The ridge road ran from the town of Marjeyoun down to Qlaia'a under the ominous gaze of Shqif Arnoun- the castle called Beaufort by the Crusaders - to the west. Christians and Muslims had fought on this ground for centuries, trading possession of the castle as their fortunes rose and fell. In the 1970s the Palestinian Liberation Organization had used the strategic placement of the castle to shell civilian settlements in northern Israel.
That was when Skaff, then a young recruit of the Southern Lebanese Army, had been a driver in a similar convoy shortly before the civil war broke out between Christians and Muslims in 1975. Traversing this very ridge on a mission, he had come under fire from the castle. His evasive driving had saved the convoy and drawn the attention of General Lahd.
The intervening 30 years had been a generation of unremitting war. Israel, tiring of mounting civilian casualties and the Lebanese government's refusal to expel the terrorists, invaded southern Lebanon in 1982 and captured the castle. Eighteen years of occupation followed, during which Skaff had risen through the SLA ranks while working openly with the Israelis to keep the various Muslim factions at bay. When he had started, Hezbollah did not exist. Now the radical Muslim army controlled the south and dealt severely with the Christian resistance.
As the occupation had grown increasingly costly and casualties mounted, the pressure increased for Israel to withdraw. When the SLA collapsed in 2000, Israel destroyed what was left of the castle walls and pulled back behind the Blue Line specified by the UN. The SLA scattered. Thousands fled to Israel or went into hiding. Those who didn't were imprisoned and tried as enemy collaborators. As Hezbollah gained control of the area, the anticipated slaughter of Christians didn't materialize. But any SLA militiamen emboldened to return were also imprisoned.
As he scanned the distant ruins of the castle in the moonlight, Major Skaff reflected on change and constancy. Where PLO guns had once rained death on Israel and Lebanese Christians, now tourists snapped pictures and rushed home to post them on the Internet. And the same General Antoine Lahd who had brought him up in the ranksand fought beside him for decades, had fled to Paris. Only a week ago he had opened a fancy restaurant in Tel Aviv called Byblos. It had a nice ocean view.
True, Lahd had a death sentence hanging over him for treason and war crimes, but so did Skaff. And so did many of the 2,000 SLA in Lebanese prisons.
But some things had not changed. Southern Lebanon was just as dangerous for the men in these jeeps as it had been when Skaff was driving instead of commanding.
Major Skaff was drawn from his reflections by a dark shape ahead. At the end of the ridge the road snaked through an outcropping of rock. He had passed through it many times, always with reluctance. This night he felt a peculiar sense of revulsion as he squinted at the misshapen lump of stone looming before him.
He nudged his driver and nodded toward the rocks. Hassan nodded back. He could feel it, too. Skaff reached for the radio to signal the lead jeep. A lifetime of guerrilla fighting had convinced him that such premonitions were not without merit. His transmission was brief, but they were already entering the outcropping when he put the radio down.
Five seconds later a rocket hit the grille of the lead jeep. The explosion lit the rocks towering over them. He saw the silhouettes of two men blown out of the vehicle, which was tossed onto the nose of the next jeep. Hassan, narrowly missed them, skidding left and stopping next to the driver of the lead jeep, who was lying half off the road.
The two jeeps behind slid sideways to a stop in the road as machine gun bursts echoed from beyond the lead jeep. Skaff was exposed to the attack. He dove from his seat to the rear of the second jeep, between two men already returning fire with an Uzi and an M16.
He rolled to his feet and yelled to the two back jeeps, motioning for them to form a double barricade with their vehicles keeping the men covered both in the front and the rear in case the attackers attempted to sandwich them in the gap. Skaff turned back, confident that they needed no further direction. This mission called for battle-hardened veterans and he had personally selected the nineteen men who were with him now. Every man among them had proved himself in years of combat. Some even owed their life to his cool command in battle. Some had returned the favor multiple times.
Skaff scanned the forward battle to account for the remaining eleven men, his position shielded by the lead jeep transfixed on the grille of the second jeep. To the left, Hassan was pulling the driver of the first jeep to safety. The other two from Skaff's jeep were covering him with sporadic fire from their Uzis. Ahead, the driver of the second jeep was placing a case of grenades handy to his partner, who had fitted his M16 with a grenade launcher and was set up in the back seat. Skaff was standing between the other two passengers in the second jeep. That left the three passengers from the lead jeep.
