SANDRA CLIMBED THE STAIRS to Room 335 of the American Embassy Annex in Rome. She paused at the closed door to the FBI Liaison Office. That’s odd, she thought. Miranda is usually in early. Then the reason for the closed door hit her like a flash flood in a gully.
Miranda was not coming back.
Sandra’s supervisor had almost died in a car collision. Her fiancé, the driver, did perish. Miranda would be released next week for medical evacuation to the United States. She probably would not return.
As she groped in her purse for the keys, Sandra’s throat closed, and the grief she had repressed for a week rose in her chest. Quickly, she entered the office, and found the light switches by feel. The tears were running when she finished pulling back the curtains, opening the inner office, and setting up the coffeemaker. She wiped her face with her handkerchief as she walked to the big oak desk in the main office to check the out-box. Nothing.
She stepped into the small room that held the coffeemaker, supplies and the shiny Xerox 660 photocopier. Sitting on the stool, she let herself shake and sob until there were no more tears. She wiped her face again, took a breath, and carried a cup of coffee back to her desk in the reception room.
The habit of arriving in class with her homework done worked well here. Having an empty in-box gave her time to gather her thoughts and emotions before her boss showed up.
Last week, Miranda had been that boss. Sandra had been a teenage summer intern trying to find a gig to keep her in Italy for a year abroad before she returned to her art history major at the George Washington University. Overnight, she became the full-time secretary of the legendary Special Agent James Redwood.
Filling Miranda O’Brien’s shoes scared the hell out of her.
To the Polizia di Stato state police, the Carabinieri military police, and the Guardia di Finanza of the Treasury Ministry, Sandra’s boss represented the seventeen-thousand police agencies of the United States. The small office formed part of the Military Advisory Assistance Group (MAAG), which had helped Italy and the other countries of Western Europe rebuild after World War II. The Marshall Plan had been a success, but the winding down would take a few years. The FBI Liaison Office gave law enforcement professionals in both countries a direct channel to each other, a situation that the two Allies found priceless.
When she felt like this, usually Sandra would play her viola. But she had stashed it somewhere in the apartment while moving yesterday. Instead, she took the sketchbook from her bag and reached for her pencils. Closing her eyes, she pictured how she wanted to remember Miranda.
At nine o’clock, Special Agent Redwood walked in, and stopped in the doorway.
“Grieving at last?”
“Yes, sir. I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be. I was wondering how you were holding it so long. I haven’t slept well for a week.” He noticed the sketchbook. “What do you have there?”
“Some sketches. After I got started, I decided to use this one for a portrait to give to Miranda.” Redwood took the page from her. Sandra had drawn Miranda at her desk, explaining something to Redwood, who stood behind her, scratching his head. It was clear from the feeling of the scene who really ran the office.
Redwood laughed. “That’s perfect! I’m sure she’ll love it.”
“I’m glad you think so. Should I mail it or give it to her before they take her home?”
“She won’t be able to do anything with it until after the reconstructive surgery in the States. We have her home address.” He gave it back. “I forgot that you mentioned the sketch artist work in your job interview. This is very good, really.”
“Thank you. It’s handy for capturing scenes where one can’t pull out a camera.”
“Courts are like that here, too, and various other occasions, like diplomatic parties and meetings. We might be able to use your skills here.”
Redwood moved toward his office, then paused.
“Now I’m thinking of that interview. Did you say you play viola?”
“It was in my resumé. I don’t think it came up in the interview.”
“Did you play in groups? Chamber music, maybe?”
“Dad made each of us learn a different instrument, so the family could provide quartets and sextets for Church and other things. And I was in orchestra at high school.”
“Anything since leaving Ohio?”
“I rehearsed alone in my apartment in Washington. I’m looking forward to not having roommates again, so I can practice.” Along with the job, Sandra had taken over Miranda’s lease, which the older woman had just renewed before the collision.
