This is a story I’ve been working on off and on for about two years. It is set in an alternate universe, so it’s not supposed to be historical at all.
Dinner at Encarna’s
They say all is fair in war, except at Encarna’s. The centuries-old restaurant stood in a sheltered pocket of no-man’s land, aggressively protected by both sides. Encarna welcomed everyone to her table as long as there were no weapons or any violence within her walls. Breaking these rules could get you killed, or worse, banned from the restaurant.
Encarna’s was the sort of place that wasn’t supposed to exist in war. It survived in a bubble that was exempt from the reality of total war outside its walls. The food was extraordinary, but it also survived through some deeply-buried part of the group psyche that longed for a respite from our current hell. It was a miracle that they could still get the ingredients they needed, although I guessed that both sides were secretly supplying it.
I stumbled through the doors, dead with fatigue after twelve hours of guard duty on the front lines. The guns had been quieter that day, but the quiet times were almost as bad, as you strained to peer through the fog for special forces troops creeping up under barbed wire to toss grenades into your machine gun nest.
I saw her sitting by herself at a corner table, dressed in the crisp, clean blue uniform of the other side. Gleaming brass on her shoulders showed that she was a captain.
I’d learned to gather information quickly. The new uniform meant she was either new to the front or worked in a department that didn’t see action. But people sitting by themselves usually wanted to be left alone, and they were usually accompanied by at least one bottle. This woman sat sipping water. Maybe she is waiting for a date.
When meeting people you would shoot without hesitation the next day on the battlefield, shyness doesn’t mean much. I went up to her. “Can I sit down?”
She glanced up, flicked her eyes over my faded uniform, but then nodded. “Fresh off the front, captain?”
Officially, both sides were forbidden from talking to one another in Encarna’s. Officially, neither side was allowed to visit at all. On all reports, it had been destroyed in the shelling years ago, but Encarna’s was a world of its own. Even generals and field marshals would sneak into the restaurant when they could.
I nodded. “Not a bad day. Your guns were pretty quiet today.”
“All out for repairs,” she said, beginning the verbal dance that mortal enemies play in conversation—that dizzying mix of truth and lies you tell when becoming friends with someone you can never hope to trust.
“I guess you’re new here,” I said.
“Why do you say that?”
“Your uniform looks pretty new.”
“I came out for a nice night, the first in a long time. Of course I wanted to look my best,” she said. “Doesn’t your side still have dress uniforms?”
“We chopped them all up for bandages,” I said.
She nodded. “I thought I saw an arm sling with epaulets a while back.”
A waiter came and we ordered and then sat talking, as normally as if we were on a date back in normal times.
“So, are you Intelligence? Logistics?” I asked after the lasagna and paella had arrived, a lovely mix of Mediterranean cuisines.
“I’m in the Army,” she said with a smile. It was the typical stonewall answer. The fact was that I didn’t recognize the branch insignia on her lapels: a coiled snake around a star. “You?”
“Mine’s easy,” I said, pointing to my Infantry insignia. “There’s no mystery about me.”
“Oh, I doubt that,” she said, and for the second time, she smiled.
“What’s your name?” It was a taboo question but I asked it anyway.
Her smile disappeared. “Captain Renzi,” she said. I knew that from her name tag. “You are Captain Foxhaven, but you are not English, are you?”
I shook my head. “Names have long histories.”
After the meal, Captain Renzi pulled out a few red banknotes—what on our side we called kommidollors—and stood up. “I will be sitting at this table three days from now.” Then she left.
It was devilishly hard, but I got an 8-hour pass three nights later and made my way to Encarna’s. Captain Renzi was already there in her corner. The waiter was just bringing her a plate of pasta.
“I thought you weren’t coming,” she said. “I was almost regretting turning down all the others wanting to sit.”
“It was hard enough to get away this early,” I said. “The Old Man always has work for me.”
“Order something,” she said. “We’ll split this, then eat that when it comes.” I felt a burst of pleasure at this and I ordered something quickly and got another plate to split the pasta.
“The Old Man?” she asked. “Do you mean Colonel Dreifuss?”
“You know him,” I said, surprised.
“We know a lot about your superior officers,” she said, with a tiny smile that made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to think of how she knew. I would rather have ten howitzers pounding my location for hours than one double-agent, moving around undetected.
“How long have you been at the front?” she asked. My internal alarms started again.
“About two weeks,” I said, although I had really been there for over a year.
She nodded. “Me too.”
