Love is angry and afraid. Cowardly like a gun, but it bites like a bullet. Disagreeable. But love is the theme of what follows. Or maybe not, entirely. Dear Reader, you must be the judge. Perhaps this composition is only about pain.
I am 97 years old now, and the account delivered here is a fragment taken from the diary I began in 1939. It is an endowment I give to the world. I don’t know why. The impulse came to me one day as I looked out of a window at the rain.
The story describes very little about me, except that I was once a notorious voyeur, with the wealth and time to gain that reputation. Some of it is speculative; some of it is gossip. Not out of dishonesty, but due to an unpleasant lack of knowledge and poor memory.
If the characters are sympathetic, it is only because they defy understanding, as do we all.
Call me Simone, a wartime alias that still suits me.
So, let us begin.
October 27, 1947
To be small and homosexual, and having never achieved conventional manhood, has its advantages. Androgyny served me well in the occupied city. It helped me infiltrating the world of powerful men, away from their homes and family orthodoxies, able for the first time to pursue the gender ambiguity they craved, and their love of boys. Yes, there is no polite word for it; I was a child prostitute. (Though I am the age of majority as I write this.) And there are stories I can tell that would bring men down, if one day I am reduced to chipping out a living though blackmail. But until then, I am a slave to an obsession—a woman, strangely—who was once a spy and an assassin in the darkened City of Light. Slender, green-eyed and blond. Her name, then, was alias Avalon.
She is Canadian, again strangely. No one wants to think of a citizen of that good Dominion as a cutthroat. But she was and is, and deadly.
Hers is a story whose last chapter ended as the Nazi enchantment faded across Europe and the world, and the once most-mighty were reduced to suicide or fabricating tales of innocence, but not before she killed as many as she could.
The next chapter begins now, as this DC-3 lands at the airport that serves a grim little city called Vancouver. The place where I’ve followed Trudy Parr, my Avalon, and two others. One who will remain nameless for now, and someone else—one alias Monet, who never stopped being a spy.
Monet: (Once a double agent?) (Reluctant Vichy sympathiser?) (Fascist turncoat, turned Allied turncoat, turned shadow, turned ghost?) And the lover, once, of my dear Avalon.
Yes, to be honest, I am not only obsessed with Avalon. But also with an extraordinary love story, that began during the shank of the war. As Avalon and Monet were at their busiest and most fatal.
They had both been in the occupied city from the beginning. Unaware of each other. Distracted by their separate missions and trespasses. Neither of them a romantic candidate, when seen at their work. Each walking their own corridors of war. Avalon, a gallery of inborn rage and the pursuit of prey. Monet, the halls of vengeance for the loss of country to a rude race and its vulgar philosophy.
But a passion did begin between them, somehow, as their lines crossed. Only glances at first, and small careful words at the edge of all the perversion. Then devotion, surrounded by all of the cruelty. Meeting where mysteries met—abandoned lofts, and the elegant rooms of the freshly dead. And also, the very secret Peony Club. The ever-moving underground cabaret, where some, so surprised to be still alive, would come together.
Neither Monet nor Avalon knew when love arrived, because it said nothing. Hiding wretchedly. Waiting to bite, like a bullet.
So, that when la Résistance took back the streets of Paris, as the Nazis ran and fell, and the diesel musk of the US Third Army wafted over the horizon, after one last night of love’s tender violence, Monet’s word was final, “I may have waited too long.” A final long kiss on a stone terrace above the street fight, and the spy faded into the bedlam of the la Libération.
And how can anyone really know, but it is rumoured that alias Avalon wept and pined for days, and for the last time. Days later, she made her long way home.
Now, as I sit writing, waiting for my luggage in the airport terminal, I ask you to anticipate with me, what will soon be revealed.
The afternoon, October 28, 1947
There is a marmalade cat seated with its back to the room, next to the ghostly flowering spathiphyllum on the sideboard, with the filmy October afternoon sunlight, blue, green, gold and red, filtering through the stained glass.
There is a man in the room, also, pale and of medium height, once blonde, neither old nor young, who calls himself Fabien Lévêque, sitting in an armchair reading a French translation of The Fountainhead, raising an eyebrow now and then, and occasionally shaking his head slowly.
