Today on the site, we’re thrilled to welcome Timothy Jay Smith, whose new thriller, Fire on the Island, releases tomorrow! Timothy, whose The Fourth Courier was a finalist for Best Gay Mystery in the 2020 Lambda Literary Awards was kind enough to provide us with an exclusive excerpt, so check out the blurb and then dig in!
Fire on the Island by Timothy Jay Smith
Fire on the Island is a playful, romantic thriller set in contemporary Greece, with a gay Greek-American FBI agent, who is undercover on the island to investigate a series of mysterious fires. Set against the very real refugee crisis on the beautiful, sun-drenched Greek islands, this novel paints a loving portrait of a community in crisis. As the island residents grapple with declining tourism, poverty, refugees, family feuds, and a crumbling church, an arsonist invades their midst.
Nick Damigos, the FBI agent, arrives on the island just in time to witness the latest fire and save the dog of Lydia, a local cafe owner. Immediately enveloped by the community, Nick finds himself drawn to Takis, a young man who becomes his primary suspect, which is a problem because they’re having an affair. Theirs is not the only complicated romance in the community and Takis isn’t the only suspicious character on the island. The priest is an art forger, the young Albanian in love with Lydia’s daughter harbors a secret, the captain of the coast guard station seems to have his own agenda, and Takis’s sister, who owns a local bar, has a vendetta against the whole village. Nick has to unravel the truth in time to prevent catastrophe, as he comes to terms with his own past trauma. In saving the village, he will go a long way toward saving himself.
And here’s the excerpt!
Vassoula woke up in a lonely bed. It had been lonely since Omar disappeared. She couldn’t bring herself to say died or killed himself because she hoped that, despite how gruesomely the skinheads had cut him, he would miraculously come back to her whole again. In that fantasy she envisioned handsome and dancing the syrtaki better than any Greek, a black stubble generously shadowing his cheeks—his cheeks that went missing.
Omar. He had given her a life when he came into hers. Unless she married, she was destined to remain her wretched mother’s handmaiden; and Vassoula would have nothing to do with the local boys, certainly not enough to marry one. She was darker complected than the Vourvouliani, and the boys, starting in their teens, called her Gypsy bitch for not putting out. She was adopted, so they freely assigned to her any origin that they wanted, but Vassoula knew she wasn’t Gypsy. She was Turkish. A nun at the orphanage disliked her for it, and wanted to be rid of her enough not to mention it to prospective parents. Secretly, Vassoula reveled in her Turkishness. She nurtured it because it nurtured her to know she was different from the people who treated her so harshly, abusing her verbally—and otherwise, as some did eventually, before she was liberated from the orphanage’s form of incarceration to become a servant in another.
Ten years of mopping floors later, Omar arrived in Vourvoulos. Movie star handsome with dark moody eyes, clever and Turkish; she had conjured him many times, dreaming only of men like him when she gave pleasure to herself. Beyond that pleasure, she dreamt of a man to free her from servitude, not trade one enslaved situation for another. Instinctively, Omar understood that. His family, too, had suffered from discrimination for being Turkish, or certainly the consequences of it. Only after she moved in with him did he confess that his family had once lived on the island; an extended family, and prosperous when you added up all their land; land too rocky and scrubby for the Greeks to bother with, though their ancient ancestors had been the first to terrace it. It was those stony plots—sometimes no bigger than four strides long and two deep—that Omar’s peasant ancestors had worked, finding them sufficiently fecund to sustain their families.
All that ended with the Exchange, when the diaspora Turks and Greeks were forced to trade places, overnight becoming refugees in their own countries. Omar’s great grandparents left Vourvoulos with little more than their crying fifteen-year-old son—his grandfather—unable to understand why he had to lose all his friends, Greek and Turkish. Once back in Turkey, they’d never recreate their village no matter how much they would miss it, but instead would flee to relatives if they knew their whereabouts, or be shuffled off to temporary camps—as was Omar’s family—while a useless bureaucracy scrambled to do what little it could for the many tens of thousands like them. Omar’s grandfather, having just wished his boyhood Greek friends a forever farewell, had to do the same to his Turkish mates only a few hours later when their boat made its landing in what still stood of Smyrna.
