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By the Rivers of Babylon
Published on Apr 16, 1978
Lod Airport, Israel: Two Concorde jets take off for a U.N. conference that will finally bring peace to the Middle East. Covered by F-14 fighters, accompanied by security men, the planes carry warriors, pacifists, lovers, enemies, dignitaries - and a bomb planted by a terrorist mastermind. Suddenly they're forced to crash-land at an ancient desert site. Here, with only a handful of weapons, the men and women of the peace mission must make a desperate stand against an army of crack Palestinian commandos - while the Israeli authorities desperately attempt a rescue mission. In a land of blood and tears, in a windswept place called Babylon, it will be a battle of bullets and courage, and a war to the last death.
In the Samarian hills, overlooking the Plain of Sharon, four men stood quietly in the predawn darkness. Below them, spread out on the plain, they could see the straight lights of Lod International Airport almost nine kilometers in the distance. Beyond Lod were the hazy lights of Tel Aviv and Herzlya, and beyond that, the Mediterranean Sea reflected the light of the setting moon.
They stood on a spot that, until the Six Day War, had been Jordanian territory. In 1967, it had been a strategic spot, situated as it was almost half a kilometer above the Plain of Sharon on a bulge in the 1948 truce line that poked into Israel. There had been no Jordanian position closer to Lod Airport in 1967. From this spot, Jordanian artillery and mortars had fired a few rounds at the airport before Israeli warplanes had silenced them. The Arab Legion had abandoned the position, as they had abandoned everything on the West Bank of the Jordan. Now this forward position had no apparent military significance. It was deep inside Israeli territory. Gone were the bunkers that had faced each other across no man's land and gone were the miles of barbed wire that had separated them. More importantly, gone too were the Israeli border patrols.
But in 1967 the Arab Legion had left behind some of its ordnance and some of its personnel. The ordnance was three 120mm mortars with rounds, and the personnel were these four Palestinians, once members of the Palestinian Auxiliary Corps attached to the Arab Legion. They were young men then, left behind and told to wait for orders. It was an old stratagem, leaving stay-behinds and equipment. Every modern army in retreat had done it in the hopes that those agents-in-place would serve some useful function if and when the retreating army took the offensive again.
The four Palestinians were natives of the nearby Israeli-occupied village of Budris, and they had gone about their normal, peaceful lives for the last dozen years. In truth, they had forgotten about the mortars and the rounds until a message had reminded them of their pledge taken so long ago. The message had come out of the darkness like the recurrence of a long-forgotten nightmare. They feigned surprise that such a message should come on the very eve of the Peace Conference, but actually they knew that it would come precisely for that reason. The men who controlled their lives from so great a distance did not want this peace. And there was no way to avoid the order to action. They were trapped in the shadowy army as surely as if they were in uniform standing in a parade line.
The men knelt among the stand of Jerusalem pines and dug into the soft, dusty soil with their hands. They came upon a large plastic bag. Inside the bag were a dozen 120mm mortar rounds packed in cardboard canisters. They pushed some sand and pine needles over the bag again and sat back against the trees. The birds began to sing as the sky lightened.
One of the Palestinians, Sabah Khabbani, got up and walked to the crest of the hill and looked down across the plain. With a little luck - and an easterly wind sent by Allah - they should be able to reach the airport. They should be able to send those six high-explosive and six phosphorus rounds crashing into the main terminal and the aircraft parking ramp.
As if in answer to this thought, Khabbani's kheffiyah suddenly billowed around his face as a hot blast of wind struck his back. The Jerusalem pines swayed and released their resinous scent. The Hamseen had arrived.
The curtains billowed around the louvered shutters of the third-floor apartment in Herzlya. One of them slammed shut with a loud crack. Air Force Brigadier Teddy Laskov sat up in his bed as his hand reached into his night table. He saw the swinging shutters in the dim light from the window and settled back, his hand still on his .45 automatic. The hot wind filled the small room.
The sheets next to him moved and a head looked out from under them. "Is anything wrong?"
Laskov cleared his throat. "The Sharav is blowing." He used the Hebrew word. "Spring is here. Peace is coming. What could be wrong?" He took his hand away from the pistol and fumbled for his cigarettes in the drawer. He lit one.
