BERLIN, MARCH 2015
Aslan looked thinner than she remembered. She had seen him, after all, in Newcastle just a little more than two weeks ago. His winter quest across the breadth of England must have been demanding and harsh. But his eyes smiled at her. They settled into the two comfortable armchairs positioned in the far corner of the café, near the door leading to the establishment’s small courtyard at the back. During the summer, the yard was filled with people, bursting with music and an exuberant joie de vivre. It stood empty of people now, filled only with heaps of dirty snow that refused to melt.
“I have something for you,” Ya’ara said, retrieving a wrapped package from her backpack and handing it carefully to Aslan.
“Should I open it?”
He tore off the wrapping paper and then the layer of bubble wrap protecting whatever lay underneath. He revealed a large beer mug, long and slender, made from painted blue clay and bearing the crest of a noble house drawn by the hand of an artist.
“For your collection.” She smiled at him.
“Wow! It must have cost a fortune. It’s beautiful.”
“From the eighteenth century. Seventeen hundred and something. It’s written on the bottom. Enjoy!”
Aslan stood up and kissed her on the cheek. He had no idea how she knew about his collection. In all the years they had known each other, she had never been to his home.
“Tell me,” he said, sitting back down in his armchair, “have you had any contact with the management?” They had yet to decide how to refer to their relationship of sorts with the prime minister. Aslan liked to speak of “the management”; she preferred the language of movie mobsters, like in The Godfather. “The consigliere did in fact disappear for a few days,” she said nonchalantly, without a hint of the sense of spiraling out of control and waywardness that had befallen her. “But the contact has been renewed. And the boss wants to see me in the coming weeks. You should come along, too. We can give him an update on the cadets. We’ll get some guidance from him.”
“Perhaps you should meet in private. Apparently you speak the same language. I don’t do that well in those situations.”
“I can’t think of a single situation in which you don’t do well. I thought it would be good for you to meet him face-to-face, too. To be there to keep me on an even keel. You of all people know that my responses can sometimes be a little too hasty. And besides, if something were to happen to me, and you know as well as I do that that’s entirely possible, it’s important for there to be continuity, for there to be a way to press on with this thing that we’re doing.”
“What’s going to happen to you? You’re like a cat with nine lives.”
“I still haven’t worked out how many I’ve used up already,” she responded, smiling but thoughtful, “and besides, you always think the worst. What would happen if I were to get married and go to the Caribbean for three months? Would that be it? Would our unit be left without a commander? Or do you not think I’m good enough for that?”
“Okay now, I couldn’t even begin to imagine such a catastrophe. The poor guy, the poor guy,” Aslan said, thinking that there were very few men capable of being a worthy partner for Ya’ara. Men who wouldn’t only be dependent on her, but whom she’d need, too; men she’d treat as equals, whom she could devote herself to and allow herself to be imperfect around. “Have you seen Michael Turgeman recently?” he asked out of the blue, wondering if there could have been something between them. If there had been.
“No, don’t be crazy,” she responded, lying without hesitation, and wondering why she was doing so and not telling Aslan, in general terms at least, about Michael’s trip and their encounter. “But maybe I’ll give him a call the next time we’re in Israel.” She paused for a moment. “You can’t imagine that . . .”
“I don’t imagine a thing. But he’s a very serious man, you should know. I think very highly of him. If you need someone to back you up in this matter, of the squad, perhaps you can bring him on board. I’d be very happy to work with him. He may add a touch of levelheadedness and responsibility to what we’re doing.”
“That’s exactly the thing that worries me. He has too many red lines, restraints,” Ya’ara said, thinking she was fortunate not to have shared more than she had with Aslan. As Sarah had told her, everyone needs a few secrets.
“He’s exactly the kind of person we need,” Aslan said. “Maybe it would be a way of extending our shelf life. We’ll get to carry out more operations. You can look at it from that angle, too.”
“All the cadets returned to base safely,” Ya’ara commented with a dryness that replaced the light mood between them. She understood that Aslan had yet to forgive her for the operation in Brussels, for the assassination of Hamdan. He had told her that she had taken unreasonable risks, and she knew deep down that she had operated on the very edge. But that’s how you win, she retorted to herself in defiance.
“You know what,” she said to Aslan, “maybe there is something to what you’re saying. Let me think about it. In any event, Michael Turgeman is an interesting candidate. Do you have any idea what happened with his plans to open a law firm?” Aslan shook his head.
During all the time she had just spent with Michael, she hadn’t spoken to him about his life at all. In his company, she had been like a little girl, needing only his embrace, his protection. She tried to push her memories of those days, in Oxford and Liverpool, to the back of her mind. Only in the mountains of Scotland, with Sarah Strong, had she felt herself again, like the woman she really was. Aware of and open to the world. And suddenly she realized why Michael had led her to the Torridon Hills, and it wasn’t only because of his ancient intelligence mystery. He had helped her to emerge from the shell into which she had crawled, to find interest and passion, to remember that the world is a wide-open place and the layers that compose it are alive and kicking. Don’t underestimate him, she berated herself, that’s your mistake. After all, there are things he’s forgotten that you’ve yet to learn. And in her mind, she bowed her head in appreciation before Michael. Appreciation and esteem. If she felt anything more than that, she was quick to expel the emotion. It never was and never could be. That was not the kind of relationship they shared. She brushed aside the image in her thoughts of Michael looking into her eyes and giving her one of his cautious smiles. She returned to Aslan.
