The Countess’ Story
Valentina Pirenzi was terrified. She was in way over her head, and she knew it. What she did not know, was what to do about it. She’d been flying by the seat of her pants for the last twenty minutes and it didn’t take an experienced agent to figure out that that kind of improvisation was dangerous. Very dangerous. Quite possibly deadly. She was not an experienced agent. She was only a Countess. All that was supposed to be required of her was that she be diplomatic and graceful and – when the time came – that she marry well. How did she end up here?
She’d stumbled upon what her father was doing on accident. She never would have suspected that her pudgy, balding, good-natured papa was actually living a double life. She’d always thought he was somewhat scatter-brained, in a loveable sort of way; just another of the pampered rich. But it was all a front for the operation. Even his marriage to her mother was merely a part of their grand designs.
His love for Valentina was real, however, and he’d flatly refused when his operatives suggested using her for the drop. He had never wanted her to know about any of this, he certainly didn’t want her involved. She thought it would be exiting. Of course, she never really understood anything at all. Only that her family, her country, her very way of life was in danger, and her father was trying to protect it. It all seemed very glamorous. She helped them convinced papa that she was the obvious choice for the job. Her knowledge of languages, her looks, and in the event of trouble with the British government, her diplomatic immunity, made her a perfect replacement for their previous agent. They were sketchy about what had happened to her, and naive as she was she did not question them on it.
She had wanted to be fully briefed – “Isn’t that what you call it?” she’d giggled. It all seemed like a game to her then. Cloak and dagger. They’d decided that her relative ignorance might actually work in her favor. In the end, they’d not even told her what was in the stupid valise.
The wig was their idea. “There will be too many people who would notice you in London.” they’d explained. Yes, she supposed even she could see the logic in that. She was no spy, and their enemies knew that, but her sudden appearance in London would be suspicious.
The plan was supposed to be quite simple: Take the Underground to the appointed station. Go to the newsstand. Give the signal. The operative would approach her. Wait for the code. Give him the valise, and leave. Be calm, be quick, do not draw attention to yourself. It all seemed simple enough, but it had all gone so horribly wrong.
She got on the Underground at the London City Airport station right on schedule. Everything seemed fine, but she’d started to get nervous the minute she reached the platform. Just nerves, certainly. She willed herself not to look around her, though she swore there were eyes peering out at her from every shadow. She was downright jumpy by the time she boarded the train and took a seat.
The car was full of business travelers, and she was somewhat comforted by the safety of the crowd. Surely nothing could happen to her with all these people – all these witnesses – so near by.
She pretended to read the paper, and had started to relax a bit, when someone took the seat opposite her. She lowered the corner of her newspaper, and sitting slouched across two seats was a lanky, dark haired man in a scuffed leather jacket and engineer boots. He smelled slightly of stale beer and cigarettes, and his unkempt head keened slightly to one side. Before she could raise the paper again, their eyes met, and he flashed a smile full of woefully neglected teeth.
“Hey there . . . ” he slurred pruriently.
Oh, terrific – she thought. Just what I need right now is some drunken git with a Romeo complex. She was about to get up, when he leaned closer . . . .and whispered the code.
She stiffened. Her mind raced – that was the code, but this wasn’t how it was supposed to go, what’s going on?
She took a deep breath; returned her eyes to the paper; tried to look relaxed.
“You were supposed to be at the newsstand.”, she whispered.
He slumped over a bit in his chair and appeared to be nodding off. “I’m not your contact.”, he said. “We have a problem.”
“What?” she said. A little too loudly. One or two eyes shifted.
“Be quiet and listen carefully.”, he said. “The operation has been compromised.”
“Abort?” she asked. Hoped. This was getting a little squirrelly.
“The drop is off, but we still need you. Our operative is in trouble. They’ve got an agent inside the operation. We don’t think they know who he is, but they know that the drop is today, and it won’t be long before they’ll figure him out. We’re not sure how they found out about the drop. We’ve long suspected that the stenographers were leaking information to the other side, but we’ve kept them misinformed. Or so we thought. We’ve got to get him out of there.”
“What do you want me to do?”, she asked. Squirrelly indeed, by God. . .
“We need you to go to the drop site as scheduled. When you meet our operative you’ll brief him on everything. The agent following him is one Svetlana Tereshkova. She’s one of their best. We’re not sure yet what name she’s using, or what she’ll look like these days. She’s known for her husky voice and her penchant for lethal jewelry. Watch out for her.
You’ll leave the valise with me. It’s too dangerous for you both if you bring it now. When you’ve briefed our operative, leave him. He’ll know where to go. We’re hoping they’ll follow him, thinking that the drop has been made. You just return to the Underground and lose yourself in the crowd. You’ll meet me again at precisely 11:15 am, and I’ll get you back home and out of this mess completely.”
He looked up at her then. Smiled. It reassured her. He really did have nice eyes. She smiled back.
“Where will I meet you?”
“A taxi will pick you up at . . . the . . .” his voice trailed off.
He slumped over a little farther. Forward this time. She leaned in and whispered “What?”
No answer. She was about to lean in even farther when she noticed the small blue dart lodged in the side of his neck.
She caught a scream in her throat, and managed not to leap out of her seat. What to do? Oh, my God they killed him! What do I do! She was panicking, and she knew it, but she had to get away. Get away, that was it. She ran to the doors just as they opened at the Stratford station. She ran. Bolted out onto the street and leapt into the first cab she saw.
“Drive!” she yelled, and thankfully, the driver complied.
She watched out the rear window to see if she was being followed. She didn’t think she was. But then again, She supposed that the unfortunate young man with the unkempt hair and nice eyes didn’t think he was being followed, either. She didn’t even know his name. She was about to burst into tears at this thought when the driver said “Where to, miss?”
It brought her back to herself. Think. She had to think, or she was in trouble, and she wasn’t the only one. What should she do? She’d have to go on with the meeting. There wasn’t really any other alternative. She didn’t know where else to find anyone who could help her. Hopefully the operative at the newsstand would know what to do. Right. Good. But what of the valise? The agent on the train said it would be dangerous to bring it. She’d have to hide it somewhere.
“Miss?” the driver said.
“Take me to the Highbury and Islington station, please.” That’s it. Back to the tubes. Because the operative would be expecting her to emerge from the Underground at the appointed station at the appointed time. She checked her watch. She would make it. Hopefully, she wasn’t being followed. It would be fine.
She locked the valise in a locker at the station and slipped the key into her trenchcoat. Hardly an ideal hiding spot, but it would have to do. At least it was a highly trafficked spot.
She emerged from the station right on time and went over to the newsstand. She tried to look casually at the magazines, but she was terrified, and her mind was reeling. She decided it might look authentic if she bought something, but she couldn’t concentrate on anything. The seconds stretched out. This needs to go well, she thought. Mustn’t be too obvious. Oh just pick one, dammit, and give the signal! she screamed at herself.
She was so preoccupied with the signal that she didn’t even realize she was purchasing a copy of Field and Stream until she stepped away from the counter. Appalled, she quickly folded the magazine and tucked it under her arm. Good God, what a mess she was making of this. She had to get a grip on herself. Calm down. Wait for the man with the code.
She struggled to keep her fingers from shaking as she lit a cigarette, and waited. . . .