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A Festival Wife - Chapter 7: Secrets Of San Lorenzo

Henry Dean, veteran publicist, resists retirement by holding onto his PR job for the San Lorenzo Film Festival, where for twenty-eight years he has stayed at the Hotel Medici, maintaining a long-running affair with his beloved Leticia, one of the hotel’s chamber maids. But Henry’s job (and love affair) depends upon looking after the Festival’s guest of honor – a cantankerous older film director who only needs a little press – and the task has entangled Henry in a world of trouble. Part of the trouble is Henry’s ex-wife Angie, a documentary filmmaker, who is in San Lorenzo digging into ugly rumors concerning the alleged Nazi past of San Lorenzo’s leading citizen, Count Pietro Rassi, whose grandfather founded the Festival. Complicating matters, Count Rassi has fallen in love with Nora Callaway, a reporter with a husband back home and an annual rendezvous with her lover at San Lorenzo – world-renowned journalist Charles Mitchell. Jealous of Rassi’s attentions to Nora, Mitchell is determined to expose Rassi by investigating his involvement with a group of shady film financiers who are backing the guest of honor’s next movie and have quietly hired Henry Dean as their publicist, creating a potentially deadly conflict of interest.

“Forget about the goddam Luxembourg tax deal,” said Charles, peering darkly into his Bloody Mary, stirring it with a spoon so that the medicinal mixture of Worcestershire and spices swirled to the surface. “The real story on your film finance guys is they’re killers, Henry. They kill people.”
“My head is killing me, Charles, that’s all I know,” I said, over my second coffee on the terrace of the Medici.

We were now entering Day Six of the San Lorenzo International Film Festival. Four more days to go and this morning it felt like forever. The hangover wasn’t helping at all. All of us had gotten so bloody pissed the night before at the New Line party that I could scarcely recall where I’d been or what had happened. If not for tripping over a bag of designer giveaways on the floor of my room – assorted shampoo and soaps, a stinky candle in a tin, deluxe skin creams and a bottle of California wine (in Italy!), a “Yo, Snow!” T-shirt and baseball cap – the memory of the New Line party might have been suppressed entirely. A blurred vision of Nora Callaway dancing amidst a circle of twirling dwarves appeared briefly, as if rising through a mist, then was consigned to experiences better left unexamined.
Charles Mitchell, ace reporter, had done a little digging, it seems, made a few calls to “some people here and there,” people in the spook world who track these things. “It’s Ari Safta’s little brother, Eddie, who’s the bad guy.”
Eddie Safta lived on a boat – a converted mine sweeper, according to Charles’s sources – in the Adriatic somewhere off the Croatian coast, a wild area they call the Zivogosce Riviera. Dozens of pine-forested islands pockmarked with concealed coves where a cooperative network provided a million and one places to hide. Communicating with henchmen and business allies by satellite phone and through a network of runners, Safta the Younger carried on a multi-billion dollar trade in guns, drugs, possibly biological weapons and even, some said, nuclear devices. His customers were shadowy men running training camps along the Pakistani border and insurgencies in a dozen countries.
“I’m telling you, Henry, Eddie Safta is one of the principal arms traders in the world. Bin Laden, Saddam, Hamas, Kim Jong Il, all the bad guys get their goodies from Eddie. There are warrants out for his arrest. Interpol has been on his case for years.”
“What does Ari have to do with it?”
“Ari’s the front man. He takes the cash from his brother and launders it in the movie business through the foreign sales game. This fifty-million dollar fund, for instance – if the movies he makes hit at the box-office, fine. He makes money. But if they’re flops, hey – it doesn’t matter. He’ll own the copyrights to a library of movies and he can legitimately sell that library or get a line of credit against it and bank the cash, clean.”
“But the studios are involved with a lot of these pictures, taking foreign rights in certain territories. Surely they check –?”
“The studios don’t check jackshit. Look, I just want to nail Safta.”
I asked if he was certain of all this, if he wasn’t just cooking up one of his conspiratorial stews and adding the movie business as a special spice.
“You’re not flacking for these guys are you, Henry?”
“Well, not officially,” I waffled. I asked if he’d filed the story yet and I was relieved to hear he’d not yet written it. He still needed to get a few questions answered. But he assured me his sources were “impeccable.”
“Stay out of it, Henry. It’s bad shit, man.”
I said thanks for the warning but I could take care of myself.
“Yes,” he said, looking grave. “You can. But Nora doesn’t know what the hell she’s getting into and neither does your pal Rassi.”
He was convinced she was in some kind of danger. I tried to tell him that it was nothing to lose sleep over. Nora was simply trying to help an old worn-out director get a movie deal. Charles wasn’t having any of it. She wasn’t the type to take in stray dogs, adopt orphans or work the charity circuit, and we both knew it. Nora was totally self-centered which, I have to say, in this age of phony beneficence, was one of her charms.
“It’s all Rassi’s fault,” he said. “Look, why do you think I’m doing this, Henry? For her, man. To get her away from Rassi and his creepy crowd.”
“What do you care,” I said. “You’re breaking up with her.”
“I care about Nora a lot. Even if we never saw each other again, which I don’t think is the case, since we’ll always be friends, I would still want her to be happy. And I certainly wouldn’t want her to get hurt. Rassi, man, he’s a fucking leech, with that phony title. One of these rich guys, you know, who just goes through the world rich, leaving a lot of wreckage in his wake. You going to help me out here, Henry, or what?”
The question for me was this: how to salvage the $10,000 fee I was owed by Safta while preserving my friendship with both Charles and Rassi?
Maybe I could get him together with Safta, I said, playing for time. One on one. It would give Safta a chance to comment, to answer some of Charles’ questions. Charles drained the dregs of his Bloody Mary and said, “I was hoping you’d say that.”
I watched Charles set off with that athletic walk of his, shoulders in the lead, taking the fight to the opposition, up against the ever-present deadline, determined to nail his story. My coffee was cold.