“So what do you think about the cadets?” she asked. “It’s time to get them certified, right? To complete the course and start working.”
“They’re all getting through as far as you’re concerned?”
“At the end of the day, yes. Everyone is getting through. I’d take any one of them along on a mission. But they’re obviously not all at the same level. The men, actually, Sayid and Assaf, are the ones who are lagging behind a little. They’re less independent at this point, and less creative. But Sayid displayed a great deal of courage by going into the mosque undercover, and I think the work is allowing him to find a side of himself that’s new to him, and that he wants to adopt. And he’s got the perfect cover story, of course. And Assaf, Assaf’s a good guy, and decent, and you can count on him.”
“The way you put it, it sounds like a list of drawbacks.”
“No, not at all. He has a very good foundation. I’m sure that when it comes to military combat, he’s brave and professional, and that people follow him. Our challenge is to complete his transformation to a covert fighter.”
“You know yourself that there’s nothing trivial about that transformation. And it doesn’t always work.”
“I know. But I want to run the process through to the end. I see him as a late bloomer of sorts. I believe in him.”
“And the women?”
“What do you think?”
“I think they’re excellent. Helena is a war machine. And Ann, she’ll be a great combatant. Her seriousness, that English composure.”
“You were with them in Brussels, so you have a broader perspective. But as far as I can tell, they’re both undoubtedly exceptional. Nufar is very skilled with computers, she’s certainly outspoken but accepts authority, and she’s a very, very quick thinker. She radiates intelligence. She’s too competitive, but that can be toned down, I think. And Batsheva, she’s a character. She’s already fully formed. Brave, independent, takes responsibility, original, interesting. She’s come to us to learn the technique only, the professional skills. That aside, she’s already fully cooked. But”—Aslan hesitated—“I get the sense that under all the glitter, there’s also a dark and somber side to her.”
“I agree,” Ya’ara said. “She hides it well, but it’s there. Personally, however, I prefer people who have some of that darkness,” she concluded. Aslan nodded, despite having very different thoughts on the subject. The darkness in Ya’ara, particularly that revealed to him in recent months, deterred him.
“Yes,” she said. “We have an excellent team. They need to get a little more polished and then we can add a second batch of cadets. Apart from that, we also need to set up a technology team. We need special equipment and means, specifically suited to our tasks. We can’t keep using only the kind of things you can find on a shelf, or get from Goran and his people. I’ve been thinking about bringing in two young guys I know, two engineers. She’s a mechanical engineer and he’s an electronics engineer. I want us to try to recruit them when we’re in Israel. He works in hi-tech these days, I think she works for Rafael, the defense technology firm. We need to find a way to convince them that we can offer them something more interesting.”
“I can see we won’t be getting much rest in Israel. And I’m assuming you remember that I’m going away for a month in April?”
“Of course I remember. I just can’t recall which mountain you’ll be climbing this time.”
“Do you know the song, the French one?” Ya’ara started humming the tune of Pascal Danel’s “Les Neiges du Kilimandjaro.”
“You couldn’t hold a tune to save your life,” he said to her affectionately.
“That’s true,” she replied, “but I love that song. I think I was born thirty years too late.”
“You were born right on time.”
“Right on time or not, we need to hold some kind of a ceremony, don’t we? And find a name for our unit. We can’t go on like this without a name.”
“I don’t know. The name Sirocco keeps playing in my head. Does it sound like a suitable name for a unit of covert fighters? It reminds me of intense heat, the desert, an easterly wind, a storm from the east, something that scorches everything in its path, that kind of thing.”
“A little bit of heat in this freezing cold Europe wouldn’t hurt at all,” Aslan said. “Sirocco is good. It could also be an acronym, perhaps. For example, S—service, security, stealth.”
“I—intelligence, initiative, innovation.”
“Come on now, Ya’ara. Lucky we don’t have psychologists in the unit. They’d have ruled you out a long time ago.”
“Lucky indeed. R—revenge, retribution, risky.”
“We don’t have to decide now, right?”
“Okay, I get it. We’ll keep thinking. It’s only for them, so they can feel they’re a part of something bigger. We’ll start tomorrow with the debriefings regarding the operations in Brussels and London. We’ll put everything on the table and discuss it all. The tactical disadvantage with which I carried out the mission in Brussels, the death of the young girl in London, the risky association with the arms suppliers, the selection of targets.”
“And you think our cadets are ready for such openness?”
“I don’t know of any other way. It’s the only way to learn, to get better. If it’s tough for them, they need to deal with it. They aren’t children.”
Aslan thought of the long way the cadets had come in such a short time.
“I suggest we conduct the debriefings here, in Berlin,” he said, “but that we conclude the course in Israel. Perhaps where we all met up for the first time. In the Galilee. Being abroad is a little like being in a movie. But ultimately we need to go back to having both feet on the ground. Our ground.”
Ya’ara nodded with a sense of relief. Aslan had found the exact right words, the thing she was missing. He reached over the armrests of the chairs, found Ya’ara’s hand, and gave it a small squeeze of affection. She responded with a smile, strands of light hair hiding her eyes. She brushed her hair back, sat up straight, and said: “Let’s get out of here and go to some fancy bar with women wrapped in fur coats and men in evening suits. We’ll drink a toast to the end of the course and the fact that we’re here. Alive and well with plans to live full lives and more.”
“We deserve it, that’s for sure. I’m with you, let’s go.”