I really wanted to tell Brande to take his glass of dry Sherry and get the hell out of my office, but you can’t say that to a wizard without there being trouble. I lowered my gaze and rustled papers on my desk hoping maybe he’d get the hint, but he obviously felt that he had a few last words to say.
“I’ll probably be able to see you again in a few months. It’s becoming more difficult to enter and leave Prague…I hope you understand.”
“Well,” I lifted my gaze and met his, “that’s what happens when you let a gang of Nazis run into your territory.”
“When we’re over here, I’m Emelie.”
He waved his hand and took another sip of Sherry. “Of course, Emelie. If we had been ready, perhaps we could’ve fought them off without any trouble. But now…” he shook his head and it made me feel a pang of guilt for being dismissive.
“We’re all trying to do what we can, right?” I placed my hand over his in a conciliatory gesture. I knew how he felt when the Gray Tower did nothing as the SS and German Armed Forces rolled into Czechoslovakia and took over. However, the Order of Wizards couldn’t make a move without being detected by certain enemies of our own.
I knew he would’ve been first in line to fight off the enemy despite that fact, and that’s what I was already doing in my own way. I had to admit though that I couldn’t escape the nagging feeling that we were so wrapped up in living for a cause that sometimes it felt like life passed us by. He and I could have easily enjoyed our drinks over a dinner table in a dimly lit nightclub with our bodies swaying to the beat of music. It would have been a nice change of scene from the solitude and monotony of my cramped office.
Knowing Brande though, he probably thought this was just fine—which was a shame because what girl wouldn’t want to be seen in public with him? I didn’t realize my hand was still touching his as I thought about all this and he gave me a quizzical look (but he didn’t withdraw his hand, either).
I pulled my hand away, a little flushed, and just then Ian walked in carrying a file. Brande acknowledged him with a nod and Ian did the same. When Brande faced me again I could see Ian pointing toward the left wall at an informational poster that you could find posted in nearly every pub in London nowadays. It portrayed men wearing military uniforms, frozen in laughter with a group of women hanging onto them. A caption at the bottom of the poster read: What you say to your friends…could be heard by the enemy!
I always laughed at that poster hanging in here, but nevertheless I’ve seen some inexperienced operatives unwittingly betray themselves and their cohorts by not taking that motto to heart.
“Emelie,” Ian cleared his throat, “the file is ready.” He furtively glanced at Brande.
“I swear I tried to make him leave,” I said as I shrugged my shoulders. Ian was even less patient with Brande’s presence than I was.
Brande pulled a package from a hidden pocket inside his trench coat. “Your emerald spectacles, jade powder, and red garnet lipstick.”
I didn’t always have time to make or procure enchanted items, and I appreciated whenever he delivered them. Emerald granted the ability to see in the dark; jade’s healing powers had saved me on several occasions from grievous wounds and poison, and I used red garnet sparingly as it inspired romantic desires and aggression. I learned a long time ago to manipulate the magical qualities in these stones and work them into everyday items. Whipping out a stone isn’t very subtle, and in my line of work a lack of subtlety could get you killed.
Brande handed me the coveted items and finished his Sherry. “Perhaps you’ll come to the Gray Tower once you’re done playing spy with the British.” He rose from his seat and shouldered his way past Ian, leaving us alone in the office. I didn’t know why, but Brande’s comment stung me.
I looked at Ian. “I know what you’re going to say—”
“I trust you, not him. Besides, don’t you think it’s all part of a nefarious plot that the Gray Tower sends him over? If Bernadine actually did her job and stopped gushing over him at the reception desk, then maybe I could get a few words out of the bloke.”
I let out an irritated sigh. “I swear sometimes you act as if you don’t want a wizard on staff. If that’s the case, then you shouldn’t have recruited me.”
He shook his head as if saying he wasn’t going down that road today. “Look, when are you going to let us take this out?” He glanced at the other half of the office where an empty desk and chair stood collecting dust, and where notes and pictures clung to the wall.
