By the Rivers of Babylon


By Nelson DeMille

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Lod Airport, Israel: Two Concorde jets take off for a U.N. conference that will finally bring peace to the Middle East. Covered by F-14 fighters, accompanied by security men, the planes carry warriors, pacifists, lovers, enemies, dignitaries — and a bomb planted by a terrorist mastermind.


Suddenly they’re forced to crash-land at an ancient desert site. Here, with only a handful of weapons, the men and women of the peace mission must make a desperate stand against an army of crack Palestinian commandos — while the Israeli authorities desperately attempt a rescue mission. In a land of blood and tears, in a windswept place called Babylon, it will be a battle of bullets and courage, and a war to the last death.


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Table of Contents

A Preview of The Panther

A Preview of The Quest


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This book is dedicated to Bernard Geis, who took a chance;
my wife, Ellen, who took a bigger chance;
and my parents, who had no choice.



I wish to thank Captain Thomas Block for his invaluable technical assistance and Bernard Geis and his staff at Bernard Geis Associates, particularly Judith Shafran and Jessie Crawford, for their superb editorial guidance.




Our struggle has barely begun. The worst is yet to come. And it is right for Europe and America to be warned now that there will be no peace…. The prospect of triggering a third world war doesn't bother us. The world has been using us and has forgotten us. It is time they realized we exist. Whatever the price, we will continue the struggle. Without our consent, the other Arabs can do nothing. And we will never agree to a peaceful settlement. We are the joker in the pack.

—Dr. George Habash,

Leader, The Popular Front

for the Liberation of

Palestine (PFLP)



We Jews just refuse to disappear. No matter how strong, brutal, and ruthless the forces against us may be—here we are. Millions of bodies broken, buried alive, burned to death, but never has anyone been able to succeed in breaking the spirit of the Jewish people.

—Golda Meir

Brussels, February 19, 1976

The Brussels II Conference

on the Plight of Soviet Jewry







Nuri Salameh, apprentice electrician, patted the oversized pockets of his white coveralls again. He stood, slightly bowed, in the middle of the huge Aérospatiale plant, unsure of his next step. Around him, other immigrant French-speaking Algerians seemed to move with an unreal balletlike slowness as they marked time in anticipation of the bell that would signal the end of their work shift.

The late afternoon sun streamed in dusty, moted shafts through the six-story-high windows and suffused the badly heated plant with a warm golden glow that contrasted with Salameh's breath fog.

Outside the plant, the airport lights were coming on. A flight of metallic blue Mirages floated over the airfield in a V-formation. Buses began lining up to take the Aérospatiale workers to their homes in St. Nazaire.

Inside the plant, additional rows of fluorescent lights flickered on, momentarily startling the Algerian. Salameh looked around quickly. At least one other countryman avoided his darting eyes. Salameh knew that his fate was no longer in his own hands nor, he suspected, in the hands of Allah.

With the Arab's ancient character flaw, he soared on the wings of hope and rose from the depths of despair to the most dangerous peaks of overconfidence. He began walking briskly across the concrete floor.

In front of him, the huge Concorde sat on metal scaffolding. Forming jigs, to guide the assemblers, arched over, under and around the fuselage and wings. Much of the aircraft's skin was missing and workers were crawling over the long body, like ants crawling over the half-eaten carcass of a giant dragonfly.

Salameh climbed the stairs to the top platform of the scaffolding and crawled onto the forming jig that ran along the base of the twelve-meter-high tail. On one of the unpainted aluminum tail plates was stenciled the production number, 4X-LPN.

Salameh looked at his watch. Ten minutes until the end of the shift. He had to do it now, before the night riveters closed the tail section. He grabbed a clipboard hanging from the jig and scanned it quickly. He looked back down over his shoulder. Below, an Algerian looked up as he swept metal filings from the floor, then turned away.

Salameh felt the sweat form on his face, then turn cold in the concrete and steel chill of the factory. He wiped his forehead with his sleeve, then lowered himself between two stringers into the rear of the partially skinned aluminum fuselage. The tail section was a maze of laser-welded struts and curved braces. His feet rested on the supporting cross members directly over the number eleven trim tank. He crouched down and crab-walked from strut to strut toward the half-finished pressure bulkhead.

