In the icy depths of a Quebec winter, a harmless old Polish man dies in mysterious circumstances. His suspicious niece draws in Montreal investigative journalist, Frank Delaney, to help her find the truth behind the death, a story the authorities seem to want covered up. The search for answers sweeps them into a dangerous web involving Canadian, Polish and Vatican agents who will use any means, even murder, to stop them. The catalyst for this international intrigue is the true story of Polish national art treasures secretly shipped to Canada to be hidden from the Nazis in the opening days of World War Two. This classic thriller combines fascinating history, deft storytelling and psychological depth.
The Mazovia Legacy was short listed for the Arthur Ellis Award for Best First Novel, 2004.
"A smart entertainment.... Cause for applause...."
- The Montreal Gazette
"Murder, betrayal, international intrigue.... Rose's tale has it all."
- The Ottawa Citizen
"A fine thriller...."
- Edmonton Journal
- Victoria Times Colonist
"This is a novelist one wants to hear more about in future...."
- The Halifax Chronicle Herald
The snow in an overlong Montreal winter covers a multitude of sins. It covers the dirty pavement and gives the more rundown of the city’s houses and apartments a postcard appearance that they don’t always deserve. A heavy snowfall muffles sounds, blanketing busy streets in eerie silence at unexpected times of the day or night. Cars and buses glide noiselessly by. The sky takes on a leaden hue and the sun is just a circle of slight, white light somewhere above the bare black branches of trees.
People take no pleasure in their winter walking in Montreal. In a heavy snowfall, they move quickly, bundled up against the wet flakes and the cold. The colour of their clothing is muted by the weak light. Collars and scarves are held up against faces that rarely look left or right. The walkers wish only to hurry forward, careful not to slip on icy sidewalks or stumble over banked-up snow, the sooner to remove their heavy coats and boots in the warmth of office, shop, or home.
It was on a January day like this that Stanislaw Janovski, a very old but still very sturdy Polish émigré, got off the Number 24 bus at the corner of Sherbrooke and Claremont streets in a neighbourhood called Westmount. It was midweek, a Tuesday, and getting on to late afternoon. The light was fading even faster than normal because of the thickness of the grey clouds overhead and the snowflakes falling steadily. Claremont begins to rise sharply north of the Sherbrooke Street shops, and Stanislaw faced a treacherous, slippery uphill walk under a row of aging elms to Chesterfield Street and then left to his solid red-brick house on the quiet cul de sac.
He paused before beginning the climb and looked around. Many men in their eighties, as he was, might have done the same after the long bus ride he had just finished, needing a breather and taking their bearings before attempting the final few hundred snowy metres toward home. But Stanislaw was not stopping to catch his breath. Instead, he intently scanned the crowds and the cars.
That brief survey of the terrain appeared to satisfy him somehow and he adjusted his scarf and his old-fashioned Russian style fur hat. Coast clear, he said to himself as a former military man might. His long tweed overcoat added to his somewhat military bearing, even though he was far too short to fit the quintessential image of the soldier, the Polish soldier. He turned his attention to the way ahead.
He carried no walking stick, but clutched a small, scuffed leather briefcase with no handle, as he always did on his excursions, inside which could be found the latest edition of Le Devoir. He always carried newspapers with him to read while riding on buses or the Métro, or while waiting for the few old acquaintances who were still alive to join him for their now infrequent lunchtime reunions.
It was from one of these lunches that he was returning on that January day. He thought about it as he trudged up Claremont Street, with the snowflakes gathering as they always did on his bushy grey eyebrows. The meeting place, as usual, had been the Brasserie des Sources in the city’s east end across from the tower that housed the CBC. All the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation services were in that tower, in both an English and a French incarnation, like so much of Canadian life.
Stanislaw had spent many years working for the Polish short- wave service in that tower of broadcast babble. He had loved the highly charged atmosphere at Radio Canada International — an atmosphere created whenever expatriates from dozens of political and social backgrounds are thrown together somewhere in the world and required to broadcast information to their former homelands.
In those years, the short-wave service had been hungry for speakers of foreign languages who were literate, reasonably sane, and could at least make a good pretence of objectivity in their broadcasts. Not that any except the most naive of the Canadian producers expected the Polish Service, for example, to be sympathetic to the Communist regime installed in Warsaw after the war. Nor did they expect the broadcasters to be able to forget their grievances and their family histories and their dashed personal hopes.
