Just West of Mary, Turkmenistan
Ahmed, Ali, Sharif, and Akbar, Ahmed's warehouse man, left late again the next morning. It was late because Ahmed had a terrible hangover and it took him awhile to get rolling. Soon he was driving his Mercedes 500SU at breakneck speed west from Mary as if to make up for the lost time. The way was straight as an arrow into the dusty vanishing point of road piercing the vast flat desert ahead. Occasionally there was a truck or a donkey cart, but the road to the Capitol in Ashgabat was lightly traveled. Ali leaned back in the comfortable seat with the morning sun shining on his head and went to sleep.
Ali was jolted from his dreams when he heard Ahmed shout, "Damn, Allah!" and felt the Mercedes wrench him into the side of his door. As he opened his eyes the world was spinning and he was being forced into the door by centrifugal force. The two others in the back seat were screaming for Allah to save them. The right side air curtain deployed. Finally, after spinning for what seemed like an eternity, the SUV lurched to a halt by the side of the road. Before Ali was fully awake, Ahmed was out the door and walking back from where they'd come. Through the rear window, a half-kilometer behind, he could see a camel stumbling until it fell down. Ahmed walked up to it and shot it in the head with his pistol, "Crack! ...Crack!" He then walked over to the man who had been riding the camel, struggling to regain his feet and gave him something. Coming back to the Mercedes Ahmed beat his hands on the side and exclaimed, "Good German engineering!" He then stuck his head into the open window and said, "Ali, … you drive."
"I must've been asleep. When I opened my eyes, all I saw was camel butt!” Ahmed laughed. "I swerved to the left, but caught him anyway. Camel dung hit the windshield, and that guy flew off of him as this old German tank began to spin. Had to shoot him--he was mortally wounded. Paid that guy three times what he was worth."
Ali, wide awake now, and with both hands on the wheel, stared into the distance of the endless road and brought her up to 160 kmh. Keeping a sharp eye out for camels, donkeys, and handcarts, it took them less than two hours at that speed to reach Ashgabat. Security there was very heavy because of the United States Embassy. There were bribes to make and clearances to obtain. Ahmed, loud and wildly gesturing operated from the back seat. They had to stop at a Mercedes dealer to get the bumper guard straightened, the side air bag curtain removed, and the right front headlight replaced. It only took two hours--German efficiency--Ahmed loved that. Legally, they were required to replace the air bag. After much apology and explanation from Ahmed that they were on a schedule and that he would repair it upon his return, they let him go without replacing it.
Sherif took the wheel as they left the Ashgabat. Ali was grateful for that. The kabobs and beer they ate at the dealership were heavy on his stomach. He was soon asleep in the back seat again. By nightfall, they reached Nebitdag and the villa of one of Ahmed's people. There was much celebration. Except for prayer, no one cared to get up the next day.
A day later, they were on the road again, reaching Turkmenbashy and the port by noon. Turkmenbashy was a busy place, handling trade and fishing throughout the Caspian Sea. Within an hour Ahmed’s men had winched lifted the SUV to the deck of a rusty 50 meter cargo barge his company owned and they were heading west directly toward Baku on the other side. The boat chugged along at the stately pace of seven knots. Ahmed broke out the booze, and soon they were getting drunk sailing into the bloody red sunset. Ali surmised that all the hydrocarbon production and dust in the air made it so. It looked a bit radioactive. Ali thought of Chernobyl. Lulled by the scene, the constant beat of the motor against a placid sea, and the vodka in his gut, he fell asleep on a lounge chair. He awoke to the jolt of the barge hitting the dock as men pulled it with ropes to its moorings. He was wet with gritty dew. He was not alone. Ahmed reluctantly raised his head from his lounge chair and started to get up.
"What is your purpose here in Azerbaijan?" A customs official, his eyes bulged out, was addressing Ahmed directly, his clipboard in Ahmed's face. "We know you carry contraband and have ties with the Chechens. What are you carrying that they want?"
Ahmed, still dazed from his sleep, answered. "Nothing. You can search us. You think I'd be so stupid as to try to carry something to those evil Chechens? Akbar, show the man our bag of dollars. Ask him if he wants some for his trouble."
Among their luggage was an inconspicuous suitcase that Akbar walked over to and picked up. He brought it to the lounge where Ahmed was now sitting upright, placed it next to him, popped the catches, and opened it up facing the official. Ali saw more Ben Franklins than he'd ever seen in his life before. Ahmed picked up a packet and thumbed it, just like in the movies. The official didn't flinch.
