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There is no such thing as an innocent purchaser of stocks.

Louis D. Brandeis, U.S. Supreme Court Justice, 1916–1939


And so it was that Ahmed and Blackie approached each other in the ancient dance of avoidance, where none will call a step by its true name and each will only play if the playing itself be hid.

Ahmed had the advantage that cometh of knowledge. Certes, the details of the demise of the auld régime were kept from him but in themselves these were of little consequence. The banishment he had deduced (the survival had been the surprise) and the essentials of the administrative restructuring had been handed on down to him, engraved on stone, for concealment in his tabernacle. The tradition of the trader cloaked him in its mystery and reminded him constantly of his goals and also his practical limits. Finally, he was operating, and knew it, on the territory of his familiars, where the footing might be perilous but the path he had trodden before and expected so to do once more, and more again.

Blackie just thought he knew what he was doing.

Thinking, unless trammeled by instinct or common sense, is always a fatal mistake.

Ahmed played Yusufi like a well-tempered clavier and the siren song brought Blackie panting and all unsuspecting. To the end of the association, Blackie was sure that the whole thing had been his idea, perhaps shared in synchronicity with the innkeeper. A hint here, a delicate nudge there, a suggestion of helplessness meshing with an urge to assist, and in a matter of weeks the hotelier was confiding to his customers of longest standing:

"My friend Ahmed, you recall," he began tentatively and elicited the traditional headshake of acknowledgment, "It has seemed to me that all is not perhaps the way he would wish with his business in your country. His brow is furrowed when we meet, his camels are full but his heart is heavy."

"Yeah?" quoth Blackie, not without sympathy or interest.

"Indeed. I am wondering if perchance..."

Say no more. The quadrille unfolded with scrupulous deliberation, as though the dancers were undulating through aspic, but days not weeks passed before:

"Oh, cousin," Yusufi ventured in private one afternoon, "It has occurred to me that there might be a means of making your labors even more handsome in their success. My friends from England..."

"They are good men."

"Indeed, and the thought has arisen: Could they not be of use, with their understanding..."

Considerations followed, and invitations, and deliberations, and imaginations and eventually confabulations, until the outlines of a mutually beneficial way of looking at the world emerged from the smoke. Ahmed was smiling inside, and Blackie too. Yusufi was glad on the surface, for facilitating was its own reward (gilded no doubt by an unvoiced expectation of the traditional unnecessary token of gratitude). Whitey's face remained impassive as ever; if the tendrils of trouble were brushing across his senses, he continued to conceal the knowledge, from himself as from the rest. This he would come to regret.

Time was needed to make the arrangements. There was nothing in writing but a message was devised that could be conveyed to a trusted source in West Ken, one of whose existence Mario was considered to be unaware, but one who would recognize a recommendation from the Newcastle boys and have the sense and patience to follow advice. The eventual bearer was a youth new to the Embassy in London, bound to Ahmed's brother by ties of childhood friendship, educated in part in exotic California where he had observed though not consorted with the hippie phenomenon, completely unknown to the local practitioners of the business at hand, and deeply in need of the wherewithal for the thorough enjoyment of the pleasures of Mayfair. His appointment would have been a most serendipitous surprise had it not been carefully arranged, a matter of which he remained joyfully ignorant.

The key advantage to Fingers (as the contact was known, from the unusually lengthy and talented digits that had made his first modest fortune in elementary school by dipping unbeknownst into the confectionery counters of the neighborhood shops) was that Ahmed was offering to front the first load, and half the second, and to guarantee the price of at least the third. Fingers, therefore, had an opportunity to break into business with a capital investment of essentially nothing, and the safe expectation of predictable prices lower than he could have found without dealing directly with the importer, albeit higher than said importer could otherwise secure. One middleman was down and each end benefited.

