Italian Food at the Oude Markt
The front door of the small building looked like it had been given a fresh coat of paint only the day before. Switching his gaze from the newly applied red paint on the wooden door to a black metal plaque at its center, Sylvere read the word, L’inizio, printed in large, white characters. He recognized the word, with an article attached to it, in Italian.
Bending slightly and looking through a window next to the door, Sylvere realized L’inizio was, at least for now, an Italian restaurant. It occurred to him that, because Anna and Carolina wanted to control everything and everyone around them, and had unlimited resources with which to do so, they had ordered the restaurant re-painted and re-named to commemorate the beginning of—what? A new museum in Belgium? A new partnership with him? A new life for Claudette? Sylvere stopped himself. He realized he didn’t have the luxury to indulge in such thoughts. He smoothed the lapel of the dark-blue suit jacket he wore. He could feel his mobile phone in the inside pocket of the jacket. When he opened the red wooden door, he saw an elegant space with no more than ten tables. But the light from the morning sun had not yet filled the space. It appeared to be deserted.
“Please join us,” said a voice in French with a peculiar accent. Sylvere halted. Peering through the gloom in the direction of the voice, he saw three women sitting in a circular booth of a rich, red leather at the back of the large room.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you finally,” said one of the women, also speaking in French with an accent Sylvere thought was Portuguese. The woman, who appeared to be in her mid 40s and of mixed African and European descent, wore a warm smile. She watched Sylvere closely. He realized she was not the one who had spoken first. He didn’t respond, though, as he sat down on the plush leather at one end of the round booth and looked at the women sitting across from him. He didn’t know what to say.
“Thank you for your flexibility in meeting with us earlier than agreed,” said the woman with the peculiar accent. This woman, who appeared to be in her mid 50s and of a darker complexion, had a piercing gaze. She reminded Sylvere of highly assertive women he had met during his long career as an electrical engineer at the global technology giant, IBM.
“She must be Carolina,” Sylvere said to himself, recalling his two phone conversations from the previous Thursday with a woman in Germany. “So,” he thought, glancing at the mixed-race woman, “the other one must be Anna.” Switching his gaze to the third woman, who appeared to be in her mid 20s, Sylvere noted a resemblance to his second-youngest daughter, Nelisha. “The youngest one definitely is Congolese,” Sylvere said, still speaking to himself in Kikongo, the language of his ancestral home in southwestern Congo.
The woman looked up from the screen of a laptop computer in front of her on the table and smiled at Sylvere before returning her gaze to her computer.
“I hope you like pasta,” Carolina said, pouring water from a tall green bottle into a glass in front of Sylvere, “because we took the liberty of ordering various pasta dishes.” She proceeded to fill all of the glasses on the table with water from the bottle. “This place doesn’t open until 1:00 in the afternoon,” she continued, “but the owner let us come in and take over.” Sylvere, glancing at the digital watch strapped to his right wrist, saw the time—11:07. A young man wearing black trousers and a white dress shirt with a black tie appeared carrying four large, white porcelain plates.
“Events have forced us to revise our schedule,” Carolina resumed, watching the young man distribute the plates on the table. “Or, more precisely, to move it up.”
Anna moved aside her glass of water and raised up a glass of red wine to her lips, still watching Sylvere closely. After taking a long drink of the wine in her glass, she picked up a bottle of red wine waiting at the edge of the table and proceeded to fill a wine glass in front of Sylvere. A different young man wearing black trousers and a white dress shirt with a black tie appeared carrying bowls containing various kinds of pasta. Finally, a third young man wearing the same uniform appeared also carrying bowls containing various kinds of pasta. All of the young men, who were about the same age, had blond hair and appeared to be Germanic. It became clear they were not employed by the owner of the Italian food restaurant but rather by Anna.
