All posts by hahnco1st

Nick Hahn started his career as a writer while a student at the University of Notre Dame. He went on to become President and CEO of New York-based Cotton Incorporated (Cotton, The Fabric of Our Lives). Leaving Cotton in 1997, he formed Hahn International, LTD, an agribusiness consulting group focused on the Third World. For twenty-one years, Nick has lived and worked among indigenous peoples from Africa to Latin America, his travel diaries often reflecting social and political unrest. Under the Skin is his first novel. Nick is married with four children and six grandchildren. He makes his home in rural eastern Connecticut near Long Island Sound, where he writes and narrates audiobooks


by Nick Hahn

“A drone is often preferred for missions that are too dull, dirty, or dangerous for manned aircraft.”


Her name was Casita. She was eighteen but looked fourteen. One of nine children from a poverty stricken, dangerous barrio on the outskirts of Panama City, her brother, Javier, had been snatched from the streets of El Chorrillos six months earlier. He was thirteen and beautiful.

Casita completed high school, spoke fluent English and Spanish, but her education was earned on the streets of El Chorrillos. There she was known as jefe mujer (boss woman). In the developed world she would have been a CEO, respected by her peers and feared by her competitors. Interpol, the world’s largest international police organization, had recruited Casita at seventeen. She was smart, street savvy, motivated, pretty – the perfect candidate for Interpol and their undercover investigation of human trafficking.  Casita would be a Drone.


The graffiti was in Spanish, neon colors highlighting the varicose cracks in the wall. It smelled of urine and pot. The front door was metal with four bolt locks. The windows were frosted glass, embedded with chicken wire. They swung out and up like fake eyelashes supported by notched adjustment bars.

This factory building was on the near-west side of Cleveland in an industrial area on the Cuyahoga River known as The Flats. There was a sweatshop garment factory, a warehouse for imported cheeses, then a crack den for teenage potheads. It was now headquartering for Magic Slim, the only pimp in Cleveland with his own film studio, a training facility, and a dormitory fit for the Ivy League.

Life in his building was good, and he intended to make it better. Slim’s girls came from nothing. It was a big improvement for them. Slim understood this too well. He knew about poverty, cold, and hunger. The West Side of Chicago was his training ground. He would never go back. He weighed 140 pounds soaking wet. No one knew what held his pants up. He would just say, “It’s magic”. The name stuck.



I was born and raised on the South Side of Chicago. My father was a Rastafarian pothead who walked out on us when I was two. My mother, Juanita, worked nights cleaning office buildings to make ends meet for my three younger sisters and me. She did a little hooking on the side, the latter always more profitable.

She worked Rush Street on weekends. Her pimp promoted her as ‘the best trick in the Loop.’ Most clients agreed, at least the sober ones. She could do ten to fifteen tricks a night without complaining. The average time with a client was fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on services rendered. Pimp, the only name she ever called him, took care of her, often paying her a performance bonus.

There was a lot of competition on the street. Pimps would entice the better performers to join their stable for a bigger cut or access to the best corners. Top girls were often tattooed with the pimp’s initials. Branding was a growing trend, and Pimp liked to stay ahead of his competition. Juanita refused to let him put his stylized P in red, white, and blue anywhere on her body. Some things were sacred, after all, and she might opt for free agency one day. This was a business like any other, only in this case you were a renewable resource, albeit one with a limited life span. Like a professional athlete, when the girls hit forty, they either retired or moved into a management role.

When Juanita got home late, I knew it meant business was good and there’d be extra food on the table. She didn’t take food stamps or welfare. She was a naturalized citizen and felt it was unpatriotic. She was a businesswoman and an entrepreneur who paid her taxes. It was the American way.

I was a street kid who lived by my wits, not by my anemic brawn. My friends looked to me for solutions, not muscle. I was clever and dependable, and everyone in the neighborhood knew it.

By the time I was fifteen I had saved twelve hundred dollars in small bills running errands for the South Side cartels. I appreciated the value of a dollar and didn’t spend foolishly. I stashed my money in two tin cans, one nested inside the other, and stored it under the housing project in Pilsen, the Latino barrio on Chicago’s lower West Side where we lived. The rats were my only concern. They were as big as cats and ate anything not nailed down, so the double cans provided double protection.

The streets in Pilsen were dangerous for most, but not for me. I thrived on the competition between the cartels. They needed the services of a neutral currier, one who kept his mouth shut and was dependable. I was more preferable to them than a phone call as there was no record of the transaction if the Feds were tapping them. Curriers were expendable.

I never argued. I believed that negotiation was better than confrontation. “Always leave something on the table” was my motto. My clients left feeling good about the deal and good about Magic Slim. A smaller cut of a bigger pie made sense to me. Why risk market share by being greedy?

When I turned eighteen and decided to leave home, Juanita pushed a crisp hundred-dollar bill into my shirt pocket, gave me a big hug and a kiss, and wished me well as I boarded that Greyhound for Cleveland. For her it was one less mouth to feed. I never told her about the money under the building that was now hidden in my tattered backpack. I learned early to trust no one but me. Even your own mother could be compromised.

Going to Cleveland was a gamble, but I figured it was better to be a bigger fish in a smaller pond. Cleveland was a growing market largely ignored by the cartels. In Cleveland I planned on becoming the most successful pornographic film producer and sex-for-hire distributor in America. My studio would be a key link in a human traffic supply chain stretching from the former Soviet Republics in Eastern Europe to the United States. Trafficking is an estimated $32 billion annual trade.

Market research would drive my business. I would eliminate all but the most profitable segments of the market – sexual exploitation of minors and pornographic film production. I would be the best of the best.

Chapter-2 INTERPOL

It was a seventy-mile drive to a remote jungle clearing outside of the city. The front gate was imposing, iron plates welded together eight feet high connecting concrete walls topped with barbed wire and broken shards of glass. There was no sign, no indication what was hidden on the other side of those gates. Human trafficking added more to Panama’s economy than tourism and Canal traffic combined yet wasn’t reflected in their GDP or tax revenue. Trafficking was endemic to Central America and Panama was the leading statistic.

The Interpol recruiters advertised for students who fit their profile. Emotional stability, strong academics, physically fit, youthful appearance and pretty. They had to be pretty, with a prepubescent allure.

Pornographic film producers in the States ran blind ads in the classified section of small-town newspapers. They promised high paying careers in the movies for teenagers who fit the profile and completed an audition. The ads targeted runaways, kids escaping parents for a life of glamour in Hollywood. You could call an 800 number for a prearranged Greyhound Bus ticket to LA. A producer representative would meet you at the other end.

Interpol wanted to answer these ads.

They were initiating a worldwide drive to connect the dots and identify supply routes. Central America, Brazil and Eastern Europe were prime feeder areas for the US, competing with Thailand as the most lucrative market for child pornography and prostitution.

The Interpol representative was a woman with a serious demeanor; she was looking for motivation beyond escape from the Barrio.

Casita had lost a brother; she was articulate and intense during the interview. Her school transcript, English proficiency and youthful appearance fit the Interpol profile.

The interview covered every nuance of Casita’s personality and motivation. She passed this first level which included physical and mental evaluations, an IQ test and a Rorschach. Next would be a fitness test and a series of interviews by highly trained Interpol physiologists and experts on mental stress.  Prolonged periods of time undercover with constant fear of discovery is mentally corrosive, it can breakdown the hardest of seasoned professionals. Interpol did everything they could to expose weakness in a candidate before accepting them for the world’s best and most intensive eight-week training program.

The compound looked like a prison; I was expecting a campus.

The Interpol instructors were young and disciplined. They gave you their best and would accept nothing less in return.

The classroom instruction covered language skills, basic covert operations and cultural assimilation.

Four recruits left the first week. They walked out after learning that under deep cover we’d be performing in pornographic videos and doing tricks with Johns from Los Angeles to New York.

Our simulation exercises were realistic but like military exercises were only approximate. The reality of combat with men dying around you can never be assimilated. You knew in the back of your mind it was an exercise with a safety net. Much different than knowing one mistake would expose you as a spy with deadly consequences. 

I’ve been trained to know my own strength and minimize weakness. We worked weights, endurance and martial arts. We also learned dirty tricks, how to bring a man down with a kick to the groin or incapacitate him with a finger in an eye. There were no rules, this was survival training. I was first in my class to earn black belts in both, my street training in El Charillos was my basic training.

Then there was the sex. Our job was to infiltrate the chain as performers. It was a short step from video performance to bedroom performance. Top porn stars were in demand. The internet had changed everything. Now you could watch talent in the comfort and privacy of your own home or more likely, hotel room. This avoided discovery walking into those seedy porno shops with surveillance cameras in every corner.  The girls, and boys, who looked good on YouTube were soon being specified by high-end clients. At these prices they were “clients” not “johns”, $5 to10K a night, sometime more for S&M. 

I was number one in my class, Interpol selected me for advanced training in accounting, business planning and management. All the disciplines they suspected were being employed by a traffic mastermind. I had to recognize the economic issues that drove the business. How did they avoid taxes, how did they move money around the world, what laundering techniques did they use, did they get paid in cash, cashier’s check, direct deposit, credit card, PayPal? I would have an iPhone, a Square account and a swiping device that was connected to the earphone port.  Clients could use credit or debit cards payable to a front company for innocuous goods and services. How did they check a client’s credit, bad debt history and discretion?

So much to learn, but I was a fast study. Too bad I wasn’t at Harvard preparing for a corporate career instead of Interpol preparing for a pornography career. I’d be best in class for both.