“Why do you suddenly care?” My eyes narrowed. I had noticed when I first joined the Special Operations Executive that all the men had their own offices while all the women had to pair up and share, sometimes three to an office.
My officemate and friend was a girl named Stella, whose husband died in a battle last year. She wanted to help the Resistance in any way she could and successfully ran missions for us, but she hasn’t reported back to us since January and now it was the middle of June.
“We’ve got a new recruit, I think you’ll like her.”
“Not interested. What do you have for me?” The last thing I needed was a wide-eyed new girl following me around talking about how swell it was to spy on the Nazis.
He opened the file to reveal a dossier and pointed toward a profile picture of an older gentleman. “I presume you’ve heard of Dr. Veit Heilwig?”
“The scientist? Yes.”
“For the past three months Allied forces have been taking heavy blows from the Nazis on the Western Front. The bastards have been violating the Geneva Protocol and unleashing a new chemical weapon on our soldiers. We have evidence that—”
“There may be more than just chemicals in those weapons?” I fondled the Agate stone set in my ring.
He nodded. “Do you remember that incident with the poisoned food and water?”
“Believe me, I’m not forgetting that anytime soon.”
The contaminated goods had unwittingly been dispersed among Ally soldiers throughout Europe. Over a thousand had died before it could be counteracted and hundreds more were still lying in hospital beds, strangely disfigured and barely alive. All we could do was separate and destroy the contaminated food, and there was still no known cure.
“That was Heilwig’s work. Now he’s perfected it…they’re calling it The Plague. At this rate he’ll win the war for Hitler and the Black Wolves, and that’s exactly why we need another alchemist to go up against him, neutralize the new chemical weapons he’s developed, and take him out.”
“You want me to kill him?”
“No, take him out of France. We want to extract him.”
“Why do you want him alive?” And how exactly did they want me to kidnap him? You can’t just walk up to a warlock and cuff him and tell him to come along. Next time I’ll save my plaintive musings about life passing me by in favor of me wanting to just live another day. This was going to be a tough mission.
“Just…read the dossier. I’ve got MI6 breathing down my neck over this one and Morton’s just dying for an excuse to discredit us.”
“My goodness, we wouldn’t want that, now would we?” Discredit happened to be the least of my worries buddy—I could be rotting in Dr. Meier’s Nazi experimental program by next week if I fail. Half the things I heard about it I refused to believe and the other half I resolved to never find out through experience. I swore this would be my last assignment, and then if I had any sense left I’d gracefully exit the stage and go quietly live my life elsewhere…preferably with a handsome guy who didn’t mind that I could create explosions and induce heart attacks.
Ian rolled his eyes. Sometimes I wondered if he wanted to throttle me for my backtalk. “Report to the hangar tomorrow at the appointed time so Richard can take you over to Paris. And don’t be late.”
“What is it?”
I felt like squirming in my seat. “You got my resignation letter, right? I put it on your desk this morning.”
He pursed his lips. “I wanted to give you some time to think it over. That Denmark job really got to you, didn’t it?”
“I’ll do this last assignment, but promise me you’ll have the final paperwork ready to sign when I return from Paris.” My shoulders tensed in anticipation of his objections, and about how much SOE needed me.
“All right then,” he said in a low voice. “I don’t want to see you go, but if that’s what you want…”
As he turned and headed toward the door with his gangly walk, I glanced at the clock on the wall and winced. Ideally my routine would have been to nestle in my reclining chair and eat dinner by 7 p.m., but instead 8 o’ clock stared back at me without apology. I flipped through the dossier, noting the most important details and memorizing Dr. Heilwig’s face, knowing that when I’m dropped into Paris tomorrow evening I wouldn’t have the dossier to reference nor any identification papers or passports on me.