The sheets next to Laskov stirred again. Miriam Bernstein, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, watched the glowing tip of Laskov's cigarette as it moved in short, agitated patterns. "Are you all right?"
"I'm fine." He steadied his hand. He looked down at her. He could make out the curves of her body under the sheets, but her face was half-buried in the pillow. He turned on the night light and threw back the sheets.
"Teddy." She sounded mildly annoyed.
Laskov smiled. "I wanted to see you."
"You've seen enough." She grabbed for the sheets, but he kicked them away. "It's cold," she said petulantly and curled into a tight ball.
"It's warm. Can't you feel it?"
She made an exasperated sound and stretched her arms and legs sensuously.
Laskov looked at her tanned naked body. His hand ran up her leg, over her thick pubic hair, and came to rest over one of her breasts. "What are you smiling at?"
She rubbed her eyes. "I thought it was a dream. But it wasn't."
"The Conference?" His tone revealed an impatience with this subject.
"Yes." She placed her hand over his, breathed in the sweet-smelling air, and closed her eyes. "The miracle has happened. We've started a new decade, and now the Israelis and the Arabs are going to sit down together and make peace."
"Don't be skeptical. It's a bad start."
"Better to start skeptical. Then you won't be disappointed with the outcome."
"Give it a chance."
He looked down at her. "Of course."
She smiled at him. "I have to get up." She yawned and stretched again. "I have a breakfast date."
He removed his hand. "With whom?" he asked, against his better judgment.
"An Arab. Jealous?"
"No. Just security conscious."
She laughed. "Abdel Majid Jabari. My father figure. Know him?"
Laskov nodded. Jabari was one of the two Israeli-Arab Knesset members who were delegates to the peace mission. "Where?"
"Michel's in Lod. I'll be late. May I get dressed, General?" She smiled.
Only her mouth smiled, Laskov noticed. Her dark eyes remained expressionless. That full, rich mouth had become quite accomplished at showing the full range of human emotion, while the eyes only stared. The eyes were remarkable because they conveyed absolutely nothing. They were only for seeing things. They were not a window into her soul. The things she must have seen with those eyes, Laskov thought, she wished no one to know.
He reached out and stroked her long, thick black hair. She was exceptionally pretty, there was no doubt about that, but those eyes. . .He saw her lips turn up at his stroking. "Don't you eversmile?"
She knew what he meant. She put her face in the pillow and mumbled. "Maybe when I get back from New York. Maybe then."
Laskov stopped stroking her hair. Did she mean if the peace mission was a success? Or did she mean if she got good news of her husband, Yosef, an Air Force officer, missing over Syria for three years? He had been in Laskov's command. Laskov had seen him go down on the radar. He was fairly certain Yosef was dead. Laskov had a feel for these things after so many years as a combat pilot. He decided to confront her. He wanted to know where he stood before she went to New York. It might be months before he saw her again. "Miriam . . ."
There was a loud knock on the front door. Laskov swung his feet over the side of the bed and stood. He was a solid bearlike man with a face more Slavic than Semitic. Thick, heavy eyebrows met on the bridge of his nose.
"Teddy. Take your gun."
Laskov laughed. "Palestinian terrorists hardly ever knock."
"Well, at least put your pants on. It might be someone for me, you know. Official."
Laskov pulled on a pair of cotton khaki trousers. He took a step toward the door, then decided that bravado was foolish. He took the American Army Colt .45 automatic out of the night table and shoved it into his waistband. "I wish you wouldn't tell your staff where you spend the night."
The knock came again, louder this time. He walked barefoot across the oriental rug of the living room and stood to the side of the door. "Who is it?" As he looked back across the living room he noticed that he hadn't closed the bedroom door. Miriam lay naked on the bed in a direct line with the front door.
Abdel Majid Jabari stood in the darkened alcove of Michel's in Lod. The café, owned by a Christian Arab, sat on the corner near the Church of St. George. Jabari looked at his watch. The café should have opened already, but there was no sign of life inside. He huddled into the shadow.
Jabari was a dark, hawk-nosed man of the pure, classical Saudi-peninsula type. He wore an ill-fitting dark business suit and the traditional black and white checked headdress, thekheffiyah, secured with a crown of black cords.