The training was intense; physically, intellectually and emotionally. If I couldn’t find solutions to problems, I’d improvise outside of the training manual. This annoyed the instructors, but they couldn’t help but admire my tenacity. I was always first to reach an objective no matter what it took, for me the end would justify the means, any means that worked.

The only time I hesitated was in the technology lab. The white coats were about to implant a microchip behind my left ear. This was state-of-art technology. With this tiny GPS device, the Interpol handlers could track my location and broadcast instructions with a low decibel code. The device was virtually undetectable, made from a new alloy designed by the Swiss. The power source was the electrical beat of your heart.  I asked them if during sex there a surge and danger of would be blowing a fuse, they barely smiled in assuring me that would not be the case. The swiss are micro engineers with the patience of watchmakers, Interpol turned to them for solutions to complicated eavesdropping problems.

The plan was for me to work my way to the States. I would have Interpol operatives helping me to the border, from there I’d be on my own. Once in the US I’d be contacted by my handler, a woman named Maria, based in in Washington, DC. Maria would track my movements with a sophisticated receiver that showed me as a blue dot moving on a map, like a GPS driving aid in a truck. She would also be able to transmit brief coded messages that I would feel in my ear, not hear. Similar to Morris code dots and dashes without the clicking. I would be able to respond with four simple codes, one tap behind my ear for emergency help, two taps for yes I understand, three taps for no need to revise and a long press meant we need to meet. This was 2013, undercover work was becoming a technology game with both hunters and hunted having state of the art devices and software. Agents had to be trained IT experts with deep understanding of how systems worked and knowledge of “work arounds” when we confronted with secure firewalls.

The graduation ceremony was private, no family or friends or caps in the air. This was not Princeton; this was hard reality. This was the culmination of twelve weeks of grueling physical and mental training combined with mind numbing classroom sessions. We got no letters after our name, just a chip in the ear and an unspoken designation, we were now Drones.

Our commencement speaker was Gunther, there were no last names in Interpol. He was German or Austrian maybe with a heavy accent. His demeanor and military bearing convinced you immediately that he would not suffer fools lightly. The muscle twitch of his jawline as he spoke accentuated chiseled good looks. His closely cropped hair was prematurely gray, this business had a way of aging you ahead of your time. There was no humor, this man had a sober, serious demeanor as he spoke about a criminal enterprise that was infecting the fiber of our youth and the future of our civility. These traffickers were depraved and amoral with not an ounce of compassion. They would stop at nothing to achieve their ends. I wondered if Gunther realized that in his audience was a woman who shared the trafficker’s credo, I would stop at nothing to achieve my ends as well. I would find Javier and inflict my vengeance on these androids, these subhumans with no moral core. Magic Slim and others like him were about to experience their greatest nightmare and she would appear in the guise of the sexiest performer in the stable.

Chapter 3


My trip North started on a tramp steamer, working as a cook’s assistant. The captain was an Interpol operative; he knew in advance I didn’t have papers. Operatives were aware that human drones, trained by Interpol, were lethal weapons. The cook was disgusting, fat, unshaven, smelly with rotten teeth. He did not know who I was, when he grabbed me by behind that first night out after dinner service, I turned and feigned interest while I took his left hand gently in mine and with my right bent his middle finger back until it snapped. This seemed to be the traffickers preferred discipline, it worked pretty well on cook as well, his scream was drowned out by the sound of the diesel and choppy waves against the bulkhead. I wondered if the chip behind my ear picked up the cracking sound of that middle finger.

I was put ashore in Matamoros on the way to Houston without further incident. There was decidedly less work to do as cook’s assistant.

The Matamoros waterfront was notorious, don’t ask don’t tell was the rule. Law enforcement, especially immigration control, was negotiable.

My connection there would be Jose’, the proprietor of Chipotle’s, a waterfront dive serving frijoles and chicken covered with hot sauce to hide yesterday’s cooking. The streets of Matamoros were filthy even worse than El Chorrillos, I didn’t think that was possible.

Chipotles was wedged between two adobe store fronts, a tattoo pallor on the left and a massage pallor on the right. Funny, seemed like only men were getting massages today. The front door was painted blue, Mexicans love blue, especially in combination with yellow. The neon sign flickered with static, sounded like a patio mosquito zapper as the letters c and a dimmed on the failing CAFE sign.

Jose’ was a part time mole for Interpol, an informer and useful, if not broken, link in the chain. He was contract, paid for performance, with a year-end bonus for good work. His job was to get me connected to a mule going North across the border. He had seen hundreds like me; young, pretty girls from Central America sent north by their families to find work. Girls with no papers, no money and no future accept what he and his trafficker connections could offer them. I was different, I was an Interpol assignment. Jose’ would behave himself, he knew better than to fuck with me. 

The truck had been converted from a livestock hauler. The open sides were now covered with corrugated sheet metal. Small air vents were added near the roof. It had a rollup back door concealing wooden scaffolding, six openings across and eight high built to accommodate 48 young hogs.

We were loaded in one girl at a time with just the clothes on our back. No parcels, no plastic bags, no stuffed animals. The pat-down search was rough and seemed to concentrate on the chest and crotch, apparently a perk for the Mexican peasants hired to lift us onto our designated rack.

Other than the small air vents there was no ventilation, no hygiene and total silence at all times. The driver was native American, a Navajo, who spoke fluent Spanish. There was a Mexican national sitting in the passenger seat holding a sawed-off shotgun. “Nate’s Kosher Tortillas” was printed across the side panels.

We couldn’t hear much but the muffled Spanish sounded like they had a friend with the US Border Patrol, another Navajo, an officer with a growing family and a meager income. Mexicans understood this better than most, in this case the US entry fee would be in cash, dollars, not pesos.

The stench in the truck was overwhelming, the girls were urinating, defecating and vomiting while the truck dove into one pothole after another along the unpaved cattle trail leading to the meeting place.

These girls and the families they left behind were desperate.

My family knew nothing of my secret. Interpol would transfer my pay to an independent account. I was to make intermittent withdrawals for my family consistent with a low paying job in the US so as not to arouse suspicion.

Acting and thinking as I had been trained was key to survival. Thinking outside the Interpol training box produced unintended consequences and discovery. Performance was measured in the HUMINT (their acronym for human intelligence) we produced, and this required strict adherence to protocol.

They transferred me from an instructor in Panama to my Case Officer in the states. She would be my handler now and sole contact with Interpol.

Stationed in New York with three drones under her direct control, we knew her only as Maria. As the assignment progressed the HUMINT would be transmitted to Maria through a series of covert transfers on its way to Panama for interpretation. 

We fell out of the back of that tortilla truck like human detritus. The Navajo and the Mexican had on surgical masks, the warm night air carried the stench across the desert like a noxious gas as we tried to stand and find our balance.

The Navajo held a sawed-off shotgun motioning us in a huddle to the side of the road. He had a half-filled case of small water bottles with the wrapper still holding them together that he kicked into the middle of the huddle.

Some of us didn’t make it, the Mexican climbed into the truck and pushed three young bodies out with his foot, he was chocking through the mask. 

You could see this wasn’t the first time they made this trip; the coyotes would work on the evidence and buzzards would finish the job at daybreak.

The dust devil was moving towards us in the predawn darkness. Navajo held a flashlight, one of those long black ones, like cops’ use. This devil was not a mirage, it blinked its lights one, two, three times. A large bus-like vehicle emerged from the cloud, it was painted black with hooded headlights. Navajo answered the signal with three blinks of his own.

This was a transfer; our mule would deliver us to a distributor who did the training. These girls had never been in bed with a man. The Interpol training videos had given me a good idea of what to expect. My life as a covert agent for Interpol living in deep cover with the lowest form of life on earth was about to begin.

This wasn’t a bus, it was a large RV with mirror tinted windows, the kind you could look out but can’t look in.

It slowed and moved towards us with caution, the driver wore sunglasses in spite of the predawn darkness.

He stopped a safe distance away ready to escape if this was a sting.

Navajo handed the shotgun to the Mexican and walked to the driver side window of the RV, the glass slid back and words were exchanged.

He walked back to the door which swung open as he approached, this was business, the transaction would be completed in the privacy of the bus and Navajo would be on his way back to Mexico and another consignment.

The interior of the RV was luxurious by our standards. Converted to rows of individual seats but still with amenities; a ceiling mounted TV screen, an on-board bathroom and a well-stocked galley. It was large and roomy inside, bigger than it looked from the road.

There was the driver with sunglasses, a partner in the passenger seat and two guards armed with revolvers, the old fashioned six shooter type, not the automatics you see on TV crime shows.

We were treated like human beings for the first time since leaving Mexico, they passed out water and a box lunch, chicken wrapped in soft tortillas, they knew we were thirsty and hungry.

The salsa music playing over the sound system was Mexican, not Panama but not bad.

The driver muted the music when his partner stood before us in the aisle, he had a hand mic.

“Buenos Dias Senoritas”, his Spanish was perfect if not his dialect, he spoke with a Texas drawl.

“You ladies are fortunate you’ve been selected for your beauty and charm and are about to embark on an exciting career where you’ll meet movie stars, politicians, business tycoons and sports stars.”

“Please pay attention to the TV screen, we’ll show you a brief training video the kind you may star in someday if you’re lucky”

The video flickered on the screen, this was a homemade production, but the music was ok, low and rhythmic like you’d hear for a slow dance in a disco.

A young woman walked out on a patio, there were sunning chairs and a pool, it was a glamorous setting.

She wore a beach wrap over her long beautiful legs. She was blonde and trim with large breasts.

She said “hi there” to an unseen person and stepped out of her wrap. The bikini was mini, she wore no top, her full breasts were firm and the nipples were already hard.