Stanislaw had met many expatriate Poles at the CBC, many with stories more or less like his own — a hurried exit from Poland when the Germans attacked in 1939, refugee status, and family tragedy as they made their way to France and eventually to Britain to join the Polish forces assembling there. Parents and other loved ones left behind. Comrades killed along the way. Stanislaw’s story was not unique. But to be around people who could even begin to imagine such stories was a small comfort for him in the lonely days of his Montreal exile. And those lonely days were frequent with his wife now gone for almost fifteen years.
The lunches at Brasserie des Sources were invariably surrounded by the hubbub of dozens of journalists and technicians who hurried over from the tower each day to eat and drink and argue and scheme. Until recently, there would have been three or four other Poles of émigré vintage with whom Stanislaw could have had a sensible conversation. They would have talked of the war or the betrayal at the Yalta peace conference after the fighting ended and the recognition of the Communist regime that followed. They would certainly have argued about that Solidarity peasant electrician Lech Walesa who had proved such a disappointment as president since the Communists were thrown from power in 1989. But most of Stanislaw’s older colleagues no longer came for lunch.
There were, of course, the younger Polish broadcasters, who had not been born when the war began and who had grown up under the Communists and somehow ended up in Montreal. These young men wore their Solidarity lapel pins like war decorations. They found it amusing to bait the older ones who had fought with rifles or bomber planes for their country, rather than having marched with the pickets in Gdansk or Warsaw. But the young ones could never really know what Stanislaw and his comrades-in-arms had done for Poland from many miles away, in France, in Britain and, yes, even in Canada.
Even the young ones, though, shared Stanislaw’s deep concern for the way things were now going in Poland — the repeated changes of prime minister, the financial crises, the persistent rumours of Walesa’s authoritarian bent and of his shady advisers, the worries about the second post-Communist presidential election that was to come later in the year. Walesa looked certain to lose that election, they all agreed. But what might befall Poland if a Communist president took power once again? Stanislaw was drawing nearer to his house now and his breathing was heavier, not because of the climb, although this had been more of a challenge in recent months, but because these thoughts weighed heavily on him. The lunch today had ended on a jolly note as usual, with young Kwiencinski or someone else laughing off all the unkind or unthinking things that had been said, with another round of draft beer, with more steaming plates of Quebecois food brought to the table, with no one, apparently, meaning any harm.
“All friends here, Stanislaw,” Kwiencinski had said. “Good loyal Poles one and all.”
But now, as he approached his house, Stanislaw felt his cheeks heat up with regret. He wished that his oldest friend, his brother-in-arms F.O. Navigator Zbigniew Tomaszewski, were here to talk to, rather than old and alone in Paris. Letters and brief telephone calls were now their only connection. How could young fools like Jerzy Kwiencinski or, for that matter, drunken fools of retirement age like Pawel Bazlyko ever know, while they ate their lunches and drank their beer, the truth of what he, Stanislaw, had done for his country? Zbegniew, his friend and his navigator, knew. He knew all that Stanislaw had allowed him or anyone else to know.
An intense memory of a freezing bombing run over Europe, as the Mazovia Squadron headed out once more from Scotland to pound smoking German cities, filled Stanislaw’s mind and grasped at his heart. Zbigniew, not thirty, and Stanislaw, just as young, together on a Wellington, fighting from the air for Poland. The Polish Air Force, regrouped and reborn. Tears threatened, when in the past such memories only brought pride or adrenalin. Not to cry in this cold, Stanislaw ordered himself. You are becoming an old fool. Soft and full of tears.
This ambush by emotion stirred other feelings as he paused for a moment in the falling snow. He looked apprehensively over his shoulder once again, as he had done when getting off the bus. He remembered why he had to remain vigilant and he wished even more fervently that Zbigniew were closer, that someone could help him now in this very difficult matter. He wished even for his dear wife to be back on this earth — poor Margot who had always longed so desperately for Poland, who could never accustom herself to Montreal or to the French Canadians.
Though he would never have involved her, never have put her in the way of anything like this, he wished she could be inside the house this afternoon, turning on lamps and putting on the kettle. Even his niece, Natalia, so dear to him she was like the daughter he and Margot had never had, was not in the city today for at least a coffee and some small cakes to cheer him up.Natalia will be shortly back, he thought as he turned into Chesterfield Street. As he walked the final few paces home, he thought: We will talk then, a little, I think. Maybe Natalia and I will talk of these matters a little.
At his doorway Stanislaw paused again. The snow had covered his black fur hat and the old tweed on his shoulders. He shook white flakes from his briefcase and then unzipped it to find his key. The light was failing quickly now and the storm showed no sign of stopping. He sighed heavily and put the key into the heavy brass lock. As he stood on the snow-swept stairs he suddenly looked very much the old, lonely, and frightened man of eighty-three that he was.
