Purple Heart

“HEY, PAISLEY!” Hilda turned to the familiar voice of Chrissy McLintock, combat medic in the second platoon of Bravo Company. “Have you seen your new platoon sergeant?”

“No. I only just found out that Sarge had orders.”

“He reported to the wrong tent an hour ago, and our platoon sergeant sent him to your platoon.” Chrissy held her hand up over her head. “You can’t miss him. He’s taller than you!”

At almost six-foot-five, Hilda was a legend in Bravo Company, indeed in the entire battalion.

“As soon as I pick up our ambulance from the motor pool, I’ll be back.”

“You’re in for a shock, girl.”

They high-fived and walked their separate ways. Hilda wondered why the new platoon sergeant would be of interest to her friend but dropped that thought when she walked into the motor pool garage. Twenty minutes later, she backed the eighteen-ton Stryker medical evacuation vehicle into its spot, recorded the instrument readings on the clipboard, and pulled herself up to the driver hatch.

She stood in the hatch and stared.

Sarge was walking toward the barracks where her platoon lived, with what had to be his relief. Two metres tall, with the high cheekbones and jet-black skin of a Zulu, the new platoon sergeant was at least as African as Hilda’s father, whom he resembled slightly.

Sarge slapped the new man to a halt and waved for Hilda to come down. Hilda was aware of the new sergeant’s surprise, but it was not the usual leer. He smiled as if seeing a friend or relative.

“This is PFC Hilda Paisley.”

“Manny Scott.” He shook hands with her. “I’m looking forward to knowing everyone.”

“Welcome to Baghdad, sir.”

“Where are you from, Paisley?”

“Germany.”

“That’s not a German accent – or an American one.”

“No. My grandfather is English, and my father was born and raised in London before emigrating to the US. He settled in my mother’s hometown.” Scott raised his eyebrows. “Kaiserslautern.”

“Come on, Manny,” said Sarge. “You will definitely want to check the personnel files before our first muster with the platoon. We have some very interesting characters.” The two sergeants moved to the barracks building, using the side door closest to their rooms.

Two days later, the old sarge formally turned over his duties to Sergeant First Class Scott and followed his duffel into a jeep for the ride to the airbase.

***

The Strykers stopped at the edge of the hills. The Blackhawk helos that had reported seeing movement on their way back to the air base were refuelling now and would return.

The hills formed a sort of amphitheatre rising from the desert around them. The company commander ordered each platoon to scale in a different direction, meaning to reach the ridge about the same time.

While the gunners scanned the rocks for enemies, the infantrymen poured out of the vehicles, and began climbing. Hilda shouldered her medical backpack and grabbed her M-4 rifle, as Pac-Man brought the Stryker ambulance up behind the combat vehicles and lowered the ramp. She ran out and followed the three squads of her platoon. Sergeant Scott was with the second squad, more or less leading the phalanx as they climbed the hills. Gunfire from the Strykers erupted even before bullets from the ridge slammed into the rocks around them.

In front of Hilda, one man fell backwards. She caught his tumbling body before he rolled twice. Blood spurted from his right arm, but nothing else seemed amiss.

Hilda may him flat and whipped out a tourniquet from her pocket (some things were needed too quickly to keep in the backpack). He woke up as she finished wrapping the deep gash (no bullet to extract). His brown eyes were clear.

“Thank God.” He grinned. “It’s the Black Amazon!”

“Hold that thought. You may have company. How do you feel?”

“It’s starting to hurt.”

“I’ve got you shielded by this rock. Stay here and rest. I’ll collect you on the way down, or you can make your way down if you keep low.”

“I’m a sneaky bastard, Paisley. I’ll make it.”

“Good.” She slapped his other shoulder and shouldered her pack.

The platoon was only another twenty feet ahead of where they had been. They must be terrible shots, she thought. Thank God, or I’d be stepping over piles of bodies.

She remembered that most of the ISIS fighters that she had seen had been boys, some barely teenagers. She wondered if any of them ever got enough time to develop proficiency with their weapons.

As she caught up with the platoon, she estimated that someone with a good throwing arm might be in grenade range. It was hard to make progress, with bullets chipping the rocks constantly.

Fifteen metres ahead, a grenade hit the rock and exploded in the air. She saw Sergeant Scott and the two men on either side of him fall still. She ran.

Scott was bleeding from the arms and legs. A gash in his head accounted for the dazed look and his immobility. She quickly checked the other two. Both dead.