As he walked into camera view it was clear the man was ready, the bulge in his Speedo trunks said enough.

So, this was to be our orientation, a peek at the glamorous world of pornography, I wondered how many of these uneducated young girls had any idea what lie ahead for them beyond the glamorous poolside setting of this video shoot.

They’d be taught how to fuck like porn stars, their training sessions would be videotaped and distributed over the Internet. Those with acting skills that were photogenic would be sold to porn studios in LA and syndicated. With luck they might become stars in their own right and command a per click premium on paid sites.

Those not selected for video were ranked and sold to pimps across the US on a sliding performance scale.

The video was graphic, intended to shock us, there was nothing left to the imagination. The actors demonstrated with camera close-ups exactly what was meant by hard-core pornography and this was just the beginning. It wasn’t till a young girl, no more than 5 or 6, came into view and the older woman took her by the hand, gently showing her how to touch a fully aroused man at least five times her age. The child looked scared and hesitant, clinging to the woman’s leg, as she gently pulled her loose and put her hand on the man, his smile was benign.

“My god I can’t do this”, the scream was guttural. The girl sitting next to me was shaking as she buried her face in her hands and began to sob uncontrollable. Her name was Jimena, from Guatemala, the oldest of ten in a strict catholic family. She believed the ads in the local newspaper, “Young women wanted for lucrative careers in North America. No skill required, just good looks and a desire to make money in the Hollywood film industry.”

Her scream quieted the bus, everyone looked down at their hands as the speaker put down the microphone. He paused the video on the laughing child and slid the remote into his pocket. He calmly walked down the aisle between our seats. He stood over Jimena; she was still sobbing with her face in her hands. He put his left hand under her chin and gently lifted her face towards him; with his right he pulled the revolver from the small of his back and aimed it point blank at her forehead, without saying a word he pulled the trigger.

The sound was deafening. The back of her head exploded with blood and bone fragments. I couldn’t hear, the ringing in my ears was so painful.

The others screamed, I didn’t.

I wiped what was left of Jimena’s brain off my face with the back of my forearm and glared at the speaker. He didn’t see me, he was blowing the smoke from the barrel of his gun and calling for silence.

“Does anyone else on this vehicle have a problem with our training film” he asked as the RV screeched to a halt and the pneumatic door hissed back.

He looked at me; “pull her off the seat” he demanded. Jimena was heavier than I had thought for an anorexic. Her body was limp and had slid forward on the seat cushion. I stepped over her legs and from the aisle pulled her by the arm to the floor. The speaker motioned to a fair skinned girl on the seat opposite mine, she took the other arm and we pulled Jimena to the door.   

The speaker pushed her out with his right foot like the Mexican had done in the truck. There seemed to be a skill to this, catching the toe of your shoe under the waist where the weight was balanced then moving your leg up and forward in one motion.

Jimena left the bus the way she arrived; faceless and nameless. She was human refuse, a statistic that would show up on a PowerPoint presentation to an International NGO with human trafficking on their agenda.

This was the world I had chosen for my life’s work; it was dirty, abusive and ugly. The danger for an undercover agent was pervasive requiring mental toughness and nerves of steel. The men who control it are totally amoral with the ability to act like mindless robots, they torture and kill at will without hesitation without remorse. Like the drug cartels in Mexico, they systematically eliminate anyone or anything that stands in their way with a ruthless business-like efficiency. For them it’s the bottom line; it’s about cost containment, processing, logistics and product quality. If any link in this chain weakens it is summarily fixed, no discussion no excuses, no options.

(this is an unedited work in progress, there are more chapters drafted and there’s a conclusion in mind but not finalized)

The ambassador’s daughter


“I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.”

—US government officials’ oath of office

 Owen Wintour, the recently appointed US Ambassador to Pakistan, is taking his wife Sally and seventeen-year-old daughter Alex on a long-promised home leave to the States when it happens.

They’re in the middle of a three-car caravan to Benazir Bhutto International Airport.  Jim Carlisle, embassy chargé affairs’, is with them. He’ll be the acting ambassador in Wintour’s absence. Carlisle is sitting in the jump seat facing Owen. Alex and Sally are in the backseat, near the double cargo doors and the luggage.

The driver and security guard are Pakistani.

The weather is warm, humid and overcast, typically late summer in Pakistan. They’re on the Kak Pul Bridge, spanning the Soan, that fetid river running through Islamabad, the smell told them where they were.

It was sudden, the lead truck, a Ford Expedition, exploded in a blinding flash. There’s a delayed sound; it’s deafening and accompanied by the unmistakable smell of high-explosive cordite, the bridge sways under the blast. The truck leaps off the road, erupting in a mushroom cloud of vapor and fire settling back in a smoking pile of melting plastic, glass, and metal.

Their driver slams on the brakes, gears grind into reverse. He twists his body for a view out the rear door windows. It’s too late. The following truck meets the same fate, they’re bookended by smoldering heaps of scrap metal.

A black van arrives immediately from the opposite direction, zig-zagging to avoid the smoldering wreckage and screeches to a halt beside Wintour’s SUV. The driver wears mirrored RayBans over the vision slit on his mask. The motor keeps running, five men jump from the sliding starboard door. They’re equipped like special forces, black jumpsuits, canvas flight boots, bulletproof vests, webbed ammunition belts and shoulder holsters holding Glock-45 side arms. They carry AK-47 automatic rifles with Trijicon mounted sights, they’re also wearing black ski masks and RayBans. Their black wireless headsets are outside the masks, the mics adjusted against the mesh opening for their mouth.

All Alex could think of was Halloween, but this isn’t trick or treat, these guys are a professional hit team and they know exactly what they’re doing.

The smaller one has a knapsack, black, too big for him. He turns his back to a teammate who yanks the zipper, the flap falls exposing a single mound of putty-like substance about the size of a softball, it’s high explosive C-4.  It’s heavier than it appears, the attacker struggles to pull it loose from the Velcro binding. He inserts a detonator and cap and sets the timer. Cargo doors are most vulnerable at their locking point, he slaps the putty against the lock and steps around the side of the truck stooping low with the others. The explosion shatters the lock, both doors swing open and dangle from damaged hinges barely able to hold them.

The small one jumps in, throwing out luggage and scrambling toward Alex. The security guard is leveling his own Glock 45 at the man, but he hesitates a moment too long. The red dot from the Trijicon sight, aimed by the backup shooter, finds the center of his forehead. Bone and brain fragment from the melon-sized exit wound splatter the windshield. The driver goes for a concealed weapon but reconsiders; the truck is surrounded.

The leader taps the driver’s side glass with the barrel of his automatic—not hard, almost politely. The driver gets the message; all locks release at the touch of a button.

Two of them grab Carlisle from the jump seat and throw him to the ground. Owen moves to protect Sally and Alex, he’s met with a crushing blow to the temple. The Ambassador crumples to his knees.

Alex is screaming. The short one holds her around the waist with one hand while jamming a rag against her face with the other. Chloroform permeates the truck. She goes limp in seconds.

Holding her under the arms, he drags her out the door and back steps into the van, a teammate has her legs. The truck is moving as her feet disappear, the team scrambles aboard, the van sideswipes the wreckage and is off the bridge in seconds.

This kidnapping is not random, their intended victim is not a US Ambassador or his wife; it’s their daughter.

Ambulances and fire trucks arrive first, ahead of the police. There’s pandemonium—people shouting, pointing, and crying. Owen is back on his feet, waving off the EMT from himself and directing them to the security guard lying face down on the pavement and the men scattered about the wreckage fore and aft. They don’t need an EMT; they need a coroner.

Jim Carlisle holds his head; the percussion has ruptured both eardrums. Owen and Sally are okay but in shock. The gash on Owen’s head looks worse than it is.

Sally, sobbing, runs into Owen’s arms.

“Why Alex Owen, why not you or me?”

Wintour knows the answer. He puts one arm around his wife while hitting speed dial to the embassy with the other.

Chapter 1

Sally Wintour is not happy about this posting. Her husband is a career foreign service officer and she always supported him, but Pakistan is different, a country increasingly less stable. US drone attacks targeting Al Qaeda leadership are on the rise with collateral consequences for non-combatants. For every US attack, the reprisals are swift and devastating. Suicide bombings of Western hotels and shopping centers, and, of course, kidnappings. US State Department policy on negotiating with kidnappers is unequivocal: they won’t pay ransom in any form under any circumstances—the cost is too high. In the case of kidnapping, the ends, no matter how emotionally charged, will not justify the means.

Sally considered remaining in Abu Dhabi with Alex; the United Arab Emirates (UAE) states are stable, prosperous, and supportive of the US. When Owen was appointed ambassador there during the last Bush administration, she hoped it would be permanent. Living in the UAE is like Disneyland for state department officers. Moving from there to Islamabad will be a nightmare. What had they done to deserve this?  With Barack Obama in the White House and Hilary Clinton as secretary of state, the politics of international diplomacy intensified.  It isn’t what you know or how good you are; it’s who you know and how political you are.

Owen Wintour is not a politician, he’s a career diplomat who does his job according to his oath of office without regard for safety and comfort.

His wife and daughter didn’t take that oath.

When Michael Corbin was appointed Owen’s replacement in the UAE by President Obama in 2012, Owen never flinched. In his mind, there had to be a good reason for the switch; the influence of politics never occurred to him. When you’re a career diplomat, appointments are supposed to be apolitical. It was true that Corbin had a distinguished record, including a posting to Syria by Republican President George W. Bush, but that he was also a man of color had to be more than a coincidence.

