A Spy in Exile: Chapter 23

EAST OF BREMEN, DECEMBER 2014

 

Batsheva and Aslan walked side by side down the narrow pathway that ran along the top of the earth embankment bordering the swamp. The sky was an opaque metallic gray. Reeds and grasses rose from the murky water. The farmhouses on the other side of the swamp appeared deserted.

“Do you see the trees there?” Aslan asked, gesturing in the direction of a grove of bare trees at the far end of the embankment.

Batsheva nodded.

“We’ll head for them and get into position. We should have a good view of the farm from there.”

“When I imagined how all of this would be, I pictured a parallel world of cocktail parties, with elegant Prada shoes and purses, not mud trails and staking out secluded farms in the freezing cold,” she moaned, hoping she was doing so gracefully. But Aslan was all about business.

“Things can change from one day to the next,” he said. “Sometimes you’re a CEO and sometimes you’re a bus driver. One day you’re playing craps in a casino and the next you’re an ornithologist trying to observe waterfowl in a swamp. You do what works best for the operational circumstances.”

It was their third day in that dank and gloomy area and this was the seventh farm they were checking. They hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary at the first six. At five of them they spotted children, playing. Three showed signs of agricultural activity, with trucks offloading goods and filling up with farm produce. On their way to the seventh farm they saw families returning with Christmas trees tied to the roofs of their cars. Smoke billowed from the chimneys of the homes, and Batsheva could picture blazing, stone fireplaces casting an orange glow over the large rooms.

The two hours that had just gone by felt like an eternity to her. She looked at Aslan, patiently surveying the area with the binoculars. He had made himself comfortable on the hard earth and was covered with branches, appearing to have grown out of the ground together with the trees around him. She was simply frozen and on edge. She looked again through the notebook she was using to record Aslan’s comments. There weren’t many. She placed the guide to the birds of northern Germany next to her, on a stone-cold rock covered in lichen, with the book open to the page on the white-tailed eagle. The shutters of the farmhouse they were facing were closed. She could make out the chimney rising skyward from the far wall of the house, but there was no smoke. The leveled dirt yard between the farm buildings appeared desolate. A blue VW Golf and a mud-splattered all-terrain vehicle were parked near one of the buildings. A dog was barking somewhere in the distance. The rain was falling in large, fat drops. The earth around the farm was black and saturated with water, and Batsheva felt no less drenched herself.

“It’s odd,” Aslan whispered. “There are cars here, but no other signs of life. I can hear the dog barking, but I have no idea where its barking is coming from. I get the sense that there are people around, but where are they? And if they are here, then why are the shutters closed?”

“Give me the binoculars for a moment,” Batsheva said. She scanned the area, trying to spot some movement, but the rain was clouding her field of vision.

“There’s something about this place that I don’t like,” Aslan said.

“What was that? Did you hear that noise?”

They went silent, and for a second or two all they heard was the call of a bird.

“Be dead still for a moment.”

The sounds in the distance were clearer and more distinguishable this time. Gunfire—without doubt. A rapid series of shots. Short bursts. Three rounds. Four. And then a different kind of sound. Louder. Consecutive. Ten or eleven rounds in succession. And then silence. A strong gust of wind showered them with annoying, stinging drops of rain, and also carried more sounds of gunshots, duller now, as if they were being borne on a wave, the noise rising with the peak and then dying, and suddenly rising again, clearer and louder.

Batsheva asked Aslan if he could identify the weapon types according to the sound of the shots. “Yes,” he said, “the initial shots sounded like they were coming from an assault rifle, and then the consecutive shots, the louder ones, sounded like someone emptying the magazine of a pistol. But I can’t be sure. You’ll learn to identify things like that, too. I’m not sure where the shots were coming from. Perhaps from the other side of the embankment that borders the farm from that direction. Do you see?”

Batsheva nodded.

“As we noticed when we got here, the ground begins to fall away beyond the earth embankment, and there’s another grove of trees where the fields end a few hundred meters away. The shots may have come from there, from a lower-lying area, and that’s a blind spot for us right now. The topography and wind may be affecting the way we are hearing the sounds, which are sometimes dull. Dull and confusing.”

“Maybe it’s hunters?”

“Maybe. But going out to hunt in weather like this makes about as much sense as going out bird watching.” Aslan paused to think. “And I don’t think hunters shoot like that. In bursts. And they certainly don’t fire handguns.”

“But you can’t be sure it was a handgun.”

“True. I can’t say for sure.”

“Tell me something, are we in any kind of danger? Being here, I mean, while they’re shooting?”

“It’s far away. We’ll remain here in hiding for a little longer. Maybe we’ll get to see something.” Aslan looked at his watch. “The sun won’t be setting for another hour or so. We’ll hang around for another forty-five minutes, and then go back to where we left the car. We don’t want to get stuck here in the dark.”

“I’m the cadet and you’re my commander. I’m sure you’ll look after both of us,” Batsheva said in a tone that sought to remain calm.

“Of course, Batsheva, don’t worry.”

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