Though the fires that destroyed the legendary city had been put out, a charred smell hung heavily in the air. On the docks, hucksters and shysters descended on the refugees even as government agents shunted them into buses to take them to a camp—equally rife with hucksters and shysters. Thus began decades of poverty inflicted on Omar’s family starting before he was born. All his growing-up years, he heard reminisces of their lost island: its fresh air, azure sea, and wild lavender roses—a sharp contrast to their stuffy apartment in a shanty neighborhood of sprawling Istanbul.
Omar had simply appeared in Vourvoulos one day, not ten Greek words in his head, and soon became the curiosity of the village. Turks rarely visited the tiny village, and still fewer stayed for more than a night or two, but Omar rented a room for a month, letting his landlady know that he would likely keep it longer. He only did the usual things tourists do—hike in the hills, swim in the sea, learn the four-syllable Greek word for thanks—but that didn’t stop rumors from spreading that he was trafficking drugs or might be a white slaver. Certainly, he was up to no good; no Turk ever had been. Omar, though, was undaunted. At once, he was enamored with the mythical lost island of his storied childhood, and equally glad to escape the grinding conditions back home. He had no intention of leaving.
Omar kept it a secret that his family had lived there for generations. If it were known, he worried it would only stir up fears that he had returned to reclaim property or seek revenge, when he wanted neither. He wanted the idyllic life described from afar, not hardscrabble Istanbul, which was becoming more unbearable under the growing power of intolerant imams. By age twenty-five, he’d made the decision not to spend the rest of his life kowtowing to men who dressed their women in sacks, forbade everyone simple pleasures, and governed through fear. Fending off his mother’s relentless efforts to get him married, he waited tables in two restaurants, earning excellent tips because of his extraordinary good looks. By the time he was thirty, he had saved enough money that he wouldn’t arrive in Greece a penniless refugee, but an immigrant able to sustain himself until he found a way to make a living. He’d gambled and he won.
The risks Omar could not have anticipated were the threats posed by Greece’s internal turmoil, especially its Depression-era economy giving rise to a fascist insurgency. Or so Vassoula was mulling over that morning, after rousing herself from her lonely bed to sip coffee on the terrace, perched high over the village with a clear shot of the long beach stretching into the distance until it melded with the coastline. That view had once brought her such joy, not only for its beauty, but for what it represented: her second escape, and the first into an unexpected freedom. Her first escape had been from the orphanage, the second from her adoptive servitude. She had escaped into Omar’s liberating arms, holding her on that terrace through long talks she had never imagined possible; and when they felt like making love outdoors, they did.
She could almost see him again, walking down that long beach, becoming a speck before turning back. He worked hard, he partied hard, he loved hard—and he needed time alone. He needed a time not to talk to anybody, though he talked to himself, gesticulating and working out whatever needed working out. He did that most mornings while other village men gathered in the kafeneios for their first coffee. Initially Vassoula was suspicious of Omar’s need to be alone, and spied on him through the binoculars, watching him approach Poustis Point because it was there that her father loitered; and sometimes it was there where Omar turned back, but not always, not if he was having a particularly troubling conversation with himself. But never once did he disappear out of sight too long to be accused of her father’s sort of sordid absence.
The morning when it happened, their lovemaking had been especially tender. Only the night before, they had decided to have a baby, and made love then, too. When Omar left for his walk, she felt a special longing—a worried hollowness—and took the binoculars from the cupboard. She knew his body language better than her own and easily spotted him.
Omar, distracted by the conversation with himself, approached Poustis Point. She saw the skinheads before he did. Three of them hovering in the rocks, conferring and planning their attack. Turn back! she wanted to shout. Stop talking to yourself and look up! But her voice would never carry that far.