The Wintours arrived in Islamabad with full diplomatic immunity, meaning no customs inspection or document checks. Owen would present his credentials to President Asif Ali Zardari in the morning. In Pakistan, the president is a figurehead; his office is largely ceremonial, limited to diplomatic functions. The real power rests with the Prime Minister, currently Yousef Raza Gilani, who controls the military, the security forces, and the nuclear arsenal.

Owen replaced Cameron Munter, the US ambassador since 2010. Munter had become politically toxic since his publicly expressed views on drones that contradicted official US policy. He resigned in 2012 ahead of his being asked to do so by President Obama.

Obama showed confidence in Owen when appointing him to this politically sensitive region. Pakistan is a nuclear power at war with another nuclear power, India and generally thought to be an incubator for Islamic extremists.

Owen was noncommittal on the use of drones; his job is to support and defend American interests in Pakistan regardless of personal views. Other foreign service officers have succumbed to local pressure, allowing their public statements to differ from US policy. Owen is not one of them. His twenty-one years of service with spotless performance reviews speaks to his oath of office, at least until now.

This is their story.



God, I’ve hated this trip. I told Mom it made no sense for us. Dad is a senior diplomat, a US ambassador. He’s paid his dues, and then some. Dubai is where we belonged. “Unless, of course, they need someone in London or Paris,” I say with a grin.

Mom smiles at that remark; she knows that I know you have to donate a few million dollars to a president’s election campaign to get a Western capital. It’s one of the reasons our ambassadors in Europe are such dorks—they’re political appointees, not trained diplomats like Dad. Washington is clueless.

The Air Emirates flight is totally cool; their entertainment menu is awesome. On top of that, we’re going business class. Frequent flyer points on foreign flag carriers is a recent State Department concession.

I love the online WiFi. I can text Billy at forty thousand feet. He’ll be jealous since the UK hasn’t allowed airline points yet. Wait till he hears about my compartment and bed-sized reclining seat.

I know what he’ll say: “Christ, Alex, I should be there. We would have joined the Mile High Club before we left the ground.”

Billy Watson is my heartthrob. He’s a pain in the neck sometimes, but we have lots in common. We’re both foreign expats living a charmed life as children of prominent diplomats from Western countries.

I lost my virginity to Billy in the backseat of his mom’s Range Rover, which has diplomatic plates. It’s the only bedroom in the UAE with parking privileges.

He’s my friend and confidant. I’m not sure what love means, but if it’s about having someone who makes you laugh, makes you trust, and, oh yes, makes you hot, I guess I love Billy. I’ll miss him.


We arrive at Benazir Bhutto International Airport in the spring of 2011. Bhutto was a hero to millions of Muslim women. These women believe they’re not equal to men—not as smart, creative, or dominant. They’re told that only men can be leaders and activists; women are to acquiesce and follow. Bhutto was changing that. Her commitment to education for girls in a culture steeped in millennia of tradition cost her life.

How do I show these people that an educated young woman can have the strength and passion for leading without appearing emotional or arrogant? Should I, a seventeen-year-old American girl, expose my independence in a culture that considers it a crime? How do I explain the tears when I’m thinking about Bhutto? This is emotion, not passion. Emotion is feeling, passion is a belief, and a great leader needs both.

Benazir Bhutto was a great leader.

US chargé d’affaires Jim Carlisle is waiting for us with three junior staff members. He’s serving as interim ambassador since Cameron Munter stepped down under a cloud.

Three Suburbans are parked at the curb. The diplomatic plates guarantee immunity from local traffic laws and confer status to the drivers. Everyone knows they’re armed and vetted for driving skill, knowledge of the city, and discretion. These men are attached to Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), the secret agency of Pakistan, similar to our CIA.

It’s early morning. The city is waking up, and government bureaucrats are preparing for another mindless day of paper shuffling and endless meetings. This is our first visit to Pakistan, and as in all new postings, the unfamiliar sights and sounds are intoxicating.

Mom is staying positive, pointing out city landmarks. But I’m not interested. I’m not happy about this move. I’ll miss Dubai and my friends in the diplomatic community there, especially Billy. I know Mom and Dad are trying to put a positive spin on things for my benefit, but this move sucks—no other way to say it.

The windows of the SUV are tinted; we can see out but no one can see in. We enter a traffic roundabout and spin out on a surface road, just missing a truck decorated in the most outrageous fashion. Graffiti is endemic to US cities, but here they take the art form to a new level. Vehicles are covered from bumper to bumper with elaborate colors and designs; windshields are festooned with dangling talos symbols. This is not protest art—this is a cultural expression, and it’s wonderful. The trucks, buses, and three-wheeled rickshaws, known as took-tooks, move in a chaotic dance. In this colorful cacophony of constantly honking horns, there are no apparent rules except the loudest has the right-of-way.

The graffiti is the first thing about Pakistan to get my attention. I want to get out of the truck and take pictures, but the guard riding shotgun shakes his head. It isn’t safe to stop or slow down, much less get out of an official vehicle on a crowded street. Pakistan is a dangerous place, especially for Westerners.


The Ambassador’s residence in Islamabad is a fortress, a formidable multi-storied building surrounded by a twelve-foot wall enclosing a courtyard. The wall is topped with razor wire and shards of broken glass. There’s a  solid metal gate with a small peephole and a pedestrian door cut into one side. The security details are heavily armed, on duty twenty-four hours a day in rotating shifts.

Families with money in Pakistan live this way—several generations under one roof, each with an apartment on upper floors. There are rooms for cooking, eating, and socializing on the ground level. My State briefing book explained all this, but it’s hard to visualize, you need to see it.

As an ambassador’s family, we’ve always lived well, not in luxury but with amenities befitting the status of a senior American diplomat. We have the household staff, a security detail, and living quarters comparable to US standards whenever possible. Local staff is vetted for loyalty and discretion; the process is intense.

The truck noses close to the gate, not leaving a gap for someone to enter ahead of us. The driver honks three times, pauses then honks once more. The gate swings in and armed guards flank the entrance. We enter the courtyard. Five people are standing in front of the main house: three women in traditional hijab and two men dressed in black pants and white shirts. Outbuildings are grouped around the courtyard: a guard house adjacent to the gate, a large garage or perhaps storage facility, and separate living quarters for staff. The guard house is small, with sleeping cots and a brazier for heating tea.

A third man stands to the side, separating himself from the rest. He is tall and muscular with prematurely salt-and-pepper hair and four days’ growth highlighting a rugged if not handsome face. There’s a tattoo, small vertical letters on his neck beneath the right ear; it spells DELIA, a woman’s name, Israeli, unusual for a Muslim.

He’s in designer jeans, a black turban, a New York Yankees jacket, and Converse sneakers, no laces. His complexion is Pakistani, and except for the turban he’s dressed like an American. The bulge on the back of his waist explains the jacket, which he wears in spite of the heat. This is Mustafa Hesbani. The name means “Warrior of Islam,” a fitting description for the man responsible for my security.

I learned a few things about Mustafa from the State Department dossier, which covers his background, but the security photos hardly do him justice. He’s a dominant figure, the kind of man who stands out in a crowd. You can’t ignore him.


 My dad, Owen Wintour, is a loving father and husband. He’s a fine ambassador with a carefully honed sense of loyalty to his family, his office, and his staff.

Mustafa Hesbani is none of that. He’s a warrior, and it shows.

His chiseled features and swarthy complexion give him an air of danger. A woman feels vulnerable in his presence. Mom and I are no exceptions.

“Is that my handler, Mom?” I haven’t felt this animated since leaving Abu Dhabi.

She gives me one of her looks. “Please, Alex, must you use that term? Mr. Mustafa is your security detail, not your handler.”

“Whatever. He sure is cute.”

Mom shakes her head.



The house is intimidating, with double wide front doors—more like an estate than a residence. The security is discreet, but they break ranks and nod when they see me. I know these men— friends and fellow agents. They know that assigning a Muslim educated and trained in the States to protect a US ambassador’s daughter in Pakistan is not exactly the norm.

I also know the household staff. They’re nationals, I’m one of them, born and raised from the same mud. These are my people—loyal, dedicated, and committed to serving the new ambassador and his family.

This meeting is to be informal, not in the embassy conference room but the Wintours’ private quarters. Owen and Sally Wintour want a better understanding of who is protecting their daughter.

The Wintours are entrusting their prized possession to a Muslim, a stranger who wears a turban and was born in Karachi, a hotbed of insurgent activity.

There are traditional refreshments, tea, and sweets on a glass coffee table; three comfortable chairs, small plates, spoons, and napkins. Food is served family style; fruit preserves are eaten directly from the spoon, not as a spread on toast or crackers. Tea is poured by the person sitting to your right, a gesture of hospitality.

The Wintours are adopting our ways sooner than I had expected.

I’m not dressed for a special occasion; casual clothes reflect who I am. This is work, this is how they’ll always see me, ready to protect their daughter.

Owen opens the conversation with the question I expected. “Be seated Mustafa. Tell us why you’ve been selected for this duty.”

Why indeed, a dark skinned Pakistani Muslim, born in Karachi, not the American Embassy security guard he had expected.

I avoid familiarity, I sit apart from the Wintours, body language reflecting my professional status—not formal, just ready for work. Owen is the senior US official in Pakistan; he will have my respect, if not my admiration—that must be earned.

I know they have my CV and the State briefing book. Christ, what more do I have to say? My experience with Task Force 121, the US Department of Defense’s special operations multi-service force, speaks for itself.

My approach to this guy will be cautious, lead from strength I tell myself.  My career, if not my life, depends on having confidence in myself. I’ve been trained to act first, fast, and hard and deal with consequences later.

