A Spy in Exile: Chapter 28


EAST OF BREMEN, DECEMBER 2014

 

“Listen up,” Ya’ara said to Matthias, her ice-cold hand barely able to grip the telephone. “I need your friend to try to locate Martina’s phone now, right now. Both her phones, the one that belongs to her and the one we were able to identify. I think we saw her leaving a farm east of Bremen, and I’m assuming she’s on her way to Bremen itself. If you can provide me with a reference point, or even a contained area in which one of her phones appears, we can try to locate her and see what she’s doing.”

“Are you certain it’s her? What drew you to that particular farm, Ya’ara? What’s going on there? Is she alone?”

“Matthias, I need you to act right now. Immediately. I’ll be able to tell you more later. But we have an opportunity, and we need to act fast. Get back to me.”

She ended the conversation, hoping she had managed to convey the sense of urgency to Matthias. “Let’s get out of here. I want us to get to the center of Bremen as quickly as possible. Aslan, alert the other two teams, please. We need as many pairs of eyes as we can get. Sayid, let’s go. We’re out of here. Aslan, I’ll drive.

 

  • • •

 

Matthias called back just as they were about to drive into the parking lot of the large department store, the Kaufhof, in the city center.

“Her phone was located between Osterdeich, Lüneburger Strasse, and Celler Strasse. Are you familiar with them?”

Ya’ara repeated the street names out loud, and Aslan, a map of the city spread out on his knees, signaled that he was searching for them. The streets Matthias had given them formed an enclosed rectangle of sorts. That was the defined area.

Matthias was still on the line. After asking if Ya’ara needed any help, he moved on to a more personal line of questioning. “Tell me, Yaara,” he asked, the tone of his voice betraying the emotion he was trying to conceal, “are you sure it’s Martina? Is she okay? Has something happened to her?”

“I think it’s her, Matthias. I can’t be sure. She looks fine, healthy and in one piece, but I think she’s mixed up in something bad.”

 

  • • •

 

They met in a small public park, near a church. The cold was intense and the icy wind coming from the north chilled them to the bone. Ya’ara briefed the teams. She gave them a description of the man and woman they had seen at the farm. The description was partial, since they had seen them only from afar and through binoculars. She also described the two men who were seen emerging from the barn with the weapons and targets, and the man and woman who had followed them. But Martina was the main objective. Each pair was assigned to a portion of the search area. “Check out every location that is open to the public,” she told them. “Every hotel, pub, café, restaurant, subway station, department store, any place where several people can sit together in a group without arousing suspicion. Lucky for us, there aren’t many people out in this weather, and those who are stand out, particularly if they’re not hurrying from one place to the next.”

She thought for a moment and then added: “A meeting is only one possibility. They could be out buying things they need, food, equipment. So keep an eye on the stores, too. If any of you see anyone who looks even vaguely like her, call me or Aslan right away. The area we need to scout isn’t very big, that’s the only plus. On the other hand, the phone location was correct only at the time we received it. That was some time ago; she may not be here any longer. They may not be here any longer. They may have split up. Let’s go. Keep your eyes open. That’s all we can do.”

 

  • • •

 

Nufar was the one who called. “I think we’ve spotted them,” she said softly, overcoming her excitement. “We’re looking right now at a woman and man who fit the descriptions you gave us. Based on Martina’s picture, she resembles the young woman we can see at the café. I’m not 100 percent certain, and she’s blond as well. Strawberry blond. She may have dyed her hair. And the man she’s with is older. They’re in a café called Ambiente, at 69 Osterdeich. We first spotted the vehicle. A light-colored Land Rover covered in mud. Parked on a street perpendicular to Osterdeich, about three hundred meters from the café. And then we spotted them.”

“Excellent. Keep them under surveillance and don’t go into the café. I’ll be right there.”

Ya’ara called Aslan and asked him to assemble the other cadets at a nearby location. Then she joined Ann and Nufar, who were keeping their eyes on the café from the opposite sidewalk. They had their hands in their coat pockets and their breath was turning to vapor in the freezing air. Ya’ara was the only one of the three who appeared unaffected by the cold. The large, well-lit windows offered them a good view of the couple, which was now a trio, sitting inside the café. The young woman was undoubtedly the young woman they had seen leaving the farmhouse, and the young man resembled the young man who was with her, and they were sitting and talking now with a third man, an older man, with graying hair and a pale complexion. Ya’ara sensed that it had to be Martina. The young woman resembled the photograph of Martina that Matthias had sent to her, despite the very different expression she had on her face, stern and stiff. She displayed the image from Matthias on the screen of her iPhone and showed it to the two cadets.

“What do you think? Is it her?”