He spotted Saif on the right. He had been thrown clear onto the sand without apparent injury. He was crouched behind a boulder, occasionally returning fire with his Desert Eagle .50-caliber sidearm. Failing to sight the other two, he shouted to the driver, who had acquired an Uzi.
He nodded forward. Skaff crawled over the middle of the jeep to the hood. Sayyed was wedged between the lead jeep and the grille of the second jeep, most likely dead. Rafik was lying on the hood of the second jeep. Skaff checked for a pulse. Nothing. He closed Rafik's eyes and whispered a short prayer. Skaff couldn't play favorites with his men, but this loss was harder than any other would have been. At nineteen Rafik had already spent four years with Skaff, rarely more than fifty yards from his side. Four years of relentless, driven hate. Skaff had been Rafik's ticket for revenge. Perhaps now he had found the peace revenge had not been able to bring him.
Skaff was crawling back to get a weapon when the second rocket hit the bottom of the lead jeep. The gas tank exploded, sending most of the shrapnel back toward the attackers. The force of the blast threw the second jeep back five feet, knocking over the two shooters behind. The grenade launcher and the man with it fell into the front seat. The driver was standing to the side. He returned fire with the Uzi.
Skaff helped reposition the grenade launcher and crawled out of the jeep. The two in back were already firing again. He scanned the area and then dove toward the two jeeps in the rear. Of the eight men between the jeeps, one had taken a round in the right shoulder but was still firing left-handed, propped against a door. Three were facing the rear but indicated they hadn't seen any action, yet. Two were covering the walls on either side with M16s, but also hadn't seen action. The final two had grenade launchers on their M16s. They waited until they saw several volleys of tracer bullets originating from a single location. Then they fired three seconds apart at the source. The machine gun fire stopped. Skaff slapped them on the back. Perhaps they would get out of this thing alive.
Then a rocket hit Skaff's jeep. Hassan was behind a curtain of stone, firing with an Uzi, having propped the injured driver in a cleft in the rock. But the other two were using the jeep for cover. One tumbled backward, clear of the jeep. The other was knocked down as the jeep rolled over, pinning his leg under it. Skaff ran through a volley of automatic weapons fire and pulled the first man to his feet. They raced to the jeep, joined by Hassan, and rocked it back over. Then they dragged the injured man to safety next to the injured driver.
Skaff felt a shudder of unease ripple through the adrenaline-laced focus that always came over him in combat. If this kept up, the whole team would be shredded before they had used half their ammo. He grabbed Hassan's arm and yelled into his ear over the din.
"We have to take out that rocket launcher or we don't get out of here. Take those three and circle around." Hassan nodded and stepped away but Skaff grabbed his arm. "Take a radio."
He let go and Hassan ran to the rear while the others laid down covering fire. Skaff used the opportunity to race to the front two jeeps and get the four there away from the vehicles and behind the cover of the rocks. As they ran for cover, another rocket hit the top of the lead jeep, sending fragments of the grille and fenders flying in all directions. Skaff ran through the explosion back to the rock curtain. When he fell against a boulder the injured man pointed at Skaff's leg. He looked down and saw that his left trouser leg was slashed in three places. Blood was seeping down to his boots. He looked around to see how the others had faired.
Saif seemed to have been hit in the arm by something. He was now firing the Eagle while holding his upper arm with the other hand. The other four seemed to have escaped unscathed. Skaff's radio had not survived the rocket. He nodded to the man next to him, who wielded an Uzi while he made it to the two back jeeps, getting an Uzi and a radio. He turned it up all the way and slung it over his shoulder. Then he began firing at the source of tracers beyond the rubble of the jeeps.
Looking for some encouragement, Skaff probed his memory. In almost three decades of fighting, he didn't recall anything quite as dire as the current circumstance. He had two confirmed dead, one unconscious, three wounded but still firing. Almost a third of the force. The numbers were bound to increase as long as that rocket launcher was working. His calculations were interrupted by Hassan's voice squawking through the pandemonium.
"We got the rocket launcher but I think they have another on the left. And now we're pinned down, so we're going nowhere."
The last word was drowned out by a rocket blast on the rock curtain above the injured men. Skaff doubted he could get a team around the other side. Even if he did, the enemy would be expecting them. No way around. No way through. He scanned the sheer rock walls on either side. No way over. The fedayeen had chosen their positions well and appeared to have ample men, weapons and ammo. It seemed likely that most of this team would share the fate of Rafik and Sayyed. Probably all. The thought sickened Skaff, turning the adrenaline in his veins to bile in his throat.
