House of Spies

Read an excerpt of House of Spies




For something so unprecedented, so fraught with institutional risk, it was all handled with a minimum of fuss. And quietly, too. That was the remarkable thing about it, the operational silence with which it was carried out. Yes, there had been the dramatic announcement broadcast live to the nation, and the splashy first Cabinet meeting, and the lavish party at Ari Shamron’s lakeside villa in Tiberias where all the friends and collaborators from his remarkable past—the spymasters, the politicians, the Vatican priests, the London art dealers, even an inveterate art thief from Paris—had come to wish him well. But otherwise it came to pass with scarcely a ripple. One day Uzi Navot was seated behind his large smoked-glass desk in the chief’s office, and the next, Gabriel was in his place. Absent Navot’s modern desk, mind you, for glass wasn’t Gabriel’s style.

Wood was more to his liking. Very old wood. And paintings, of course; he learned quickly he could not spend twelve hours a day in a room without paintings. He hung one or two of his own, unsigned, and several by his mother, who had been one of the most prominent Israeli artists of her day. He even hung a large abstract canvas by his first wife, Leah, which she had painted when they were students together at the Bezalel Academy of Art and Design in Jerusalem. Late in the day, a visitor to the executive floor might hear a bit of opera—La Bohème was a particular favorite—leaking from his door. The music could mean only one thing. Gabriel Allon, the prince of fire, the angel of vengeance, the chosen son of Ari Shamron, had finally assumed his rightful place as chief of Israel’s secret intelligence service.

But his predecessor did not go far. In fact, Uzi Navot moved just across the foyer, to an office that in the building’s original configuration had been Shamron’s fortified little lair. Never before had a departing chief remained under the same roof as his successor. It was a violation of one of the most sacred principles of the Office, which mandated a clearing away of the brush every few years, a tilling of the soil. True, there were some former chiefs who kept their hand in the game. They wandered into King Saul Boulevard from time to time, swapped war stories, dispensed unheeded advice, and generally made a nuisance of themselves. And then, of course, there was Shamron, the eternal one, the burning bush. Shamron had built the Office from the ground up, in his own image. He had given the service its identity, its very language, and considered it his divine right to meddle in its affairs as he saw fit. It was Shamron who had awarded Navot the job as chief—and Shamron who, when the time had finally come, had taken it away.

But it was Gabriel who insisted Navot remain, with all the perquisites he had enjoyed in his previous incarnation. They shared the same secretary—the formidable Orit, known inside King Saul Boulevard as the Iron Dome for her ability to shoot down unwanted visitors—and Navot retained the use of his official car and a full complement of bodyguards, which provoked a bit of grumbling in the Knesset but was generally accepted as necessary to keep the peace. His exact title was rather vague, but that was typical of the Office. They were liars by trade. They spoke the truth only among themselves. To everyone else—their wives, their children, the citizens they were sworn to protect—they hid behind a cloak of deception.

When their respective doors were open, which was usually the case, Gabriel and Navot could see one another across the foyer. They spoke early each morning by secure phone, lunched together—sometimes in the staff dining room, sometimes alone in Gabriel’s office—and spent a few minutes of quiet time in the evening, accompanied by Gabriel’s opera, which Navot, despite his sophisticated Viennese lineage, detested. Navot had no appreciation for music, and the visual arts bored him. Otherwise, he and Gabriel were in complete agreement on all matters, at least those that involved the Office and the security of the State of Israel. Navot had fought for and won access to Gabriel’s ear anytime he wanted it, and he insisted on being present at all important gatherings of the senior staff. Usually, he maintained a sphinxlike silence, with his thick arms folded across his wrestler’s chest and an inscrutable expression on his face. But occasionally he would finish one of Gabriel’s sentences for him, as if to make it clear to everyone in the room that, as the Americans were fond of saying, there was no daylight between them. They were like Boaz and Jachin, the twin pillars that stood at the entrance of the First Temple of Jerusalem, and anyone who even thought about playing one against the other would pay a heavy price. Gabriel was the people’s chief, but he was still the chief and he would not tolerate intrigue in his court.

