There's an old Romani proverb that says; 'There are such things as false truths and honest lies'. This is indeed a story about false truths and honest lies, but mostly it's a love story about a boy named Royal and a girl named Renée. Now before I lose you to a who-done-it or some action saga because you find romance corny and jejune, let me assure you; this isn't your average love story. In fact - given the circumstances - it never should have happened.
Before I unwind this tale, there are three things you need to know about Royal.
First; Royal was his legit first name, his mom gave it to him because his last name was Semenov and the 'ov' in Russian names meant he was descended from royalty.
Second; Royal was a gangster. Not an old-school fedora-sporting mob guy with a car trunk big enough for two dead bodies, nor one of the new-age bling ghetto boys whose life-expectancy barely exceeds puberty. Royal was the lead money launderer for a Romani mob who stepped up in 2000 after the DeNapoli family wiped out the local chapter of the Russian Vorovskoy Mir (Thieves World) gang in New Westminster after they started pushing their weight around.
The third thing you need to know is; Royal had just recently finished a twelve year prison stretch for a murder he didn't commit so a Romani crime boss didn't have to.
Royal met Renée when he was visiting Dianna, a woman his own age who ran four of the legit businesses the Romani mob used to launder money. How that works is; a launderer like Royal takes cash the mob receives from drug sales, prostitution, thieving, robbery, cons, and protection, and runs it through legit cash-based businesses.
Dianna managed three coffee shops and one strip joint for the Romani mob boss and every day Royal would hand her four envelopes full of cash that she would add to each business' take and deposit it in the bank as income. Royal would then cook the books so most of that cash got funnelled to semi-legitimate businesses that the mob boss also owned under various names that were set up as vendors for the three coffee shops and the strip joint. Each of those vendors would provide invoices for anything from napkins, to booze, to cleaning supplies, and no one was the wiser. The mob boss had to pay tax on the laundered money he received as monthly wages from the vendors and quarterly dividends that the companies provided, but it all added up to a pretty solid chunk of change over the course of a year given that in addition to the four businesses Dianna ran, the mob boss owned twenty-two others.
So, the day Royal met Renée he'd handed off the daily envelopes to Dianna and stayed for a cup of coffee. It was a cold day, so spending some time with a warm drink in a warm house was a nice break for him as he made his rounds. Royal had known Dianna before he got sent up on the murder charge and they were reminiscing about the old days. Royal had seen an old framed photo of Dianna's little brother Ronnie from back in the day and asked how Ronnie was doing. Dianna had lowered her eyes as though Royal had just triggered a painful memory for her.
"We lost Ronnie when he was eight." Dianna said.
"I'm so sorry." Royal had replied, mentally kicking himself for stepping on that particular buried landmine.
It was in that moment that the front door opened and a gust of frigid air blew Renée into the foyer. She'd been out shopping and was setting down her grocery sacks. Then Royal watched her close the door and take off her long woolen coat, her red toque, scarf, and mittens to reveal her slender form clad in grey woolen leggings and a white turtleneck sweater. Her long auburn hair made a striking frame for the pale skin of her delicate face, her eyes were bright and the colour of almonds flecked with gold, and her feet were small and encased in soft kid leather ankle boots. To Royal she was the most beautiful creature he'd ever seen, and watching her shed her winter clothes reminded him of unwrapping a long-awaited gift as a child.
"Royal? This is my sister Renée." Dianna said, "Renée? This is Royal."
Renée moved toward Royal with a grace so fluid it appeared she was floating on air, and when she said;
"Hello Royal" and he took her extended hand, he felt like he'd just been touched by an angel. Her hand was elegant and her skin the softest thing he'd ever touched, and when she gave his fingers a gentle squeeze, Royal's heart filled with a tingling warmth he'd never felt before. He had to swallow past a lump in his throat before he could answer.
"Hello Renée." he whispered and those two words contained every sonnet of love and adoration that had ever been written in the history of romance, and when Renée smiled at his gentle voice and released his hand, Royal felt like crying because the moment was so profound and she so beautiful.
Royal had fallen in love.
As Renée took the sacks of groceries to the kitchen and busied herself putting it all away, Royal quietly asked Dianna if Renée had a boyfriend, or a girlfriend if she leaned in that direction.
"She's had both, but right now she's taking a break from relationships." Dianna told him, and Royal detected a nuance in her tone and read the micro-expressions on her face that told him something was amiss.
"No, what is it?"
Dianna sighed and set down her coffee cup.
"She's not for you, Royal." Dianna told him, "Renée lives in a different world from us. She's sweet and gentle and wouldn't last ten minutes in the life."
