A hazy sun descended over the azure waters of the Mediterranean and shone orange across the coastline of western Beirut, the early evening glow glinting off the high-end sunglasses worn by most of the fifteen American high-threat security operators spread around the outskirts of the crowd.
The entire protection detail, minus the team's three drivers, stood in a horseshoe-shaped formation around a parking lot next to a marina and across a wide boulevard from a row of high-rise waterfront apartments. Their protectee stood at a lectern on a stage before an undulating crowd of some five hundred souls who surged and receded, both energized by and contemplative of the words of the speaker, and the shifting movements of the gathering looked like the gentle waters of the Med lapping in the slips of the marina next to them.
On the western side of the horseshoe, a pair of security officers stood just feet apart on a low wall that separated the parking lot from the docks. The men were outfitted similarly to each other, and much the same as the rest of the team: long-sleeved moisture-wicking shirts, body armor, ball caps, jeans. Athletic boots and G-Shock watches, Oakley shades and Peltor headsets.
And rifles across chests festooned with body armor, pouches for ammo, pouches for medical supplies, pouches for radios, and pouches for a myriad of backup weapons and other gear, both lethal and less-than-lethal.
It was the job of these men to meet violence with superior violence, and they stood at the ready.
The pair on the low wall were distinct from each other, however, in that one of them was well into his forties, whereas the other was still in his twenties. Their sector responsibilities included watching both the gathering itself and the boats docked in the slips of the marina behind them, and while doing this, they could also feel the energy from a small group of men standing on the outskirts of the event in the parking lot of a sketchy waterfront hotel adjacent to the rally.
This was a campaign speech, so it was no surprise protesters were there to oppose the candidate, but the malevolence from this group of fifteen or twenty men was palpable.
The people in view were the main burden to the protection detail's work, but beyond the throngs there were dark apartment windows, shadowy alleyways, and a busy thoroughfare, as well as the marina full of boats and an ocean beyond.
Danger could come from any vector; the Americans knew this well.
The older security officer didn't transmit over his radio; instead he just whispered to the man next to him, "Ain't this a shit show?"
"These things are always a shit show, boss."
"We need another dozen Joes to secure this scene. Panther acts like he's fuckin' bulletproof."
The younger man glanced to the protectee, passionately speaking Arabic into the microphone. Then he looked back to the dark-eyed men on the periphery. "Hope none of those jokers over there try to prove him wrong."
The older security officer chuckled at this as his eyes worked the scene. He, like his teammates, expected an attack at any moment, because it had happened before.
The Americans had arrived in Lebanon three weeks earlier to replace what was left of another executive protection detail. The first team were locals, trained well enough to deal with some threats, but they'd been nowhere close to proficient when facing a well-trained unit of combatants, which was exactly what they'd come up against in the city of Sidon. Four of the candidate's bodyguards had been killed and another five were injured, but the candidate and his wife, who always traveled with him, had miraculously survived the attack unscathed.
The candidate then made the politically questionable decision to outsource his campaign's protection to an American firm, and since then, no one had tried anything.
The bustle of the major metropolitan city seemed to grow in the lulls of the speech pounding from the speakers set up in the crowded lot, and all the bodyguards were certain that, somewhere out there in this metropolis, another gang of assholes was planning another attempt on their principal.
The older security officer again spoke softly to the younger. "You feel it, Bravo Five?"
The young man's eyes swept right and left. "I feel it, One."
Nothing else was said between the two; their heads just scanned back and forth, their grips tightened on their weapons, and they stole the occasional glance out to sea at the setting sun. It was seven p.m. now; there was less than an hour of light left, and the bodyguards looked at the onset of nightfall with trepidation. They wanted their protectee-the team had given him the code name Panther-buttoned up in his hotel before these dangerous streets turned dark, but Panther was signing their paychecks and calling the shots.
They'd go back to the hotel when he said they'd go back to the hotel, and not a minute before.
