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In these matters the only certainty is that there is nothing certain.

Pliny the Elder, leading polymath of the first century B.C.E.


When the boys got back to town, they discovered that Ahmed's machinations were well advanced. His brother's friend was ensconced in Mayfair, and had successfully passed the word to young Fingers, whose surprise and initial concern had been dispelled by (what else?) visions of the joys of paradise. Or at least dreams beyond his wildest riches.

The rude awakening came as they began to understand that their part in the transaction was essentially over. Ahmed was polite, certainly, but Blackie and Whitey had failed to grasp the fundamental rule of trading: never sell the goose if you can sell the golden eggs. Once they had passed on the name of their contact, what else did they really have to sell?

To whom?

Ay, there's the rub. Ironically, their very survival depended in part on Ahmed's over-estimating their Machiavellian talents. He assumed, as a matter of purest routine, that his own name, description and whereabouts were in the hands of some trusted associate who was handy with some variety of lethal implement and would exact revenge of a routinely swift and terrible sort should the lads disappear. He himself took such precautions automatically. He might have risked a plausibly deniable termination with extreme prejudice, to use the CIA jargon then current, had he thought that they constituted a threat, but he was a gentle soul in his way and abhorred unnecessary violence. As long as everyone kept their side of a bargain and, almost equally important, did so with grace and good manners, he far preferred to live and let live.

Besides, their specialist knowledge might yet be useful.

So, once they were safely settled again in the upstairs corner room at the Grape Place (Yusufi relocated a Belgian junkie, who hardly noticed, as they imbibed the first ceremonial cup of tea; any lingering ill-feelings were smoothed away with a baksheesh lump of hash approximately the size of a golf ball), Blackie and Whitey found themselves with time on their hands. In addition to the agreed percentage, at least what they assumed was the agreed percentage, Ahmed threw in essentially unlimited quantities of product for personal consumption and/or local distribution. Well, they had to do something.

Yusufi conjured up Jacques once more, and the Swiss pharmaceuticals began to flow. On Blackie's request, instead of deadheading (the very word) back from the second run west, Ahmed's man carried a couple of hundred microdots, which Fingers was dabbling in as a sideline. Ahmed didn't want to get into retail at either end, so he passed them on at not much above cost and all of a sudden Kabul joined San Francisco and Amsterdam and Oxford and various other places as a regional center; it may have been the only one in which the university was not a major trading point. Mushrooms involved more research among herbalists and swamis and mystics of all denominations, but when it came right down to it, what else was there to do but research? The pair of them threw themselves enthusiastically into their work.

As spring went tripping lightly o'er the sill, and the hard light of summer began to bake the walls, it seemed that they were all set. Cash income was low and all in Afs, but the currency was convertible in the bazaar to anything from Johnny Walker Black to Japanese Yen, and expenses were lower still. Whitey's chess improved to the point where he occasionally wished Barb would come back so he could measure himself against her, even up, best of five, any stakes you choose (he had hopes, and occasional fantasies, that didn't include Ed and not always Blackie either). Blackie took up bridge, where it was harder to find a partner and a pair to play but the mathematical logic was right up his alley; memory was occasionally at a premium, to be sure, but he made sure the handicaps were well shared. Violent exercise, in the form of a stroll down town, broke up the routine, and the changing tapestry of travelers was as good as television any day.

Well, most days.

Actually, a spot of mindless telly would have gone down a treat now and then. A football match might have been good. Some decent sounds. Yusufi had scraped up a battered old Dansette from somewhere, and a selection of surprisingly good LPs. The quality of the collection improved notably on the evening that three or four of the residents had spent in a record-pitching contest, won by Whitey with a classic collection of Brenda Lee's Greatest Hits that cleared the far wall and surprised the hell out a neighbor taking a meditative evening dump, but the quantity was open to criticism. Every new arrival seemed to head for the same damn' records, which rapidly became scratched beyond belief, these being the days before cassettes were common or CDs invented.

The trouble with specifying paradise is that the filled order is always dead.

Blackie was educated as a liberal-arts generalist, to be vague (anything more precise would be less accurate, which is exactly the point), but the mystical clichés of post-Einsteinian science were the common currency of both formal discourse over port and uninhibited rapping over reefer.

He knew that shit.

The mathematics of Heisenberg was purest gobbledygook to him. The chaos theory that was gestating at the moment – some of which had been inspired not so far away in space or time by the Hindu philosophers of Varanasi, where Ralph Abraham's Quest for Psychedelic Math had led him – was completely foreign to him (and pretty much everyone else). The subtleties of modern cosmology, with its cannibal galaxies and the background music from the start of the universe, this universe, a universe, the original om mane padme hum, were still the stuff of scientists, not mass-cult magazine pieces; the only black hole he'd heard of was a torture chamber in old Calcutta.

But he knew that shit.

What Blackie knew as if by instinct – presumably it came to him by osmosis from his family environment – was that if you put him into a controlled, structured environment with defined rules and limits of behavior, he'd go nuts.

So he did.

The boredom, thought Blackie, was their own fault. They had defined a kind of ideal set-up that was rigid and planned and ultimately contradictory, like immaculate snooker. W.S. Gilbert devised the ingenious punishment of a game played "on a cloth untrue with a twisted cue and elliptical billiard balls," but for a spectator the opposite would be at least as bad. A continuous sequence of precisely predictable Newtonian cannons and snookers would put the attendant public into cryogenic storage, carefully marked 'AWAKEN WHEN SOMETHING INTERESTING HAPPENS'. (Scientifically this is a dubious analogy, for Sir Isaac could not in fact precisely predict what would happen when three balls collide, but Blackie didn't know that, so let us let it lie.) If you name your poison, he thought, you'll regret it.

Fortunately, Uncle Werner the Man Who Was Certain About Uncertainty came riding to the rescue.

The solution, it came in a flash, was beer.

If this seems just the slightest bit enigmatic, don't worry about it: Whitey was baffled too. One moment his mate was burbling about Kraut professors, the next he was thirsty. The connection was elusive but at least the conversation was moving to common ground.

"Don't you see?" said Blackie (who did), "What we need is a change."

"Ale?" asked Whitey (blindly).

"Well, we haven't had any in ages, have we?"


"I bet you can get it at the Inter-Continental."


"So let's go."

"Who's Werner?"

"Well, what I meant was, you see, if you look at something you change it, that's what Heisenberg said – Werner Heisenberg – and here we are and I was bored and I was looking at being bored and all of a sudden I get a thirst."

Whitey was still bemused.

"This Kraut run a brewery then?"

But he was already reaching for his jacket and patting his pockets for the standard impedimenta of Kabul excursions. Blackie understood that Whitey wasn't looking for lessons so much as striking sparks at a venture. Alcohol was nominally unavailable in the Muslim world, and genuinely expensive compared to everything else, so its use was restricted to the middle class and the rich tourists. Traveling freaks tended to look down on drinkers as beerheads (i.e. straight) or worse (i.e. pigs aka bluebottles, blue meanies, feds, cops, ze gendarmerie, or possibly squaddies or other sorts of military men); and besides, an evening's boozing cost more than even a serious session at an opium-den-cum-whorehouse, let alone the kind of casual stoning that really was the norm. Geordies in general were in theory exceptions, Newcastle Brown being the sacrament of the region, but their religion insisted on a precisely proper form of oblation, and that was regrettably rare, so even they tended to be teetotal for the duration.

Couldn't hurt to look, though.

Could it?