'The life' was how people like Royal and Dianna described their criminal activities and associates.
"Are you telling me not to ask her out?" Royal said, already feeling his heart breaking.
"No." Dianna said, "Renée is an adult and can make up her own mind who she lets into her life. It's just I don't want her to get hurt."
"I'd never do that." Royal told his old friend, and he meant it.
Royal did ask Renée out, and she agreed to go out for dinner with him to her favourite restaurant in Vancouver's West End; Hy's Steakhouse. After dinner, they walked down along English Bay to take in the view of the cargo ships brightly lit with Christmas lights as they swung on their anchor chains. Above them the stars were crystalline in their sharpness, sparkling across the cloudless black winter sky like distant fireworks. Their breath curled like smoke when they spoke of nothing and everything as they walked and when Renée shivered and Royal wrapped his arm around her shoulders, she leaned into him and both basked in the warmth of that close intimacy.
When Royal walked Renée up the steps to Dianna's front door, they paused and Royal gazed down into her almond and gold eyes and she smiled. The perfect gentleman, Royal kissed her softly on welcoming lips and tasted her sweetness. When she whispered; "Goodnight, Royal." his heart melted anew.
The gangsters Royal worked with noticed the difference in him right away. He was always a quiet, serious man, going about his job turning hundreds of thousands of illegal money into slightly less in legit money, but when he started dating Renée they would catch him smiling to himself when he didn't think anyone was watching, and humming pieces of music that bordered on annoying. The rough men teased him and made ribald jokes about Royal's new secret bedmate, guessing how large her breasts were, how wide her hips were, and what perversions she performed at his command. Royal said nothing in response to these crudities because to acknowledge them would just fuel the fire.
His boss Dimitri noticed the difference in Royal as well. Though Dimitri knew nothing about Renée, not even her name, he guessed correctly that she was a nice girl and that Royal was happily in love. Dimitri was grateful for Royal's newfound happiness because some of the guilt he'd carried for the past twelve years was alleviated.
See; Dimitri was the Romani crime boss that Royal took the fall for. It was Dimitri who had committed the murder and hung it on Royal, and though Dimitri knew it was better for everyone in the mob if he remained free as boss, he still felt bad when Royal was sent away with a twenty year sentence hanging over him.
Dimitri had made sure Royal's prison commissary account was always flush, and paid for Royal's lawyers as they tried to appeal his conviction or reduce his sentence, but it all amounted to bupkis. Royal did finally get out on parole after twelve years, so Dimitri welcomed him back into the mob. When he found out Royal had earned his CPA in prison, Dimitri put him to work keeping and cooking the books because his last launderer had come up missing. It was a job hazard in organized crime; sometimes people just evaporated and everyone forgot their names.
Dimitri kept a close watch on Royal at first, thinking he might want revenge for being set up and losing twelve years of his life, but Royal appeared loyal to Dimitri, worked hard in his new profession, and kept up an air of cleanness by satisfying his parole officer by checking in regularly. Dimitri also learned that Royal even handled a Detective named Marc Chohaniuk - who'd been the Romani mob's nemesis for six years - and never let the cop's sporadic drop-ins and 'chance' meetings with Royal to get under his skin.
Meanwhile, Royal loved making the daily cash drop to Dianna personally so he could get a few extra minutes with Renée, and over the weeks of winter, Royal and Renée dated steadily. Royal was okay with Renée wanting to take things slow, even though he felt frustrated and confused at times. As with all new couples falling in love, things between them occasionally got hot and heavy and Royal could tell Renée was highly aroused when they parked and made out in his BMW. But Renée always stopped him once they landed firmly on second base, saying she wasn't ready to go further.
The other thing that confused Royal was that even though there were fine restaurants and entertainment venues in New Westminster where they both lived, Renée always convinced him to travel to the West End of Vancouver for their dates. When Royal told Renée he noticed that most of her friends they bumped into down there were gay, lesbian, or transgendered, Renée said that she knew them from when she was a hostess in a night club that catered to the LGBTQ community.
She said she preferred their company to the rough customers her sister and Royal were associated with.
"They're just so much more fun." Renée told him, "And none of them judge me."
"Why would they judge you?" Royal asked.
"Exactly." Renée answered and changed the subject.
Though things were moving slowly with Renée, Royal was happy with her. He was also happy with the money he was earning being Dimitri's main crooked accountant, and even the relationship he had forged with Detective Chohaniuk, if you can believe it. Being in 'the life' Royal caught a lot of news on rival outfits, so to keep the Detective happy, he'd toss him a tip-off once in a while that took a competitor off the street, and left his share of the illegal pie up for grabs by a Romani brother.
So, things were going very well for Royal until they weren't.
