Shadow Of Freedom – Snippet 11
Gervais looked at her for a moment longer, then sighed mentally.
“It’s only about twenty-one hundred local in Thimble, Ma’am, and I was planning on having a late dinner. I suppose I could see if she’d be free to join me.”
* * *
Ensign Helen Zilwicki followed the waiter across the mostly empty restaurant with an expression she hoped gave no sign of her inner feelings. Gwen Archer’s last-minute, late-notice invitation had come at a good time, in many ways. Commodore Terekhov had been keeping her busy, but there was a limit to how many hours of legitimate duty time even the most inventive flag officer could find for his aide. And, unfortunately, she’d gotten too efficient. She kept running out of things to do before she ran out of hours to sit around and think about the hideous lies about her father.
At the same time, she suspected Gwen’s invitation hadn’t simply materialized out of thin air. Countess Gold Peak was keeping him even busier than Commodore Terekhov was keeping Helen, and she doubted he had a lot of time to visit groundside. Given his druthers, he would have been spending any time he did have with Helga Boltitz, too, which suggested someone further up the military food chain had asked him to get her take on Green Pines.
She couldn’t blame him for that, and she was grateful, if her suspicions were correct, that he’d at least picked as comfortable a venue as possible.
She’d never eaten in this restaurant, and she wondered if that, too, was something Gwen had deliberately arranged. The food smelled good, and the subdued lighting projected a welcome she found soothing despite the nature of the conversation she expected. Still, she was a little surprised when the waiter led her not toward the main dining area but into a smaller room which contained only half a dozen tables. Only one of those tables was occupied — by Lieutenant Archer and the beautiful, golden-haired Helga Boltitz, Minister of War Henri Krietzmann’s personal assistant.
Both of them stood as the waiter led Helen to the table, and Helga stepped around to give her a brief, tight hug. The embrace took Helen slightly by surprise — Helga wasn’t usually that demonstrative in public — but she hugged the other woman back, then looked at Gervais.
“Gwen,” she said in greeting, and smiled faintly. “I appreciate the invitation…even if Helga is thinking of me as a third wheel!”
“Never,” Helga said firmly. Her sharp-edged Dresdener accent gave her Standard English a harsh edge, but her tone was firm and she shook her head for added emphasis.
“Helga, I love you,” Helen replied, “but you shouldn’t go around telling whoppers like that one!” Her smile flashed into a grin for a moment. “I know how busy Gwen’s been, and I don’t imagine it’s been any calmer in Minister Krietzmann’s office.”
“I didn’t say I wouldn’t like to have more time with him. I only said I’d never think of you as a ‘third wheel,'” Helga pointed out.
“Yeah, I heard you. But you hang out with all those diplomats and politicians now,” Helen observed. “I think it’s corrupting that Dresden directness of yours.”
Helga chuckled and shook her head, and Helen turned back to Gervais.
“But however gracious and diplomatic our Helga’s become, Gwen, I have to say I’ve nurtured a few suspicions about just how you happen to have time free to invite me to dinner. Especially when you could have been spending that time doing…something else.”
She let her eyes flip sideways to Helga for a moment, and both of the others chuckled. Then Gervais’ expression sobered.
“Unfortunately, you’ve got a point,” he said. He waved the waiter aside, pulled out her chair, and held it. “And I’m not going to try to pretend this is the purely social occasion I’d prefer for it to be. Both of us really are glad to see you, though.”
Helen allowed him to seat her, despite the difference in their ranks, then turned and accepted the menu from the waiter and gave him her initial drink order. She watched him disappear before she turned her attention back to Gervais.
“I know you’re glad to see me,” she repeated. “And I’m pretty sure I know who suggested you and I have a little talk. All the same, I don’t expect the conversation to do wonders for my appetite.”
“It wasn’t Admiral Gold Peak, if that’s what you’re thinking,” Gervais replied, and she shook her head.
“Didn’t think it was. She’s a pretty direct person, and she’s had the opportunity to talk to me about it herself if she wanted to. For that matter, she probably would’ve gone through Sir Aivars if she was the one asking the questions. Same for Captain Lecter. Nobody on Admiral Khumalo’s staff, on the other hand, really knows me or enjoys the opportunity to just slip questions into a casual conversation. Which leaves us with ‘the usual suspects,’ doesn’t it?”
“I guess it does.” Gervais leaned back in his chair, regarding her across the table. “Frankly, though, I think the reason they asked me to talk to you about it was that they figured it’d be less stressful for you. Less of a formal inquisition, you might say.”
Helen snorted, but it made at least some sense. And she supposed she was grateful they were trying to avoid stepping on her feelings.