Sydney Convention Center
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia
Wednesday, March 18, 2015
3:28 p.m. AEST/12:28 a.m. ET
If this is what I have to look forward to when I retire, Lavi Witz thought as he looked across the sparkling water of Darling Harbour, then retirement doesn’t sound so bad after all.
Ever since that incident in North London nearly three years ago, the Mossad agent gave serious contemplation to hanging up his gun and stepping further back from field work: Jafar Abdul Mohammed had dropped him with a well-placed bullet in his leg, only mere minutes before Jaclyn Johnson had killed the terrorist with a well-placed bullet between his eyes. Since then, Witz had worked behind a desk in Jerusalem—or as he put it, wasting away at the government’s pleasure. While he kept the well-weathered features of his Israeli heritage in his face, his hair had grown gray near the temples, giving him the appearance of a man determined to stay away from an early grave.
The more he thought about it, the more he wanted to stay behind a desk. Wasting away wasn’t exactly a bad thing.
Yet there was still a part of him—the macho, masculine side deep within him—that wanted back into the game. He couldn’t recall when his heart last had made his sternum ache as the adrenaline poured through him as he neared a target—or when certain secret agents held him at gunpoint until they truly learned of his allegiance. He always felt a tremendous rush in the field, and for nearly three years since returning to his homeland from England, his life felt meaningless, almost to the point of emptiness. He hadn’t returned to Mossad until well after Hanukkah that year, and when he came back, he walked with a slight limp, favoring his left leg. The doctors in London had removed the terrorist’s bullet, and with nimble fingers had sewn the limb up nice and tight, the surgery quick. And while he wanted to dive back into his work, hesitation still gripped him even today, the aches lingering.
When his boss had offered him the chance to get out from behind the desk and back into action, if only for one last hurrah, Witz had jumped at the chance with widened eyes and a toothy grin. If he had the power to toss his desk into the shallowest part of the Red Sea, it would have been wet within a minute.
Then he learned of the assignment: it was a protection detail, keeping Israeli prime minister Adam Mendelsberg out of harm’s way while he attended the OECD—the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development—conference that would be held in Sydney, Australia. Even now, Witz remembered grimacing immediately, his eyebrows ramming together as he worked things out in his mind.
“Who,” he had asked, “would even dream of trying to assault the P.M. in Australia? He would be anonymous, wouldn’t he?”
“We have to be certain,” his boss had countered. “All attendees are receiving some sort of protection. We can’t be too lackadaisical in this day and age. Terrorism, of course.”
Witz had pursed his lips and nodded.
And as he recalled that conversation now while standing outside the convention center, he couldn’t help but grin. He pulled his cigarette away from his mouth with heavily-calloused, nicotine-stained fingers, the smoke spilling from between his lips and corkscrewing to the blue sky above.
If protection duty is good enough for her, he thought as he looked out toward Darling Harbour, shading his eyes against the glare of the sun against the unused concrete tramway across the water, then it can be good enough for me. He had heard of the American’s exploits from two years ago, protecting the president in Atlanta. I just hope I don’t have to run after a suspect like she did. But then again, she had two working legs on her side.
He hefted the cane, a simple stick of polished white ash, that he held in his left hand, thwapping the handle against his hip as he ran the sharp edges of his teeth against his bottom lip. He sent a blast of air from his nostrils.
I can’t be self-depreciating, his thoughts continued. I have a job to do, and if I have to struggle when I run—well, I hope the person can’t run faster than me. That would be a tad awkward, I think.
He heard the harbor water lapping against the sea wall some fifty feet away from where he stood, a swath of red brick surrounding him. Lightly-dressed pedestrians flowed across the causeway, headed to the IMAX theater for a late matinee or to the nearby restaurants for an early dinner. Some people off in the distance made their way to the Sydney Aquarium, on the other side of the harbor. Closer to him, he heard steps cracking against the hot bricks. Summer wasn’t letting go any time soon here in Australia, but he simply shrugged off the searing heat. This was nothing, him being from a rather warm, arid country, but he still looked the dapper professional bodyguard in a short sleeve Oxford with a black necktie, with a white crew neck t-shirt underneath it all to soak up any perspiration. Several of the passersby took off their hats seconds before they pulled their forearms across their brows, and even in the mid-afternoon glare, he saw sweat dripping off them. Seagulls swept in with spread, black-and-white tipped wings and landed on the bricks, toddling away as he watched them hunt for any stray bits of food. He heard the sounds of cars speeding along the Western Distributor Freeway, which hung near the Convention Center and Tumbalong Park, heading for the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge half a mile away.
