A Spy in Exile: Chapter 66

LIVERPOOL, LEEDS, FEBRUARY 2015

 

She was holding the big cup of coffee in both her hands, a huge pile of scrambled eggs and bacon resting on her plate.

“Are you really going to eat all of that?” he asked with genuine astonishment.

“Yes, of course,” Ya’ara said with childlike glee as she grabbed her fork. “I’m starving.”

Michael looked at her and couldn’t reconcile the two faces of Ya’ara, her playful and childish side and her cold and calculating one. His heart told him they were both real, and yet he could never foresee which would override the other. He recalled their shared experiences. They had had a good day yesterday. A typically gray Leeds made them feel welcome, and he thought Henry Moore’s sketches were no less captivating and beautiful than his large sculptures. Ya’ara gave each piece of art a long, thoughtful look, and circled the sculptures, her body seemingly ready to spring into action, like a tigress seeking out her prey’s weak spot. There were times when she leaned against the wall, sinking slowly to the floor, her gaze fixed unwaveringly on the sculpture, studying it in earnest, a line of concentration across her brow, her beautiful lips slightly accentuated, her eyes focused.

That morning, at breakfast, Michael noticed Ya’ara repeatedly checking her emails on her phone. “Are you expecting something important?” he asked. “No, no,” she replied, “simply having trouble getting hold of someone.” She had lost contact over the past few days with the prime minister’s confidant, the esteemed lawyer who took care of relaying the prime minister’s instructions to her and also arranged the transfer of funds that allowed her and her cadets to operate. She knew that breaks in communication were always a possibility. They had happened before. She was dealing with a very busy man, who would disappear himself from time to time, slipping under the radar to carry out secret missions for his master. But she wondered now if the silence was related to the suspicions and hostility of the British, who were outraged by the targeted killing carried out in their capital, the liquidation of a highly valuable intelligence source. Ya’ara recalled what the prime minister had said to her, that a day would come when he’d be forced to deny any ties with her. Had that day come already, and was the break in communication a sign of that denial? Is this what you feel when they disconnect that thin cable that keeps you tied to the mother ship? “Fuck them all,” she said in a flash of rage, imagining she was addressing the members of her team, who weren’t there with her, who didn’t even know that the person running things was none other than the prime minister himself. “You know what,” she said defiantly, picturing them sitting in front of her, the six cadets, “it actually suits me to drift freely like this, without a home. And I’m sure it’ll suit you, too.”

Later that same day, while they were strolling along the piers at Liverpool’s old port, wrapped up snugly in their warm coats, still pretending to be on holiday, Michael turned to Ya’ara and asked, “Are you familiar with Yosef Raphael?”

“I think so,” she responded. “He was a sculptor, right? I think I saw one of his pieces in Tefen, made from rusted sheets of iron. Weighing a good few tons I’m sure, but floating there like it was weightless. What about him?”

“Raphael passed away in the early 1980s. He truly was a wonderful sculptor, a trailblazer. He was identified initially with the Canaanite sculptors, although I don’t know if he was an actual member of the Canaanite Movement. He then moved on to abstract sculpting, primarily in iron. Think of Yechiel Shemi, of Yaacov Dorchin. He’s up there with them.”

Ya’ara raised an eyebrow in admiration that was only partially faked. Michael continued.

“You know I have a fondness for historical affairs. Especially our secret history. So even when serving in very senior positions, I would also conduct projects on the side for Kedem, the History Department. That’s how I learned that Yosef Raphael used to work for SHAI, the Haganah’s espionage and counterintelligence arm, and then for the Mossad. He lived abroad for almost a decade, in England for the most part. Up until 1954, when he returned to Israel. For almost the entire period he spent abroad, in addition to studying art and working as a sculptor, he was also involved in various covert activities. He purchased weapons, handled assets, relayed funds. Whatever they gave him to do or asked of him. He had the perfect cover story, and he was brave and creative and dedicated.”

They stopped and sat on a bench overlooking the gray sea, which showed itself between the large warehouses, made of cheerless, dark-red bricks, that had been renovated a few years earlier and had already taken on the appearance again of old, blackening structures, seemingly from another era, in which greatness and misery had served in the mix. Michael went on.

“And now for another hero in the story. Because I’m not boring you with all of this for nothing. Allow me to introduce you to David Herbert Samuel. He was an extraordinary man, or so all the evidence indicates, at least. The grandson of the first British high commissioner in the Land of Israel. He was also a gifted chemist, studied at Oxford, enlisted in the British army during World War II, and went on to complete his studies after his discharge. He returned to Israel ahead of the War of Independence, to fight. After the war, he went back to his scientific work. By the way, he inherited his grandfather’s title, and that’s how we had a real English lord at the Weizmann Institute. Can you believe it?”

“I believe everything you tell me,” Ya’ara said. “You know that.” Michael continued.

“When I served as head of the Special Relations Department, I wanted to conduct research into the activities of SHAI abroad, the same activity that the Mossad kept going as part of the transition that Ben-Gurion led from an era of underground movements to an era of statehood. In any event, one of the files I retrieved from the archives contained records of a conversation in 1953 between someone from the Mossad and David Herbert Samuel. At the time, Samuel claimed to have received a message from the wife of a British chemist who had told him that a scientific paper that could prove critical to the national security of the fledgling State of Israel had been passed on by her husband to a colleague of his, so that he could send it on further, to Israel. Samuel didn’t elaborate on his relationship with the woman in question. Anyway, he understood from her that the paper was intended ultimately for him, or his department. But it failed to arrive. Or at least he never saw it. I tried to look into the matter and asked a long-serving official at the Defense Ministry if he recalled our getting a particularly important document from England during that period, but he—and he really doesn’t forget a thing—wasn’t able to recall anything of the sort. Not that it means anything. For old-timers like him, the very mention of the words SHAI or Irgun is tantamount to divulging state secrets.”

