The Sweet Oil of Vitriol
After a final debriefing, took a dawn flight out of Tel Aviv arriving in Berlin just over four hours later. He checked into a cheap hotel and waited, only leaving to exercise, practice his German, which, despite being the language of his youth was lately the language of his dreams. It felt strange to use it again, the words like a forgotten song, rushing back as he passed the time with the local shopkeepers and café-owners, commenting on the weather, the state of the Eurozone. Mostly, though, he kept to his room, going over and over his cover story until his new identity was locked, came as easily as breathing: Klaus Ormand Amsel, electrician from the Kopenick district. An ordinary, working guy, recently divorced, looking for a quiet, out-of-season holiday so as to escape the shame of his marriage falling apart.
‘Aren’t I a little young to have been married?’ Thomas had asked his case-officer, back at the facility.
‘So, she was your high-school sweet-heart,’ the case-officer shrugged, as if he thought the query trivial.
But nothing is trivial.
No detail wasted.
Thomas had been taught that; yet the case-officer, Yakov, was dismissive of anything learnt in a seminar or classroom, believing instead in practical, hard-won experience.
‘Point is,’ he went on. ‘You need some time alone, okay? Okay.’
And so, seventy-two hours after touching down in Berlin, Thomas caught another flight, this one bound for Barcelona. Once there, he picked up the hire car, drove it to meet the Sayanim. The Sayanim was the manager of a reputable sea-food restaurant near the beach-front. A small, fat man, he’d obviously been waiting, jumping to his feet as Thomas entered, offering him a drink, maybe a cocktail from the bar. Thomas checked his watch, asked for a water, which the Sayanim hurried to fetch, a sheen of excited perspiration forming on his brow. Like everything else, Thomas had been advised about the possibility of this very occurrence. These ‘helpers’, dedicated to the cause, and often with a vital role to play, yet untrained, thrilled at the prospect of some real-life adventure.
He handed Thomas six inches of tepid water, stood for a moment, eyes bright and staring, until Thomas broke the spell, instructing him to go fetch the keys to the apartment. The man seemed surprised, as though he hadn’t expected Thomas to be leaving so soon. He went out back, returning with the keys, before writing some directions down on a waiter’s notepad. Thomas thanked the man, finished his water and walked from the restaurant. He followed the directions to an address on a street just off Las Ramblas, letting himself in and taking an old-style elevator up to the top floor. The apartment -unfurnished, with wood floors and brass fixtures- was a good size. Tired after his trip, he took a cold shower, did four sets of fifty push-ups. Early evening, found a nearby tapas bar, ate fresh Calamari, drank three cups of coffee and a single beer. The waitress was young, beautiful in that classic, Spanish way. He flirted with her awhile, enjoying the defeated looks two older men were giving them from their table beneath the ceiling fan. Did they really think they had a chance with a chica like this? They clearly had money, and so probably did.
The lies we tell, Thomas thought, leaving a twenty Euro tip.
He walked back to the apartment, undressed, unrolling his sleeping bag in one of the empty bedrooms. From outside, the sound of people on Las Ramblas, drinking and partying long into the night even as summer drew to its inevitable close. Thomas listened to them until sleep came, their ignorance calming, hypnotic almost, knowing tomorrow the real work began, and that he was ready as any man could claim to be.
When he returned to the restaurant the Sayanim told him his name was Louis. Thomas hadn’t asked, but Louis told him anyway, like he wanted them to be friends. Thomas instructed him to get the camera. Louis bowed, scuttled away, returning with a Nikon, a long lens attached, the kind that would cost a real electrician a month’s wages or more. He also had directions to the addresses the target would be using when he arrived in town a few weeks from now. Thomas thanked Louis, leaving before he could offer coffee, breakfast, an early cerveza. In the car, Thomas took a moment, reviewing the intel. It was known the target had a routine, one he seldom, if ever, broke. Upon arriving in a foreign city he would check into a five-star hotel, but if his security detail weren’t already with him he would wait for them in a safe-house.
‘A creature of habit,’ Yakov had said. ‘And that will be his undoing.’
Thomas drove to The Savoy, where the target had an advanced booking, circling it in the hire car, taking pictures of its front and rear entrance, the underground parking garage. Then he drove across town to the safe-house, situated high in a tower block in the Les Corts district. In his notebook, he jotted down how long the drive had taken, how heavy traffic was that time of day. He took more photos: the glass front, any and all possible exits. When he’d done that, he stepped from the car, crossed the street to a Locutorio where he called the police, telling them he’d just witnessed a violent assault and they should come quickly. He put down the receiver, went back to the hire car and waited. A few minutes later, the police pulled up, sirens wailing, guns drawn. Thomas made a note of the response time, started his engine and drove back to The Savoy. He went into an adjacent cafe for coffee, patatas bravas, then went to a graffiti covered payphone. This time he told the operator he’d witnessed a car-crash, timing how long it took for the ambulance and fire-crew to arrive, watching from the pavement opposite. Of course, a prank call or false alarm was almost bound to happen from time-to-time, but he could feel their anger, even from thirty feet away.
Thomas knew the feeling.
