A Spy in Exile: Chapter 20


EAST OF BREMEN, DECEMBER 2014

 

Saturated with water, the fields were dark and heavy in the pale light of the murky December afternoon. Black earth, deep furrows, and rotting straw everywhere she looked, with towering leafless trees forming a dab of color on the edges of her field of vision. Several grim-looking farmhouse buildings appeared on the other side of the winding road. Tall electricity poles crossed through the fields to the right. Black rainclouds were moving rapidly toward them. What a lovely day, Ya’ara thought. She glanced at Sayid, who was sitting to her right, his chin on his chest, his eyes shut. Ya’ara drove sedately, her eyes scanning the vast expanses. It felt as if the sky had gathered thick above them, and they were bearing its considerable and oppressive weight. A fine rain began to fall again and Ya’ara turned on the wipers. Sayid woke suddenly from his slumber and was quick to sit up straight in his seat.

“Sorry, I fell asleep.”

“It’s okay. But follow the map now. Here, we’re here,” Ya’ara said, reaching over to point out the road they were on, her eyes still focused straight ahead. “Another three kilometers to the junction.”

Despite Google Maps and its user-friendly function, Ya’ara chose to work at the same time with a regular printed version as well. It may have been out of habit, but she liked being able to mark things on the map, and for some reason it gave her a better sense of orientation. She had reiterated to her cadets that computers, after all, can always crash, and GPS units lose their signal at the most crucial moments. But she was well aware, too, of the distinct and decisive advantages of computerized, multilayered maps. I’m probably the last generation that will use large, cumbersome ones printed on paper, she thought to herself.

“It really is like the very end of the world here,” Sayid said, his eyes scanning the vast expanse spread out in front of them. “If Martina really is here, I wonder what she’s doing. What does one do in this depressing place?”

“It’s a place in which to disappear, so you can assume that’s exactly what she’s doing.”

“Maybe she simply wanted to escape Berlin. Maybe she needed peace and quiet to be able to write her doctoral thesis. Maybe she met someone who grew up here and she’s come to spend the holiday with his family, a farming family. Pig breeders.”

“Maybe. You could very well be right, even when it comes to the little piglets she’s now looking after, enjoying the country life. But if that’s the story, then something doesn’t fit. You don’t just disappear without an explanation. You don’t turn off your phone and switch to a nameless one. You don’t cut yourself off from the world. You don’t research the subject of terror in the 1970s and fall in love with a senior officer in the federal republic’s intelligence service. And yet, there could still be an innocent explanation for it all. There usually is one.”

“But you don’t believe there is,” Sayid determined.

“Maybe,” Ya’ara responded, clearly unwilling to say another word on the subject. Her eyes were fixed on the road ahead.

 

  • • •

 

Large chandeliers encircled by an airy white fabric hung from the lofty glass ceiling in the lobby of the Radisson Blu Hotel. A purplish light illuminated the bottom section of the bar situated in the center of the high atrium. Not far from the beer taps, two men in suits sat side by side, engaged in a lively conversation. Sitting in the corner of the lobby were several Japanese tourists, with two open silver laptops on the table and a crumpled and half-eaten club sandwich falling to pieces on a plate next to them. The entire team was assembled around two tables that had been pushed together on the gray oval carpet, on the other side of the bar.

“Has everyone settled into their hotel rooms?” Aslan asked.

They all nodded.

“Excellent. So each of us has a bed to sleep in. That’s a start.”

“A double bed even,” Batsheva remarked. Helena looked at her, somewhat perplexed.

“We’re operating under deluxe conditions. Don’t get used to it,” Aslan said, before following up his statement with a question that didn’t require a response: “And you all have an idea by now of the layout and look of the area assigned to you, right?”

The heads all nodded again in confirmation.

“Have any of you already seen anything that seemed unusual, out of the ordinary?”

“Everything seems unusual and out of the ordinary to me,” Assaf responded. “How do they live here in this winter?”

“Something concrete. Anyone?”

The room remained silent.

“Ya’ara and I have reviewed satellite images of the area. Not military grade resolution, just Google, but satisfactory nevertheless. We’re going to do a sweep from house to house, farm to farm, to get a general impression. Fortunately, it’s a very sparsely populated area, parts of which are swampland or under water. Aside from the clusters of isolated homes, it includes just two small villages. Two teams will start with them. The others will begin a sweep of the farms.”

“At this point,” Ya’ara followed on from him, “I want us to conduct the sweeps from afar. Surveillance only. You can, of course, go to a farm with some cover story, and try to get a look at what’s happening there from up close. But I’d like to keep that possible COA for a later stage.”

