It was the fourth day of the stakeout and still no sign of activity from the target of their surveillance – a large, two-storey house in the sparsely-populated, eastern outskirts of Kfar Remen, a city in the Nabatieh Governate, in southern Lebanon.
Ray stepped back from the tripod-mounted binoculars and interlocking his fingers, raised his arms above his head, stretched, and eased the tension in his lower back. He massaged the back of his neck, then glanced at his watch – 6:46 pm.
“Less than an hour before dark,” he muttered, unconsciously stroking the week’s growth on his chin. Simeon handed him a metal mug.
“Here, have a coffee. I’ll take over.”
The team had set up on the second floor of an abandoned metal-fabrication shop – a large, corrugated metal building some three-hundred metres from their mark and on the other side of a shallow, overgrown gully. A few pieces of rusting equipment and a lingering odour of oil and grease – still permeating throughout the disused building – were the only remnants of a productive past. Ray wandered over to the make-shift table and sat on a metal folding chair next to Avi and frowned but said nothing. Avi smiled a self-assured smile.
“Do not worry, my friend, our intel is solid. We just have to be patient.” He was right, of course, they had no idea how long they would need to wait, and his intelligence was more often reliable than not. Ray nodded in silent acquiescence, then took a sip of the hot brew, and stretched out his legs.
Avi Gershen led a specialist unit of highly-skilled ex-members of the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) and trained in undercover operations. What made the team members particularly unique was their native language Arabic, enabling them to operate deep in Arab-held and occupied territories. Ray’s association with the contingent dated back to late 1970 when they worked together in uncovering and tracking down a contract killer and a mysterious organisation, Alhalu (the Solution). It was during an incursion into Lebanon while a chasing a suspect, that Ray had saved Avi’s life. Since then, they had become friends and remained in touch – albeit infrequently.
An uninhibited, calm, and steadfast individual in his late thirties, Avi was of muscular build with a chiselled face, buzz cut and with a perpetual heavy stubble. He stood a couple of inches shorter than Ray’s six-foot-one-inch frame.
“All quiet outside,” reported Gila – one of the two female members of the group – as she came towards them across the metal walkway carrying her Israeli manufactured Galil Short Automatic Rifle (SAR) loosely by her side. A classic, dark-haired Jewish beauty whose looks belied her fighting prowess and ability to take a man’s life with or without a weapon.
“Any coffee left?”
She brushed her hair off her brow as she took a mug from Avi and sat opposite on an old, worn-out leather settee, placing her weapon by her side. She smiled at Ray with her stark-black, almond-shaped eyes under thick lashes as she cradled her drink. She had enlightened him early on in their association that she made it a rule, not to date other members. However, in his case, she might make an exception. An invitation he was careful not to encourage. He grinned back and arched his eyebrows at the sudden snoring from Dalfon who had been on the early-morning shift and was still asleep on one of the three, canvas camp beds.
“That man can sleep anywhere!” she chuckled.
“What time is it?” an awoken and drowsy, Rani asked from the neighbouring bed.
“Just past seven,” replied Avi leaning over to pour out another coffee for the fifth member who had shared the watch with Dalfon. Rani swung his legs off the bed and yawned, rubbed the sleep from his eyes, then ran his hands through his hair. He got up, stretched his tall frame, walked over to Avi, took the drink, then sat beside Gila.
Terach, the sixth and last element of their mission came up the stairs from the back of the building where he had parked the team’s canvas-covered truck in one of the two loading bays.
“Did I hear coffee mentioned?”
“Okay?” Avi referred to their vehicle. The truck was Terach’s responsibility. He checked it regularly to ensure it would fire up and be ready when needed.
“Yeah, no problem.” He reached for the coffee pot. “Great!” Terach exclaimed on finding it empty.
“We have activity!” Simeon suddenly urged from the window.