“I think so,” Nufar responded. Ann nodded.

“Nufar, you speak German, right?”

“Two years of intensive studies at INSEAD, another language, so yes. Pretty well.”

“And your German, Ann, is good, as I recall. You studied it both at high school and at university. I know you’ve all been instructed to keep your distance, but I’d like you both to go into the café now. Try to sit as close as you can to our friends. Try to hear what they’re talking about.”

“And take pictures?” Ann asked.

“Only if you can do so without lifting the phone off the table. And without a flash. I don’t want to scare them. And make sure the camera’s shutter sound is muted.”

“What do we do if they get up and leave?”

“Just stay where you are, in the café. They mustn’t see any signs of attention from you. We’ll be in position around the café and keep track of them when they come out. Go in and report back. Good luck.”

 

  • • •

 

Ya’ara received a WhatsApp message from Nufar three minutes later. All the team’s communication—phone calls, as well as text messages—was done in English, under false names.

“We couldn’t get an adjacent table,” the message read, although Ya’ara could see so for herself already. “Struggling to hear the conversation. Sounds like the older man is giving them instructions. They’re speaking in German, but the older man has a foreign accent. Annabel thinks she can hear something East European in his German.” Annabel was Ann’s nickname.

Ann sent a WhatsApp message with a photo of the three. The image was sharp and Ya’ara looked at the blond girl’s face and tried to picture her with black hair. Yes, she was almost certain at that point that they were looking at Martina. She studied the older man’s face, zooming in on him. Despite his slight build, his face appeared heavy and awkward. High cheekbones. Slightly slanted eyes. She thought she could make out tiny pockmarks on his face, acne scars, perhaps, but it might just have been the graininess of the enlarged image. She couldn’t see the face of the younger man. He was sitting with his back to Ann.

Ya’ara called Aslan. “Send Helga to me,” she said. “I suggest you get into position with a car for their return to the Land Rover. Take Bethany with you. Seymour will join me. We’ll follow our new friend.” Helga was Helena, Bethany was Batsheva, and Seymour was Sayid.

“Gotcha.”

 

  • • •

 

Helena showed up a few minutes later, her eyes aglow below the brim of the woolen hat that was covering her head.

Ya’ara showed her the picture Ann had taken. “Ann thinks he’s foreign. She can hear something East European in his accent. Look at his eyes. A bit of Tatar mixed in with the Slavic, right?”

“It’s hard to say,” Helena responded hesitantly.

“It’s important for us to know if he’s Russian. I have a gut feeling about this, and I have no idea where it’s coming from, but I think it’s important. Look, the meeting between the three will come to an end at some point. Whether he leaves the café alone or with the other two, I want you to engage him, not physically, but to get up close to him and ask him in Russian if he knows the way to the train station. I want to see how he responds.”

“And what do I do if he doesn’t respond? Or if he gives me directions?”

“If he doesn’t respond to the Russian, try asking in English. If he responds and tells you the way, head off in the direction he has indicated. Act naturally. If he says he doesn’t know, or ignores you, ask someone else on the street. I want him to see you approach others. Begin in Russian with them, too, and switch to broken German if they don’t understand, and then English. And follow the directions you’re given until you’re out of sight. And then go back to your hotel. And that will be it as far as you’re concerned for this stage of the operation: no more surveillance for you after such a close encounter. Look, see that bus station across the street? Get into position there and don’t lose sight of the door to the café. I’ll give you a heads-up when he’s about to leave if I have the chance. I’m sure he’ll put his coat on before heading out into this cold. That should give me enough time to warn you. But even if I don’t manage to, you’ll see him leaving and you’ll approach him. Okay?”

 

  • • •

 

Ya’ara saw the three of them stand up. The older man shook hands with his younger companions, who then sat down again. He walked over to the coat rack at the back of the café. Ya’ara called Helena. “He’s on his way out. Alone. Get ready.”

“I’m not hanging up,” Helena responded. “You may be able to hear.”

“Excuse me, sir,” Helena said in Russian. “Could you perhaps tell me how to get to the nearest train station?”

He answered her at once, without a moment’s hesitation. “Keep on straight. See that traffic light ahead? Take a left there and it’s a five- or maybe ten-minute walk. You’ll see it in the distance after you turn the corner.”

Russian. Russian. He spoke Russian. Ya’ara’s head was a whirlwind of thoughts.

She turned to Sayid, who had joined her in the meantime. “Come, let’s follow him. But stay back. We’ll walk together. Remember, we’re a couple.”

