Helena and Batsheva stood outside the front door of the farmhouse. They had already been waiting an entire day for an opportunity to come their way, but to no avail. The night before, following a day of no results, the teams had assembled in a gloomy mood. That’s just the way it is, Aslan had said, informing them that he had wasted half his life waiting endlessly and coming up empty-handed. “Tomorrow’s another day,” he added. This time it was Assaf who said: “Nice one, Scarlett O’Hara.”
And then that morning, four of the farm’s occupants—the two women and two of the men—left the house and made their way to the cars. Martina and the second woman got into the Land Rover, the two men into the Golf. The vehicles pulled out of the farmyard one after the other, got onto the narrow road, and headed west, in the direction of the village. Aslan, who was waiting with Assaf near the intersection, saw them speed by and reported back to Ya’ara. It was the only access road to the farm, and Aslan and Assaf remained in position there, ready to catch sight of the vehicles on their way back. If the infiltration team was still in the farmhouse, they would need to alert them and also try to block or detain them at the same time. Stopping a traveling car is never easy. Ya’ara, Nufar, and Ann, who were still on stakeout duty, informed Batsheva and Helena that four of the farm’s residents had left, and the two began walking toward the house. Sayid had taken up a position between the farm and the makeshift shooting range. His job was to warn of approaching strangers from the direction of the woods. The likelihood of anyone approaching from there was slim, but Ya’ara was adamant about not leaving such a wide sector unmanned. If someone were to come and ask what I’m doing there, Sayid had thought, I’d have no convincing story to tell. There I’ll be, sticking out like a sore thumb in the middle of a black swamp somewhere in northern Germany. Ya’ara insisted that he come up with a cover story, so as not to find himself at a loss for words at crunch time. “Don’t go easy on yourself,” she said. “Think of something. And let me know.” In the end, he took along a notebook bound in a leatherlike fabric that he had bought on first arriving in Berlin for the purpose of recording ideas and thoughts about life, about the city, general impressions and the like, obviously nothing related to the training and activity awaiting them. The notebook was still empty, and not because he had run out of ideas and thoughts. He simply wasn’t able to muster the desire or energy to put them down in writing. And now it was going to serve as the notebook of a budding artist who had gone out to sketch a drab and monotonous nature coming together in oblique lines to a vanishing point on the horizon. He really loved to draw. Perhaps it was time to develop a second career, just in case. Let them prove him wrong, he remonstrated with himself, adding a quick sketch of the branches of the beech tree in the shadow of which he was hiding, gaining confidence and conviction ahead of his task.
Helena knocked vigorously on the door of the farmhouse with Batsheva by her side. It was only after she had knocked for a third time, pounding a beat that conveyed a sense of desperation or urgency, that they heard footsteps approaching, and standing in the doorway was a bearded young man with black-rimmed glasses balanced on his nose.
“Thank God there’s someone here,” Helena began in English, breathing heavily and appearing somewhat embarrassed. “Do you speak En-
glish?” Batsheva was standing next to her, her face smeared with several streaks of black oil. She had tears in her eyes.
“You must help us, bitte,” Helena continued, without giving him a chance to respond, and pretending to know only a handful of German words. “We fell into a ditch, or should I say our vehicle skidded into a ditch, and we can’t get it out. The wheels got stuck deep in the mud, and the more we tried, the deeper the car sank.” The shoes they were wearing, too pretty and elegant for rescue missions, were indeed covered in disgusting black mud.
“We’re on our way to Bremen,” Batsheva explained. “My son, her husband”—she nodded to indicate Helena—“is expecting us. He’s giving a talk this afternoon at the Lutheran church,” she continued, adding a patently irrelevant detail, and Helena nodded to confirm. The main thing was to come across as not particularly intelligent women, harmless, and primarily helpless. And a charming smile couldn’t hurt either. “We thought we’d take a scenic drive along the country roads from Bremerhaven, to see the views,” she chattered on, “and look what happened.”
The young man had yet to utter a word. He looked at the two women facing him—elegant and dirty, and clearly foreign.