Ray and Avi sprang off their chairs. Ray grabbed another pair of binoculars off the table and joined Simeon, who stepped back to allow his boss Avi, to view through the tripod-mounted pair.
They watched as three vehicles pulled up outside the house. A dark-blue Mercedes-Benz followed by two dusty, sand-coloured Toyota Land Cruisers. Ray counted nine men armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles exit the four-wheeled cars and spread out around the vehicles looking in all directions. Four of them entered the premises leaving the others outside.
“Cautious bastards!” remarked Avi.
They continued watching. Five minutes later, one of the four returned to the vehicles and walked over to the Mercedes. He leant down to the front window – no doubt giving the all-clear. The nearside back door opened. Another armed individual stepped out. He walked around the car and stood back as a hooded figure was pulled roughly out from the vehicle on the opposite side of their vision. Bundled between two of his captors, he was hurried through the gate and into the building.
“I think we can safely assume that’s our man,” said a somewhat relieved Avi standing up and rubbing his hand over his face. He had set a lot of store in the intelligence and had it failed to materialise; there would be egg on faces.
“The Merc is leaving,” Ray said, still glued to the binoculars. “It looks like we’ll have ten to contend with.”
“Enough to go around!” responded Avi and gave Ray a cocky wink.
Their man was Ariel Brachfield, the oldest of two children of, Ezra Brachfield, the billionaire newspaper baron, and a close associate of the British Government and particularly the Israelis, investing heavily in publishing, textiles and manufacture of agricultural products. The twenty-two-year-old was kidnapped three months earlier while on holiday in Cyprus. The abduction was believed to have been carried out by a splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO). The group was demanding the sum of twelve-million U.S. Dollars and the release of six of its faction – currently guests of the Israeli Government.
The father was ready and more than willing to pay the ransom. However, the Israeli Government was unwilling to free the six individuals who were behind the bombing of a bus in Israel’s most populous city, Tel Aviv – killing twenty of its citizens and injuring scores more. The Prime Minister, Golda Meir – the first woman to hold the office – together with her cabinet, were concerned about the possible, political fallout should they have been seen to consider the demand – let alone agree to it. Their procrastinations started to sour the media baron’s relationship, and in desperation, he turned to the conservative British Government – led by Edward Heath – to add diplomatic pressure on the Israelis. Concerned with a growing threat from the country’s Liberal Party and several upcoming by-elections, alienating Brachfield and the likelihood of losing support from his media network was too risky to contemplate. So, the British approached Golda Meir’s Government hoping to secure a diplomatic solution. The Israeli Government, however, remained steadfast in its inflexibility.
“My dear, Prime Minister,” Golda Meir had stressed during an early telephone conversation with the British PM. “Do you really believe that the young man’s life, tragic as it may be, can be evenly weighed against the lives of the twenty mutilated bodies we salvaged during that horrific episode? And what about the others who survived, and are still dealing with their injuries?”
It was a standpoint that could not be denied, turning the scales against the British Conservative Party’s political aspirations. Another course of action would have to be considered.
After careful deliberations, suggestions and counter-suggestions, both governments eventually agreed that extraction was the only way to resolve the problem. Brachfield was naturally against the idea, worried that his son would be placed in greater danger – even proposing he would happily double the ransom if need be. He was finally persuaded that to meet the monetary demand would only embolden others and encourage a repetition of such acts in the future also endangering more innocent lives. It was further argued that there was no guarantee that his son would be unharmed or that they might not try it again. Who was to say they wouldn’t continue to hold onto him and further their demands or worse – kill him anyway? The threat was always looming.
Having agreed on the course of action, the Israeli Government continued to play along and made as if they were playing hardball – stalling. The news media unbeknown of the real reasons behind the charade kept reporting on the fake progress. Meanwhile, the people tasked with the operation was the team led by Avi Gershen.
