They called themselves the Brotherhood of Belial - a diabolical alliance of Red Brigade and Arab extremists. Together they'd staged one of the most shocking and blasphemous acts of world terrorism: the theft of the sacred Shroud of Turin. Someone has to recover the precious relic and teach the terrorists a lesson they won't forget.
Now the CIA has its own avenging angel. His name: Richard Camellion.
Only the Death Merchant could lead a strike force of Israeli paracommandos from a daring kidnapping in Damascus to a stunning air assault in Tunisia - and lead his enemies into the hellfires of Judgment Day!
As the book's back cover states, a group of terrorists have stolen the famous Shroud of Turin and it's up to the Death Merchant to get it back. For this mission, Camellion teams up with fellow mercenary Lester Vernon Cole (aka the Widow Maker).
Courtland Grojean, Camellion's CIA boss, explains that the terrorists (a mix of Italian Red Brigades and Moslems) "want to strike at Christianity in general and Catholicism in particular. The Arabs have a long memory and their hatreds run deep. What better way to show up the Christian world than by destroying the Shroud? ... [It] would be Score One for World Terrorism and could begin an escalation against Catholic Shrines all over Europe. We want it nipped in the bud. ... Camellion, find that Shroud and whack out the scum who stole it. I don't give a damn how you and Cole do it."
The book opens with Camellion and Cole sneaking up on an Italian villa where Ahmed Nasir al-Din is supposedly hiding out with various Red Brigades district leaders. Al-Din is the main contact for the Syrian Vice President, who is also the brother of the President and a major link in financial support of terrorist organizations trafficking in heroin. The CIA had been watching al-Din and tracked him to the villa, which is owned by a "well-known left-wing sympathizer" who is also "a wealthy manufacturer of mass-produced ballpoint pens and pencils".
After their assault on the villa - al-Din was able to escape during the shootout - they learn from one of the survivors that al-Din lives in Damascus and knows who stole the Shroud. (Also, during the shootout, author Joseph Rosenberger takes time out to describe various artifacts in the room that end up being destroyed, including "a recreation of a 1927 sculpture by the famed Arthur van Frankenberg—a nude, in a sleek black lacquer finish, standing on a silver globe, her arms holding up a black half globe on which rested an eighteen-inch-diameter piece of plate glass" and "two prints of paintings by Renoir in hand-carved hardwood frames and a tall green tulip-shaped vase resting on a teakwood side table".)
Camellion says that he and Cole cannot do this job without the help of the Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. There is a meeting with two Mossad agents, who say they know where al-Din lives. An agreement to attempt a kidnapping of al-Din is made. During the meeting, Cole rants about the Pope and all of the children that "God sends" to poor people in Africa and Latin America. (Rosenberger has included this complaint in at least a dozen Death Merchant books, including the last volume. He clearly was no fan of the Pope.)
Cole gave a loud snort. "That's even more ridiculous than the Pope's running around Africa and Latin America and exhorting the populace, who already have countless millions of children they can't feed, to accept all the crumb snatchers 'God sends them'. I didn't know that God was in the business of 'sending' babies to people! I tell you, religion has caused more misery in the world than all the dictators in history!Then we shift to the POV of the Red Brigade leaders meeting in an abandoned barracks on the top of Mount Mijerda. We get a lot of explanation and exposition as they discuss the possibility of their ransom demands (33 billion lira and the release of six Red Brigade prisoners) being met. The thieves' goals are two-fold: "make the Vatican look like the corrupt, imperialistic suppressor of the workers that it actually is" and to force the Pope to make a speech asking Israel to give a homeland to "our people". (Even if their demands are met, they plan to burn the Shroud.)