Witz took another puff on his cigarette, soon whittling it down to the nub. He dropped it and pressed the heel of his cane down on it, instead of walking to the water and flinging it to a sizzling end. He didn’t want to go too far away from the front doors. He was on duty, and had a duty to perform.
He checked his watch and shrugged.
There’s still an hour to go in today’s session, he thought. Once all the other dignitaries and their security details leave, then I’ll resume my duties. Until then, I’ll pollute the air some more.
Without preamble, he lit another cigarette, passing the time trying to blow wide smoke rings as the shadows crept over the causeway from left to right.
During that time, he thought back to North London and the mosque where Mohammed—I know I was undercover, but did I really have to call him by that honorific?—met his grisly end.
I went by the name of Achmed then, he recalled instantly. Yusef, one of Mohammed’s agents, had just blown up the Briton’s casket and sent the mourners scurrying for safety when she sped around the corner. With a deft flick of her thumb, she sent a surface-to-air missile speeding toward our location. Yusef, the wretch, died in a vicious explosion of wood and stone shrapnel as I hurried underneath to evade the inevitable destruction.
And in the World War II tunnels that lay underneath Highbury, she somehow caught up with me, threatening to kill me even though she didn’t truly know for whom I worked. When I told her that I was an ally, she staggered a bit in stunned silence before I explained everything. And I’m glad she trusted me or else I wouldn’t be here right now, breathing in the warm, salty air blowing in from Sydney Harbour.
But still, the way Mohammed—musahib—had blasted those true Muslims while they worshiped, peaceful Muslims who wanted nothing to do with the hatred that Mohammed preached, I still hear their cries in my nightmares. I could have stopped him, putting the gun I held at the back of his head and pulling the trigger, but the time truly wasn’t right. I had no back-up, and there were two more of Mohammed agents in play. Witz sighed. I should have done it then, regardless if it meant I would die then and there.
Once she arrived though—and by helicopter, too; that was rather ingenious—the odds were stacked fully in my favor. Mohammed had wanted her to come after everything she had done to his agents, everything she had done to prevent more destruction in London. He had killed one of his agents after she got the drop on him as she entered the mosque, unknowingly making it a two-on-two. Witz brought the cigarette back to his mouth, taking a long drag. He caught two twenty-something women in spaghetti-strap tank tops—one with breasts that strained against the thin, white material—checking him out as they brought straws to their mouths as they passed him. He smiled. The smoke billowed away as he looked at their rear ends as soon as he had the opportunity.
He smirked, and his thoughts of that night returned.
She had awoken from her little nap, and after I announced my presence to her, it was only a matter of time before Jafar Abdul Mohammed met his end. Especially when I slapped her sunglasses on her face. Once they were there, and I had slid a gun into her holster, there was no chance of Mohammed walking out of there alive—of course, had he walked out of there, Tom Messingham and the rest of MI5 would have pounced and put a bullet in him. Honestly, he should have run for the Scottish border when he left Oxford Circus. He was in a lose-lose situation right from the get-go, as the Americans say.
Then she dropped the other jihadist, making it two-on-one. I had pulled my gun away from Jaclyn’s waist and shoved it right at Mohammed. I even remember what I had said to him.
Witz smiled as the words came rushing back.
“Stop the launch if you want to walk out of here alive,” I had said, knowing there was no chance of that happening. Then I was on the floor just as the countdown reached its end, the terrorist that she had dropped taking me down before he finally died. Then she killed Mohammed with a twist of her wrist, stealing his gun and killing him with both weapons.
The smile didn’t end as the memory lingered for a few more minutes. An inch of ash perilously hung on to the end of the cigarette.
