Et tout le reste est littérature.
Everything else is just literature.
Paul Verlaine, "Art poétique," 1882
"Shit," hissed Blackie under his breath, as he recovered his balance. "Shit on shingles."
Keep quiet, Whitey thought, taking charge.
"You," growled Rodge the Enforcer, putting his glass on the bar. "Been looking for you."
Yeah, reckoned Whitey, impaled by the stare from the stool, Bet you have.
Christ, thought Blackie, why?
For a long, long second, the tableau stood.
Rodge was taking his time as usual. He could move fast enough when required but knew in his bones that ponderous inevitability was his most effective garb. Besides, while he had been intending to ask these two to assist him with his enquiries, he was not yet ready to carry out the capital sentences their anarchist convictions probably merited. He was after Ahmed.
Blackie was simply paralyzed with fear, and its attendant shame. He had blithely been carrying on (again) as if there were no consequences to consider. Or as if he acted in a sort of vacuum, sneaking around the inconvenient facts he wished to avoid, and denying the uncomfortable truth that problems, like happiness, present a moving target. This little local difficulty, however, was looming like a motherfucker and there didn't seem much room to squeeze around the side. He was blanking out in panic.
Whitey was coming to his senses. In the space between breaths, many things fell into place and he understood completely what had happened, and what was going on, and indeed what was about to take place. The trivial details would always escape him: that Fingers had been spotted going into the Shakespeare with bulging pockets and leaving with more cash than was entirely good for him, that he had been followed and nabbed and busted big-time by one of Mario's henchmen, that he had crumbled under persuasive pressure and punned on his own name by pointing East and nominating Ahmed; of all that, the only fact Whitey ever knew was what he knew immediately Fingers had fucked up. Everything else was unimportant.
"Yeah?" he replied, stony-faced.
"Yeah," amplified Rodge. "Got some questions for you boys."
Posturing dogs, all bark and bristle.
"Yeah. Like, what in fuck are you doing here?"
Rodge's dialogue should be construed as subtitles; to convey the preceding utterance as 'Li' wor'n fukya doin'ere' is to sacrifice fluency on the altar of exactitude. Consider his language as rather closely translated from the original Cockney and you won't go far wrong.
"Yeah," began Whitey, but was interrupted.
"You told us, man," objected Blackie, who was missing the subtleties of the monosyllabic negotiation, "You told us. Stay away till September '71, that's what you said, so here we are." He moved up to Whitey's right shoulder and waved his arms innocently.
Sometimes Blackie could be a right thickhead.
"Yeah," repeated Rodge, "And what in fuck are you doing here?"
"Yeah," sighed Whitey, trying to regain lost ground, "Danish cunt. Stew. Charter."
This was plausible, and in fact (like all the best cover stories) true, and the ring of authenticity puzzled the Enforcer, whose built-in lie detector was silent. He wasn't used to having the truth thrown in his face at such an early stage in the interrogation. Doggedly, he shook it off and continued.
"Yeah?" he accepted with man-to-man curiosity (maybe later she'd be, ah, available) and pressed on. "And why are you in fucking Kabul?" Rodge was clearly not impressed with the oriental charms of the city. Or, for that matter, of the substances that constituted for some its major attraction.
"Well, it's the crossroads of the ancient world," ventured Blackie with a bravado that dismayed his partner and finally convinced their Nemesis of his duty in this encounter.
Rodge had no trouble suffering fools let's face it, he was intellectually challenged himself, though not even Mario would say so in front of his back but he could not stand wise guys. He understood Whitey on some levels, even rather liked him; they had knocked around some of the same street corners, back in their struggling teens, though where Whitey had sold blowjobs Rodge had rolled the drunken faggots, getting more cash out of the game and more fun to boot (so to speak). Blackie he despised, not least because he had no difficulty in smelling the fear beneath the verbal dexterity. Blackie was up to no fucking good, and it was his clear duty as Enforcer to find out what kind of no fucking good and to mete out his just deserts. Rodge didn't know why Mario called it that (butchers didn't do afters) but he knew how to do it all right.
That his duty was also a pleasure was just his luck.
Tactically, however, he was not in the best of situations, there in the very public bar of the Inter-Continental. He was carrying, sure, this being in the days before airline security and technology got serious, but even in this cow town he felt inhibited about flashing it in front of the bartender. Blackie had cottoned on to this fairly quickly, which was why he had relaxed more than he should have. Whitey was the one to respond appropriately.
