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Being a spy is a lot like being a bank robber. In espionage-as in crime-it's always the little things that get you. You can plan for an entire operation, allowing for one contingency after another, foreseeing when and where things might go wrong, but you inevitably miss the little things. A drop of sweat on a doorknob, drywall shavings left behind after the installation of a bug, a nick from a tension wrench in the brass plate of a lock. Small things with huge impacts.
In this case, the little thing happened before Aaron Bergmann had even left Israel, when a travel voucher routed through Mossad headquarters included a man who had been specifically excluded from the mission read-on. For a specific reason. And that little thing would prove devastating for Aaron and his neophyte apprentice.
Casually tapping the tablet in front of him, Aaron said, "Alex, turn just a tad bit to the right. I'm missing the man on the left."
Across the table from him Alexandra Levy shifted slightly, her face aglow. She said, "This is so exiting! Straight out of a James Bond movie."
He chuckled, then said, "Right there. Good." He hit record on the tablet.
Alex stiffened a little bit, as if she were posing for a photographer, holding her angle. She whispered, "That thing will really read their lips? Tell us what they're saying?"
Aaron said, "Yep. If you can keep the camera on them, but don't look so rigid. Relax a little. I'll tell you if it shifts off."
Aaron continued manipulating a piece of software in his tablet, something that was highly classified and usually reserved for active Mossad agents. A simple button camera in Alexandra's blouse was tied by Bluetooth to his tablet and seemed to be out of a 007 movie, but in truth, both were commercially available to anyone who wanted them. The secret was the software churning through what the camera sent it.
Artificial intelligence for facial recognition had grown by leaps and bounds in recent years, and the Mossad had taken that in a different direction, focusing on the spoken word. They'd replicated the human act of lipreading in the cyberworld, designing a software suite that could decipher what was being said without hearing sound.
Alex relaxed her body a bit, contrition floating across her face. "Sorry. This isn't my expertise. You should be doing the camera work."
He laid the tablet on the table and took a sip of beer, saying, "You're doing fine. This beats working in the diamond exchange, right? Keep up the talent and I might recruit you for my firm."
She grinned and said, "No, no, this is enough excitement. I enjoy being able to help-I've never even been to Africa-but I'll stick with my boring job."
There was no fear in the statement. No realization of the risk. It was like she thought they were executing a high school senior prank. She had no idea of the threat level.
That would come later.
She glanced over the balcony toward their target and said, "Besides, I don't think your partner would agree to that. I think she hates me."
Three people sat at the table they were filming, two white and one black. Their target was a man of about thirty-five, and unlike the rest of the patrons in the restaurant, he was dressed in a suit as if he were still working in his office in Israel. The other white man looked like he was about to head out on a safari, wearing cargo pants and a shirt that had more pockets than a photographer's vest. He had shaggy blond hair, ice-blue eyes, and a feral quality. Aaron had seen his type plenty of times before, but only in a war zones. It intrigued him.
The final man was tall, with a thin mustache and coal-black skin. He was dressed like a local but didn't act like one. Ramrod straight, he showed not a whit of humor. Had they held the meeting at a caf in downtown Johannesburg-where the target was staying-they would have attracted attention by their very disparate appearances, but they didn't here. Which explained why Aaron's target had chosen this restaurant. The one thing remaining was to find out why the meeting was occurring.
The only man Aaron recognized was the one the Mossad had asked him to track-an employee of a diamond broker in Tel Aviv. The other two were a mystery, but he'd know about them soon enough, when they reviewed the footage later.
The primary problem with the lipreading software was choosing a language-try to lip-read German when the target was speaking Chinese and you'd get gibberish. Here, in the township of Soweto, just outside the city center of Johannesburg, South Africa, he was sure they were speaking English. There was no way the black man spoke Hebrew, and he would be astounded if his target from Israel spoke something like Swahili or Afrikaans. No, they'd be speaking English, and the fact that his method of recording the conversation came through in visual rather than auditory form was a plus in the current environment.
The outdoor balcony they were on belonged to a restaurant called Sakhumzi, as did the patio holding the target's table. Just a stone's throw from the historical houses of Nelson Mandela and Bishop Tutu, in the section of Soweto known as Orlando West, the restaurant hosted a smorgasbord of local food and native performers and was a permanent stop for tour groups large and small traveling to see the ghetto made famous in the uprising against apartheid. Because of it, there was a constant drumbeat of laughter and clapping-something that had no effect on the lipreading software. As long as Aaron could keep a line of sight with whoever was talking.
