicated to architecture that exploited the regions’ natural resources.

   Alex and Maria, on the other hand, were tremendously pleased with the invitation. Maria was preparing an exam and said she’d bring her books with her while Alex, on vacation, wanted to catch up on her drawing. She was interning as a forensic artist at the Half Moon Police Department, and though she was comfortable around nerds like herself she needed to get away from the more somber side of humanity.

   The next morning Thalia sent her boat to bring the three friends over to Mangrove Island, and waited for them at the Agora, the restaurant overlooking the dock. The two older women embraced warmly and the girls were introduced. After lunch they walked along the path to the village.

   “The village is run as a cooperative,” explained Thalia. “One of Demetrius’ goals is to prove that, under the right conditions, people from different cultures and religious backgrounds can live and work together.”

    “It’s like an open-air market,” observed Alex happily as they neared the cluster of buildings. On the beachfront a group of boys was attempting to get home-made kites to fly while the girls sat on one of the lava boulders, cheering encouragement. 

  They stopped at a house where a Greek family served coffee and pastries. One table was occupied by two men with weathered faces and fedora hats, glaring at each other over game of chess. Thalia introduced Katrina and the girls to the wife, who brought coffee served in small white porcelain cups. While they waited for the grinds to settle, Thalia told them why the Greeks called it Greek coffee and not Turkish coffee.

  “The Greeks boycotted everything Turkish after that country invaded Cyprus in 1974, except Turkish coffee was something they really, really didn’t want to give up.” 

    “So, they changed the name to Greek coffee,” said Maria.

  “That’s right. It’s the same as Turkish coffee except the type of cup it’s served in.” Thalia shook her head and laughed. “Actually, the coffee cult started in the Mid-East. The drink was offered to Suleiman the Magnificent by the Governor of Yemen in the sixteenth century, and thereafter it became a part of the Turkish social fabric.”

    A tremendous clap of thunder shook the ground. Everyone outside ran for cover and in an instant the porch was walled-in by rain as it pounded unforgiving on the tin roof. It didn’t last long. Just as suddenly the skies cleared and the water on the streets drained into the underground reservoirs. Alex and Maria went to explore the rest of the village.

     “You say nothing about Demetrius, I imagine it’s because there’s no news,” said Katrina. 

   “No news. Bruno, Demetrius’ manservant, noticed the coffee machine hadn’t been used. He made his own coffee in the morning so he must have disappeared sometime after he left the party.”

    “That’s the only clue? Coffee grinds?”

    “Looks like it.” Thalia said. “There’s a rumor going around, of a treasure.”

    “A treasure?” 

    “In the guesthouse.”

    “My goodness, the plot thickens.” 

   “It’s entirely possible. Something dumb, like a rubber chicken.” Thalia, older than her brother by four years, was often the brunt of his practical jokes. 

 Katrina thought back over the number of pranks Calisto had contrived in his youth, and agreed it was possible. “Could it be his way of telling you he’s safe? Like a code?” 

  “I thought of that, but really anyone could have started the rumor, not necessarily Demetrius.” Thalia looked over at the chess players. “He could have told me outright so I wouldn’t worry.”

 “If he didn’t, there has to be a good reason,” said Katrina reassuringly.

 Alex and Maria returned from their exploration and, leaving the two fedoraed men to their game, the group made its way through the banana grove to the compound. 

  “A person can survive a long time just by eating bananas, and they don’t lose their properties when dried,” said Thalia. “They’re dehydrated in that building.” She pointed to a low building with a solar panel roof behind the general store. 

 They arrived at the compound hot and sweaty but in good spirits. “Better than a spa,” said Katrina cheerfully. Mint tea was waiting for them, as was their baggage. The compound was built in the style of the Greek islands, with a labyrinth of small whitewashed rooms for the guests, overlooking courtyards shaded by bougainvillea. 

 Alex and Maria swam before dinner and came out feeling cleansed. On one side of the beach a wall of black lava plunged thirty feet into the water, and on the north side was the private pier with Calisto’s sailboat and a handful of smaller vessels that rocked gently in the ebbing tide. Samira, Thalia’s personal maid, set dinner on the balcony.

