Start reading The Lipstick Bureau by Michelle Gable and enter to win!
Inspired by a real-life female spy, a WWII-set novel about a woman challenging convention and boundaries to help win a war, no matter the cost.
Niki’s stomach flip-flops, and there’s a wild fluttering in her chest. You’re fine, she tells herself. In this buzzing, glittering room of some three hundred, she’s unlikely to encounter anyone she knows. Not that she’d recognize them if she did. It’s been almost forty-five years.
“Geez, what a turnout,” her daughter, Andrea, says as Niki takes several short inhales, trying to wrangle her breath. “Did you know this many people would show up?”
“I had no idea what to expect,” Niki answers, and this much is true. When the invitation arrived three months ago, she’d almost pitched it straight into the trash.
You are invited
to a Black-Tie Dinner
The Ladies of the O.S.S.
The ladies of the OSS. A deceptively quaint title, like a neighborhood bridge club, or a collection of wives whose given names are not important.
“You should go,” Niki’s husband had said when she showed him the thick, ecru cardstock with its ornate engraving. “Relive your war days.”
“Manfred,” Niki had replied sternly. “Nobody wants to relive those.”
Though he’d convinced Niki to accept the invitation, it hadn’t been the hardest sell. Manfred was ill—dying, in fact, of late-stage lung cancer—and Niki figured the tick mark beside “yes” was merely a way to delay a no.
The week before the event, Manfred was weaker than ever, and Niki saw her chance to back out. “I’ll just skip it,” she’d said. “This is for the best. You’d be bored out of your skull, and no one I worked with will even be there!”
“Zuska,” Manfred said, using her old pet name. As always, he’d known what his wife was up to. “I want you to go. Take Andrea. She could use a night out. It’d be like a holiday for her.”
“I don’t know…” Niki demurred. Their daughter did hate to cook, and no doubt longed for a break from her two extremely pert teenagers.
“You can’t refuse,” Manfred said. “What if this ends up qualifying as my dying wish?” It was a joke, but what could Niki possibly say to that?
Now she regrets having shown Manfred the invitation and is discomfited by the scene. Niki feels naked, exposed, as though she’s wearing a transparent blouse instead of a black sparkly top with double shoulder pads.
“Do you think you’ll spot anyone you know?” Andrea asks as they wend their way through the tables, scanning for number eighteen. Every Czech native considers eighteen an auspicious number, so maybe this is a positive sign.
“It’s unlikely,” Niki says. “The dinner is honoring women, and I mostly worked with men.” Most of whom are now dead, she does not add.
Soon enough, mother and daughter find their table, and exchange greetings with the two women already seated. Niki squints at their badges and notes they worked in different theaters of operation. On stage is a podium, behind it a screen emblazoned with O.S.S. Beneath the letters is a gold spade encircled in black.
“What a beautiful outfit!” says one of their tablemates in a tight Texas twang.
“Thank you.” Niki blushes lightly, smoothing her billowy, bright green chiffon skirt.
“You’re the prettiest one in the place,” Andrea whispers as they sit.
“What a load of shit,” Niki spits back. In this room, it’s sequins and diamonds and fur for miles. She pats Andrea’s hand. “But thank you for the compliment.” And thank God for Manfred, who’d raised their girl to treat her mother so well.
Manfred. Niki feels a quake somewhere deep. She is losing him. She’s been losing him for a long time, and maybe this is the reason she came tonight. Those three letters on-screen call up—rather, exhume—a swarm of emotions, not all of them good. But they also offer a strange kind of hope, a reminder that Niki’s survived loss before, and this old body of hers has lived more than one life.
“You let me do the talking.” It was not the first time Niki had said this to William Dewart, and it wouldn’t be the last. “You’re the one who got us into this mess,” she reminded him. “And I’m going to get us out.”
“Let’s agree that honesty is the best option here,” Will said, and Niki passed him a look. The man had his charms, but after a week of training, he’d proven the rumors were true. The Office of Strategic Services was nothing but a hodgepodge of army castoffs and every rich family’s one stupid son.
“That,” Niki said, “is not going to happen.”
