The Information Officer - By Mark Mills
MARIO WAS IN A GOOD MOOD.
This wasn’t saying much; he was often in a good mood. It was a legacy from his father—a simple, hardworking man who had drilled into his children the value of giving daily thanks for those things that most people took for granted.
Mario cast an approving eye around the restaurant. A prime site a stone’s throw from the Ritz, and after just four short years, a reputation to match the very best in town. Not bad for the son of a shoemaker from a small village in northern Italy. Not bad at all.
The place was empty, just one lone customer at the bar, but the restaurant would be heaving within the hour, even in these austere times. He checked over the reservations book, memorizing the names and the table allocations. He prided himself on not having to refer to it once the first diners had arrived. There was the usual smattering of household names with strong views about where they sat. Juggling their wishes was about as hard as his job got.
Table 7 was the first to show. The man’s face wasn’t well known to Mario—one of the birthdays-and-anniversaries-only crowd—but Mario remembered him as a generous tipper. He wore a good-quality suit, its looser cut suggesting one of the new tailors just off Savile Row. He informed Mario that his wife would be arriving separately and requested a dry martini to keep him company in the meantime.
The wife was obviously a romantic, because a special order had been placed earlier in the day for a bottle of wine to be brought to the table as a surprise. It was a white wine from a small French house, and it had arrived by taxi along with written instructions and a generous contribution toward corkage.
The bottle was already on ice, ready and waiting behind the bar. Mario tipped Gregory the wink before taking up a discreet position behind a bushy palmetto to observe the reaction.
The man smiled at the appearance of the ice bucket, but the moment Gregory revealed the bottle to him, he fell absolutely still, the blood draining from his face. He looked up at Gregory, speechless, and then his eyes darted wildly around the restaurant. They came to settle on the only other customer—the gentleman seated at the bar. The man’s back was turned to table 7, but he now swiveled round on his stool.
It was impossible to read the look that passed between the two men, but it crackled with a strange intensity. Poor Gregory was flummoxed. He offered to pour the wine, was ignored, then wisely chose to retire as the gentleman at the bar made his way over, clutching his cocktail. He was tall and balding and walked with a lazy grace.
Another thing Mario prided himself on was his absolute discretion, but this was a conversation he wanted to hear. He drifted toward table 10, out of sight behind the high banquette but just within earshot. He arrived as the balding man was taking a seat.
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
There was a soft but unmistakable American lilt to his accent.
“Where’s my wife?” said the other man.
“Don’t worry. She’s just fine.”
“Where is she?”
“At home. She thought we should talk.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“It’s true. Call her if you’d like. Cigarette?”
“I have my own.”
“Try one of these—they’re Russian.”
Mario heard the cigarettes being lit and then the balding man say, “What’s your secret?”
“You’ve barely aged in ten years.”
“It feels longer.”
“I miss Malta.”
“I doubt that.”
“You don’t seem very pleased to see me.”
“What did you expect? The last time I saw you, you tried to kill me.”
Mario almost toppled a wineglass on table 10.
“Is that what they told you?” asked the balding man.
“They didn’t have to. I was there, remember?”
“You’re wrong. I could have killed you. Maybe I should have. I chose not to.”
The other man gave a short snort of derision.
Mario was well out of his depth now and regretting his decision to eavesdrop. Help came in the form of a large party of diners who blew in through the door on a gale of laughter. Mario couldn’t see them from where he was lurking.
“Isn’t that the actor everyone’s talking about?” said the balding man.
“I think so.”
“I’m not sure a fedora and a cloak suit a fellow that short. He looks like a kid playing at Zorro.”
Definitely table 2, thought Mario, swooping from his hiding place to greet the new arrivals.
SHE KNEW THE CEMETERY WELL—NOT EVERY GRAVESTONE, tomb, and mausoleum, but most.