Turning a page, and sighing, he looks up and says, “Come to me Molly.”
Molly, the marmalade cat, ignores him.
“You’re a bitch,” says Lévêque. “I brought you home for companionship. You might as well be a woman.”
Molly licks her paws.
It’s a tidy suite of rooms, built at the end of the previous century, mirroring an old mahogany and beveled glass aesthetic. Something Howard Roark, the hero of Ayn Rand’s cumbersome novel, would have found hopelessly quaint. But it was just right for Falcon Lévêque, so weary of the megalomaniacal blood and soil design of the fascist Europe he’d left behind.
And he loves the city he’s chosen for his temporary home, surrounded by an endless northern rainforest. So unselfconsciously rustic. The neighbourhood he’s settled in is called Kerrisdale, a whistle-stop on the city’s interurban. What could be more whimsical?
Here there is no Résistance, no murderers in the shadows. No Gestapo operatives listening in the next room. And no Jews concealed in the woodwork, though they walk the streets here, plotting against the future.
Lévêque has been careful to cloak himself in the guise of a Québécois, trading his Parisian accent for the feral French Canadian. He’s shaved away his pencil moustache, changed his hair and has even intentionally gained weight, achieving, all-in-all, the look of a kind uncle. As a realist, however, he knows that one day his past must catch up to him. His hope, in that case, is that the Nazi cachet will have faded, and be mostly forgiven. If not, he had money and plans to escape help him escape.
It wouldn’t happen here, though. His time in Vancouver will be too brief.
The telephone rings, and he checks his watch. It is 3:00pm.
“Hello,” he says. “Rachel?”
“Yes, Mr. Lévêque.” It’s a young woman at the other end. “Your cake and cocoa are ready.”
It is the tea shop downstairs.
“I’ll be right down,” Lévêque says, then hangs up. Looking at Molly, he says, “They ate cats in the Ghetto, you know”
Molly says nothing, watching birds through the window.
In the tea shop, Lévêque takes a seat near the back at a table reserved for him. Moments later, a young woman arrives with a slice of apple torte and a steaming cup of cocoa.
“Ah, thank you Rachel,” he says, taking up a copy of the Vancouver Sun. “You are an angel.”
Rachel performs a shy curtsy, the way Lévêque has taught her, and leaves him to read his paper.
Lévêque grins. On the front page is a story of more European Jews recovering stolen property, taken from them by Nazis. He’d been careful. None of the Jews he’d stolen from had survived to recover anything.
He strokes the face of the 18-Carat Audemars Piguet Chronograph on his wrist. The one he’d stripped from the art dealer’s wrist; the Jew art dealer who had bled-out with a bullet in his head, sitting tied to a chair in the basement of 84 Avenue Foch, in Paris.
Lévêque was thrifty, using only one bullet.
There’d been enough money in the Jew’s billfold to buy Lévêque a new pair of shoes, but it was the ring of keys in the art dealer’s pocket that excited him. The larger keys would open the dealer’s residence and shop. But two others, smaller, had been a mystery, until Lévêque asked the dealer’s wife.
It hadn’t taken long, a few standard questions. Especially after a cohort of his had whispered into his ear that she was a pianist, not famous but talented. That was when he called out for a pair of garden shears, and threatened to remove the thumb from her each of her hands.
She’d been brave at first, saying nothing. Unsure with her chin held not too high. Such a possibility was inconceivable, was it not? But Lévêque proved it wasn’t, as she screamed and he cut through flesh and bone, while functionaries held her down.
He would remove the rest one by one, he told her, if she didn’t reveal the secrets of the small keys. And when she did, he slapped her repeatedly for her weakness. A week later, she was in Natzweiler-Struthof.
He’d stolen much Jewish treasure by similar means during the occupation, converting most of it to cash, and the cash into gold. Making himself very rich.
But now, as he read, he found something disturbing in the newspaper story. In the middle of the third column. A featured photograph of a man referred to as a war criminal. A familiar face. A man when he was young. A man named Falcon Lebeau.
