Andrei Chernov, KGB "illegal," sent to Paris on a political-action mission, is well qualified to pose as an American citizen. Later, he is to "reveal" his membership in the CIA to a "target" person. At stake is a small African country's adherence to one or the other side in the Cold War.
The three characters find themselves in what seems to be a completely ill-fated tangle of romance and political intrigue.
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By Boris Ilyin
AuthorHouseCopyright © 2013 Boris Ilyin
All rights reserved.
Ben still had a few friends—really his parents' friends—in Paris, but when he first got there he avoided going out. He had an excuse. He had just recovered from an unknown bug which (so the story went) he had picked up during extensive travel on behalf of his father's firm. In actuality, he simply wanted to paint and think things over and be by himself. It was already five years since his divorce; only a few months since the Bernie case. He'd wanted for some time now to stop and regroup, stop and re-think everything, but there hadn't been time.
Now there was time; he was alone. He fought the depression that still made him want to retreat forever into a corner, making him jumpy over nothing. During that "extensive business trip" he had actually been in the jungles, and now tiny relays in his body still seemed to expect him to look for snipers or booby traps, triggered minute false alarms here and there within his muscles. He was conscious, too, of other, longer-established relays that kept sending impulses not about booby traps but about people. He caught himself at the habit of taking the political measure of almost every person he met, when right now it manifestly did not matter much what that political measure was. After the jungle and a preceding several years of being careful about people, the complex burglar alarms in his system kept shorting out while he was learning to relax. He was learning, though. He was not really the retreating or jumpy kind. In three months' time he had found a live-in studio not far from the St. Lazare railroad station, started painting, was already planning his first small exhibit. He accepted two or three invitations to dinner. He was beginning already to get back his regular weight and the old Ben Ingram air of trimness and reined-in courtesy, beginning to regain a zest for life.
And right then, of course, something happened that he did not want to happen, and that his subconscious mind probably did want. But in any event it happened all wrong.
It was at an afternoon party in the Rue de Varenne, in one of those Proustian hôtels particuliers most of which have long been subdivided into apartments but which are still the retreat of the titled. The hosts were some comte and comtesse whom Ben did not know. He had been invited to applaud his old friend, Paul Milet-Blanchard, who was going to receive the Legion of Honor. Ben dreaded going because facing a lot of people was still a burden. He was very good at parties, and knew it, but he nevertheless groaned to himself that he was not made for such things. There was (was there not?) a strain in him that might conceivably have led him to locusts and wild honey, or at least to some experimental asceticism of the New England variety. Walking down the Rue de Varenne past the formidable gates of old courtyards, he was sure that except for the Milet-Blanchards there would be no one at this gathering with whom he could find anything in common.
Champagne flowed, chandeliers stirred and tinkled. The very first person Ben met was an elderly lady whom he immediately liked. Forever afterwards he thought of her as the Telephone Princess. Paul Milet-Blanchard, bald-headed and more than usually full of energy and elegance, unfurled an arm, presenting him.
"J'ai l'honneur. Princesse ..."
He delivered an oration to the Princess about his old friend, Monsieur Benjamin Ingram, who had had the good sense to interrupt a successful career in the American business world in order to pursue his real talent here in Paris.
"Well, actually," said Ben, "it's only for about a year."
"Pah!" said Paul Milet-Blanchard. "You shall remain! Your work will grace our most distinguished galleries!"
Milet, about to receive the Legion, was in high spirits. He kissed the Princess's hand and moved on through the crowd. And the Princess, gray-haired and straight-backed and gracefully at ease, chatted with Ben, switching from perfect English to French and back again, as though both these languages were merely decorative alternatives to her native Russian. Here she was, in collar and cuffs of Brussels lace which perhaps she had brought with her from Russia fifty years before, ready to discuss, with that air of Heaven-blessed calm, any topic in the world. When Ben marveled at the range of her information, she smiled with comic condescension. After all, she was in the newspaper business. Then she laughed. No, my dear. She was merely the telephone operator and receptionist at the Paris office of the N.J.—the Washington News-Journal's European Edition. By no means the most exalted position there, she confided. But she had worked there for years. You could see that her gray hair had once been black, and that she had once had the kind of rich, dark beauty that makes you think of heavy red wine. Her eyes still had the deep, beautiful-woman look, turned over the years into a softly didactic Christian calm. Ben found, anyhow, that talking to her was extremely pleasant. She approached every idea as though it were something entirely new and fresh, but something on which she was bound to receive immediate telepathic guidance. Her comments, uttered with the amiable certitude of a practiced oracle, were unfailingly original. She would say something and then pause, turning her head slightly to assess the truth some higher power had just chosen to deliver through her lips.
