A Spy in Exile: Chapter 4

They had gathered at a spacious holiday cabin, its living room window offering a view through a curtain of rain of the Western Galilee mountains, steep, towering, and cleaved by deep valleys, large rock formations rising from the earth like lost islands in a thick and tangled sea of greenery.

There were eight of them—Ya’ara and Aslan, and the six women and men they had recruited over the previous four months. It was the first time everyone had met, and they were sitting in a circle in absolute silence. Ya’ara sized them up one by one before opening her mouth to speak.

“Shalom,” she began. “As you all already know, my name’s Ya’ara Stein. And this guy next to me here is Aslan. Amnon Aslan actually, but only his mother still calls him Amnon. Thank you for coming. You’ll be assigned to your rooms later this afternoon. Meanwhile, we’ll start getting to know one another a little. It may take some time. And then we’ll discuss the training that lies ahead and the preparations required beforehand. As I’ve already informed you, the training will take place abroad. In Berlin. It’s going to be cold there for sure, but then again you’ve been promised a long journey in the dark. The cabins here are ours for five days. Today we’ll be dining on the sandwiches we’ve brought along with us. From tomorrow, you’ll be divided into pairs and each pair will be responsible in turn for preparing a light lunch and, primarily, a sumptuous dinner. The winners get free air tickets to Europe . . . and the losers get the same.”

She looked around the circle, giving each of her cadets a measured smile before continuing. “Let’s begin with me telling you something about myself. And then you’ll each have a turn to do the same. Any questions?”

Six pairs of eyes remained focused on her. No, there were no questions.

“About a year and a half ago, I murdered someone. While on active duty. He was a dangerous man. A piece of filth, to be exact, and I have no doubt that he deserved to die. But he still shows up in my nightmares.” An icy chill seemed to blow through the room. One of the cadets took a deep breath. Other than that—absolute silence.

“But let me go back to the beginning. I was born in Russia. In a small town in Siberia. I was eight when we immigrated to Israel. I grew up in Kiryat Haim and we were immigrants and we were poor. As a young girl, I was a dreamer, and I devoured books in Hebrew and in Russian. My parents struggled to make friends with their new homeland, but I loved the Israeli sunshine and the wonderful fragrances at the end of winter, in those areas where there were still orchards. I can remember the endless noise of the trucks and cars on the road to Haifa. My mother told me stories about Siberia and our life there, and she taught me how to read and write in Russian. I soon lost my accent. I’m not proud of that. I had a brother and a sister. But my sister, Tatiana, who was two years older than me, disappeared when she was sixteen. She simply didn’t return home from school one day. Her story didn’t make waves. Only in the neighborhood, but not in the press. Perhaps because we were new immigrants, or maybe due to rumors that she left home of her own accord. Some twenty years have gone by and, still, no one knows—I don’t know—what happened to her. Not a day goes by without my thinking of her.”

Ya’ara paused for a moment to sip from the bottle of water on the floor next to her. There was absolute silence in the room. The light coming through the large windows was weak, pale.

“The police conducted an investigation, of course. But they came up with nothing, not a single lead. And a few months later, the case fell by the wayside. Inquiries that my parents tried to make yielded nothing. But they couldn’t do much and had very few resources. I was a child and also couldn’t do anything really. Other than travel the entire world in my imagination to find her. And I did, of course. I found her every time. My mother spoke about her until her dying day. She passed away without knowing what happened to her older daughter. That’s my story, and my pain, and I have no intention of talking about it again. And none of you will breathe a word about my sister and her fate ever again—at least not to me.”

Ya’ara looked at the group of people sitting around her, held silent and still by her words.

“My parents sent me to a boarding school in Jerusalem. I served in the army for four years and was recruited by the Mossad immediately thereafter. I spent eight years as a field operative. It suited me. Your training course will give you a good idea what that entails. Prolonged periods abroad. Lots of living on the street. Long nights spent on stakeout. Tracking people. Getting close to people. Initiating contact with them. Disappearing from your friends, your family. Making up stories and offering excuses, until they’ve had enough and simply forget about you. Meeting guys and watching them shy away and back off because you aren’t ever there, and they don’t know where you are, and they can never call you, only you them, sometimes, and they don’t know who you’re with and what you’re up to. And you do things you didn’t believe were possible at all, and realize that this is what you can do when all your capabilities and character traits come into play. And you become addicted to this feeling of excitement and sense of ‘I can do anything.’ Omnipotence—that’s how I’d describe it. A sense of superiority, of great power.

“I had to get away from it all. I needed to be just like everyone else at least once. I took a year off to study, and then added another two years of unpaid leave. And I studied what I had always dreamed of studying—film. It was wonderful, and it was liberating. My final project is almost complete, and no, you can’t see it, not now. Maybe down the road at some point, if I finish it. But only if you promise to be particularly generous and kind.”

One of the young women in the circle spoke up. “You didn’t say what you did in the army,” she said.

“Military intelligence,” Ya’ara answered curtly.

“What you told us at the start, about the murder,” the young woman continued. “You said it happened a year and a half ago. Weren’t you at university at the time?”

“I was summoned. I dropped everything and reported for duty. I took another break from my studies, and I’m not even going to tell you about the trouble I had with the faculty administration,” she added with a smile that vanished in a flash. “When it all ended, I needed some space and time to myself. I traveled in South America and then the U.S. for a few months. My boyfriend left me. We were going to get married, but I couldn’t promise him that I wouldn’t ever disappear again.

“My disappearances were a part of me, not just a part of my job. You don’t get used to something like that. So he left,” she said in a clear voice that also held a warning. One of the cadets thought he saw a tear in her eye, but realized it might be the light playing tricks on him.

“And here we are together now, you and I—and Aslan,” Ya’ara continued. “I’m looking forward to it, to what lies ahead. We’ll take a ten-minute break now and afterward you’ll all have a chance to introduce yourselves. Over and above the profile dossiers we have on all of you, I’m expecting you to be totally open and honest. Ann, you’ll be first. And after you, Sayid.”

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