Ezra Brachfield was a British citizen, and accordingly, the powers that be on the Brit’s side believed that a British involvement should also be included. After all, it was reasoned, should the operation turn out a success, valuable political points would be there for the taking. And the Conservative Government would be able to claim some of the credit. A stand against acts of terrorism would go down well with the electorate – especially when it would soon be contesting a number of by-elections! On the other side, a handful of Israeli sceptics thought that should the operation fail – God forbid – it would be best to share the blame and potential backlash. Both sides would gain.
Fielding a British team was not feasible. And so it was that Captain Ray Kazan – a decorated officer of British Military Intelligence and who had recently completed a two-year stint fighting the guerrilla insurgency in Oman – was appointed to join the group. An experienced soldier and operative with tactical experience, Ray also spoke fluent Arabic. His knowledge and prior dealings in the region and also with Avi’s team made him the obvious candidate. He had joined the operation the previous month.
The team’s initial task was to locate the whereabouts of the kidnappers and their captive to which they set their extensive network of informants to work. Brachfield’s unconditional provision of one-million U.S. dollars greased the wheels, and soon information was quietly flowing to their side.
“Like weeds coming up out of the ground!” Avi had remarked.
The team spent the first few weeks investigating the validity of the more hopeful leads. They were soon to realise that the kidnappers were constantly swapping venues making it difficult to pinpoint the exact place and, therefore, to stage a rescue. Their break came seven days earlier with what was considered to be the most reliable intelligence of a location to which the group was to move to next. No specific date was given when the move would occur other than, in the next few days. They were already geared up and prepared to mobilise at a moment’s notice and were set-up within eight hours. One lucky informant was soon to receive a handsome reward should the information bear out!
Ray and Avi stepped away from the window as darkness closed in.
“Screen up, Dalfon,” instructed Avi, seeing him awake and rise off the bed.
They waited by the table before lighting two kerosene lamps while, Dalfon hung a large sheet over a make-shift frame behind Simeon, who had again taken up surveillance at the tripod. The screening would avoid illuminating the window and betray their presence to the outside world. Avi unrolled a sheet of paper and placed each of the lamps on the top corners, casting a light over the hand-drawn plan of the building’s two floors.
Ray and Avi had climbed the perimeter wall at the rear of the property the first night of the surveillance, managing to get inside through a back window. Outfitted with the latest USA produced AN/PVS-5 Night Vision Goggles they were accurately able to recreate the floorplan without the need to switch on the house lights. The third-quarter moon’s luminescence aided the equipment’s built-in, infrared, light source significantly adding to their view of the darkened premises. Ray was impressed with the quality of the spooky-looking contraptions with the two protruding tubes strapped to their heads.
“Ray and I believe that they will most likely keep him in one of the upstairs rooms at the back of the building,” said Avi, pointing out the two rooms on the plan the two had considered during their recce.
“Makes sense,” agreed Gila looking over Ray’s shoulder. He felt the warmth of her breath on his neck.
“We have ten to contend with unless more people join them before the night’s out,” Ray said. “Anything new, Simeon?” he asked over his shoulder.
“Looks like just the one outside the gate at the moment,” Simeon answered from the other side of the screen.
“All we have to do is figure out their rota,” said Avi.
“We can safely assume they were not expecting anyone to be lying in wait for them when they arrived and I very much doubt that they are too concerned at the moment..., certainly for the immediate period. It would make sense for us to go in during their most vulnerable point… sometime in the early morning,” Ray added.
“I agree. We should strike while the iron’s hot,” said Avi, and chuckled at his use of the English idiom.
“Assuming they have smarts,” Ray said, “they will either take four or six-hour shifts considering their small number.” He glanced at his watch – 8:12 pm. “They will most probably change over sometime between midnight and two in the morning.”
“We go in then one hour after their second change,” Avi interjected. “The one-hour delay should ensure the first guys have settled in for the night. We all know how tiring keeping watch can be.”