We started eating, but I was tired of all the evasion and lies. “My name’s Marco,” I said. Giving information to the enemy was a bad idea, but there was not much she could do with my first name.
She nodded and took a couple bites. Then she seemed to reach some internal decision and put down her fork with a smile. She reached across the table. “My name’s Angela Renzi. Nice to meet you.” We shook hands.
The evening went well, and we mostly talked about our lives before the war: where we had gone to school and what life was like growing up. Just before we left, Angela leaned into me. “Listen, I don’t know what your patrol schedule is like, but stay away from the Red Hill area tomorrow.”
I was stunned. “What did you say?”
Her look was blank. “What? I didn’t say anything.” She looked at me steadily for a few extra seconds, then turned and left.
The road back to my barracks seemed longer than the three miles it was. The fact was, I was planning on visiting the Red Hill outpost the next day, but how could she have known that? It didn’t make any sense. It was a war; nowhere was safe, so why warn me about one specific spot? I did not sleep well that night.
The next day, I found an excuse to stay away from Red Hill. I agonized about the decision. Should I warn the commander of the outpost? If I did, they would want to know how I knew, which would open up a lot of uncomfortable questions. And what would they do, even if warned? It was not like they would evacuate the outpost, just because it was going to be attacked. If anything, they might reinforce it, which would not help anyone if the base was going to be heavily shelled. Still, the burden of unwanted knowledge weighed me down like a machine gun slung around my neck.
The next day, I was in HQ when the news came. Red Hill outpost had been destroyed. Sappers had dug a tunnel up to the walls and thrown in satchel charges and grenades. The fort was a wreck. The enemy had not been able to hold it, but they had destroyed a lot of its fortifications. I stayed away from Encarna’s for the next week.
But I could not stay away forever, and despite what had happened at Red Hill, I missed seeing Angela. After all, she had not attacked the fort personally, and she had only been trying to warn me. Still, it had thrown into sudden focus that the woman that I thought and dreamed about was an enemy that I was sworn to defeat.
When I managed to make time to go, the anticipation of seeing her again made me almost nervous. I put on my best uniform and walked the muddy wreck-strewn track the three miles to the restaurant. When I got there, Angela was sitting in her usual corner with two male officers of her own side. Disappointed, I went and sat at another table. I was almost finished when she slipped over and sat down across from me.
“I’ve missed you here,” she said in a low voice. “I’m glad to see you unharmed.”
“Why did you tell me that?” I said. “Isn’t that treason on your side? You warned an enemy about upcoming plans.”
“You couldn’t have stopped us anyway,” she said, in a way that annoyed me. “Plus, I wanted to make sure you’d be okay. When’s the next time you can be here?”
“I don’t know,” I said petulantly, but then reconsidered. “This Friday I have some time.”
She nodded. “I’ll be waiting over at our table.”
Our table. That made me smile and even as I watched her leave with the two other officers, it made me feel better.
That Friday, I was the first one there, but she came in soon after and slid into her seat. “Did you order?”
“I just got here. What do you want?”
“I like everything. You choose. I’ll pay tonight.”
“Oh, really? Is it pay day over there?”
“Something like that,” she said.
We ordered and chatted a little, but it was obvious she was preoccupied.
“Trouble at the front?” I asked after a while, trying to make it a joke.
Angela shook her head. “It’s not that. I’m just worried. About you.”
“I can take care of myself, don’t worry.”
“I know you can. You’re smart and lucky so far, but I’m thinking of down the road. We’re winning this war.”
“I think it’s pretty even,” I said, more than a little defensively. In fact, the war was dead even, with emphasis on the dead. Ever since I had been at the front, the war was just a huge meat grinder with men and women being fed into it from either side of no-man’s land.
“It was, but it’s not anymore,” Angela said. “Red Hill was just the beginning. We’re going to win this war, without doubt, and I’m afraid for you.”
Psychological warfare, I thought, the disappointment twisting my stomach. She had made friends with me and now was trying to sabotage my morale. “Are you trying to get me to defect?”
She looked at me and I saw the beginning of yes forming on her lips. Then she smiled sadly. “I wouldn’t ask you to. I know you wouldn’t.”
“You’re right. I wouldn’t, any more than you would defect to my side,” I said.
The food came and we ate in silence for a bit, making only small remarks about the food. The atmosphere had changed. The word defect was almost as taboo in Encarna’s as weapons and like the word divorce in a marriage, it tainted the mood.
“Listen,” she said, as we were finishing up. “I don’t care if you tell what I said or not. I’d like to see you again, but I’ll understand if you don’t. In any case, please take care of yourself.”