But Ben remained dedicated to the cover-ups and partial truths of real life. Yes, he was painting. He had taken a year's leave of absence. He worked in his father's firm in Washington D.C. Shipping. Export-Import. As to painting, he had always painted, wanted to try his hand at it more seriously. Just for a while.
There was a stir. People began to flow in one direction. Someone pinged a champagne bucket with a spoon, and everyone gathered in the huge library. A little old French general in mufti, who at first looked as stiff and gray as a dry mop, came suddenly to life. Turning now and then to look at Milet-Blanchard who loomed beside him, he mentioned the exploits in the French Resistance of this Paul Milet, this Belgian citizen who had dedicated himself to the cause of freedom, who had afterwards added his Resistance pseudonym, Blanchard, to his real name. Twenty-five years had gone by; the mills of the gods here in France had ground slowly; high time to recognize and honor a man's personal dedication which, instead of ceasing with the victory of France and Belgium over their enemy, had found expression in the many imaginative humanitarian projects ...
And it was during this speech that Ben saw Marian Crowley for the first time. It was she—the Marian Crowley whose face had been on the back flap of a successful book in 1967 and then of a real best seller a year or so later. Ben had read her books. Often enough, since he'd come to Paris, he had read her by-lined stories in the Washington News-Journal. She stood there with her head thrown back, arms crossed. Then she moved, cocked her head to the side, one hand going to her hip with a kind of elfin impatience. There was a clarity about her face, a delicacy of line in her arms, in her whole figure, that contradicted the brevity of her movements. Marian Crowley. How interesting.
But even more interesting was the very degree of his own sudden interest. More than once in his life Ben had turned at some crowded gathering to discover that a person two feet away was a celebrity, and a celebrity considerably greater than Marian Crowley. It gives one a mild thrill to realize that the person whom you have just side-swiped with your elbow at a Washington party is Vice President Johnson, or to find that the old gentleman next to you in the elevator of a Riviera hotel—the old gentleman who looks like Sir Winston Churchill—is Sir Winston. When he saw Marian Crowley, at first moment he had almost arched his back, recognizing in her the author of that famous book; and at the next moment his prejudices were being uprooted by the elemental phenomenon of her startling good looks.
Her hair was all one thick, short, lively wave that shot diagonally downwards over her forehead, a great impasto brushstroke of Naples yellow. Her skin was so transparently blond in the light of the electric chandeliers that it too should be rendered as though in one stroke of oil, or one even, continuous wash of lightest cream. In sunlight such a skin would catch faint reflections of a light cerulean at the neck and temples. Marian Crowley stood there, and her fame as a creator of books and lately of news columns—no matter the opinions she expressed—set off and increased her beauty.
The little general finished his speech, touched Milet on each shoulder with a sword; he stretched upward to put the red ribbon around the neck of the towering recipient, then gave him the accolade. Paul Milet, his bald head glistening nobly, bent to meet the old man's stiff little embrace. The long lines of his distinguished face proclaimed his genuine gratitude to France, his respect for tradition; and only the corners of his eyes said, "Quelle blague!" For he had to bend down and down to reach the general's face,
They carried it off. They touched cheeks, right and left. The guests applauded loudly, smiling and looking about at one another; and it was at this moment that Marian Crowley's eyes met Ben's. She was smiling like everyone else, and clapping energetically, so that accidentally it turned out that she and Ben were smiling at each other. "I'll paint her," he said to himself. For what can you do with something that strikes you so hard but try to reproduce its image? But it was unfair, he thought, retreating. It was unfair of her to be so good-looking, to smile so openly. It couldn't be. That manner of hers must be camouflage. Or else how could she cope daily with the fresh lacerations and broken surfaces of life of which news is made? But she looked away at Milet-Blanchard, who stood with his red ribboned decoration, like a long bald eagle, waiting to make his reply.
The bright spill of blond hair hid her face. In an effort to hear better she pressed forward so that she herself was hidden behind somebody's shoulder; and it was not until Milet's speech was over that Ben was able to see her once more. Applause. People moved in to render congratulations.
Marian Crowley saw the Princess and waved, and came straight over, including Ben in her smile. Her eyes and lips glistened, as though she had just taken a breath of very fresh air. "Honestly ..." she was saying, shaking her head. But he never learned what the "honestly" was about.
"Dear Marian," said the blessed Princess, like a headmistress to a star pupil, "dear Marian, here is a countryman of yours, a fellow American, whom you must rescue from the dreary monopoly of an old lady."
Ben thought again of how wary he should be. He was about to put up his usual defenses, to come smartly into the wind, trimmed and balanced. But Marian said, "Well, hi, Fellow American!" stretching out her hand, stepping towards him with such all-out friendliness and welcome that instead of freezing he acted, that is, he put on an act, one of his little impromptu charades, playing it down, making it scarcely perceptible so he could back out if he needed to. He bent forward, just as Milet had done a few minutes before, even imitating Milet's expression, half-presenting his cheek, as though he expected to receive the Legion-of-Honor accolade from her. He glanced at her with awkward solemnity, as though scarcely believing his good fortune, then hesitated and drew back in embarrassed disappointment.