“Yes, I speak English. Are you from England?”
“No, no, from Prague,” Batsheva replied, and broke into a stream of rapid-fire sentences in Czech. “Oops, you don’t speak Czech,” she eventually stopped herself and said, blushing, and switching to English again. “Will you help us? Please?” she added. Helena fixed the young man with her big, beautiful, trust-inspiring eyes.
“I don’t have a vehicle that can tow you right now,” the young man said. “What about calling a road rescue service? Do you have insurance?”
“It’s a rental,” Helena replied, “but it’ll take half a day for someone to get here. Perhaps you could help us nevertheless? You look pretty strong,” she added with a smile.
“Is the car far from here?”
“Not too far. We got a little mixed up at the crossroads and turned down the road leading here. It’s very narrow, you know, that’s how we skidded. I skidded, I mean, I may have been driving a little too fast,” she said with an air of false contrition. Batsheva looked at her reproachfully, thus confirming that the mishap was indeed all Helena’s fault.
“Stefan!” the young man shouted into the house. “Come here for a moment. We have a couple of damsels in distress at the door,” he called out, his use of the flowery English expression leaving him obviously pleased with himself.
Stefan took his time, but eventually showed up alongside his friend. His disheveled hair appeared to indicate that he had just woken up, or hadn’t planned on being in the company of others that day.
“Let’s give these nice ladies a hand,” said the young man who had opened the door for them, speaking cheerfully in English so they’d understand, and then adding softly in German, “So we can get them the hell out of here. We don’t need them hanging around here for hours, not to mention calling in a tow truck and who knows what else.”
“Thank you, thank you,” Batsheva said, and Helena expressed her gratitude, too, with a sweet smile. “I’m Alenka,” Batsheva said, holding out her hand to the young man. “And this is Suzanna, my daughter-in-law.”
“Nice to meet you. Klaus. Stefan. Let’s see what we can do.” He whistled and a large herding dog came bounding from somewhere deep inside the house to join them, wagging its tail, pleased to be going out for a morning walk.
The two young men slammed the door of the house shut and followed the women. The dog ran ahead of them, stopping to look back at the group every now and then, as if to make sure they were following him. They’re in for some hard work, Helena thought with satisfaction. Even after they manage to get the car out of the ditch, they’ll find out that it won’t start. The fall into the ditch had caused the cable leading from the ignition switch to disconnect. They had taken care of that, of course. It would take Klaus and Stefan some time to figure out the precise problem. And then we really will get the hell out of here, she said to herself. Only then.
After watching the group leave the farmyard, Ya’ara signaled to Ann and Nufar to join her. “Remember,” she whispered, “time isn’t on our side. Be precise. We’ll start with a quick sweep through the house. Make a mental note of everything that looks interesting. And then, look for computers, iPads, phones, paperwork. Don’t touch a thing before you take a picture of its position in the room, so it can be put back exactly where it was before.” They approached the back door of the house. Ya’ara reached into her pocket for a thin nail file and began fiddling with the lock. She had the door open within seconds. They began their systematic sweep. Room by room. First floor, second floor, attic. Ann’s heart was pounding. This was a first for her. It’s a good thing I studied breaking and entering skills at Oxford, she joked, to herself only. Mother would be so proud if she knew.
The house was filthy, and every single thing inside appeared to be covered in a layer of dust and grime. The beds weren’t made and the rooms were stuffy. There were two beds in each room. Ya’ara was taken aback by the spartan conditions and shoddy upkeep, and particularly by the fact that the room of the two young women looked just like the other two rooms. She was expecting something different. Not because she believed that women would always be neater and cleaner than men; it was because of Matthias. The group’s equipment appeared to have been thrown into several large backpacks and military kitbags. A single bathroom served the entire house, and it, too, was caked in a yellowish layer of dirt and neglect. She felt like throwing up. What had happened to Martina? she asked herself. Matthias couldn’t have fallen in love with a filthy, neglectful young woman. Suddenly that seemed more serious to her than the knowledge that his young lover was involved in something sinister. But perhaps she, too, had succumbed to the barrackslike mood and living conditions.
