by Preston Fleming
Dynamite Fishermen is the first book in The Beirut Trilogy. Also available: Bride of a Bygone War. Coming soon: Green Line Crossing.
For more books by Preston Fleming, see my blog post on Forty Days at Kamas, and my blog post on Exile Hunter.
Beirut, 1982. Conrad Prosser is a skilled Arabist, expert agent handler, prolific intelligence reporter, and a connoisseur of Beirut's underground nightlife. But, as his two-year tour at the U.S. Embassy nears its end, Prosser's intelligence career is in jeopardy because he has not recruited an agent while in Lebanon, a sine qua non requirement for promotion.
Surveying his many contacts, Prosser selects an attractive Lebanese doctoral student and her idealistic brother as candidates for development. At the same time, he holds clandestine meetings by day and night with his string of Lebanese and Palestinian agents, pressing them to discover who is behind the latest wave of car bombings that has terrorized Muslim West Beirut. But when one of his agents supplies information used to capture a Syrian-backed bombing team, Prosser sets off a cycle of retaliation that threatens more than his career and cherished way of life.
At first denying, then later concealing, apparent attempts on his life, Prosser sets out to save both his job and his skin, exploiting his agents, his best friend, a former lover, his new girlfriend and her enigmatic brother. In doing so, he puts their lives at risk and discovers too late the effect of his heedless actions.
Dynamite Fishermen offers complex characters, fast-paced action, a vivid portrayal of human intelligence operations and the pungent flavor of Beirut during its dark days of civil upheaval.
“You erred in coming, habibi. Listen.” Maroun Ghaffour lowered the car window and cocked his head to hear the distant hammering of machine-gun fire. “They are tuning up now. Soon the concert begins.”
“Maalesh,” the American driver replied. “You signaled, so here I am. Let’s find ourselves a quiet place and do some business.”
The silver Renault turned the corner at the crest of the hill and slowed to a halt at the entrance of a narrow lane that was shrouded in darkness. No streetlamp broke the gloom. No light escaped from behind the heavy wooden shutters of the street’s ancient stone villas. Even if someone had observed the Renault’s approach, to identify the face of the elegantly suited Lebanese businessman in the passenger seat—or that of the American driver who, at thirty-two, was nearly ten years his junior—would have been impossible.
The Lebanese man had a boyish, chubby face that was deeply tanned and displayed the meticulous grooming of an expensive salon. The sunburst wrinkles at the corners of his eyes were the byproduct of a perpetually confident smile. Rarely did anxiety furrow Maroun Ghaffour’s brow, but tonight his manicured hand trembled noticeably as it reached into the inside pocket of his double-breasted linen blazer to produce a thick manila envelope.
“I made you a copy of the minutes from Monday’s war council meeting,” Maroun said, “along with all the committee reports that were presented. Take care with them. I had no time to cover the serial numbers as I copied.”
Conrad Prosser turned off the engine, opened the envelope, and looked at the first page of each stapled document. “First-rate work, Maroun. Exactly what we’ve been looking for. I can guarantee you that this material will be on the director’s desk when he arrives for work tomorrow morning.”
“That is all I ask, Peter,” Maroun replied, using the alias Prosser had given him at their first meeting a year ago. “I want Washington to realize what a dangerous road Bashir has chosen for the Christian Lebanese.”
Although Bashir Gemayel, the headstrong young leader of the Phalangist Party and chairman of its war council, was officially Maroun’s commander in chief, Maroun had decided five years earlier that Bashir represented a long-term threat to the survival of the Lebanese Christian community. He had been reporting Bashir’s every move to the CIA since the early days of the Lebanese civil war in 1975.
Maroun turned to face Prosser, grasping his wrist gently so that the American had to stop taking notes. “Peter, it is absolute madness for Bashir to think he can seize West Beirut and the southern suburbs. Even if the Israelis invade from the south as they promised to do, and they neutralize both the Syrian army and the Palestinian Resistance south of Sidon, the southern suburbs of Beirut and the refugee camps are too well fortified to be cleared as quickly as Bashir expects. Neither we nor the Israelis have the stomach for a lengthy siege. Believe me, in a few months the Israelis will be forced by international opinion to withdraw south of the Litani, leaving us alone once more against the combined forces of the Syrian army, the Palestinians, and the Lebanese Muslims. The massacre that will follow is unthinkable. That is the message I want your government to receive.”