Rosenberger must have done a ton of research on the Shroud, and he dumps much of it into a chapter that has Camellion and Mossad agent Benjamin Eshkol talking about the relic on an El Al plane ride. At one point, Eshkol says, "I gather than you think the Shroud is a fraud." Camellion replies:
"A lot of accepted 'truth' today is the result of what people thought in the past. We in the Western world have progressed because, thousands of years ago, our part of the race began following the Greek rationalists. That's why Western man won't leave anything alone, why he is constantly asking 'why' and looking for new ways not only to shape nature but to extend his hopes and dreams and ambitions out into the universe itself. That's the difference between the West and the East. People in the East are content with the past. They are satisfied with what they have. Oh, sure, the Arabs drive cars and carry transistor radios, but their ethics and moral values are the same as those that prevailed a thousand years ago. ...After landing at Lod Airport, they are taken to a meeting with various Mossad generals. The plan is to get into Syria (or, as Rosenberger puts it, "President Assad's little Disneyland of Moslem morons") by way of Jordan. There are spots along the border that are not guarded in the middle of the night. The crossing goes without any trouble and soon they are on the road to Damascus. They eventually arrive at a shop run by Abdullah and Leila Talalka, who know the area in which al-Din lives (Kaft Susah, three miles southwest of the city).
"The future will prove that almost all of our concepts about god, creation, and the universe are false. Fifty years ago scientists proved that the 'biblical version of creation was only a tale based on ignorance and myth—understandable for those times. We in our own way today are equally as ignorant. Tell the average man that he is not a solid object, that everything he perceives to be solid matter is only electrical points of energy, and he will think you should be carted off to the funny farm. The gods all men worship today are man-created, man-manufactured myths with all of man's own emotions—love, hate, mercy, revenge, blood-letting, punishment—and even regret! We are still intellectual pigmies on the universal ladder of evolution.
"It is for that reason that much of the world's problems are still being caused by religious beliefs that are unrealistic and misplaced in time, rightly belonging to the past, their true origins coming from those days when people believed the earth had 'four corners,' and it was common for deluded men to 'talk with the gods.' The only thing man has to save himself from is his own stupidity and destructive impulses. And what does all that have to do with the Shroud. Nothing, really."
At night, Camellion, Cole and two others sneak up on al-Din's house, which "loomed like some kind of jet-black monolith of evil, daring them to come closer". They shoot it out with the guards and make their way upstairs. Al-Din, his wife and young son surrender and are taken to a waiting helicopter. (Apparently, his wife is not very attractive: "Mrs. al-Din was so ugly she would have to beg a peeping Tom for an appointment.") Once they are in the air, Camellion threatens to toss the young boy out of the copter if al-Din doesn't give them the necessary information. He tells them the Shroud is in Tunisia, in a little village called Takrouna.
Fifteen hours later, in Tel Aviv, discussions are underway about how to attack the village and rescue the Shroud. Camellion knows that Israel is assisting the United States in this mission because the US has promised to give Israel various military weapons. But why is the US so eager to help the Vatican?
[T]he Vatican's influence was actually nil. Nations faced reality, not the "wisdom" of fifteen hundred years of superstition. For the U.S. to be a part of a surgical strike directed at terrorists hiding in Tunisia, something far more than "Vatican influence" had to be involved. The Death Merchant would never know the true answer.During the planning, Cole nearly comes to blows with a commando named Haim Reber while discussing "the merits and demerits of world religious beliefs". We only hear Cole's side of things, though:
The paratrooper became angry when Cole bluntly remarked that all monotheistic religions are "brutally militant." Cole had then stated that fanatical believers in the Bible, the Torah, and the Koran were "brainwashed halfwits" who had been killing each other for centuries without realizing that they had more in common than they had against one another and that there was simply "no way for anyone with intelligence to decide which of their 'unique revelations from God' was the true one.The Death Merchant has no illusions that the upcoming attack will cause future terrorists to think twice (despite saying the exact opposite earlier in the book: "With this strike into Tunisia, we'll be sending a message to all terrorists, especially the Islamic Jihad: Scum who grab religious relics will pay for it with their lives."). At the same time, Rosenberger gets to sound off on a few political issues:
"A fanatical Moslem will trot out the same dumb arguments for his point of view as a Bible beater. Neither can listen to reason because their entire system of belief excludes common logic and depends absolutely on following an external authority. The very existence of this authority, as well as the emotional security of the 'true believers,' requires a whipping boy—an excluded class of sinners and heathens and infidels, poor saps you can punish and send to 'Hell.' These religious fanatics believe the weirdest of fairy tales and call this kind of stupidity 'faith.' That Roman lawyer and idiot Tertullian said 'Credo, quia absurdum est!—I believe because it is absurd.' He was a damn fool. Tell a man you believe the moon is only five hundred klicks away, and you believe it because such a belief is 'absurd,' and he'll tell you you're crazy."