“I’ll put on the coffee,” Terach offered and picked up the pot. “As you guys didn’t leave me any!” He added looking sourly at the others. They spent the next hour planning the extraction until everyone was wholly clued up on their roles.
“Remember, we go in hard and leave no trace of being here. No witnesses,” Avi said, touching the forehead with his forefinger.
“Avi. A quiet word,” said Ray leading away from the others towards the stairs.
“I propose we have something to eat and get some rest. It’s going to be a long night,” he said to the group as he followed Ray.
Avi leant back against the loading dock, safety railing next to the truck and removed a packet of Marlboro Gold cigarettes from his shirt pocket. He opened the flip-top and impulsively offered one of the contents to Ray.
“Sorry! Forgot you don’t smoke,” he said apologetically and pulled one out for himself, then replaced the packet and lit up the cigarette with a butane lighter. Ray waited patiently for Avi to finish. He drew in deeply, then exhaled a thick-blue cloud of smoke towards the corrugated roofing.
“Something’s on your mind,” he said. A statement rather than a question, then inhaled again.
“I’m intrigued. Why wouldn’t you want to question these characters first? Surely the intelligence could be worth something?” Ray said.
“Let’s not forget we’re taking a huge risk being here and the longer we stay, the riskier it gets. This part of the country is crawling with our enemy who would delight in burning us, given a chance. Cross-border violence has increased beyond reason ever since the expulsion of the PLO leadership and its Fatah brigade from Jordan. It’s also getting a lot tougher coming in and out of the country. Right now, we’re invisible; we don’t exist. As soon as we go in for the extraction, we’ll have shown ourselves; be exposed… vulnerable. Once we’ve got the kid, we still need to travel some fifty kilometres to our pick-up point. The chopper will also take around thirty minutes to reach us, leaving us unprotected for even longer.”
Avi broke off as he drew heavily on his cigarette.
“Look, Ray… the last thing we want is to drag along an unwilling prisoner – who may or may not, have valuable intel. Our priority is junior’s safe return. Once we go in, we can’t afford to leave any of these pricks alive.” Avi paused again briefly. “I have my orders, Ray. We are to secure the kid, eliminate the kidnappers and get the hell out of here. That’s all!”
“I understand all that, Avi… But aren’t you just a little curious?” Ray understood only too well the precarious position Avi and the team were in. He, as a British subject faced a different situation. He was not an Israeli.
“What are you getting at?”
Ray crossed his arms and fixed his gaze on his friend. He tilted his body closer.
“One thing has puzzled me from the start of this affair. We both know it takes a lot of planning and logistics to abduct someone as neatly as this kid was taken. We’re also talking about Cyprus… an island nation some three-hundred kilometres across open water from the Lebanon mainland. This was not some random action, Avi!”
“So what are you suggesting?”
“You’ve been involved in this from the start. What do you think?” Avi shook his head.
“Okay. I can’t say I haven’t considered it. It does smell like whoever’s behind the kidnapping must have known the kid’s plans well beforehand. However, that’s not our concern. I repeat, our job is to extract him and leave no-one behind to talk about it. I’m sorry, Ray, but my official involvement ends there.”
Avi threw down the half-smoked cigarette and stubbed it out with his boot. He was about to leave when Ray placed a restraining hand on his arm.
“Hold on a second!” Ray urged.
Avi resumed his position against the railing. He had sensed that something had been troubling Ray since before they had set up their surveillance.
“I know you got a few leads directly from your informants… but have you truly considered the origin of this particular titbit… accurate as it may well turn out to be?”
“Come on Ray, you know the Million Brachfield put up would yield results, and this info came from an undisputed source. And why question it now? It appears that it was correct.”
“Let me put it another way… How many leads did you dig up, and of those, how many did you believe or find had any possibility of turning up trumps...? The remotest chance?”
“I admit… only a small handful was feasible.”