After they’d dispersed, he drove to an internet cafe, sent the information he’d gathered back to Tel Aviv. At the apartment, he did an hour of Tai-chi, another of guided meditation, took a cold shower and went back to the same Tapas bar as last night for a small, high-calorie dinner. On shift, a different waitress: older, angrier, a series of ill-judged tattoos peeking out from beneath her blouse. The girl behind the bar was a much more interesting prospect, but still nothing on the beauty who’d served him before. She was probably out on the town, with friends, her boyfriend. Thomas ate, drank coffee, didn’t have a beer and didn’t leave a tip. Back at the apartment he couldn’t sleep, so he got up, went downstairs again, walking the streets, familiarizing himself with the layout, fastest way in, fastest way out.
No such thing as over-prepared, they’d told him back at the facility.
No such thing as too much control.
He spent the next day gathering more intelligence, refining the intelligence he already had. After that, went to the Picasso museum, the Miro gallery, then the Cathedral, immersing himself in the role of tourist. He spoke to no-one. Later, he walked along the sea-front, took a brief dip in the ocean, his physique drawing looks from both men and women alike. He was about to go back to the apartment, his usual Tapas bar, when he realised how close he was to Louis’ place. Why not stop in for coffee? It would be nice to see a familiar face, even if it did belong to Louis.
What could be the harm?
He walked in just after five, the restaurant deserted, realising again how different his schedule was from the average Spaniard, who meandered through the day before coming alive at night. He crossed the dining room and sat at the bar, studied his reflection in the back mirror. Pale, but with strong, proportionate features. A barmaid who’d been loading the dishwasher straightened up and came towards him, and Thomas wondered if she’d seen him admiring himself in the glass. Ordinarily, he wouldn’t have cared, but immediately he sensed this girl was something special. Beautiful in that classic, Spanish way, but with freckles, her green eyes set beneath two thick, sensual brows. What struck him most, however, was her energy: robust, playful, with nothing forced or held back.
‘What can I get you?’ she asked him in English.
‘What do you recommend?’ he replied.
‘Well, I have been practising making cocktails. Mostly just to pass the time, you know? But my Mojito is okay now.’ She shrugged. ‘Not the best, but pretty good.’
‘Practice makes perfect,’ he said. ‘A Mojito it is.’
As he watched her mix his drink, he thought she must be about his age, maybe mid-twenties. It also occurred to him that, unlike the weekends he’d spent drinking and clubbing in Tel Aviv, here he was at a distinct disadvantage. At home, people had heard rumours about who he was, who he worked for. He was a national hero, whereas tonight he was a divorced electrician from Berlin. Not that it ought to make a difference, trained as he was in the art of coercion, manipulation. Still, it would be an interesting challenge, to maintain his cover without coming across as boringly average.
He didn’t engage her straight away, except to complement her skills as a mixologist.
‘You exaggerate,’ she said, smiling.
‘I never exaggerate,’ he told her.
She had a drinks order to complete after that, a group of Japanese tourists who’d shuffled in, now drinking bottled-beer at a corner table. He knew she’d speak to him again, though, not because he was so mysterious or special, but because she was genuinely good-natured. Because despite winning the genetic lottery, she treated all people equally.
‘You’re on vacation?’ she said, when she was done serving.
‘Something like that,’ he said, a sad purse of the lips.
He spent the next few minutes reciting his story, beat-by-emotional-beat. Found that, despite the pain of being separated from his first love, they shared a mutual and enduring respect for one another.
‘She’s a good friend,’ he said. ‘I mean, the way I see it, you can’t have too many friends, you know?’
‘That’s very cool. Very, what’s-the-word? Progressive.’
‘Your English is superb, by the way.’
‘Yours too,’ she replied.
They continued on like this, him learning about her, her learning about the parts of him he was able to volunteer. Mostly he drew on his childhood in Germany, missing out the summers spent visiting family in Israel, his long-held plan to move there, enlist in the army, working his way quietly, stealthily towards becoming an operative for the Mossad. In fact, he’d become so accustomed to concealing his genuine appetites it was with great surprise and no small amount of interest when, after a third cocktail, he almost gave himself away. She’d just told him she’d studied philosophy in Madrid, prompting a rush of affinity because he too had studied philosophy (also political science) at the Heinrich-Heine in Dusseldorf.
‘Same here,’ he said, then catching himself, ‘I mean, nothing on your level. Did a night-course. Just the basics, really. Fascinating, though.’
‘That’s cool,’ she said.
It could have rocked his confidence, of course, the now perceived imbalance in status. But status exists mainly in the mind, of that he was sure, and if he could keep her amused, in the moment, he believed their obvious chemistry would prevail.
‘Actually, I think I could use a coffee,’ he said, sliding his empty glass towards her. ‘Unless you’re trying to get me completely smashed.’
‘Sure, no problem,’ she laughed, walking over to the machine.
He became aware of a presence, somewhere in his blind spot, turning to see Louis, standing in too much space, edgy and uptight.
‘Louis. Come, join me.’
‘I see Elena is taking good care of you,’ Louis said, moving closer.
‘Yes. She’s been keeping me well lubricated. Haven’t you, Elena?’
But Elena was staring at Louis, frowning.
‘Everything okay, Papa?’ she said in Spanish.
‘Yes, dear. Everything is fine.’
Her frown deepened.
‘Sorry,’ she said to Thomas. ‘Did you two already meet?’