Evening, October 28, 1947
Like nearly everyone in this story, Dracul had another name. The one his loving mother gave him. But no one knew what it was. He had arrived in Vancouver from Romania so many foggy nights ago that people had stopped counting. Some said that he was a spy left over from the First War, who didn’t know how to retire. And though he remained a reliable wealth of current and archival intelligence about foreign wars and nearby espionage, he was insane. Elderly, too. Agedness and insanity, an unfortunate combination.
He’d been handsome once, but no longer. And once he must have enjoyed a certain elegance. Now, however, his all black costume—suit, shoes, shirt and tie—verged on shabby. This, with his long knotty hands and his hunched back, made him more of a nightmare shadow than a man.
“Mirrors eat me in the morning,” he told Trudy Parr without prompting, as they sat together late by candlelight at a table in the Sylvia Hotel lounge. His accent was thick. “Then they spit me out in the night. Ptew, onto the floor. And every time, my face has changed.” Here he leaned in—he always did—and lowered his voice. “Completely unrecognisable, each time. That is my gift. Only you ever know me to see me, Miss Parr. That is why I love you.” Grinning, he rubbed his long hands together. “That is how I walk freely, incognito, upon the sidewalks of this New World.”
It was an old story, and he enjoyed telling it. Loved its possibilities, Trudy imagined. A different man each night. It kept him young at some place inside of him he called his heart.
And maybe the story was true. Many swore that he had no shadow. That he was clairvoyant. That he could vanish and reappear as he pleased. He could call down angels, and performed the trick of producing an incorruptible Joan of Arc in the palm of his hand. A Goddess at the stake, in command of her red and golden fire.
“People don’t call me Miss Parr,” Trudy said. “People call me Trudy. Don’t make me say it again.”
“An honourable familiarity, I’m sure.” Dracul nodded his head, a seated bow, and sipped his whisky.
Trudy sipped her vodka and Coke.
“You said you had something to tell me,” she said.
“Yes, and I must admit that it was only a theory a day or two ago.”
“Theories bore me, Dracul.” Trudy looked at her watch.
“Hmm, never dismiss a theory,” the old man said. “A theory attracts evidence, as gravity attracts mass.”
“Alright.” She extinguished her cigarette, and stood to put her coat.
“But wait!” he said, “Please sit. It’s not so much a theory anymore. There’s evidence in its orbit. And so it has become an opinion, just short of a truth. Diamonds and rubies.”
She stared down at him for a moment. A man without a shadow. Reborn nightly to mirrors.
“Answer me this,” said the old man. “Can a key do more than open a lock? Sit now, Trudy Parr. Listen, and I’ll order more drinks.”
“No, I’ll order the drinks,” she said, hailing the waiter as she sat down again. “You just do the talking. Tell me about the diamonds and rubies.”
“Vast rooms, miles wide,” he said, spreading out his arms. “Passageways like avenues that coil the Moon. And a dent in space in the shape of a man.”
“Get on with it,” Trudy said.
“You know a demon,” said Dracul. “You tried to kill it once. It tried to kill you. You both failed. Sometimes you don’t sleep, thinking about it.”
“What the hell are you trying to say.” She was whispering, almost shouting. Her words overlapping his.
“That you have a chance to kill it, now.”
“It’s the Falcon, Trudy Parr. He is here. In the city.”
“I’m getting bored again,” she said.
It was too much—the Falcon in Vancouver. And Dracul’s lunacy was too much. She had her own madness to tend. It was sniggering at her now, peeking through a shroud.
“Maybe you’ve lived too long, you old witch,” she said. “Maybe I’ve got a razor my bag with your name on it.”
To this he said, “I read minds, you know.”
“Why am I not surprised?”
She took a breath, placing both of her hands palm down on the table where she could see them.
“So, read my mind.”
“I know that you would cut me with that razor at your side, if I pushed a little further. Your world is a moment. One moment that will not end as long as you’re alive. Like a circle, you stand alone in the centre of. With the world looking in. And I know that if anyone steps into the circle, into your moment, with you, he runs the risk of death.”
“Bastard.” She clenched her jaw. He was reading too deeply.
“The Falcon almost took that step,” said Dracul. “By following someone else.”
She saw Monet’s face fade into the black.
“Is that your opinion?”