Throughout the last thirty years, Jabari rarely went out alone during the hours of darkness. Ever since the time he had decided to make a personal and private peace with the Jews in the newly formed state of Israel. Since that day, his name had been on every Palestinian death list. His election to the Israeli Knesset two years before had put his name at the top of those lists. They'd come close once. Part of his left hand was missing, the result of a letter bomb.
A motorized Israeli security patrol went by and eyed him suspiciously but did not stop. He looked at his watch again. He had arrived early for his appointment with Miriam Bernstein.
He couldn't think of another person, man or woman, who could bring him to such a deserted rendezvous. He loved her, but he believed his love was strictly platonic. This was an unusual Western notion, but he felt comfortable with it. She filled a need in him that had existed since his wife, children, and all his blood relatives had fled to the West Bank in 1948. When the West Bank had come into Israeli hands in 1967, he could think of nothing for days but the coming reunion. He had followed in the wake of the Israeli army. When he got to the refugee camp where he knew his family was, he found his sister dead and everyone else fled into Jordan. His sons were reported to be with the Palestinian guerilla army. Only a female cousin remained, wounded, lying in an Israeli mobile hospital. Jabari had marveled at the hate that must have filled these people, his countrymen, as his cousin lay dying, refusing medical aid from the Israelis.
Jabari had never know such despair before or since. That day in June 1967 was far worse than the original parting in 1948. But he had rallied and traveled a long road since then. Now he was going to discuss the coming peace over breakfast with a fellow delegate to the UN Conference in New York.
Shadows moved in the street around him and he knew that he should have been more careful. He'd come too far to have it end here. But in his excitement and anticipation of seeing Miriam Bernstein and going to New York, he had become lax in his security. He had been too embarrassed to tell her to meet him after sunrise. He couldn't fault her for not understanding. She simply didn't know the kind of terror he had lived with for thirty years.
The Hamseen blew across the square picking up litter, rustling it across the pavement. This wind didn't blow in gusts but in one long, continuous stream, as though someone had left the door open on a blast furnace. It whistled through the town, each obstruction acting as a reed in a woodwind instrument, making sounds of different pitch, intensity, and timbre. As always it made one feel uneasy.
Three men came out of the shadow of a building across the road and walked toward him. In the predawn light, Jabari could see the outlines of long rifles tucked casually under their arms. If they were the security patrol, he would ask them to stay with him awhile. If they weren't . . . He fingered the small nickel-plated Beretta in his pocket. He knew he could get the one in front, anyway.
Sabah Khabbani helped the other three Palestinians roll a heavy stone across the ground. Lizards scurried from the place where the stone had stood. Revealed under the stone was a hole a little more than 120mm wide. Khabbani pulled a ball of oiled rags out of the opening, reached his arm into the hole, and felt around. A centipede walked across his wrist. He pulled his arm out. "It's in good condition. No rust." He wiped the packing grease from his fingers into his baggy pants. He stared at the small, innocuous-looking hole.
It was an old guerilla trick, originated with the Viet Cong and passed on to other armies of the night. A mortar tube is placed in a large hole. The tube is held by several men and mortar rounds are dropped into the tube. One by one the rounds begin to hit downrange. Eventually, one round strikes its target: an airfield, a fort, a truck park. The firing stops. Now the mortar is registered for elevation, deflection, and range. Rocks and earth are quickly packed around the mortar with care to insure that the aim is not changed. The muzzle of the tube is hidden with a stone. The gunners flee before the overwhelming fire-power of the conventional army is brought to bear on their position. The next time they wish to fire - a day, a week, or a decade later - they must only uncover the preaimed muzzle. There is no need to carry the cumbersome paraphernalia of the big mortar. The heavy baseplate, bridge, and standard, weighing altogether over 100 kilograms, are not needed. The delicate boresight is not needed, nor are the plotting boards, compass, aiming stakes, maps, or firing tables. The mortar tube is already registered on its target, lying buried, waiting only for rounds to be dropped into its muzzle.
Khabbani's gunners would fire four rounds each, then cover the muzzles with the stones. By the time the high angle rounds began hitting, one by one, the gunners would be far away.