I want to come across as a man comfortable in his own skin, a man used to control his circumstances, someone who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. I suspect Owen Wintour is the same kind of man. This should be interesting.

“Please call me Musa, Mr. Ambassador. My friends do.”

“Of course, Musa. Thank you. Please go on.”

He didn’t suggest I call him Owen, the chain of command was clear.

“I’m a Muslim, I pause for that to sink in, “I was born in Karachi, with family ties to the Karachi business community. I understand the culture and know what motivates the terrorists. I’m also a US Navy SEAL, a member of Seals Team Six and Task Force 121.

Wintour nodded his approval, he knew what it took to be selected for Task Force 121.

When I was thirteen, my parents and I moved to the US. They had earned PhDs in education and accepted professorships at Kansas State University. Our family speaks British English and Urdu, the official Hindustani language of Pakistan. I speak both plus Pashto, Arabic, Mandarin, and Russian.”

I don’t want to sound like a smart-ass, but he has to know I’m not a babysitter, that I understand my value to him, his daughter, and the Embassy, and why I’m sitting here instead of some random security contractor.

My stomach just flipped, I’m about to challenge a US Ambassador with access to the most powerful man on earth and his secretary of state, the woman who runs our foreign policy and Wintour’s direct report. I’m not nervous about being in the presence of authority, I’ve been there before, but this time it’s different—this is personal. We’re talking about their only child, a seventeen-year-old girl, the daughter of a senior diplomat; she has the experience and training of a girl twice her age but still a teenager.

I go on. “We’re the same, you and me.” Holy shit, did I say that.  “We both want peace and prosperity for ourselves and our families. My parents escaped the Muslim world for that reason; I want my life and my service to be a beacon of hope for Muslims. I’m not a carpetbagging Pakistani with an American spoon in his mouth.

Muslims around the world are subject to humiliation, that ugly emotion that destroys pride, humiliates and leads people to extremes. To be humiliated is to be debased, the West doesn’t understand this, their view of the Muslim world is cursory and self-dealing.  The good books, yours and mine, tells us the same thing: ‘Don’t judge a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes.’ For most Americans to understand Muslims, they’d need several miles.”

He smiles at this. Oh shit, there I go again, pushing the envelope. Will Wintour be offended by an E-7 telling an Ambassador how things go down in Muslim-American relations?

I’m committed now, either this guy accepts that his daughter will be protected by a highly trained Pakistani convert to America with deep feelings for the Muslim condition or I go down in flames. I step on the throttle and double down.

“As you know, Mr. Ambassador, my parents and I hold dual citizenship with the US and Pakistan.

“We know the difference between training and education. Education is the foundation for all that follows, including training. Terrorists are trained, not educated. If every aid dollar and military expense were devoted to third world education, our global problems would be solved in a generation. With all due respect, USAID, UKAID, the Asian Development Bank, the UN, the Gates Foundation, et cetera, only scratch the surface. We need a global initiative led by a small, educated, nonnuclear nation. A country with the balls to take the first step by scrapping giveaway programs and replacing them with professional educators, state-of-the-art school facilities, and hope for a future free of poverty and humiliation.”

I let this sink in a minute. I’m challenging my new boss—not usually a good idea.

 No going back now. I’ll either leave this house without a job or with the respect of a senior American diplomat.

I continued with greater emphasis. “When I was taking courses at Columbia, there was a chapter of the Black Business Students Association (BBSA). These kids were the best and the brightest; most came from East Africa—Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Most would stay in the US; the East African brain drain is epidemic. Look, I know that black business students at one of the finest universities in the world does not equate with Muslims in poverty-ridden third world countries, but stay with me, Mr. Ambassador, please.”

“I’m with you, Musa. Go on.”

This ambassador may be okay; he’s showing me management, not vanity.

Feeling a bit sheepish, I cough, nod and plow ahead. “But I digress, Mr. Ambassador. These social issues are a sore point for me, better left for another conversation. I apologize for getting off topic and not discussing your daughter’s safety.”

The Wintours blank stare looked like they had seen the mess hall dishwasher walk in and interrupt our conversation. I was way beyond my pay grade.


Would Alex Wintour be the safest expat teenager in the third world? I don’t know; I haven’t met her yet.

When I mention combat training, the Wintours look at each other. The sounds in the room change from tinkling teacups to screeching chairs as the couple uncross their legs and move closer to the table.

She’s scared, he’s puzzled. They want answers. Why is it new expats arrive with stars in their eyes, only to discover that reality crushes expectations?

They’re not well informed. This is tough love, what they need to hear, not what they want to hear.

Pakistan is a dangerous place. Officially, the country maintains an aura of respectability in world affairs and accepts the US as a friend and ally; the reality is quite different. That respect is bought and paid for with foreign aid, most of which winds up in the pockets of corrupt officials in the form of ill-defined taxes and user fees. If the cash flow stopped, Pakistani loyalty would fold like a tent.

The government is losing the support of the people; jihadi terrorists are gaining a foothold in the mosques. The political situation is fragile, and while the prime minister and his generals control the military and the nuclear stockpile, their loyalty to the US is suspect. The extremists are gaining control of the hearts and minds of the people, providing sophistry and charisma in place of economic and political reform.

“Mr. Ambassador,” I begin, “I’m not certain how much of what I’m going to say you’ve learned from State briefings, so please stop me if I’m being redundant.”

I tell him Islamabad is not a combat zone, at least not yet. That could change overnight.

Karachi is the largest city in Pakistan with the seventh-largest population in the world. It’s a tinderbox, with impoverished, mostly illiterate people grasping at any straw that promises a path out of poverty and despair.

The country is 98 percent Muslim. Of those, 80 percent are Sunni, 20 percent Shia. The Shia are a powerful and politically active minority. The animosity between these tribes goes back thousands of years. Shia mosques are cauldrons of agitation with charismatic imams preaching a literal interpretation of the Koran. It wouldn’t take much to drive Karachi into riots that could extend to Islamabad and Lahore.

Trying to hide my growing exasperation I plow on.

“Local authorities are not responsible for Alex Wintour’s safety or, for that matter, that of any foreign expat in the country. Our embassy and their service providers are responsible for their own security, most of which is contracted out to private companies or PMCs, private military corporations. The best-known of these is the US-based Blackwater Agency, noted for the training and experience of their agents. The State Department often uses them when their own security staff is spread thin, which was not the case in Islamabad.  I, along with a hand-picked team of agents skilled in security issues, will be personally responsible for Alex’s safety. We’ll be with her day and night except when she’s in this building.”

I let my silence linger.

Owen speaks first. “You obviously know the dangers of living here, Musa, and you have the right training. The issue will be Alex and how you two interact. She’s very bright, well educated, and used to make her own decisions. Alex is familiar with embassy procedures and security measures. Use tact and, if you’ll pardon the word, diplomacy when talking to her. She respects authority but won’t suffer fools gladly.”

I smile at “Fools gladly.”

“I understand, Mr. Ambassador. I’ll be tactful, but at the same time, Alex must accept the constraints of living in Pakistan. This is not the UAE. I would ask that you both explain to Alex that everything I or my team does is for her safety. We won’t enforce needless restrictions but will insist she take instructions seriously. And we’ll explain the need to in detail, not just issue directives.”

Sally replies, “Alex has lived in the developing world since she was born in Armenia. Most of our assignments have been in relatively safe places, but she’s heard enough horror stories from expat friends to take your word, Musa. If you’re straight with her, she’ll be a model client. If you’re not, she may wander off the reservation and worry all of us.”

The meeting ends with assurances to reconvene regularly and my promise to have lunch with Alex.


Seals Team Six is a legend in Pakistan, headed up by Navy Master Chief Bull Casey, a ball-busting E-9, the highest ranking noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the Navy. The tattoo on his forearm, “Don’t Tread on Me,” isn’t a joke; it’s a warning.

Casey got his stripes the old-fashioned way, through the ranks—he earned them. He’s always been respected by his peers and loved by his men, and there’s never been a man on the team who wouldn’t take a bullet for Bull Casey.

I was a recruit and Casey a drill sergeant when we met in basic training. He’s a first-class son of a bitch; he busted my balls for seven long weeks of BUD/S (Basic Underwater Demolition/SEAL) training at Coronado. He was determined to expose me as a Muslim zealot, more interested in praying seven times a day than defending the United States.

Casey was wrong. I was top of my class at Boston Latin, Georgetown, and the Farm (the CIA training facility at Camp Peary). I did advanced training as a Navy SEAL before being recruited by the Department of Defense for Task Force 121. For me, respect outranked love every time. It took Casey a while to understand that, but once it sunk in, we were equals in all but rank.

I haven’t seen Casey since graduation, but finding him here is not surprising. Bull Casey would resign, take his twenty-year pension, and go to work for Blackwater Security before the Navy would put him behind a desk.

The base NCO Club is crowded. I smile when the waitress says the beer is on the gentleman sitting at the bar. I turn, stare, and shake my head. That is no gentleman; it’s the legendary Bull Casey. The insignia on the sleeve of his dress blues tells you all you need to know. Red stripes, three stars, and an eagle. This SOB is a US Navy master chief.

I meet Casey’s smile while tipping my longneck bottle forward in salute. Casey does the same as he heads for my table.

 As if we see each other every day, he begins talking. No preamble. No “Hi, Musa, how’re they hanging?”  He takes a deep swig on the longneck. “What’s going down, Hesbani? What brings you to this godforsaken shit hole? You must have fucked up real bad to get here.”

All I can think of is, The SOB hasn’t changed. It’s one of the reasons I respect this guy—no BS, straight talk, right to the point.

“Nice to see you, Chief. How’s the family? Is the weather in Islamabad to your liking?” I grin from ear to ear.