 “With no other clues to follow, we may as well start with the supposed treasure in the guesthouse,” suggested Alex. She was eating a second serving of moussaka, to the delight of the cook Irina, who found the tall gangly girl unacceptably underweight. 
 Maria agreed that the treasure could mean different things. It could be a coded message for Thalia to reassure her, or a coded message to say I’m alive, help, look for me. It could also be someone who started the rumor just for the heck of it. 

 “Whether the rumor was instigated by your brother or by someone else, it came up after he disappeared. It could be related.”

  It was decided that Katrina would stay at The Mangrove to observe the staff and guests, and Thalia went to phone the concierge. 

“It’s settled,” she said. “There’s a room available the day after tomorrow, on the ground level facing the garden with a private entrance.” 

 Alex called Zahni to tell him that a treasure could possibly have been hidden at the guesthouse, and of their plan to have Katrina go undercover, so to speak. Zahni laughed. He greatly admired Countess Katrina, how she escaped her country with her daughter from certain death at the hands of her father-in-law’s corrupt cronies. Nerves of steel. He asked to speak with her, and gave her a few tips on surveillance. 

 While the Countess was on the phone learning the snoop trade, Alex went to the table where Maria had flattened a map of the island. The girls could not wait to get out and explore, and the next morning they were up early for a swim before setting off towards the crater and the mangrove swamp.

 Thalia told them the mangroves were what first attracted her brother to the island. They clean the atmosphere of carbon dioxide with a complex filtration system in their roots that, at the same time, allows the plant to survive in salty water. His researchers were hoping to unravel the secrets of this extraordinary tree.

- Chapter Three -

   Zahni ended his conversation with the Countess and pushed the chair away from his computer to stare at a large, gridded calendar on the wall. He had several of the same calendars in his laboratory behind his parents’ house, for his research. He was neat and conscientious but you wouldn’t know it from the way the information was transcribed, with drawings and multicolored sentences layered over each other. Ironically, the visual disarray helped put his thoughts in order. He remembered how Katrina orchestrated her own disappearance to trap her daughter’s con-artist fiancé, and had a feeling that this could be the case with Demetrius Calisto. 

   “You are a novelty,” Zahni told her. “Staff and guests will be watching you, especially since everyone by now must be aware of your friendship with Thalia. They’ll be curious why you didn’t stay at the compound, so tell the concierge you’re writing a book and that it’s easier to concentrate at the guesthouse.” The Countess and her daughter Petra were collaborating on their second book on the history of their country before it was invaded. 

   “The first days, just focus on what you’re doing. If you’re writing or reading, keep your head down and concentrate on the sounds around you; footsteps, background noises, the tone of people’s voices. Observe habits and any changes to them. Everyone more or less keeps to a daily routine.” 

   He went down the list of do’s and don’ts, vaguely uneasy that she would find herself in an unpleasant situation if the shipping tycoon had indeed been abducted, and wished he could go over for a day or two, to get a feel of the situation. Harry Maddock, his boss and mentor, was out of town following the movements of a potential client, as he always did before accepting a job. 

    “Most people, when they hire an investigator, aren’t truthful over their real motives. Even when they don’t mean to lie, the facts are distorted according to what they think is the truth, or want to be the truth.” An old shoe in the business, Harry learned this lesson the hard way.  

   From the open window the cicadas started up again after a hiatus over something that was known only to them. In tandem with the cicadas the late afternoon sun reappeared, triumphant, from behind the baobab in the park. 

   Zahni closed the shutters and went back to his computer. By the time he finished night had settled. While the pages whirred through the printer his attention was diverted by noises coming from the living room, or somewhere in the vicinity. It was hard to tell exactly. Harry’s apartment, inherited from his parents, covered the whole third floor. It was a rambling building in the ornate art deco style of the early 1900s with glass mosaics and ridiculously small balconies jutting at every angle. Zahni’s office was down the hall, and the high ceilings and numerous rooms made it impossible to identify where the noise originated.