We did this for two reasons: an agent’s counterfeit identification could be damaged or lost during transport anyway, and in the case of arrest, the Gestapo often found it difficult to verify or prove she was a spy. I usually obtained papers from trusted sources on an as-needed basis, but if I didn’t need them, then I did not carry papers. When I first began this, I found it all exciting because it allowed me to be anyone I wanted, but after a few months I ended up feeling like I was no one.
Sometimes I had to remind myself that Emelie was just my code name, and that her preferred mannerisms or activities weren’t necessarily the ones Isabella George liked. My officemate Stella had gone to France often under the name Angela Wyatt, and had chosen it because her mother’s first name was Angela and she obsessed over the 16th Century poet Thomas Wyatt.
After my first few missions I grew apathetic in choosing names. One day Ian suggested Emelie because he said when he was younger he had always wanted a little sister by that name. Since he had never gotten one and I was the closest thing to it, he said I should go with the moniker, and I’ve been using it ever since.
My lips curved into a slight smile at remembering this but then turned into a frown as I thought about Stella’s failure to report back. Wherever she was, I hoped that she had only been delayed and needed to hide with the French Resistance or was already en route to London. In any case, I wanted Stella’s belongings to remain here untouched if she happened to return—I didn’t want her to think we gave up on her so quickly. In keeping with my weekly routine, I grabbed my dusty handkerchief from my desk drawer and wiped off her belongings.
I wondered with a twinge of sadness if anyone would do that for me if I had been missing for five months, and I didn’t even want to think about what Ian would have to tell my family under those circumstances: So sorry, your daughter wasn’t really working for the U.S. Ambassador to Great Britain—she was gallivanting about Europe engaging in counter-missions against the Nazis because we couldn’t afford Hitler’s occult powers to gain an advantage over Allied forces.
It would kill my mother and brother to find out about me that way, and though pride kept me from saying it, the longer Stella went missing, the more anxious I grew that I may very well be next. Then what? Without a doubt, this would have to be my last mission behind enemy lines.
When I arrived at my flat, I pulled out the few supplies I would take with me to Paris: a wad of francs, the enchanted items Brande brought me, and my golden alchemist’s knife. I placed them on my nightstand and then headed into the kitchen to fix myself dinner. I went through the cabinets and refrigerator but found nothing that piqued my appetite. My friend Jane Lewis usually came home around this time and she cooked enticing meals like lamb stew and meatloaf. Most importantly, she generously shared them with me.
I still hopelessly tried to make an American dish every now and then but then I would only end up frustrated and yearning for home while my belly groaned. I decided to see what Jane was cooking and went downstairs to her flat on the first floor. I knocked a couple of times and she answered the door, wearing a dirty apron and wiping flour from her hands. Her freckled face broke into a smile and she welcomed me in.
“Please, have a seat, Isabella. I was just finishing the liver sandwiches.” She went back into her kitchen and pulled a dish out of the oven.
“Liver sandwiches?” I wanted to grimace but unless I was cooking for myself I had no right to object.
“Well, it’s more like a meat-filled pastry.”
“Filled with liver?” As if I were supposed to overlook that fact.
“Not everyone in the world eats just loads of fried cows and cheese.”
“This is going to be interesting.”
“I’m trying to follow the ration recipes from Woman’s Weekly.” She gestured toward the magazine on her coffee table.
“Is it that bad?” I went over and grabbed the magazine and flipped through its pages. I took a few moments to scan its housekeeping articles and recipes.
“It’s starting to be. If you went to buy food more often, you’d know.” She arranged the liver sandwiches on two plates and invited me to come sit with her at the dining table.
“You’re cooking an awful lot lately.” I took a bite and gave silent thanks that she had at least seasoned the meat.
“Well I’m just honing my housekeeping skills, you know.” She bit into her sandwich and turned her left hand to reveal a diamond engagement ring on her finger. She must have slipped it on in the kitchen.
“Congratulations, Jane.” With a smile I got up and threw my arms around her. “I didn’t know…have I been away that long?”
“It was all so sudden, even I’m still surprised.” Her face simply glowed.