He growls, “Okay, Hesbani, I get it. How the fuck have you been?”

“A-OK on my end, Chief. As you know, I was born and raised in Pakistan. It may be a shit hole, but it’s my shit hole.” I say this with a smile.

He smiles back; we still understand each other.


By JN Hahn

Unfortunately, I’ve become quite familiar with hospitals,  six overnight stays in three years.

All of these, with one exception, were at Yale New Haven Hospital in New Haven, CT.

These admissions were serious, one a 911 call, but all mitigated by the time I was discharged.

This essay isn’t about my health, it’s about an industry called Healthcare and its delivery system, called Hospital.

My hospital visits qualify me as a peripheral expert, I’m not a healthcare professional, I’m a patient, i.e., a customer, who can evaluate outcomes and how they were achieved. My conclusions are based upon firsthand observations of efficiency, administration and management cornerstones of a successful enterprise. 

Hospitals are big business; they service thousands of patients annually doing their best to deliver an effective product. A product that can often make the difference between life and death. They do this while simultaneously managing budgets, logistics, supply chains, human resources, community outreach, government regulations and a myriad of details hidden from patients but critical to their care.

Like any business, the buck stops at the top, it’s all about leadership, the CEO sets the tone and drives the enterprise towards successful outcomes, and in this case it’s patient recovery.

Like any successful enterprise in a capitalistic society, capital and positive cash flow are essential. Hospitals are nonprofit and tax free but unlike other businesses they can’t trim costs at the expense of patient care. A classic conundrum. That said, they can run their business efficiently with good staff recruiting, training, and technology in support of their medical doctors and registered nurses.

Hospitals are rated; the best develop a global reputation, a brand,  that stands for exceptional results in specific specialties. These hospitals attract funding, community support and graduates from top medical schools: Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Cornell, UPenn, NYU, Stanford et al.

Hospitals like the Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, Johns Hopkins, New York-Presbyterian, Mass General and others are the best because their leadership is the best. Hospital boards should demand top executive talent if they expect the best in patient care.

The Mayo Clinic is consistently rated the single best hospital in the United States in 12 specialties, the Cleveland Clinic is best for cardiology and so on. These “brands” got where they are with consistent results, results driven by leadership.

I live close to Yale University, the medical team that supports me and my wife’s health, are all affiliated with the Yale Hospital and/or medical school. Yale is not ranked in the top ten, but they are ranked in the top fifty in a market of 6000 hospitals countrywide. They’re a large research facility specializing in cancer, cardiology, neurology, urology and COVID-19 to name a few.

I’ve been in that hospital five times in the last three years, not a record I’m proud of but one with consistently happy outcomes.

When you’re admitted to a large metropolitan hospital, the hours and days you spend in bed begs the question, “how do they manage this enterprise?”

The supply chain alone for disposable gowns, gloves, needles, bandages, sponges, laundry etc. seems overwhelming. How do they control quality, cost, delivery and the myriad of details inherent in a for-profit value chain while at the same time managing a life or death product? How do they manage their HR program with over 26,000 employees? Which functions are outsourced to contract providers and how are those relationships structured and managed?

We only know a hospital, or any enterprise, by the product they produce whether a car, an appliance or healthcare. If I went in sick did I come out well?  If we didn’t, we would look for a new provider. Like switching from Chevy to Ford because of multiple recalls, in the case of hospitals there are no recalls for faulty brakes or safety belts, if their products fail it can mean your life.

The patient survey emailed to me after discharge validates my thesis, a hospital is a provider, an enabler if you will, of healthcare services. Management wants to know what you thought of their product and how they might improve. I always complete those surveys in an objective manner, acknowledging exceptional performance and isolating areas needing improvement.

Senior management for a hospital is an essential job, like a nurse or a surgeon, you depend on them for professional expertise.

I’m fortunate to have Yale in my backyard, as big as they are, their service is local, with state-of-the-art facilities and highly trained Doctors and Nurses.

Hopefully I won’t be a repeat customer anytime soon.


Managing a political campaign is a dirty business, the line between legal and illegal, moral and immoral, ethical and unethical becomes faded and indistinct as the election approaches and the candidates are competing for their political future. I wrote and published this book in 2013, it’s pure fiction but the characters, places and circumstances have been inspired by my journal notes while living and working in Kampala, East Africa for six months. The book is available on-line from your local independent bookstore. We need these stores in our life and today, more than ever, they need you!


The first time I traveled to Kampala, capital of Uganda, I was convinced I’d experience Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and meet Kurtz, the ivory trader, and Charles Marlowe the intrepid narrator of this iconic tale of suspense and intrigue up the Congo River into the outer reaches of deepest, darkest 1890 Africa.

Kampala-from-Old-Mosque2Not hardly.

With a table-spoonful of dashed expectations, I landed at Entebbe International Airport, on the shores of Lake Victoria, only to find a modern airport with landing gates crowded with the colorful logos of British Airways, Air Qatar, Jordan Aviation, Kenya Air, Air Emirates et al.

The terminal building sparkled as yet another indicator of Uganda’s economic development to go along with her flawless internet service and stunning monuments.

All this to camouflage the reality of her indigenous depression.

Uganda, like so many countries in the developing world, presents a facade to the developed world. She hides the reality of poverty, suppression of human rights, and economic equality. Her government is a faux democracy that enables the political leadership of an elite administration more interested in economic development than in human development, they leave that to foreign aid allocations from the developed world.

The United States has invested millions in the social and economic infrastructure of this impoverished country. Once you leave the commercial bubble of her English speaking capital of Kampala, you find the indigenous tribes making up the majority of her 43 million people who speak  Bantu and thirty different languages.

The political elite in Kampala operates as a separate country, they negotiate with western powers who want to establish a presence here for the sole purpose of polishing their foreign aid resume’s and knowingly contribute exorbitantly high percentages of their budget to the “use fees” demanded by the Kampala government which line the pockets of the President and his elite enablers.   This is the description of corruption, the cancer infecting the leadership of the developing world.

What’s left of the foreign aid budgets trickles down to the masses in the form of charity, not economic development. The US Peace Corps is well-meaning,  established by President John Kennedy in the early 1960’s it provided an opportunity for idealistic young Americans to lend their talent and education to a cause greater than themselves. Unfortunately, the percentage of American aid allocated to the Peace Corps is pittance while the bureaucracy of the USAID program sucks up the lion’s share of the US commitment to the poverty, health, and education of the developing, aka the third, world.

While working as a minor player on a USAID project in Uganda, I had the opportunity to interact with our Peace Corps, I was overwhelmed by the commitment of these young people, men, and women from elite US colleges and universities many with sophisticated family backgrounds living and experiencing the poverty of third world existence.  Some would say they’re “do-gooders”, suggesting US funding is better served by local government; I would say they’re heroes in the global war against poverty and oppression.



A strange title for a man surrounded by people. And yet, loneliness isn’t about people, It’s about a state of mind. It’s about memories filling your consciousness like a stalking horse concealing reality. Loneliness is not a place, it’s a controlled feeling. We can feel isolated in a crowd, ignored by peers, pitied by family and friends or selfless, depending upon our state of mind.

I just had a birthday, a time for reflection and ignoring the passage of time with thoughts of ambition and new beginnings. The resistance I feel is palpable, like an immovable object against an unstoppable life force. 

I begin this essay with trepidation, fearful and alone. I’m not sure what will happen as my thoughts become words, tumbling out in a cacophony of emotions, struggling to express feelings about my life, an enigma, a mysterious riddle searching for answers.

Intamacy with the public is a gamble, will it be accepted as inspiration or rejected as the incoherent ramblings of a man alone with too much time on his hands.

This story is creative non-fiction, if told in third person narrative it would read like an adventure novel.

Why now, why in the twilight of my life would I be thinking of writing a story that may disappoint those I love and titillate faux friends who scavenge after gossip like crows to shiny objects.

I haven’t been infected with COVID-19 but the preventive medicine being prescribed can be worse than the cure. Self-quarantine, no friends or family, isolating yourself in a bubble without human contact. Sounds easy right? Close the door, pull a book from the shelf and let the world go by.

I’ve done that, I’m on my sixth novel and countless essays and short stories not to mention narrating a daily podcast on social media and two new audiobooks.

After five months of isolation I had a primal scream. It was one o’clock in the morning after grinding through another chapter of a book that was boring me to tears.

It was then I decided to write my own book, one that proves the old meme, “life is stranger than fiction”. Writing is personal, it engages memories, emotions, fears and loves. When you read you’re out of the story looking in, entertained, educated, or envious, when you write you are the story  

It was late, the night was hot and sultry, I was on the patio, the sound was not human, it was more like a wounded animal caught in a trap.


Why every light in the neighborhood didn’t go on with a squad car in the driveway flashing red and blue I’ll never know.

The scream was a mental cleanse allowing me to regain equilibrium after five months of isolation.

Julie stood in the open doorway with a terrified look on her face. All she could say through the tears is: “do you want me to call 911?”. I waved her off with a smile and a gentle suggestion that she go back to bed, “I’m fine my love, just having a low budget therapy session”.

After that scream, I decided to let the chips fall where they may and write this essay. A work of non-fiction, a first-person narrative written by a man alone.

Chapter 1

The Search

It’s 1957, I’m a freshman at the University of Notre Dame and feeling sorry for myself. My father, a Norte Dame Alumni, along with uncles and brothers in law are devoted Irish fans. My application to Georgetown was rejected by my Father, not their admissions committee. As far as he was concerned ND was the only school in America worth considering. His attitude was simple, go to ND I pay, go to Georgetown you’re on your own.