    He moved to the door and stood perfectly still. Five-nine, his Persian lineage was defined by high cheekbones, light olive skin, raven hair and penetrating eyes. As a child he’d been on the chunky side, preferring books to exercise, but his stint at the police academy and weekly martial arts classes had trimmed him.  

   Zahni crept down the hallway towards the living room. Lana, Harry’s live-in secretary, was in the downtown office taking advantage of his absence to catch up on paperwork. Only the basset-hound was in the apartment. His back to the wall, Zahni twisted his head around so he could see into the living room, which wasn’t much with the only light coming from the street.

    “Tulip! Get away from there!”

    Wherever “there” was.

  The racket stopped and a moment later Tulip slunk heavily into the living room, flopped onto the rug and stared at him sorrowfully. Zahni relaxed, turned on the light and pointed an accusing finger but before he could speak the racket started up again with a louder, even more frenzied thrashing.  

   Annoyed and anxious, Zahni reached for the baseball bat leaning near the front door. The bat was his weapon of choice though he actually had to use it only once - or rather not have to use it. He’d overpowered a couple of thugs by flying in front of them like a crazed mid-eastern Ninja, hollering in Farsi and swinging the bat over his head. Dumbfounded, they dropped their hostage and backed straight into the policemen who were stalking from behind. Chief Masterson, who’d just arrived at the scene, was hard put to believe that the mild-mannered seventeen-year-old, whom he’d known since the boy was nine, was one and the same person. 

   Zahni wanted to be a private investigator at an early age, after reading Sherlock Holmes’ adventures where he gleaned most of his knowledge in detecting. He’d become somewhat of an expert on how to evaluate his opponents’ vulnerabilities simply by the way they walked. He noticed that the ability to identify a person’s character was an innate feature in despots, dictators, politicians, religious leaders, con-artists, and psychics. They all had the talent to identify and, if they so desired, manipulate peoples’ weaknesses.  

    The noise stopped, and the only sound was Zahni’s heart thumping ridiculously against his ribs. He raised the bat, knees bent, ready to sprint when a monster raccoon strolled casually through the kitchen door. It ambled across the living room with not a glance in the dog’s direction (just as Tulip pretended not to see it by staring at the ceiling) and reached the balcony where the door had been left open. It turned, snarling, exposing a mouthful of teeth before disappearing into the night. 

    Tulip looked at Zahni reproachfully.

    “Sorry, old boy.”  

   They went to the kitchen to assess the damage. There was trash everywhere. The raccoon had got into the refrigerator, and loosed the shelves from the wall. Milk, flower, sugar and broken eggs coated the floor alongside Harry’s secret stash of chocolate chip cookies. Zahni called Lana, change of plans for dinner, he said, and they arranged to meet at an Indian restaurant a few blocks from the apartment. This gave him an hour, and after cleaning up the worst of the mess he went back to his office for the printouts. 

    Zahni walked to the whiteboard in the living room where the names of local food banks were listed. On a side panel was a map of the region with pins identifying their location. He was tracing the movements of food trucks arriving and leaving Argos, and of the vans that delivered to the different pantries. He was following a hunch. 

   The transportation to food banks was a small but lucrative industry, a web of mom-and-pop businesses paid by a network of federal, state, and local grants along with generous private donations. He figured that people who want to transport illegal items could easily infiltrate the operation. If the regulations were strict to make sure that the products were safe to eat, there was no way to know where the local vans delivered the food at the end of the line. From what he garnered on the internet, and after a few phone calls “it depends” was the official statement. 

   “I guess as long as food gets there on time with no problems over the quality, it’s not a problem,” said Lana. “If there are no complaints there’d be no reason to check.”

   Illegal items could also be hidden in donations that go to the thrift stores. It would be difficult to recognize stolen goods amongst other donated items. Which was exactly the problem. They could get lost, or stalled, as there was no urgency to distribute non-edibles. Zahni was betting on food trucks with less of a chance of the item getting misplaced, where a million-dollar vase from the Ming Dynasty is tagged for fifty cents.

Alex and Zahni Mysteries