“I’ll come here whenever I can,” I said. “I want to see you again too.” She smiled, gave me a quick kiss on the cheek, and left through the side entrance, back towards her side.
I got back to my barracks to find out that I had been reassigned, effective immediately. The new posting was thirty miles down the line, at another HQ. The transfer was a step up, but I was depressed as I packed my belongings in my duffle bag and got on the truck.
The next few weeks, I worked hard, but I never stopped thinking of Angela and what she had said. The war did seem to be going badly for us. More of our outposts were being taken or destroyed and the enemy seemed to find their way through our defenses almost effortlessly now. There was some talk of treachery. I was almost glad I could not go to Encarna’s to avoid any suspicion that I was a spy.
Two weeks later, the end of the war came for me. I was commanding a small outpost on what our maps called Hill 54. It was just after midnight and only the watch was awake when the side of the hill exploded. I was dozing in my cot and jumped up to hear shouting outside and submachine gun fire. Someone ducked into the tent and pointed a gun at me, shouting at me in the enemy language to get down. I fell to the ground, expecting every moment to be my last. Five minutes later, he told me to get up and I was marched outside.
Most of my squad had been killed, but three of us had been captured. They tied our hands and marched us down the slope and back across no-man’s land to enemy territory.
I won’t deny that I looked for Angela as we were searched, then marched to a truck and driven far behind the lines to a prisoner-of-war camp. If she was there, I did not see her in the sea of enemy uniforms.
What I saw depressed me. New weapons and fresh-looking soldiers were everywhere. The POWs were fed better than the officers at the front on our side. We were losing and everyone in the camp knew it. There was no talk of escape. We all knew the war would be over soon.
I was at the camp two months according the scratches on my bunk post when a guard came and called for me by name. I got some dark looks from the other POWs as I walked out, wondering if this was for release, interrogation or execution. The guard directed me to an administrative building. I walked into a small room with a table and two chairs. Angela Renzi was sitting in one of them.
She looked similar to the first time I had met her at Encarna’s, although the insignia on her epaulets had changed.
“Major Renzi,” I said. “Congratulations.”
“Marco,” she said. “I’m glad to see you.” She smiled but I saw the pity in her look. It incensed me as much as our unequal positions: she in a gleaming dress uniform and me in threadbare POW pajamas.
“How did you find me?” I asked.
“I’ve known you were here even since you arrived,” she said, “but I couldn’t come visit without arousing suspicion. Now, however. . . .” She slid a newspaper across the table. It was from the day before. My reading ability of the enemy language was passable, but anyone could have guessed the meaning screaming from the headline in 100-point font: “PEACE DECLARED!”
“Your president surrendered,” she said. “We were five miles from your capital.”
My grandparents’ home was about thirty miles from the capital, in the direction of the front. I wondered if they had gotten out okay, if the places I remembered visiting in the summers were now nothing but smoking crater holes and death-infused mud.
“So did you come here just to gloat?” I asked.
“No!” She seemed genuinely shocked. “I like you, Marco, but this was the only way that we could ever have had a chance together.”
She was right, of course, but why did it have to be her side that won? I thought of our glorious historical sites that had never seen the tread of an invader before now being overrun with foreign troops, the sight of that hated flag flying in our skies. The thought sickened me.
“How did you do it?” I asked. “If you think we have a chance, tell me that.”
“We developed a way to read minds,” she said. “We would listen across no-man’s land at night through special machines and heard all your plans, all your intelligence.” She saw the look on my face and put up her hands. “I wasn’t reading your mind in Encarna’s,” she said. “It takes special machines that require a truck to move. There, I’ve just committed treason by telling you that. Do you trust me now?”
I wasn’t sure. I still felt as if I knew nothing, and Angela held all the power. I had lived with enemies too long to loosen my grip yet.
“If what you say is true,” I said, “then I should be released soon, right?”
“Next week, I think,” she said. “They are drawing up the articles of surrender now and those will be signed in three days.”
“Six months,” I said. “Everything should be mostly back to normal by then, whatever normal will look like now, at least for me. If you still want to see me, I will meet you six months from today at Encarna’s at 8:00pm. Then we can see if we have a chance.”
Angela took out a notebook and wrote the date six months from that day on it twice, then ripped off one of them and handed it to me.
“Captain Foxhaven,” she said, shaking my hand. “I look forward to not being your enemy. I hope to see you again at Encarna’s.”