The Black Box


Let me put it this way: the conjurer who made Akis Konstantellos vanish did not seem the type of razor-eyed charlatan or smooth-talking schemer common among dabblers in petty crime. He was, of course, nimble and slender of finger, and his nails were meticulously filed–albeit full of dirt, filthy, no matter how you cut it, for a man of his profession. But he wasn’t–as was reported–the standard seasoned hustler you pay off to help you disappear; nor did he prove a tough nut to crack during our inquiries. To the end, I believe he had no idea that the fifty-something-year-old with the shiny, cotton-wool hair in the middle of the theatre owed money to so many people. And to tell you the truth, not even at this point can I prove anything against him.

The performance was nearing its end when he collapsed in the middle of his blonde assistants. Dressed in lycra body suits, all sequins and glitter, they were wearily chewing gum and scissor-kicking in place. Up by the ceiling, thick white smoke billowed buoyantly here and there, springy like white rubber. He appeared to be in a trance, in the practiced throes of trying to “recall” the vanished volunteer with all manner of histrionics, fancy footwork, and a variety of hocus-pocus that left everyone in the dark.

He repeated this act, with a few small variations here and there, six days a week to relative success. He’d savor the applause, take his bow, and on curtains’ fall would make a beeline for the hotel. The adrenaline would keep him up until the early hours. For dinner, he’d pick up a fried chicken with thick-cut village potatoes wherever he could find it, or else it was a burger with pickles and melted cheese before throwing himself on his back in bed with a newspaper in hand. And then he’d start his endless drinking from the bottle of bourbon he almost always kept by his side and munching on handfuls of peanuts from a bag. When he felt like it, he’d call in one of the young dancers from his retinue who fancied him, and sleep with her; otherwise, abracadabra, he’d close his eyes, swim in a sea of alcohol, and wake each time to find himself in a different city.

Everything came to a standstill. His lips turned blue (I know, because I was sitting just a few rows from the stage) and out of the corners of his eyes his glance fixed on the clown in the wings waiting to come out as soon as he was done. His body flopped on the wooden planks of the stage–without warning, without so much as a sigh–and he collapsed with a terse thump. A handful of people around me applauded awkwardly, while others looked at each other in surprise. No one, however, suspected that “Balthazar” (real name Billy Shirkgood, and “Lawrence,” from Lawrence of Arabia, to his friends because of his blue eyes and honey-blonde hair), the performer next in line after the ventriloquists, the dancers, and the tightrope walker; the fellow with the flashing dentures who had arrived just two days earlier for a series of performances at the “New Theatre” on Pavsilipou Street in Athens, was almost a goner, with two lungs in ruins and a liver full of fat, good only for throwing to the dogs.

The people near the front of the stage were on him in a flash, and one of the ushers put in a call to find out which emergency room was open. They took him to Evaggelismos hospital in the theatre van before the ambulance even arrived. The fellow looked to be elsewhere; he wasn’t responding; his eyeballs were turned inward the whole time, milk-white. The “Black Box”–that improvised structure made out of MDF and papier-mâché–was left behind with its door agape. And we waited in vain for the vanished Konstantellos–who, but a few minutes earlier, had with evident reluctance answered the American’s call–to appear out of thin air. In that black hole, however, nothing stirred. I picked my way through the crowd towards the security staff and the theatre people. I suspected that there was something fishy behind the performer’s collapse. The audience watched us stupefied from their seats, still stunned from the shock of the collapse and the abrupt interruption of the performance. We thoroughly searched the black box and the mirrors at the back with their lights; we looked for trapdoors and apertures; we questioned the manufacturer about the possibility of a hidden passage or some sort of screen that wasn’t readily apparent.  But there just wasn’t any logic to it. Billy Shirkgood, as some of his colleagues told us, wasn’t one to give away the secrets of his profession. He always rehearsed alone, and when occasionally someone at the theatre forgot when Shirkgood was working on his instruments, he’d get unceremoniously kicked out.

The news from the theatre spread like wildfire. A telephone call from Headquarters gave me the case that very evening since I’d already started my investigations before orders had been issued. Two days later “Balthazar” was still in a coma and his volunteer nowhere to be found. The units that were sent to investigate the site weren’t able to come up with anything more than what we’d already found that very same afternoon.  I was beating my head against a wall in order to make sense of things. I was struck by the fact that that no one seemed to be looking for the middle-aged man who had gone alone to the theatre to watch a performance by travelling magicians and had mysteriously disappeared. I kept asking our central offices whether a missing person’s report fitting the man’s description had been filed. I couldn’t remember much about him. Average height; face almost a triangle in shape; a straight line to the chin; cold, expressionless eyes; lustrous, snow-white hair. I had no ID, name, phone number. I had nothing concrete with which to start my investigations in earnest. I was treading water until I was approached by a man with a three-day-old beard and worry beads in hand–the spitting image of my father. I was standing outside the hospital room waiting in vain for Shirkgood to wake up.

