ON A SUNNY DAY IN MID-SEPTEMBER, Sandra was humming an aria from Cavalleria Rusticana when Special Agent Redwood came through the door. As important as the FBI Liaison Office was, tucked on the third floor of the American Embassy Annex in Rome, it was a small staff, just the two of them.
“You do know your music, don’t you?”
“It was on the radio last night. The Easter Hymn aria stuck in my head.”
He went to the coffeemaker and came out with a cup. “Are you rehearsing your viola again?”
“I may have a non-paying gig for you. Do you have a date tomorrow?”
“No, sir. Social life has been quiet since school ended.”
“How about dinner at our place? Arlene would love to play something besides duets with piano.”
“She plays cello, right?”
“That’s right. The NSO is the only thing she misses about our tours in Washington.”
“Omigod! She played in the National Symphony?” Sandra pulled her jaw back up.
“Relax, Sandra. I’ll be on piano. That levels the playing field. Besides, she’s a music teacher, so she knows how to play with different levels. One of her students lives in the apartment below ours. He comes up with his violin anytime we tap a ‘V’ on the floor.
“Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony?” asked Sandra.
“Right. Young Ernesto does not want to come for dinner or socialize. I think I intimidate him. But he would come play his violin all day if we let him. Arlene hopes he can win a place in the Santa Cecilia conservatory “
“Thank you, sir. I would love that. Can I help with dinner?”
“You could, but let’s let Vittoria and Arlene figure it out this first time.”
Thursday nights at the Redwood apartment in Vigna Clara became a habit. Sandra had played first chair in the Lincoln High School Orchestra, but apart from that, she had no basis for comparison outside her family. Her father, a retired Army musician, must have held his four sons and her to a higher standard than she knew, because Arlene Redwood was enthusiastic about having a solid partner in the quartet.
After the second week, Sandra would go home with Agent Redwood, help cook, and take the bus to her apartment. He always offered to drive her home, but she preferred to take the bus. Rome was not a dangerous city at night.
Doug Redwood, a junior at Notre Dame International High School and a star basketball player, joined them for dinner occasionally. More often, he would come back late from basketball practice. He did his homework in his room while they played.
One Thursday, conversation strayed to the subject of dinner parties at the Embassy. From September to early January, it seemed that every embassy, private school and global corporation in town tried to get on the social calendar of the glitterati of the Eternal City.
“I swear, Jim, if we could think of an excuse, I would love for you to take someone else to those things.” Arlene finished her wine.
“Is it that bad?” asked Sandra.
“Not really, but by December, it will every Friday, Saturday and Sunday night, and I will be ready to scream.”
Jim refilled their glasses. “I used to believe the scandal-mongering newspapers when the paparazzi photographed some diplomat with a young beauty on his arm, but now I think maybe his wife paid for the escort service.” They laughed at that thought.
“Do you think you could get Sandra some time-and-a-half?” Arlene swished her glass toward the young secretary. “It would be overtime for her wouldn’t it?” She grinned.
“Being a policeman, I am one of the few men around who can show up without a lady on his arm. It would be assumed that I’m doing security. But not all the time.”
Arlene sighed. “I know, but I just wish I could skip most of them.”
A few minutes later, Jim pounded Morse Code on the living room floor. Ernesto came up, and the quartet played Dvořák for two hours. Sandra toted her viola case and bag to the bus and stared dreamily at the lights on the Tiber River as she rode home.
The following week, Sandra was opening envelopes when Redwood walked in from lunch.
“I see what you mean about the dinner parties, sir.” She waved the letter opener at a sizeable pile of cream-colored envelopes of heavy, expensive paper with a variety of colored coats of arms or corporate logos.
“I’ll take those home, so Arlene and I can do triage on them. Would you please contact the ambassador and the general to see which are must-attend affairs, and which of those require our wives?”
“Yes, sir.” She knew he meant the secretaries. The ambassador and the general commanding the Military Advisory Assistance Group (MAAG) wouldn’t have a clue.
Two days later, Redwood called Sandra in to help prioritize the social invitations. Between them, they got the list that Arlene had to attend down to only four events: the Marine Corps Ball, and three dinners at the Villa Taverna, the American ambassador’s residence.
The next day, when Redwood came in, Sandra passed him a cryptic message from the Cultural Attaché, who she knew was the CIA station chief in Rome. The FBI and the CIA had different missions, so they rarely had a reason to interact. However, the Redwoods and the Morrisons played tennis together most weekends, and had developed a good friendship.