There was an element of duplicity: The impression was conveyed that the Afghan principal (never named) was new to the business and controlled or at least inspired by the English emigrants (themselves identified by implication but never actually specified). Had Fingers been sure that there was a double-cross involved, no matter that he knew by name no London professionals less famous than the Krays, he would probably have backed away. But he didn't – exactly – ask, and so he didn't – precisely – find out.

Other details required attention as well. Visas were required of foreigners intending to vacation in the land of Zoroaster, and they expired all too soon. This little difficulty was by no means insuperable, given the judicious application of appropriate incentives, generically known as baksheesh, but winter was coming and there were arrangements to make, so it was agreed that the English would depart awhile and return in the spring to assist as then required. Blackie was reluctant to let the action go, but Whitey persuaded him.

"Softly, softly, catchee monkey, man," he explained.

"I'm not rushing into anything," protested Blackie. "You know we can slip a few quid to someone in Interior and get the docs fixed. Why not just stick around and move it on?"

"Fuckin' cold winter," smiled his mate.

"Fair enough."

And so it was that Ahmed and Yusufi spent their winter in snowbound Kabul, patiently preparing the advancement of their respective businesses, while Blackie and Whitey took the sunshine tour of the south. They wondered at the cows in the streets of Delhi, glimpsed the Taj Mahal by moonlight, relaxed awhile in the nascent Goan beach scene, meandered through Kerala and crossed to Sri Lanka. They learned to snorkel around the coral, burned till they tanned, and generally lived the life of Reilly on a couple of quid a day. The occasional gastric disturbance and the temporary discomforts of public transportation were all that disturbed peace and harmony, and it was a considerable surprise when trekking season arrived and the white folk began to head for the Himalaya.

"Wanna go to Nepal?" asked Blackie, broaching the subject at an impromptu board meeting one afternoon at Hikkaduwa. "It's a nice beach and all but Ceylon's getting kinda old."

Blackie knew at the front of his brain that the island nation was independent and called Sri Lanka, but the conventions of Empire were burned deep into his skull. The map on his classroom wall dated from the era when the sun never set on the Empire, which was always colored red, and this modern Commonwealth stuff was sure 'nough hard to handle, as St Otis would have it. It didn't help that they kept running into people who lamented the leaving of the Raj and the order it brought. Blackie was aware that these old fascists were folks he'd despise at home, but he responded anyway, as a Brit by God.

"Sri Lanka," muttered Whitey, who for reasons of genetics and personal experience was more sensitive to such matters.

"Yeah, right, but what about it anyway?" Blackie continued. "Everyone seems to be going up to Kathmandu, and then from there you can just take off into the mountains, man, go see them Tibetans."


"And real Tibetans too, man – they came over the mountains when the Chinese moved in, like they just walked over like 20,000-foot passes and shit. Be a gas to go see them, man. Get a little whiff, walk all day. Incredible, man."


Whitey did not have the benefit of Blackie's education, which had included liberal doses of organized sports, to wear the little buggers out if nothing else, and preferred to take part in athletics as a spectator.

"Well, yeah." Blackie was a little defensive at his partner's response – he really did fancy the hiking for the hiking's sake, at least in theory – and he responded by retreating fast to common ground. "Kabul's defrosting, too. Maybe we should think about getting back to Ahmed. Figure he's lined up Fingers yet?"

"Probably. Yeah. Better check it out."

"Cool," responded Blackie, with executive decisiveness. "So let it be written, so let it be done." He had heard Yul Brynner say that in The Ten Commandments and thought it was neat. "I think we can do Madras–Delhi in one through train. You up for a two-nighter?"

Whitey groaned and grimaced and finally grinned agreement.

In retrospect, it all seemed choreographed, a pattern devised by the fates and taught to the actors whether they willed it or not. The rounds of movement to the music of the seasons, ritual responses to predictable cues, excitement on the surface glittering but failing completely to mask a sense of inevitability swelling below, all these combined to lean Whitey into following where he should have led, and Blackie to leaping where he should have looked.

But had they been able to name what they did, what they did would have been other than it was, and so perforce would they.

And we.