* * *

“Publicity is good,” Ari Safta barked over the phone. “As long as they spell my fucking name right.”
I called Mitchell and gave him direction to Safta’s boat moored at the Slip 33 at the Old Port.
Artie Delfont was not happy, however. In the Coronary Bar, the wily scammer summoned a waiter and ordered a Scotch, twirling his moustache like a cartoon villain.
“It should be something slightly off-center, old sport. A fashion piece, say. What the moguls are wearing at San Lorenzo. Something harmless like that. Not an investigative reporter, for God’s sake. And definitely not Charles Mitchell. He’s a bloody bulldog.”
“Safta has to have his say.”
“I will call Ari, tell him to cancel, that’s all there is to it.”
“Mitchell’s writing the piece anyway. And what about my money?”
“A journalist will always fuck you, Henry. You of all people should know that.”
“You haven’t answered my question. About the money.”
The waitress placed his Scotch on the table and Delfont hauled from his pocket a fat roll of currencies issued by various nations, peeling off some for her and a few more that he handed to me.
“Five hundred. It’s all I can do right now, old bean.”

* * *

I was about to go into a midday screening of the new Sokurov film, one of those five-hour epics built around a single tracking shot, when my cell phone vibrated in my pocket like a trapped rodent. It was Charles. Delfont had failed to dissuade Safta from meeting with him, but in any event, the interview had not gone well.
“Safta basically told me to go fuck myself. But that’s okay because –”
A tone intervened, signaling another caller. Putting Charles on hold, I punched up the next line, only to hear the Great Director rasping, “Must talk to you, Henry!”
“Excuse me, I’m on the other line.”
“It’s just that I am bored. We should go somewhere, do something. I hate just sitting around this bloody room!”
I promised him I would be there in a minute and switched back to Charles.
“Basically, I have everything I need to know about Safta,” he was saying. “Just a few loose ends, a couple of calls to my sources and I’ll have my story.”
The Russian film was starting. The plot was too confusing and I was too distracted to follow it. I rose from my seat, tripping over some feet and ignoring some clucks of disapproval from the more dedicated cineastes. I walked back to the Coronary for alcoholic fortification before dealing with my dreaded director.
As I entered the bar, I noticed the Lavender Twins in their usual seats and had an inspiration. Sidling up to them, I said, “There is a very famous director who would like to meet you.”
“Fuck off,” said the younger purple one.
I reached into my pocket, came up with Delfont’s five hundred pounds and my director’s suite number. Though it left me skint, it turned out to be money well spent as I neither saw nor heard from the little bastard for several days.
As I was heading out, Leticia signaled me from the back door of the bar. She was still in her maid’s uniform.
“Can we go somewhere and talk?” she whispered.
We walked down the hallway past a service kitchen and turned right down another corridor where she pushed open a door that led us to a hidden and deserted lounge. Leticia knew every nook and cranny in the Medici, and here she sat us down on a brown leather banquette.
She kissed me tenderly with a tinge of sadness, the truth of which had always eluded me. The brief shadow that would cross her face when she thought I was not looking, an autumnal chilliness, yet another summer gone, time moving on relentlessly, and the Festival always over too quickly. And had she gained for our brief season together, except growing older by one more year?
But it was more than that now, I understood. Her sad smile tapped the bottomless well of her race and a history I could not presume to comprehend or encompass in my imagining.
There was nothing I could do for her, no responsibility for me to shoulder other than to simply love her, to love her as a lover who arrived with the end of one season and departed before the next. She had never asked for more. It was all right that way, for both of us. In fact it was perfect. This woman whose unquestioning love had sustained me, kept me going year after year, looking forward to each meeting in San Lorenzo, instead of backward into the tattered remains of my life. For all these many years it was good. It was the best thing in our lives.
It was no longer enough. She required a commitment from me beyond that which we’d had before – a simple love affair was now being tested, playing out upon a grand stage. Painful to say, I was unsure I could play the decisive hero. Confounded by mixed feelings, I found myself putting off her request.
“I’ve spoken to her,” I said. “I’ve told Angie your concerns, that you want her to discontinue her mucking about into the whole question of what happened here during the war. There’s nothing more I can do, I’m sorry.”