The two men on the wall overlooking the crowd did not speak fluent Arabic, but they had heard this speech enough times in the past three weeks to register that he was wrapping it up now. Soon the cheers from supporters grew into a crescendo as the silver-haired man pumped his fist into the air, his attractive, middle-aged wife shifting in her seat on the dais behind him.
She was more than ready to go; this, both men could tell.
Panther beckoned his wife forward, clasped his hand in hers, and raised it over their heads. The crowd applauded, the shadowy figures on the fringes stood and stared, and the two security men leaned a little closer to each other.
The older man said, "Hey, kid. Check Tabby out. Looks like she'd rather be anywhere else on Earth."
The younger man replied while still surveying the grim faces on the other side of the parking lot. "Six months ago that lady up there was livin' high on the hog in Paris. If her husband gets elected president of Lebanon, her whole world's gonna go bananas, and she knows it."
"Think he's got a shot?"
"My job is to make sure he doesn't get shot."
"Roger that. You think we're done for the day after this? Nothing else on the schedule, but-"
"But Panther likes to call audibles. There's still some daylight. Bet he makes one more stop at a hookah bar or a mini-mall before packin' it in."
"I hope you're wrong. My feet hurt."
And then the candidate and his wife headed for the steps down from the dais to the parking lot. Just behind them, the agent in charge of the American security team moved in sync with the couple, and he spoke into his mic at the same time.
The pair on the wall heard his call through their headsets. "Alpha One to all call signs. We're movin'. I want double diamond on Panther all the way back to the motorcade. Drivers, fire 'em up. Look alive, boys."
The older man jumped down from the low wall, and the younger man followed him. The older man said, "We're on rear security."
"Roger that, One."
The crowd surged forward as the entourage made for the three SUVs just a few dozen yards away.
Alpha One put his hand on the principal's shoulder as he barked into his mic at his men on point. "Push 'em back, Charlie team. Push 'em back. We ain't set for no meet-and-greet."
Bravo Five heard a quick reply from Charlie One, at the front of the diamond-shaped formation. "Roger that. Imshi! Imshi!"
The candidate and his wife made it to the sidewalk, and local police held most of the crowd inside the gated parking lot so the VIP could get clear of the scene, but the candidate stopped abruptly and turned to Alpha One. Bravo Five watched from twenty yards back, still making his way through the locals, but his headset told him what was going on.
"This is Alpha Actual, all teams hold. Panther wants to talk to me a minute."
Bravo One shouldered up to his junior teammate. "You called it, kid. Panther ain't ready to go back to the hotel."
"Always another hand to shake, I guess."
Alpha One's voice came back over the net. "All call signs, listen up. Panther wants to take a ride down to the promenade for some glad-handing, but Tabby ain't feeling it. I'll take the lead in Alpha Vic. Charlie One, you're the limo, take Panther in Charlie Vic. Bravo One, take Tabby along with Bravos Five and Six in the Suburban. Trail the limo and the lead vic till we turn off on Saeb Salam, then get her back to the Phoenicia. The other three Joes on Bravo team can load up in the Yukon with Alpha to give us more eyes at the next stop."
Bravo One keyed his radio. "Bravo One copies all." Then he nodded to Bravo Five. "Duff, you're with me."
"On you, boss."
They met the woman they'd given the call sign of Tabby at the rear passenger-side door of a white Chevy Suburban, and Bravo Five opened the door for her. "Madame, la banquette arrire, s'il vous pla”t."
The woman barely looked his way as she climbed in, and then immediately Bravo One followed her into the back, but as he passed Five at the door, he whispered, "Love it when you talk all sexy."
"Just for you, boss," he replied as he shut the two of them inside the unarmored vehicle.
Bravo Five climbed into the front passenger seat and looked over to Bravo Six, a thirty-eight-year-old security driver who kept his focus on the rear of the Charlie vehicle in front of him, a black armored Range Rover and also the "limo," meaning the vehicle transporting the principal.
The driver said, "Keep your eyes open, Duff, least till we separate from the others. Nobody wants to kill Tabby, so we're good as soon as we leave the motorcade."
Duff elbowed the man in the arm, then motioned to the woman in the back seat with a jerk of his thumb.