“But where does Yosef Raphael fit in with all of this?”

“Adi Peretz, the intelligence officer who worked with us on the Cobra affair, did some private research for me. I asked her to try to find out if that British chemist, by the name of Siegfried Edward Jones, was connected to Israel in any way. Adi soon discovered that Jones, who studied chemistry at Oxford before World War II, had disappeared. He appears in the university’s records, of course, and in the 1930s he also published several scientific articles in important journals, but she couldn’t find a single reference to his scientific activity after the war, no publications, no membership in scientific societies, nothing. Except for the date of his death in the early 1960s.

“Adi then looked into all the members of his chemistry class at Oxford to see if one of them may have had ties to Israel. She focused initially on the men, because Samuel had spoken about a colleague who had a way to relay the document to Israel. She found nothing. But if the conversation with Samuel was conducted in English, there would have been no grammatical distinction between male and female, and the colleague could just as easily have been a woman. When she reviewed the names of all the students in his year once again, she came across that of Sarah Gold, and Gold could definitely be a Jewish name. A look through the Marriage Registry revealed that Sarah Gold had married Alfred Strong, who, I won’t bore you with details, was a former MI5 official and the owner of several weapons manufacturing plants. Sarah Gold, who was now Sarah Strong, did indeed study chemistry, but she was involved in the field of art, primarily the preservation of ancient Christian works. She and her husband had an important art collection, sculptures mostly, that even included works by Henry Moore.”

Ya’ara realized that their visit to Leeds yesterday had not been accidental.

“In any event,” Michael continued, “Adi located a report published in a local Oxford newspaper about an exhibition under the patronage of Sarah and Alfred Strong of works by a young sculptor from the Land of Israel, one Yosef Raphael. The centerpiece of the exhibition was a spectacular marble sculpture by the name of Absalom. The newspaper report doesn’t include a photograph of the piece, but the art critic describes it as breathtaking.”

“And . . . ?” Ya’ara asked.

“That’s all. That’s the possible tie between the missing chemist, Jones, and Sara Gold, who became Sarah Strong, and Yosef Raphael, who, as I said, used to carry out assignments for the Mossad on a regular basis.”

“But they’re all dead now.”

“No. Just before I left to meet you . . .”

To locate me, to interrogate me, to keep an eye on me, to watch over me—that would be more accurate, Ya’ara thought.

“I asked them to make some inquiries for me.”

Everyone keeps working for him, Ya’ara thought.

“And it turns out that Sarah Strong is still alive. Ninety-five years old. Living in a remote village in the Torridon Hills of Scotland.”

“And what needs to be done about this exciting discovery? It’s something that happened more than sixty years ago, after all. Even if you’ve managed to connect the dots correctly somehow, it’s all ancient history. What are you trying to tell me?”

“I want us to find Mrs. Strong. I hope it’s still possible to talk with her. Perhaps she could lead us to the lost document. I think it could still be of value today.”

“What value could it have? It’s just a foolish fantasy. I have more important and more urgent things to take care of.”

“I thought you were on vacation,” Michael said, and Ya’ara shrugged her shoulders and said, “Producing movies is work, too. The Mossad isn’t the only place where work gets done.”

Michael wondered when she would tell him the truth. “Come with me. We’ll give it a week, you can get back to your affairs in Berlin afterward. At best, you can do something that would restore the Mossad’s faith in you. It wouldn’t do you any harm at all, considering the situation you find yourself in now. And at worst, we took a trip to one of the most beautiful regions of Scotland.”

Ya’ara ran a quick check on the particulars of his proposal. When she looked up from the screen of her phone, she said, “Do you know what a remote place you’re talking about, those Torridon Hills? Look, they’re in the middle of the Highlands. The winter there is horrendous. The roads are narrow and are surely blocked by the snow.”

“That’s not what I see.” Michael showed her a picture on his phone of the Torridon Hotel and Inn, a luxury hotel with an extensive bar and a large fireplace. “Since when have you been afraid of traveling on narrow roads and driving in the snow? And when have you ever said no to such a prestigious collection of single malt whiskey?”

“We’ll do it this way,” Ya’ara said, wondering if she was giving in to Michael too easily. “I’ll try to talk to Sarah Strong. We’ll see if there’s any point in visiting her at all. If she’s still lucid and is also willing to welcome visitors she doesn’t know in the middle of winter, we’ll go. Why not? After all, you’re pretty good company, and I wouldn’t mind lazing about in front of the fireplace at that hotel.”

 

  • • •

 

Sarah Strong answered the phone in the voice of a young woman, albeit a stern one. She was courteous and pleasant, and became genuinely curious when Ya’ara mentioned the name of Yosef Raphael.

“Oh, that extraordinary man,” she said. “He was truly a wonderful sculptor. Very unique. I understand he died many years ago. Did you say you wanted to make a film about him? If so, I have something interesting to show you.” Ya’ara said she was in the initial stage of collecting material. As usual, she managed to lull her conversation partner into a relaxed sense of security, and Sarah Strong didn’t come across as suspicious in any way at all. It might have been her loneliness talking when she invited Ya’ara to visit without delay, or maybe her memories. Ya’ara said she’d be coming with a good friend. They had already been to Leeds, she explained, to the birthplace of Henry Moore, who had befriended Raphael. If it suited her to have them, they’d be happy to come to the Torridon Hills to visit her, in her small village, on the shores of the frozen lake.

“Just dress well, my dear,” Sarah Strong said. “It’s as cold here as in Birnam Wood in midwinter. I only hope the trees don’t come marching against you.”

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