He fixated on Prosser’s eyes before withdrawing his hand. “But that is not the only reason I called you, Peter. There is something else. The car bombs. They are hurting us terribly. If the bombings cannot be stopped soon, some members of the war council will insist on launching our own campaign of terror bombings against West Beirut—perhaps even against Damascus itself. Peter, we need to know who is sending these bombs and how they are able to bring them into East Beirut and the Metn. If we can answer this question, I am confident that our security forces will stop the bombings and that tempers will cool again. If we do not, I fear the provocation will be too great not to respond in kind.”
“Your guess is as good as mine on how the explosives are getting in, Maroun,” Prosser said. “Has anyone tried asking the Israelis?”
“It seems they are displeased with us at the moment. Besides, they seldom offer us any information that we do not already know. Believe me, you Americans know ten times more about Lebanon than the Israelis do. They sit in their fortified security zone along the border, look north with their high-powered binoculars, and think they know everything about us. Well, I am telling you, they know less about Lebanon than I know about the Brazilian rain forest, and most of what they claim to know is mistaken.”
“You may have a point there.” Prosser chuckled. “For all the money and effort the Mossad has poured into covering Lebanon, the reports I see out of Tel Aviv these days don’t impress me. But I’m afraid the Agency doesn’t have a solution to your car bomb problem, either. Our people take it as a working assumption that Syria is behind the bombings, but that’s as far as it goes. We have no proof.”
Maroun waved the disclaimer aside. “Please, all I ask is that you do what you can to help us in this. You cannot imagine the effect the explosions are having. Our wives and children fear to step out onto the street. No place in East Beirut is safe. When you have seen even one time a child’s severed limb lying in the street, covered with dust and flies, you will understand.”
“Listen, Maroun, this is something that really ought to be handled through an official liaison between the Agency and Bashir, not by you and me. Even if I could help, you wouldn’t have any way of explaining how you obtained the information. I’ll tell you what I’ll do: if I’m able to come up with anything on the car bombings, I’ll see to it that our chief of station takes it in person to Bashir. How about it?”
Maroun shook his head. “I could easily explain having such information. I could say I obtained it from my own contacts in West Beirut and Damascus. I have often obtained valuable information by such means.”
“As I said, Maroun, if I come up with anything, I’ll do my best to get it to you before it’s passed through the proper channels.”
“That is reasonable. I ask no more than that you do what you can.”
Maroun’s disappointment was palpable, but Prosser sensed already that he may have offered Maroun too much. “All right, then, habibi, let’s roll,” he said. “The big guns are likely to let loose any minute, and I want my ass to be on the other side of the Green Line when they do. Especially with these babies tucked under my belt.” He patted the war council documents behind his waistband.
“I will walk to my car from here, Peter. For you, the Sodeco crossing will be the best choice for returning. But you must leave quickly if you are to reach the checkpoint before it closes. I fear it may soon be too late.”
“That’s all right. If it’s closed, I’ll try the museum crossing. One way or another, I’ll make it. Ma’assalama, Maroun. See you Friday on Hamra Street.”
“Au revoir,” the Lebanese man replied before scanning the street for unwelcome company. Then he shut the passenger door behind him and disappeared into the darkness of the alley.
Prosser drove off, rounding the first bend and concentrating his thoughts on the problem of crossing the Green Line. He headed south and west through the maze of Achrafiyé’s one-way cobbled streets, using a shortcut that passed near the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and St. Joseph’s University. That he encountered no other motorists along the way gave him a rising sense of unease. He was coming about as close to Beirut’s east-west confrontation line as he had ever dared to come, even in daylight hours when no battles were brewing. The bullet-scarred walls and burned-out shells of houses and vehicles on every other block bore silent witness to the many armed skirmishes that had spilled over into these streets.
He had never expected to use this particular shortcut by night. It was nearly nine o’clock; before long the trickle of cars crossing between the two sectors of the city would dry up entirely. He felt his grip on the steering wheel relax a bit as he caught sight of the stylized green cedar-tree emblem marking the last Phalangist checkpoint before the no-man’s-land of the Sodeco crossing.
