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STRIKE THE DRAGONA NOVEL
By CHARLES DYER MARK TOBEY
Moody PublishersCopyright © 2007 CHARLES DYER AND MARK TOBEY
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMOSHE AND ESTHER
ISRAEL The groan of the car engine magnified the silence of its occupants. Moshe and Esther Zachar were on their way to the wedding of Esther's favorite cousin, Rachel. Rachel Anna Levin, the vivacious thirty-four-year-old daughter of Esther's aunt Talia, would soon finish a surgery fellowship at Hadassah Hospital, nearly the last step in an arduous path toward becoming a board-certified pediatric surgeon.
For Moshe and Esther, the wedding should have been a time of great celebration. Rachel, the absolute delight of her father and mother, shone with joy and promise like a Galilean sunrise. The wedding would be a festive, magnificent occasion for most family and friends, but for Moshe and Esther it only dredged up tensions they had spent years of their marriage trying to defuse.
Moshe glanced over at Esther in time to catch her gaze.
"I know you hate the thought of this day," she whispered, almost to herself.
"I can't understand you when you mumble like that, Esther," he shot back. He was a large, handsome man, with thick dark hair that curled over the nape of his neck. Broad shoulders and muscular arms bespoke a youth slinging fish crates in the summer alongside his father on the docks at Haifa. Esther had loved this man from the moment they met, but the prickly family relations had rubbed their young romance raw.
She'd seen this reaction a thousand times before. He'd begin contemplating the obligatory niceties of conversing with her mother, or worse, her mother's mother. With each imagined word the inner corners of his dark, thick eyebrows pulled down together, twisting his face into a scowl.
Esther interrupted his thoughts and blurted, "Moshe, just admit it once: You loathe these family gatherings. Say it! Still, you don't have to make me share your misery!" Esther swallowed hard, her voice nearly breaking as a lump grew in her throat.
"Rachel will be beautiful," she said, trying to smile. "I can't wait to see her-I've longed for this day. I won't let you spoil it because you despise my family and their politics."
He groaned, pretending to ignore Esther's rebuke. His conscience confronted him. She's right, of course. This is not the time to settle a family squabble. Bury it deeper still, he thought. How bad could this be? Tables and tables of food, limitless wine-ah, ... "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies." Moshe chuckled to himself at the poetic allusion.
Both Moshe and Esther were Sabras-native-born Israelis-but their family backgrounds were vastly different. Moshe came from a line of Ashkenazi Jews whose lineage stretched back to czarist Russia. His family had been forced to flee during one of the many pogroms and had eventually made their way to Ottoman-controlled Palestine. Settling on a kibbutz in the broad Jezreel Valley, Moshe's family had helped turn the once malaria-infested wetlands into the now-blooming breadbasket of Israel. Moshe's parents inherited the can-do spirit of their ancestors, but they felt confined by the socialist principles governing the tiny kibbutz. Eventually his family moved to Haifa where Moshe grew up in a mixed Jewish/Arabic neighborhood.
Moshe felt proud of his roots. Though his father had been a dockworker at the port of Haifa, Moshe's family had never lacked the basic necessities of life. He grew to know, and appreciate, the rich cultural mosaic within his neighborhood. It seemed natural to be able to speak Hebrew, Arabic, and Russian-three languages Moshe mastered as a child. He learned English in high school.
After serving in the Israel Defense Force-the Tzva Haganah Leyisrael, often abbreviated to the single word tzahal from its three Hebrew letters-he attended Tel Aviv University where he majored in international business with a minor in linguistics. His goal in life was to land a job in a corporation that would allow him to leave Israel and see the world. And then he met Esther in a class on classical Arabic, and life became much more complicated.
Esther came from a line of Sephardic Jews who had immigrated to Israel from Iraq in 1950, two years after the formation of the Jewish state. Both sets of Esther's grandparents, all newlyweds at the time, were spirited from Baghdad with only the meager possessions they could carry. Everything else-everything-was confiscated by the government of Iraq as the price these Jewish refugees had to pay for their freedom. Operation Ezra and Nehemiah brought them, along with over a hundred thousand others, back to Eretz Israel.
Eventually settling near Tel Aviv, these two families from Iraq formed a strong bond of friendship, providing a sense of normalcy in an otherwise changing world. It just seemed natural that the son of the one family should marry the daughter of the other. Their first child, Esther, was born the summer following the Yom Kippur War. Both her father and one of his brothers fought in that war. Her father returned, but his brother-Talia's father-was killed when his tank took a direct hit from a Syrian artillery shell on the Golan Heights, at a place known as the Valley of Tears. While still a young child, Esther heard about this solemn place, which her family visited on many occasions. For them, and for many others, the ground was sacred, sanctified by the blood of the Israeli soldiers who fought to the death to hold back the advance of six hundred Syrian tanks. These brave men had helped keep Galilee from falling to the Arab enemy.