Salameh peered over the bulkhead and looked down the length of the cavernous fuselage. Six men walked over the temporary plywood floors, laying bats of insulation between the passenger cabin and the baggage compartment in the belly of the craft. They alternately lifted the plywood, laid the bats, then placed the plywood back between the struts and beams. Salameh noticed that, along with the insulation, the men were laying sections of honeycombed porcelain and nylon armor. Overhead, fluorescent work lights were strung along the top of the cabin. There was a light strung into the tail also, but Salameh did not turn it on. He crouched for a few minutes in the darkness of the tail section behind the half-finished bulkhead.


At length, Nuri Salameh cleared his throat and called into the cabin, "Inspector Lavalle."

A tall Frenchman turned from the emergency door which he had been examining and walked toward the chest-high wall. He smiled in recognition at the Algerian. "Salameh. Why are you hiding like a rat in the darkness?"

The Algerian forced an answering smile. He waved the clipboard at the structures inspector. "It is ready to be closed up, no?"

Henri Lavalle leaned over the bulkhead. He shined his high-intensity light into the tapering tail section and made a cursory inspection. He took the clipboard from the Arab with his other hand, and flipped the pages quickly. You could not trust these Algerians to read the schedules of inspection correctly. Inspector Lavalle checked each page again. Each inspector had made his mark. The electrical, hydraulic, and fuel-tank inspection marks were in order. He rechecked his own structures inspection marks. "Yes. All the inspections have been accomplished," he answered.

"And my electrical?" asked Salameh.

"Yes. Yes. You did fine. It is complete. It can be closed up." He handed the clipboard back to the Algerian, bade him good night, and turned away.

"Thank you, Inspector." Salameh hooked the clipboard onto his belt, turned, and made his way carefully, in a crouch, over the beam work. He looked surreptitiously over his shoulder as he moved. Inspector Lavalle was gone. Salameh could hear the insulators packing their tools, climbing out of the fuselage and down the scaffolding. Someone shut most of the work lights off in the cabin and the tail section grew darker.

Nuri Salameh turned on his flashlight and pointed it up into the hollow tail. He climbed slowly up the strutwork until he could almost touch the point where the two sides of the tail met. From one of his bulging side pockets, he removed a black electrical box, no larger than a packet of cigarettes. The box had a metal parts number plate on it that identified it as S.F.N.E.A. #CD-3265-21, which it was not.

From his top pocket he took a tube of epoxy and squeezed the glue onto an aluminum plate, then pressed the box firmly against the side of the plane and held it for a few seconds. He then pulled a telescoping antenna from the black box and rotated it until it was clear of the metal sides of the tail.

He shifted his position quietly and braced his back against a strut and his feet against a crossbar. It was not warm in the confining tail, but sweat formed on his face.

With an electrical knife, he stripped a section of insulation from a green wire with black hatch marks that led to the tail navigation light. He pulled a length of matching wire from his pocket. On the end of the wire was attached a small, bare metal cylinder the size of a Gauloise cigarette. The other end was bare copper wire. He spliced the copper end onto the navigation light wire and taped the splice carefully.

Salameh began slowly climbing down the framework. As he descended, he ran the green wire along a bundle of multicolored wires until he reached the bottom of the fin where it joined with the fuselage. He let the wire drop through the cross struts beneath his feet.

Salameh stretched face down on the cold aluminum cross struts and reached down until he could touch the number eleven fuel trim tank below. Through the few missing plates on the bottom of the fuselage, he could see the tops of men's heads as they passed beneath the great plane. Sweat streamed from his face and he imagined that it must be dripping onto the men, but no one looked up.

From another pocket Salameh took a mass of white puttylike substance weighing about half a kilo. He molded the substance carefully over the tip of the number eleven trim tank. He found the dangling green wire and ran his fingers down to the end of it until he felt the small metal cylinder that was attached. He pushed the cylinder into the soft putty and pressed the putty firmly around the cylinder. The shift bell rang loudly, startling him.

Salameh rose quickly and wiped the clammy sweat from his face and neck. His whole body shook as he clawed his way through the confining struts toward the open section of the tail. He heaved himself out of the dark tail onto the jig, then jumped onto the platform of the scaffolding. The whole operation, lasting an eternity, had taken less than four minutes.

Salameh was still shaking as the two riveters from the second shift stepped onto the platform. They regarded him curiously as he tried to regain his composure.

One of the riveters was a Frenchman, the other an Algerian. The Algerian spoke to him in French. "This is ready?" He held out his hand.

Salameh was momentarily confused until he saw that both men's eyes were fixed on the clipboard that still hung from his belt. He quickly unhooked it and handed it over. "Yes. Yes. Ready. Electrical. Structures. Hydraulic. All inspected. It can be closed up."