Not that any was likely, for the other officers who comprised his senior staff were thick as thieves. All were drawn from Barak, the elite team that had carried out some of the most storied operations in the history of a storied service. For years they had worked from a cramped subterranean set of rooms that had once been used as a dumping ground for old furniture and equipment. Now they occupied a chain of offices stretching from Gabriel’s door. Even Eli Lavon, one of Israel’s most prominent biblical archaeologists, had agreed to forsake his teaching position at Hebrew University and return to full-time Office employment. Nominally, Lavon oversaw the watchers, pickpockets, and those who specialized in planting listening devices and hidden cameras. In truth, Gabriel used him in any way he saw fit. The finest physical surveillance artist the Office ever produced, Lavon had been looking over Gabriel’s shoulder since the days of Operation Wrath of God. His little hutch, with its shards of pottery and ancient coins and tools, was the place where Gabriel often went for a few minutes of quiet. Lavon had never been much of a talker. Like Gabriel, he did his best work in the dark, and without a sound.

A few of the old hands questioned whether it was wise for Gabriel to load up the executive suite with so many loyalists and relics from his glorious past. For the most part, however, they kept their concerns to themselves. No director general— other than Shamron, of course—had ever assumed control of the Office with more experience or goodwill. Gabriel had been playing the game longer than anyone in the business, and along the way he had collected an extraordinary array of friends and accomplices. The British prime minister owed his career to him; the pope, his life. Even so, he was not the sort of fellow to shamelessly collect on an old debt. The truly powerful man, said Shamron, never had to ask for a favor.

But he had enemies, too. Enemies who had destroyed his first wife and who had tried to destroy his second as well. Enemies in Moscow and Tehran who viewed him as the only thing standing in the way of their ambitions. For now, they had been dealt with, but doubtless they would be back. So, too, would the man with whom he had last done battle. Indeed, it was this man who occupied the top spot on the new director general’s to-do list. The Office computers had assigned him a randomly generated code name. But behind the cipher-protected doors of King Saul Boulevard, Gabriel and the new leaders of the Office referred to him by the grandiose nom de guerre he had given himself. Saladin…They spoke of him with respect and even a trace of foreboding. He was coming for them. It was only a matter of time.


* * *


There was a photograph making the rounds of like-minded intelligence services. It had been snapped by an asset of the CIA in the Paraguayan town of Ciudad del Este, which was located in the notorious Tri-Border Area, or Triple Frontier, of South America. It showed a man, large, solidly built, Arab in appearance, drinking coffee at an outdoor café, accompanied by a certain Lebanese trader suspected of having ties to the global jihadist movement. The camera angle was such that it rendered facial-recognition software ineffective. But Gabriel, who was blessed with one of the finest pairs of eyes in the trade, was confident the man was Saladin. He had seen Saladin in person, in the lobby of the Four Seasons Hotel in Washington, D.C., two days before the worst terrorist attack on the American homeland since 9/11. Gabriel knew how Saladin looked, how he smelled, how the air reacted when he entered or left a room. And he knew how Saladin walked. Like his namesake, he moved with a pronounced limp, the result of a shrapnel wound that had been crudely tended to in a house of many rooms and courts near Mosul in northern Iraq. The limp was now his calling card. A man’s physical appearance could be changed in many ways. Hair could be cut or dyed, a face could be altered with plastic surgery. But a limp like Saladin’s was forever.

How he managed to escape from America was a matter of intense debate, and all subsequent efforts to locate him had failed. Reports had him variously in Asunción, Santiago, and Buenos Aires. There was even a rumor he’d found sanctuary in Bariloche, the Argentine ski resort so beloved by fugitive Nazi war criminals. Gabriel dismissed the idea out of hand. Still, he was willing to entertain the notion that Saladin was hiding somewhere in plain sight. Wherever he was, he was planning his next move. Of that, Gabriel was certain.

The recent attack on Washington, with its ruined buildings and monuments and catastrophic death toll, had established Saladin as the new face of Islamic terror. But what would be his encore? The American president, in one of his final interviews before leaving office, declared that Saladin was incapable of another large-scale operation, that the U.S. military response had left his once-formidable network in tatters. Saladin had responded by ordering a suicide bomber to detonate himself outside the U.S. Embassy in Cairo. Small beer, countered the White House. Limited casualties, no Americans among the dead. The desperate act of a man on his way out.