Cole had then given a more rational example—and it was this illustration that enraged Reber.
"Or consider how the Jews in Israel expect the world to accept the belief that God 'gave' them the land of Israel five thousand years ago! Only a fool would believe such crap!"
It was then that the enraged Reber jumped to his feet. The Death Merchant, afraid that Vern would break the man's neck, immediately stepped between the two men, as had Colonel Hille, who had then proclaimed loudly that from then on, there would be no discussion of religion or politics between the Americans and the Israelis.
Later the Death Merchant had told Cole, "You've got to learn to keep your opinions to yourself, Vern. We both know the world is five hundred years behind reality."
"Bunk!" Cole had snapped. "You know as well as I do that a truly intelligent person who is honestly religious is as rare as rocking-horse manure!"
"That's not the point. When you castigate a person's religious beliefs, even if you tell him the truth, you seriously interfere with his sense of eternal 'social security,' his adult 'security blanket.' You remind him of his own stupidity. No one likes that."
American planners did not have the capacity to understand the fanaticism of Moslems, especially the psychotics in the deadly Islamic Jihad—"Holy War." Both the CIA and the Mossad had hard intelligence to prove that the Jihad was trying to recruit West European and American mercenaries to carry out specific operations involving nuclear terrorism. Small nuclear devices—ones below the one-kiloton destructive capability range—would kill five to ten thousand people outright and infect thousands more with radiation. It would happen in some city in Western Europe and in the United States. Already four American cities had been targeted—New York, Chicago, Omaha, and Los Angeles. It would happen because European governments did not have the common sense and the ability to stop it. The same applied to the United States, only more so. The American answer to terrorism, other than hot-air speeches about "our greatness," was always given by left-wing trash and unrealistic liberals. They would attack the rights and the freedom of the general public instead of dealing with the real problem and its solution. Led by the Kennedys, O'Neals, Cranstons, and Dodds who were constantly demanding "gun control" as an answer to crime, this bloc of airheads would only reluctantly admit that terrorism of the worst kind was even possible in the U.S.A. If it did occur . . . shucks, SWAT teams could handle it! It was enough to make even a halfway intelligent person vomit. Against automatic weapons, grenades, and shoulder-fired missiles, the best SWAT teams in the U.S. would be blown away as fast as either Camellion or Cole could kill a man with his bare hands. The police couldn't even make the streets safe for citizens! In Washington, D.C., a woman couldn't go out at high noon without being propositioned, or assaulted, by one of her "equals"! Yet SWAT teams were going to protect the American people from terrorism! Childish, ludicrous, and not only ridiculous but pathetic.An attack force of 58 Israeli paracommandos heads to Tunisia and as they approach Mount Mijerda, the copters' GAU-8/A Gatling guns start spitting out 30-mm projectiles, riddling the barracks below. As a steady stream of metal death rains down on the barracks, the other copters land and the commandos get out. Meanwhile, inside the structure, one of the terrorists (Rodocanachi) says he's going down to the dungeon to burn the Shroud!
The Death Merchant knew the answer: Nothing will be done until ten thousand people are killed in a twinkling of an eye and another twenty thousand die more slowly from radiation poisoning.
Yes, sir . . . we're going to see some exciting times before 1989.
The Death Merchant and the others attack the barracks, tossing in HdGr 69 offensive grenades and Lodtz L-2 grenades (nicknamed the "Revenge of God") as they move room to room. ("When exploded in a closed room, the shower of steel left a victim resembling ground beef over which blood had been poured.") As they do, the "Italian and Middle East pig farmers" retreat back to other rooms. (We get other slurs, too: "sand crab", "sand crawler", "towel heads", "European spaghetti gobblers" and "garlic snappers".)
At some point, it is every man for himself. In addition to a variety of karate moves intended to disarm and kill, Camellion also tosses some choice insults at the terrorists, including "May a camel crap in your curds, you stupid sand eater!" and "May you find a Mullah with measles in your bed—stupid!"
