In Safed

It was just a week, but it was better than nothing. Esther had slipped into Jerusalem quietly and headed north to Safed, not telling anyone except Yitzach, her Mossad superior, and Sara Winthrop, the National Intelligence Officer to whom she had just inexplicably been seconded. She planned to take a day or two to decompress, playing the tourist and indulging her senses, and then visit her old rabbi to consult with him about her next steps. This last mission, a joint CIA-Mossad operation, in which she had successfully captured the leader of a Daesh cell in Paris, which had been planning to destroy Notre Dame as part of the new campaign against “infidel” religious sites, had left her raw and exhausted. She had lost more than half her team, most of them gruesomely beheaded. The videos were all over the internet and even the Mossad couldn’t seem to get them off. One of those murdered had been a close friend. More than a friend, actually, though she had been waiting until he was no longer a formal subordinate. Was this really the right path for her?

In the past, every time she had raised this question with her rabbi he had handed her, along with a legal opinion regarding her obligation to defend Eretz Yisrael, a copy of the Bhagadvad Gita. It was her calling, he said. No one else can do what you do. No one else has both the encyclopedic knowledge of political theological sects and tendencies and the paramilitary operational and tactical leadership capacities. But was it forever? Did it mean no children? No husband? Not even, really, any lovers? And what of her long interest in actually mastering the Kaballah, which her teacher had promised he would eventually teach her? Hadn’t she fought long enough? Couldn’t she take an academic or training post for a while and teach others to do what she did?

She wandered down the narrow streets, in and out of shops selling spices and trinkets and kabalistic texts. Hungry, she found a little café and decided to stop for some lunch. She ordered some pita, some eggplant fried with onions, garlic, tomatoes, cumin, and chile, and some mint tea. Then she wandered back to the small restroom, adjusted her clothing, and all but collapsed onto the toilet. It was clean, thankfully –quite attractive really with blue and white tile in the Turkish style and dark blue walls. There was even a bit of incense burning.

She had just begun to relieve herself when her secure iPhone notified her of a top priority message. Sighing, she reached down into her purse to retrieve it.

The message was from Tenabe, a protégé from her days at the National Security Agency.

–Does the phrase Tien Shan Manuscript mean anything to you?

Esther typed back, truthfully:

–Never heard of it. Too busy chasing bad guys across Europe.

–What about Minerva?

This was more difficult. Esther had heard about Minerva. Intelligence operations officers, after all, didn’t merely gossip. They ran operations on each other. Minerva was attempt to bring together US sociocultural intelligence assets across the IC, from the Army’s Human Terrain System through CIA’s more culturally oriented HUMINT operatives and analysts and the State Department’s Bureau of Intelligence and Research. She guessed that it had something to do with her being seconded to that National Intelligence Officer in DC. But that move, it had been made clear to her, was “need to know.” Beyond that, she was sure that there were some complex bureaucratic politics involved, but they were well above her pay grade. She texted back:

–The Roman Goddess?

Tenabe, thankfully, got the message and gave up. Or so it seemed.   Esther tried to finish up in the bathroom as quickly as she could, hoping to enjoy her meal and then an evening wandering the streets of the old city. But the i-phone buzzed again. This time there was no text message, much less a phone call. Just a rather attractive yantra. She assumed it was a wall paper someone had sent her and put the phone back. Figuring she was not going to get the peace and quiet to accomplish what she had come in here to do, she cleansed herself, adjusted her clothing, flushed, and washed her hands.

By the time she got back to the table her meal was waiting for her, along with a large glass of strong red wine from Mount Carmel. She hadn’t ordered wine, but it was welcome at this point. Then the i-phone again. This time it was Yitzak, her Mossad handler.

Minerva is a go. Be in DC by the end of the week.

That gave her, at best, another day in Safed, and then a day her relatives in Lublin, so that they could berate her for not being married, not having children –for not doing all the things she yearned to do, but couldn’t, given this path she had chosen. In truth, she didn’t know if she really could love someone. Killing, even when justified, damages the soul. That was true whatever her rabbi said.

Sipping her glass of wine and nibbling at her baba ganoush, she wondered if there was a connection between the Tien Shan manuscript and the sudden standing-up of Minerva, which she had not expected for at least several more months. And then there was the strange mandala …

Figuring that she would learn the answers to these questions soon enough, she returned to her wine and grabbed the copy of Ha’Aretz which had been left by the last patron at her table. It turned out that it was just the Science and Technology section.

Scientists finally isolate Higgs Boson.

New evidence consolidates support for closed cosmology.

Strange, thought Esther. Hadn’t the mass of the Higgs been settled a few years ago? And what support was the new evidence consolidating? Esther had an enduring interest in physical cosmology (product partly of a brief affair with and a much more enduring crush on an undergraduate astronomy professor who turned out to be gay) and she kept close tabs on developments in the field. As far as she knew the consensus was still for an open, inflationary universe, expanding ever more rapidly into entropic oblivion (a consensus which had driven her professor crazy when she insisted it was was bunk). And the mass of the Higgs had played a role in Frank Tipler’s Omega Point Theory, which in turn depended on a closed cosmology. And she knew that at least some of the work at X- Division involved creating …

A sudden explosion rocked the restaurant. The windows were shattered and nearly everyone was thrown off their chairs. There was blood everywhere and there would probably be at least one or two casualties. But something had obviously gone wrong. The damage was almost certainly much less than the perpetrators had intended.

Strange, Esther thought. Safed is usually fairly safe. That meant that she was probably the target.

Gathering her things she exited through the kitchen, past the screaming cooks, and out into the back alley. Looking both ways she noticed a car blocking her path in one direction, not more than twenty feet away. The back-up plan. Or perhaps the idea was to capture rather than to kill her? She withdrew her handgun from the holster which held it beneath her shawl and dispatched the single driver, then all but leaped across the alley and into a narrow passageway which led to small courtyard. She dashed up the stairs and vaulted herself onto the roof. Crouching behind a small turret, she surveyed the scene below. The police and ambulances had already arrived and were tending the wounded. In the distance she noticed another suspicious looking vehicle speeding away. She was probably safe, at least for now. But there would be another attempt.

Esther crossed the roof and climbed down the other side, into yet another passageway. This one, she knew, led to the old Sephardi Ari Synagogue. She would have to leave Safed –the sooner the better. But she also had to see the Rebbe. And he would be there soon, as the minyan gathered for prayer.

Pulling her shawl over her head, she followed the passageway, scurrying across several small courtyards sheltering microscopic spice or vegetable markets. The sun was already so low that shadows filled the old city, but up ahead, she could see the blue dome, still brilliant in the late afternoon light, shining like lapis against the gold of the sky. Then suddenly, before she knew it, she was there, at the edge of the Synagogue square, before the little textile shop belonging to the Rebbe’s daughter. Was that him, sitting outside, waiting for her? He looked terrible, slumped in the chair.

Then she saw the blood running down his face, emerging from the tiny wound to his forehead. But he was, amazingly, still alive. As she approached he lifted his hand, reaching towards her.

Beware, he said. Beware of the Golem.

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