Opus Dei Prologue 1973
Lebanon was taking its first toddling steps to the brink of the precipice. Rifts between factions were widening into a crevasse too vast to breach. It was in the Palestinian camps, where hatred had been fomented for years, directed not only at Israel, but also against the ineptitude of the Lebanese government, that the men, whose business was trouble, went to incite violence. From small sparks of anger, they coaxed a flame and the fire spread to rage in the hearts of the men in the city.
By the time the first shots were fired from the camp between Beirut and the airport on Wednesday morning, Pierre Zein realised with horror that the city was as ready for violence as a dry pine forest is ready for a spark. By mid morning, the crack of bullets could be heard from areas around the city as the Lebanese army moved in against the rebels. Pierre went into the areas of action armed only with a notebook and pen. In Raouche a roadblock had been thrown up across a main street and soldiers demanded identification. When he handed them his press card, they allowed him through reluctantly and one of the men booted his car as he drove on. Pierre felt the vulnerability of the back of his head, and sweated.
He drove first to the PLO offices where windows had been shattered by gunfire and a reporter killed. Everywhere, among the people he spoke to, he sensed the same high-spirited anger. The streets were unnaturally quiet and only one or two other vehicles passed him. Shops were shuttered, their roll-down frontages firmly padlocked. On some, the conflict had already produced scars. Bullet holes punctured the thin metal.
He did not return to the office. It would be a natural target and he knew Nazem Eid would be avoiding it as well. He did his writing in his apartment, made calls to his contacts in various parts of the country, and hurriedly made himself a sandwich. Nazem arrived as he was preparing to leave.
Nazem Eid was a Palestinian and a member of the Palestinian Liberation Army. Al Akhbar, the magazine he and Pierre Zein compiled and distributed, was directed primarily at a Palestinian readership. Pierre was a Catholic and a Palestinian sympathiser. He wrote as a political commentator without, he reasoned, compromising his stand as a pacifist, but even his moderate association with the Palestinians had served to create a barrier between himself and his family.
In the months prior to the present conflict, costs had risen and both men had been subsidising the magazine from their own pockets. Nazem had brought increasing pressure to bear on Pierre to make Al Akhbar the official mouthpiece of the PLA.
“They’ll take over the running costs,” he had assured him, “and very little would need to change.”
Pierre shook his head. “I appreciate the help they’ve given to keep us afloat, but I’m not prepared to let the magazine go. Sooner or later, it would mean compromise. You and I work well together, Nazem. We don’t need to have anyone dictating our direction.”
Pierre ignored Nazem’s arguments after that, and parried a more direct approach from Wahib Sa’ad, leader of the Palestinian Liberation Army. He had not always agreed with their methods in the past and let Sa’ad know that he had no wish for a more direct association with the PLA.
Two weeks before the outbreak of hostilities between Christian and Islamic factions, Pierre had arrived at his office to find Wahib Sa’ad sitting on the edge of his desk. There were two men with him.
“Sit down, Pierre.”
Pierre felt a surge of anger at Sa’ad’s invitation. The PLA leader’s tone was patronising and he spoke as though the office was his, and Pierre was the visitor.
“What’s all this about?” Pierre ignored the request to sit and shot a glance at the other two men. The one was thin, shabbily dressed, wearing a patched jacket over a dirty abaya. His cadaverous face gained prominence in a beak-like nose, underlined by a bloodless slit of a mouth. The face of the second henchman was unremarkable, but he had the body of a night-club bouncer. He was dressed in a black shirt, open to the waist, and shiny silver-grey trousers. A small gold medallion rested incongruously on the tangle of thick hair on his chest.
“Who are these guys?”
“Friends. Not my usual choice of companions, but both skilled in their own business and good people to have around.” “Where’s Nazem?”
“I have no idea. It was you we came to see.”
“What’s the problem?” Pierre asked.
“Who mentioned any problem? This is just a friendly reminder of your obligations.”
“What do you mean?”
Sa’ad continued in the same conciliatory tone. “You owe us a few favours. Perhaps you’ve overlooked what we’ve done for you since we took over?”
“Took over what?” Pierre had retorted. “You may have paid a few of our debts, but that doesn’t give you the right to dictate to us.”
Sa’ad looked up and his expression was ugly but his voice remained persuasive.
“Check your facts, Pierre. You have sold yourself out. If you would like to see who Al Akhbar belongs to, here are the figures.”
He tossed a sheaf of papers down onto Pierre’s desk. Pierre stared at him in disbelief. He had never given much consideration to the financial side of the business; he was primarily a journalist and, as Nazem had more of an aptitude for the bookwork, he had been content to leave it with him.
“What do you want with us?”
“Very little. A few articles published…”
“And if I refuse?”
Sa’ad nodded in the direction of his robed companion. “Abdullah here is an expert with a knife, as neat as a surgeon. He knows just how to make life uncomfortable without completing the act. Your friend, Danielle Belmonte, is a pretty girl. Abdullah could pattern her face in such a way that she would never forget him.” Abdullah grinned, showing broken, decaying teeth.
“I’m ready anytime, M Sa’ad.”
“Leave Danielle out of this!” Pierre said, trying to keep his voice steady. “Your dealings are with me.”
Wahib Sa’ad stood up, lighting a cigarette as he did so, cupping his hands around the flame. “Remember who the boss is, Pierre. If you need any further reminders, my friend Faruk can be relied on to demonstrate his own talents.” Nodding at Faruk and Abdullah, he moved towards the door. “I’m certain that we can find adequate grounds for co-operation, M Zein.” The door closed quietly behind him.