Will furrowed the part of his face where his eyebrows had once been. “I still think—” he began but was interrupted by the thwack of a thrown-open door. Will and Niki jumped to their feet and offered salutes.
“Sit,” the man grunted—he was some major or another. Niki couldn’t keep it all straight. Because she was a woman, everyone was of higher rank than her, which was frustrating but also convenient in terms of figuring out who she was supposed to pay deference to, not that she always followed the rules.
After plunking down into his chair, the major flipped open a folder and scanned the report. Through it all, Will violently jiggled his leg. “You two have gotten yourselves into quite the pickle,” the man said. “Care to explain what the fu—” His eyes flicked toward Niki. “Care to explain what in tarnation happened out there?”
The official assignment was to detonate a bomb on the ninth green at Congressional Country Club—the regular stuff—and skedaddle while leaving no evidence of themselves behind. Unfortunately, the bomb had been slow to wake up, and Will went to inspect the thing at the exact moment it decided to ignite.
Upon seeing the blast of flame, Niki screamed and scrambled over to find Will lying in the grass, clutching his oft troubled stomach. “Are you okay?” she cried, jostling his shoulders as he swatted her away. When the commanding officer happened upon them several minutes later, Will remained splayed on the green with Niki hovering over him.
“It’s really quite straightforward,” Niki told the major. “We’ve already gone over this with the CO.” Sure, Niki could talk a good game but, between this incident and failing knife combat class, it was possible she didn’t have the makings of a very good spy.
“Straightforward?” the major barked. “The exercise was supposed to involve hand grenades and bunkers, not TNT and fairways. The golfers are not going to be happy.”
“Well, that’s a shame,” Niki said.
“The worst part,” he continued, and Niki was oddly pleased there was something worse than blowing up a golf course. “The worst part is that, in addition to ruining a perfectly good hole, you two dingbats didn’t even have the brains to hide. You just stood there, waiting to be captured by the enemy.”
“The instructor told us to wait,” Will said, his leg still antsy. “We weren’t supposed to leave until we confirmed the bomb went off.”
“Which does not explain why you were found minutes later still hanging—”
“It’s a new technique,” Niki blurted. Both men whipped in her direction as an idea formed like a fog in her mind. Niki smiled, though mostly on the inside. One did not survive years in a Nazi-occupied country without the ability to push around the truth. “The idea is to stand there and act shell-shocked, so to speak,” she explained. “Innocent. As though you have no idea what’s going on. It’s quite brilliant when you think about it. If you run, you might get caught, and there will be no denying what you’ve done.”
Niki threw on another smile, hoping the men didn’t hear the break in her voice.
“So, you just took it upon yourself to employ a new technique?” the major said, narrowing one eye.
“Yes and no,” Niki said, and Will made a loud puffing sound. “Our instructor told us that the ability to think on one’s feet is critical, and we should take every opportunity to do so.” Niki snuck a glance at Will, who looked awfully pale for a person who’d just burnt half his face. “When we realized someone handed us a bomb instead of grenades,” she said, turning back to the major, “and then the bomb acted a little fussy, we decided to change course.”
Will threw back his head in silent agony, though notably did not counter Niki’s retelling. Was this an American thing, to never go against a lady? That couldn’t be right. George contradicted her all the time.
The major exhaled and then released a soft chortle. If he was finding some humor in the situation, maybe they would be okay. This ragtag organization was new to the intelligence game, Niki understood, and they hardly knew what they were doing one minute to the next. The OSS her; they’d recruited her. Where else would they get a Czechoslovakian national turned American citizen with several degrees and fluency in multiple languages? Niki lowered her shoulders and began to relax.
“Can we return to training now?” she asked. “I suspect you’re compelled to write us up or whatnot. Feel free to get to it.” She waggled her fingers. “But we’d like to get back out there sooner rather than later, right, Dewart? I’ve been told that next week we get to practice sabotaging the Richmond ironworks?” If there was one thing Niki had learned in her twenty-five years, it was that the best way to get through something was to rev the engine and plow straight ahead.