As Ikrit pulled back with the knife and Abu-Akawi picked up an empty Galil assault rifle, the Death Merchant used his right hand in a very fast Teisho palm-heel strike. It caught Ikrit in the end of his chin and snapped his head back with such force that intense pain shot through his cervical vertebrae.As for the rest of the enemy, "they were in the toilet and all that Camellion had to do was pull the chain and flush them into nothingness". Soon, the fight is over. "The Death Merchant, wishing he had brought a sack of pumpkin seeds with him, looked around. Vern Cole and three paracommandos had come into the room and were also assessing the bodies on the stone floor, some almost piled on top of each other. Among them were dead Israelis, the brown pattern of their cammies contrasting strangely with the terrorists' half-nakedness."
Again Camellion moved to the right to avoid Abu-Akawi. He grabbed Ikrit's right wrist and twisted, forcing the knife to fall to the floor and making the sand crab's shoulder move higher. Before Ikrit could make any moves or even try to free himself, Camellion pulled back hard on the arm, swung the dazed man toward Abu-Akawi, and executed a left-legged Tae Kwon Do Hyung high middle front snap kick, the toe of his boot burying itself deeply in Ikrit's armpit and against the side of his chest. Now it was Ikrit's turn to shriek in agony. Bones cracked, thoracic organs were jarred, nerve endings ripped apart. In agony, Ikrit became a mass of helplessness, shock causing him to stumble around and vomit all over himself.
Kamal Abu-Akawi was only partially disabled, with a few broken bones in his right hand. He felt he was going to die, but he had to try something. He did have more sense than to the empty Galil AR at the Death Merchant. Instead, he tried to spear Camellion in the pit of the stomach with the end of the barrel. Only Camellion wasn't where he was supposed to be! During that minimoment, Camellion had leapt high off the floor. His body was almost horizontal as he executed a thunder kick with both legs, one foot landing on Abu-Akawi's face, the other foot catching him across the throat. Abu-Akawi dropped the Galil, let out a strangled yell, and stumbled over the arm of a corpse on the floor. He fell heavily, landing on his back. He was choking to death, and not only on broken teeth or a broken nose and shattered jaw. The foot that had crashed into his throat had turned his larynx into bloody mush and crushed the upper portions of both his trachea and his esophagus. Within half a minute he would be as dead as he would ever get or could possibly be.
Haj Fayiz Ikrit was still alive, however—and desperately trying to find a hiding place he knew didn't exist. He found only the waiting arms of the Cosmic Lord of Death.
A small group heads for the dungeon. In one of the cells, they see a faint light. It's Rodocanachi, sitting on the floor, cackling quietly in what seems like a lobotomized state ("a picaresque character in some hideous, hellish play"). His hair has turned snow-white and he is now blind. The men smell petrol and see several burnt matches on the floor - and then see the intact, undamaged Shroud. Why didn't it burn? "I don't have an answer," says Camellion. (While everyone is pretty spooked at this, absolutely no one is troubled that the ancient Shroud was completely doused with gasoline.)
They pack up the Shroud and head out. On the plane, Cole is unusually quiet. "What had taken place in the dungeon had unnerved Cole and had forced him to review his value system and his belief in the future, in the eternal". Camellion also has no idea what happened. "The so-called science of coincidence could not be applied, not in this case."
So Rodocanachi went to the dungeon and had plenty of time to destroy the Shroud, but since the Shroud needed to be saved, this was apparently the only explanation Rosenberger could come up with. It's a lame ending, with Rosenberger - who has railed constantly against religion throughout the series - strongly hinting that a miracle has taken place or that there is some kind of supernatural power attached to the Shroud. ("How could anyone even begin to explain the impossible?")
Camellion thinks about George Washington being the father of his country: "If George could come back and see what a mess the U.S. was in, he'd demand a vasectomy!"
Some lazy writing: "He dropped like a stone to the stones, his head making a thud as it hit the floor of the porch. By the time the Red Brigades coglione was stretched out stone dead on the floor ..."
Cole: "Let's not hang around like a big fart in a little phone booth."
"Assad is a stupid sand crab suffering from delusions of grandeur. If he keeps it up, he might even get the ambition to be the governor of Arizona!" (Note: Rosenberger lived in Arizona when he wrote this book.)