“Rosalie called, and said simply ‘remember the common players’.”
“Oh, yes. I almost forgot. This one may be for you. Get us some coffee and come into the office. Close both doors, please.”
When they were seated, Redwood sipped his coffee and considered the young woman across the conference table from him.
“This room has been swept. You know what Rosalie’s boss does, don’t you?”
“Not that I’m supposed to, but yes.”
“I thought so. Nothing much escapes you.”
“Thank you, sir. What can I do for you? Or is it for Mr. Morrison?”
“Both, actually. You know about the three dinner parties at Villa Taverna.”
“There are some people on the guest list that neither the CIA nor the FBI can find a picture of. We suspect that one or more of them may not be who they are supposed to be. Does that make sense?”
“It does not surprise me, sir. Not after the Mafia trial last month.”
“That trial is why your name came up. We’d like you to do another sketch job.”
“At a dinner party?”
“I know, it’s weird. We’re still figuring out how to do this. At Villa Taverna, we could make a private room available for you to sketch while absenting yourself as little as possible. Do you think that would work?”
“Has no one been able to photograph them at all?”
“No. Security on them has been airtight since they came to Rome, and no one has been able to get near them. The only photographs we have found are ancient and unrecognizable.”
“I guess I could do this. How many people?”
“Three men and one woman.”
“That’s doable, but how do we put me in the place? Am I to be a server or something?”
“No. They’re all men, so you would attract attention. I propose to escort you.”
Sandra gasped. Then, she remembered the conversation last week.
“Was this Arlene’s idea?”
“No, but she thinks it’s great, and she’d be delighted.”
“You probably can expect my next question.”
“You haven’t a thing to wear?” They chuckled.
“Yes, sir. I absolutely don’t.”
“Arlene thought you would say that. She would be happy to go shopping with you on a couple of afternoons or mornings, and help you pick out some suitable evening wear. I don’t know why she won’t lend you hers —”
“Because she’s worn them, and all the women would immediately know who gave them to me.”
Redwood grinned. “You may have a career in the diplomatic service if you want it, young lady.”
“We are talking the Via del Corso, aren’t we? I can’t afford that kind of clothing.”
“This is official business. We have funds for it.”
“For most girls, this would be a fairy tale dream.”
“Not for you?”
“I made my dress for the high school prom. This will be a new experience.”
“Enjoy it, then. You know when the parties are. Call Arlene and set it up, and have Rosemary cover while you’re out.” He stood, and Sandra rose also.
“Aren’t you worried about paparazzi?” Sandra had a vision of some horribly mocked-up photo of herself at a newsstand.
“Arlene’s in on this, remember. Consider this: who is the only woman who would have a man’s confidence besides his wife? Maybe instead of his wife?”
“See? You’re not just a pretty coed.” He winked. “You’ll be fine. It will make perfect sense to anyone who knows us.”
Shopping with Arlene would ever remain one of the memorable experiences of Sandra’s youth.
For a professional musician like Arlene, evening wear was a working uniform, so she could help Sandra pick gowns and dresses that would do double duty. Mostly black, with accessories to make them different, and a few shorter dresses in colors that set off Sandra’s blond hair.
“But it’s just one to three dinner parties – at night,” Sandra protested when Arlene brought out the first afternoon cocktail dress.
“If this works, dear, you can count on Jim wanting to do this again – or maybe you’ll need to go without him. I asked him, and he agreed to outfit you for future assignments. We might not get the checkbook next time.”
Sandra smiled. “Let’s do this, fairy godmother! Don’t forget the glass slippers.”
Arlene pointed out style features that would never go out of fashion, and places where small adjustments would easily keep the dress current. They took two different mornings to complete the assignment, including part of a day on the Via Condotti at the jewelry stores.
“You okay?” asked Redwood as they rode to the Villa Taverna from Vigna Clara.
“Scared spitless, sir, but I’ll be okay – I think.”
“Like I said in the house, you look stunning tonight. With your instincts, you’ll be a hit.”
She had been surprised when she found out that part of the planning was for her to change at the Redwood apartment and go to and from the events with Jim. Those who knew Arlene would also recognize that Agent Redwood had his secretary on his arm, not some “pretty young thing.” An unmarked army sedan with a driver delivered them and picked them up, which made them less conspicuous among the dignitaries alighting at the entrance to the residence. Sandra had taken her art supplies in her book bag to the residence earlier, and been given the key to a room around the corner from the ladies’ lounge. The door was behind a curtain, making it look like a closed window.