“Mmm.” He snapped out of his thought to look more directly at her. “We should install a mirror near the coffeemaker or somewhere. You might want to run to the ladies’ and check your eyes.” He smiled, then he went into the office.
When she got back from cleaning her face and reapplying her mascara, Sandra reviewed her sketches and made some notes about colors. Then she put them away, and called down to the supply department about a small mirror.
Two days later, Agent Redwood was in a conference with two Carabinieri officers.
“Sandra, could you step inside, please? Leave the door open so we can watch.”
Inside, Sandra stood at the door. The Carabiniere major, a solid, red-headed Celt, smiled. The lieutenant, little more than the age of Sandra’s dates, stood stiffly. He looked at her with pleasure, but seemed wary of drawing attention to himself.
“Sandra Billingsley,” Redwood said, “this is Major Mascagni and Lieutenant Russo.”
Sandra arched an eyebrow as she shook the major’s hand. He sighed and smiled.
“Yes, signorina. A great uncle.” He seemed glad that she was familiar with the composer’s name. The lieutenant shook her hand with a short, gentle jerk and stepped back.
Redwood motioned for them to sit. Sandra chose a chair that let her see the entrance to the offices.
“As you know, the Carabinieri provide security in the courts, like our bailiffs and sheriffs. We were discussing a problem they are having, and I thought of your skills.” He nodded to the major.
Major Mascagni’s English was excellent, with only a slight accent. “We are currently concerned about the notorious Mafia case you may have seen in the papers. Somehow, the defendants are getting word of things that we know they cannot receive in prison. We think that something is being passed or signaled during the hearings in court, but in our meetings, no one seems to be able to catch anything, or remember enough with everything going on to be able to explain what they thought they saw.”
“How can I help?”
“When I mentioned that we wished that cameras were allowed in court so we could analyze the room, Agent Redwood mentioned your ability as a sketch artist.”
“Sandra, could you sketch the court sessions for a few days? The Carabinieri and the others would go over them to see if it brings out something they’re missing.”
“Yes, sir. The whole room, I take it.”
“That’s right, and over a few days, so that they can look for patterns or things that don’t change.”
“I’d be happy to.” She smiled at Redwood. “Can you run the coffeemaker without me?” The men laughed.
“I’ll have Henry send Rosemary up while you’re gone. You would come to work normally, and go to court and back from here.”
“Want me to watch for anything in particular, also?”
“Of course,” said the FBI agent. Turning to Mascagni, he said, “from what I have seen, she is very observant. If she asks about something, you should probably look into it.”
“That would be helpful. Thank you.”
They agreed that an unmarked car would pick up Sandra behind the Embassy at noon and return her to the office. She would fix up the sketches the same evening, and Agent Redwood would take them to the Carabinieri on his way home. That way, the security detail could use them the next day for their meeting.
After the Carabinieri left, the two Americans went to the coffee maker.
“Rather scary compared to a burglary trial in Madison County court, sir.”
“Much higher stakes, yes. If you can help them zero in on whatever is going on, we will have made some good friends. This trial could help us shut down major operations in New York and New Orleans in addition to Italy.”
For the next week, Sandra got used to meeting the plainclothes policeman in the Fiat 600 at a different corner near the Embassy, and walking to court from a different direction.
The architecture of the Palace of Justice and the courtroom stunned her at first. To get herself under control, she sketched the majestic room empty. Then she could concentrate.
The room seated several hundred, with dozens more standing in the back. She saw sketch artists next to the reporters in the press area, but they were clearly at a disadvantage, being in the front rows. They did not seem interested in what the crowd was doing, anyway.
The Carabinieri had arranged for Sandra to have a seat in a shallow balcony of sorts, which ran around the top of the room, normally used for maintaining the lights and cleaning the walls. She could see everyone, but she was also hidden from the people below. Even those who might see the top of her head could not see what she was doing.
On the fourth day, Major Mascagni called just as Agent Redwood walked in. He took the phone standing at Sandra’s desk. He held the microphone against his hand.
