Ann and Helena entered the pub rosy cheeked from the cold. With a band of fur wrapped around her head, Ann painted a very fetching and refined picture. And when Helena took off her thin down jacket, the eyes of the other occupants of the establishment were drawn to her striking looks, too. Although each was accustomed to the effect she stirred and the attention that followed, their joint presence carried special weight. Ann was beautiful. Helena offered a different kind of beauty. She had a large, hooked nose, unyielding and aggressive. The scar appearing alongside her right eye stretched across that delicate bit of skin between the eye and her temple. Her features were bold, and her lips thicker than those commonly described as beautiful. But her skin was dark and velvety, and contrasted spectacularly with her fair hair. Some swore they had seen flecks of gold in her brown eyes. Her scar, too, was a touching feature. Ann was certainly more beautiful, but Helena’s looks conjured up images of the mythological figure for whom she was named. A woman for whom kings went to war.
They found seats at the far end of the pub. The amber shades of the drinks placed before them twinkled under the hot lights, as if to herald the approaching holiday. They chose to sit side by side, with a view from afar of the entrance.
“Always position yourselves in a manner that offers maximum control and information under the circumstances,” Ya’ara had told them, and they were implementing her advice.
Ya’ara had outlined the task ahead for the entire team, telling them it was a real mission, not an exercise. “It may be nothing,” she said, “and if so, we would have tried our hand at locating someone, a young woman in this instance, who simply got up and disappeared one day. But there may be something to it, and then it could get dangerous. We need to assume the worst-case scenario, and be extremely cautious. Moreover, we’re a team with very little experience.”
“To say the least,” Sayid commented quietly.
“You’re right,” Aslan responded. “So we’ll do things slowly. In slow motion. We’ll review and analyze your proposals together, we’ll take breaks whenever possible to assess the situation. Your cover stories will be close to the truth and they’ll have to be well prepared, accurate, and detailed. Practice them with one another, to make sure you really know how to tell them. We’ve been given a rare opportunity, to practice in a real operational environment, and we intend to take advantage of it.”
Ya’ara tasked Helena and Ann with making contact with Martina’s university, with her professor, with a friend or a classmate, too, perhaps. “To initiate contact,” she called it. Under a foreign identity of course. With the addition of a convincing explanation. She asked them to consider whether it would be best to initiate direct contact with the faculty administration, with her professor in person, or whether they should rather make contact via a third person, someone who would refer them to him. She also asked them to analyze the advantages and disadvantages of the different approaches—“the direct approach or the indirect approach,” as she had put it—and she requested at least three proposals for each. “Start by defining your ultimate objective,” she said.
“To locate Martina Müller,” Ann said.
“To find her and figure out what she’s up to, what she’s planning,” Helena added.
“Let me suggest something a little different,” Ya’ara said, looking directly at her two cadets. “Locating Martina, learning if she poses a risk, figuring out the essence of that risk, and thwarting it. That’s the ultimate objective. And the mission then stems from that: finding updated information on Martina by means of people with whom she has ties. The university is our anchor point. That’s where you’ll start. The task may branch out from there.”
“We should have a method, a modus operandi,” Ann said.
“Very true,” Ya’ara said, hiding her admiration. “That falls under the category of planning principles. Quality planning is one of the most important things you will learn in the coming months. Devote more time to thinking and planning, and your actions further down the line will be more systematic and provide better results. Dedicate an hour and earn a day, something like that. But don’t get me wrong. You don’t need sophisticated props or an academic environment. Operational planning doesn’t have to be done around a fancy conference table or on a drawing board. And you can’t turn it into a never-ending saga either. You need to be efficient and purposeful. Sometimes we’ll have a week to plan, sometimes just a few minutes. That shouldn’t make any difference to you. You will need to run through the same thought processes, just a whole lot quicker. And you can do it in a hotel lobby, on a street corner, or while walking through a park. What matters is how the mind works, not the scenery or the surrounding conditions. We’re not performing rituals. We need to be focused and purposeful in what we do.”
- • •
“I don’t feel like being focused or purposeful now,” Ann said lazily. She stretched and stifled a yawn. “I want to drink a little, feel happy, and go to bed.”
“Did you speak to Daniel today?”
“No, I didn’t get a chance to, and then suddenly it was too late. We’ve been here for only a week but sometimes I miss him so much, like there’s a hole in my heart.”
Helena squeezed Ann’s hand, a gentle gesture of support. “Yes, it’s going to be tough, being cut off from home and the ones we love. I don’t know how Assaf will last, he has two small children.”
“And Batsheva? She has a daughter in high school. No, we don’t really know what lies ahead of us. And we certainly won’t know where it’ll stem from.”
“Where what will stem from?”
Helena remained silent in agreement. She sipped her cocktail, which was rich in brandy and spices.
“And you, Helena, you haven’t told me. Have you left someone at home?”
“Yes and no. We don’t have to talk about it now. I like being here with you like this. Only the present, without the past. I don’t need bad thoughts now.”
Ann sought out Helena’s eyes. And when their gazes met, she saw Helena smiling through her tears.
“You’re sweet,” Helena’s lips mouthed without a sound.