Still, the butterflies threatened to make her burp or worse. She breathed deeply and slowly, and reviewed the plan for the evening in her mind.
During the cocktail hour, Jim navigated her to a corner where they could appear to chat and watch the guests entering.
“There’s the first two. Both from the Egyptian Embassy.” He looked at her until she nodded. “The one on the left is supposed to be Amir bin Pasha, a ridiculous name, and the taller one is Mahmoud abu Yousseff.” The two couples went by, then he nudged her arm. “Mikhail Berwitz, Soviet Embassy. Morrison thinks he’s GRU, but no one is sure.” Soviet Military Intelligence.
Sandra saw a tall woman in a flame-red evening gown appear, with a man about her height. It was not obvious who was on whose arm. Her black hair shone in the light, and her skin was perfectly clear, but her face was not girlish. Nor was her figure. Most of the male heads in the room did a slight shift, some to stare, others to cover the movement before resuming conversation. The women acted as if they hadn’t noticed, but every one of them covertly analyzed each detail of the new arrival.
“Let me guess. That’s the woman.”
“She is supposed to be Ariadne Sangemini, Contessa di Monforte, and her escort is a French attaché, one Gérard Moussine. We can’t confirm anything about her, except that there is a title and an estate by that name in Cuneo province and another near Cassino. The French Embassy asked to put her on the guest list, using the cultural attaché’s address.”
“This will be an interesting evening. Should I engage and mingle, or hover and go draw, you think?”
“Whatever feels comfortable.”
“I’ll mingle on the edges, get a good look, and try to draw before the dinner gong.”
“Sounds like a plan. I’ll double-check our seats. Meet you at the gong.” And he was gone.
Suddenly Sandra felt very alone and terrified. Then she remembered what her father had said. “It’s an act – all of it. So, play your role.” Arlene had said something like that, too. Sandra took a breath and moved toward the server walking around with a tray of flutes of spumante sparkling wine. She kept the Egyptians and Russians in her peripheral view. Ariadne Sangemini’s features were already burned in her brain.
Pretending to sip the spumante, Sandra eased toward the Soviet official, who was chatting with the American Army attaché and his wife. The Russian’s accent was impeccable – and American. Sandra studied him for a while, then moved toward the Egyptians, stopping to say hello to Steve Wolcowski, the American First Minister, and to thank the ambassador for the invitation. Both men were polite and kind, doing nothing to draw attention to her. That put her next to the Egyptians, who were chatting with each other and a short woman with a black shawl heavily embroidered with gold thread.
The shorter Egyptian man noticed her gaze.
“May I help you?”
“Sorry, I’m staring.” She looked at the woman. “I was admiring your shawl. It’s beautiful.”
“Thank you, young lady,” said the woman. “Mara Nasrin, and you?”
“Sandra. Sandra Billingsley. How do you do?”
“I am Amir bin Pasha, and this is my associate, Mahmoud abu Yousseff.” They shook hands. “You are American?”
“Yes. Are you with one of the embassies?”
“We are both from the Egyptian Embassy. Madame Nasrin is – what would you say –?”
“A private party.” She smiled enigmatically. “I came with Mahmoud here, actually.”
“Well, I hope you have a wonderful time.”
“You too, Miss Billingsley.”
Sandra bobbed slightly and took her glass around the corner where no one could see her. She took a few deep breaths, then recomposed herself. Before withdrawing, she looked out on the room again, trying to take in the feeling of the place. There was something jarring about the people milling about under the Rococo friezes and the painted ceiling. Like bad acting in a beautiful theatre, she thought.
After checking the seating chart, she put her glass on a table in the hallway, and disappeared into her “drawing room.”
As she returned the sketchbook and the pencil case to her bag, she heard the chimes moving down the hall. She slipped out, and went into the ladies’ lounge before going to look for her boss. He was easy to spot, flanked by a pair of gray-haired sisters or cousins, who came up to his shoulder. She walked toward them, with a smile.
“Ah, there you are.” He turned to the ladies and introduced Sandra to them without explaining her role. They made polite noises.
“Have you seen the seating chart?” Sandra asked.
“Yes. Ladies, shall we dine?” He took Sandra’s arm and walked to the side, so the two women could precede them into the dining room.
Sandra found herself across from Jim, and seated between two elderly gentlemen. On her right was the head of the British Council, a former don at Oxford with a specialty in Italian literature before 1700. To her left sat another academic, the dean of the American Academy, where George Washington University operated its semester-abroad program in Rome. She had heard his name, but had never had occasion to meet him when she was studying on the grounds of his school.