Softly, the driver said, "Dude, she don't speak a lick of English, you know that."
Duff sighed as he rolled down his window and unfastened his rifle from its two-point sling, giving him more mobility to move the weapon around the front seat if threats arose.
Now Bravo One leaned up between the seats to speak to the driver. "You heard Alpha One, Larry. Trail them till they turn onto Saeb Salam, and then we'll stay on General de Gaulle all the way up the coast to the hotel."
"Hate these hasty movements, boss. Lot of shit that can go south if we haven't planned out the route beforehand."
"We'll be fine, Larry."
As the Suburban began following the other two vehicles on the boulevard, Alpha One's voice came over the team's headsets again. "Drivers, keep it tight. Scan oncoming and intersections in advance. All shooters, I want your windows down and weapons at the low ready. If you're riding shotgun, you've got traffic duty. Nobody gets into the motorcade."
The detail had conducted over one hundred movements in the three weeks they'd been in-country; this was nothing new for any of them.
Alpha One added, "Muscle through the reds, boys. All eyes open."
The driver, Bravo Six, did not divert his attention from the road ahead, but he spoke to the man next to him. "Hey, Five. When Tabby's buttoned up in the suite, can you cover my watch for an hour? Gotta run down to the souk, grab a souvenir for the old lady."
Duff kept his head at the window, swiveling it back and forth as he took in everyone in sight, hunting for pre-attack indicators that his brain had been trained to register almost subconsciously. But without hesitation he said, "Sure, Larry. No worries."
Bravo One sat in back with Tabby, who was now on her phone and speaking French animatedly, but he'd caught the exchange between the two men in the front seat. He leaned between the seats again and looked at the driver. "What you gonna get her? An 'I Heart Hezbollah' T-shirt?"
The men all laughed while they focused on the boulevard outside the vehicle. Larry said, "She wants a damn rug, but how the hell am I gonna get a rug in my kit bag? She thinks I'm over here traveling around with an empty steamer trunk or some shit."
Bravo One said, "I bought me a hajji carpet in Iraq. Got home and the motherfucker fell apart when I unrolled it. Straight-up turned to dust. One last kick in the dick from that shit hole."
Alpha One's clipped and professional voice entered their ears once more, interrupting the conversation. "Approaching first intersection. Got some protest signs on the corner. Stay frosty."
Bravo One said, "He's right, Duff. I saw some shitheads holding pro-government campaign banners on the way in. If they're still up here on the right, make sure they're behavin'."
Duff's scan was purposeful and methodical. Finally, he said, "Got 'em. They're minding their manners."
It was quiet on the drive for the next minute, other than Tabby's phone conversation in the back seat.
Larry finally said, "Thanks for taking my watch, Duff. You want me to grab your daughter a toy or something? They probably have dolls and shit."
Still examining his sector, he said, "Already picked up a gift for Mandy. If you see something for a baby . . . something blue, I guess, you could grab that. Pay you back."
Duff replied without diverting his attention from the street. "Mine. Nichole's preggo. Again. Boy this time. Found out last night."
Bravo One was still between the seats and in earshot. "Kid, how the fuck did that happen? You haven't been home long enough to take your boots off since last Christmas."
"Kept my boots on, I guess."
Bravo Six kept the Suburban twenty yards behind the limo as they crossed an intersection. As he drove, he said, "Or else your baby's gonna look like the UPS driver."
Bravo One slapped Duffy on the back. "Congrats, Duff. That's awesome." Quickly, however, he saw something in the traffic and turned his attention to the driver. "Larry, squeeze that dude out."
A middle-aged man on a low-end motorbike was close on their right, speeding up to get into the three-SUV motorcade's center lane.
"Roger," Larry said. "Fucker's tryin' to merge his way in."
Duff leaned out his window. "I got it." Waving his hand up and down at the motorcyclist, he shouted, "Imshi! Imshi!"
The biker shook a fist back at Duff, but he quickly noticed the buttstock of the rifle held by the Westerner with the headset and sunglasses, and he began slowing, giving up his attempt to change lanes.