A Spy in Exile: Chapter 51


LONDON, BETHNAL GREEN, FEBRUARY 13, 2015

 

Friday the 13th of February was clear and cold. Aslan rested the sniper rifle up against the window sill, the ice-cold air coming into the apartment making his body tremble. Sayid looked at him. Sayid had a dual role. First, as the tenant of the apartment, to deal with any possible disturbances, to respond to any unexpected knock on the door. Second, toward the end of the prayer service, to stand alongside Aslan with a sophisticated pair of binoculars, and to make sure that Aslan identified and fixed his sights on Anjam Badawi, the soft-spoken preacher who instilled hatred and madness in the hearts of his followers. Sayid had seen him from up close during prayers at the mosque, and if Aslan was in doubt, Sayid could point him out. Aslan, for his part, had adorned the windowsill with pictures of Badawi that they had downloaded from the internet, committing them to memory.

 

  • • •

 

Collecting the weapon had gone by without a hitch. The sniper rifle and ammunition were left for them by Goran’s men in a woodshed in the courtyard of an abandoned country house southeast of London. Aslan had left a sealed envelope with the payment for the weapon in the shed in advance. From a concealed vantage point some eight hundred meters away, Aslan then used a pair of high-powered binoculars to track the black Ford Focus that came down the dirt road leading to the courtyard, its tires spraying water and mud. A man who was sitting next to the driver got out of the car and collected the envelope from the shed. He stuffed it into an inside pocket of his coat and then retrieved a large kitbag from the trunk, glancing warily all around him. Within less than half a minute, the kitbag was resting in the shed, and the car had sped away on its muddy tires. As it disappeared around a bend, a cold silence descended on the scene. Two and a half hours had passed since Aslan sent the coordinates of the location. Goran’s men were fast workers.

In theory, from the moment the mail was sent from Aslan to Goran’s men, nothing was certain. The details could also have been in the hands of the police or security service. Aslan was faced with two options—to act immediately, in the hope of getting a jump on the enemy; or to wait patiently at the lookout point, and to ensure that there were no forces deployed around the structure and the shed. Both options involved a gamble of sorts. A weigh-up of risks and probabilities.

Aslan decided to wait. It was three thirty in the afternoon. The sun was already on its way down. According to Aslan’s reading of the situation, if rival forces failed to show up before nightfall, they’d hold off deploying until first light the following day. He’d wait patiently for the small hours of the morning, and only then would he approach the shed. He’d collect the kitbag and navigate through the fields for some ten miles to a narrow country road, where Ann would be waiting to pick him up. The designated rendezvous point was well away from the abandoned house. If Aslan had been planning to ambush the gun buyer, he wouldn’t have taken that narrow road into account. And that’s exactly why Aslan chose that specific rendezvous point with Ann.

In the view of someone planning an operation, Ann was in a completely different sphere. Aslan’s main problem was the cold. The bone-chilling iciness of February in the United Kingdom. It wasn’t Aslan’s first time on stakeout in the freezing cold, but the only advantage his experience offered was that he was familiar with the suffering that awaited him and knew how to equip himself. At least that was what he thought.

When my parents sent me with such intense pride to study engineering at the Technion, they certainly couldn’t have imagined I’d end up like this, he thought, in a freezing cold trench, on a black night, in some shithole in southeast England. With hundreds of similar operations already under my belt, in and around Nablus and Jenin and Deir al-Balah and Nabatieh and Sidon and Marseilles and Zug and Manila . . . But he had chosen his path, and was proud of it, and hoped that over the years his elderly parents had also found a source of satisfaction and quiet pride in the little they knew of his activities.

When he got into the small car Ann was driving in the early hours of that morning, he was surprised to see her long bare legs stretching out from under a shiny red minidress, and expensive-looking, black high-heeled shoes on her feet. It might have been the stark contrast between her glittering appearance and his strenuous walk through the black fields. She noticed the look on his face.

“Something wrong?” she asked. “You said my cover story was that I’m on my way home from a party, right?”

“Absolutely, I did say that.”

“So don’t look so shocked,” she said, straightening her dress so that it covered her thighs.

Aslan decided to change the subject. “Let’s go straight to Bethnal Green,” he said. “We have an illegal sniper rifle on the backseat. I’d like to be out and about with it there for as little time as possible.”

 

  • • •

 

Aslan surveyed the courtyard in front of the mosque through the scope. He moved the rifle slowly from left to right and made a mental note of the few individuals who were crossing the expanse, or who were lingering there, waiting for the prayers to end. Then he moved the rifle a few millimeters from right to left, breathing gently, regulating his pulse. Sayid thought he looked a little like a snake dozing in the sun, a dangerous venomous snake that could strike suddenly, in a burst of deadly energy.

Aslan’s gaze was focused now on the mosque’s large door, his breathing still gentle, measured, relaxed. The door started to swing open.