As he stepped inside he was careful not to tread with his wet boots on a scattering of mail on the vestibule carpet. Without taking off his boots or hat or coat, he stooped to gather the envelopes and eagerly checked them all.
“Nothing,” he said out loud.
He tossed the sheaf of mail onto a small, white shelf that held a variety of gloves and hats and an old wooden-handled clothes brush, and he sat down on a stool to remove his boots. He carefully shook and hung up his coat and lovingly brushed the black sable of his hat before placing it on a rack in the corner. As he always did on such days, he warmed his hands briefly on the hot water radiator just inside the door and then put his feet into a pair of maroon corduroy slippers before moving on into his house.
It was a solid comfortable place, with high, white ceilings, carved wooden banisters, and stained glass in the windows. Stanislaw and Margot had bought the house many years ago, when displaced people like themselves could still afford homes in this part of lower Westmount. Even though Margot had been gone for many years, Stanislaw still kept the house in the spotless, obsessively tidy condition she had preferred, and which, if the truth were known, he too had always preferred despite his protests at the hours she spent cleaning and polishing.
Stanislaw moved to the living-room window and looked out furtively between the heavy brown drapes and white curtains his wife had made with her own hands. Then he pulled the drapes all the way across, and he went back to the front door to make sure it was securely locked.
It was too early for supper and, in any case, he was not going to be hungry after the large meal he had eaten at lunch. So he wandered, as he often did, enjoying the quiet of the house and examining the bits and pieces from his past that were set out lovingly on tables, mantels, and shelves. Later, he thought, he would listen to his old short-wave radio and then read and smoke a little.
It was the pictures he liked to examine the most in these wanderings inside his own home — pictures in shiny frames that lent the images the respect and attention they deserved. There was the one of himself and Margot with his brother and his wife at some lakeside beach in the 1950s, soon after they had married. There was their wedding picture, taken outside the stone church in Saint-Sauveur, the Laurentian village north of Montreal where they had all had so much joy skiing and hiking.
Beside the wedding picture was the one of Stanislaw and some Radio Canada International colleagues standing in front of the newly opened tower on Dorchester Boulevard. And beside that was a much older photo of him and some comrades in the Mazovia Squadron, a very faded 1940s image in shades of grey and burnished yellow. It showed them in Scotland, all standing near a large bomb on a wooden roller before it was loaded onto an aircraft. One of the squadron was crouching to write some Polish threat or vow in chalk on the side of the bomb and the others were smiling and clasping each other around the shoulders or making V-for-victory signs.
Not such a good photo to have had perhaps in our peaceful living room all these years, he thought. War photos. There was another picture of himself in a leather flying helmet, sticking his head out the small pilot’s window of a Wellington, with the red-and white- checkered square of the Mazovia Squadron painted on the side just above the images of bombs that indicated how many runs the plane had survived. In this photo there were twenty three such images.
Then there were the photos of Natalia — many photos, large and small, everywhere. Natalia as a baby with her parents, Stanislaw’s brother and his wife; others of her as a lovely young woman just before her parents died, suddenly and together; still more photos of her as a university graduate with Stanislaw and Margot standing beside her as proud as her parents would have been. The most recent photograph showed Natalia now, when she was almost forty and a psychologist, a very good one, an intellectual — Dr. Janovski, just as Stanislaw’s own father had been Dr. Janovski at the University of Krakow before the Nazis killed him.
She must marry very soon, time is passing, Stanislaw thought as he replaced the picture among the cluster of other frames. When she gets back to Montreal I will tell her this again.
When the telephone rang, Stanislaw was startled and his heart began to pound in his chest.
Natalia? he thought. From Zurich? He moved to the phone table and stared apprehensively at the receiver before picking it up.
“Janovski,” he said in English. “This is Janovski.”
The male voice at the other end was deep, and Stanislaw had heard it before. No, Stanislaw thought. Not this.
“Ah, Janovski, you are back at last,” the Polish-accented voice said in English. “We have been wishing very much to talk to you again.”
“And I’ve told you I have no wish to speak to you until you can explain to me better your business and who you represent,” Stanislaw said, the irritation in his voice masking fear.
“We think, Janovski, that you should meet us,” the voice said. “The telephone is unsatisfactory in these matters.”
“No. I have told you no,” Stanislaw said. “Not before I know more about who has sent you and what you want exactly.”
“We can explain this, Janovski, do not fear. We will explain it all in private when we meet. The telephone is not good.”