There was one last hope, but it might be too late. He selected another frequency on the radio and shouted over the gunfire. "Lehafil Levanon Sanctzia. Lehafil Levanon Sanctzia. [Activate Lebanon Sanction.]"
Los Angeles, California. Friday, November 22, 2002. 20:00
It wasn't that Cooper minded being in an 11,000 square-foot ballroom filled with beautiful women and their escorts. It was that on this night he preferred being in his 2,100 square-foot bedroom suite with one particular woman.
He consoled himself with the thought that escorting Stevie to the "Women in Show Business" awards dinner was good for business and easy on the eye. He knew by the occasional glances and subdued tones as he passed that his presence nudged more than one conversation to some supposedly private difficulty he had resolved.
Although he provided services for Fortune 500 companies and multi-nationals, entertainment clients dominated the roster of private individuals who engaged his firm, International Research and Intelligence Group, specialists in corporate and personal security.
Stevie's excitement about her "Angel of the Year" award had overcome his objections. Fortunately he had accomplished his goals in the first week of his trip - hosting Tom Zhang's retirement party at the Hong Kong intelligence office and evaluating the individuals who were moved up the food chain, from the new director down to the new hire. He cut his trip short by two days and emerged from the 14-hour flight to push through one more evening before surrendering to fatigue and jetlag. The 45-minute nap in the limo from LAX to Malibu helped, as did the extended hot shower that followed. He could tell that Stevie was too preoccupied by thoughts of the awards dinner to pay attention when he answered her questions about the trip, but he kept her distracted with stories anyway until they arrived at the Huntington Ritz-Carlton in Pasadena.
They entered the ballroom to the flash of cameras. At first Cooper stayed beside Stevie as she lightly held his arm and greeted actors, producers, directors and other luminaries in the film industry. As she gradually detached from him and became engrossed in a conversation with a producer, he mingled, but kept her in sight at all times, constantly maneuvering to stay within ten feet of her. He did this unconsciously as one would instinctively scratch an itch and so naturally that the person speaking to him would never realize a part of his attention was focused on Stevie and not on the conversation.
Cooper was skillfully not answering a blunt question from a director about an actor notorious for his sexual conquests when he noticed a man wearing all white, from tie to shoes, plowing through the crowd directly toward Stevie. Cooper brought his non-answer to a close and asked the director if he would like something from the bar. He set a course designed to intersect the man before he reached Stevie. At a distance the man appeared to be Christopher Lloyd on a bad hair day but as he drew closer Cooper noted that he was shorter and stockier.
Cooper stepped around the cluster where Stevie nodded as the producer lamented the quality of scripts she was forced to read. He noticed that as he moved to the side, the man altered his course away from Stevie and toward him. Cooper relaxed slightly and glanced at Stevie, who smiled at him and continued nodding to the producer.
The man didn't slow his pace until he came to an abrupt stop a foot away and enclosed Cooper's right hand in a two-fisted handshake.
"Matt Cooper, you're going with me to Israel next week." His voice carried as if he were used to talking to large groups without a mike. He continued to pump Cooper's arm with an interlocking grip. "We leave Wednesday morning."
Cooper gripped the man's right forearm with his left hand and forcefully extracted his right hand, stepping back to diminish the man's intrusive presence. He heard surrounding conversations falter and felt Stevie's amusement. "I believe you have the advantage of me. I didn't catch your name."
"George Roberts, Global Adventures." He produced a card with a flourish and closed the gap between them, tucking the card into Cooper's breast pocket.
Cooper discreetly edged to one side and pulled the card from his pocket. At first glance it appeared to be all white. He flipped to the other side, also blank. Then he realized the name of the company and the man embossed on the card and overlaid with high-gloss white ink. The contact information was in silver along the bottom edge.
"And how can IRIG assist you, Mr. Roberts?"
"It's George." He stepped forward and placed a hand on Cooper's shoulder. "Wednesday noon, LAX, El Al flight 106. The ticket's booked." He patted Cooper's shoulder and turned abruptly away. Stevie laughed.
Cooper watched him depart. "Enjoy your trip, Mr. Roberts. Send me a postcard."
"You're going with me, Cooper. Get used to the idea," he called over his shoulder. "Don't forget your passport. And it's George."
Cooper shook his head. He felt Stevie's hand on his arm.
"Who was that?"
"Colonel Sanders, from the look of him. Let's sit down."
