Excerpt from The Princess of Greektown

princess

The First book in The Greektown Stories is The Greeks of Beaubien Street.

The Princess of Greektown is the second book in The Greektown Stories

Early Monday

As dawn broke, Jill Zannos tiptoed to the front door of the man’s apartment, having spent the last three hours trying to sleep sitting up next to him while he snored on the couch. She’d picked him up on Oval Beach Saturday; Well, not exactly picked up, she thought, smiling. It was unfamiliar territory in both respects. She was extra careful not to bash her toes feeling her way through the pitch-black living room. And she’d try to be extra careful getting to know him before diving in. The doorknob squeaked as she turned it, gently pulling the door open. She glanced over but didn’t see any movement and closed the door as quietly as she could.

It was cold outside, the early morning air damp. Her breath was visible when she exhaled. He’d been so considerate, never making an inappropriate move without asking her first, and she’d happily complied. Completely out of character, the thought of how flirtatious she’d been embarrassed her now. She’d been able relax in the presence of a man for a change.

The car rugs covered in sand and her suitcase thrown into the backseat were reminders of the fun she’d had. She dug her Wayne State Criminal Justice sweatshirt out of the suitcase, pulling it on over her head. Estimating she’d be back in Detroit by seven o’clock, she’d have plenty of time to have breakfast with her father in Greektown before work. So with the sun rising in her eyes, she navigated the car through suburbia, heading east toward Greektown.
Chapter 1

First-time visitors to Detroit might stumble upon Greektown if they are lucky. A haven of low brick buildings dwarfed by the shadows of an elevated train, Greektown is easily missed in the hubbub of the city. However, if you keep a low line of sight, the spire of a church dominates the scene, and the uninviting railway disappears. Greek flags fly, the blue and white stripes offering splashes of color against the dull brick storefronts. The new casino doesn’t detract from the old-world feeling where Greek culture once dominated. To Detroit homicide detective Jill Zannos, this Greektown is not the one of her childhood, nor was hers the same Greektown her father knew, or his father before him. The days of the men-only coffee shops and boarding houses for single Greek men were long past, when Greek families came from the outlying areas of the city to stock up on traditional foods and pick up the Greek papers, and Greek was the language of choice. In her family’s grocery store thirty years before, Jill remembered barrels of Kalamata olives and smaller green olives, and huge stoneware vats of feta cheese in brine lined up in front of the store counter. Small green peppers stuffed with cheese and pine nuts filled one of the vats, and another held large pitted green olives, into which an entire clove of garlic was stuffed. Olive oil, each brand bottled by a different family in the old country with their individual brightly decorated labels lined up one after another. Customers using big metal scoops filled waxed paper boxes with olives and bought long loaves of Greek bread Jill’s mother baked, as did her grandmother before her. The bread was heaven; a thin, crisp crust surrounded white bread of such softness a baby could eat it.

Every Friday in the alley off Beaubien Street, spits were set up to roast baby pigs and lambs, freshly butchered in the back of the store until city fathers put an end to the carnage. One of the Canadian cousins pressed into service would stand by the rotisseries with a hose just in case the juices caught fire. Jill remembered the sounds of baaing lambs and squealing pigs as her father and uncles unloaded them from the back of a farmer’s old Ford pickup truck. Although she felt sorry for the animals, she would be first in line to taste a morsel of the crispy fat of the pig, or the tender, roasted lamb.

Back inside, sweets filled shelves, cookies in colorful tins lined up with those baked in the store. Jill’s family’s specialty was a confection the English called Greek Wedding Cookies but in Greek, kourabiedes. Jill’s aunts and great-aunts came from across the state of Michigan and over the bridge from Ontario to assist in Christmas-cookie baking, and kourabiedes were most important. Jill’s job was picking the broken nut pieces out of a bag of walnuts her father had smashed with a hammer. Each batch of cookies required an entire cup of roasted, chopped and ground walnuts. After baking, the cookies were sprinkled with orange-scented water and rolled in powdered sugar.