“No. It is my opinion that the Falcon has cocoa and cake each afternoon at a tea shop, nearby. A dent in space in the shape of a man. He’s hiding behind an alias.” He slid a piece of paper torn from a note pad across the table. Trudy Parr stared at it.
The drinks had arrived. She sipped long on her vodka, and thought of him. Falcon. The traitor to France. The Nazi. The butcher. His ghostly acrimony. Body counts, hers and his. How he lacked the elegance he insisted was his. And how he made children his victims between assignments.
He’d gotten away from her, half through stealth, half by luck—the end of the War.
“Why here?” she said, wondering as she lit a cigarette.
“You know. A key can do more than open a lock.”
“Do you need money?” said Trudy Parr.
“You always ask,” said Dracul, “and I never do.”
This time when she stood up, she really did put on her coat. And when she looked, wanting to say goodbye, Dracul had disappeared.
Round Midnight, October 28, 1947. The office of the Dench & Parr Agency
Trudy Parr hadn’t seen it until she turned the key to open the door, the silhouette of a man and woman embracing on the other side of the frosted glass. The woman was struggling, just a little. Trudy could hear giggling. Stepping in, she found her business partner and an auburn haired woman holding one another.
“Hello Romeo,” said Trudy to Crispin Dench, giving the startled couple the once over. “Who’s the centrefold?”
“Oh,” Dench said, his tie undone and his shirt half untucked. “Trudy. Hello. Unexpected.” He let the woman go, and then sheepishly introduced her: “This is Daphne.”
“Who’s this, Crispy?” said the centrefold.
“Crispy?” Trudy smiled.
Dench had always been a sucker for this kind of lunch counter redhead, so rare in Vancouver. He must have felt like he’d won at the races.
“She’s the Parr, in Dench & Parr,” he said.
“Golly, a woman? What is she, the secretary?”
“I’m in a crappy mood, Crispin,” Trudy said.
“Keep your mouth shut,” said Dench to Daphne. “We might yet get out of this alive.”
“What’s this about, anyway?” Trudy said. “I think I recall you saying there’d be no shenanigans in the office. That fooling around onsite wasn’t how professionals operated.”
“Well, it’s just that Daphie’s a Dashiell Hammett fan. And she wanted to see a real private dick’s office. You know, where it all goes down?”
He was off his rocker.
“Okay, Mr Crispy Dick,” Trudy said. “I’m going into my office to brush up on my Sam Spade. Nice to have met you, Daphie.”
“She’s a bitch,” Daphie said. Just loud enough, as Trudy Parr closed her office door behind her.
“Alright, Daphne,” Dench said, looking out the window, “get your things.”
“There’s a cab downstairs at the curb. You got fare?”
“Yeah, I got fare. You’re a crumb.”
“Here, let me help you with your coat.”
“Is she your girl? Is that it?”
“No, but we’ve been places.”
“I could be home listening to Arthur Godfrey, you know.”
“Well, now’s your chance.” Dench gently pushed her into the hall. “I’ll call.”
He sighed, then lit a cigarette as he listened to the elevator door slide shut. He was rarely at work this late, but knew that Trudy sometimes slept on her couch. He tapped on her door.
“Come,” she said.
“Want company?” said Dench, looking in.
“Did she abandon you?”
“She wanted to listen to the radio.”
“Sweet. C’mon in, then.”
On Trudy Parr’s desk was a telephone, a blotter and an appointment book. Also, two glasses, an ashtray and a bottle of Smirnoff. Dench sat down opposite her, and filled each glass half full.
“You wanna talk?” he said
“I spoke to Dracul tonight. That might be enough.”
“What he have to say?”
“Too much,” Trudy said.
“Yeah, well he’s brain cancer. You shouldn’t talk to him.”
“He knows things.”
Dench took a swallow of vodka. “What’s he know.”
“That I live in a circle, pretty much by myself. That’s what he says, anyway. And anyone who tries to get in gets killed.”
“That ain’t half wrong.” Dench sat back in his chair.
“What’s that make me, Crispin?”
“Being unique is awfully fucking lonely, sometimes.”
“Is there someone else you want to be?”
“No.” She shrugged and took a drink.
End of part 1