They ended up finding two laptops and an iPad. The laptops were in one of the bedrooms, charging. The iPad was in the girls’ room. There were no cellphones. And none of the papers appeared to be of any interest. One of the kitchen drawers contained a collection of receipts, from supermarkets, pharmacies, gas stations. Ya’ara took pictures of them with her phone. She then instructed Ann and Nufar to sit down at the laptops. “Get to work,” she said. “Copy everything that’s on them onto your portable hard drives. We’ll do the sorting later. Quickly, but thoroughly. Don’t worry. Helena and Batsheva will keep them busy. And Aslan and Assaf will warn us if the others are on their way back. In case we have to leave quickly, we’ll do so via the back door, at a sprint, toward the woods. Get moving. I want us out of here within twenty minutes tops.”
Ya’ara left the two cadets upstairs and went back down to the first floor of the house. She took a chair from the kitchen and placed it under the door handle. That should delay them for a few seconds if necessary. She then went into the living room, where the final remnants of warmth were coming off the large iron stove that stood in the open expanse. She settled down alongside the window, hidden by a thick curtain, from where she could keep an eye on the dirt track leading away from the farm. If one or more members of the group were to return to the farm, they’d do so from there. She’d see them and be able to warn Ann and Nufar. She had chosen them for the task because of all the women in her team, they were the most proficient when it came to computers. And they both spoke German. That, too, was important when trying to find one’s way around computers that were probably running on German-language operating systems. She was tempted to use the time to search the barn, but she wouldn’t allow herself to abandon her lookout spot. And the restraint she was forced to exercise in order to maintain operational discipline caused her actual physical pain, as if it were twisting her arm. If she had had another team member at her disposal, she would have sent him in there. Perhaps she shouldn’t have left both Aslan and Assaf on stakeout at the crossroads. Assaf could have finally proven his worth to her, if he could just stop asking questions. But it was too late now.
- • •
When she answered the phone, Aslan began speaking without any unnecessary niceties. “The Golf’s on its way back. At breakneck speed. We weren’t able to detain them. They’re on their way to you.”
They’d be there in a minute and a half, two minutes at most. She walked toward the staircase and shouted: “Nufar, Ann. Shut down the computers immediately! Did you get that?”
“Got you,” Nufar responded.
“Just a moment,” Ann said.
“You don’t have a moment. Now!”
“Okay,” came Ann’s voice from the second floor. “Coming down.”
- • •
The blue Golf screeched to a halt alongside the small group of people at the side of the road. Klaus and Stefan were in the ditch, trying with all their might to push the small Polo back onto the road. They were very dirty, the edges of their trousers were covered in mud, and Batsheva and Helena were looking on anxiously.
“What’s going on here?” asked the driver of the Golf, sticking his head out of the window.
“Come give us a hand,” Klaus groaned, as he and Stefan braced themselves against the Polo in an effort to prevent it from slipping back into the ditch.
The two men in the Golf exited the vehicle in one smooth movement. Like detectives in an American television series, Batsheva thought. Their car was parked at an angle, blocking the narrow road leading to the farm. The front doors remained open.
“Who are the two women?” one of them asked.
“Two Czechs who don’t know how to drive,” Klaus moaned ungraciously.
“What are they doing here? How did they get here?”
“They’re driving from Bremerhaven to Bremen, on country roads. Come help us, so we can get them the hell out of here.”
The driver of the Golf descended reluctantly into the muddy ditch. He aimed a hostile glance at Batsheva before allowing his eyes to linger on Helena for a little longer. She smiled shyly at him and said in English: “It’s my fault entirely, I’m the driver.” He grumbled, kept his eyes on her, winked almost unnoticeably, and then positioned himself between his two friends, straining his muscles. “Come on,” he said, “all together. One, two, three!”
