A five course lunch

Entrée

The white tablecloth is pressed as flat as a sheet of writing paper. The napkin is unfolded on my lap and I run my fingers along its crisp edges. The wine waiter has poured a little white Burgundy into huge thin-stemmed glasses. I’m glad I’m not too hungry: the starters look like desserts, carefully arranged like little chocolates, denoted as savoury by the presence of an asparagus tip and the absence of the spun sugar wafer.

We’re early. The restaurant is empty and our table is in an obscure corner. At the far end of the dining room the view over Central Park is shrouded in gauze.

‘Shall we start?’ Marco says, after looking over his shoulder, and I cut down, through what might be pancetta – I’ve forgotten what I ordered already – to a centre of langoustine. Precise knife-work is required. It would not do to swallow the elegant morsel whole.

We ought to make small-talk, to go with the small food.

‘I never found out who killed Haroon,’ Marco says. He sinks his fork into foie gras. I imagine the geese: captive, bloated with grain, unable to stop eating. Like addicts.

I don’t want to say anything, so I chew my langoustine slowly. I get a taste of the sea, and of lemon.

‘Do you know something?’ Marco is looking at me, dark eyes under dark brows, lifting a liverish morsel on his fork. ‘Helen?’

I have become intent on bisecting my asparagus tip. He chews, and swallows.

‘Helen?’

‘I was in Cancun at the time,’ I reply. ‘You know what I was doing.’

‘So.’ Marco half-closes his eyes, as if scenting an after-taste. ‘So. How do you know that, exactly? How do you know that was the time? How do you know when he was killed?’

He has detected a flavour of something. Haroon had been found in the Hudson River, in a partially decomposed state. Forensics of the bullet hole in his skull had indicated homicide. They didn’t know when, who, why. I shrug it off.

‘Just presuming.’

‘No secrets, Helen. You promised me.’ He lifts his wine glass towards me, I reciprocate, the glasses kiss. The bitter wine taste spreads on the back of my tongue. I remember that I once loved him.

‘OK. I’ll tell you what I know.’

Poisson

Cannelloni aux anguilles for him, morue sur samphire for me. Silver fish knives, and the wine waiter pours another splash of white wine into our glasses. I sip slowly, must keep my head.

I’ve been skirting around the subject, playing for time, just talking about Haroon, stuff Marco already knows. He knows that Haroon was the middle-man, that he drove around New York in a big black car in the usual dealer style. His mules were loaded with spice and sent out across the state. No suburb, no rural settlement was free of it. Working men walked out on their wives and children to sit in doorways and stare. Their families took out loans, remortgaged, to keep the harm away, to save their houses being set alight. Some were still having to pay even when the debts had been cleared.

Marco slices open a cannelloni. The filling of eels is a smooth terrine. A dark tomato sauce is splashed across the plate, a circlet of thyme is like a miniature wreath.

‘Haroon had his enemies.’ I gather strands of tender samphire on my fork, coat them with what I hope is hollandaise. ‘It could have been scores of people.’

‘Who?’ he says, grimacing. He doesn’t like the filling. I knew he wouldn’t.

Instead of telling him, I try out his suspicions.

‘Also, he could have led any one of them to us. To you. To the…’ Even though the other tables are empty, I won’t name names. Beyond Marco is the dark money: the laundry in the City of London, the bank in the British Overseas Territories. The dark money didn’t know who Haroon was. But Marco knew. I study him. ‘You must have been starting to worry about Haroon, surely? You knew he was talking to the cops?’

’He seemed solid to me.’ It’s his turn to look blank. ‘He was doing a good job.’

‘But he must have had his contacts. How do you think they got so close to Patrick?’ I load white flakes of cod on silver cutlery. Morue: French slang for a whore.

‘Hm.’ Marco pushes the uneaten cannelloni aside with his knife and dips his bread into the red streaks on his plate. ‘They had nothing on Patrick. He walked free.’

’So where’s he now?’

‘Probably still alive. He got a St Kitts and Nevis passport. Visa-free travel to 100 countries for 150K. He could be anywhere. No visa, no trail.’

The fish is delicious. I savour a final forkful.

‘The police were in my offices,’ I tell Marco. ‘They took away computers. I still haven’t had them back. But they’ll make nothing of it.’

Marco pushes his plate away, the cannelloni half eaten.

‘Are you sure?’

