Authors: Mark Dawson
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A John Milton Novel
Twelve Years Ago
THE BOMB-MAKER had his workshop in Manshiet Nasser, a vast slum that was home to almost half a million people. The locals called it Garbage City because the men and women who made their home there collected trash from the rest of Cairo and brought it back to be sorted, in the hope that they might find pieces to resell. Small children picked through the garbage all day, as did their mothers. Tens of thousands of people were crammed into rooms that were too small for them, in housing blocks that were in dire need of repair. It was a dour, joyless existence.
Ezbet Bekhit was a typical neighbourhood of Garbage City. Families survived on less than fifty dollars a month. Cooking and hygiene facilities were lacking. There was no electricity and very little drinkable water. It was a desperate place, poverty pressing down on it with a heavy hand, but, somehow, its loud and hectic spirit remained undaunted.
It was an excellent place to hide if you wanted to build bombs.
Life in the slum was difficult enough, but it had been made even more trying over the course of the last twelve hours as a sandstorm had blown in from the desert. Visibility had been reduced to twenty or thirty yards and the air was difficult to breathe. A thick film of sand had been deposited across everything, and the sun’s rays had been weakened to a sickly yellow glow.
The bomb-maker’s name was Ahmed and he had made an excellent reputation for himself as one of Hamas’s most skilled technicians. He supplied the ordnance for the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades, the military wing of the organisation that had as its aim the destruction of the Israeli state. His nickname was al-Muhandis, which translated as the Mechanic. Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security unit, had estimated that the Mechanic’s bombs were responsible for the deaths of over three hundred Israeli soldiers and civilians. He was a high-ranking target and, when a defector had betrayed his location, the Mossad had dispatched two of its most dangerous operatives to eliminate him.
The agents on the ground were Avi Bachman and Uri Naim. They were assassins. They were not tasked with negotiating with Ahmed. They were not interested in capturing him, not even for the information they would have been able to extract during an interrogation. They were in Cairo to kill him, to make an example of him that would demonstrate, once again, that Israel did not consider international boundaries an impediment to the protection of its citizens, nor a shield to guard against its wrath.
Bachman was a man of normal height and stature, the sort of man who would be able to blend into most environments without drawing attention to himself. He was wearing a traditional Egyptian
, a loose robe that reached down to his ankles. He wore a long kaftan over the robe, a keffiyeh on his head and a light chequered scarf that was drawn up to cover his mouth and nose to protect them from the blowing sand. Bachman had welcomed the storm. It was a tremendous stroke of good fortune for them, providing the perfect excuse for them to obscure their identities. It also meant that the locals would be too busy suffering this latest privation to be particularly vigilant.
And more important yet, as far as Bachman was concerned, it would make it more difficult for the Mossad to confirm exactly what was about to happen.
There would be an assassination, but it was not the murder that they had planned in Tel Aviv.
Bachman’s partner, Naim, was dressed similarly to him. They were sitting in the front seats of a Nissan that they had purchased from a dealer in Bab al-Louq. It was ancient and showing its age without grace: there were scratches and dents across its bodywork; the glass in the offside window had been shattered and the resulting hole had been covered over with a plastic bag that had been taped to the frame; the rear fender was tied on with pieces of wire. The car looked normal here, no better or worse than the other vehicles that struggled up and down the sandy street. They were parked behind a red Chevrolet flatbed truck that was overloaded with trash. Children had been scurried up into the load bed to start filtering it, separating the items that they could sell from those that had no value, but now the storm had forced them inside. There were large sacks of refuse and bales of recycled paper stacked up in the gutters. A few other locals were around, but most people were sheltering from the wind and the sand.
“Ready?” Bachman said.
Naim nodded. “Good luck, Avi.”
Bachman got out. The wind immediately whistled around his body, the tiny motes of sand blasting against his exposed skin. He put on a pair of old aviator sunglasses, slipping them between the scarf and the keffiyeh so that they might protect his eyes. He opened the rear door—it was stuck, and he had to yank it hard—and reached into the back seat. There was a black rucksack resting against the threadbare upholstery. It was heavy, and he could feel the strain in his tendons as he brought it out of the car. Inside the bag was a YM-II mine, the sort typically found in Iran and Iraq. It was a copy of the Chinese Type 72 non-metallic anti-tank mine, with a diameter of 270mm and weighing seven kilograms. Inside the plastic casing was 5.7 kilograms of Composition B explosive. Bachman had sourced the mine from a Mossad
who operated in Cairo.
Fifty feet ahead of the Chevrolet truck was another car, a drab olive-green Renault, as decrepit as their own vehicle.
Bachman felt the strain in his arm as he carried the heavy bag. He had made some modifications to the mine while Naim had been asleep last night. It was now much more suited to the purpose to which he intended to put it.
He crossed the sand-blown road and walked on.
MEIR SHAVIT started the engine of the yellow Volkswagen Kombi. Until he had stolen it earlier that afternoon, the truck had been used to deliver gas canisters to restaurants in the more upscale parts of the city. It was suitably run down and did not look out of place in Manshiet Nasser. None of the people who were foolish enough to be outside during the storm paid him much heed.
Shavit edged out into the sparse traffic and pressed down on the gas. He had been observing the two cars that were parked ahead of him on either side of the road: the Nissan that had brought Bachman and Naim, and the Renault that belonged to the bomb-maker. He knew that the man, Ahmed, was reputed to have his factory here, but that was of little interest to Shavit.