Georgetown is the oldest Jesuit University in the country and the natural extension to St. Ignatius Prep, where I studied with the Jesuits. They educate the man, they teach you how to think with moral certainty, with conviction that there are absolutes in life that won’t tolerate compromise. They teach a college preparatory course of math, history, science, language and theology driven by a moral compass. This is a classic liberal education, it’s not a political label, it’s the enabler leading you to decisions in life based upon what’s right not what’s expedient

Matriculating at Notre Dame was a disappointment. The Holy Cross Brothers are fine educators but not in the same league as the Jesuits. My motivation was lacking. I was convinced that ignoring the Jesuits for college was dumbing down my prep school experience. St. Ignatius Prep brained washed me, not a bad thing when the washers are Jesuits.

(stay tuned, TBC)


Remember when you were a kid and the carnival came to town for a hot summer weekend? You couldn’t wait to go, you begged your parents until the big day arrived, cotton candy, the shooting gallery for a teddy bear and, most exciting of all, the merry go round.

You wanted to ride a horse without your Dad holding you, he wanted you to ride in one of these weird carriages that looked like a fancy restaurant booth with stuffed benches, weird but safer than the horse.

Life is, or should be, like the horse that goes up and down and moves around at the same time. Slow at first, but gradually faster as the carney steps on the throttle

Our emotions are like that, they move up and down in a continuous circle that accelerates in youth, peaks out in middle age and slows down with maturity.

I haven’t figured out the mystery of life, why we’re here, why we’re born into given circumstances why we live, love and hate as we do? All I know is that this merry go round of life is all that we have, the ups and downs, the fast and slow are either preordained by a divine presence or a cosmic act of nature.

I believe the former and marvel at the latter.

Deo volente!

mea culpa


I keep looking for a silver lining inside this pandemic,  there is one you know.

Throughout history, there have been wars, fires, natural disasters, economic depressions, and yes, pestilence.

My generation saw WW2, my parents and their parents saw a great depression, WW1, and political revolutions in France and Russia and now it’s our turn. The Virus is serious, to be sure, but we will survive it and we’ll come out of it stronger, wiser, and more resilient than ever before.

Remember when the UK was facing certain defeat and the loss of their cultural heritage at the hands of Nazi Germany? Their country was given hope and the will to survive by an unlikely political leader in Sir. Winston Churchill. The population was unified against a common enemy, they did what they had to do without complaint or regret. They helped each other, prayed for each other, and survived together as one united population. The sniping between Labor and Conservative was put on the shelf, it became one party, the survival party.

I bring this up because I can’t help but see the analogy with our situation in the US today. The difference is that our enemy, COVID-19, is already on our shores, already global in scope and already a killer, albeit a silent one. No ships, no planes, no guns no leader to negotiate a cease-fire. COVID is ruthless and determined, but we can defeat it, we have only to pull together as a people, not a party. The British had bomb shelters, curfews, and blackouts we have containment, isolation, and hygiene.

So, let’s pull together, one people, strong and resilient determined to defeat a seemingly implacable enemy .

After watching portions of the conventions, both parties, there was little time spent on the pandemic especially from the RNC. The Democrats can and should second guess this administration’s management of COVID-19.

With trepidation, I’ll oversimplify and say that the Republicans are minimizing the danger by suggesting, through example, that we don’t need to wear masks and that the virus will go away on its own. This is in direct contradiction to the surging numbers and medical science. You either believe in science and fear the numbers or you don’t. I, and most disenfranchised Republicans, fall into the former category.

The Democrats, on the other hand, seem to subscribe to Lyndon Johnson’s philosophy of “guns and butter”: ” Guns and butter generally refers to the dynamics involved in a federal government’s allocations to defense versus social programs when deciding on a budget. Both areas can be critically important to a nation’s economy”.

When it comes to the Pandemic, it can’t and shouldn’t be one or the other, we need both, a healthy and safe population practicing sound medically approved social protocols and a robust economy-not “guns or butter”.


The Eye of a Needle

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.”

Mark 10:25

There are certain chapters and verses in the bible that we remember, not sure why, maybe a word a phrase or a thought that resonates within us like a tuning fork vibrating for attention.

Money, and things it buys, including social position, power and, in the early church, indulgences is a recipe for self-immolation. As the Camel gets fatter the eye of the needle gets smaller.

I don’t know why I’m musing about this, truth be known I know lots of rich people, most of whom will never fit through the eye of that needle but some who will. Some of my rich friends are kind, generous and charitable. Their riches have not gone to their head and their relationship with God is probably a good one, at least in terms of their riches.

So why is Mark so universal in his condemnation of the rich?

I guess it’s because riches attract possessions, possessions attract comparisons and comparisons mean I’m better, smarter and richer than you. Hardly a recipe for moving through the eye of that divine camel.  

So, let’s rewind this and look at riches another way. Let’s step away from the notion that money is the root of all evil to money being the consequence of God’s munificence and a rich man’s opportunity to be his enabler.

Think of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation that is being funded with billion-dollar donations from the Gates, Warren Buffett and others who magnify the word of God and ignore the temptations of man.

Today with so much emphasis on the infamous “one percenter” the super wealthy individuals basking in the shadow of Donald Trump’s largess at the expense of the other 99% we applaud the Gates, Buffets and others who demand more taxes for the wealthy.

This is not wealth redistribution; this is common sense. Warren Buffett who is worth $81 billion once famously compared his tax rate of 16% to his secretary paying a substantially higher rate.

Consider these individuals who make up a class of their own, the 1/10th percenter, grossing more than a $ billion per year.

This is not to say these men didn’t earn their place on the list, they are visionaries and brilliant financial strategists. That said, the question remains, if wealth is how we keep score in the game of life, I think we need new rules and better referees.

  1. Bezos-$205 billion
  2. Gates-116 billion
  3. Zuckerberg-111 billion
  4. Musk-95 billion
  5. Buffett-81 billion



Driving down the interstate Nick Hahn would watch the cars and trucks go by and think to himself, ‘if I drop dead of a heart attack this very moment would a single person on this highway blink other than to curse the backup after I hit the bridge embankment, not likely’.

He used to think time was eternal, a never-ending compendium capturing the sparks of our existence and glowing forever. That was years ago, when the idea of mortality was barely a passing thought. This is now, when it’s not about mortality, it’s about living and how he will leverage 80 years of life experience doing it right this time. 

 As he approaches his eighth decade, he knows the glow will fade and extinguish, not all at once, but one spark at a time.

This book is a way of keeping Nick’s life glowing a little longer, perhaps less brightly than in the past, but able to light the flame that has kept him interested, interesting and alive all these years.

His life has been one of fire and ash, burning with passion and wonder only to flame out again and again with the residue of reality.

This is not memoir or biography, this is a story, Nick’s story, creative non-fiction, a narrative laced with places, times, events and characters that Nick experienced during a lifetime of travel to some of the most exotic and, occasionally, dangerous places on earth, including of course, NYC.

I’ve known this man for 80 years, by any measure, a long time. I know his failures and successes, his passions and desires, his loves and hates. He is a complicated man, brimming at once with creative ambition while suffering from anemic self-confidence.

There is no schadenfreude in Nick, he takes no pleasure in another’s misfortune. He is a man preoccupied with self-discovery, often defining himself by the opinions of others.

The storms and calms of his life have moved him back and forth like the tide. While the detritus of living has often pushed him to places where he doesn’t belong. As a young man he thrived on the ignorance of youth and the fantasy of dreams. 

 If you recognize yourself in this story, be careful, you’re riding a wild horse, snorting and unbroken, running through the mutability of life with total abandon and, what’s worse, disregard for common sense.

I’ll skip over the formative years and get right to the heart of the matter, the drivers of Nick’s improbable existence. His life is about vanity, unjustified self-confidence, empathy, courage, addiction, depression, and exorbitant passion for people and places that should not have mattered to him.

This story reads like fiction but it’s all true.

Chapter-1 (Sri Lanka)

The story begins in 1997, when I stepped down as President & CEO of

 Cotton Incorporated, the iconic textile fiber research and marketing arm of the US Cotton industry, headquartered in a glass tower overlooking Central Park in New York.

My life up to that time was boring and predictable, upper middleclass background and education followed by corporate internships leading to a business career in New York and a corporate lifestyle.

I had it all, big job, beautiful wife, accomplished children, house in the Connecticut suburbs, a country club and the respect of peers.

Then it happened, an epiphany, a realization that something was wrong, there was a missing link that would connect my comfortable self with my bold and risky self.

I took a big step, one which I’d live to regret in some respects but one I needed to quiet my anxious spirit.

I resigned from Cotton, left New York and embarked on a 30-year odyssey as an economic development consultant in the emerging economies of the third world from Sri Lanka to Brazil. There was uncertainty, mystery and danger with indigenous people so different from those I knew in NY.

Sri Lanka was my first assignment, I never heard of it much less know where in the world it was?  I had no idea what I was doing or what I’d be letting myself in for, seriously.  It was the thrill of discovery, like Columbus when he set out to discover Asia and new trade routes only to discover America.

Life is a journey not a destination, at age 62 when my peers were calculating their retirement benefits and playing golf my journey was just beginning.


Christ, what was I doing here, they didn’t tell me about this? I didn’t expect the bright lights of NY, but this was ridiculous. I didn’t sign up for a blistering hot corrugated barn watching tea tasters slurping, swirling and spitting the current harvest from a Lipton plantation.

 When I arrived, blurry eyed and disoriented from 18 hours of flight time with no sleep in my USAID required economy seat, it hit me, I really did it this time, thrown my comfortable life as a corporate executive with first class privileges into a mash pit of low class amentias among the proletariat of an undeveloped country.