"I'm not take bribes." The man announced in poor English. "Besides, is American dollar and not manat. If you here to buy contraband, I will have your money and your boat confiscated and you thrown in jail!" Ali could see him eyeing the Mercedes with a certain envy.
Ahmed pushed the clipboard to the right and motioned for the man to bend down toward him so that he could whisper something in his ear. When the man obliged, with a sneer on his face and a look in his eye that Ali had not seen before, Ahmed whispered something into his ear. The man got a startled look on his face, eagerly took the money being offered, snapped to attention, and marched off the boat. Ali wanted to ask Ahmed what that was all about, but thought it would be better to wait until Ahmed was drunk. By this time, Ahmed was laughing loudly again. It was contagious, everyone was soon laughing with him.
They were on the road again, heading north and west. It was another hard two-day's drive before they reached their destination, They followed the railway through Ganca, Agstafa, the Capital of Georgia, Tbilisi, Gori, Kashuri, Samtredia, Senaki, to the east coast of the Black Sea, bribing Georgian officials as they went. Poti appeared to be a sleepy little town on the Black Sea. They pulled up to an aging remnant of the communist regime, The Proletariat, and took rooms for the night. Ali had a small room with a balcony overlooking the sea. The bathroom was down the hall. He didn't mind. It was nice to have a place to himself. He didn't know how nice it would become.
Ahmed seemed more nervous and agitated than unusual. Although he didn't say it, Ali surmised that they were about to meet with some Chechens for a major arms deal. Ahmed's unusual quietness is what tipped him off. When evening came, they left their rooms to find a restaurant to eat in. They didn't wander much; Ahmed led them directly, about three blocks, to a restaurant overlooking the sea. When the maitre d saw him, he waved him over to a corner table with a good view of the sea, hugged him, shook his hand strongly and asked everyone what they would like to drink, on the house. Apparently, Ahmed has some clout in this place.
Ali was finishing his leg of lamb when out of the corner of his eye, he saw a woman and three men slip into the restaurant without guidance from the maitre d. The woman was vaguely familiar. He returned to the lamb after they disappeared into a side room. Still, he had a strange feeling.
A few minutes later, when they were finished eating, the maitre d approached the table and spoke directly to Ahmed. "She will see you now, Sir. She is most happy to finally meet you after doing so much business."
Ahmed rose and signaled the others to follow. Ali took a last swig of beer and was the last to get up and follow. He had to peek past the others to get a look at her as they entered the room. His heart stopped--Dina was sitting with those strange men across the table. He tried not to act like anything out of the ordinary had happened, but he could feel his skin burn as he broke out in a sweat in the cool evening air.
She saw him too. Ahmed was the first to bend down before her and shake her hand in both of his. He then turned to his comrades and introduced them, one by one, to her. When he got to Ali, her eyes took on a glow, and she repeated his name, as Ahmed had just stated. "Yes, Ali Rashid. Welcome to our humble little Poti." She took his hand in hers and held it gently against the beating of Ali's heart trying to escape his chest. And then she diverted her eyes, trying to concentrate on the task at hand instead of what she was thinking. She introduced the three men with her. “I’m sorry that Mohammad Moselle Khond isn’t here. Russian assassins at a Chechen rally in Pasanauri gunned down Khondi last April 10th. I’ve stepped in for him here.” Her face showed both her concern and resolve.
Ahmed got right down to business, discussing how they might assist each other with his shopping list of old Russian armaments that he wished to buy and carry to the Moslem world. Ali was glad that he wasn't doing the talking. He sipped a beer and tried to keep his composure while Ahmed hammered out a deal after deal for everything ranging from tanks to small arms ammunition. Dina and her partner seemed caught up in the negotiations, but every once in awhile, Ali could see her make the furtive glance in his direction as if to reaffirm that he was really there, sitting just across the table from her after all these years.
Finally, about midnight, the negotiations were over. Everyone smiled about the good deal that had been struck, and shook hands. Ali's hand was cold as ice. It wasn't from holding his cold beer. After the heat of their initial meeting, all the blood had drained from his body. She sensed it, but once again averted her eyes to the others to avoid being seen as too attentive to him.
In celebration of the deal they just made, Ahmed invited everyone to have a drink with him. Based on Ahmed's recent history, Ali knew that meant he would drink until he couldn't get up from the table. Ali excused himself, saying that his dinner didn't agree with him, and started out the door.