Then it was over. She and I went our separate ways—I hear she’s engaged now, to the Messingham bloke. He sniffed, but there was a touch of sadness on his face, as well. Good for them.
He flicked the ash away before finishing the cigarette, then hobbled over to the harbor this time. Witz flicked it in and heard it extinguish itself with a quick plop. He returned to his post and continued waiting. The shadows grew longer around him.
It was about 4:40 p.m. when the doors to the Convention Center finally opened, jarring Witz into action. He only had to wait a few seconds before his charge, the Prime Minister of Israel, came out, flanked by an aide as well as a representative from England; the accent was unmistakable. Witz fell in behind them, and immediately caught a whiff of peppermint pouring off Mendelsberg’s tan wool coat. The P.M., he knew, liked to smoke a pipe while in session, and he also carried small peppermint candies in his coat pocket. He liked to suck on those afterward, if only to mask the aroma of tobacco.
Adam Mendelsberg paused and looked back at him.
“Witz, you smell like a bloody chimney,” he said, his tone gruff, digging into his pocket at the same time. He pulled out two wrapped candies and handed them over. “Here. Suck on these.”
Witz took them and immediately caught the prime minister’s wink.
Mendelsberg was a rather old fellow. In Witz’s eyes—and many others, he was rather sure—the Prime Minister of Israel bore a striking resemblance to two other famous world leaders of a long time past. He had the craggy smile and eyes of Sir Winston Churchill, the long-dead English prime minister, as well as the size and girth of William Howard Taft, the long-dead American president. He had been the prime minister for several governments so far, leading the Knesset—the single-house Israeli parliament—through some rather perilous times. There was a bit of a hitch to his walk, Witz noticed from a few feet behind, that he thought resembled his own mottled stride.
And I don’t think the Prime Minister was shot in the leg, either, Witz thought.
“As I was saying, we in Westminster understand your position,” the Englishman said as they resumed their walk.
“I’m glad for that,” Witz heard Mendelsberg reply. He, too, walked with a cane. “Forrister isn’t too keen on our cause. He supports a peace initiative between us and the Palestinians that I’m working my damnedest to end.”
“You misunderstand me, Prime Minister.” They paused some twenty feet from the waiting limousines, facing each other. “I said that understand your position. But I must admit that Her Majesty’s Government is behind the president one hundred percent. We, too, want to see peace between—”
“Bah!” Mendelsberg roared, waving him off with an impatient hand. He waddled away from the Englishman with a rather hurried gait, leaving him behind. Witz had to rush to keep up, his cane thwacking the bricks. Witz hoped it wouldn’t snap from the stress. “No one is behind us,” he muttered. “They all want the damned enemy to take as much land from us as possible, want us all exterminated. It’s like my father’s war all over again. I came looking for sanctions against them, and no one wants to give it.” He spat upon the bricks. “Bastards. The Palestinian State won’t grow any larger while I still have life left within me, I can tell you that much.”
Witz didn’t say anything. He wasn’t in the position to agree or disagree, nor did he ever want to be in that position. That wasn’t in his job description. His job description was to keep Mendelsberg out of harm’s way. That was it. Be a sounding board, yes. Offer input, no. That’s why the P.M. had political advisers.
And I’m certainly not one of those, Witz thought as he looked at his shoes. He unwrapped and popped one of the candies into his mouth, dragging his teeth over it. Peppermint assaulted his taste buds.
It was the crack in the air, as if someone had funneled the sound of snapping a stick through a public address system, which made the Mossad man snap his head up and involuntarily chomp on the peppermint. After a sharp gasp, he found Mendelsberg falling backward, toward him, his arms and cane flailing about as if he had lost his balance trying to traverse a severely steeped incline.
But that wasn’t the case. The path through the park toward the waiting limousine was as flat as a mesa.
Witz didn’t react to catch the prime minister in time, instead watching wide-eyed as Mendelsberg tumbled to the ground, peppermint candies spilling out of his pockets and rolling away on the bricks. He wheeled around and saw that the P.M.’s face had turned rather pasty, and on his chest, a smear of crimson grew right over his heart.
