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Chapter Excerpt

From Chapter 18 of my Novel: “NATALIE STONE Beyond Survival And Into the Light,” available on Amazon in Kindle and Paperback.

Chapter 18

       Two days later they meet not far from Arlington’s Unknown Soldiers monument. They shake hands briefly with a quick unsmiling, “Hi,” and he looks beyond her, his eyes executing a careful check of the landscape she had crossed to reach him. Then a general sweep exploring faces, his surveillance perhaps born of fear but not rushed, a professional scan, she judges, from his experience in the field. Earlier she had been to the bank, and she now carries an overlarge pocketbook, doubling as a shoulder bag, which contains the carefully wrapped fifty one-hundred-dollar bills, and the fully loaded pocket pistol. Having followed her instructions he wears a shoulder bag styled for men.

       He leads the way along what seems to her a mile-long parade of headstones, the row just one among hundreds, the two walking in silence for some distance as though sensing the dead under these endless markers are demanding reverence for sacrifices made.      

      When she comments about their surroundings: “It’s over whelming,”      Peter Simon pauses and takes a good look at her.

      He nods—starts—stops, says with sincerity, “I can’t imagine you in Iraq,” his accent southern. “You’re—you could be in one of those catalogues my Mom would get in the mail…. Sorry—what you said, yeah, gets to you, this place. There are about four-hundred thousand people buried here, from the Civil War on….” He glances around the scene, and then at her, his expression a mix of fear and anger as he recalls the mysteries of the dangers he has faced, and declares, “We’re a fucking scary bunch of animals, killing each other with never an end in sight. Aliens gotta think twice before visiting us humans.”      

       Natalie can’t disagree, but she offers: “Or they could be a bunch of hungry carnivores lookin’ for a new diet.”

       With a grim smile, humor vanquished by apprehension, he turns and walks on.

       She decides this blue-eyed bearded man with nice features is about thirty-five, but older in his head. Yet nice doesn’t do it. Suspicion rules the day, gets in the way. She digs her fingernails into her palm to interrupt and drive out fear.

       He is broad shouldered and a head taller than she is. He wears jeans and a lightweight quilted vest over a plaid shirt. Could be off the farm and the great outdoors, his face weather beaten and hardened, yet not unkind, by whatever his life has been, and he has longish air brushed back from his brow and behind his ears. Could be an earnest country singer, lacking his guitar, and she wonders if his appearance is a disguise designed to create space between himself and his recent history; from which, as Hassan Jalbani has made clear, he wants to thoroughly remove himself. He stops and looks across the field of markers.

       From afar the two might be taken for a joined young couple as they stand together, for the moment still and quiet and observing the seemingly endless battalions of headstones, imagined by Natalie to be regiments marching, undulating into the distance across gentle hills and valleys of grass. She spies what he stares at several hundred yards from where they stand–a fresh grave being dug, the reddish earth against the manicured green looking to her like a bloody scar. It could have been for either of them, she thinks.

       Perhaps a hundred feet down a row she watches as a young woman with a small boy approaches one of the headstones with a bouquet of flowers. The boy, about seven or eight, lays himself face down on the grave, spreads his arms outward embracing the grass as his mother sits beside him and rests her hand on his back. He turns his cheek to the grass as if listening.

       “Jesus,” Natalie says.

       Peter Simon checks what she observes and nods his head and says, “Price of war. Suits never pay.” He is suddenly distracted, removing his eyes from hers to glance around, as if recalling his reason for being here. His anxiety, Natalie imagines, comes in waves. “Let’s move,” he says.      

       As they walk on, in order to get him focused she asks him, “You were Army?”

       “Huh? Yes, First Lieutenant, intelligence.”

       “Okay…then contracting?”

       He doesn’t look at her, moves looking straight ahead like a man on a mission to reach the end of the cemetery, as if for cover. Where is he leading her? “Yeah, he goes on, “Iraq was a big ATM machine pouring dollars for the taking, and there were a lot of takers. Post separation I was easily recruited into the private sector for the money by Max Forester. I knew him when he was Army. You know him?”