Carolina placed a portion of each of the kinds of pasta, including spinach ravioli and spaghetti with meatballs, on Sylvere’s plate before placing food on the other three plates. “Go ahead and start,” she said. “It’s the best Italian food in Belgium.” She glanced at Sylvere while preparing the other plates. “Chérubin tells us you are very hungry.” Sylvere couldn’t help himself. He started eating. “This project at the museum in Tervuren is very important,” Carolina now said, raising a forkful of spinach ravioli to her lips and glancing at Sylvere. “Do you know that the museum, since opening in 1898, never had been renovated until now?”
Sylvere realized Anna watched him closely as she ate. The youngest woman at the table worked on her computer as she ate. Sylvere raised his glass of red wine to his lips, glancing toward the front of the restaurant. At a table near the front door, Chérubin and two other, similarly built African men were eating from their own plates.
“So we overhauled it,” Carolina resumed. “We totally gutted the existing six buildings and built three additional ones.” Anna took another long drink of the wine in her glass. She wasn’t going to speak again, Sylvere realized. “But we did it our way,” Carolina continued. “How can we trust the Belgians with something so important after they systematically raped and murdered our people in Africa for almost 100 years?” she asked. Sylvere didn’t think Carolina was Congolese. He glanced at Anna again. She wore a smile on her face, looking back at him quietly. He raised a forkful of spaghetti from his plate, thinking Portuguese was the native language of both Carolina and Anna. He seemed to recall hearing or reading that Anna came from Angola. But he was uncertain about Carolina’s origins. “You’ll see for yourself tonight in Tervuren,” Carolina said, picking up an ornate envelope from the plush leather of the seat next to her. “Here is your invitation to the celebration tonight,” she added, placing the envelope on the white table cloth in front of Sylvere. “Chérubin will bring you. You must arrive at 7:00pm. No later,” she stated.
The mobile phone in the inside pocket of Sylvere’s jacket started vibrating. Sylvere could feel the vibration on his chest. He also could hear the sound the vibration made. Abruptly, the sound of the vibration stopped. A silence ensued. The vibrations started again. Raising his glass of water to his lips, Sylvere ignored the second series of vibrations from his phone.
“Melba,” Carolina said, glancing at the young woman sitting at the table, “has some questions for you.” Carolina paused. “About Claudette,” she added. She turned toward Sylvere. “Melba is a genius with geographic information systems and other tools,” Carolina continued, “but we haven’t yet been able to determine where Claudette is.”
The vibrations started one more time. Sylvere shifted his weight on the plush leather, realizing everyone else probably could hear the sound of the vibrations coming from his pocket. Carolina was watching him. She clearly was becoming impatient, although Anna, who must have heard the sounds too, didn’t seem to have any reaction.
“Maybe you better answer that,” Carolina said, directing her piercing gaze into Sylvere’s face. She shifted her gaze to the location of the phone. Hurriedly, Sylvere removed the device from the pocket of his suit. When he glanced at the screen, he saw an incoming call in WhatsApp. Also appearing on the interface was a text in French: “Sylvere. Justin Kabumba here. I need to talk with you.”
“Someone from Congo is trying to reach you?” Carolina said, shifting her gaze back to Sylvere’s face. “Or is it someone here in Tervuren, Serge or Penelope?” Carolina, it was obvious, was overly concerned about Sylvere’s two neighbors from Combs-la-Ville, Serge and his wife. Sylvere didn’t answer. He didn’t know what to say or what to do. The third set of vibrations stopped. He set his phone down on the white table cloth and resumed eating the pasta on his plate while casting a quick glance at Anna. Still, in stark contrast to Carolina, Anna was calm. She puzzled Sylvere.
“I think we all understand the gravity of the situation here,” Carolina declared, looking around the table before resting her gaze on Sylvere’s face again. “Claudette is not the only one who is in danger. We can help Claudette. We can help you as well. But we need your assistance. It’s important that you help us pinpoint Claudette’s current location. We think you have the ability to do that. Anthony, Serge, and Penelope agree.”