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Chapter Excerpt

From my Novel: NATALIE STONE Beyond Survival And Into The light; JALBANI Hassan, A Pakistani “spook,” a sly, robust man of the world who had greeted them with humor and bonhomie, meets Natalie and hacker friends, Philip and Jackson, at an open-air restaurant overlooking the Potomac River. While Natalie’s primary interest is to learn anything negative about Andy Barrett, that will aid in bringing him down, the group talks about Barrett’s contracting business in the war zones, while gradually approaching the discussion of a missing billion dollars. “Max,” to whom they refer, was Barrett’s partner.

 Mid discussion, each side tentative, testing the murky waters of information:                                      

“Right,” says Phillips. “Maybe a Cessna or two. A small beat up

corporate size jet. A ten-seater maybe? And two helicopters with the BAC

logo. I remember this ‘cause I once hopped a ride close to the border.

They had several pilots.” He is nodding. “Yeah, didn’t ride with him but

the lead pilot was Max Forester. “ He waits for Hassan, who doesn’t

continue, so he carries on with:

“A variety of questionable cargo, as I recall. Beyond carrying a few

diplomats and providing heavy-duty protection, the muscled crew-cut

kind, I was told they transported some diapered, hooded prisoners in

secret for the CIA. Even ferried some sabotage teams for false flag chaos.

Also, rumor had them in Iraq, using Babylon, or BAC, to haul a few

priceless artifacts for the usual crooks, stuff that had been hidden since

the museum in Baghdad was looted.”

Hassan says, “Well you know quite a bit and I have heard the same,

not to mention a good deal of Afghan heroin. And then there was the

rumor of money in Iraq and elsewhere. A great deal of it. From whom

or from what, and to where, remains a mystery to me.”

While Natalie’s brain lights up at the word ‘money,’ recalling what

Phillips had told her, her expression is unchanged, remains one of general

interest to what Hassan says overall. For several seconds all are silent as

Hassan studies them, with Natalie understanding that his mention of

money is not the mystery that he professes. Behaving as if he were here

to talk mostly of Max, while big money had lain all along at the back of

his thoughts. She guesses that he had sought a reaction from these clever

people with their hacking ability, to probe where he can’t, especially

Phillips and Natalie, ex-military intelligence veterans who had served in

these places. She then tells her over-anxious self: quiet, this is his move.

Hassan goes on: “The only thing that tweaked my curiosity—

rumor, always rumor, mind you, held that this mysterious money was in

dollars and was transported by helicopter.” He looks at Phillips. “Were

you aware of any of this?”

Natalie reacts inwardly to ‘helicopter.’ A new entry in the money

issue that she files away.

Phillips remaining cool replies, “I don’t know jack,” then asks, “Was

this in Baghdad? Remember I was in your neck of the woods. South Asia.

All I ever heard about was the common talk coming out of the Middle

NATALIE STONE

299

East. Iraq. That there was so much loose cash tossed around for the

taking. Was actually criminal the way everyone was grabbing the stuff,

even some of our own officers, paid out by the good old U.S. taxpayer.”

Hassan, pursuing the subject more aggressively, corrects him.

“Actually, my friend, I had heard it was part U.S. and part Iraqi fund

money the U.S. had frozen and held, then finally released for the

reconstruction of Iraq.”

The Development Fund of Iraq, she recalls Mario saying, shipped

from Andrews Air Force Base. Twelve to fourteen billion.

“Altogether billions of dollars,” Hassan presses on, “in the form of

shrink-wrapped one-hundred-dollar bills, shipped on pallets by air.  Causes one to consider how easily a pallet here and there could be

diverted into an aircraft and carried elsewhere. No?” Another pause. “If

one is paid handsomely to look the other way? Or, possibly, even killed

after being paid…?” To three blank expressions: “That is, perhaps in the

same way one might fatally dispense with the assassin that one had hired

to kill another, to more ensure that one’s secret remains a secret…. Like

that Ruby fellow killed the Oswald person. No?”

Despite the Spring’s warm sun, Natalie has to control a shiver as she

recalls the assassin Oscar at the bottom of the stairs, being snuffed in the

hospital. Not to mention her shootout with Mason she managed to survive.

As she slips the last piece of lobster from its shell she recalls it was

her father who taught her how to finesse its removal. Her Dad, murdered

along with her Mom, because of what he had discovered.

“Killing’s not something I know about,” Jackson breaks in with a

display of mild impatience that Natalie knows is put on. “But the money

thing—my head easily wraps around thousands, Hassan, though billions,

like killings, is outside my universe. Who can follow this when

Rumsfeld—guy’s the fucking Secretary of Defense, for Christ’s sake—

told us he couldn’t track our gov’s transactions on more than two trillion

dollars. Stuff’s higher—way higher than my lowly pay grade. Like he’s

saying, what the fuck—what’s a few billion when you can’t find trillions?“

“Indeed, what’s a few billion,” says Hassan, “against trillions.”