“Garret is a lucky man.” I frowned when she took it upon herself to plop another sliver of sandwich into my mouth. I wondered if she hid some stew or dumplings in the refrigerator and this was all to torture me.
“And it came at the perfect time. I was just thinking last week what I was going to do with myself.”
My smile faded. “You were tired, weren’t you?”
She nodded and tears formed in her eyes. “I don’t want you to get the wrong idea. I still believe in what we’re fighting for, but we all have to retire some time, right?”
“Sure we do.”
Jane’s sister, Anna, had been one of three Special Operations Executive agents arrested by Nazis last October in the Netherlands and immediately sentenced to death by firing squad. They had no pity on her because she was a woman; the SS shot her down and threw her body into a heaping pile of other victims.
“Besides,” she wiped her face, “I’m getting old and I want babies. All my girlfriends who I grew up with are married off and raising families.”
“Well I’m glad for you, Jane. You deserve a happy life with Garret.”
I asked her to recount the whole proposal from beginning to end. I asked to see her ring again and secretly felt a mixture of excitement and envy. Afterward, I offered to clear the table and wash dishes so she wouldn’t try to feed me anything else. We made small talk the rest of the time and she reminded me about some letters that she had been holding for me. I thanked her and continued cleaning the kitchen, wiping down the counters and saving scraps of leftover food.
I couldn’t help but steal glances of her engagement ring every few minutes and savor the sweet smoothness of the gold it was made of. As an alchemist, I had a natural ability to taste the metallic essence of metals. I eyed the shining round-cut diamond set in the middle and wondered if I would cry or jump with excitement if someone ever proposed to me.
Though my life as a spy did have its share of excitement, I couldn’t deny the mental, physical, and even spiritual drain that this line of work had on me. I remembered days when I would refuse to get out of bed because weariness or distress dragged me down. Even when Ian had sent a car for me, I wouldn’t answer. At other times I’d return from a mission with a stone cold face and impenetrable heart, and then as soon as I stepped through my doorway I would start bawling. I called it being tired, and I understood what Jane felt.
I wasn’t going to lie to myself, I did want to one day be married, move somewhere close to my brother and his wife so we could watch our kids grow up together, and stroll through my quiet little neighborhood not having to wonder if the friendly neighbor down the street was an enemy operative with a gun behind his back. I wanted to be in control of how I lived, and I just couldn’t reconcile this with living and dying by others’ orders.
“I should go back up to my flat. I’m going to Paris tomorrow.” I came back into the living room and leaned over the sofa to give Jane a peck on the cheek.
“Be careful, do you hear me?”
“You know I will, because I want to make it back for your wedding. When will it be?”
“March, of next year.” She got up and walked me over to the door.
“I think I can make it back by then.”
She laughed. “You’d better. And I want to come to yours one day.”
“I’d have to find a guy to stick with me first.”
We said our goodnights and I headed back upstairs, feeling loneliness creep upon me. I quickly changed and got into bed, and began browsing through the letters Jane had given me. Some were bills, others were solicitations for mail order catalogs, and of course I received my letter from Jonathan. I tossed the others aside and opened his cryptic letter written under the pseudonym Sherman Woods.
I had told him a long time ago that since I had access to “sensitive information in the ambassador’s office,” that my employer frowned upon casual and steady communication with family and friends. Johnnie took it upon himself to start writing me once a month using a silly code language we used to communicate in when we were children.
I always found his letters, and the effort he put into them, amusing and gratefully welcomed. In fact, I found the elaborate system we had come up with quite impressive. I think the codes would actually work if I wanted to use them for a real mission. As I read his account of his weekly triumphs and worries, as well as how mother was faring, I wistfully thought of the look on his face if I were to just show up on his doorstep.
Well, perhaps I could do that when I’m done with this mission. The sooner I extracted Heilwig and got rid of The Plague, the sooner I could be finished and truly go home. I slowly drifted into a restless sleep hoping for this outcome, and of course, wondering what my final assignment would be like.
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