Aaron focused on the computer, tapping icons and ensuring three computer-generated squares remained over the men's mouths. He said, "Position is good. Keep that." When he hadn't responded to Alex's statement, she repeated, "Your partner doesn't care for me at all. I thought she was going to throw me out of your house."
Aaron looked up from the tablet and said, "Shoshana? She doesn't hate you. She's just mad because I brought you instead of her. She was aggravated at me for the decision. It's nothing personal."
Making sure not to disrupt the camera angle, she said, "I don't think so. When you left the room, she was . . . a little scary."
Aaron laughed and returned to the tablet, offhandedly saying, "You need to get to know her. She's not all knives and death threats. She just acts that way. She understands that she didn't have the knowledge base for this mission. When we fly back, I'll take you to dinner. The three of us."
Alex smiled and said, "I'd like that. I think she thought . . ."
Aaron looked up from the tablet and said, "Thought what?"
"That we . . . I mean, you and me . . . might . . ."
Aaron scoffed and said, "You're twenty years younger than me."
She said, "Yeah, but it was the Mossad that asked me . . . you asked me . . . I mean, they wouldn't do that unless it was for a reason."
Aaron realized she thought she really was in a movie. And that she was hitting on him. A twentysomething sabra who worked inside the Israeli diamond exchange, she was no doubt attractive. Brown hair, brown eyes, liquid skin, and a quiet intelligence surrounded by an innocence he no longer possessed, he would have hunted her like a wolf a decade ago, but no longer. She deserved to live in her innocence. His entire existence was ensuring people like her could do so. He decided to put an end to the fantasy.
"Alex, I picked you because you understand the diamond market. Yes, you're attractive, which meant I could use you to blend in, but I need your knowledge. Period. You watch the tape, you tell me what they're talking about within the diamond world, and I write an assessment. That's it. This isn't a complex thing. We're not here to save Israel from Blofeld. We're here to save Israel from embarrassment. That's all. It's a simple mission."
Turning red, she tilted forward and whispered, "What does that mean? I wasn't suggesting anything."
He said, "You're screwing with the camera angle. Lean back."
The target at the table answered a cell phone.
Aaron said, "Shit. Lean back-now."
Alex did so abruptly, causing the camera to sway wildly. Aaron said, "Stay still."
The man turned away from them, still on the phone.
Aaron said, "We need to move. You need to move. Stand up and go to the bathroom. Walk by the table and get me a shot of his face as long as you can. Stop and ask the table for directions, but not to him. Let him keep talking on the phone."
Hesitantly, Alex stood. More forcefully than he wanted to, Aaron said, "Go."
She did, sidling between the throngs of tour bus patrons and locals, threading between the tables and down the stairs, the picture on Aaron's tablet jumping left and right. She reached the patio and it stabilized. She walked toward the restrooms, then stopped at the table, asking directions. He recorded about a fifteen-second snippet of the phone conversation, unsure if the software would be able to utilize the footage because the target's face was partially obscured by his smartphone.
He glanced over the balcony to see the interaction, and she broke contact, doing a passable job of being a tourist. He saw no outward interest in the interruption.
Aaron ignored the rest of the feed, wondering if Alex would be smart enough to cut it off if she really chose to use the bathroom. She did. Or maybe the Bluetooth simply lost contact because of distance. He grinned and took a sip of his beer, surreptitiously giving the target table a side-eye.
The Israeli was asking a waitress for the check. Aaron immediately picked up his phone and called Alex, telling her to return.
The men tossed some rand on the table, preparing to leave, and he saw her coming across the patio. She mounted the stairs to the balcony and he stood, saying, "Hopefully they take the same car. If they split up, we'll stick to the target."
Hidden by the balcony railing, they let the group exit the restaurant, then followed, getting to the parking lot just as they were loading a single car. A part of him spiked at the action, since they'd arrived in two separate cars.
He should have listened to his sixth sense. Lulled by the minimal threat of his mission, he thought he had his bases covered, but he had forgotten a hard truth he'd learned in the past: In warfare, the enemy gets a vote.
Excerpted from "Operator Down"
Copyright © 2018 Brad Taylor.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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