The two men nodded as they checked the schedules of inspection. They then set about preparing the aluminum plates, rivets, and rivet guns. Salameh stood watching for a moment until his knees stopped trembling, then climbed unsteadily down the ladder and punched his time card.


Nuri Salameh boarded one of the waiting buses and sat silently among the workers, watching them drink wine from bottles, as the bus made its way back to St. Nazaire.

Salameh got off the bus in the center of town and walked through the winding, cobbled streets to his roach-infested flat above a boucherie. He greeted his wife and four children in Arabic, then announced that dinner should be delayed until he returned from an important errand.

He took his bicycle from the dark, narrow stair landing and walked it into the alley, then pedaled onto the street. He rode down to the waterfront where the Loire met the Bay of Biscay. His cold breath streamed from his mouth as he panted from his exertions. The tires needed air and he cursed as the bicycle bounced against the uneven cobbles.

The traffic thinned out in the darkening streets as he pedaled past the active waterfront area to the deserted area that held the great concrete U-boat pens built by the Germans during World War II. The bombproof pens rose up from the black water, grey, ugly, and blast-scarred. Tall loading booms towered over the docks on the waterfront and caught the last of the sunlight from the bay.

Nuri Salameh wheeled his bicycle to the rusted stairs that descended to the pens and pushed it into a clump of wild bay laurel shrubs. He carefully descended the creaking stairs.

At the water's edge, he made his way over the top of the moss- and barnacle-covered retaining wall and approached one of the covered pens. The smells of diesel oil and sea water filled his nostrils as he stood and read the faded, flaking sign painted on the mossy concrete. There was the usual Achtung!, then some other words in German, then the number 8. Salameh approached slowly, and entered the submarine pen through a rusty iron door.

Inside, he could hear the sound of water gently lapping against the walls. The only illumination came through the open entrance from the lights across the river. Salameh felt his way along the length of the catwalk toward the open end of the tunnellike pen. He was shivering in the damp, stagnant air. Several times he suppressed a cough.

Suddenly, a light from a flashlight struck him in the eyes, and he covered his face. "Rish?" he whispered. "Rish?"

Ahmed Rish shut off the light and spoke softly in Arabic. "It is done, Salameh?" It was more a statement than a question.

Nuri Salameh could sense the presence of other men on the narrow catwalk. "Yes."

"Yes," answered Ahmed Rish. "Yes." There was a malignant satisfaction in his voice.

Salameh thought back to those dark Algerian eyes that had followed him all day. The Algerian riveter with the Frenchman—and the others—had looked at him with thinly veiled complicity.

"The inspections were completed? The tail is to be closed tonight?" Rish's voice had the tone of a man who knew the answers.


"You placed the radio on the highest point inside the tail—close to the outer skin?"

"Right on the outer skin, Ahmed."

"Good. The antenna?"

"It is extended."

"The splice? The radio will receive a constant trickle charge from the aircraft's batteries?"

Salameh had rehearsed this in his mind many times. "The splice was from the tail navigation light. The splice wire is not conspicuous even on close inspection. I even matched the wire color. Green. No one will ever see the radio, but if that should happen, I placed an Aérospatiale parts number plate on it. Only an electrical engineer would not be fooled by it. Any other maintenance people would either not see it, or if they did, they would think it belonged."

Rish seemed to nod in the darkness. "Excellent. Excellent." He did not speak for a moment, but Nuri Salameh could hear Rish's breathing and smell the man's damp breath. Rish spoke again. "The electrical detonator was properly fixed to the other end?"

"Of course."

"The plastique?" He used the universal French word for the explosive.

Salameh recited what he had been taught. "I molded it over the tip of the fuel tank. The tank at that point is slightly rounded. The plastique was approximately ten centimeters thick from the tip of the tank to the detonator, which was placed in the exact rear center of the charge. The result was a natural shape-charge which will blow inward and penetrate the tank." Salameh licked his cold lips. He had no sympathy for these people or their cause and he knew he had committed a great sin. From the start, he had no wish to get involved with this thing. But every Arab was a guerilla, according to Rish. From Casablanca, in Morocco, across five thousand kilometers of burning desert to Bagdad, they were all guerillas, all brothers. Over one hundred million of them. Nuri Salameh didn't believe a word of it, but having his parents and sisters still in Algiers helped to persuade him to carry out this deed. "I was proud to do my part," said Salameh, to fill the silence, but he knew it would do no good. He suddenly realized that his fate had been sealed the moment he had been approached by these men.

Rish seemed not to have heard. He had other things on his mind. "The plastique. Would you say it blended in well with the shape of the tank? Perhaps we should have had you spray it with aluminum paint," he said absently.