The Russian, as Ya’ara had already dubbed him to herself, set off at a reasonable pace, not too fast, and not slow either. He stopped from time to time to peer into a storefront window, although Ya’ara knew he wasn’t looking into the store itself but only at the images of the people reflected in the glass along with him. He turned left at the corner, and then right at the very next corner. Ya’ara and Sayid followed almost at a run, to avoid losing him. And then Ya’ara stopped suddenly, pulling Sayid toward her. She held his face in her hands and kissed him on the lips. Her eyes closed only partially, and at the edge of her field of vision she saw the Russian approach them, pass by, and move on.

“He backtracked,” she whispered to Sayid, who didn’t understand what was happening. “The Russian backtracked in an effort to see if he’s being followed. Our kiss may have led him to erase us from his list of potential followers, but he won’t be fooled if he sees us anywhere near him again. All his alarm bells will start ringing.” She made sure she was out of sight of the Russian and called Aslan. “Forget the two younger ones,” she said to him, meaning that he abandon the surveillance of the café. “Ivan’s heading back your way. Take him. I think he’s trying to see if he’s being followed. Tread cautiously.”

Aslan and Batsheva quickly exchanged the warmth of the rental car for the iciness of the street. Aslan understood that the name Ivan belonged to the older man who had been at the table with the two younger individuals in the café. His eyes roamed St. Jurgen Strasse until he spotted him in the distance, approaching Heidelberger Strasse and turning right. Aslan wanted to break into a run to reduce the gap between them, but his experience held him back. Ivan then started to slow down as an illuminated tram station came into his view. “He’s going to get on to the next tram,” Aslan said to Batsheva. “I want you to get on with him. I’ll be following you. Remain on the tram for one more stop after he gets off. Don’t get off with him, because he’ll mark you. I’ll stay on him after he gets off.”

“And what do I do?”

“Depends on what he does. I’ll instruct you in keeping with the situation. Okay?” Her hiking boots brought a look of satisfaction to his face. “Better than high heels. Off you go.”

He returned to the car and watched Batsheva join the small group of people huddled together at the illuminated tram station. A minute later, tram No. 3 pulled up at the station. Batsheva got on first. She didn’t even glance at Ivan, who got on behind her. Good girl, Aslan thought as he pulled off slowly, maintaining a safe distance from the tram, allowing another vehicle to come between them.

“He’s about to get off,” read Batsheva’s WhatsApp message ahead of the fourth stop. Aslan stopped at the side of the road, holding back a little. The tram stopped and Ivan alighted, turned right, and began heading in the direction they had just come from. He cast his eyes down the dimly lit street and walked on for about twenty meters before stepping into a small grocery store, the light from its storefront windows flooding the sidewalk. Aslan didn’t believe the miserable grocery store was the real reason Ivan had traveled four stops on the tram. He called Batsheva.

“Are you off the tram?”

“Yes. I’m at the station. Quietly freezing.”

“What did he do on the tram?”

“He remained standing even though there were vacant seats. Standing and looking out at the road through the rear window. But it’s not like he pressed himself up against the glass or something like that. It all looked very natural.” Aslan hoped that Ivan hadn’t spotted him trailing the tram. Under normal circumstances, they would have trailed the tram using two cars at least, with one car, the closest one, ready to pass the tram as it approached its next stop. But this wasn’t normal surveillance and trailing. It was a one-on-one battle, and under such circumstances, victory is secured with the help of experience, awareness, and luck. Mostly luck.

Ivan left the store carrying a small bag and continued heading in the opposite direction from the traffic. Aslan allowed him to pass by, waited for about twenty seconds, and then exited the car, gently shut the door, and started following him. All of a sudden, Ivan stepped into the street and raised his hand. Aslan saw what Ivan had already seen just a second earlier—a taxi coming down the street, its illuminated number indicating it was free. The taxi stopped and Ivan got into the backseat. Aslan, who was still on the sidewalk, was caught in its headlights as it pulled off again. And only after the taxi had moved off into the distance did Aslan allow himself to turn around and keep his eyes on it for as long as he could. He watched it signal left and turn into a wider and busier street, before disappearing with Ivan inside. At that moment, Aslan knew they had lost him. He said a silent prayer of thanks nevertheless to Ya’ara, who had given him fair warning. Thanks to her, he had kept his distance from Ivan, thereby preventing him perhaps from discovering that he was being followed. Ivan, in all likelihood, would spend the next half hour checking to see if he was under surveillance, and then give himself the all-clear. He would believe that all was okay. But all wasn’t okay. A professional field operative meeting with two young individuals, at least one of whom had left her regular life and disappeared. People living on a remote farm where there were weapons, where they were carrying out improvised firing practice, where they made sure they collected the spent cartridges thereafter. There was nothing okay about it at all.


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