Perhaps, but there were other attacks as well. Saladin had struck Turkey virtually at will—weddings, buses, public squares, Istanbul’s busy airport—and his adherents in Western Europe, those who spoke his name with something like religious fervor, had carried out a series of lone-wolf attacks that had left a trail of death across France, Belgium, and Germany. But something big was coming, something coordinated, a terror spectacular to rival the calamity he had inflicted on Washington.

But where? Another attack on America seemed unlikely. Surely, said the experts, lightning would not strike the same place twice. In the end, the city Saladin chose for his curtain call came as a surprise to no one, especially those who battled terrorists for a living. Despite his penchant for secrecy, Saladin loved the stage. And where better to find a stage than the West End of London.






Perhaps it was true, thought Julian Isherwood as he watched torrents of windblown rain tumbling from a black sky. Perhaps the planet was broken after all. A hurricane in London, and in the middle of February at that. Tall and somewhat precarious in comportment, Isherwood was not naturally built for such conditions. At present, he was sheltering in the doorway of Wilton’s Restaurant in Jermyn Street, a spot he knew well. He pushed up the sleeve of his mackintosh and frowned at his wristwatch. The time was 7:40; he was running late. He searched the street for a taxi. There was not one in sight.

From the bar at Wilton’s there came a trickle of halfhearted laughter, followed by the booming baritone voice of none other than tubby Oliver Dimbleby. Wilton’s was now the primary watering hole for a small band of Old Master art dealers who plied their trade in the narrow streets of St. James’s. Green’s Restaurant and Oyster Bar in Duke Street had once been their favorite haunt, but Green’s had been forced to close its doors owing to a dispute with the company that managed the Queen’s immense portfolio of London real estate. It was symptomatic of the changes that had swept through the neighborhood and the London art world as a whole. Old Masters were deeply out of fashion. The collectors of today, the instant global billionaires who made their fortunes with social media and iPhone apps, were only interested in Modern works. Even the Impressionists were becoming passé. Isherwood had sold just two paintings since the New Year. Both were middle-market works, school of so-and-so, manner of such-and-such. Oliver Dimbleby hadn’t sold anything in six months. Neither had Roddy Hutchinson, who was widely regarded as the most unscrupulous dealer in all of London. But each evening they huddled at the bar of Wilton’s and assured themselves that soon the storm would pass. Julian Isherwood feared otherwise, never more so than at that moment.

He had seen troubled times before. His English scale, devoutly English wardrobe, and backbone-of-England surname concealed the fact that he was not, at least not technically, English at all. British by nationality and passport, yes, but German by birth, French by upbringing, and Jewish by religion. Only a handful of trusted friends knew that Isherwood had staggered into London as a child refugee in 1942 after being carried across the snowbound Pyrenees by a pair of Basque shepherds. Or that his father, the renowned Paris art dealer Samuel Isakowitz, had been murdered at the Sobibor death camp along with Isherwood’s mother. Though Isherwood had carefully guarded the secrets of his past, the story of his dramatic escape from Nazi-occupied Europe had reached the ears of Israel’s secret intelligence service. And in the mid-1970s, during a wave of Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israeli targets in Europe, he had been recruited as a sayan, a volunteer helper. Isherwood had but one assignment—to assist in building and maintaining the operational cover of an art restorer and assassin named Gabriel Allon. Lately, their careers had proceeded in decidedly different directions. Gabriel was now the chief of Israeli intelligence, one of the most powerful spies in the world. And Isherwood? He was standing in the doorway of Wilton’s Restaurant in Jermyn Street, battered by the west wind, slightly drunk, waiting for a taxi that would never come.

He checked his watch a second time. It was now 7:43. Having no umbrella in his possession, he raised his old leather satchel over his head and waded over to Piccadilly, where after a wait of five sodden minutes he tipped gratefully into the back of a taxi. He gave the driver an approximate address—he was too embarrassed to say the name of his true destination—and anxiously monitored the time as the taxi crawled toward Piccadilly Circus. There it turned into Shaftesbury Avenue, arriving at Charing Cross Road at the stroke of eight. Isherwood was now officially late for his reservation.