“Oh, Harah,” Witz blurted, the Hebrew word for shit coming easily to his lips before he looked back toward the convention center. He felt the panic set into his face. “Quick, call for help!” he barked, spitting up pieces of chomped up candy, a light breeze coming across and carrying the pieces away from him a few feet. His heart thudded until his chest ached, but that didn’t truly matter right now. If he was in the process of having a heart attack, no one back home would give a shit: he was anonymous, the wind. But if Mendelsberg died... Witz blinked away the thought. He didn’t even want to think about an Israel without Adam Mendelsberg. Mendelsberg was Israel. He noticed that the man’s breathing had grown shallow, as if every breath was labored and a chore. His eyes, too, were wide, as if straining to see what was in front of him.
“Stay with me, Prime Minister,” Witz said as soon as he got to a knee, struggling with the movement. The pains in his leg returned, but he withstood it, biting away another Hebrew curse before it even reached his tongue. He grabbed Mendelsberg’s hand and ordered him to clench it as tightly as he could. There was a touch of tightness as the old man squeezed as hard as possible.
Within heartbeats, he heard the sounds of feet rushing toward their position. Someone pushed him aside as they began to perform emergency medicine on the victim. Witz rolled toward the limo once, craning his neck to see the men working over Mendelsberg. He heard each word—“Get the bleeding stopped, apply pressure,” all in Aussie accents—as if shouted over a megaphone. Before long, he heard the sounds of sirens blistering through the Sydney sky.
“Come quickly,” he whispered, just before he struggled to get to his feet, his leg screaming at him, his cane a few feet away from him. He winced with every movement, pain shooting through his body.
He then heard another set of footsteps, coming at a light trot, followed by a girlish giggle. He didn’t think that a man getting shot—and his security detail doing absolutely nothing about it, in truth—was quite funny, to be honest.
Then he looked up at the giggler.
He nearly choked as he laid eyes on her.
No, he thought, the disbelief flowing through him. It can’t be. It just can’t be.
The woman he saw just couldn’t possibly be a woman he respected. Sure, she was an assassin in certain situations, but… no. She couldn’t possibly be the assassin today. There was no way in the world it could be true, he thought.
But the proof, as he saw it, was in front of him, some thirty feet away. She wore black Lycra, her curves evident and different than he recalled, but there was no sign of the trenchcoat that he knew she wore. There was also the high-powered rifle she held, with a sniper’s scope attached.
There was also the wild grin spread underneath a pair of sunglasses he knew all too well. The grin turned feral, her upper lip curling into something unnatural.
Witz’s heart raced as he tried to make heads or tails of it. He couldn’t help but stare. He didn’t move forward, his cane still on the ground. He didn’t move for it, for fear of losing sight of her. His mouth didn’t move, for fear of letting loose a torrent of vomit on the streets of Sydney.
Yet he noticed there was something odd about the woman that stood practically across from him, a crowd growing on the other side of the street. Her hair wasn’t slicked back, and instead fell over her face in a golden curtain. Her skin resembled creamy coffee, but it was too dark for his liking. As he stared, he tried to detect an anomaly, something that would prove to him that it wasn’t really who he thought it was, but she turned and rushed through the crowd before he could get a closer look, disappearing into the sea of life. No one tried to stop her, the gun raised.
Witz swallowed as the sirens grew louder, the ambulances drawing ever closer to the Convention Center.
That can’t be her, he thought, shaking his head. It makes no sense. She didn’t just try to assassinate the prime minister. No. No way.
He swallowed one more time before he turned around and, after picking up his cane, hobbled back toward where Mendelsberg lay.
Witz turned his head and spat as soon as the ambulances pulled to a stop. A woman and man stepped out, the woman pulling out a gurney and rolling it toward the P.M. Their pace was slow and methodical; it wasn’t as if a man was bleeding or anything.
“Hurry up, damn it!” he called.
As they worked over Mendelsberg, Witz looked back toward where the woman stood again. The bile rose in his esophagus. Stale milk filled his taste buds.
There’s no way in hell that was Jaclyn Johnson, he thought.