‘It’s too complex. They haven’t the resources. In any case, they won’t understand it without the whole picture.’ I explain that the algorithms for micro-targeting voters by social media can’t be interpreted without the databases. The databases are stored behind firewalls in Russia. But what I omit is that the police weren’t looking for that. They aren’t interested in how easily we can get our people elected. Or that our people are using our databases to gerrymander the next election, and then we might find ourselves first preference providers for official IT contracts.

Already our stories in the media inform police priorities, help set their performance targets. Soon Marco and I will be safe, or at least one of us will be.

The cops still want a conviction for Haroon’s killer.

Viande

My roast pigeon has been given a gilded star anise, as though for good behaviour. For Marco, a fillet of sacrificial lamb; a cluster of round, red berries. I refuse the claret, preferring to stay on white; the wine waiter bobs his head, knowingly. He pours for Marco, who inhales the bouquet, then takes a luscious gulp.

‘Excellent,’ he pronounces. He leans back to allow the waiter to top up his glass, then drinks until the man is out of the room.

‘So who killed Haroon?’ Marco sinks his knife into his meat. ‘Presumably not Patrick, as the cops let him go.’

‘You know, Marco,’ I say quietly, ‘It’s so easy to hire someone if you know where to look. The dark corners of the internet, and so forth. Like Tinder for the homicidal.’

He pauses, appalled. Not at the contract killing, but at me, staring with a new fear.

‘Helen.’

‘He was getting to be too much of a risk,’ I shrug. ‘I’ve got someone lined up to replace him anyway.’

He saws at his lamb, loads a forkful of it with caramelised carrot puree. His meat is undercooked in my view; bloodstained juice puddles on his plate.

‘But they’ve got your computers. They’ll see all of that.’

I smile, twisting a knife into my pigeon’s hip joint.

‘It’ll be fine. Do you think I’d lay a trail to me? They won’t find it.’

Marco drinks his wine as I talk to him about fake identities, encryption, remotely deleting a temporary user account. He is starting to soften under the influence, his face relaxing. He nods automatically, smiles, asks me if I’m enjoying my food.

‘The pommes mousseline are delicious.’ I smile too, because I know he won’t be able to remember this conversation.

I fill up his glass again, empying the claret bottle, signalling to the wine waiter for another.

Across the park, faintly, I wonder if I can hear sirens. Perhaps I’m imagining it.

Assiette de fromages

The cheeses are served on a white porcelain tray with walnuts, salad, and a scribble of balsamic vinegar. There is a semicircle of cheese coated in grey bloom, a goaty chevre, and a bleu. Marco’s hand wobbles as he helps himself.

The wine waiter tops up his glass with claret and withdraws discreetly.

‘Of course I did leave them a trail,’ I tease Marco. ‘It’s not hard to do. Only it doesn’t lead to me.’

Marco stuffs chèvre into his mouth and washes it down with another gulp of wine. His eyes go wide. He is no longer able to analyse what I am saying and I know I’m safe. But still I won’t let him know that the trail leads to him.

Dessert

We decline the muscat de Beaumes de Venise. Marco is no longer quite focussed on his sorbet of pistachio with raspberries and muscovado Chantilly. He scoops at it vaguely. He wipes cream off the tip of his nose with his napkin.

Now there is a small commotion taking place by the brass lectern where the maitre d’ keeps the seating plan.

‘We don’t need a reservation,’ a man insists. ‘We’re the police.’

I dip my spoon into chocolat grand cru: a mousse coated in chocolate glaze and topped with edible gold baubles. It sinks richly into my stomach. I’m looking forward to getting back to my apartment. I don’t want the restaurant’s coffee. I’ll make myself a cup of tea.

Marco’s eyelids startle open, but immediately droop as the police move in. He sways backwards, slumping in his chair, his head curled to one side.

With a sure instinct one of the cops reaches under Marco’s jacket and finds his gun in its holster. Marco doesn’t move.

‘That was easy.’

‘I think he’s a little under the influence,’ I smile.

The cop gives me a kind of bow, followed by a kind of salute.

‘Ma’am.’

They excuse themselves, supporting Marco like a dead weight between them.

L’Addition

I have a roll of bills in my handbag ready for the wine waiter.

‘Un pourboire,’ I wink.

He gives me back the rest of the Rohypnol tablets.

©ChateauxEnEspagne 2019