She saw everything that happened.
She even knew what was said because Omar survived to repeat it.
“Do you have a cigarette?” a skinhead asked.
“I am sorry. I do not smoke.”
“Maybe the problem is, your cigarettes are wet.”
Vassoula saw Omar tip his head questioningly.
“I am sorry. I do not understand.”
“Maybe you help your friends swim across.”
“I do not swim here. I walk here.”
“Did you hear that, guys? He walked here.”
“Then he must’ve walked on water,” a second skinhead scoffed. “With his accent, he wasn’t born here.”
The third added, “He’s probably a Turkish cocksucker.”
“Is that why you’re out here? Hoping to get your cock sucked?”
“Probably by a refugee.”
“Or do you suck theirs?”
The skinheads laughed.
Omar sensed he was in trouble. “I don’t understand.”
“Hear that guys? He doesn’t understand. What can we do to make him understand?”
“I go home,” he said, and pointed to the village. “My wife waits for me.”
Vassoula saw him point. Come back! she was screaming inside.
“You should never have left home,” sneered the first skinhead. “None of your filth should’ve.”
“I go back now.”
Omar turned and took a couple of steps.
“Not so fast,” the first skinhead said. When Omar didn’t stop, he barked, “Hey!”
Just keep walking! Vassoula begged.
“I’m not finished with you.”
Omar faced the skinhead. “My wife waits for me.”
He turned away again.
The skinhead signaled, and his two pals ran up and grabbed him. Omar struggled to defend himself, but together they managed to wrench his arms behind him.
The first skinhead approached him, menacing him with a knife.
Vassoula, seeing it flash in the morning sun, was going mad. Please God, no! No!
He kicked at the skinhead, who laughed, and stepped around him and put the blade to his throat. “Please don’t,” Omar begged.
“Fucking. Faggot. Filth. Feeding the refugees then fucking them. There’s probably some Arab greasing up his asshole waiting for you behind the rocks.”
“My wife is waiting for me.”
“Fucking bitch is going to wish you never came home.”
Vassoula, through the binoculars, couldn’t make out what happened next. She saw the skinhead flick his knife twice, each time tossing something to the seagulls on the beach. Then they released Omar and his hands instinctively covered his face. For a moment, she thought they had cut out his eyes; and later remembering that first thought, she would wonder if it might not have been more merciful than letting him see his own ruined face.
At that moment, though, she wasn’t thinking of anything except saving Omar, and flew out of the house. “HELP! HELP! Omar’s been stabbed! Help!” she never stopped crying as she flung herself down the village path. A dozen people trailed after her, looking past her wild hair to Omar stumbling toward them. For Vassoula, the blood seeping through his fingers glistened so bright red that the rest of the world turned gray.
They stopped, only feet apart. Vassoula could see they hadn’t cut out his eyes, but what the skinheads had done would forever haunt them. Omar would never see anything the same again. He certainly would never be looked at in the same admiring way.
His eyes pleaded for help as he lowered his hands.
Hers expressed horror when he did.
His knees buckled and he collapsed.
Four men ran up and grabbed his arms and legs to haul him cumbersomely back to the village. Another two trotted alongside, stripped of their shirts that they pressed to his slain cheeks to stem the blood. Vassoula stumbled after them, too shocked by what she had seen to believe it possible; and yet there was Omar, being toted in front of her, the tagalong women ululating their distress as if he had already died. He wouldn’t, not then. He would survive to live a freak’s hell.
That morning, longing for Omar, anguish overwhelmed her. Only thirty years old and doomed to be in mourning for the rest of her life. She couldn’t imagine anyone after Omar. When the skinheads cut away his cheeks, they cut out her heart, and when Omar committed suicide, he killed her, too. She sobbed, wanting the life that had been stolen from them, preferring to join him in death than endure a life without him.
