“Francesca will be in danger,” Graziano warned. It wasn’t the role of an intelligence liaison operative to state the obvious but he feared for her.
“How many times do I have to tell you? Mission priority comes before everything except secrecy.” The intelligence officer was dismissive.
Graziano thought of Francesca’s big eyes and the way she chewed at her lower lip when she was nervous. He had wanted to hold her hand with its wedding ring circled in black, and to offer kind words, and to ask what it felt like to lose her husband after ten years of happiness. But compassion was strictly forbidden. His hidden microphones and camera would have picked it up, and the criticism and reminders would last for months.
A liaison operative. That was Graziano’s role. He carried messages and kept his face neutral, he phoned and kept his voice flat, he relayed messages, and he fetched coffee for his intelligence officer. Graziano had been told that in headquarters liaison operatives were respected, but he had been posted abroad to an embassy, and the only person he worked with was the resident intelligence officer. And the man liked to torment him.
“You’ll learn masses here,” he had been told at the start. Yes, he had learnt, but he had also seen things he hated and he ran errands he regretted. And Graziano had come to realise that the kind of person who started as a liaison operative never became an intelligence officer. He’d been told not to complain. His role in life was to work for one erratic intelligence officer after another until either he had no strength left or made a mistake, in which case they would discard him and he could go and work in a meat-packing factory.
The officer stood in the tiny windowless room that was used to house the cypher equipment and safe, and he held out a sealed manilla envelope. “Take this to Francesca. Tell her we have a safe house waiting for her after the arrests. Make clear it’s conditional on her helping the local police.”
Graziano thought it was cowardice that the intelligence officer should be sending him to deliver the message rather than doing it himself. The officer had a sly and vengeful manner.
“She has friends and a cousin among those right-wing fanatics. They are dangerous but she still loves them. She will not use the safe house. She’ll stay and face the anger.”
“Then I’ll save money, which is good.”
Graziano took the envelope. By the time he was on the bus the pain in his chest had ceased and his thoughts were on Francesca and the curves of her face. He wondered what she would look like if she smiled. At moments like this he was glad she was almost old enough to be his mother.
Francesca was sitting on a pew in the church. She had swapped from black to a simple white cardigan and it made her look like a new woman. “This is for you, my little mouse friend who stays so quiet.” She gave him a tiny memory card from a camera. Her hand was shaking.
“Are you sure about this?” He realised he was more concerned about her than his duty.
“These people must be stopped. It is the promise I made.” She gestured to the alter. “I know the men will come for me, I know they will spread lies about me, that there will be violence, and that things that are precious to me will be broken.” Her fingers touched his hand and he felt a tingle. “My little mouse, will you pray for me?”
Graziano watched her chest heaving. She seemed beautiful in her vulnerability. “I have never seen you smile.”
“My little mouse wants a smile,” she said slowly. “The mouse who even hides his name from me.” Then she smiled, and for a brief moment it seemed her whole face shone.
“I could protect you,” he said.
“How?” Her mouth opened in laughter.
Graziano moved closer to her. “My name is Graziano.” He kissed her mouth.
Francesca held the kiss for a short while, then pulled back. “Graziano,” she said his name slowly. “These men kiss with their fists, or worse.”
“You don’t understand.” He put a hand on her shoulder. “I will stay with you, we will tell them we are lovers, and they will not dare approach you. I know how the system works in this country, I know how to make their lives impossible if they threaten you.”
“My little mouse wants to be my lover.” She reached for his hand and held it between hers. “Why are you shaking?”
“Because with that kiss, I have lost my job and my security clearance. And if I ever tell you a pinprick of our nation’s secrets, they will put me in prison.”
“Why have you done this?”
“I am fed up with being bullied at work. I want to prove I am better than they say.”