Did I have 2nd thoughts, you bet your ass I did, and they weren’t sweet dreams, more like night screams.

The crowd waiting for passengers was anxious, jostling each other for a better view of the human detritus stumbling towards the gate with bloodshot eyes locked in a confused stare from 18 hours of no sleep, bad movies and worse food.

My contact was there, small and dark with a wide toothy grin etched on his face. The sign was homemade, dirty yellow cardboard, my name was in capital letters, misspelled as HAN, it stood out in the monochromatic crowd. 

I walked towards him with a thumbs up sign of recognition, he acknowledged with a nod and worked his way through the rolling sea of dark faces to the narrow exit gate.

He grabbed my bag without a word, I hung on momentarily, not knowing if this guy was my pickup from the hotel or a street thief. He smiled and flipped his sign to the backside exposing the name and logo of the Galle Face Hotel, I released my grip and we headed for the door.

The Indian made Tata sedan was parked across the road, I felt the springs in the back seat as we jerked and stumbled over the bumps and potholes towards the entrance to the airport. There was a gate, a guard house and armed men spot checking vehicles for contraband. There was a cannon, an M-198 Howitzer, American made, I recognized it from my tour at Ft Knox, Ky. It was nestled in a circle of camouflaged sandbags manned by two soldiers dressed in battle gear, helmets and flak jackets. 

My only thought was oh my god, what have you gotten yourself into Nick? My active duty in the Army was limited, but I knew about guard duty. The sight of that gun emplacement made my gut tighten. What or whom were they guarding against?  I should have told Toothy to stop and head back to the terminal so I could catch the next flight to NY.

I didn’t, and that would prove to be a seminal moment, a moment that would change my life from the stupor of an upper middle-class existence protected by the guardrails of my peers to one of audacious adventure, unplanned and undisciplined for which I was totally unprepared.

Think about it, a month ago I was commuting from Darien, CT to mid-town Manhattan in a three-piece suit, the New York Times and Wall Street Journal tucked under my arm and my only concern was the 7:08 running late.

Today I’m in the backseat of an old sedan I’d never heard of with a cranky air-conditioner, worn out springs, and a driver who doesn’t speak English. Not to mention being inspected by armed guards backed up by a US Army M-198 Howitzer.

You can’t make this up, and the real adventure hadn’t even begun which brings me back to the corrugated barn and the guys spitting dark liquid into a funnel.

So here I was, being paid for my expertise as a non-profit association executive being hired to organize small stake-holder farmers into marketing cooperatives to build leverage in pricing and sourcing for their commodities.

Lipton was hardly a small stakeholder plantation owner, they were a leader in production systems, quality control and marketing. They were competitive in world tea markets from years of experience and, should I say, exploitation of the Siri Lankan workers who traversed the verdant green hills where small tea bushes grew in abundance in the mild sun-drenched weather of the Indian ocean. Lipton was beyond the scope of my project, but their operation was a good introduction to tea production, quality control and marketing.

Her name was Ashine, in local Sinhala it meant “a strict natured, serious and diplomatic person”, her Mother knew what she was doing when naming this girl, she was all of that and more.

Ashine would be my guide and translator for the remainder of my engagement in Sri Lanka. She spoke excellent English with a minimum Sinhalese accent.

I was working for a large US consulting group that had a USAID contract for economic development work in the agribusiness sector.

This was my first assignment and I must confess, I felt like a fish out of water not knowing what was expected of me or how I would deliver on the SOW (statement of work in USAID speak),  I would have to get used to the acronyms among many other things like how to say thank you, hello, goodbye and where’s the men’s bathroom in Sinhalese. Asheni was helpful in a formal way, she took it upon herself to teach me the language, at least the basics like how to order a beer after work. I didn’t know how I would get along with Ashine at first, she was middle aged, I guessed about 45, attractive, well-educated and seemed friendly enough but not too friendly. She had spent time in the States which, I accurately guessed, was one of the reasons she was assigned to me in the first place.

How does a 63-year-old married man still in his prime, physically fit and by all accounts still attractive work with a woman in her mid to late 40’s, still in her prime and by his account still attractive, very attractive. Ah, the eternal question? You focus on her professional skills, and consider how she can help you perform your job in spite of the fact that your thousands of miles from home on a long-term business assignment in a bucolic location with unlimited opportunity for after-hours intimacy?  The answer is you suck on a lemon and keep your eyes on the road.

Ashine turned out to be my secret weapon as I stumbled through the bureaucratic requirements of USAID report writing and the strange world of local culture. She had worked on several USAID projects in the past and was intimately familiar with the terms and conditions of their contracts.

I was not the only Western expat living and working in Colombo, there were other Americans, Brits, Aussies and a large contingent of Danes. We tended to flock together like birds of a feather but, of course, we had our own differences in culture, languages and custom.


The guy spitting in the funnel looked at me and pointed at the spoons used to taste the tea varieties lined up on a table in front of him. The liquid color went from pale green to yellow to brown to black with several cups in each category. He was nodding the question; would I like to try it?

I nodded back, yes.

This would be the first affirmative decision I would make during my three-month engagement, with one exception, and that exception was obvious, more about that later.

The green tea was, to my tongue, tasteless as it has always been for me, even out a box of Japanese Tea back in the States. The flavor of green tea is nuanced, my taste buds are unmistakable and obvious, I would never make a good tea-taster.

After clearing my palate with water I tried again, this time from the black selection, as soon as the liquid hit my tongue, I knew, it was strong and slightly bitter, after quickly spitting it out in the funnel I turned to the professional and gave him a thumbs-down, he smiled with a huge laugh.

Ashine, with a wide knowing grin, simply shook her head, another nuanced signal that she enjoyed being with me despite the professional circumstances.

This was the beginning of a long climb up the learning curve of the tea business, next would be the Coir, aka Coconut, fiber business, another leading commodity underpinning the fragile Sri Lanka economy after their world leading position as a producer of fine gemstones, primarily Sapphires.

Ashine had a car and driver assigned to us, she sat in front next to the driver telling him where we had to go in Sinhala then turning to me in English pointing out national landmarks. This woman attracted me on an intellectual level, I’ve always preferred being with people smarter than myself, especially women. In Sri Lanka Ashine made me feel inferior without bruising my tender ego, not easy to do.

The plan was to visit several tea plantations and spend the night at one of them. The large operators, like Lipton, had converted their barns into Inns nestled in the rolling hills of the tea growing estates.

Approaching a plantation, the first thing you saw was a carpet of green dotted with the primary colors of the picker’s saris and sarongs, the sight was not a tourist postcard, these women were working hours a day to fill the baskets strapped to their backs with the 18kg of leaves needed to earn their daily wage of 2.70 British pounds.

The workers lived in barracks style housing at the foot of the hills, they shopped in plantation owned stores and their children went to plantation run schools. All I could think of was the US textile industry in early 20th C, where the workers “owed their soul” to the company store”.

I kept peppering Ashine with questions, were the people happy, did they have unions, could they survive on 2.70 BP per day, what did they do for entertainment, did they have churches or temples?

Her answers were measured and convincing, just like everything else about this woman.

For some reason I felt that Ashine was hiding something, her demeanor was too fixed, too perfect her answers were robotic. I don’t believe in male intuition; I leave that talent to women but in this case, I have a strange feeling about Ashine that I can’t explain.

I’m one of 16 expat consultants working in Sri Lanka on economic development projects. USAID had budgeted $22m US dollars to enhance the competitiveness of their agricultural sector, infrastructure, urban planning, health and rule of law. I was a small peg in a large puzzle but working on Tea, Spices and Coir gave me outsized visibility as these commodities found their way into consumer markets of the Western World.

Traveling around the country in a chauffeured car with a smart, attractive guide was the envy of my expat colleagues back in Colombo.

It was late in the day, we were tired and ready for a shower, a cool drink and some good Fish Ambul Thiyal, a sporous fish dish popular with the locals.

Ashine registered for the three of us, the converted tea barn was charming, maintaining much of its original purpose but with all the modern conveniences and amenities.

I asked Ashine if we should dress for dinner, she answered with a wink,’ probably a good idea, it gets chilly here in the evening.’

That retort was unexpected and surprising, this uptight woman had just let her guard down for the first time since we met, maybe that’s what my male intuition was telling me, even in Sri Lanka human chemistry doesn’t change. I wondered what her astrological sign was and how it would match up with my Leo?

We were to meet at in the cocktail lounge at 8 o’clock, like most places outside of the Western World they ate late here.

I arrived first. The lounge was quietly lighted, local décor with a decided western flare. The bar was backlit with a mirror reflecting every brand of premium liquor I’d ever heard of and several I hadn’t. I ordered my usual, Stoli on the rocks, double lemon peel with a club soda chaser.

The driver arrived next, he sat beside me with a nod and ordered a beer, local brand, I’d never heard of. The bartender obviously knew him, they had a congenial chat, I assumed this was a regular stop on the tourist trail the driver followed when not working for the project.

I saw her reflected in the mirror, the image slightly blurred, and color toned behind the bottles. There was no mistaken Ashine for a stranger, she was smiling and purposeful as she slid onto the stool next to the driver with a nod to both of us and a greeting in Sinhala to the bartender who was already preparing her martini in a lowball glass, 3 olives and a Perrier chaser.

I started the conversation over the driver’s head, a bit awkward but unavoidable. After speaking in English, the driver slid off his seat with a hand signal for me to move closer to Ashine, I happily accepted.

She asked me about my life in the states, wife, children, where I lived and how I was selected for this assignment.

(stay tuned)