Several different kinds of halvah lined the counter. Some types of halvah were displayed in a glass case; traditional firm, chewy halvah made of ground sesame seeds and honey, dotted with whole almonds or frosted with chocolate, tempted the most disciplined. A pudding-like dessert made with semolina stayed in the glass-front cooler. Jill’s favorite, halvah from the Farsalon region of Greece, was more like caramel custard, with a jellylike consistency. Her grandmother prepared it often, using it as a ploy to get her fussy granddaughter to eat.

The pastry shop across the street provided ready-made Greek baklava for the family’s gatherings. However, if her yiayia [PN1] (grandmother in Greek) Eleni wanted to prepare something special, she made her own, stretching huge sheets of paper-thin filo dough across the marble counters. Jill would carefully brush melted butter over the entire sheet under the watchful eye of Eleni. She directed Jill to brush more butter as she placed another thin layer of dough. It resulted in an inch-high pile of buttered filo, fifteen sheets or more. Eleni would spread finely ground walnuts over the pile, and on top of that, four more sheets of buttered pastry dough. She repeated the layering process until she was satisfied with the height. She made syrup of sugar, water, vanilla, honey, cinnamon and cloves, and poured it over the baked baklava. Eleni also made a traditional pastry in which she would fill rolled tubes made of baked filo with semolina-based custard, and then cover the entire tray with a sprinkle of the syrup. After she died, Jill never had the confection again. The modern Greektown was less a necessity for the Greeks who remained in Detroit and more a tourist destination. For Jill and her father, Gus, it was just a place where they lived.

Fall was in the air; the only thing missing was the smell of burning leaves. Up and down the block, storefronts decorated with chrysanthemums and pumpkins said autumn had arrived. Dido, an elderly Greek neighbor dressed in a black shirtwaist and wearing a babushka and a wool shawl, jabbed the air with her white cane as she shouted in Greek at passing motorists. Jill drove past the family grocery but didn’t stop for breakfast after all; the trip had taken longer than she thought it would, and she had too much to do at the precinct. But when she saw Dido sitting on her tall stool outside of the family’s gun shop, she laughed. A Greektown fixture and a character from Jill’s childhood, Dido would provide special familiarity around the neighborhood until she died.

~ ~ ~

Since her recent breakup with boyfriend Alex, navigating the city around him had become a hindrance for Jill. She stayed off Brush Street when she could help it; it was Alex’s route to work. She avoided him whenever possible, including the morgue where he worked as an assistant. Now her partner, Albert, observed the autopsies of the victims to whom they’d been assigned. He owed her; the job had fallen on Jill for the past eight years when Albert started having nightmares after viewing one particularly gruesome postmortem.

The day after she caught Alex with another woman, she escaped to her family’s summerhouse on Lake Michigan. The next day on her way to the beach, State Trooper Fred Cooper stopped her for speeding. His good looks made Alex a person of distant memory. Conversation was relaxed, and the physical attraction was strong for Jill. Keeping things from happening too fast between them was her main goal now.

In spite of also being a cop, his life was the antithesis of hers. He wasn’t Greek. He came from a big Catholic family and went to mass every Saturday night with his parents. His grandparents were still alive, doting on Fred and his siblings and cousins, of which there were many. It sounded to Jill like he’d been popular in high school, staying in touch with the same group of people since graduation. Jill occasionally saw an old classmate she thought she recognized, but was never approached nor did she approach them. A hunter and fisherman, he spent his time off pursuing his hobbies, and was planning to build a hunting cabin on a piece of land he owned up north. Jill was reminded of a long-time dream of running away to just such a place, but didn’t say anything. It was just a dream.