“She has been to see David Halevi, you know… with the jewelry shop? He was very unhappy to hear the questions she was asking him. He says that if she continues, it will cause a lot of trouble for a lot of people.”
“What can I do? I’ve told you –”
“I know something you can do. You can speak to the Festival President. Ask him to cancel her credentials. Then she will go away.”
“They’ve never thrown anybody out of the festival,” I said. “Not even Quentin Tarantino. My dear, getting Angie tossed out of the festival will only make her more determined to stay and do what she’s doing. She’ll think somebody’s trying to keep her off her story. She’ll think somebody is covering up something. I know the way she is.”
She looked away, and I could see she was angry.
“Leticia, are you covering up something? Is there some awful secret in San Lorenzo? Why are you protecting Rassi?”
“It’s… well, complicated. I can’t say why,” she said. “You’ll have to trust me, please, Henry.”
“Trust me,” I said, “in my experience such secrets don’t remain secrets very long. There’s money to be made in digging up secrets today. It’s a business. Maybe that’s a good thing, too. Secrets can be bad, you know.”
“Like you and I are a secret, Henry?”
“After all these years. It’s bloody amazing, isn’t it?”
“And what would happen if people knew our secret?”
“You would be fired from the hotel and I –”
“You would be embarrassed, Henry.”
“No.”
“Oh no? Well, I saw her again. Your ex-wife. Today in the hotel. She was coming from a room on the third floor and she saw me pushing one of cleaning carts. I was like this, Henry, in my uniform. And the way she looked at me and what she said to me –”
“What did Angie say to you?”
“She said to me, ‘Oh, did you finish cleaning Henry’s room? He is always leaving his dirty socks on the floor.’ ”
Should I have laughed? Or gone after my ex-wife with a blunt object? In any case, I tried to tell Leticia that none of it mattered, that Angie was a professional bitch who took delight in making everyone around her feel bad. Like an idiot I attempted to kiss Leticia, but she broke away.
“Promise me,” she said. I promised to try once again to talk to Angie and thought maybe I would wring her neck while I was at it, the cunt!.
“No, I want you to talk to Demo, Henry. Once that is done, we can talk again.”
“Wait, Leticia – you’re asking me to tell the Festival President to cancel my ex-wife’s credentials?”
“She has to go away, to leave San Lorenzo, to leave us alone! Or you will have to leave me alone. I am sorry.”
She got up and walked out the door. I was left sitting in the darkened lounge, wondering what I was going to do next. In lieu of any real decision, I decided to retrace my steps back in the direction of a cocktail in the trusty, unchangeable Coronary bar.
I found Charles at my table, speaking a low voice on his cell phone and scribbling on a notepad. I ordered a scotch and water from a waiter. Charles held up two fingers to request the same. While Charles took care of his business on the phone, I took care of mine, reaching the irascible Festival President in his office.
“What do you mean, cancel this woman’s credentials?” Demo said. “I can’t do such a thing just like that, Henry. I would need a very good reason.”
“She shouldn’t have press credentials. She’s not with the press, Demo.”
“The press office gives out press credentials to all kinds of people. That’s no reason.”
“She refused to interview our guest of honor,” I lied.
“That’s no reason. From the poor amount of press you’ve been getting him, nobody else wants to interview him, either.”
“She’s my ex-wife,” I blurted out, “and she drives me fucking crazy!”
“Well, now, my friend,” said Demo after a short pause. “That’s a reason.”
I switched off the phone to hear Charles finishing his business, too. “You don’t have to send me the whole file,” he was saying, “just the summary sheet.” He clicked off, jotting something down on his pad.
“Friends at Interpol,” he said. “Good stuff. I should go and write this up.”
Charles looked across the table at me with the utterly world-weary expression he often affected when he wanted to be taken seriously as an authority on some subject.
“Be careful, Henry,” he said, lifting his drink from the waiter’s tray as he stood up and downed it in a single gulp. “These guys you’re dealing with are poison.”
Accepting my drink from the waiter, I raised my glass of scotch.
“To my health!”
Charles snorted and left the bar just as Artie Delfont was arriving. He saw Mitchell pass by with his handful of notes but said nothing to him, nor did Mitchell take notice of Delfont.
“Busy bee,” Delfont commented, stopping at my table with a backward glance at the departing journalist.
“Is it true, Artie?”
“True? Truth is beauty saith the poet.”
I laid out to him what Charles had told me about the Saftas.
“Ah, Henry.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Artie. I want it straight. I’m serious.”
