Part One: The Man From Café Central
THE OFFICE IS hard to find, and intentionally so. Located near the end of a narrow, curving lane, in a quarter of Vienna more renowned for its nightlife than its tragic past, the entrance is marked only by a small brass plaque bearing the inscription WARTIME CLAIMS AND INQUIRIES. The security system, installed by an obscure firm based in Tel Aviv, is formidable and highly visible. A camera glowers menacingly from above the door. No one is admitted without an appointment and a letter of introduction. Visitors must pass through a finely tuned magnetometer. Purses and briefcases are inspected with unsmiling efficiency by one of two disarmingly pretty girls. One is called Reveka, the other Sarah.
Once inside, the visitor is escorted along a claustrophobic corridor lined with gunmetal-gray filing cabinets, then into a large typically Viennese chamber with pale floors, a high ceiling, and bookshelves bowed beneath the weight of countless volumes and file folders. The donnish clutter is appealing, though some are unnerved by the green-tinted bulletproof windows overlooking the melancholy courtyard.
The man who works there is untidy and easily missed. It is his special talent. Sometimes, as you enter, he is standing atop a library ladder rummaging for a book. Usually he is seated at his desk, wreathed in cigarette smoke, peering at the stack of paperwork and files that never seems to diminish. He takes a moment to finish a sentence or jot a loose minute in the margin of a document, then he rises and extends his tiny hand, his quick brown eyes flickering over you. "Eli Lavon," he says modestly as he shakes your hand, though everyone in Vienna knows who runs Wartime Claims and Inquiries.
Were it not for Lavon's well-established reputation, his appearance--a shirtfront chronically smeared with ash, a shabby burgundy-colored cardigan with patches on the elbows and a tattered hem--might prove disturbing. Some suspect he is without sufficient means; others imagine he is an ascetic or even slightly mad. One woman who wanted help winning restitution from a Swiss bank concluded he was suffering from a permanently broken heart. How else to explain that he had never been married? The air of bereavement that is sometimes visible when he thinks no one is looking? Whatever the visitor's suspicions, the result is usually the same. Most cling to him for fear he might float away.
He points you toward the comfortable couch. He asks the girls to hold his calls, then places his thumb and forefinger together and tips them toward his mouth. Coffee, please. Out of earshot the girls quarrel about whose turn it is. Reveka is an Israeli from Haifa, olive-skinned and black-eyed, stubborn and fiery. Sarah is a well-heeled American Jew from the Holocaust studies program at Boston University, more cerebral than Reveka and therefore more patient. She is not above resorting to deception or even outright lies to avoid a chore she believes is beneath her. Reveka, honest and temperamental, is easily outmaneuvered, and so it is usually Reveka who joylessly plunks a silver tray on the coffee table and retreats in a sulk.
Lavon has no set formula for how to conduct his meetings. He permits the visitor to determine the course. He is not averse to answering questions about himself and, if pressed, explains how it came to be that one of Israel's most talented young archaeologists chose to sift through the unfinished business of the Holocaust rather than the troubled soil of his homeland. His willingness to discuss his past, however, goes only so far. He does not tell visitors that, for a brief period in the early 1970s, he worked for Israel's notorious secret service. Or that he is still regarded as the finest street surveillance artist the service has ever produced. Or that twice a year, when he returns to Israel to see his aged mother, he visits a highly secure facility north of Tel Aviv to share some of his secrets with the next generation. Inside the service he is still referred to as "the Ghost." His mentor, a man called Ari Shamron, always said that Eli Lavon could disappear while shaking your hand. It was not far from the truth.
From A Death In Vienna by Daniel Silva, copyright 2004 Daniel Silva, published by G. P. Putnam's Sons, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., all rights reserved, reprinted with permission from the publisher. This excerpt ends on page 9 of the hardcover edition, at the end of Chapter One.
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