“I haven’t been to church since Easter,” Jill confessed. “My dad goes whenever the doors are open.” They were sitting side by side on a weathered gray picnic table outside of the concession stand at Oval Beach, having known each other for about fifteen minutes. Jill and Fred’s first meal together consisted of wonderfully greasy burgers smothered in fried onions, on the softest hamburger rolls. They shared an order of french fries and drank icy-cold root beer. Looking out over the vast blue water of Lake Michigan, very occasionally a sailboat would go by way out in the distance, the glint of the setting sun obscuring it until the glare died down.

“What barracks do you work out of?” Jill asked. “My uncle was in Brighton, but he traveled all over the state.” When Fred stopped her for speeding, they’d established that she was retired State Trooper Nick Zannos’ niece.

“Wayland,” Fred replied. “It’s a nice town. I live in Grand Rapids, but the commute isn’t bad.” After they finished eating, the couple walked down the sand-covered wooden steps leading to Jill’s beach chair. She pulled out a blanket and spread it on the sand.

“Have a seat,” she said. They sat side by side, telling their stories. For an hour they took turns sharing where they grew up and went to college, how they spent their free time, what their passions were. Jill freely admitted she spent too much time working because she didn’t have any hobbies. She didn’t say or any friends, either.

“Why are you alone this weekend?” he asked.

Jill told him what she’d discovered in the past weeks; her mother, Christina, had an affair with married Uncle Nick, which resulted in the birth of Jill’s brother, Christopher. Chris lived in a group home with other special-needs adults. She hesitatingly told him about Alex bringing a woman ten years younger home with him during the day, almost planning for Jill to catch him, and how embarrassing it was to finally admit he’d been a jerk all along. It was freeing; she no longer had to make excuses for him. And then, unlike Jill to betray Alex, she told Fred the story about Alex’s collapse years ago, getting kicked out of his trauma medicine residency because of alcoholism, and how he continued to have lapses every six months or so.

“So because of that, you wouldn’t marry him,” he stated. “I’m not judging you, just trying to establish fact.”

“No, I couldn’t, could I? When we were together and his issues were simmering hidden away, it was almost pleasant. Occasionally, he’d fall back into old patterns. My independence was the only thing that kept me sane, that allowed me to be there for him when the pretend Alex surfaced again. If I was living with him or married to him, I would have made demands on him that he couldn’t meet. No, I think I did the right thing by staying single.” She laughed out loud. “Well, it’s clear I made the right decision since he is with someone else already.”

Jill didn’t feel she had to hide what had just happened with Alex, and her honest story gave him the push to admit his own recent self-evaluation, that he’d continued to choose women who were immature and shallow because he was avoiding having to grow up himself. Jill studied his profile and looked back out to the horizon; the sun was descending, and soon, she’d be on a deserted beach with a really appealing guy.

“So what are you going to do about it?” she asked him. “It seems like having made that observation, it will be difficult to stay in the same place.”

Fred was a player, but he left that part out when he confessed, fully intending on putting into practice some changes. “I can’t do it anymore. I want a grown-up girlfriend. I want to be a grown-up.” He looked over at her. “So what do you say? Do you want to grow up with me?”

Jill laughed. He was honest and forthright; what was there not to like?

“I don’t know you well enough to make promises. But I could try. We don’t live close enough to each other to date. How’s that going to work?” She was worried about loyalty and, because of Alex’s recent faux pas, fidelity.

“I’ll come to you when I can, and I hope you’ll come to me when you can. We can always meet in the middle. I’d like to start tomorrow,” he said.

“What will we do?” Jill’s heart was beating wildly in her chest.

“We can do all the tourist stuff: climb Mount Baldy, go on a dune buggy ride. Or take the Star of Saugatuck riverboat ride out to the lake. He’d flipped around on his side, stretching out with his toes in the sand. The sun was below the horizon, and the brilliant pink, orange, and purple glow along the water and up into the cosmos was so beautiful, he had to sit up again to look. “Oh my God, look at that.” He pointed at the sky.

Jill turned and glanced out to the water. Nothing else mattered but that raging sunset in the middle of the gigantic, blue lake.