In the spring on a certain Wednesday night, Royal and Renée went out for dinner and a movie down on Granville Street. Royal noticed that Renée was a little distracted all evening, but he didn't press her about what was troubling her. It was when he drove her back to Dianna's house and parked out front that Renée dropped the bomb;
"Royal." Renée said softly, her hands clenched together in her lap, "You know I think you're a great guy, and I think you know I'm falling in love with you."
"That makes me happy to hear that, Renée." Royal said, turning sideways in the drivers' seat to face her, "I think you know that I'm in love with you."
Royal saw the tears welling in Renée's eyes as she forced a smile.
"I know." she said, her voice small and strained, "That's what makes this so hard."
"Makes what hard?" Royal asked, worried now.
"We can't be together, Royal. I'm sorry, but we just can't." Renée said, then went on and Royal realized she'd rehearsed what she said next, "We're from different worlds. Your friends and my friends will never mix. One of us would always be unhappy because we'd always have to choose."
"I don't care about them ..." Royal started, but Renée held up a finger and touched his lips.
"We just can't be together. I'm sorry I let it get this far, but we just can't." Renée said, tears overspilling her eyes, "I hope you find someone who will make you happy. You deserve to be happy."
But before Royal could tell Renée that she was the only thing in his life that made him happy, she was out of the car and bouncing up Dianna's front steps. Royal was numb as he watched Renée let herself into Dianna's house without a backward glance.
Royal blamed himself. He came to believe that Renée couldn't see herself married to a criminal - even though her sister was one - and that the twelve years he spent in prison was like a stain on his soul that made him unloveable.
Not being a big drinker nor drug user, Royal immersed himself in his work to escape the heartache he felt, continuing to amass his wealth by amassing Dimitri's - which meant less to him now without Renée to share it with. But crime does pay if you do it right and the money rolled in.
Royal spent his evenings alone, finding no solace in the company of his criminal brothers whose only solution to a broken heart was to get laid. He stayed home by night and shut in his office by day, and no longer made the cash drops to Dianna himself, letting a hang-around who was looking to score points with the mob do that for him. He feared if he did and saw Renée again his heart would shatter to pieces.
It was some days later that Royal bumped into Dianna as he walked toward Dimitri's offices with his morning coffee. She called him a shit, and reminded him that she'd warned him away from Renée, that she wasn't for him, and now he had broken her heart.
"I've broken her heart?" Royal said feeling a tug deep in his chest.
"Yes, she's devastated." Dianna spat.
Then Royal spoke the three most painful words he knew; "She left me."
Dianna sighed, and admitted that Renée had not gone into detail about how and why they separated, so Dianna had assumed it was Royal's doing. She said that Renée now wandered the house day and night, sobbing silently at times, staring sightlessly out the window as though she was waiting for Royal's BMW to pull up to the curb. Dianna said Renée wouldn't take calls from her friends and hadn't bathed or changed her clothes since the last night she was with Royal.
Royal said he would do anything for Renée to make it right between them, but being he didn't understand why she no longer wanted to see him he didn't know what he could do.
"She never told you." Dianna realized.
"Told me what?"
So, Dianna took Royal to a quiet place on a bench under some well-manicured trees and told him; "Remember the day you met Renée?" Dianna said, "You'd asked me about Ronnie and I told you we lost him when he was eight."
"We lost him, but Ronnie didn't die." Dianna told Royal, "Ronnie became Renée."
The world began to tilt for Royal.
"All his life he kept telling us he was a girl and we ignored him, thinking he was playing pretend like children do. But in his mind, he was a girl." Dianna said.
"I took Ronnie to psychiatrists and psychologists and over time I came to realize that he ... she ... was a girl." Dianna said, "Renée had been born with the wrong body. Our parents disowned her, our friends and family shunned her. But now I have a sister named Renée and I love her like I loved Ronnie."
Royal was rocked by this. He felt the earth move under his feet, and his world turned upside down, dumping all the pieces of him and Renée at his feet. Dianna told him she was sorry, andleft him sitting on that bench confused and rudderless.
Over the next few days he began to see the scattered pieces of this puzzle differently and fit them back together one by one; Renée's gay and lesbian friends in the West End; Renée not wanting to be seen by Royal's rough associates; Renée feeling most comfortable in the accepting LGBTQ community; Renée's arousal and her apparent fear of going past second base. Everything began to make sense.
He and Dianna spoke on the phone because he had so many questions. He learned that Renée was feminine and her skin so soft because of the hormones she took; that she hadn't had gender reassignment surgery because she had come to love her body the way it was, and hoped to one day find a man who could love it as well; that she hoped she had found that man in Royal, but was too afraid to take the chance of revealing herself fully, terrified of a rejection that she believed would kill her.