The cats, risking her swift kicks, rubbed against Vassoula’s legs to remind her that they wanted to be fed. She stomped her foot to scatter them and went back inside. Opening the kibble bag sent them into a zigzagging frenzy between her feet, and that time she did kick at them. “Go away!” she cried, and hurled kibble at them, which they dodged before darting around to scarf it down. “I hate you! God I hate you!” she screamed while throwing more handfuls at them. Her laughter was seeded with madness as the animals cowered under the furniture to eat the pellets that rolled there.
Takis walked in and saw the kibble on the floor. “I see you fed the cats.”
“They were hungry.”
“They’re always hungry in the morning.”
“What did you eat for breakfast? Cock?”
“You should never have gone to Australia. Look what it turned you into.”
“I was always like this.”
“You’re going to end up just like father, hiding behind rocks to have sex.”
“No I’m not. I’m going back to Australia where I don’t have to hide behind rocks to have sex. Why did you hate him so much? Didn’t you feel sorry for him at all?”
“He was pathetic. He settled for Zeeta because he’d been caught doing something with another man one time. He didn’t try to explain it away as a youthful experiment or some drunken mistake. Or that he’d been seduced against his will. Over one incident, he settled for her, for a nothing life. What kind of man is that?”
“A gay man in Greece,” Takis answered. “Most of them end up unhappily married. Sometimes you forget that he rescued us from the orphanage. They both did.”
“I don’t forget. I only wish they had been different parents.”
He poured kibble into a bowl, which brought the cats running. “They were who they were.”
“Neither one of them had a life, especially him, because of your kind of love.”
“You’re as bad as the rest,” Takis said. “What kind of life could he have had? He was never going to have a relationship with a man. Not a real one.”
“Is Nick the right man for you?”
“Yeah, only he doesn’t live in Melbourne.”
“I didn’t know there were types, only faggots.”
“Okay, he is a faggot, if that’s the word you want to use. He’s also an FBI agent,” Takis boasted.
“The American police.”
“I know what FBI is.”
“So he’s not a faggot in the way you think.”
“He must be investigating the fires,” Vassoula suggested. “Why else would he be here?”
“He says he’s writing a book.”
“Be careful what you say to him.”
“What are you talking about?”
“He might try to make a connection to you. In fact, he might have come looking for you.”
“Why do you think?”
Raised crisscrossing America pulling a small green trailer behind the family car, Timothy Jay Smith developed a ceaseless wanderlust that has taken him around the world many times. En route, he’s found the characters that people his work. Polish cops and Greek fishermen, mercenaries and arms dealers, child prostitutes and wannabe terrorists, Indian Chiefs and Indian tailors: he’s hung with them all in an unparalleled international career that saw him smuggle banned plays from behind the Iron Curtain, maneuver through Occupied Territories, represent the U.S. at the highest levels of foreign governments, and stowaway aboard a ‘devil’s barge’ for a three-day crossing from Cape Verde that landed him in an African jail.
Tim brings the same energy to his writing that he brought to a distinguished career, and as a result, he has won top honors for his novels, screenplays and stage plays in numerous prestigious competitions. Fire on the Island won the Gold Medal in the 2017 Faulkner-Wisdom Competition for the Novel, and his screenplay adaptation of it was named Best Indie Script by WriteMovies. His recent novel, The Fourth Courier, set in Poland, published in 2019 by Arcade Publishing, was critically acclaimed. Previously, he won the Paris Prize for Fiction (now the Paris Literary Prize) for his novel, A Vision of Angels. Kirkus Reviews called Cooper’s Promise “literary dynamite” and selected it as one of the Best Books of 2012.
Tim was nominated for the 2018 Pushcart Prize. His stage play, How High the Moon, won the prestigious Stanley Drama Award, and his screenplays have won competitions sponsored by the American Screenwriters Association, WriteMovies, Houston WorldFest, Rhode Island International Film Festival, Fresh Voices, StoryPros, and the Hollywood Screenwriting Institute. He is the founder of the Smith Prize for Political Theater.