John D Balian • Prologue




Paris-Orly International Airport

Friday, August 18, 1978

A fugitive with no home, no means of escape and no hope, sixteen-year-old Jonah Ibelinian was determined to carry out the plot entrusted to him. He was destined to end the future of so many and everything they held dear, as it had been snatched from him a decade before. An audacious plan it certainly was; and the cause was just.

He positioned himself at a safe distance from the theater where he would play his part. Leaning against a column, he took special but discreet note of a pair of Gendarmes as they strolled by, each man wearing the distinctive de Gaulle cap, one swinging his baton, the other almost comical in his pomposity as he casually rapped it against his left palm. As soon as they had disappeared around a corner, he shifted his attention to the clock visible above the line forming ahead—anything to avoid acknowledging the passengers and their companions milling around him, young and old, well groomed and unkempt, drab and colorful, all buzzing with preflight anxiety. How pitifully oblivious they all were. Anxious to board a flight--their final journey--certain to end in an inferno.

He pondered his next move and shuddered in anticipation. Shortly, Vrej, the leader of the operation, would bring him the suitcase, after which he would join the line at the Turkish Airlines ticket counter. His palms felt damp and his heartbeat was erratic.

But the cause was just—wasn’t it? Well, no use doubting himself or the mission now. To gain courage or perhaps to justify the mayhem he was about to unleash, Jonah squeezed shut his eyelids and tried to recall his mother’s beautiful image. All he saw, instead, was a child stranded on a rooftop, confused, scared, and vulnerable. He shook off the memories and tried to concentrate on the task.

I am committed, he reminded himself emphatically, before focusing on the queue in front of him. He studied the people lined up ahead, spotting a middle-aged man with unruly hair and bushy eyebrows who reminded him of his father and, nearby, a waif-like teenage girl, perhaps his sister’s age, all legs and arms and hardly any curves. There was an attractive woman too, probably pushing forty, who, despite her weary gaze, looked elegant in a conservative pantsuit, a slim bag slung over her shoulder. Was she a professor? A businesswoman or administrator of some kind? At the head of the line, shrouded in all-enveloping Muslim-Turkic garb, stood a beleaguered mother, who was struggling to contain her rowdy brood of half a dozen young children, while desperately trying to calm the infant she carried in her arms by rocking him to sleep.

They remained blissfully unaware of what was to come, mired deep in the here and now, focused on the tiniest of details, inconsequential details that, in a mere flash, would cease to matter at the appointed instant when their aircraft had attained an altitude of five thousand feet. He would be responsible. He would end it all. And the irony was that they didn’t even know of his existence, let alone his presence on the scene.

Once again, he closed his eyes, tried to picture his mother, and failed. No photographs of her had ever existed. No trace whatsoever remained of her, not a single memento to remind him of the person she had been. She had simply been plucked away and only the wistful images, held tight in his soul, had survived. Usually, with some effort, he could conjure up an image of how she used to be, even if it was a mere semblance of the woman she once was. Not today. All he could see were the faces at the counter: the overweight man; the frail, lost-looking teenager; the delicate woman; the distraught mother, battling confusion and frustration to gather up her young. He searched the faces of the others in the queue, hoping to find someone he could hate enough to justify his actions. His scrutiny quickly turned inward. And looking within himself, he found only hesitation. Doubt. Fear.

He closed his eyes tightly—he was desperate to blot out their faces—but the din pressed in around him.

So many people.

He labored for breath, the way he had not so many Easters ago at the Holy Sepulcher Church back in Jerusalem, when he and hundreds of others had been swept up by the bloody fervor unleashed during the flash-of-fire ritual.

An acrid taste filled his mouth. Despite strict orders to the contrary and at the risk of endangering the whole scheme, he bolted toward the men’s room, feeling more nauseous with each step. As he raced down the concourse, he caught sight of Korvat and waved off the nervous, quizzical glance coming from his backup, slowing down just enough to whisper, “I’m going to be sick!” before pressing on.

He held off his roiling stomach long enough to find a vacant stall, rush in, and slam the door shut behind him. He spent the next few seconds—agonizingly slow ones, further prolonged by a steep drop in his blood pressure as stars swirled around him—hunched over the toilet bowl. When he was done at last, he remained on his knees for another minute or so. Then he pulled himself upright with great effort and staggered out to the sink to rinse out his mouth and splash his face with cold, soothing water.

His thoughts turned to the people waiting to board the flight. Why had they been chosen? Who were they? What had they done? He wasn’t sure he had the courage—or was it cowardice?—to do it.

“It-oghlu-it!” a gruff-voiced man cursed in Turkish, startling Jonah.

“Ouch!” a young child yelped.

Jonah turned in time to see the door of another stall fly open and a heavyset man emerge, dragging a little boy behind him. The man yanked the child by the arm and swore at him. “I told you to go to the bathroom in the hotel!”

The little boy whimpered in pain as tears flowed down his blotchy cheeks.

Jonah felt a brief flash of certainty; I hope this child abuser is on my flight. But he regretted the thought the moment his eyes returned to the child who, in all likelihood, shared the man’s itinerary. He continued gazing at the boy and thought: What a beautiful child! With his curly blond hair and blue eyes, the pale little boy looked nothing like the brute’s dark complexion, jet-black stubby hair, and facial features reminiscent of Central Asia.

The boy’s tear-filled eyes met Jonah’s. They seemed to be pleading for help.

“Stop crying!” the man snapped and crisply gave the boy’s right cheek the back of his hand. The boy’s already flushed face now glowed with the mark left behind.

“I will beat these wimpy gavour tendencies out of you!”

About to turn and splash some more water on his face, Jonah stopped short. The slur triggered a more wrenching spasm in his abdomen. “Bully,” muttered Jonah in Turkish.

The man noticed Jonah and glared at him with disapproval. Brazenly defying the other man’s glower, Jonah took a closer look at the boy. His heart seemed to stop in midbeat. That gavour boy could be my…

“Enough!” The father roughly wiped the boy’s tears before grasping him by the neck and leading him out of the restroom.

Jonah hesitated briefly and then raced after them, ignoring Korvat as he passed by him. Why did the Turk call the little boy a gavour, an infidel? After searching the crowd for a moment, he spotted the duo joining a young woman in line at the Turkish Airlines counter.

He looks so much like me. Could it be? I have to know.

He strode with newfound purpose toward the young boy, hoping to reach him before his family got to the front of the queue, but the boy’s father intercepted him.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the man demanded.

Jonah pointed at the child. “He’s my kidnapped—”

“Siktir!” the man cursed, swatting Jonah’s outstretched arm away.

Jonah swore back at him, adding, “He is not yours!”

“Siktir! Pezeveng!” This time, the man gave him a mighty shove, sending him sprawling onto the tiled floor.

The crowd parted around them and even as Jonah lay there, he felt the curious gaze of the Turkish Airlines agent at the counter upon him.

“What’s going on?” the man demanded.

His face crimson with embarrassment and the sudden fear of discovery, Jonah scrambled to his feet and turned awkwardly back the way he’d come. This is crazy. I’m going to get caught. He hurried off in the direction of the lockers, intent on alerting Vrej. It was time to abort.

But he’d only gone a few yards when a shout from behind stopped him in his tracks.

“Hanna! Hanna Ibelin!”

Jonah turned to face whomever it was that had addressed him by his childhood name. No one had called him by his original name in years, not since he was shipped away. That was a lifetime ago.

Craning his neck for a good view, Jonah saw an old man deftly part the crowd with his outstretched right arm to reach him in a hurry. He scrutinized the man’s wrinkled face with growing amazement.