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
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.
He is quiet around his guests, just as he was quiet around the men
he stalked for Shamron. He is a chain smoker, but if it bothers the
guest he will refrain. A polyglot, he listens to you in whatever
language you prefer. His gaze is sympathetic and steady, though
behind his eyes it is sometimes possible to detect puzzle pieces
sliding into place. He prefers to hold all questions until the
visitor has completed his case. His time is precious, and he makes
decisions quickly. He knows when he can help. He knows when it is
better to leave the past undisturbed.
Should he accept your case, he asks for a small sum of money to
finance the opening stages of his investigation. He does so with
noticeable embarrassment, and if you cannot pay he will waive the
fee entirely. He receives most of his operating funds from donors,
but Wartime Claims is hardly a profitable enterprise and Lavon is
chronically strapped for cash. The source of his funding has been a
contentious issue in certain circles of Vienna, where he is reviled
as a troublesome outsider financed by international Jewry, always
sticking his nose into places it doesn't belong. There are many in
Austria who would like Wartime Claims to close its doors for good.
It is because of them that Eli Lavon spends his days behind green
On a snow-swept evening in early January, Lavon was alone in his
office, hunched over a stack of files. There were no visitors that
day. In fact it had been many days since Lavon had accepted
appointments, the bulk of his time being consumed by a single case.
At seven o'clock, Reveka poked her head through the door. "We're
hungry," she said with typical Israeli bluntness. "Get us something
to eat." Lavon's memory, while impressive, did not extend to food
orders. Without looking up from his work, he waved his pen in the
air as though he were writing --- Make me a list,
A moment later, he closed the file and stood up. He looked out his
window and watched the snow settling gently onto the black bricks
of the courtyard. Then he pulled on his overcoat, wrapped a scarf
twice around his neck, and placed a cap atop his thinning hair. He
walked down the hall to the room where the girls worked. Reveka's
desk was a skyline of German military files; Sarah, the eternal
graduate student, was concealed behind a stack of books. As usual,
they were quarreling. Reveka wanted Indian from a take-away just on
the other side of the Danube Canal; Sarah craved pasta from an
Italian café on the Kärntnerstrasse. Lavon, oblivious,
studied the new computer on Sarah's desk.
"When did that arrive?" he asked, interrupting their debate.
"Why do we have a new computer?"
"Because you bought the old one when the Hapsburgs still ruled
"Did I authorize the purchase of a new computer?"
The question was not threatening. The girls managed the office.
Papers were placed beneath his nose, and usually he signed them
"No, Eli, you didn't approve the purchase. My father paid for the
Lavon smiled. "Your father is a generous man. Please thank him on
The girls resumed their debate. As usual it resolved in Sarah's
favor. Reveka wrote out the list and threatened to pin it to
Lavon's sleeve. Instead, she stuffed it into his coat pocket for
safekeeping and gave him a little shove to send him on his way.
"And don't stop for a coffee," she said. "We're starving."
It was almost as difficult to leave Wartime Claims and Inquiries as
it was to enter. Lavon punched a series of numbers into a keypad on
the wall next to the entrance. When the buzzer sounded, he pulled
open the interior door and stepped into the security chamber. The
outer door would not open until the inner door had been closed for
ten seconds. Lavon put his face to the bulletproof glass and peered
On the opposite side of the street, concealed in the shadows at the
entrance of a narrow alleyway, stood a heavy-shouldered figure with
a fedora hat and mackintosh raincoat. Eli Lavon could not walk the
streets of Vienna, or any other city for that matter, without
ritualistically checking his tail and recording faces that appeared
too many times in too many disparate situations. It was a
professional affliction. Even from a distance, and even in the poor
light, he knew that he had seen the figure across the street
several times during the last few days.
He sorted through his memory, almost as a librarian would sort
through a card index, until he found references to previous
sightings. Yes, here it is. The Judenplatz, two days ago. It was
you who was following me after I had coffee with that reporter from
the States. He returned to the index and found a second
reference. The window of a bar along the Sterngasse. Same man,
without the fedora hat, gazing casually over his pilsner as Lavon
hurried through a biblical deluge after a perfectly wretched day at
the office. The third reference took him a bit longer to locate,
but he found it nonetheless. The Number Two streetcar, evening
rush. Lavon is pinned against the doors by a florid-faced Viennese
who smells of bratwurst and apricot schnapps. Fedora has somehow
managed to find a seat and is calmly cleaning his nails with his
ticket stub. He is a man who enjoys cleaning things, Lavon had
thought at the time. Perhaps he cleans things for a living.
Lavon turned round and pressed the intercom. No response. Come
on, girls. He pressed it again, then looked over his shoulder.
The man in the fedora and mackintosh coat was gone.
A voice came over the speaker. Reveka.
"Did you lose the list already, Eli?"
Lavon pressed his thumb against the button.
"Get out! Now!"
A few seconds later, Lavon could hear the trample of footfalls in
the corridor. The girls appeared before him, separated by a wall of
glass. Reveka coolly punched in the code. Sarah stood by silently,
her eyes locked on Lavon's, her hand on the glass.
He never remembered hearing the explosion. Reveka and Sarah were
engulfed in a ball of fire, then were swept away by the blast wave.
The door blew outward. Lavon was lifted like a child's toy, arms
spread wide, back arched like a gymnast. His flight was dreamlike.
He felt himself turning over and over again. He had no memory of
impact. He knew only that he was lying on his back in snow, in a
hailstorm of broken glass. "My girls," he whispered as he slid
slowly into blackness. "My beautiful girls."
Excerpted from A DEATH IN VIENNA © Copyright 2005 by
Daniel Silva. Reprinted with permission by Signet, a member of
Penguin Group (USA) Inc. All rights reserved.