At first, just a handful of worshippers spilled out. They didn’t hang around, seemingly hurrying off to their daily affairs. For a short while the mosque’s doors remained open without anyone else stepping out. The courtyard looked almost deserted. But then a cluster of people emerged. A group of men, with Badawi, the preacher, in the center. Three burly henchmen made up the inner circle, their eyes surveying the surroundings, and around them was a group of fired-up young men, aiming admiring glances at the preacher. Badawi advanced slowly, and the group moved along with him. His hands flailed in the air, seeking to emphasize something he must have been saying. Even through the scope, the look on his face was welcoming, attentive, and soft, and Aslan couldn’t help but think how much his outward appearance belied the cruel messages he delivered to his faithful followers.

“Can you pick him out?” Sayid asked, eyeing the mosque through the binoculars. “He’s bearded. Wearing glasses. A white shirt, brown jacket. Gray woolen scarf.”

“Got him,” Aslan responded, his cheek resting against the butt of the rifle, one eye peering intently through the scope.

In Aslan’s eyes, the scene laid out before him looked like something from a silent movie. All he could hear was the wind, as a cold gust blew past the open window, along with the sound of cars on the move in the distance. An icy sun shone its light onto the courtyard. A large shadow suddenly infiltrated the illuminated expanse, the wind carrying the clouds rapidly onward, toward the clusters of buildings and beyond them toward the park, and further still, to the hills on the horizon. Badawi was already just a few meters from the sidewalk, the old, battered car waiting for him. One of his bodyguards strode quickly toward the vehicle to open the door and usher the preacher inside.

The scope’s crosshairs were on Badawi’s chest. A headshot from that distance wasn’t the correct option; the head made for too small a target. Sayid, who was keeping an eye on the group’s progress through the binoculars, realized that Aslan had to take his shot without delay, right then, before Badawi disappeared into the car. Aslan’s breathing rate remained unchanged. His finger squeezed the trigger. He fired one shot, followed immediately by a second. Through the scope he saw a red stain spreading across Badawi’s white shirt as his body crumpled to the sidewalk. He saw a second red stain spreading across the light-colored coat of a small girl, who was already sprawled on the sidewalk, one arm stretched taut above her head, her legs motionless, a purple backpack tossed by her side, a stack of colorful notebooks peeking out from inside the bag. The youths gathered around Badawi dispersed at a run, trying to find cover from the shots. Two of the preacher’s guards were kneeling over him. The girl was prone on the cold sidewalk, alone, an island of emptiness, surrounded by silence. And then a young man ran toward her and seemed to collapse over her, embracing her, concealing her small body with his own.

“What just happened here?” Sayid asked in horror. “What the hell . . .”

“Now’s not the time for talking,” Aslan responded. “We’re getting out of here. I’m just dismantling the rifle and then we’re gone like the wind.” They had already wiped the apartment clean of fingerprints beforehand. Aslan’s hand, too, the one that had fired the rifle, was wearing a thin driving glove, and he was now cleaning the weapon and the windowsill it had been resting on just moments earlier. The pieces of the weapon were stuffed into a sports bag, which was then wrapped in a large towel. Aslan put on the black dress, the loose-fitting one that Ann and Helena had made for him, and covered his face with a veil. He had one last look around the apartment and then said to Sayid, “Say good-bye nicely, because you’re never coming back here. Let’s go. You first.”

Waiting for them on the ground floor, near the front door, was an old baby carriage, which they had purchased at a market stall in a nearby neighborhood. Aslan placed the sports bag in the carriage and covered it with a woolen baby blanket. Sayid stepped out onto the street, with Aslan behind him, pushing the carriage, his face completely hidden, a bulky coat covering his dress. He tried to alter his gait, but no one seemed to be paying him any attention anyway. Ambulance and police sirens could be heard in the distance. They split up. Sayid headed for the bus stop, and Aslan turned right, moving away from the apartment, distancing himself further from the mosque.

Aslan spotted Ann and Helena at the far end of the alleyway, only their eyes shining through the slit in their veils. Leaning up against the crumbling brick wall next to them was a bicycle. Without saying a word to them, he abandoned the baby carriage, got on the bike, and started pedaling. Helena assumed control of the baby carriage, with Ann by her side. Two anonymous women in black attire, a dismantled sniper rifle sleeping in their baby carriage, under a woolen blanket. Ahead lay a fifteen-minute stroll. Their car was parked on a quiet street. When they got there, the rifle and folded carriage would go into the trunk. A ninety-minute drive would then get them to a secluded forest in Kent, where the sniper rifle would be stashed away at a prearranged location.

They had come to the conclusion that it would be best, no matter what, to hide the rifle rather than get rid of it in a hurry. They’d remain in England for the time being. The security tension at the country’s airports and marine border crossing was going to be sky-high during the first few days after the assassination. Within two weeks, as agreed, the team would meet up in Berlin. Until then, Ann and Helena would remain together in Liverpool. Aslan was going to embark on an exhausting hike along the length of Hadrian’s Wall, in the north of England. And that very same evening, Sayid, the only one who could be linked to the apartment in which the shooting took place, would become a blond and take up residence in a room at a small hotel in Oxford that he had already reserved, where he’d devote his days to research at the Bodleian Library, working hard on his study of Arabic poetry in the Middle Ages.

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