The Spy Who Tried to Kill Me

A curious tale of a stone pig, the OSS and a visit to Scottsville.

Illustration by Nearchos Ntaskas

“Look mama, a pig!” With eyes wide as silver dollars, the little girl tugged her mother’s sleeve and pointed at me.

My walking partner, Dawn West, said, “C’mon, let’s get going before you cause a scene.”

An impossible request. Everyone on Scottsville’s Valley Street seemed transfixed by what I was carrying. Even a police cruiser had slowed to check it out. Peeking from the top flap of my rucksack was a 40-pound, concrete pig dressed like Santa Claus. His name was Pork Chop.

An explanation is probably in order. Dawn and I were on a quest to walk across Virginia and partake in every adventure that crossed our path. If none arose, we created one. So earlier that day, when we stopped in at Pee Wee’s Pit Barbecue for lunch and saw pig memorabilia on every wall and shelf of the restaurant, an idea came to mind. “Would it be all right,” I asked the proprieter Suzette, “if I brought your mascot with me for the day and posed it for pictures as if it were on vacation?” “Sure,” she said, “but if you’re looking for adventure, you should talk to Dr. Margaret Emanuelson. She was a spy in the OSS [Office of Strategic Services] during World War II and now she lives right here in town.” She was also an author, and three of her novel—Company of Spies, Web of Spies, and New Moon Rising—sat in the front counter’s display case.

I was agog. “Could you introduce us?” Suzette smiled and picked up the phone. “Let me check if she’s in.”

Emanuelson lived just a few blocks away on West Main Street in a two-story, brick saltbox with jutting eaves and a grand, columned entryway. Dropping my pig-laden rucksack on the porch (the novelty of it having worn off by that point), I rang the bell. The dark-haired Emanuelson greeted us, a cloud of Chanel No. 5 wafting around us as we shook her hand.

“Please,” she said, “come inside.” We followed her past Oriental fan-shaped screens, shelves lined with Geisha plates, and spears clustered behind a 5-foot tall tribal shield. After ushering us into a sitting room whose floor was covered with a giant Persian rug, Emanuelson, then 86 (sadly, she would pass away several years later), lowered herself onto a camel back couch. Dawn and I sat in wingback chairs with soft centers. I sank into mine like quicksand. “How about some cookies?” she offered.

I thanked her, but declined. We had just eaten. Then I asked her about her experiences from WWII—4,500 women had worked for the OSS during the war. But very few of them were still alive. “I had to go through a series of tests to get in the OSS, situational tests,” Emanuelson said. Intelligence, she explained, is all about solving problems: “It’s asking, ‘What do I need to know?’ I wound up in the research and analysis department.”

I was finding it hard to talk with my thighs pressed into my chest, so I wriggled out of my seat’s sucking mouth and perched on its solid lip. “So, what did you do in R&A?” She said she had taken information coming in from planes and analyzed it. “I can’t say much more than that.”

“Ah,” I said. “Secret spy stuff.” She smiled.

Dawn pointed at a framed photo and asked where it was taken. Emanuelson squinted for a moment before giving up. “My eyes,” she said, “macular degeneration.”

We chatted a while longer about her and her late engineer husband’s long, fruitful lives—her time in the OSS and his as a Navy pilot; the clinical psychology practice she worked at for 40 years. At one point, she leaned over and took my hand. “Are you sure you wouldn’t like some cookies?” I realized that perhaps my earlier refusal was rude, so I said, “We’d love some.”

She led us into a kitchen whose window looked out on a colossal tree, opened a cupboard and removed two bags of Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, handing one to each of us. “Thank you,” I said. “These will be great on the road.”

We then returned Pork Chop to his rightful place on the stoop of Pee Wee’s Pit Barbecue and continued our journey. As Scottsville fell into the distance, I said to Dawn, “Who would have thought we’d meet such a worldly and elegant woman in such a small, rural town?” As we walked, our imaginations piqued, we chatted about all the ways spies killed each other in the movies—with lasers, with blow darts, with knives hidden in their boots. Then Dawn said, “What method do you think Margaret would have used?”

“Hmm, let me think a minute.”

My stomach had started rumbling, so I tore open a bag of the Milanos while mulling the question. We each bit into a cookie. The flavor seemed odd. I opened the second bag and tried again. “Ew, what does yours taste like?” Dawn spat hers out and used a napkin to wipe her tongue. “Mine has fuzz on it!” I shined a light on the bag and read the date printed at the bottom. “Oh my God!” I said. “These expired over two years ago!”

We both howled with laughter. I thought of how pleased Emanuelson had been to give us these cookies and then remembered her poor eyesight. She never could have read the fine print. Or could she?

“Well,” I said, “there’s your answer. She would have used food poisoning.”

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