Khabbani took a rag soaked in alcohol solvent, reached into the long tube, and swabbed the sides. He worried about these buried tubes. Were they really well aimed in 1967? Had the ground shifted since then? Were the rounds safe? Had trees grown up into the trajectory of the rounds?
His rag showed dead insects, dirt, a little moisture, and just a trace of rust. He would find out shortly if it was safe to fire.
"Richardson." The voice was muffled, but Laskov was sure of it. He unbolted the door.
Miriam Bernstein got out of bed naked and leaned against the doorjamb in the pose of a Parisian lady of the night against a lamppost. She smiled and tried on a sexy come-hither look. Laskov was not amused. He opened the door slowly. Tom Richardson, the U.S. air attaché, stepped in at the moment Laskov heard the bedroom door close behind him. He looked at Richardson's face. Had he seen her? He couldn't decide. No one registered much emotion at that hour. "Is this business or social?"
Richardson spread his arms out. "I'm in full uniform and the sun isn't even up."
Laskov regarded the younger officer. He was a tall, sandy-haired man who was chosen for the attaché job more for his ability to charm than for his ability to fly. A diplomat in uniform. "That doesn't answer my question."
"Why do you have that hardware stuck in your pants? Even in D.C. we don't answer the door like that."
"You should. Well, have a seat. Coffee?"
Laskov moved toward the small kitchenette. "Turkish, Italian, American, or Israeli?"
"I've only got Israeli and it's instant."
Richardson sat in a club chair. "Are we going to have one of those days?"
"Don't we always?"
"Get in the spirit of things, Laskov. There's going to be peace."
"Maybe." He put a kettle on the single gas jet. He could hear the shower running on the other side of the wall.
Richardson looked at the closed bedroom door. "Am I disturbing something? Were you making a separate peace with a local Arab boy's sister?" He laughed, then said seriously, "Can we speak freely?"
Laskov came out of the kitchen. "Yes. Let's get this business out of the way. I have a full day ahead of me."
"Me too." Richardson lit a cigarette. "We have to know what kind of air cover you have planned for the Concordes."
Laskov walked over to the window and threw open the shutters. Below his apartment ran the Haifa-Tel Aviv Highway. Lights shone from private villas near the Mediterranean. Herzlya was known as the air attaché ghetto. It was also Israel's Hollywood and Israel's Riviera. Herzlya was the place where El Al and Air Force personnel lived if they could afford it. Laskov detested the place because of its privileged atmosphere, but an accident of social grouping had put most of the important people he had to deal with in Herzlya.
The smell of the western sea breezes, which usually carried into the apartment, was replaced by the dry east wind carrying scents of orange and almond blossoms from the Samarian hills. Across the highway, the first shaft of sunlight revealed two men standing in the alcove of a shop. They moved further into the shadow. Laskov turned from the window and walked to a high-backed swivel chair. He sat down.
"Unless you came with a chauffeur and a footman, I think someone is watching this apartment."
Richardson shrugged. "That's their job, whoever they are. We have ours." He leaned forward. "I'll need a full report on today's operation."
Laskov sat back in his chair. His dogfighter chair. At get-togethers his friends would regale each other with the old fights. The Spitfires. The Corsairs. The Messerschmitts. Laskov looked at the ceiling. He was flying his mission over Warsaw again. Captain Teddy Laskov of the Red Air Force. Things were simpler then. Or so they seemed.
Shot down for the third time, in the last days of the war, Laskov had returned to his village of Zaslavl, outside Minsk, on convalescent leave. He found the remainder of his family, barely half of whom had survived the Nazis, murdered in what the Commissars called a civil disturbance. Laskov called it a pogrom. Russia would never change, he decided. A Jew was as much a Jew in unholy Russia as in Holy Russia.
Captain Laskov, highly decorated officer of the Red Air Force, had returned to his squadron in Germany. Ten minutes after arriving, he had climbed into a fighter, bombed and strafed an encampment of his own army outside of Berlin, and flown on to an airfield occupied by the American Second Armored Division on the west back of the Elbe.
From the American internment camp, he had made his way, finally, to Jerusalem, but not before seeing what had become of West European Jewry.
In Jerusalem, he had joined the underground Haganah Air Force, which consisted of a few scrapped British warplanes and a few American civilian light aircraft hidden in palm groves. A far cry from the Red Air Force, but when Laskov saw his first Spitfire with the Star of David on it, his eyes misted.