She returned to Scott. As she talked, she bandaged his arms and legs. Nothing arterial, but he had lost too much blood anyway. She laid him down on her backpack.

“I’ll get you out of here, but first I need to remove the interference.”

She grabbed two grenades from his belt and ran to the rocks where the grenade had bounced. She looked right and left at the stunned soldiers.

“Any fucking quarterbacks here?” she shouted. “Where’s that Hail Mary pass?”

She pulled the pin on the first grenade and threw it so hard it disappeared behind the ridge. She pulled the pin on the second grenade and threw it before the first one went off, blasting rock chips into the air to rain down on them.

The other soldiers saw what she did and began tossing a grenade when each thought he could lob it over the ridge.

A fighter with an AK-47 stepped over the rocks and aimed at her. Two more came out. She whipped her M-4 to a firing position, but her left arm pulled back as two rounds tore through it. She fell, whirling around to roll back up. Before she could feel the pain in her left arm, she stood and put a pair of triple bursts into two of the fighters. The man on her left shot the third. She began running to the ridge, screaming curses in florid Arabic and calling a plague on her enemies.

The platoon followed her. The ISIS fighters paused in surprise for just long enough for it to be fatal. The platoon overran the ridge.

When the men had passed over the ridge, Hilda looked back at Scott. He was trying to stand. To the left, two men were down, and to the right another was getting up, but could not walk.

Hilda estimated the two on the left needed her first, so she ran there, shouting to Sergeant Scott to stay put. The platoon would be back.

Less than ten minutes later, the platoon started back down the hill. The six men that they had not shot had killed themselves. Hilda deployed a stretcher for Sergeant Scott, while she directed different soldiers to help the other three. Later, four men would return for the bodies of the fallen.

Hilda stayed in the back of the Stryker medical evacuation vehicle with all five wounded, while Pac-man and Schwarz got them back to the base. Scott went in and out of consciousness. She had put him and the soldier with the arterial wound in bunk/gurney stations, letting the other three sit on the third bunk.

Back at the clinic, the nurses and medics met them with gurneys. Hilda squeezed Sergeant Scott shoulder. He had just woken up.

“We’re back, Sarge. You’ll be okay.”

“Thanks, Paisley.” And he slept.

Hilda turned back to the ambulance for some bandages for her own arm, which was bleeding through the sloppy wrapping she had applied with her right hand.

“Wait a minute, Paisley!” It was the nurse, Captain Steves. “Looks like you’re wounded, too.”

“Just a scratch, ma’am.”

“They all say that.” Steves caught her by the right arm and turned her around. “Let me have a look. Jesus, Paisley! You’ve been mangled. Gurney, stat!”

Hilda did not hear the rest. Relief like a warm river swept over her. She smiled as she let her knees buckle. And she slept.

***

Hilda opened her eyes and shut them immediately against the bright neon lamps in the ceiling.

“Welcome back, Private.” She turned her head away from the light and opened her eyes again. Captain Steves, smiling. “You had us worried there.”

“What about? All I remember is a couple of rounds in my left arm. We got out there and back, didn’t we?”

“But do you know what a pair of seven-point-six-two rounds can do to your flesh? While you were dragging the others back here, you lost almost a liter of blood.”

“Oh. That must be why I passed out.”

“Yes. The surgeons were able to put everything back together, so you should be able to use the arm normally, but you’ll have some dramatic scars to show off.”

“Good thing I didn’t plan to have a tattoo, then.” Nurse Steves laughed. “How long have I been here?”

“This is the second day.” She backed up. “Someone has been asking about you since he woke up this morning.”

From the next bed, Sergeant Scott smiled. “Thanks, again, Paisley. You saved all of us, you know.”

“Oh, bullshit, Sarge. I just had to clear out the idiots who were keeping me from getting you down the hill. That’s my job.”

Scott raised his eyebrows. “They told me you speak your mind, but do you usually talk to your platoon sergeant that way?”

Hilda felt herself transported back to fourth grade. If she could have blushed, she would have been beet red.

“Sorry, Sergeant Scott. Hanging around Bravo Company too long.”

He laughed. “Apology accepted. Nothing I haven’t heard. I’m just used to doing the intimidating. It feels strange to meet someone who isn’t impressed.”

“Anyway, now that I am done being rude, it is true that all I did was what was necessary to get my wounded away safely.”

“You did more than that, Paisley,” Scott said.