“A lot, to me,” Phillips puts in, feigning relaxation, his voice cleverly

laced with the innocent curiosity and envy of the not so rich: “But boy,

how do you transport that kind of money in a helicopter?”

MARTIN J. RYAN

300

Natalie, surprised by Phillips’ sudden push into the heart of the

matter, approves of his demeanor, his perfect curiosity pitch, how easily

he delivered his question; seeing also his edginess in the way his hand

below the table rigidly grips the edge of his chair’s seat. She looks away,

fearing his closeted anxiety might be catching.

“My dear boy, you were military. You know these machines. When

one considers that a Black Hawk will carry assault troops and

ammunition, plus a howitzer, one can imagine it transporting the

money.” He looks from one to the other, his expression telling Natalie

he has decided that they know less then he does. “Very well…I must

admit my curiosity, along with a hundred others of my stripe, would not

have permitted an avoidance of such matters. After all, I am a spy, am I

not?” He laughs, swallows the last of his wine, grips the neck of the wine

bottle and says, “While appearing calm as a poker playing threesome,

you are so focused, all of you…close to holding your collective breath in

anticipation. You may breathe now for I am telling you that I have

looked into the problem.” Lifting the bottle he refills his glass and

continues:

“Consider this: the UH-60 Black Hawk can carry a gross weight of

22,000 pounds. If you wrapped one-hundred dollar bills totaling one

billion dollars, this would weigh roughly ten tons. A ton is two-thousand

pounds, and ten tons is twenty-thousand pounds. Therefore the Black

Hawk, assuming this was used in the theft, could easily carry a billion

dollars. Whether in two trips for two billion, or using two Black Hawks

in a single trip. I favor the two in one. I assume that one of the pilots was

our clever Max. But when another Babylon Air Cargo pilot, and two

ground crew, supposedly went back to the U.S., it was rumored they,

instead, had been made to disappear. Of course, one can’t believe

everything one hears.” He smiles, apparently pleased with himself.

“Wow,” Natalie says softly.

“Yeah, double wow,” says Jackson a bit louder.

“Ahh…” Steve Phillips asks, “how do you know it’s not just rumor?”

“The men returning to the States…that never got there.”

“Mmm, figures,” murmurs Phillips, unhappy with this news.

Jackson asks, “But since your work’s been in Afghanistan, how’re

you so informed on Iraq?”

“Just accept it as a matter of course we in Pakistan are interested in everything American, especially in regard to their wars. How and what

they are doing. What they are spending and who is receiving it. It was

the well-reported missing money that caught my individual attention,

followed by my Iraqi intel contact informing me early on that some of it

went to a bunker in Lebanon, which was later also reported, and that

some of it went to a mysterious elsewhere.”

Natalie recalls Mario, during their hike in the mountains, telling her

of the Lebanon bunker, but chooses not to mention this. Instead she

comments: “The mysterious elsewhere is what we’re talking about.”

Hassan merely nods and sips his wine, pats his lips with his napkin

and goes on: “While wondering who would have the assets necessary to

execute the ‘elsewhere,’ a theft of this size, it was Babylon Air Cargo that

came to mind. Especially since it was a Darkwell entity, and Andrew

Barrett, a man I despise, was its CEO.”

“Does your contact know where the ‘elsewhere’ is?” Jackson asks

him.

“I’m afraid this is where my contribution ends, all else is blank. I fear the rest is up to you three.” Then, focusing on Natalie: “Or rather you, in particular, my dear. Since my friend Steve Phillips, here, has already expressed reluctance, beyond giving you a running start, to go too far into this.”

She doesn’t look at Phillips, worries Hassan’s remark might have

embarrassed him. “Yes, you’re right, it’s up to me,” she replies. Then,

focusing on Hassan’s hatred of Barrett, she asks him: “But why do you

despise Barrett so?” She watches him pause and stare into space across

the Potomac as if searching for answers in the distance.

Then, exhaling, he turns back to her: “Why do you?”

The last thing she wants is an exploration of her history—from

Ainsworth to Shaw to Stone. “I realize, since you’ve been generous, this

makes me appear unreasonably selfish, but my reasons are very personal.”

“So are mine…. But I will tell you….” She observes a sudden

alteration of expression in his eyes as they appear to sink to a dead zone

level of hate, which scares her, and she imagines that if anger had heat

this man would burst into flames.

302

“He and his despicable crew killed three innocent members of my

family who were merely driving through their neighborhood. Snapjudged

to be militants, machine gunned to death by these maniacs wildwesting

through Lahore, these cowards who ran to their embassy and

escaped punishment.”

And so Natalie witnesses the discarding of the earlier humor and bonhomie

that had colored his descriptions running at length with the ease of a

raconteur, now understanding that while he knew it was important for

her to follow the money, for Hassan, after all, it was not just about money, it was about `Barrett. Finding the money was a trigger to pull.

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