“No meeting,” Stanislaw said. “You must first send me some sign I will recognize. I’ve told you this.”
“In time, my friend. In time,” the voice said. “Why would we have contacted you at all if our intentions were not good, if we did not represent those you yourself have been seeking to contact? How would we know of you at all?”
This is not good enough,” Stanislaw said. “These are serious matters. I have told you I do not like all of these phone calls. I didn’t think it would be like this. I need some indication of your credentials.”
“Our credentials,” the voice said. A bitter laugh came down the line. “Yes, well, our credentials can be had easily enough. But the telephone is not for this sort of thing, Janovski, not for credentials. We must come to see you and then all will become clear.”
“No. Impossible,” Stanislaw said. He hung up and stood breathing heavily.
This is becoming too much for me, he thought. These are surely not the ones. It has been too long now since I first tried.
He walked to the window and peered out carefully. The car was back. Exactly the same car, with two men in it like the other days. It must have just arrived, but already the snow was beginning to build on the hood, the roof, the trunk. The warmth from inside was clearing the windshield and moisture ran in rivulets down the outside of the glass. Stanislaw could see a dark figure on the driver’s side dialling a mobile telephone.
Then his own telephone rang again. Stanislaw thought: They are calling from just outside my own house.
He rushed to the door to check the lock once more and then grabbed the telephone receiver.
“No,” he shouted into it. “You must give me a sign before I speak to you again.”
He slammed the receiver down. Calmly, calmly, he told himself You are a soldier. This can be managed.
His breathing slowed. They will not come in, he thought. I will not allow them to come in. I have nothing to say to them. He looked at the old clock ticking slowly on the mantelpiece — 4:10 p.m. It will be dark soon, he thought. Not good.
He sat in his armchair and considered the situation.
They have been outside before, he thought. But if they are telephoning from outside, is this not an important change? Perhaps they have now decided that they will see me whether I wish to see them or not.
This thought troubled him. But then his old face slowly took on an expression of resignation.
I have had troubles before, he thought. Much worse trouble than this.
He sat very still in his chair, doing nothing. As he had sometimes sat alone before a mission during the war. Then, with something decided, he moved to the telephone and sat at the small stool near the table on which it stood. He dialled a number, waited, and then began to speak slowly and at length.
“Ah, Natalia,” he said in English. “Your famous answering machine. You know how much I despise these machines. But this time I will leave you a message. At last you will be happy. It is your Uncle Stanislaw speaking.”
Fool, he thought, she knows this. She would know this.
“I am sorry you are still away,” he continued. “There is something very important I need to speak to you about when you return. I wanted to tell you there is something, so you would know as soon as you get back.”
This is not making sense, he thought. You will alarm the girl unnecessarily. You cannot make changes in these recordings once they are started. Say exactly what needs to be said.
“I have been worrying about some important matters these past months and you yourself remarked on this, I know, before you left. So perhaps we could speak just as soon as you get in, please, if that is all right. Could you call me immediately? There are matters you should now perhaps know a little about. Yes. And, yes, I should also say, even though you know this, that I love you very much, Natalia, my dear. But you know that, I suppose. I do hope I have never hurt you with my foolish bad temper or my old-fashioned way.”
Tears came, and he found it difficult to continue.
“I am sorry, Natalia, for this call,” he said. “But you will understand better when we see each other at last and I can talk to you face to face. So good-bye, Darling. Stanislaw.”
He stood up. He wished he had not left his name at the end of the message, as if it had been a letter. It is a tape-recorded message, old fool, not a letter, he thought. And why call her and then tell her nothing? He wished there was some way to call again and erase the message he had left. He thought: I have mishandled this. All of this.
Suddenly he felt very tired and very old. He was sleepy from the afternoon’s heavy meal and the beer and the warmth of his house after the cold of the streets outside. Suddenly he wished only to doze for a time on his sofa and then listen to a program on his radio before going to bed for the night. He wished for a night with no troubles.
The telephone rang again. This time Stanislaw only sat and stared at it. It stopped ringing eventually and he waited quietly, listening to the ticking of the clock.
When he eventually heard the sound of footsteps on the verandah and the knock that came at the door, he did not jump, he was not surprised, because he had suspected that the men outside would come. He waited, and the knock was repeated, louder this time but muffled by the glove that covered the knocking hand. He knew that the knock would come again. He had known in his heart that the events he set in motion, so long ago it seemed now, would somehow come to something like this.
He stood up and faced the door. He thought: The war is never over.
The Mazovia Legacy
Michael E. Rose
Paperback, 345 p.
22 January 2015
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