He supposed he ought to call and say he was delayed, but there was a good chance the establishment in question would give away his table. It had taken a month of begging and bribery to obtain it in the first place; Isherwood wasn’t about to risk it now with a panicked phone call. Besides, with a bit of luck, Fiona was already there. It was one of the things Isherwood liked best about Fiona, she was prompt. He also liked her blond hair, blue eyes, long legs, and her age, which was thirty-six. In fact, at that moment, he could think of nothing he disliked about Fiona Gardner, which was why he had expended much valuable time and effort securing a reservation in a restaurant where ordinarily he would never set foot.

Another five minutes slipped away before the taxi finally deposited Isherwood outside St. Martin’s Theatre, the permanent home of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap. Quickly, he crossed West Street to the entrance of the famed Ivy, his true destination. The maître d’ informed him that Miss Gardner had not yet arrived and that by some miracle his table was still available. Isherwood surrendered his mackintosh to the coat check girl and was shown to a banquette overlooking Litchfield Street.

Alone, he stared disapprovingly at his reflection in the window. With his Savile Row suit, crimson necktie, and plentiful gray locks, he cut a rather elegant if dubious figure, a look he described as dignified depravity. Still, there was no denying he had reached the age that estate planners refer to as “the autumn of his years.” No, he thought gloomily, he was old. Far too old to be pursuing the likes of Fiona Gardner. How many others had there been? The art students, the junior curators, the receptionists, the pretty young girls who took telephone bids at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Isherwood was no sportsman; he had loved them all. He believed in love, as he believed in art. Love at first sight. Love everlasting. Love until death do us part. The problem was, he had never truly found it.

All at once he thought of a recent afternoon in Venice, a corner table in Harry’s Bar, a Bellini, Gabriel…He had told Isherwood it was not too late, that there was still time for him to marry and have a child or two. The ragged face in the glass begged to differ. He was well past his expiration date, he thought. He would die alone, childless, and with no wife other than his gallery.

He made another check of the time. Eight fifteen. Now it was Fiona who was late. It wasn’t like her. He dug his mobile from the breast pocket of his suit and saw that he had received a text message. Sorry Julian but I’m afraid I won’t be able to…He stopped reading. He supposed it was for the best. It would spare him a broken heart. More important, it would prevent him from making a damn fool of himself yet again.

He returned the mobile to his pocket and considered his options. He could stay and dine alone, or he could leave. He chose the second; one didn’t dine alone at the Ivy. Rising, he collected his raincoat and with a mumbled apology to the maître d’ went quickly into the street, just as a white Ford Transit van was braking to a halt outside St. Martin’s Theatre. The driver emerged instantly, dressed in a bulky woolen peacoat and holding something that looked like a gun. It was not any gun, thought Isherwood, it was a weapon of war. Four more men were now clambering out of the van’s rear cargo compartment, each wearing a heavy coat, each holding the same type of combat assault rifle. Isherwood could scarcely believe what he was seeing. It looked like a scene from a movie. A movie he had seen before, in Paris and in Washington.

The five men moved calmly toward the doors of the theater in a tight fighting unit. Isherwood heard the splintering of wood, followed by gunshots. Then, a few seconds later, came the first screams, muffled, distant. They were the screams of Isherwood’s nightmares. Again he thought of Gabriel and wondered what he would do in a situation like this. He would charge headlong into the theater and save as many lives as possible. But Isherwood hadn’t Gabriel’s skills or his courage. He was no hero. In fact, he was quite the other thing.

The nightmarish screams were growing louder. Isherwood dug his mobile phone from his pocket, dialed 999, and reported that St. Martin’s Theatre was under terrorist attack. Then he spun round and stared at the landmark restaurant he had just departed. Its well-heeled customers appeared oblivious to the carnage taking place a few paces away. Surely, he thought, the terrorists would not be content with a single massacre. The iconic Ivy would be their next stop.

Isherwood considered his options. Again he had two. He could make his escape or he could try to save as many lives as possible. The decision was the easiest of his life. As he staggered across the street, he heard an explosion from the direction of Charing Cross Road. Then another. Then a third. He was not a hero, he thought as he careened through the door of the Ivy, waving his arms like a madman, but he could act like one, if only for a moment or two. Perhaps Gabriel had been right. Perhaps it was not too late for him after all.



Comments are closed.