To his delight, she caught on instantly to the attenuated pantomime, and burst into laughter, shaking his hand up and down in congratulations.
"Oh, excellent! Oh, great! You'll go far!"
Her eyes made two mirthful arcs. And now the Princess looked at them in turn. "You already know each other?"
You could not blame the Princess. For although Marian had let go Ben's hand, she rested her fingertips on his sleeve while she laughed, as though the two of them had known each other for years, indeed.
"You do remember," said Ben, looking at Marian tenderly.
She did her best not to laugh. "The lights on the water," she said, still touching his arm.
"The soughing of the birches," he said softly.
"Birches!" Marian said, spilling into laughter again. "Sorry, I can't keep it up, you're too good!"
"Yes, it's all a mistake," Ben said soberly, turning to the Princess. "Actually, we have never met."
But her wine-dark eyes had been studying them both with amused patience. "I am an expert on birches," she said, allowing each corner of her mouth to come to a fine point, "And also on young Americans. Therefore you shall not cheat me of the pleasure of presenting you to one another."
She presented them and withdrew, leaving them to sip their champagne under the chandeliers. But Ben's inspiration for play-acting, even for his peculiar brand of off-hand, hardly noticeable play-acting, had suddenly disappeared. For what was he doing, flirting even distantly with Marian Crowley, of all people?
In any event, Miss Crowley seemed to know everybody, and everybody seemed bent on interrupting them. Ben did not try to fight people off; he let her be taken away, wanting above all just now to stop and think it all over.
All right, he was smitten. It was by that bright openness of hers, that delicacy and clarity of her features, that tomboy directness and by something else behind all this. For she was like Peter Pan convincingly played by a brilliant woman. He found himself wanting to believe in Peter Pan, and even more to know the real-life actress.CHAPTER 2
Yet Ben already knew too well who Marian Crowley was. He had simply shut off all the buzzing alarms at the Milet party. Now he had to swallow everything he felt until it all went away.
For three days he had everything swallowed.
He told himself that his infatuation was worthy of a sixteen-year-old kid, not a seasoned cold-warrior like Ben Ingram. But the flesh is sometimes weak, and on the fourth day after the party he called the News Journal office. It was the Princess who answered.
"I presume you wish to speak to Marian? I think she is at her desk."
This was stupid. His pulse went galloping when he heard Marian's voice. But he pulled himself together and asked her to have lunch the next day.
And again that all-out friendliness: she'd love to come! Only could it be somewhere near her office? And could they make it not too very long?
When he came for her at the News Journal office the next day, he had decided to let himself go, to forget everything for a while and indulge his state of euphoria.
They walked just a block or so to a bistro on the Boulevard des Capucines. She ordered mussels. He didn't even glance at the menu, looked up at the waiter, momentarily wondering what he wanted, then came to and blurted out that he'd have a croque Monsieur.
"What's wrong?" Marian asked.
"Just a bit groggy, I guess," and he added, as a sort of cover, "... after staring all morning at a canvas." A lie, because that morning he hadn't been able to sit down to anything.
"What kind of paintings do you do?"
"I'm experimenting with Abstract Expressionism at the moment. But actually I've done all kinds of stuff. Haven't yet settled into a style of my own."
"Well," Marian said, looking rather business-like, "tell me about yourself." She sounded as though they had come here for just this definite purpose.
For some reason he had a sudden urge to send everything to hell and tell her all. Crazy notion. He was living on borrowed time, knowing that his Euridice would vanish if he so much as touched upon the truth. He had to come forth with the story about the firm in D.C. of which his father was the chief executive. He said, in as few words as possible, that his job was to travel around a lot to bring in new business. He mentioned the debilitating bug he had caught in South East Asia. (All lies, all lies!)
"I'm on a kind of R and R just now," he said. "But I'm taking the opportunity to find out whether I can paint or not." (This at least was the truth!)
For her part, Marian got it in very early, as if in passing, that she had gone back to her maiden name, Crowley, and even used "Miss" instead of "Mrs." but that she'd been married once. Very brief marriage. Didn't work out at all, she told him, giving one vigorous shake of her head, her naturally high voice going as deep as she could get it—to indicate matter-of-factness, Ben supposed. No details, no accusations. And she managed to present this pre-packaged item lightly enough, but obviously in order to get her cards on the table at once. No secrets. In fact (as she said later, apropos of something else) she hated secrets, she hated mysteries. One good thing about newspaper work: you could get the facts and lay them out for all the world to see.
Excerpted from False Flag by Boris Ilyin. Copyright © 2013 Boris Ilyin. Excerpted by permission of AuthorHouse.
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