       “Met him once. Handsome devil in love with his mirror.”

       “That’s him, but don’t underestimate him.”      

       “I already decided that…. So you’re running from what?”

       “More like who.”

       “Andrew Barrett,” she declares, not a question.

      He replies, “Good ol’ Andy, yep. Or some spook he’s hired to take me out,” He then goes quiet.

       They move at a good pace in silence for several minutes.       

       “Ýou’ve got a long stride. Not so fast.”       

        He pauses, looks at her, says, “Sorry,” then slows.

        “What’s your opinion?”

        “Andy? Thought you knew him.”

        “I work for him. He’s only recently become aware of me because of my work. I’ve exchanged a few words on several occasions. I know he’s a prick, but that’s it.”

        “Two words,” says Peter, on-auto picking up a little speed again. “Psychopath and narcissist. Empathy isn’t part of his vocabulary. He’s organized, brilliant, sadistic, hands-on and out in front when he’s boots on the ground. He likes dirty, physically and metaphorically. He was a high functioning contractor at CIA black sites. I witnessed two of his interrogations. The second of which involved a prisoner chained in a stress position. Diapered, dehydrated, placed in cold showers and unheated rooms, suffering lack of sleep and food, and days of loud music, ending in his death from hypothermia. Andy’s reaction was: “Bummer.” That wasn’t war, was fucking murder for shit intel, and I backed away from it.” He marches on.

       They have reached the far end of a section that rises just perceptively into trees. The landscape gentled here, nothing abrupt. She says, “This is a good spot. How about, instead of racing, we sit a while.  Okay?”

       He glances quickly around and without comment sits on the grass with knees propped and his back against the trunk of a tree. Wearing jeans she stretches out, resting on one elbow. They are quite alone. Recalling the money, hoping to encourage him, she sits up, opens her bag, lets her fingers brush the pistol for reassurance, then removes the hefty package. “Open yours,” she says. He obeys and she hands it to him and says, “Count it if you want.” He shakes his head as he takes it from her and tells her, “I’ve been advised to trust you.” Slipping it into his bag he adds, “And thanks, I really need it.”

       “You’re welcome…. So Peter, what have you got for me?”

       “It would help to know what you know—to start from there.”

       She didn’t expect that, doesn’t recoil, but hesitates: “You’re right…. Okay…well not much.”

       Fuck it, go for broke.

       “All I know about is the rumored billions siphoned, pissed away, scamming the Iraqis, and maybe American taxpayers as well. And two or three billion more, flat out stolen and hidden away out of Iraq by powerful Iraqi officials. And then at the same time, one or two billion more, taken and hauled on helicopters to—well to somewhere. The latter a very secret ops, and more than a few people have been bribed and/or killed to keep it that way. I figure more killed than bribed.” Avoiding the distress of personal emotions she doesn’t mention the murder of her parents. Then, displaying sympathy, she adds: “And the latter part, your direct connection to the whole thing is playing a major role in your anxiety. As it would me, and any sane person who values his life and understands that Barrett is a murdering prick. That’s basically it.”

       He says, “You haven’t said much, so I figure Barrett has probably caused you some serious pain, but you don’t want to talk about it. Yes?”

       She merely nods.

       “Right, got that…. Anyway, my story. ‘The latter part’ as you put it, the stash we dealt with, was about one and a half billion. I saw it, handled it, but never got to count it. It was flown, then smuggled, with half a bil used for bribes. Call it expenses. The pallets of cash flown in two helos, one trip. Max was the lead pilot. Flying across Iraq up against Jordan, then dropping down at the border to load it all onto trucks.”

       “You carried all that in trucks?”

       “Stay with me. Not so crazy as it sounds. You have to understand—but I don’t have to tell you this—you were there. The fucking chaos of South Asia, where the greediest, dirtiest, strongest, rise to the surface. The local criminal action gets a pass simply because official corruption exists big time both sides of the border. Occasionally someone is arrested to make a show of the police and military’s doing what they’re paid to do. It’s a fucking joke. Everything’s greased palms and wink-wink, so there are always ongoing operations by the locals, the kind that Barrett was able to merge into with his monumental scam.”     