Ahmed was not the target of this operation.
He passed the Nissan and saw Naim in the passenger seat. He slowed, killed the engine and allowed the truck to roll to a stop. The Volkswagen was positioned perfectly, blocking Naim’s view.
Shavit looked ahead and saw Bachman. He had reached the Renault.
He started the engine and then deliberately stalled it. He repeated the charade two more times. Shavit glanced to the left as Naim opened the passenger door and stepped out, gesticulating angrily, his words ripped away by the wind. He shook his head, shrugged and gestured toward the engine.
Naim walked to the truck.
Shavit looked forward again.
Bachman was on the other side of the parked car, on the pavement between it and the buildings it had been parked next to.
He was in position.
BACHMAN WALKED around the Mechanic’s Renault. The wind had picked up and the sand was blasting against the sides of the buildings, including the warehouse where Israeli intelligence had suggested the man constructed his bombs. There was an alleyway between the warehouse and the building next to it. It was very narrow, almost as if the builders had erred when they were constructing the buildings and forgotten to fill it in. It would have been possible to touch the walls on either side without straightening his arms, and it was partially blocked with trash that had been heaved into it. Bachman and Naim had scouted the area the night before, driving by it a single time before turning and driving back in the other direction. They had been on station for less than five minutes, but that was enough: Naim had believed that they were reconnoitring the area in preparation for the operation. Bachman let him believe that. In truth, he had been looking to check that the surroundings would provide him with a means of escape.
And he was satisfied that they would.
He turned his head and saw the truck that had blocked the view between him and Naim. He saw Shavit in the cab. He knew that he didn’t have long, so he moved briskly. He lowered the heavy bag to the pavement and nudged it with his foot so that it slid directly under the fuel tank of the car. Then, without turning back again, he hurried across the pavement to the mouth of the alley.
The storm howled as he reached into his pocket for the radio transmitter.
He turned it in his palm until he could feel the cross-hatched trigger against the pad of his thumb. He reached the alley, turned into it and squeezed it.
THE MINE DETONATED. The first explosion lifted the rear of the Renault from the road. It was followed, just a millisecond later, by a secondary explosion as the fuel tank ruptured. The gasoline inside fed the conflagration, boosting the rear of the Renault fifteen feet into the air. The car flipped through ninety degrees and then fell back to earth, its nose crumpling as it slammed back down onto the pocked asphalt.
Meir Shavit knew that the blast was coming, and had started to lower himself in the cab just as Bachman triggered it. He was twenty feet away from the seat of the explosion and the shockwave radiated out and engulfed the truck, swiping the windshield out of its frame and sending a storm of razored fragments into the cab. Shavit was sheltered below the dash and spared what would otherwise have been a certain death. When he heaved himself up again, he brushed glass fragments from his clothes. The upholstery of his seat, already worn and tired, was torn to shreds.
He looked out of the suddenly open windshield.
The Renault had been flattened by the blast. Its rear section had been separated from the rest of the vehicle, and the carcass was blackened and charred, coated with soot. It was burning with a ferocious flame, the conflagration feeding on anything that was flammable: the upholstery, the plastic dash, the rubber tyres. A thick black column of smoke emerged and was immediately flattened by the storm and blown into the street.
Shavit shuffled across the fragments of glass on the seat to get a better view of Uri Naim and the Nissan. The agent was on his back. He had stepped around the truck, exposing himself to most of the blast, and he had been picked up by the pressure wave and thrown backwards.
Shavit opened the door and dropped down to the surface of the road.
“Are you all right?”
The wind and the sound of the blaze were deafening.
He crossed the distance between them.
“Sir? Are you all right?”
The man had a furrow from the right-hand side of his temple all the way back into his scalp, and the wound was bleeding heavily. A piece of shrapnel. Shavit reached down for a pulse and found one. He was lucky to be alive. Shavit considered shooting him, but there were witnesses on the street and he didn’t want to leave evidence that might contradict the narrative that he and Avi had constructed: this was a job that had gone wrong, a defective bomb that had detonated prematurely.
He left his pistol in its holster and, instead, reached down, slid his hands beneath the man’s shoulders and dragged him away from the blaze. Naim’s eyes flickered open, then closed again.
He groaned in pain.
“Sir, are you all right?”
The man planted the soles of his feet and pushed away. He reached a hand to the ground and levered himself onto his feet. He looked at Shavit, confusion washing across his bloodied face, but he didn’t say a word as he stumbled to the Nissan, slid into the open compartment and reversed the car away.
Shavit knew what the agent was thinking. Naim was an Israeli assassin deep in the heart of Cairo, caught in the aftermath of a hit that had not proceeded as planned. Was Ahmed dead? Was his partner? There was no way of knowing, and he couldn’t stay to investigate. To be caught now would be the beginning of an international incident. Discovery was one thing that the Mossad could not contemplate.
Shavit knew all of this. He was a general in the Israeli Defense Force and he had known Avi Bachman for twenty years. When Bachman had appealed for his help, he had been glad to give it. Bachman was the son he had never been blessed to receive. He would have done anything for him.
He heard the sirens, their up and down yowling audible as the pitch of the storm descended just a little. He needed to be gone. He left the truck where it was and, as the sound of the approaching sirens grew louder, he headed away.