Nazem was wearing the red and white keffieh of the fedayeen when he arrived at Pierre’s apartment, and his dark eyes blazed with intensity.
For the two weeks, since Wahib Sa’ad’s visit, Pierre had spoken to Nazem only when work demanded it. The atmosphere was filled with brooding silences and unspoken accusation. The old exhilaration that had accompanied each publication was lost and Pierre desperately sought a way to be free of the shackles of the PLA. He was afraid that even if he walked away from Al Akhbar, Danielle would still be in danger.
“It’s time to make a choice, Pierre. Are you with us?” Nazem demanded now.
“If I go, it’s as a journalist!”
There was contempt on Nazem’s face as he swung round and left.
It was some hours later and already dark by the time Pierre re-entered the road leading to his apartment block. He parked his car in its usual spot behind the building and walked down the alley towards the entrance. The figure that loomed out of the darkness to meet him was illuminated briefly in the headlights of a passing car, but Pierre already knew who it was. The size of the man alone immediately identified him as Faruk.
He leaped aside to dodge the first blow, steadying himself against the wall of the building. The second came faster than he would have believed possible, striking him heavily on the shoulder and throwing him off balance again. He threw up his arms to ward off the fist that shot out towards his face, catching the weight of the punch on his lower arm so that it shaved harmlessly across his forehead.
Pierre swung out and felt his knuckles crack as his fist connected with Faruk’s powerful chest. He could hear the deep breathing of the man as he closed in on him. Pierre grunted as another blow caught him in the solar plexus and he crumpled over his assailant’s arm. Faruk gripped the sagging body by the shirtfront with his right hand and flung him back against the wall, swinging the full force of his left arm into the next blow, snapping Pierre’s head back at the chin. His body slid limply down the wall and came to rest in the gutter. He did not feel the vicious kick that caught him in the ribs.
He stirred. One outstretched arm had lain in a puddle of water. Pierre drew the limb back slowly without moving the rest of his body and, with an effort, hauled himself into sitting position against the wall. His head pounded and he ached in a dozen places. Blood had mixed with the mud from the alley, caking his face. His nose was still bleeding a little and he wiped it with the back of his hand.
All the time, as he tested his body for further injuries, there was a sick nagging in his stomach that he could not identify. He stood up groggily. It was then that he remembered Abdullah. Using the wall for support, he made his way towards the entrance of the block. He had to get to a telephone.
Evenings in the mountains were still cold and, before he left, Jean Paul lit a fire for Danielle in the belly of the black coal stove. She sat for a long time after he had gone her thoughts in turmoil. His route to Beit Chaar took him through the outskirts of Beirut and she was afraid for him. But he had reached a decision and Danielle knew he must share it with his girlfriend. He and Danielle intended to leave Lebanon on the first available flight out.
The ancient house had become home to her and Jean Paul. The living room was built of massive blocks of unmortared stone, its ceiling was groin-vaulted and supported by huge stone pillars that jutted into the room, creating natural divisions. A wooden plough, worn smooth by time and use, spanned the ceiling from apex to apex of the vaults, and the walls were hung with wooden yokes and pitchforks. Heavy stone mortar and pestles, once used for grinding coffee, now served as ashtrays. Off the entrance courtyard, stone steps led to an upper room and a terrace, which overlooked the silver-green olive groves covering the slopes. Far below, small with distance, Beirut leaned out into the sea.
Because her thoughts were preoccupied, she did not notice at first when Noirsi growled. He lifted his head off his paws then snarled again, a deep-throated warning.
Danielle leaned forward and reached out a hand to where he lay at her feet. Although still a young dog, he had grown in the months since they had had him, from a pup into a sleek and muscular animal, warm and affectionate towards his owners, but a formidable watchdog.
“What is it, Noirsi?”
The dog was gazing in the direction of the door and his hackles began to rise. He stood up, growling softly and persistently.
“What is it?”
She followed his glance and, as she watched, the handle turned slowly and carefully, testing the lock then, just as carefully, it was released. Danielle’s limbs felt heavy with terror. Seizing the stone mortar from its solid pestle on the floor near her, she looked wildly around the room. The windows were shut against the cold, but it would be a simple matter for anyone to break in. There were three windows, two of them higher up at the level of the terrace, the third at a lower level on the southern wall. The only other way in was through the bathroom but the door between the two rooms offered no real security; it was slatted, flimsily made, and it latched from the inside.
The dog looked up towards the terrace window and the growls that had died to a murmur in his throat, suddenly increased. There was a noise, a scraping sound that sent a wash of fear through Danielle. Between the chink in the curtains, she caught sight of a face, white and featureless in the discarded light from the room. She flattened back against the wall as if to become part of it. His hand seemed to come towards the glass in slow motion, smashing the pane and sending shards of glass showering into the room. Danielle screamed and at the same moment, Noirsi broke into savage barking.
The hand reached through the broken pane, releasing the catch and the window swung open on the wind. There was silence. She could see him there, but he did not move. Danielle gripped the mortar, whimpering in fear, her breathing rasped in her own ears. The intruder uncoiled his body and leapt into the room. Noirsi lunged at him, teeth bared; snapping at his naked ankles. The man stepped away from the dog and raised his arm. He was grinning. In his hand Danielle caught the glint of the long stiletto blade of a knife.