Salameh was eager to pass on good news, to placate, to dispel the demons of doubt. "No one goes back there. It is sealed off from the pressurized cabin by the pressure bulkhead. All hydraulics and electrical are serviced from small access panels on the outside. Only a failure of some component would make it necessary to remove the riveted plates. That side of the fuel tank should never be seen by human eyes again." He could definitely hear the impatient breathing of at least three other men in the shadow behind Rish. It had become completely dark at the end of the tunnel. Occasionally, a ship's klaxon would sound on the river or bay, the muted dissonance rolling across the water and into the cold submarine pen.

Rish murmured something.

Salameh waited for the worst. Why meet in a dark place when a comfortable bistro or apartment would have done as well? In his heart he knew the answer, but he sought desperately to reverse his preordained destiny. "I have applied for the transfer to Toulouse, as you wished. It will be approved. I would be honored to do the same thing on the other one there," he said hopefully.

Rish made a noise that sounded like a laugh and it sent a chill down Salameh's spine. The charade would not last long now. "No, my friend," said the voice in the darkness. "That is already attended to. Your joker is in the deck and the other will be safely in the deck shortly."

Salameh recognized the metaphor. That was what these people called themselves and their operations—the jokers in the deck. The game was played among civilized nations until the joker turned up—in an airport massacre, a hijacking, a letter bomb. Then, the game of the diplomats and ministers became confused and frantic. No one knew the rules when that joker landed on the green baize table. People screamed at each other. Guns and knives were produced from under the table. The polite game turned ominous.

Salameh swallowed a dry lump. "But surely—" He heard a noise. Rish had clapped his hands.

Quickly and expertly, Salameh was pinioned to the slimy wall of the sub pen by many hands. He felt the cold steel slice across his throat, but he could not scream because of the hand across his mouth. He felt a second and third knife probing for his heart, but in their nervousness, the assassins only succeeded in puncturing his lungs. Salameh felt the warm blood flow over his cold, clammy skin and heard the gurglings from his lungs and throat. He felt another knife come down on the back of his neck and try to sever his vertebrae, but it slid off the bone. Salameh struggled mechanically, without conviction. In his pain, he knew that his killers were trying to do the thing quickly but in their agitation were making a bad job of it. He thought of his wife and children waiting for their dinner. Then a blade found his heart, and he heaved free of his tormentors in a final spasmodic death throe.

Rish spoke softly as the shadows knelt down over Salameh. They took his wallet and watch, turned his pockets inside out, and removed his good work boots. They slid him over the side of the catwalk and held him suspended by his ankles above the black, stagnant water that lapped rhythmically against the sides of the pen. The water rats, which had chirped incessantly during the short struggle, became still, waiting. They stared with beady red eyes that seemed to burn with an inner fire of their own. Salameh's face, running with rivulets of blood, touched the cold, black water, and the murderers released him. He disappeared with a barely discernible splash. The sound of the water rats diving from the catwalks into the rank, polluted waters filled the long gallery.


The masked workers made a final sweep with their pneumatic spray guns. The guns shut down with a hiss. The Concorde gleamed enamel white in the cavernous paint room. There was a stillness in the room where there had been sound and movement a short time before. Infrared heat lamps began to glow eerily. The paint fog hung in the unearthly atmosphere around the aircraft which glowed red with reflected light. Air evacuators pulled the fog from the great room.

The evacuators turned themselves off and the infrared lamps dimmed and blackened. Suddenly, the dark room filled with the blue-white light of hundreds of fluorescents.

Later, white coveralled men filed in quietly as one might enter a holy place. They stood and stared up at the long, graceful bird for a few seconds. It seemed as though the craft were standing long-legged and proud, looking down its beak at them with the classical birdlike haughtiness and indifference of the sacred Ibis of the Nile.

The men carried stencils and spray guns. They rolled in 200-liter drums of a light blue paint. Scaffolding was rolled up and long stencils for the striping were unfurled.

They worked with an economy of words. The foreman, from time to time, checked the designer's sketches.

An artist placed his stencils over the tail section where the production number still showed a faint outline under the new white enamel. The production number would now become the permanent international registration number. He stenciled on the 4X, the international designation for the nation that owned and would fly the aircraft. He then stenciled LPN, the individual registration of the craft.

Above him, on a higher scaffold, two artists peeled off the black vinyl stencil attached to the tail. What remained against the field of white was a light blue six-pointed Star of David, under which were the words, EL AL.








