Nora bit down hard on the tourniquet, pulling the fibers taut to staunch the bleeding. Another round of incendiaries detonated at the bottom of the hill, the shock popping her already tender ears. She fell flat behind the nearest bit of cover, a jagged block of concrete jutting from the ground. An erratic spray of gunfire followed close on the heels of the explosion. Nora scanned the open ground among the scattered ruins, but there was no sight of any of her comrades. That was probably just as well. It was her fault they were in this mess, anyway.
Only a few nights before, she had been in Wien, on the top floor of a tiny hotel overlooking the old ring road. The city lights glittered through the window. She could see them in the mirror. Benny and Margot were fastening her dress. Well, Margot was. Benny was prepping her, for the hundredth time, on the details of her assignment.
“Consulate Mahler and his wife gave Dressen the invitation explicitly to talk business,” he reiterated, ducking his head so that Margot could reach to button the top button of the bordeaux-colored glove on Nora’s raised arm.
“It’s very likely they’ll retire to the second floor library after intermission, so be sure to find Dressen before then.”
Nora nodded. She knew the speech by heart. Casting a sympathetic glance, Margot pulled a cigarette from the silver case in Nora’s coin purse and placed it between her lips.
“Tell me again,” Benny continued, straightening her pendant, “How you’ll know Dressen when you see him?”
Nora leaned her mouth forward, hands still in the air, indicating that one of her comrades should light the fag dangling there. Benny obliged. Margot cinched the belt of the gown and Nora dropped her arms at last. She drew the cigarette from her mouth and told him what he wanted to hear.
“Dark hair,” she said, exhaling a little smoke, “Grey eyes, two-to-three inches above six feet in height, with an opal ring worn always on the little finger of the left hand.”
Benny nodded staidly, but his eyes gave it up. Nora had been chosen for her good German and her pert lips, but it was clear he had his misgivings about her severe lack of experience. Still, Nora reminded herself, she’d read as much as he had—and him having lived out of a bookshop on the Kam!
Margot held up the hand mirror. ”Well,” she said, reflecting on her handiwork, “It’s not ideal, but it was the best we could do in the circumstances.” She handed Nora the mirror.
“I wish you’d given me more time,” she added, turning to Ben.
“We didn’t have any more time,” Benny replied, pacing his little path at the foot of the bed.
“I think it’s lovely,” Nora declared, kissing Margot on the cheek. She smelled of peppermint.
“You have a run at the top of your right stocking,” Benny observed, pointing to Nora’s leg. ”If anyone sees that, they’ll make you for sure. Be careful to watch your hem.”
Nora would have nodded, but at that very moment, the horn began to blare on the street below.
“That’s your cab!” Margot exclaimed.
“Go on!” Benny shouted. ”We don’t have the fare to call another.”
Nora did as she was told. Turning to close the door, she caught her superior’s eye.
“Be careful, Cole,” he said nervously.
Nora laughed to herself. She’d be damned if she’d be careful. She’d be something better yet: she’d be a success.
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