They threaded through the tables and found their name cards near the front of the room. The other six chairs were already occupied. Stevie introduced him to a studio head and his wife. Cooper introduced her to the CFO of a special effects company and her husband. Neither needed introductions to John Abbott, who currently had two movies in the top ten box office lists, or his girlfriend, the co-star of one of the movies.
As dinner was served conversation drifted to wine. Cooper lamented that his source for the excellent 69 Puligny Montrachet had moved to the Virgin Islands. Abbott came to his rescue with a name. Cooper fumbled in his pockets for something to write with and came out with the white business card. He didn't recall putting it in his pocket, but it was useful. He asked around for a pen and saw George directly across from him at the next table. George smiled like he had just sold his millionth box of chicken fingers. He nodded at the card Cooper held and gave him a thumbs-up. Cooper ignored him and took the pen the CFO held out to him, passing pen and card to Abbot. Abbott scrawled on it and Cooper pocketed the card.
Stevie's award was presented early in the evening but their presence at a front table made it impossible to slip out. As Cooper endured one excessive acceptance speech after another the jetlag began to claim him. He rubbed his eyes and looked around, only to catch George staring at him again. George did a subdued thumbs-up. As the speaker sat down to applause, Cooper excused himself and stepped into the hall. He wandered through the corridors and pushed a wireless headset into his ear, using the voice-recognition mode to call his favorite workaholic in operations, Marci. She answered on the first ring.
"Marcie, you're at work at eleven on a Friday night. Do you realize how pathetic that is?"
"It's terrible, isn't it? I should be in therapy or something. But dedication like mine deserves a raise, don't you think?"
"I'll consider it as soon as you take a vacation. Do me a favor and run a check on George Roberts, Global Adventures."
As she looked up the info he found the door he was looking for. He stepped out into the cool November night onto a veranda. The garden that extended below was silvered by the full moon. He nodded to a guy who stepped out on the veranda and lighted a cigarette. Brave soul, he could get tackled for doing that in southern California. Marci came back on the line.
"George Roberts. Interesting guy. Former head of Jet Stream, the guys who pioneered the corporate jet travel business, retired in the 90s. He's a millionaire several times over, entrepreneur with multiple ventures, some still active. The main one is Global Adventures. It's part travel agency, part humanitarian organization, part holy-roller convention. He takes groups of Christian Zionists on trips to the Holy Land where they hit all the tourist spots and then work with local officials to provide grunt labor for medical and rebuilding projects in areas hit by the PLO. Kind of a kosher Habitat for Humanity, I guess."
"That explains the Jimmy Carter grin."
"What else you got?"
"The comments say he's a tough cookie. His success is based on bulldozing through all obstacles. He has a reputation for being driven and highly competitive, but not ruthless. Wait. What's this? It says, ‘His ambition is informed by the sensibilities of his spiritual worldview.' Where did that come from?"
"Probably Dixon's granddaughter. Graduate student. A couple of years ago we gave her a summer internship doing corporate research as a favor to Dixon."
"Oh yeah. That one."
"Thanks, Marci. Now go home."
"Aye, aye, captain. Over and out."
On the way in he tossed the business card into a pristine ashtray. Possibly by some trick of the light on the white ink it seemed to flash as it came to rest on the charcoal black crystals imprinted with the Ritz Carlton logo. He peered down at it and noticed the name and number of Abbott's vintner. Oh yeah. He retrieved it and dropped it back into his pocket.
The drone of self-indulgent speeches came mercifully to an end as he returned to the table. He helped Stevie with her wrap. As she said goodbye to the others, Cooper held his hand to his ear and spoke quietly.
"Alex, we'll be out in two minutes."
He used to drive to these events but found the wait for the valet service could easily hit half an hour. A New Year's Eve party at this very hotel had resulted in an hour-long wait – an hour of mind-numbing conversation with a bombshell date so vacant he could hear echoes when he whispered into her ear. The next day he had made two resolutions that remained unbroken. Never go to a party without a driver. Never go on a blind date arranged by friends in the film industry.
Stevie and Cooper wended through the other guests, past a line of the rich and famous waiting for their cars and into the open door of the limo.
"The scenic route, Alex," Cooper said as he held the door open for Stevie.
"Yes, sir." Alex closed the door behind Cooper.
The first half-hour was all LA freeways. Stevie turned to Cooper as they left the Ritz.
"So, what was all that between you and the ice-cream suit?"
"Ms. Zorn, allow me to congratulate you on your award."
He gave her the passionate kiss of a man who has been out of the country for two weeks.