       He suddenly looks left, right, around either side of the trunk he leans against, seeming to Natalie like a man checking for fields of fire. His hand moves to his vest, lightly palms the pocket area. She detects the slight bulge of a weapon. Apparently satisfied with his position, he goes on:  

       “Next, consider Jordan, a friend of the U.S., an ally. Quote—” makes quotations with raised fingers—“friendly to Israel and part of a coalition to fight terrorism. Un-fucking quote. At the same time you got gun smugglers using a major route running right through Jordan carrying weapons from Iraq to the Palestinians in the West bank and Gaza. We’re talking stuff like rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Talking assault rifles, down to handguns with plenty of ammo. Most of it Russian made. Then, what’s essential to success, fifty-sixty miles in from Iraq’s border you got crazy traffic driving route 5 that goes south across the Jafar Desert to the city of Maan. Some days Jammed bumper to bumper with cars and trucks, giant oil tankers. Taxis and buses. Trucks full of immigrant workers. Even fucking crazy tourists. Picture trying to pick out a suspicious cargo going to terrorists in the midst of this human chaos. Huh?”

       “It sounds wild, all right. But I’m gonna need specific details, Peter.”

       “I’m getting there. So we needed drivers. Counting me, there were a total of three Western contractors, one Brit, two American. Plus Barrett, and Max who blackened his blond hair. We were all fluent, dark haired, dark glasses, darkened faces. If anyone thought he saw a foreigner, money and a wink-wink altered vision and nothing was said.

       “Then we added a few Suni hard guys, pissed off ex-soldiers shoved-aside post invasion by the Shias, that were looking for a big hit. They were well paid and helped smooth the way for us. As you can imagine, Barrett had plenty of expense money to spend. Our promised payments and the bribes Barrett spread around might seem excessive, but were peanuts in the big picture. I was paid what Barrett called cigarette money, ten-thou up front, that was to be followed by another four-hundred-eighty thousand at the end of the deal. Not bad for a banged up mercenary looking to buy some Kentucky acreage. To get married, do a little farming, raise kids and livestock. Huh?”

       “Half a million. Not bad at all, Peter. That’s a lot of money.”

       “Not when you figure there are another five hundred million in the half billion set aside just for expenses.”

       “See what you mean…but you never got the second payment. Right?”

       “Unfortunately no.”

       “Okay, so you loaded the trucks. How did that work?”

       “Opium was the cover. Jordan’s really tough on drug smugglers but first they have to catch them. Not easy since traffickers are numerous and aggressive, and officials on the take are dependably greedy. Guns. Opium. Makes no difference. But they charge more for the dope because of the so-called extra risk. I re-emphasize–security infrastructure in a war zone, in general, is total shit.”

       “You’re talking opium and weapons. What about the cash?”

       “First we receive a bunch of decrepit lookin’ trucks, pre-purchased and serviced by a good mechanic, and fitted with false flooring. The carpenters are told we’re smuggling a batch of small arms and ammo. The usual. Fine with them.   

       “We then drive to another location, where Barrett, Max, and we three contractors, place the cash, flat as possible, underneath the floors of each truck. Then a third location where opium is delivered by local smugglers and the five of us add that on top of the false floors. We place tarps on top of the dope, and then a shitload of weapons and ammo placed on top of that. Was crazy and daring and fucking brilliant and totally Barrett. What’s important, we didn’t convoy. Like I said we mixed in with the wild mob scene of  buses, taxis, oil rigs, workers and tourists, and anybody looks, the rationale is, we’re hiding the dope underneath the weapons. Display a little folding money and it’s no problem, amigo. One truck was checked by cops, another by soldiers. Even once by armed bandits who took less money then the cops did.  Cash layered under dope that’s under weapons never entered anybody’s greed-soaked head.

       “Add to that, we’re going through the center of the Hashemite tribal area, anti Israel and a big fucking gun culture which doesn’t give a shit about smugglers going through there.

        CONTINUED IN THE KINDLE OR THE PRINT VERSION

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