Since that day in 1946, he had fought in the War of Independence of 1948, the Suez War of 1956, the Six Day War of 1967, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. But the war dates meant nothing to him. He had seen more action between those wars than during them. He'd flown 5,136 sorties, been hit five times and shot down twice. He carried scars from shattered plexiglas, burning aviation fuel, flak, and missile shrapnel. He walked slightly bent as a result of having had to eject out of a burning Phantom in 1973. He was getting old and he was tired. He rarely flew combat missions anymore, and he hoped, and almost believed, that after the Conference there would be none that would have to be flown again. Ever.
The kettle whistled and Laskov stared at it. Richardson got up and shut it off. "Well?"
Laskov shrugged. "We have to be careful who we give that kind of information to."
Richardson walked quickly up to Laskov. He was white and almost trembling. "What? What the hell do you mean? Look, I've got reports to make. I've got to coordinate our carrier fleet in the Med. Since when have you kept anything from us? If you're insinuating that there's a leak . . ."
Laskov wasn't prepared for Richardson's outburst. They had always bantered prior to getting to the point. It was part of the game. The reaction to what Laskov thought was a joke was inappropriate. He decided that Richardson was tense, as everyone else would probably be today. "Take it easy, Colonel." He stared hard at the young man.
The mention of his rank seemed to snap him out of it. Richardson smiled and sat down. "Sorry, General."
"All right." Laskov got up and picked up the telephone with a scrambler attached to it. He dialed The Citadel, Israeli Air Force Headquarters. "Patch me into the E-2D," he said.
Richardson waited. The E-2D Hawkeye was the newest of Grumman's flying radar craft. The sophisticated electronic systems on board could detect, track, and classify potential belligerents or friendlies on land, sea, and air at distances and with an accuracy never before possible. Its collected information was fed into a computer bank and transmitted via data link back to Strike Force Control, Civilian Air Traffic Control, and Search and Rescue units. It also had electronic deception capabilities. Israel had three of them and one was airborne at all times. Richardson watched as Laskov listened.
Laskov replaced the phone.
"They see anything?" Richardson asked.
"Foxbats. Four of them. Probably Egyptian. Just maneuvers, I suspect. Also, a Mandrake recon in the stratosphere. Probably Russian."
They discussed the technical data as Laskov made two cups of passable coffee. The water stopped running in the bathroom.
Richardson blew steam off the cup. "You using your 14's for escort?"
"Of course." The Grumman F-14 Tomcat was the best fighter craft in the world. But so was the Mig-25 Foxbat. It depended on who was flying each craft. It was that close. Laskov had a squadron of twelve Tomcats that had cost Israel eighteen million dollars apiece. They were sitting, at that moment, on the military end of Lod Airport.
"You going up, too?"
"Why don't you leave that to the younger men?"
"Why don't you go f--k yourself?"
Richardson laughed. "You have a good command of American idiom."
"How far are you going with them?"
"Until we run out to the edge of our range." He walked to the window and looked into the dawn. "With no bombs or air-to-ground stuff, and on a day like this, we should be able to do a thousand klicks out and then back again. That should take them out of the range of the Land of Islam, in case anyone has any crazy ideas today."
"Not out of range of Libya, Tunisia, Morocco, and Algeria. Look, you can land at our base in Sicily if you want to stay with them that far. Or, we can get a bunch of KAGD's to refuel you in flight, if you want."
Laskov looked away from Richardson and smiled. The Americans were all right except when they were getting panicky about trying to keep the peace at any cost. "They're not going all the way over the Med. The Concordes are going to file a last-minute flight-plan change that will take them up the boot of Italy. We've gotten them special clearance to fly supersonic over Italy and France. We'll break with them east of Sicily. I'll give you the coordinates and your carrier 14's can pick them up if you want. But I don't think that will be necessary. Don't forget, they can go Mach 2.2 at 19,000 meters. Nothing but the Bat can match that, and they'll be out of range of any of their bases - Arab or Russian - by the time we leave them."
Richardson stretched. "You expecting any trouble? Our intelligence tells us it looks O.K."