“Akis Konstantellos.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“Not me. Him.”

“What do you mean?”

“The one you’re looking for. The bastard that’s gone AWOL. That’s the deadbeat’s name.”

“And how do you…”

“I know him well. My people followed him everywhere, but he always managed to slip away like an eel in water. They caught up with him at the theatre, but he dashed in and got lost in the audience.”


“They waited outside. I instructed them to pick him up without a big brouhaha when the show was over, but he never came out. He must have been in cahoots with your guy, it looks like…”

“The American?”

“Who else? A real rat you must have there. Another prime bastard.”

“And so? Why were you after him?”

“Just me? He owed everyone. Forty thousand to yours truly. But he won’t get away with it. I’ll follow him down to the gates of hell, he won’t escape from me that easily.”

Konstantellos’s old furniture factory on the main road was a ruin. Long-idle machinery: the wheels rusty, the chisels blunt, a lone clamp, and a broken lathe. Spiders wove their webs undisturbed on the walls. Once this place must have seen some real work, I thought to myself. I surveyed the silence. A few chair legs, bound with string, remained, along with a bagful of dried glue in the corner among the wood shavings. I leafed through invoices and dusty balance sheets abandoned in the drawer of an office desk behind the storage room without making head or tail of any of it. Nothing but dereliction all around: the reigning ravages of time. I picked up a cheap silver frame from the floor a second before stepping on it with my boots. In the black and white photograph, Konstantellos was howling with laughter, arm in arm with his staff. Even though in the picture his hair was black and he stood ramrod straight and shone with happiness, I recognized him. He couldn’t give me the slip for much longer. Now I knew where, who, when. I forged ahead with the investigation by searching the house near the Kolokinthous Bridge, an old-time single-family home with crumbling plasterwork. I pressed hard on the doorbell, and heard its resounding ring echo from within, but no one appeared. They left in the night, the next-door neighbors told me, and they owed a lot, twenty months of rent at the very least. But I’m on your scent, my friend, I whispered, it won’t be long now. How had he disappeared? Where was he hiding? Where are you, Konstantellos? I asked myself as I started the engine.

Five days after the disappearance, I made my way posthaste to Evaggelismos. I had received a phone call from the Head Nurse. Shirkgood had flown.

“But he was at death’s door. That’s what the doctors told me. What do you mean he’s gone?” I asked her, panic-stricken.

“He’s gone. How else to say it? He’s not in his room. No one has seen him since last night,” she answered as if nothing extraordinary had happened.

It was my fault: I should have put a twenty-four-hour watch on the guy. It just hadn’t occurred to me that he’d be able to stand on his own two feet and run off. Or had he been kidnapped? Without further delay I went back to the theatre to pick up the “Black Box,” impounded for further testing. When I had first left that place, one person was missing, now two were gone. Things were going to hell in a handcart. I lit a cigarette and hauled the Box onto the police van. I drove with a chill in my back, as if I were carrying a corpse. On my way to our central laboratories, I had arranged to stop by the Americans’ hotel for a final round of questioning. I was going to talk to the little dancer that Shirkgood had probably been screwing in the hopes that I’d be able to squeeze a few secrets out of her, but I didn’t make it in time. When I arrived at Reception, I found out that the number of missing persons had now gone up to three.


Christos Asteriou

Christos Asteriou is the highly respected author of two novels, two volumes of short stories, and numerous other fiction and non-fiction works. Born in Athens in 1971, he is part of a generation of writers known for their playful experimentations with genre and their ironic engagement with the contemporary and popular culture.  His most recent novel, Isla Boa (2012, Polis Publishing, Athens) was widely reviewed and acclaimed.  He studied German and modern Greek literature at the Universities of Athens, Würzburg, and Zurich and he was the Head of the German Department at the European Center for Literary Translation.  He received the 2013 literature fellowship from the Berlin Academy of Arts.

Patricia Felisa Barbeito

Patricia Felisa Barbeito is Professor of American Literatures at the Rhode Island School of Design.  Her publications have appeared in a variety of journals, including American Literature, The Journal of American Culture and the Journal of Modern Greek Studies.  She is co-translator (with Vangelis Calotychos) of Menis Koumandareas's Their Smell Makes Me Want to Cry (The University of Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2004), and translator of The Interrogation (Birmingham Modern Greek Translations, 2013), as well as shorter pieces by Vasilis Gkourogiannis and Sotiris Dimitriou for the online international literature journal, Words Without Borders.  She is currently working on a book about the African-American author Chester Himes titled, One Jump Ahead of Disaster:  The Politics of Race, Interracial Sex, and Literary Style in Chester Himes's Writing.

The Black Box. Copyright (c) Christos Asteriou, 2013. English translation copyright (c) Patricia Felisa Barbeito, 2014.