The dinner conversation allowed her to slip into a shared love of art history, the Italian Renaissance, and scholarship in general. Occasionally, Jim would catch her eye and smile appreciatively. He had the Contessa di Monforte on one side and one of the two matrons on the other. The latter seemed quite taken with the French gentleman on her right, so Jim could listen to the Contessa most of the time. Sandra tried to spot the Russian and the two Egyptians, but they were on her side of the table.
The food was as expertly prepared and presented as the conversation with the two scholars. Sandra felt even more like Cinderella than she had shopping with Arlene. She was not ready when the ambassador rose and made his short remarks and led a couple of toasts. The guests rose. Most went to find their partners.
“I do hope we can meet again, Miss Billingsley,” said the dean. “I have never been able to enjoy one of these dinners as much as I did tonight.”
“Thank you, sir. That would be nice.”
“We have scholarship programs at the Academy. You might try for one through your graduate school. They’re not restricted to graduate students.”
“I’ll look into it. Thank you.”
She excused herself from the two professors and went toward the ladies’ lounge, slowing so Agent Redwood could catch up with her. They paused near the coat room to let the important guests leave first. Sandra gave the key to Jim, who passed it to one of the Marine guards near the entrance. Their driver brought the car to the end of the queue of departing limousines. The Marine appeared with Sandra’s bag, and gave it to the driver while Sandra and Jim got it. The driver passed the bag back on the way to Vigna Clara.
It had been a long day. Arlene insisted that Sandra use the guest room and go home in the morning. Silence reigned over the apartment, as the young secretary fell into a happy, dreamy sleep.
The last Monday in November, Rosalie called Sandra about eight-thirty in the morning.
“Tell your boss we have news on the common players.”
“Got it. Thanks.”
When he arrived, Redwood called Morrison from his office. He hung up in just a few seconds.
“Sandra, Walter Morrison is coming over. When he gets here, please join us and close the doors.”
She had a fresh pot of coffee ready when the CIA station chief walked in. After they settled in the conference room, Morrison asked if the FBI agent had learned any more about Sangemini.
“Yes. It turned out that she was from Cuneo, and very well-connected. But Sandra here gave me the tip that led me to ask the right people.” Sandra looked down.
“Why am I not surprised?” said Morrison. “What tip?”
“She said the woman reminded her of a painting that used to be in a Jesuit church in Monforte. Then she traced the descendants of the noblewoman in the portrait, and it led her to Sangemini’s family. It turns out that the State Police has a thick file on her. She was a Monarchist until the Party folded, and she has been very influential in MSI circles since then. But always behind the scenes.”
“General Arcibaldo’s party.”
“That’s the one. She happens to own the building they use on Via della Scrofa. And she supported Arcibaldo for his seat in Parliament when he retired from the Carabinieri.”
“Interesting. I can’t believe that we had nothing on someone that important all this time.” He shook his head.
“What do you have?” asked Redwood.
“We identified all three men, thanks to your drawings, Sandra. They were so good that we could run them through a facial recognition program that the National Security Agency is developing, and we got perfect hits.”
“Amazing what computers can do, eh?” said Redwood.
“Yes. And remember that the NSA program is still codeword classified. Don’t ask for details.”
“Of course. Well?”
“The Soviet is Colonel Viktor Pachinsky of the GRU. He is wanted in a dozen countries, including the US and Canada. He returned to Moscow last week.
“The two Egyptians are who they say they are. The surprise is that the woman with abu Yousseff is Mossad, the Israeli secret service. Thanks for including her in your drawings, Sandra. She came as his date, no name given. We would have missed her.”
“She seemed like the most interesting person in the conversation, sir. I had to draw her or itch about it forever.” She looked at both men. “If I may ask, why are you sharing this with me?”
Redwood answered. “Because you may see more of this kind of work. We applied to have your security clearances increased to Top Secret and SCI. As soon as you’re briefed, we may be asking you to attend highly classified meetings or events and draw what you see. Interested?”
“Oh. Okay.” She smiled, feeling a little embarrassed. Sensitive Compartmented Information was even touchier than Top Secret. “Thank you – I think?”
© 2021, JT Hine
Next week, the Freewheeling Freelancer will ride up the Danube to Bratislava. The link will be here, too.
Then in two weeks, another short story from Hilda’s adventurous past. Come back!