He lowered his window and, for the first time that evening, heard the distant rumble of shellfire accompanying the chatter of automatic weapons fire downtown in the city’s former commercial district. There, on most nights, many tons of machine-gun bullets, rocket-propelled grenades, mortar shells, artillery shells, and other assorted ordnance would be launched westward by the Phalangists and eastward by the Lebanese leftist militias, the Palestinian Resistance, and the Syrian army. The fighting generally persisted throughout the night and tapered off shortly after dawn, in time for the first waves of commuters to brace themselves for the Sodeco, museum, and port crossings en route to their jobs on the other side of Beirut.
By six or seven o’clock in the morning, Radio Lebanon and the Voice of Palestine would broadcast advice on which crossing offered the fastest and safest route across the Green Line while announcing the unofficial casualty toll for the previous night’s battle. Killed and wounded among the combatants could almost always be counted on the fingers of one hand. Civilian casualties were usually three or four times higher.
Prosser felt the dull ache of fear spread through his limbs and tried to reassure himself that it was still too early for the fighting to have spread from Place de l’Étoile and Place des Martyrs to the Sodeco checkpoint. By the time that happened, he expected to be through the checkpoint and on his second cocktail at Harry’s party on the other side of town.
He stopped the Renault on an uneven white line painted across the pavement between shoulder-high walls of burlap sandbags. To his left, behind one wall, stood a prefabricated concrete guardhouse surrounded on all sides by still more sandbags. A hatless Phalangist of about twenty years old dressed in Vietnam surplus, tiger-stripe fatigues and jungle boots, with an M-16 slung horizontally across his waist, emerged from his cramped shelter to confront him. The Phalangist wore no insignia of unit or rank, and his careless dress showed that he was a militiaman rather than a regular soldier.
“Bon soir,” Prosser said as he lowered the window and held out his diplomatic identity card for inspection. The Lebanese approached the car warily and bent at the waist to peer through the window. As soon as he recognized Prosser for a foreigner, he waved the car forward with a desultory flick of the wrist.
Prosser disregarded the gesture. “The crossing is still open, no?”
“Open? Yes, yes,” came the militiaman’s impatient reply. “But not for much longer, Ingliizi. Yalla! Go now and do not stop until you are across.” He looked over his shoulder with nervous, darting eyes. “Yalla! Vite! Vite!”
As if to underscore the Phalangist’s message, the aftershocks from a brace of mortar rounds falling half a block away buffeted the car from the left. With the echoed reports of the twin explosions still reverberating between the abandoned buildings, Prosser put the Renault into gear. The car lurched across the white line toward West Beirut. It was accelerating through the third cratered intersection when a deafening tumult erupted on every side. Prosser noticed the swath of orange-red tracer-bullet paths ahead just in time to slam his foot on the brakes and stop the vehicle a car length short of the intersection.
As he fumbled nervously to shift into reverse, three rapid-fire flashes of white light illuminated the walls to his left and right, followed at once by the blast of three rocket-propelled grenades. The triple concussion hit his ears like the pummeling of giant fists. Then another barrage of machine-gun fire counterattacked the source of the RPGs, the trails of burning phosphorus seeming to merge into a braid of glowing magma stretched across his path. Prosser was transfixed by the eerie play and could not tear his gaze free until a cluster of bullets ricocheted against a stone wall and tore through the Renault’s headlight and grille.
An instantaneous surge of adrenaline pushed him into action. Ignoring the damage to the Renault, he let out the clutch and felt the car shoot backward—accelerating until the engine screamed—then he wrenched the steering wheel sharply to the left so that the car’s nose swung around to face forward again. Without touching the brakes, he shifted into first again and began retracing his way to the Phalange checkpoint. He came to a stop in a sheltered spot directly opposite the sentry box and leaned on the car’s horn.
“Damn you—you nearly had me killed!” he roared in Arabic above the din. “How do I get out of here? Out, sortie—which way?”
The militiaman peered over the shoulder-high barricade and gazed open-mouthed at Prosser like some mute fish.
“I said which way out, which way back to Achrafiyé? Damn you, speak up!”
