The Information Officer (Thorndike Press Large Print Historical Fiction)

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9781410425812: The Information Officer (Thorndike Press Large Print Historical Fiction)

Summer 1942. A small, windswept island in the Mediterranean has become the most bombed patch of earth on the planet, as a fiercely independent people withstand relentless siege. Max Chadwick is the British officer charged with manipulating the news on Malta to bolster the fragile esprit de corps. Then Max learns of the murder of a young island woman, along with evidence that it was committed by a British officer.

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About the Author:

Mark Mills is the author of The Savage Garden, a #1 bestseller in the United Kingdom, and Amagansett, which was published in a dozen countries and received the John Creasy Memorial Dagger Award. A graduate of Cambridge University, he lives in Oxford with his wife and their two children.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

LONDON

May 1951

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?”

“My secret?”

“You’ve barely aged in ten years.”

“Nine.”

“It feels longer.”

“Does it?”

“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.
Malta

May 1942

She knew the cemetery well—not every gravestone, tomb, and mausoleum, but most. She certainly knew it well enough to tread its twisting pathways with confidence, even on a moonless night such as this. Before the blackout restrictions, she would have been assisted on her way by a constellation of flickering candles, but with the deep darkness as her only companion, she still walked with confidence and purpose.

The mellow scent of pine sap came at her clear on the warm night breeze. Tonight, however, it did battle with the rank odor of decay, of putrefaction. Two wayward German bombs—or possibly Italian, now that the cicci macaroni were back—had smacked into the hillside the previous night during a raid, reducing family tombs to rubble and wrenching coffins from the thin soil. Corpses in various states of decomposition had been scattered in all directions, their rude awakening like some dress rehearsal for Judgment Day.

It was Father Debono who had drawn this parallel for their benefit at early-morning Mass, and while it was the sort of observation for which he was known, and the sort that endeared him to the younger members of his flock, his willingness to flirt with irreverence was a source of ongoing distrust among the more elderly. Many had furrowed their brows; some had even tut-tutted from their pews.

She knew where her sympathies lay, though. She knew that it was Father Debono, not old Grech and his wizened holier-than-thou sister, who had spent that day in the thick of it, toiling through the pitiless heat and the inhuman stench to ensure that all the corpses were recovered and reburied with all the proper rites.

Judging from the smell, Father Debono and his small band of helpers had not been able to complete their grim task before nightfall, and she picked up her pace a little at the thought of the rats feasting on flesh nearby. She had always hated rats, even before the war, before the stories had begun to circulate about what went on beneath the rubble of the bombed-out buildings.

She saw a light up ahead: a flickering flame?.?.?.?the vague contours of a face?.?.?.?a man lighting a cigarette. Then darkness once more.

She slowed, more from respect than fear. With the cemetery doing a roaring trade, it was not the first time she had come across some grieving soul while making her way home from work in the early hours of the morning. She had once heard deep male sobs in the darkness and had removed her shoes so that the unfortunate person would not be disturbed by her footfalls on the paved pathway.

“Good evening,” she said quietly in Maltese as she drew level.

He was seated on the low stone wall to the right of the path, and he responded in English.

“I think you’ll find it’s morning, Carmela.”

She didn’t know the voice, or if she did, she couldn’t place it.

“Did you make good money tonight?” he asked.

He not only knew her, but he knew what she did, and she was happy he couldn’t see the color rising in her cheeks.

“Yes, not bad.”

“Oh, but you are, and you know it.”

It wasn’t so much the words as the slow, easy drawl with which they were delivered that set her heart racing.

His small laugh did something to soothe her building apprehension.

“I was only joking.”

He drew long and hard on his cigarette. In the dim glow of burning tobacco, she could just discern that he was wearing khaki battle dress: shirt and shorts. This didn’t help much. All the services had adopted it recently, and she was unable to make out the shoulder flashes.

“Who are you?” she asked.

“Ah, now I’m insulted.”

It could have been Harry, or Bernard, or even young Bill, the one they all called “little Willy” (before invariably erupting in laughter). But she didn’t feel like laughing because it could have been almost any one of the officers who passed through the Blue Parrot on a typical night, and this man remained silent, enjoying her confusion, her discomfort, which was cruel and uncalled for.

“I must go.”

He was off the wall and seizing her arm before she had taken two paces.

“What’s the hurry?”

She tried to pull free, but his grip was firm, viselike, painful. She let out a small cry and attempted to twist away. The maneuver failed miserably, and she found herself trapped against him, her back pressed into his chest.

He clamped his free hand over her mouth. “Ssshhhh,” he soothed.

He spat the cigarette away and put his mouth to her ear.

“You want to know who I am? I’m the last living soul you’ll ever set eyes on.”

She didn’t need to know all of the words; she understood their meaning. And now she began to struggle in earnest, her thoughts turning to her home, her parents, her brothers, her dog, all so close, just ...

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