Esther was proud of the uncle she'd never met, and she understood the anger and contempt her family held toward Arabs. Her family's tiny apartment outside Tel Aviv couldn't compare to the homes her grandparents had been forced to abandon in Baghdad. Yet even here they could not live in peace. Her uncle died keeping the Syrians from overrunning their tiny country. If the Jews could not live in peace in their own land, then where else could they go? Likely these events were what had driven Esther's family to become so passionately Zionist that they were among the first to move into the Jewish settlements that had sprouted up in the West Bank-ancient Judea and Samaria. At least that was how it appeared to Moshe.
"I promise, no complaining," he spoke softly to Esther, forcing a smile, and reaching his hand to touch her knee.
Moshe pressed his foot against the bare metal accelerator of the red '89 Toyota Corolla and sped away from the security checkpoint on Highway 5. The road that snaked eastward from the Mediterranean connected the bustling, affluent suburbs of Israel's sparkling Tel Aviv with the Arab towns and scattered Jewish settlements on the West Bank. Now the Toyota pushed past the Subaru wagons that were seemingly the automobile of choice for West Bank settlers. Moshe grimaced as he corrected himself out loud-"settlers in Judea and Samaria." This is going to be a difficult day, he mused a second later, while grinding into fourth.
"Moshe, what's wrong? Do you see something?" Esther asked. Drivers in the West Bank constantly watched for signs of trouble, and Moshe seemed to be searching for something on the horizon.
"There," he said simply and pushed his chin off toward the right. She turned to look where Moshe had motioned. And in the distance she could see the city of Ariel, framed in white high-rise apartments rising from the deep green slopes of the surrounding hills. Begun as a settlement in 1977, the community bustled as a town of over twenty thousand people.
Pausing for a moment at a red light, Moshe whipped the Corolla off the main highway onto the narrower street leading toward Ariel. Another sharp right turn brought them to the tree-lined entrance of the Eshel Hashomron Hotel. He parked the car at the far end of the parking lot, already filled with cars that had spilled countless well-dressed passengers onto the hotel grounds.
As Moshe came around the back of the car to take Esther's arm, he stopped and held his breath. There she stood-the bride of his youth, still stunning and elegant in a long black gown. He loved the way she pulled her black hair tight away from her face and gathered each strand neatly and simply in the back. She glistens in the sun, he thought, as a smile eclipsed his frown. He loved her deeply and that was all that mattered.
Noticing her husband's gaze, Esther smiled and took his hand. He flashed a wide grin that said he had returned from his journey to the dark, contemplative side of his mind. The friendly, more charming Moshe emerged just in time to accompany Esther into the wedding celebration.
* * *
"Mazel tov!" boomed Moshe, as he shook the groom's hand. He was always the loudest at family gatherings. He swooped to the bride and planted a mandatory kiss on the cheek, holding her shoulders firmly. "Rachel, you look splendid. You are a delight to us all, my dear cousin." Esther took hold of Rachel's arm and squeezed it gently.
"Mazel tov, Rachel. This is your special day, yes?" she whispered in the young bride's ear. Rachel smiled and nodded. As more guests gathered around the giddy couple, Moshe ducked into the courtyard to smoke a cigarette and escape the onslaught of relatives.
Though Moshe found little to like about West Bank settlers, he couldn't help but be impressed by the Eshel Hashomron's open inner courtyard. The hotel's rooms flanked the two long sides of a sparkling swimming pool, while the lobby and dining room boxed off the third side. The upper side was open, offering a breathtaking view of the mountains of Samaria-rugged olive- and oak-covered hillsides.
The true focal point remained the inner court, which had as its centerpiece a waterfall extending the width of the garden, cascading endlessly into the pool. The water poured from above over large rough-cut blocks of hard limestone-the rock native to much of Israel. The pool formed by the cascading water was separated from the swimming pool by a deep green carpet of grass. On either side, majestic date palms reached high into the sky, providing thin patches of shade from the afternoon sun. Perhaps ancient Eden looked like this, Moshe thought as he strolled through the crowd-though he didn't really believe the myths contained in the Torah.
His cell phone vibrated and broke his peaceful thoughts. He pulled it from his belt and flipped up the front. The name on the display read Nissim Cohen. That name made him smile. This would be the third time Nissim's number appeared on his caller ID this week. What could that old scoundrel want? Moshe wondered.
Mashing the Talk button, he put the phone to his ear. "Nissim! Ma nishma?"
"Moshe, my old friend! How's life been treating you?"
"It's been good. I'm well; so is Esther."
"Splendid. Ah, Esther! What a prize. What did she ever see in an old camel like you?"