The soldier, unaccustomed to hearing curses in Arabic from the mouth of a khawaja, and perhaps embarrassed at having offered such disastrous advice, pointed south. “Take that street—there, to the right,” he answered, shouting to make himself heard. “It will take you back across the main road toward the museum crossing.”
Prosser eyed him suspiciously and did not budge. “Is it open?”
“Perhaps,” the soldier answered, shrugging and lapsing once more into surliness. “But in any case that is the direction. Go without delay. Once the shelling has begun, no place in Achrafiyé will be safe. Yalla! Vite!”
Prosser was still not satisfied with the Phalangist’s directions, but by now the noise level had made further discussion impossible. To his left and right, stray bullets nipped at the upper stories of abandoned villas. In a vacant lot less than a block away, a mortar crew fired a string of three rounds, each sudden crump driving the breath back into his throat.
He raced up the hill in the direction the Phalangist had suggested, taking the narrow and poorly surfaced lanes much too fast in the darkness and praying he would encounter no other vehicles along the way. He kept up the pace until he reached the Hôtel-Dieu de France Hospital, perched on the southern slope of Jebel Achrafiyé overlooking the Lebanese National Museum at the border of the no-man’s-land separating Christian East Beirut from the Muslim West Side. He pulled up beneath a flickering streetlight to inspect the damage. Five tidy entry holes the size of dimes pierced the Renault’s fender. Two or three bullets had gone on to shatter the left front headlamp and parking light and to tear a long diagonal gash in the plastic grille, but none had penetrated the radiator. Grateful for his good luck, he scrambled back to his seat and pressed on toward the National Museum.
At the roundabout in front of the Palais de Justice he fixed a wary eye on the helmeted head of a Phalangist peering out at him from the hatch of an armored personnel carrier. Discerning that the soldier had no intention of stopping him, he pressed on toward the west. A hundred meters ahead he spied a late-model Mercedes passing through the Lebanese army checkpoint on its way west into the no-man’s-land. He smiled at his good fortune: the crossing was still open.
Prosser pulled up to the roadblock opposite the National Museum, where a steel-helmeted sentry wearing the signature red and black armband of the Lebanese army military police waved him through without so much as a second glance. Then he shifted up through the gears once more and watched the speedometer needle move steadily to the right as he entered the no-man’s-land.
He drove straight ahead, gas pedal held nearly to the floor, for what seemed like miles through the inky darkness before he recognized the Hippodrome racecourse, then the Argentine and Czech embassies, and at last the twin rows of black-and-white-striped oil drums marking the western side of the museum crossing. In a moment he would be under the protection—if one could call it that—of the Syrian army. All the way across the no-man’s-land, he had noticed only a deafening cacophony of rocket, shell, and machine-gun fire. Now the distinctive sound of each weapon rang out with an odd clarity that he had never sensed before.
The sentry, a malnourished sergeant with a gaunt face and sunken eyes, examined Prosser’s diplomatic identity card without apparent comprehension. After staring at the card for several long moments, he turned on his heel and carried the card off to a small stone structure some twenty meters away, returning with an officer whose uniform identified him as a captain in the Syrian Special Forces. The captain gestured for Prosser to lower his window once more, then handed him the card.
“Where are you going?” the captain asked in an unexpectedly accommodating tone.
“Ras Beirut,” Prosser replied.
“Where in Ras Beirut? Hamra? Verdun? Corniche?”
“Minara. I am going home to sleep, inshallah.” He laid his pressed palms against his cheek and closed his eyes in the universal pantomime for sleep.
“The crossing is closed,” the captain answered unsympathetically. “Who told you to cross?”
“Closed? What do you mean? It can’t be closed,” Prosser burst out. “The sentry let me pass!” He felt a surge of anger and frustration, fueled by his lingering resentment against the Phalangist who had nearly sent him to his grave a quarter of an hour before. “What am I supposed to do now, go back?”
The Syrian officer suddenly broke out into a grin. “No, no, no. Of course not. Go to Minara. Go home. Do as you wish,” he replied with an amiable shrug, as if to reassure the foreigner that he meant no offense. “I only wished to caution you against crossing here so late, when our fighters are expecting trouble from the east. That you have survived your trip is proof of your good fortune. At times like these the Phalangist snipers normally lie in wait on the rooftops of those buildings and fire at everything that moves.”