Captain Steves smiled at the two tall Africans.

Hilda asked the nurse, “how long will I be here?”

“Another two days, to make sure there is no reaction to the transfusions and that the wounds are healing properly.”

“I get to stay?” Usually, wounded soldiers were evacuated to Germany.

“If you want, we can arrange that, but you can rehab the arm here as easily as there. Want to go home? I know you live near Landstuhl.”

“No. It’s a relief.” She looked her roommate. “What about Sarge?”

“Thanks to the speed with which you bandaged him, he can stay, too. He bitched so loud about not evacuating that the surgeon recommended return-to-duty just to shut him up.”

“I just got here,” he said.

“Well, you can thank Paisley for that – or blame her later when you wish you were Stateside.” She put a hand on each of them. “You two trade insults in privacy for a while. I’ll be back.”

“Thank you, Captain.” They both said.

***

The next morning, Sergeant Scott and his medic both felt much better as they ate breakfast.

“We may never get a chance to talk like this again,” he said. “I thought I was the only African in the Army. You don’t look African. Where are your people from?”

“I’m only half-African, Sarge. My mother is half-German and half-Swedish. I look just like her. My grandfather emigrated from Rhodesia. And my father is still on active duty, so you’re not alone. What about you?”

“We emigrated from Botswana when I was only a year old, so I don’t remember the country. Chicago is home.”

“Looking at you, I see something very familiar, like my father. Were your people originally from Botswana?”

“No. We were Zulu who moved north after the English took over.”

Ingabe ungumZulu?” Are you Zulu?

Scott’s jaw dropped for only a second. He smiled broadly.

Yebo, kodwa angikukhulumi.” Yes, but I don’t speak it. “That’s about all I can handle. My family spoke Tswana at home, and I grew up with that and English. Do you speak Zulu at home?”

“No. Like your family, mine moved north. We speak Shona and English.”

“So, you’re not African-American.”

“No, I’m African-German, but we’re all Americans, aren’t we?”

“More than most of our neighbours understand, I think.”

They sat in silence for a while.

Captain Steves and one of the medics walked in.

“You’ve got visitors,” she said, as the medic cleared out the breakfast trays.

Colonel Barker, the battalion commander, appeared behind the nurse. The company commander followed him, with the battalion adjutant. Barker was a sturdy, Black infantryman, going a little grey on the sides.

“Good morning, Sergeant Scott, Private Paisley. We have a surprise for you, well, several surprises.

“But first, welcome to Baghdad, Sergeant.” He went to Scott bedside and shook hands. “I’m sorry we didn’t get a chance to meet sooner.”

“I didn’t expect this to happen right away, sir.”

“No, but as you can see, we keep very busy here.”

“Yes, sir.”

“The doctors told me about your refusing medevac to Germany. Thank you for that. I’m looking forward to having you on the team.” He stood between the beds. “We’ll be having a muster after you are both released. Purple Hearts to the wounded, of course.

“And something special for Private Paisley here.”

Hilda felt a stab of concern.

“Sir?”

“Major Richardson showed me a classified report from the time Bravo Company spent in Khartoum. Apparently, you’ve been taking out jihadis in two countries since you arrived from Basic Training.”

Hilda looked at the major. “They would have tortured the hotel owner, and maybe the other guests, sir.”

“So I understand. But added to the three sorties I’ve watched you accompany as a combat medic here, that’s four combat engagements in which you took action. You’re the best combat infantryman in my battalion, Paisley. I don’t care what the Army says.”

Sergeant Scott looked surprised, but pleased. The major was beaming behind the colonel.

“I told you, sir. I wanted to be infantry.”

“Well, we can’t give you an eleven-bravo MOS, but we did the next best thing we could” The 11B military occupational specialty denoted infantry.

“Sir?”

He turned to the adjutant, who handed him a blue box, the kind that medals come in. The colonel opened it and held it for Hilda to see.

“You’ll be the only female medic in the Army with a Combat Infantryman badge. It’s the least we could do to recognize the realities. Congratulations, Private Paisley. Wear it with pride.”

Hilda felt a swelling in her throat. She cleared it gently.

“I will, sir. Thank you.”

© 2021, JT Hine

Next the week, the Freewheeling Freelancer continues his ride to the Cumberland Gap. Come on over!

Music and Sketches

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?”

“Yes, sir.”

“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.”

“Yes, sir.”

“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?”

“His secretary.”

“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.”

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!