“What’s COA?” Helena asked.

“Course of action. There are several possible courses of action for every task—surveillance, entry under a cover story, a telephone inquiry with a cover story, a review of databases. Ultimately, however, after weighing up the various considerations and scenarios, you need to choose one course of action that is perfectly suited to the task at hand. And that becomes your SCOA, your selected course of action. In our case, we aren’t focused just yet and our manpower is limited. At this stage, too much interaction with the area and its inhabitants constitutes an unnecessary risk. We’ll start with surveillance from a distance. And that, too, as you’ll learn, has its drawbacks. You’ll have to be ready to offer a convincing explanation for wandering through the fields or having stopped at the side of a deserted country road. You should always be able to say where you’ve come from, where you’re heading, why you’re wandering around with binoculars and cameras. A simple explanation is preferable, and it’s best if your presence speaks for itself. So that whoever sees you doesn’t even ask questions at all, not of himself or of you, because you’d have blended in with the familiar setting. You’ll attract no special interest, and simply be swallowed up in the background. But sometimes you’ll have to explain yourselves, and if you have an explanation at the ready, it’ll influence the way you look, your self-confidence, what you project toward your surroundings. So don’t be lazy. Don’t rely solely on your ability to improvise. Have something ready in advance. You’ll always have to improvise no matter what, but leave that for all those instances for which it’s impossible to make plans. If something happens, you won’t regret a single minute of the time you’ve invested in planning ahead.”

“I need to ask something.”

“Yes, Assaf,” Ya’ara said. Their respective definitions of the word “need” clearly differed.

“Everything we’re doing—the inquiries, the surveillance—is it a drill or really a genuine operation? Because at no stage have you explained how we’re even connected to this German story. That’s it, I think.” Although he tried to make light of his words, his question clearly required a great deal of effort on his part.

“My answer is directed at you, Assaf, but at you, too,” Ya’ara said, looking up and casting her eyes over the others one by one. “You won’t always be filled in on everything. You won’t have all the information, and the circumstances and scenarios we give you will be incomplete and partial. That’s the nature of this work. You’re all thinking people, but it’s not your job to question the mission.”

“Even if it’s an illegal one?” Helena piped up.

“What’s that about all of a sudden? What are you—a left-wing peace activist? A member of Yesh Gvul? Breaking the Silence? Aren’t you Helena Stepanov, the distinguished and decorated military officer? Because that’s what your CV says.” Ya’ara spoke with a slight but distinct tone of impatience in her voice.

“I’m only asking,” Helena started to say, and Ya’ara was quick to respond: “We’re here for one reason, to safeguard Israel’s security. Every task assigned to you is designed, indirectly or directly, to serve that purpose. That’s how you were chosen. As individuals who are willing and able to operate with that purpose in mind. But maybe we were wrong. If any of you are still harboring doubts, there’s the door.”

The only door there led from the hotel outside, into Germany’s dark and drenched grayness. Helena tried to keep her head up, while Nufar said in a loud whisper, “I don’t understand what all these questions are about,” and Batsheva nodded. It seemed as if no one else had anything more to say, and some of the cadets were wondering how the conversation had reached this point. Aslan had already cleared his throat to continue when Sayid’s voice suddenly rang out loud and clear.

“But can’t we ask and want to know the truth without necessarily having doubts?” he asked, his question sparked not only by curiosity but by a real desire to know, to understand, too.

“Not here,” Ya’ara responded. “Certainly not now.”

Aslan spoke at last, seeking to break the tense silence that had fallen on the room. “Let’s get back to business,” he said. “I’ve made you copies of the satellite images. I’ve marked all the houses I want you to cover. Each one has a number, so that we can refer to them if necessary on the phone. Go to bed early tonight. Rest well. Tomorrow’s going to be a long day.”

“And a cold one,” Ya’ara added with a smile. “Dress appropriately.” Perhaps she had come down too hard on the cadets, she thought.

“I hope my answers satisfied you,” she said later to Sayid in the car.

“I understand what’s expected of us,” Sayid said, staring through the window at the artificial lights shining in the night. His eyes sought out the moon.

“Okay, that’s enough for me. I just hope you don’t snore.”

“Me? No way,” he replied, trying to smile.

“No offense. We’re not just roommates. We’re going to be together a lot from now. Feel at ease with me.”

“Okay, okay,” he sighed. “I’m learning. I’m learning.”

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