“So, from where did this beautiful bit of insight come? And why would you have believed it to be worth the effort?” Ray stepped over and propped himself against the railing alongside Avi and exhaled deeply. “What troubles me, Avi,” Ray continued, “is that we may be getting played again. It just seems all too bloody convenient! Too coincidental!”
“God, you’re getting to be a cynical bugger,” scoffed Avi.
“It’s working too long with you doubtful characters,” he chuckled. “So, old friend… are you going to confide in me?”
“Where are you expecting this to lead you, Ray?”
“In truth… I don’t know. But I’m beginning to get the same feeling I had when I was chasing down Nadeem Asghar.”
“Asghar? The killer behind the Paris murders?”
“Yes. Being led along but always one step behind. This time it would be good to be running parallel… at worst.”
Avi didn’t immediately respond.
“The information came from Feuerman,” he offered eventually and removed the packet of Marlboros once again. He lit up another cigarette.
“But he’s Shin Bet isn’t he?”
“Why would the Assistant Director of your Internal Security be involved with this operation… I thought its function was restricted to Israeli-occupied territories?”
“True. But the word is that Mossad were reluctant to get involved, arguing that it was not within their sphere of responsibility. It also involves a non-Israeli citizen, and they’re stretched as it is. You know how particular that bunch can be! Anyway, I believe he volunteered for the assignment. So the PM tasked him with the job.”
“Didn’t you find that a little strange?”
Avi inhaled and blew out a plume of smoke before answering.
“No, why… Should I have had been? It’s not that my unit hasn’t worked with the Shin Bet before.”
“You’re reporting directly to him for this operation?”
“Yes. As I said, nothing unusual about that.” He drew in another lung full of tobacco smoke.
“Come on Avi, who would volunteer to get involved in something like this? If the operation were to go tits up, it could end careers. I’m not a politician, but if I were, I wouldn’t want to touch this with a barge pole. What can you tell me about Feuerman? Is he well-connected – capable?”
“As I said, I’ve had the occasional dealing with him. In truth, he always appeared to be an ambitious, climbing-ladder sort… Has a bit of an ego as well. Not quite the rough and ready type. Certainly never came across as someone who could operate at the sharp end.”
“He certainly sounds every inch the politician.”
“Your man Brachfield carries a lot of sway with our people. It could also mean promotions, feathers in caps. I believe that’s an appropriate English expression.” He snickered at his witticism. “Anyhow, I don’t see why you’re getting so concerned about it. Let’s just get the kid out and deliver him to Pops safe and sound. Perhaps there’ll be promotions in it for us as well.”
“You may be right, though. It all comes down to politics in the end. Perhaps I am being a little too sensitive, or maybe it's merely my imagination overreacting.” Ray pushed off the railing and turned to face Avi. “So, in truth, you dug up nothing, yet Feuerman comes up with the only information that’s looking to pay off.”
Avi was about to draw on the cigarette, then hesitated. Ray continued to press him.
“You’re the one who’s always asking questions of those in authority; wanting to know the reasons behind judgements, rules. Even flouting those rules if they don’t appeal to you.” Avi remained quietly in thought for a moment, as if he was recalling something – a detail.
“Now you mention it… he appeared very cagey when I questioned his origin. Sort of dismissed it with a speech about working together; collaborating; pooling resources…, that sort of thing. I was too wrapped up with the organising and preparedness to have given it any further thought.”
“Has anyone else discussed this with you… other than he?”
“No, no… Not even my team was told anything. The first they knew was just before we set out… As were you.”
“Was anyone else present when he gave you the info?”
“Just me and him. I was called to his office and given the details personally by him…, which I had to commit to memory. You know how it is. Nothing written,” confirmed Avi. “Anyway, what are you driving at?”
“Did he give you specific orders to liquidate the captors… or is it a decision you’ve made?”
Again Avi paused for a while before responding.
“Okay. We won’t be able to hang around, but we’ll see what we can learn… before we take them out!”