Royal read research on transgendered people and learned that the male brain and female brain were different, not only in how they functioned but with slight differences in structure as well. He learned that it wasn't the genitals that determined gender, it was the brain. Renée had been born with a female brain inside a male body.
He remembered something his father said to him once about people who put on airs; "If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it's not a swan. It's a duck."
Royal remembering asking; "What's wrong with being a duck?"
Renée looked like a girl, she felt like a girl, kissed like a girl, and was in all other ways a girl - except for one small thing.
Renée was home alone on a day that spring watching a television show where dysfunctional families yelled at each other for a full hour, when there came a soft knock at the door. She ignored it, not wanting company, wanting to feel nothing and see no one until this deep funk she was in had passed. But the soft knocking returned over and over, yet she still ignored it. Then she heard the flap of the mail slot open and close and heard the soft sound of something drop to the hardwood floor. She looked and saw it was a piece of paper folded four times.
Curious and partly annoyed, Renée rose and padded barefoot to the door and picked up the piece of paper, unfolding it ...
... it said simply in neat block printing that an accountant might use.
Renée unlocked and opened the door.
When Royal looked down at her sweet, pale face, all the feelings of tenderness and love returned full force like the rush of warm rain driven by a storm. He didn't notice the grubby sweatpants, nor the once white t-shirt with the yellowing armpits and the ketchup stain on the chest. He didn't see the complete lack of make-up nor the tangled, greasy hair. He saw only the miracle that was his girl and it took everything in his power to not step forward and wrap her tightly in his arms and never, ever let go of her again.
"Royal?" she said in a tremulous voice, and he heard the fear in it; fear that he would voice his anger with her; fear that he would make a scene and call her names like others had done; fear that he would vent his own loss with cruel words and break her heart.
"Renée." Royal whispered, her name catching in his throat, "We need to talk."
So Renée led him to the armchair and when he sat, she sat near him on the sofa.
"Dianna told me." Royal said and had to say no more. Royal knew and Renée knew he knew. But why was he here?
"You could have told me yourself." he said.
"I was afraid to." she said, and in the silence that followed Royal reached across and took her small hand gently in his and said the simple words that healed them both;
"I love you, Renée, just the way you are."
They came together then and held each other and cried. They spoke the wordless language of love with touches, caresses, gentle embraces, and tentative kisses. And when their passions returned, Renée whispered; "Are you sure?" and he whispered back; "Yes, I'm sure."
Then Renée led him to her bedroom by the hand and laid him back on her bed and begged him to wait for her. She went into her bathroom and returned freshly showered and smelling wholesome once more. She stood wrapped in a towel looking at him, and when she let the towel slide down her body to the floor, Royal passed his first test. When their passion reached their peak and both climaxed and they clung together afterward, their sweaty bodies pressed tight, Royal passed his second test.
When they wanted to cool off and lay side-by-side staring up at the ceiling, Renée began to ask the question foremost in her mind; "Royal ..." but he answered before she could ask it;
"I'm still sure." he said.
They were in love and they were together from that moment forward.
Renée relented, feeling secure in their relationship, and they were seen in local restaurants by other gangsters in the Romani mob. Though those rough men didn't have the courage to say anything directly to Renée in front of Royal, some began to make insensitive comments about her behind his back down at the hangout, and over time the comments grew courser. To put a quick stop to that Royal chose the largest, most dangerous of them - a man named Manfri, who he treated to a short surgery and long recovery from a lesson that involved a table fork and one of Manfri's eyeballs. The gangsters discovered that Royal had learned more things than accounting during his twelve years in prison, and they all stopped their gossiping about Renée.
Dimitri had a quiet conversation with Royal about choosing Renée as a lover, and learned about transgendered people and how wonderful she was.
"At least she can't fake an orgasm." Dimitri said distantly, thinking of his own wife of twenty-two years, and Royal laughed. When all was said and done, Royal was going to miss Dimitri when he was gone.
Summer went by too quickly as summers do. Renée and Royal enjoyed a wonderful social life, dividing their nights between Royal's and Renée's friends, agreeing to never mix the two. Renée's friends never grew tired of the novelty that Renée had a gangster boyfriend and always peppered him with questions, some he could actually answer. The mob members got used to the idea and Manfri learned how to navigate the world without depth perception. Royal fed Detective Chohaniuk the odd bust, kept up his schedule of meetings with his parole officer, and kept raking in the cash for Dimitri and - of course - himself.
At certain points in the autumn that followed a series of seemingly unrelated events occurred than no one would piece together until the week before Christmas.