- • •
The Golf had yet to arrive for some reason. Perhaps it stopped alongside Batsheva and Helena’s vehicle, Ya’ara thought. “We’ve earned a few extra minutes,” she said to Nufar and Ann, who were standing next to her. “Head for the woods now. Meet up there with Sayid and continue to the assembly point. I have one more small thing to do here and I’ll join you right away. Wait for me, because I have no way of getting out of this shithole without you. Okay?”
The two cadets left the farmhouse, through the back door as planned, and broke into a sprint. Ya’ara watched them move off into the distance and admired the beauty and ease of their running. Ah, the magic of youth, she said to herself, as if her youth were a distant memory. The magic of youth. How long does it last?
She moved the chair away from the front door and returned it to the kitchen. She then cautiously opened the door and ran, crouching, toward the barn. She paused for a short while after stepping inside to allow her eyes to get accustomed to the darkness. A beam of light that shone through an opening in the roof was casting a golden circle on the ground, like a powerful spotlight. But the barn for the most part was in darkness. Anyone hiding something would place it as far from the entrance as possible. Instinctively. And Ya’ara looked around as if she herself had something to hide in the dark barn, catching sight of the ladder leading to an open platform, a raised loft of sorts, at the back end of the structure. But having to continually climb up and down such a ladder with targets and Kalashnikovs wouldn’t be very easy. The hiding place had to be readily accessible and convenient. Piled up in the far corner were a collection of agricultural implements, wooden planks, and heaps of straw. As she approached, she noticed three large barrels standing there, too. There was a strong smell of gasoline coming off them. She felt them. They appeared whole and sealed, apart from the narrow plastic cap screwed to the top of each of them. No assault rifle was getting through an opening like that. She placed both her hands on the upper part of one of the barrels and tried to twist it. Clockwise and counterclockwise. Nothing. She moved on to the second barrel and did the same. When she tried turning the top of the barrel counterclockwise, as if she were opening it, nothing happened. When she applied force in the opposite direction, as if she were trying to close it, however, she felt something move. As if someone had made a cut around the entire circumference of the barrel, about two-thirds of the way up the side. She twisted the top part of the barrel until it detached from the barrel itself, leaving its contents exposed to her. It was actually a double-sided barrel, a cylinder within a cylinder. The outer cylinder was filled with gasoline. The inner cylinder was dry and contained a large leather bag sealed with a clasp. She removed the heavy bag, opened the clasp and examined the contents with the help of the thin flashlight she was carrying. She saw three assault rifles and a pistol. A large number of magazines. The gasoline was clearly there to help conceal the weapons from sniffer dogs. It was that understanding that had probably drawn her, somewhat subconsciously, to the barrels in the first place. She closed the leather bag and returned it to its hiding place. And then screwed the top of the barrel back on again. She noticed that the thin cut around the barrel was hidden by a sticker displaying the name of some fuel company. Someone had done a nice professional job there. She checked the third barrel. It, too, showed signs of opening, but she chose to leave it closed. She already had what she wanted. She examined the image of the barrel on her iPhone, and made sure that the corner of the barn looked exactly as it had when she first walked in. She cracked open the barn door. Through the narrow opening she saw the blue Golf pull into the yard at high speed before coming to a stop in the parking area. Out of the car stepped four men—three young and one older—looking grumpy and covered in mud and grease. The dog came running up behind them, panting, its ribs rising and falling, vapor rising from its mouth. Ya’ara smiled. Batsheva and Helena had tired them out good and proper. They walked by the barn and entered the farmhouse one after the other, turning on the electric lights in the living quarters. Long purple shadows were darkening the farmyard. The sun was sinking. The exhausted dog had fallen asleep under the car and Ya’ara hoped he wouldn’t wake suddenly on picking up her scent. She slipped out of the barn, gingerly closed the door, and moved pressed up against the barn’s walls until she no longer had a direct view of the farmhouse. The dog slept on. Walking crouched and at a quick pace she headed toward the earth embankment, climbed up and over, and then began making her way to the assembly point, on a small bridge near the grove of trees. The Glock pistol, which she had taken from the hidden leather bag and which was now tucked into her pants under her shirt, felt heavy and cold against the bare skin of her back.