Prosser could not help taking a quick glance back along the road he had traveled. “Believe me, Captain, I have no intention of trying this again.”
“You speak Arabic very well for a foreigner,” the Syrian offered. “What is your work here?”
“I’m at the American embassy.” Prosser waited for the reaction.
“American embassy—very, very good!” the Syrian exclaimed enthusiastically, emboldened to test his rudimentary English. “I like America too much! But for Syrian military man, no visa to America. Visa very difficult.” He paused. “If I come to American embassy, you give me visa?”
Prosser laughed. “Inshallah, Captain,” he replied. “But visas are for the consul to decide, not me. For a visa, you must speak to the consul.”
“You speak for me?” The Syrian flashed an unctuous grin. “You help me take visa?”
Prosser reached into his trouser pocket and handed the officer one of his business cards. “Here is my card, Captain. If you come to see me at the embassy, I will take you to the consul. We will speak to him together.”
The Syrian struggled to pronounce the name Conrad Prosser using the Arabic transliteration on the reverse side of the card, coming out with something like “Cone-rod Bruiser.” Prosser nodded his approval.
“You go to Minara now, Mister Cone-rod,” the captain continued in English. “Many bad Lebanese here, kill too much. Nobody stop them kill—not even Syrian army. Lebanese crazy, crazy too much.” He pocketed Prosser’s card, gave a casual salute, and waved the traveler forward.
Prosser returned the salute and drove off along the deserted boulevard, bemused as usual by the nearly universal Arab ambition to obtain a visa to the United States. While he did not question the captain’s sincerity in applying, there was little chance the man would follow through. Apart from the fact that Syrian officers posted to Lebanon carried no passport in which a visa might be stamped, an unauthorized visit to the American embassy would probably land the man ten years at hard labor. But, then again, there was always the chance he might take the risk, and if he did Prosser would be more than willing to strike a deal. Beirut was full of people desperate enough to turn traitor for the chance to start over.
“Crazy Lebanese—crazy too much,” he mimicked before patting the area along his waistband where the envelope filled with reports from Maroun was concealed.
A momentary thrill sent his pulse racing when he thought of the splash that Maroun’s information would make at CIA Headquarters and the tale he would be able to spin for Harry Landers about how he drove right into a firefight. Then he pressed the accelerator and sped off toward Ras Beirut as if to outrun the trouble that seemed to be chasing him home.
Praise for the Book
"Conrad Prosser, immersed in the civil disorder of early-'80s Beirut, employs whatever means are necessary to expose the organization behind a series of car bombings. The possibility of bloodshed at any moment keeps the story at an elevated level of suspense. Even the more languid moments move with a searing undertone. Uncertainty among the characters, coupled with relentless gunfire and explosions, make for an extraordinary novel, each page as eruptive as the city providing the setting." ~ Kirkus Reviews
"Dynamite Fishermen is an absolute stunner of a novel. It's clear Fleming has done his research and it shows in the seamless dialogue and the ease at which he tackles the task of conveying the wartime ambiance. This is a must-read for history buffs - although I feel strongly everyone will enjoy the rapid pace and captivating suspense. Fleming is a writer deserving of many accolades." ~ San Francisco Book Review
"In Dynamite Fishermen, Preston Fleming depicts heedless violence as a way of life from the perspective of an American intelligence officer. The story falls during a lull in the long running Lebanese civil war, a period plagued by daily car bombings, civilian shootings, artillery attacks and other mayhem. As many details of this conflict continue to reverberate today, this intelligently written novel provides a compelling page-turner and a memorable story." ~ Pacific Book Review
"An intelligence officer who has dodged making decisions and cleaning up his messes is forced to face the consequences, showing resourcefulness and decency...at last when he must. Fleming does know how to spin a yarn... his fiction has more verisimilitude than many others in the genre." ~ bookpleasures.com
About the Author
Preston Fleming was born in Cleveland, Ohio. He left home at age fourteen to accept a scholarship at a New England boarding school and went on to a liberal arts college in the Midwest. After earning an MBA, he managed a non-profit organization in New York before joining the U.S. Foreign Service and serving in U.S. Embassies around the Middle East for nearly a decade. Later he studied at an Ivy League law school and since then pursued a career in law and business. He has written five novels.