“He’d like you to attend the morning meeting with his team.”
“He does know my Italian is limited, doesn’t he?”
“Don’t worry. He and Lieutenant Russo can help. I’ve heard your Italian on the phone. You’ll do fine.”
“Okay, then. I’d be happy to help.”
Redwood spoke into the phone. “Va bene, maggiore. Quindici minuti.” Okay, major. Fifteen minutes. Then he hung up.
“That comment about the teams at different corners in the back got them wondering. You’re a hit, young lady.”
Sandra blushed and gathered her things.
“Do I come back here before court?”
“If they want to buy you lunch, feel free to let them bring you back after today’s session.”
“See you after court, then.”
Tuesday morning, the news was full of the dramatic arrest of two dozen mafiosi in the courtroom, including two of the capo’s senior lieutenants and the senior defense attorney. The event seemed to light a fire under the prosecuting magistrates: the defendants were found guilty by the end of the week.
On the last day, Sandra drew a sketch of the court delivering its verdict, with Major Mascagni and his men standing in full dress uniform at either end of the bench. She colored the drawing over the weekend.
On Monday, she had just started the coffeemaker and opened Redwood’s door when Major Mascagni knocked on the door. In his hand he held an enormous bouquet in an elegant vase of hand-blown Murano glass. The blues and reds of the glass turned the light from the windows into stunning patterns on the walls, with the shadows of the stems in the middle.
“Buon giorno, signorina.” He placed the flowers on her desk. “The entire court security detachment is indebted to you. But anything else we could think of would break some ethics rule, so it will have to be flowers.”
“Major, thank you. These are beautiful.” Sandra’s chest swelled with emotion. “I’ve never received flowers like these. Ever.”
“I can’t believe that a beautiful lady like you has not received flowers.” Sandra knew from her dates that effusive compliments came naturally to Italian men, but it still felt strange.
“It’s true. I’m just a girl from the Midwest. Boys there don’t even think of anything like this.”
The major looked at her with his lids half-closed. Then he opened his eyes.
“But I’ll bet you thought of it, didn’t you?”
She blushed. “Yes. I did, but I never expected it.”
“Well, you deserve it. If we can do anything for you, just call.” He put his business card on the desk. The home number was penned on it, too. “My wife’s name is Angela, if you call at home. She knows who you are.”
Sandra was still blushing.
“Would you like some coffee?”
“Thank you, but we have another court case starting today. Perhaps we can meet another time outside the office.”
“I would like that. To whom should I return the vase?”
“It’s yours, signorina, from Romolo – Lieutenant Russo. He has relatives in Murano on his mother’s side. That vase came straight from his uncle’s factory. We had it flown down over the weekend.”
Redwood walked in, and paused in the doorway.
“I told you that you were a hit.” He smiled. “I think Miranda had some leftover plant food somewhere.”
“In the coffee cabinet. Thanks for reminding me.”
“Oh, that explains that extremely bitter coffee I made myself once.” He shook hands with Mascagni. “Caffé?”
“The signorina just offered. I must go to court. Another time, perhaps.”
“I have something for you, major.” Sandra reached into her bag on the desk. “If Agent Redwood doesn’t mind.” She showed it to her boss, who looked at it, then nodded. She held it out to the Carabiniere.
“I can’t —”
“Then please give it to – Angela, is that right? She can remember her hero by it.”
He took the picture. Sandra thought he might cry.
“Now we have each been surprised. Thank you.” He shook Redwood’s hand and left quickly.
“You have a friend for life, Sandra.”
“Was he about to cry?”
“Maybe. But not for himself.” Redwood paused to look out the window to someplace far away, and maybe long ago. With a sigh, he returned his gaze to the young artist. “I could see a commander looking at his detachment. That picture captures how he feels about his men, Sandra.
“You have a rare gift there.”
© 2021, JT Hine
Sandra’s story will continue in two weeks. Come on back!
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