A specialist was contracted to take pictures, create passports, identification cards, and clean social insurance numbers for three people. Royal set up a meeting between Dimitri and a banker named Klaus Biedermann from the Royal Bank of Liechtenstein whose satellite office was in Vancouver and established accounts in that European Principality for Dimitri that no government would ever be allowed to see. Dimitri was very happy because Royal had set up a secure link so he could log onto the official Royal Bank of Liechtenstein website and check on his account balances whenever he wished.
Crooked money flowed off the streets and through legit cash-based businesses into fake vendor accounts then traveled the world bouncing from tax haven to tax haven in increasingly complex orbits that would make the finest forensic accountant's head spin.
Dianna suddenly quit her job and apparently disappeared just after Thanksgiving - which in Canada takes place in October. No one knew where she'd gone, not even Royal or Renée. Rumour had it that she'd come into some money.
Royal was told by Detective Chohaniuk that as of December fifteenth his parole file would be closed and he'd be a free man once more.
Oh, and Royal and Renée got married in a small ceremony just before Dianna left.
On December fifteenth, Dimitri was sitting in his office playing Canfield solitaire on his computer. He was worried. Royal and Renée were due to return from their delayed honeymoon on the thirteenth and so far, Dimitri hadn't heard from him. He had a pressing issue to take up with Royal because over the previous three days whenever he checked his Liechtenstein accounts there was no new activity - the total of just over twelve million dollars had remained stagnant.
Dimitri was very surprised just before lunch when the man he knew as Herr Biedermann walked into his office with a half dozen New Westminster Police officers and introduced himself as Detective Norman Morris who was an associate of Detective Marc Chohaniuk and presented him with arrest warrants for him and all of his gangsters.
Earlier that morning, Detectives Chohaniuk and Morris had been looking forward to meeting with their inside man - Royal Semenov, who had traded betraying Dimitri for eight years of freedom from his twenty year sentence. Chohaniuk's bust team, along with the Crown Council prosecutor were disappointed that Royal didn't show up for the meeting as well, him being the star of that particular investigation. Instead, Detective Chohaniuk received a cardboard box filled with every account book from the Romani mob, along with a zip drive containing all the numbers and passwords for every legitimate and laundering bank account Dimitri had.
As he was led out of his office in cuffs, Dimitri actually laughed when he realized Royal had set him up and that the reason there were no updates to his Liechtenstein accounts was because the link to what appeared to be a legit banking portal even down to the SSL certificate was fake and Royal had stopped updating the ruse knowing the bust was coming.
By December nineteenth, the forensic investigative team that was headed by Detective Chohaniuk and included specialists from the New Westminster Police Department and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, had discovered that the twelve million plus dollars that was supposed to be funnelled into an RCMP holding account in London, Ontario had disappeared. Checking all the other accounts Royal had left for Detective Chohaniuk on the zip drive revealed they were also wiped out; each containing exactly twelve dollars and twelve cents.
Royal and Renée could not be located anywhere.
The trial went forward as the physical evidence was so concrete and overwhelming the Crown didn't need Royal's testimony. The only one not rounded up in the massive bust was Dianna and her whereabouts were as unknown as Royal's and Renée's.
Dimitri received ten years and the rest of the mob received various sentences. Detectives Morris and Chohaniuk were given commendations and cowrote a book about the case that was picked up as a Netflix original movie.
You're probably eager to know what really became of Royal and Renée. For the answer, I must remain annoyingly vague;
On New Year's Day, a man was just starting his daily work on the tan he was developing on a beautiful beach on an island near the equator that will remain unnamed. As he listened to the surf shush across the white sand, a slender girl wearing a wide brimmed hat to protect her pale skin from the sun, a string bikini that didn't leave much to the imagination, and sunglasses that hid her almond and gold eyes, walked toward him and sat on the lounge chair beside his. She handed him one of the freshly squeezed champagne flutes of mango juice she'd carried down from the resort bar.
"Happy New Year." she said and touched his glass with hers, making them both sing.
"Happy New Year, my love." he replied.
"And?" she tilted her head and smiled.
"I'm still sure." he said and leaned close and kissed her long on her sweet lips.
It was their morning ritual, and those three words meant as much as 'I love you' to both of them. Perhaps more.
There is wisdom in old Romani proverbs, and there surely are such things as false truths and honest lies. Many of each were told during Royal's subterfuge with Dimitri and Detective Chohaniuk, and even more in Royal and Renée's relationship as it blossomed. But one honest truth that endures to this day is that Royal and Renée lived long - and happily - ever after.
Aaron D McClelland - © 2021
Penticton, British Columbia, Canada