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Bigger fleas have little fleas
On their backs to bite 'em
Little fleas have smaller ones
And so ad infinitum

Gleaned from the oral tradition ca 1959, after de Morgan (1872), after Swift (1733), and so on down the unbroken chain of out-of-copyright theft


Percentages were Ahmed's business. He was an all-too-modern trader in the exotic herbal products of the orient, who knew exactly where he stood in the chain of distribution, and was not entirely happy with his circumstances. He was familiar, indeed quite comfortable, with the traditional wisdom that you have to give a little to take a little. That was not the problem. He accepted a certain amount of back-biting, as a cost of doing business. Ahmed was convinced, however, that his position in the endless chain was not precisely what it ought to be. He was a bigger flea, he felt, than the one he seemed to be nibbling on, and he deserved more than he was getting.

To be concrete, Ahmed was aware that retailers in the UK were raking in better than a thousand Afs a tola for product that he was buying for ten and delivering to the country in bulk at £120 a kilo, meaning that someone other than his good self was appropriating some four-fifths of the million or so Afs each ten-key shipment was realizing, which offended his sense of truth, justice, fair play and natural law.

The math he did in his head. A tola is about four-tenths of an ounce (in practice it's usually sort of that much or yay weight on the scale); a kilo is a little over 35 ounces; a pound sterling was then some 180 Afs or exactly US$2.40; and any Kabul dealer, in currency, hash or anything else, could translate fluently between all of the above without conscious effort. Distrustful occidentals were always thinking they were about to get ripped off, and slowing down the transactions to multiply, carry, divide and lay it all down on paper – solar cells and portable calculators being yet to arrive on the planet – but no reputable dealer would fiddle the conversions. Not for a potential repeat customer anyway. At least, he wouldn't expect to get away with it. And if he did, he'd lose all respect for his opposite number.

To the objective outsider, Ahmed's problem was fundamentally no different than Mario's. Both of them were in the business of putting producers together with consumers, and neither of them had a natural connection with both manufacture and retail distribution. They seemed like a natural alliance, since Mario had no obvious links to the growers and processors and pressers (although he did have access to alternate sources in Lebanon, Morocco, Kashmir and Nepal), while Ahmed had no pre-existing relations with enforcers or street dealers in London, Amsterdam or any other major European metropolis (although he did have a couple of cousins who were rising in the ranks of the diplomatic corps).

Mario, however, was fundamentally management, while Ahmed was by inclination an entrepreneur. The south-London Italian had risen through the ranks, from runner through enforcer to supervisor and finally to his present position on the board of directors of the local subsidiary of the corporation. He liked order, deference, hierarchy and tradition. He was entirely used to taking instructions from his superiors and having his own decisions unquestioningly obeyed by the troops. Sixties-style street dope was just a new product line for him, not fundamentally different than whores or extra-regulatory gambling, just another service to supply to a public that persisted in electing governments that denied its wishes. He couldn't stand the hippies, really, because of their anarchic tendencies. Like most of the old-guard criminal fraternity, he was as conservative as a cop and just as likely to moan about long hair and poofta paisley prints. He had heard about Ahmed's celebratory fuck with Whitey and been thoroughly shocked. Mario was straight, all the way, an organization man and a convinced Tory.

Ahmed, by contrast, was a trader and a self-sufficient anarchist, though he wouldn't have bothered with the term. He leant more to action than to introspection and his attitude to bosses was that they represented an unnecessary business expense. He liked the English kids he dealt with and he resented the structure that Mario represented. He had insisted on visiting Britain to see what he was getting into, and understood the dynamics of doing business under the aegis of the organization in place, but it chafed on general principles.

Besides, there was that lost profit margin.

Ahmed never admitted it to Blackie and Whitey but he had been badly affected by their disappearance. It wasn't the money, it was the feel of the matter. For a couple of years there he had had a steady and profitable trade, with people he could put a face to and more or less trust. This was comfortable, which at least partially made up for the fiscal limitations. There was a human scale to the transaction, which he considered important.

He had been deeply offended by the appearance one day, some weeks before, of Rodge the Enforcer, who had flown to Kabul with new instructions about delivery. Rodge, the reader will recall, was not one of the illuminati. He was, in point of fact, a thug. And a chauvinistic English thug to boot, whose only real virtue was loyalty. He didn't like foreign. He was a messenger, not a diplomat, and he had no concept of how to deal with an Afghan. In this, he was not all that different from his boss, it is only fair to say, for no manager without a blind spot for xenophobia would have considered sending such a crude representative into such a subtle culture.

The intended message was of course delivered: Future shipments should be directed to so-and-so's attention at such-and-such a contact number. Unfortunately, another message was sent along with it: You are mine and may remain so as long as I wish. On some level, this too was intended. Rodge conveyed it everywhere he went, through sheer force of what we might call personality. The intention, however, was deeply flawed.

Rodge outweighed Ahmed, outgunned him, this being in the dark ages before airport security got intense, and insulted him without even trying. He failed utterly, however, to intimidate him, succeeding only in making the Afghan extremely angry. Typically, it was the little things that hurt most, and when the Brit gratuitously insulted the tea his hospitable host was supplying, he almost provoked a final confrontation. Rodge never knew how close he came to missing his plane home, permanently. Fortunately this transgression took place in private or Ahmed might have had no choice in the matter. As it was, he bade a smiling farewell to the messenger, who remained as ever unaware of the emotional cancer he left behind, and promptly began to plot liberation and revenge.

And then these two showed up.

Allah was good.