They have healed also the hurt of… my

people… saying, Peace, peace; when

there is no peace.

Jeremiah 6:14–16



… they have seduced my people saying,

Peace; and there was no peace:….

Ezekiel 13:10–11




In the Samarian hills, overlooking the Plain of Sharon, four men stood quietly in the predawn darkness. Below them, spread out on the plain, they could see the straight lights of Lod International Airport almost nine kilometers in the distance. Beyond Lod were the hazy lights of Tel Aviv and Herzlya, and beyond that, the Mediterranean Sea reflected the light of the setting moon.

They stood on a spot that, until the Six Day War, had been Jordanian territory. In 1967, it had been a strategic spot, situated as it was almost half a kilometer above the Plain of Sharon on a bulge in the 1948 truce line that poked into Israel. There had been no Jordanian position closer to Lod Airport in 1967. From this spot, Jordanian artillery and mortars had fired a few rounds at the airport before Israeli warplanes had silenced them. The Arab Legion had abandoned the position, as they had abandoned everything on the West Bank of the Jordan. Now this forward position had no apparent military significance. It was deep inside Israeli territory. Gone were the bunkers that had faced each other across no man's land and gone were the miles of barbed wire that had separated them. More importantly, gone too were the Israeli border patrols.

But in 1967 the Arab Legion had left behind some of its ordnance and some of its personnel. The ordnance was three 120mm mortars with rounds, and the personnel were these four Palestinians, once members of the Palestinian Auxiliary Corps attached to the Arab Legion. They were young men then, left behind and told to wait for orders. It was an old stratagem, leaving stay-behinds and equipment. Every modern army in retreat had done it in the hopes that those agents-in-place would serve some useful function if and when the retreating army took the offensive again.

The four Palestinians were natives of the nearby Israeli-occupied village of Budris, and they had gone about their normal, peaceful lives for the last dozen years. In truth, they had forgotten about the mortars and the rounds until a message had reminded them of their pledge taken so long ago. The message had come out of the darkness like the recurrence of a long-forgotten nightmare. They feigned surprise that such a message should come on the very eve of the Peace Conference, but actually they knew that it would come precisely for that reason. The men who controlled their lives from so great a distance did not want this peace. And there was no way to avoid the order to action. They were trapped in the shadowy army as surely as if they were in uniform standing in a parade line.

The men knelt among the stand of Jerusalem pines and dug into the soft, dusty soil with their hands. They came upon a large plastic bag. Inside the bag were a dozen 120mm mortar rounds packed in cardboard canisters. They pushed some sand and pine needles over the bag again and sat back against the trees. The birds began to sing as the sky lightened.

One of the Palestinians, Sabah Khabbani, got up and walked to the crest of the hill and looked down across the plain. With a little luck—and an easterly wind sent by Allah—they should be able to reach the airport. They should be able to send those six high-explosive and six phosphorus rounds crashing into the main terminal and the aircraft parking ramp.

As if in answer to this thought, Khabbani's kheffiyah suddenly billowed around his face as a hot blast of wind struck his back. The Jerusalem pines swayed and released their resinous scent. The Hamseen had arrived.


The curtains billowed around the louvered shutters of the third-floor apartment in Herzlya. One of them slammed shut with a loud crack. Air Force Brigadier Teddy Laskov sat up in his bed as his hand reached into his night table. He saw the swinging shutters in the dim light from the window and settled back, his hand still on his .45 automatic. The hot wind filled the small room.

The sheets next to him moved and a head looked out from under them. "Is anything wrong?"

Laskov cleared his throat. "The Sharav is blowing." He used the Hebrew word. "Spring is here. Peace is coming. What could be wrong?" He took his hand away from the pistol and fumbled for his cigarettes in the drawer. He lit one.

The sheets next to Laskov stirred again. Miriam Bernstein, the Deputy Minister of Transportation, watched the glowing tip of Laskov's cigarette as it moved in short, agitated patterns. "Are you all right?"


On Sale
Sep 29, 2015
Page Count
544 pages

Nelson DeMille

About the Author

Nelson DeMille is a former U.S. Army lieutenant who served in Vietnam and is the author of nineteen acclaimed novels, including the #1 New York Times bestsellers Night Fall, Plum Island, The Gate House, The Lion, The Panther and Radiant Angel. His other New York Times bestsellers include The Charm School, Word of Honor, The Gold Coast, Spencerville, The Lion’s Game, Up Country, Wild Fire, and The General’s Daughter, the last of which was a major motion picture.

Learn more about this author