Noelle Avril’s childhood had been dominated by an ever-pervasive sense of the past. The power of the present lacked much of a hold on the girl since, in every room of her home, in the faces that stared regally down upon her from the walls of the gallery, from the family crest on the mantle, and from the silent respect paid by all to her grandfather, her life was full of a sense of history. The Avrils had played a major role in French history dating back to the Middle Ages. The line was connected intimately with the throne, and their family crest contained the fleur-de-lis in a very deliberate and prominent manner.
Young Noelle remembered one summer afternoon in which her stout, bearded, ever-benign grandfather Henri Avril had entertained her with the story of their proud heritage.
“Ma petite, you were born on Christmas Day,” he had said. “That is why you were given the name Noelle. Your birth was a present to us all. You know that much. But I have never told you about our surname. Avril or Avrill may be translated as April. Thus, you combine the pleasures of the spring with the introspection of the winter. I would always have you thus. Your bright mind delights me, while your winning beauty pleases all! You are my pride and joy. Your late parents would have been thrilled to see how special a child you have become. I am saddened still when I think about what they have missed. That accident robbed us all of much pleasure.”
Noelle climbed up on his lap and gazed into his clear blue eyes with a child’s adoration. He was the only family the child had ever known. “Grand-pere, why does our family have the flower on all of our china, paper, and the large crest?” she asked.
He chuckled as he said, “Noelle, that flower is called the fleur-de-lis. It means more than you know. You see, Clovis, the ancient king of the Franks, received one from an angel! The flower came to represent much to that noble ruler. It stood for his own Christian faith and for the promise of victory to him in a battle for all of France as long as he remained faithful! The flower is a symbol of light, life, and perfection. It also has traditionally been linked to royalty. In the twelfth century, when King Louis VII became ruler of France, he adopted it as part of his official coat of arms or family shield. We have worn it proudly ever since. The Avrils have been tied to the royal families by blood and by service.”
Noelle said, “Did you know Louis VII?”
Henri laughed and said, “No, my child. Your grand-pere is not as venerable as he may appear! Still, the connection to the kings of France is something we have always been proud of. When the French Revolution occurred, the fleur-de-lis became a mark of shame to many. Those who wore it were clearly marked as aristocrats. They met early deaths and lost their heads. Avrils survived those dark days. Many went to England. Still, in time order returned, and so did our ancestors. We do not condone the actions of some of our ancestors. Just as there is good in all people, so may be found that which is bad.”
“I wish to be good!” Noelle said.
“And so you are!” Henri replied. “You will also do much good. You must work hard and never take what we have been given by the Bon Dieu for granted. Study. Read! Pray! Become a woman who will change things for the better, and carry that which is France with courage and skill and mercy! The true sign of a noble mind is a giving heart. Public service is our duty and our privilege.”
Noelle had never forgotten the old man’s words. She became a true scholar. She embraced learning and mastered a variety of skills. She excelled the most at information-gathering, and her research skills impressed even her tutors and her grandfather. She also developed many talents, including fencing, equestrian skills, linguistics, gymnastics, and martial arts! Henri guided her and gently led her along certain avenues of study until she truly became an amazing young woman. In the debutante circles in which she was raised, Noelle became an unpopular figure. Her beauty, intellect, and serious demeanor set her apart from her peers. Being raised by an elderly man shaped her as an atypical young girl. She had no interest in superficial things and no time for those whose sole interests centered on romance or glamor.
Still, Noelle Avril was a stunning beauty, and Henri beamed with pride on the night of her coming out party. She was a lovely girl, and he saw her mother’s charm and grace in her manner. He also provided well for her. She was given every resource to enhance her learning and spark her interests.
Noelle studied computer science and criminology at a college near the wine country. Although she hadn’t fully decided how she could best use her skills and interests, criminal justice and research appealed to her. At a seminar open to both the public and the students, she met a handsome American named Mark Shaw. He was already a successful attorney, but he had such a strong desire to change the system and protect the weak that he lost no opportunity to acquire more knowledge. Thus he was touring Europe for the summer, working with the law enforcement agencies of several countries. His time in France allowed him to take in the special seminar where he met Noelle.
She was drawn to him for many reasons. He was smart, handsome, and passionate, and he seemed devoted to justice. She later realized that much of what attracted her to the American lawyer came from the traits he shared with her beloved grandfather. Both men saw social justice as a burning cause around which to rally their talents, courage, and time.
One evening as they strolled along the Seine, he had said, “Noelle, I want to bring justice down to the little man. I want every citizen to receive the full benefit of the law. I don’t want to see the law used for the rich at the expense of the poor. My father… actually, my stepfather is a businessman. He is totally honest and lives his life by a strict code of personal integrity, but he does have wealth, and I can’t see myself giving my career over to making things better for those who are already well off. I want to help the helpless. I hate to see justice as an idea without any practical application in the daily life of the ordinary guy!”
Noelle had fallen in love with him, and during that summer they planned the life they could have together after she finished her own studies. They saw their romance as one built upon shared values and a call to public service. They also felt what any young couple might feel. They enjoyed each other’s company and found trust, humor, and security with one another.
That blissful time ended all too soon. Mark Shaw had returned to the States and earned a position in the D.A.’s office. However, he soon found himself disgusted at being tied by red tape and legalities that seemed to serve the crooked and bind the just. He raged against the frustration he felt during many calls to his French lover.