“I’m serious, too, Henry,” he said, turning suddenly grim. “Better tell Mitchell to back off. This could get dirty if you don’t.”
“What on earth are you talking about, Artie?”
“You’ve got to kill Mitchell’s piece, that’s what.”
“Now wait a minute. I’m not in this business to keep articles out of the papers, Artie. I get articles into the paper, remember?”
“You can try,” he said. “You did it with Variety.”
“Charles Mitchell’s byline appears in one of the world’s major publications,” I said. “It’s not Variety, damn it!”
All my life I’d worked hard to put stories on page one. Banner headlines, a photo if possible, everybody’s name spelled right. It went against my grain to do otherwise. Here I was, being asked for the second time in as many days to kill a story.
It was a humiliating reminder of the distance I’d come down in the world, that my business was gone, that Henry Dean Associates was defunct, and the fact of my own irrelevance. Not to mention my disgusting need for cash.
There is time enough to be pushed aside, downplayed, and forgotten – an infinite universe of time – after one takes that last breath. So, while I am still up and breathing, I will not be fucked with, not one bloody bit, and I said so to Delfont – not in so many words, of course. Basically, I told him I would not even attempt to kill the story. I finished my drink and dropped some lira on the table. Then I took it back.
“This one’s on you,” I said.
Delfont twiddled the ends of his moustache with his fingers and was silent. I stood up to go. He put his hand on my arm and said, “Wait.”
“That’s it, Artie,” I said. “Please don’t bring it up again.”
“The boys in the lavatory,” he said, lowering his voice urgently, “they would very much appreciate it if you persuaded Mitchell not to write the story.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“You know – across the river. They would be immensely grateful.”
Across the river. The boys in the lavatory. Code words for that black-and-white tiled building in Vauxhall, the one where the foreign intelligence services played their little games. He was asking me to believe that this piece of business was one of those little games and that he, Artie Delfont, was the bloke actually running it. He was either living up to the preposterous rumors after all, or pulling a fast one. I was ready laugh it off, but then there was Delfont, fingering his moustache, his pudgy features composed in an unusually grave manner. So I sat down and listened while he laid it out all out to me.
“We are trying to smoke them out,” he said quietly. “To trace the money, the deal with Safta absolutely must happen. Fifty million dollars, Henry, please, you must listen to me. If this deal happens, we’ll be able to track the wire transfers, see precisely where the money comes from. Get right down to the nitty gritty.”
“This is your idea of a joke, right?”
“No joke, old sport. Whatever Mitchell told you is true, and worse. The money comes from guns, rocket launchers, bombs, bullets, that sort of thing. Eddie Safta sells the goods to some very ugly customers. Ari Safta launders the cash in the movie business. We’d like to nail them. You can help, Henry.”
“What’s Rassi got to do with it?”
“Zilch, the poor bastard. He knows nothing.”
“How did he get mixed up in this?”
“We met in Milan. I was there for MIFED. We bumped into one another one night at the bar of the Principe Hotel. Heath introduced us. Rassi said he had high-risk money he needed to invest and wanted to get into the movie business. He agreed to provide the seed money. He’s our chip in the pot, you see. Rassi ante’s up and it’s perfect.”
“He doesn’t know the real story?”
“Better that he not, for his sake. Nor do the partners, Gordon and Heath. Ari keeps them on as window-dressing for the deal. I’m telling you all this in complete confidence, of course.”
He could be bullshitting me, too. Fifty million dollars was a very nice piece of action. He could be working the cloak-and-dagger role just to get his hands on that money and I’d be the bloody fool for aiding and abetting yet another one of his fraudulent scams.
But what if it wasn’t a scam? What if he was for real? And what else had he been up to? I reflected on all the years I’d known Delfont, and my suspicions about him and Angie.
“Since when have you been doing this, Artie?”
“This what?”
“Working for them. Your boys across the river?”
“There are some questions friends should never ask.”
“Such as, how long you’ve been fucking my wife?”
“Your ex-wife. Get over it, Henry. Now, listen to me – I’ll go talk to Ari Safta and try to calm him down. Tell me you will put the kibosh on Charles Mitchell’s story.”
“I said I would think it over.”
“That’s the spirit, old sport. The boys across the river will be extremely –”
“A medal will not be necessary, old sport.”
Of course, I had not the slightest intention of killing the story.
NEXT: KILLING THE STORY THAT NEVER DIES

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