“Oh. No. Absolutely not,” the man said, laughing again. Niki’s skin prickled, like nettles on the skin. “Clandestine work is out for you.”
“But that’s why I’m here!” she protested. “It’s why the OSS picked me.”
“I’m sorry, but not every recruit pans out, and it’s become patently obvious that we can’t drop you behind enemy lines.”
“After one minor slipup?” Niki said. “I’m perfectly capable…” She paused, heart pounding triple-time as she watched the major stretch back to open a drawer.
“You are a clever woman,” he said. “But you’re not dramatic enough.”
“Dramatic?” Niki said, her eyes starting to cross.
“She can be a dramatic,” Will mumbled.
“Contrary to popular notion,” the major said, “in order to sell one’s story, a good agent needs to be able to engage in histrionics. A personality like yours would never work. You’re too insouciant for a girl. Too devil-may-care.”
Will snorted, and Niki shot him a glare. “This was fault,” she hissed.
“You’d never keep your cover,” the major said. “I imagine you getting made, then attempting to persuade your captor that your blowing up his factory was a good thing.”
“Seems like this would be a positive attribute?” Niki said.
The major slapped a piece of paper onto his desk. As he scribbled, Niki drew forward for a better look, but his left hand blocked her view. Will stayed suspiciously quiet, the only sound the occasional stirring of his gut.
Niki cleared her throat. “But, sir,” she said. “I can learn to be histrionic if that’s what’s necessary. Back in my home country, I was a lawyer, and a journalist before. Which is to say, I’m capable of being more than one thing.”
The major affixed the mysterious paperwork with a gigantic red stamp.
“Not to mention,” Niki added, “you need my skills. How many American citizens have you met who speak eight languages want to help the cause?”
Niki recognized that she sounded pleading, borderline desperate, and that’s because she was. Being perfect for a busted-up group of outsiders meant she wasn’t qualified for much else, and Niki couldn’t lose this opportunity. An intelligence organization that sent people overseas was her best and only chance to find out about her parents and brother. Czechoslovakia was a black box, and not even her husband, who worked for the Office of War Information, could tell Niki what was going on there.
“I presume everyone wants to help the cause,” the major said. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t sign up.”
“Not everyone signs up, and not everyone can go behind enemy lines in multiple countries.” Countries like the former Czechoslovakia, if given her druthers.
“Don’t worry, Private,” the major said. “You’ll still contribute to the war effort. The big boss saw in you.” He smirked and gave Niki the kind of once-over that made her wish she had mastered close knife combat, after all. “I think there’s a better role.” He slid the paper across the desk. “Tomorrow at oh-nine-hundred hours, please report to room 112 in the Q Building. Here’s the address.”
Niki skimmed the form, though it didn’t tell her much. She saw her name and something about “Morale Operations.”
“So, I’m moving over to this…” She flapped the paper. “Morale Operations? And he gets to stay?” For fear of bruising his ego, Niki wouldn’t say it out loud, but six-and-a-half-foot timorous men were not especially undercover, William Dewart in particular. The man moved about the world as though someone once called him a bull in a china shop and he’d actively avoided teacups ever since.
“Just worry about yourself, sweetheart.” The major stood, signaling the meeting’s end. “When you arrive at the Q Building, give a false name and address to the receptionist.”
“Do you know whether Morale Operations is sent overseas?” Niki asked as she begrudgingly lifted onto her feet.
“Depends,” the man said. He walked around his desk, brushing his arm against hers as he reached for the door. “Wherever you end up, good luck,” he said. “You’ll do a swell job.”
Before stepping out into the hall, Niki glanced back and found Will’s eyes, a hint of apology in his gaze. Why was she the one getting booted when it was Will who’d grabbed the bomb? Will who’d nearly blown off his face? Niki had only hung around to make sure he was alive.
As far as Niki was concerned, the world had it all wrong. Men were supposed to be the heroes, the saviors, the rescuers of kittens in trees, but she’d seen scant evidence of this trait. Men seemed to cause the problems, not solve them. And, somehow, they always got in her way.