Then the calls abruptly ceased, and Noelle grew worried. She finally managed to reach Mark, only to learn a fantastic development in his life. He had been brought into a secret organization dedicated to bringing justice to those in need. The group later turned out to be an alien cult. The Manhunters served no cause except for a twisted and long altered programming that truly did nothing more than build their own power. Noelle only learned these facts long after Mark broke up with her. Still, at the time of that bitter phone call, all she could do was plead with him to not embrace this new and radical group so fervently.
“I can’t serve the Manhunters effectively if I am bound to you,” he had said. “I have to be dedicated totally to their cause. It is a higher calling, and it is one you would respect. In time, you’ll understand. I’m not Mark Shaw anymore. I’m more than that. I’m also less than that. My identity is tied up with a larger group. I serve them, and I serve justice. I am sorry. I’ll always care for you, but I belong to them now!”
Noelle had responded with tears, curses, anger, and deliberation. She had tried to learn more about the secret group, but even her own skills could only produce a few veiled rumors and the feeling that something sinister lurked behind the cold blue masks of the cult members. She was hurt as well. She felt that she needed to forge a new life for herself, and perhaps one day she would be in a position to expose the cult if they did, in fact, turn out to be as dangerous as they sounded.
That was why Noelle was receptive when Henri’s old friend André Chavard came to visit with a strange offer. The dashing André was well known for his war-era exploits as a child and member of the informal group of Allied youths called the Boy Commandos. He had connections to the French government and had first met Henri many decades before.
Noelle sat with Henri Avril and André Chavard around a small antique table. She smiled winningly as André recounted one of his many adventures. He held their interest with an exciting tale of danger and courage and ended with a note of absurd humor. “And Brooklyn came into the camp wearing a dress!” he concluded as they laughed politely.
Henri smiled. “You lived a glorious life as a boy. You continue to live a noble one as a man.”
Then, suddenly, André’s features grew clouded as he leaned forward and looked intently at Noelle. “That life is what brings me here. Noelle, I spoke to Henri before coming here. He is aware of what I am going to ask. He insisted that I explain it all to you myself. He and I are old comrades, and I value his opinion. He has told me about you. He has convinced me that you are up to what I am going to ask.”
Noelle frowned and looked from one man to another. Henri said nothing, but nodded slightly.
“I work for Department Gamma,” explained André. “It is a highly secret organization dedicated to the security of France. My background and perhaps some of the things Henri may have suggested to you in the past may have prepared you for this revelation. What neither of us anticipated was the formation of an insidious group dedicated to empowering its founder. The man in question is known only as Professor Cadavéreux. He runs a school of sorts that he calls ‘Dames de L’amble,’ or the ladies of the night. That hint of covert allure is fitting, since the place is a training ground for female spies. They all serve their mentor, and his purposes are simply defined as the acquisition of personal power.
“You can realize our problem,” André continued. “The only means we have of learning fully just how extensive his organization extends and how many possible projects are in the works, so to speak, is to have an agent infiltrate the school. I feel he recruits from colleges such as your own. At this time we have no female agents of an appropriate age or background. Noelle, Henri is respected by my agency. His word carries great weight. He says you could pull this off for us.”
“I admit that I can handle myself in most situations, but this is beyond anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Noelle. “You want me to be a girl spy? It sounds like something from the cinema.”
“And yet truth is indeed stranger than fiction,” said André. “Cadavéreux is a mad genius on a grand scale. He thinks in such epic and colorful ways. He feels his mind separates him from the common man, and the ordinary rules of civilized society are beneath him. Girl spies or agents that do his will are most definitely par for the course for the man.”
After several additional hours of discussion, Noelle agreed to help. Henri remained silent, but she knew the old man’s views well. Public service defined his very nature, and confidence in Noelle allowed him to involve her in even such a deadly pursuit. He simply believed she could handle herself superbly.
Weeks later, after undergoing some specialized training with André Chavard’s personal supervision, Noelle Avil walked across the campus of the Université de Valenciennes et du Hainaut-Cambrésis. Returning to the college, she quickly become known as an outspoken critic of the French government and society as a whole. The guise of spoiled wealthy rebel against the culture that had given her family such privilege was a plausible one. Noelle made it more so, since she was a capable actress.
In time, a member of a radical student group who attended the college as well approached her. André had warned her that her seemingly tranquil campus was a recruiting ground for the type of woman who might be agreeable to the doctrines of Professor Cadavéreux.
Noelle met and had drinks with a fiery young woman named Eleanor Moiré. They talked, and political views were exchanged as the passionate Eleanor raged against the system. “The narrow-minded people who run this nation are no better than their ancestors — be they aristocrats or revolutionaries. They are complacent, and they are resigned to accept the injustices of daily life. They think in terms too small to envision radical social change. Only a man with a mind of uncommon brilliance could shake them from their slumbering apathy!”
Noelle nodded. “I know! My family stands for everything that kind of numbing acceptance of the status quo produces. They think money is all one needs.”
Thus the two women became friends, and Noelle’s deception enabled her to fool Eleanor, whose desire to hear herself speak blinded her to much around her. Noelle was appalled by her so-called friend’s cold, calculating views. She cared about social change, but only from within the system. She knew Henri had given most of his life to making things better. André had fought a war to do the same. They were neither numb nor blind to the realities of life. They merely did what they could to improve things. She saw a lot of pain behind Eleanor’s passion and felt sorry for her at the same time that she deluded her.