"We always expect trouble here. But frankly, no. We're just being cautious. There will be a lot of important people on those Concordes. And everything is at stake. Everything. All it takes is one crazy to f--k things up."
Richardson nodded. "How's ground security?"
"That's the Security Chief's problem. I'm just a pilot, not a guerilla fighter. If those two goofy-looking birds get airborne, I'll escort them to hell and back without a scratch on them. I don't know from the ground.
Richardson laughed. "Right. Me, neither. By the way, what are you packing besides your .45?"
"The usual ironmongery of death and destruction. Two Sidewinders and two Sparrows, plus six Phoenix."
Richardson considered. The Sidewinder missiles were good at five to eight kilometers; the Sparrows, at sixteen to fifty-six kilometers; and the Phoenix, at fifty-six to a hundred and sixty. The Hughes-manufactured Phoenix was critical to get the Foxbat before it came into dogfight range with its greater maneuverability. "Take a tip, Laskov. There's nothing up there at 19,000 and Mach 2.2 but Foxbats. Leave your 20mm cannon rounds home. There are 950 of them and they weigh. The Sidewinder will get anything that gets in close. We did it on a computer once. It's O.K."
Laskov ran his hand through his hair. "Maybe. Maybe I'll keep them in case I feel like knocking down a Mandrake."
Richardson smiled. "You'd hit an unarmed reconnaissance plane in international air space?" He spoke softly, as though there were someone close by who shouldn't hear. "What's your tactical frequency and call sing today?"
"We'll be on VHF channel 31. That's 134.725 megahertz. My alternate frequency is a last-minute security decision. I'll get it to you later. Today my name will be Angel Gabriel plus my tail number - 32. The other eleven Cats will also be Gabriel plus their tail numbers. I'll send you the particulars later."
"And the Concordes?"
"The company call sign for aircraft number 4X-LPN is El Al 01. For 4X-LPO, it's El Al 02. That's what we'll call them on the Air Traffic Control and El Al frequencies. On my tactical frequency, they have code names, of course."
"What are they?"
Laskov smiled. "Some idiot clerk at The Citadel probably spends all day on these things. Anyway, the pilot of 01 is a very religious young man, so 01 is the Kosher Clipper. The pilot of 20 is a former American, so in honor of that great American airline slogan, 02 is the Wings of Emmanuel."
"That's awful." Miriam Bernstein walked into the living room, dressed in a smartly tailored lemon-yellow dress and carrying an overnight bag.
Richardson stood up. He recognized the beautiful, much talked about Deputy Minister of Transportation, but was enough of a diplomat not to mention it.
She walked toward Richardson. "It's all right, Colonel, I'm not a working girl. I have high clearance. The General has not been indiscreet." Her English was slow and precise, the result of seldom used formal classroom English.
Laskov could tell that Richardson was somewhat unsettled by Miriam. It amused him. He wondered if he should make an introduction, but Miriam was already at the door. She turned and addressed Laskov. "I saw the men in the street. I've called a taxi. Jabari is waiting. I must rush. See you at the final briefing." She looked past Laskov. "Good day, Colonel."
Richardson decided not to let them think he was totally in the dark. "Shalom. Good luck in New York."
Miriam Bernstein smiled and left.
Richardson looked at his coffee cup. "I'm not going to drink any more of this swill. I'll take you to breakfast and drop you at The Citadel on my way to my embassy."
Laskov nodded. He walked into the bedroom. He slipped on a khaki cotton shirt that might have been civilian except for two small olive branches that designated his rank. He pulled the automatic from his waistband. He buttoned his shirt with one hand and held the .45 with the other as he walked to the window. Below, the two men, whoever they were, looked quickly down at their shoes. Miriam got into a waiting taxi and sped off. Laskov threw the .45 on the bed.
He felt uneasy. It was the wind. Something to do with an imbalance of negative ions in the air, they said. The ill wind went by many names - the Foehn of Central Europe, theMistral of Southern France, the Santa Ana of California. Here it was called Hamseen or Sharav. There were people, like himself, who were weather-sensitive and suffered physically and psychologically from the effect. It wouldn't matter at 19,000 meters, but it mattered here. It was a mixed blessing, this first hot wind of spring. He looked into the sky. At least it was turning out to be a perfect day for flying.