"You aren't sick, my man! "Ahmed yelled after him so the whole restaurant could hear. "I saw how she kept looking at you. Wish I were still young and good-looking. Be careful though, I’ve heard she has slept with hundreds, and that that tall one with her, Stanislov, has killed for less.”
Ahmed's words burned a hole in the blur of Ali's thoughts. He could have turned and killed Ahmed on the spot. Instead, he cooled his anger and left the restaurant silently avoiding a confrontation that would only hurt his cause. There would be plenty of time later for revenge. The streets were empty and he took the time walking back to his room to rethink what had just happened.
An hour later, thoughts of Dina and the meeting were still running through his mind as he lie there on his bed, staring at the lights and shadows mixing on the ceiling from the open window to the balcony. He thought he heard a knock. It was more like a scratching sound at his door. He got up to investigate. "Who is it?" he whispered.
"It's me, Dina. Let me in.” She whispered.
Ali let the door open a slight crack, his gun ready. It was her voice, but he wasn't sure if she was alone. Dina pushed the door open quickly and slipped in. In a seamless move, she pulled the door shut behind her, encircled him like a snake, and placed her lips on his in a way he'd never kissed her before. In a moment they were on his bed and he was tearing her clothes off. This was not the girl he knew. This was a woman who knew how to love and make love. All the while, he kept gasping, "Oh Dina, I thought I'd lost you forever!"
"Oh, Ali, you don't know how many times I wished that I had been able to say goodbye!” She cried out softly. "But they wouldn't let us because they knew we were in love.”
Before they knew it, the pale light of dawn was showing through the window. Dina gathered her clothes and slipped into them. She kissed him one more time, deeply, and said, "Don't let this be the last time.” Before Ali could reach for her to pull her back in, she was gone.
As expected, Ahmed had a hard time getting up. Ali joined the others for breakfast at the restaurant, his eyes searching every street and dark corner for a glimpse of her or one of her companions. He saw nothing. He hoped that the others didn't see him looking. About noon, Ahmed, bleary eyed, joined them. "We will stay here two days. We will have to inspect the shipments and make share that they are right. As soon as I get something to eat, I'll take you there.”
Ali heard what he said but his mind was elsewhere. Only Ahmed noticed. As Ahmed finished the last of his soup and sandwich he smiled wryly and said, "If Ali can pay attention, we should get through by tomorrow. Otherwise we will have to finish without him and drop him off with the lovesick cows I saw by the edge of town.” He laughed sarcastically, the kind of laugh that let you know that he was wide-awake now, in charge, and ready to go to work. The others picked it up and joined in, making Ali feel a bit silly. He put up with it.
They left the restaurant and walked to a commercial dock area near the railhead. In the jumble of buildings there, they entered a warehouse. What Ali saw surprised him. The warehouse was filled to the brim with the latest Soviet military ordinance. There were mines so small and sophisticated they could easily be placed without tools and wouldn't go off unless they received the programmed pressure from above. There were surface-to-air missiles capable of knocking down jetfighters or other missiles. There were laser guns and tazers he didn't know the Russians made. Night vision scopes. Wall bursting rockets. Remote-controlled surveillance cameras and monitors. The most sophisticated of these were model-sized aircraft that could also carry bombs. There were explosive packs with digital timers that would enable one man to take out half a building. The digital timers were easy to set, and very reliable. There were flak jackets similar to those used by the American and Israeli forces. And finally, most sinister, there were nuclear triggering devices--ten of them. Each one, although no bigger than a five gallon container, could take out a city block. He couldn't let these fall into the hands of terrorists. He had to do something about this. The question was, what?
In the meantime, Ahmed and his crew were taking stock of what they had bought and how they would get it into their supply chain. Innocuous, unmarked trucks would load at night and leave before morning for Ahmed's docks in Baku. Once there, they would be ferried across the Caspian and continue their journey to Mary. It would have been cheaper to use the railroad, but the individual trucks worked better. Ahmed rarely lost a truck to zealous officials. When he did, the rest of the shipment got through. With the railroad, if suspicion was raised, he could lose the whole shipment.
In a corner of the warehouse, Ali popped the question that bothered him: "Ahmed, why the nuke triggers? They're dangerous to ship, let alone sell in the black market. Aren't they just a lot of trouble?"