A waiter makes his way around the table with a pitcher of water. Nearby, another server is lifting silver lids two at a time to reveal butternut squash and salmon filets.
“Interesting crowd,” Andrea notes, surveying the room. “Lots of jewels.”
“It was a notoriously eclectic group,” Niki says. “The men were a bunch of misfits but the women were usually high society types.” She scans the faces again. Though Niki doesn’t know these ladies personally, they are likely some combination of ambassadors’ daughters, manufacturing heiresses, and countesses of this or that. Marlene Dietrich was in the OSS, as was Julia Child. Evidently, she couldn’t even boil an egg back then.
“Were most of the women translators, too?” Andrea asks.
Niki shakes her head. They weren’t all translators and, contrary to what she’s let her daughter believe, neither was she.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” a voice says over the speaker. “Please welcome your host for the evening, Geoffrey Jones, President of the Veterans of the OSS.”
Applause rolls through the room as Geoffrey Jones struts toward the podium, looking like central casting’s version of a middle-aged government man—tall, fit, with close-cropped, gray-speckled hair. Attractive but hardly memorable.
“Greetings, everyone,” Geoffrey Jones says, and the crowd settles. “What a wonderful night! You are all probably accustomed to attending events that celebrate your achievements, but this evening, we are charged with honoring , the women who worked for the Office of Strategic Services.”
“This guy is already on my nerves,” Andrea murmurs, and Niki mimes an elbow to her ribs.
“The OSS came in many shapes and sizes,” Geoffrey Jones continues, “and the organization has carried several names over the years. When you served, the letters stood for the Office of Strategic Services, but you might’ve known it as the Oh-So-Social.”
Niki joins the tepid laughter, though she was never like the rest of the girls—plucked from the social register and chock-full of poise and savoir faire. Niki was simply a foreigner who wound up in the right place at the right time. Or the wrong place, depending.
“Now, the OSS is known by a different acronym altogether.” Geoffrey Jones hits a clicker, and the telltale blue circle fills the screen. There’s no mistaking the proud eagle and the yellow words beneath it: CENTRAL INTELLIGENCE AGENCY.
“Are you kidding me?” Andrea pivots toward her mother. “You never told me you worked for the CIA!”
“I didn’t,” Niki says. “The OSS was its .” She picks up her roll and, like an anxious squirrel, begins tearing off small pieces and shuttling them into her mouth.
“Same thing,” Andrea says. “Seriously, Mom. What the hell?”
The woman across from them gives a shush.
“It’s not like that,” Niki whispers, and waves her daughter away. “I wasn’t a or anything.” Despite her best efforts, she thinks. “I worked in an office. They liked my language skills.”
“Classic Nikola Brzozowski dodge,” Andrea grumbles.
“From when it was founded in 1942,” Geoffrey says, “to when it ceased operations three years later, a total of forty-five hundred women served in the OSS, and their jobs were as varied as the magnificent gowns I see in this room.”
Again, the crowd titters and Niki rolls her eyes. The OSS could’ve dredged up a better emcee. A broad would’ve been nice.
“You worked in intelligence and counterintelligence,” Geoffrey says. “You manned the home office and served as drivers, clerks, decoders, radio operators, and interpreters.”
The man prattles on. Should Niki say something to Andrea? She probably should. This presentation might be headed anywhere, to a place where her “just an office gal” shtick would fall apart.
“The OSS was comprised of over a dozen different divisions,” Geoffrey says, and an organizational chart appears on-screen. “And I want to recognize each one.”
, Niki thinks.
“Whaddya say, ladies? When I call your unit, will you please stand?”
Niki instantly breaks out in a cold sweat. She dabs her forehead with a napkin as Andrea studies her, confused. In truth, Niki is confused, too. Would it be so terrible if Andrea found out she worked for the OSS? Not really, Niki decides. The source of her consternation is not her former employer, or some basic description of her job. Once Geoffrey gets rolling, Andrea will have questions, and Niki might have to unpack everything she thought she’d banished to permanent storage.
“Are we ready?” Geoffrey says. “Let’s show the world who we are, and how this group of women contributed to Allied victory.”