Moshe roared at the insult. He and Nissim had spent four years together studying at the University of Tel Aviv, and though it had been years since they'd spent any time together, the chemistry between them remained strong.
"Tell me, Nissim, what's so urgent? Don't tell me you're getting married after all these years!"
"Don't be foolish! Seriously, I heard through a mutual friend you might be looking to change careers. That's why I'm calling. Is that true?" Nissim's tone grew surprisingly serious and made Moshe pause a moment before he answered.
Moshe decided to keep it light. "Nissim, you clever spy! As a matter of fact, I am considering a change. I've been with this company for ten years, and the challenge is gone. I'm bored. I'm really looking for a place where I can use my language skills and a situation that would allow Esther and me to do some extended traveling. Between you and me, I'd like Esther to be a little farther away from her extremist family."
"Ah, still playing diplomat, eh, ol' friend," Nissim responded, but with little emotion.
Moshe laughed. "You sound too serious. What's really going on? How did you know I was looking for a new job?" The phone crackled.
Nissim broke in. "I would love to answer your questions, but now is not the proper time. I can tell you I work for an institution that values the skills you possess. We are looking for individuals with your ... talents ... your abilities ... your politics. That's all I can say for now. I'm starting to lose the connection."
The phone went dead, and Moshe stood on the lawn, bewildered.
He rehearsed the conversation in his mind. Nissim's cryptic responses raised a torrent of questions. What company would be concerned about even mentioning its name on a cell phone? Perhaps a governmental agency? But what government agency would be so concerned about guarding its privacy? Just as significantly, what agency would be interested in Moshe's special skills? Only two names came to Moshe's mind. Shin Bet, Israel's counterintelligence and internal security agency, or Mossad, the Israeli national spy agency responsible for intelligence gathering and counter-terrorist activities outside Israel. It was all very curious. What could be so confidential? Why him? Why now?
Moshe closed the phone and clipped it back on his belt. He hadn't realized that while talking with Nissim he had wandered away from the wedding party to the far side of the pool. He stood in the gap between the one wing of the hotel and the building housing the lobby. Moshe dropped his half-smoked cigarette and stomped it out on the sidewalk. He kept thinking about Nissim and his "secret" employer. Could he work for the government? For Mossad? Both were certainly possible. But possible was not the same as probable.
As he turned back toward the wedding party, a slight movement off to the right caught his eye. At the far end of the courtyard he saw a waitress making her way down from the area above the waterfall to the lower level carrying an empty serving tray. Moshe turned back toward the crowd, but something again made him stop. He looked back at the woman dressed in a white food-service smock and black trousers. That's strange, Moshe thought. None of the wedding party is up there, and the kitchen is the opposite way.
Moshe looked more closely at the woman now awkwardly trotting toward the crowd, and a sense of uneasiness swept over him. Something about her appearance wasn't right. Her face and legs were very thin, but her chest appeared way out of proportion. Bulging almost. Like a rotund woman on stilts with a head two sizes too small for her body. All this took mere seconds to process.
Suddenly a horrific thought burst into his consciousness. Like a flash from the future, from somewhere beyond the next few seconds, that awful realization would forever be imprinted in his mind. Everything seemed to slow to a haunting crawl. He hadn't even noticed his racing heart and heavy breathing as every beat pumped adrenaline into his bloodstream.
The woman increased her pace, perhaps startled by Moshe's intense gaze. Then he knew. This was no waitress! Moshe pointed toward the woman and shouted to the crowd, "Bomb! Bomb! ... Esther, where are you? Esther!" He heard himself screaming, but the din of the music swallowed his words. At Moshe's alarm the waitress broke into a sprint, heading straight for the knot of people gathered near the bride and groom.
Moshe bolted toward the guests, flailing his arms and screaming. Slipping on a wet patch of sidewalk that skirted the pool, he tripped and rolled headlong into a rubble of stones, twisting his ankle and scraping the palms of his hands. He pulled himself to his feet and tried to run, but the pain forced him to alternate between hopping and limping.
He was still twenty meters from the main reception patio when the woman reached the wedding table and pushed the small plastic plunger clutched in her hand. The horror unleashed in a blast of flame, smoke, and searing heat. The roar of the bomb popped his eardrums, and all went silent. A plume of black smoke covered the entire courtyard as the suicide bomber was ripped in half, sending her body parts like projectiles into the crowd. In that same split second, a thousand fiery ball bearings shot like cannon fire across the courtyard, ripping through bodies and ricocheting off furniture as they flew. The shards of metal scattered like shrapnel, dicing the wedding party into fragments of muscle and bone.
Excerpted from STRIKE THE DRAGON by CHARLES DYER MARK TOBEY Copyright © 2007 by CHARLES DYER AND MARK TOBEY. Excerpted by permission.
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