Ahmed turned to Ali with the veins in his neck bulging and fire in his eyes. "My boy, you sure are the new kid on the block! Why, those triggers are the very reason I came all this way! Do you realize what they will bring in Pakistan or India? You have no idea.” His demeanor changed quickly and he smiled broadly. "And we have our American friends who pay dearly for anything nuclear. Remember, I was the one who got the big one-out that time before you were born.”
Ahmed could get ornery when he wasn't drinking. Ali backed down. "Okay, …, okay. You're right, I forgot what you told me about your uncle and why you're in this business altogether. It was just my inexperience talking. I'm going to go along with you on this and see how much money you make with these devices. Maybe I'll learn something about the business,....”
"Now that's better. You had me going there for a moment. I was beginning think that the best man I've found in a long time was going to turn on me. Well, you just stick with me and you learn more about making money with armaments than you ever want to know.”
The only thing missing was Dina. Ali hoped that she would be there at the warehouse, but she wasn't. It was good though, because he didn't want anyone to know that they knew each other.
Late in the day they returned to the restaurant. Ali kept his eyes on the door while trying not to raise suspicion. Ahmed was drinking again and getting quite boisterous. "Hey guys, did you see how Ali looked at that girl last night? ‘Aleksandra the Great’ they call her--not for nothing. She is good-looking, but I've heard, dangerous. What do you think Ali?" Now, he was playing for keeps.
It was the last thing Ali wanted to hear. "You're right, my friend, she caught my eye, she is much better looking than those whores you set me up with back in Mary. But did you see that guy she's with, Stanislav? I doubt if he would step back and let me fool with her. If she didn't kill me for the fun of it, he would for mere spite.” As he said those words, Ali saw Dina and Stanislav slip in the door and head directly to the room they had met in the night before. He saw no more of her until he left the rest of them and went to bed in his room.
There was a light tapping again. Ali was ready, and had the door open and Dina in his arms in an instant. It was as if they were reliving the night before again, only this time it was even more intense. After making love like it was their last, it was time to talk.
"Oh, Ali, I can't believe how I've missed you. We had something back then didn’t we, what was it, ten years? I've lost track of time. But I never lost my thoughts of you.”
"I haven't either, Dina. I couldn't understand why you didn't go to Special Forces training with the rest of us and why you disappeared. I've thought of you countless times in all these years. Now that I know how you feel, and how you and I will leave this business on our anniversary date, April 29th. After I muster out, I will wait for you every evening at sunset at the overlook to the Golden Gate Bridge. Is it a date?"
"It's a date. I don't know either. All I can say is that they picked me out for this special assignment with the Chechens. I've done some terrible things in the name of freedom. I hope I can change that before my time is up. In the meantime, don't worry about me. I'll be there when I muster out too.”
"Dina, did you know that there are nuclear triggers in that deal you struck with us?"
Dina shifted her position and lowered her voice to a whisper. "Yes, it's the last of many nuclear materials we Chechens stole from the old Soviet Union and sold to countries like North Korea, India, Pakistan, South Africa, and the like. Ahmed Shah and his family have been the prime conduit for getting nuclear material out and money in to fuel our rebellion against the Russians. Most of those countries built their nuclear presence using what we sold them. It's a rumor, but they say that the first full bomb that got out, a warhead from an obsolete ABM, was sold by the Pakistanis to an American buyer who used it on Washington D.C. Ali, you can't let those triggers get to their destinations. There are more bombs out there just waiting for detonators. I'm glad they're out of Chechen hands, but if they do get in the hands of some terrorists who already have the bomb, God help us.” She began to cry softly.
Ali kissed away her tears. "I've had the same thoughts. I'll think of a way. Don't worry. I worry more about you. This reputation you have doesn't make you anonymous like me. And Stanislav, what about him? It's obvious that the two of you are together.”
"He was there when I needed him after Khondi died. Now we are a couple. He wants to lead the Chechen people to their own state. The Russians don't want it to happen. I have gradually convinced him that nonviolent resistance is our only course. He has been extremely violent in the past, but it got us nowhere. To achieve a Chechen state, we must do it politically. The money we just made will take us a long way in that direction. I expect him to be assassinated before my time is up. I'm very fond of him. But not like you, Ali. When the time comes I will leave him and come to you.” She kissed him gently as she spoke, her fingers exploring his chest.
Once again, she put her clothes on and slipped out at dawn. It was last he saw of her. A day later, many trucks had been loaded and were on their way to the Caspian Sea. Ali joined the others in Ahmed's Mercedes and they sped east, passing one inconspicuous black truck after another.