"Yeah," he said quickly, to forestall unpleasantness, as in Don't mind my friend he can't help it, "Beer?"
"Yeah," agreed Rodge slyly, "Why not?"
A Plan was forming in the distant recesses of his mind.
"That's better," he continued as he finished the one he had and passed the glass over for a refill. "So when do we get a shufti at the bint, then?" (This drew a surprised glance from the barman, who spoke some Arabic and frankly considered it beyond this lout, which of course it was he spoke the polyglot Cockney with no idea of its derivation) "What's her moniker anyway?"
"Gita," said Blackie, who was confused but trying to follow the new diplomacy as best he could. "Due in from Mecca any time now."
"Been playin' Bingo, has she?"
There was a moment's regrettable silence while the other two absorbed the unbelievable fact that Rodge the Enforcer Had Made a Joke.
"Mecca Ballrooms, geddit?"
As the penny dropped, Blackie began to giggle hysterically, a dubious move, and Whitey shook his head in appreciation, which was a slightly better one.
The conversation flagged at that point, and they focused their attention more productively on the assimilation of brew.
The Plan in its infancy was to lull the boys into a false sense of security by being jovial and convivial, and then to lure them up to his room and put the serious frighteners on them until they revealed the whereabouts of that double-crossing git Ahmed who was disturbing the balance of trade in the UK with unauthorized imports. In theory, not a bad wheeze. In practice, a tad too dependent on the principal actor's powers of dissimulation. Rodge the Enforcer had all the qualities needed for an old-fashioned silent-movie Bad Guy he could project power and venom without saying a word but he would never make the transition to Leading Man. Empathy just wasn't his gig.
He was also about a liter ahead in the beer stakes. As the trio propping up the outside of the bar came to finish the round Whitey had bought, the two newcomers were just warming up, their thirst barely slaked and their interest in further investigations merely piqued. Rodge, however, had fifty ounces of liquid sloshing about his gut, and something had to give sooner or later. Nevertheless, he bore up under the strain manfully.
"Three more, guv," he instructed the man, and turned to the others, in the interests of implementing the Plan. "So ... you wanting to get home, are you?"
"Grrnh," acknowledged Whitey to his left, while simultaneously sending massive telepathic instructions to his right, along the lines of Leave This To Me.
"Yeah, well, bottoms up." Rodge took a hefty draft and smacked his lips. "Maybe I got some good news for ya." That should hang on to them, he thought, while we regroup. "Half a mo' while I take a quick slash in the bog."
He stumbled a little as he dismounted from the stool, for two and a half British pints (or four standard American bottles) is a reasonable quantity of any kind of witch-piss, and that German lager has more of a kick to it than your standard bitter-drinker is ever willing to admit. Perhaps it clouded his judgment; or perhaps, as Mario had been known to suggest from time to time, judgment just wasn't his strong suit. At any rate, he assumed that their new-found conviviality, not to mention three-quarters of a glass of free beer, would be plenty to keep these lads awaiting his imminent return. He smiled back at them as he vanished into the gentlemen's toilet.
"Move," ordered Whitey.
For once Blackie went along without comment. In five seconds flat, they were out of the bar, in five more out of the hotel, and in another fifteen they were into the nearest side street, around a corner and running like hell. A minute later, they were into the unmarked lanes, panting and pounding and shaking like the leaves on the tree.
"Into the bazaar," directed Whitey, and they slowed to a walk and headed for the easy anonymity of the most crowded area in town.
"No," he changed his mind. "Hotel."
They avoided the main drags as far as possible by now they knew that little area of the city like cabbies and kept a weather eye open for traffic, although the streets were mostly exposed and offered little opportunity for ducking into doorways. They figured Rodge didn't know where they were going anyway, so the more distance they put between themselves and the Inter-Continental the better, and they force-marched it to the Grape Place in something close to record time.
Yusufi was surprised by their appearance, hot, bothered and noticeably uncool, but too polite to comment. He gladly arranged for tea to be delivered to their room, where a Council of War was instantly under way.
"Gotta split," said Whitey, too cool to fool and too cross to cross.
"Um," temporized Blackie.
"Gotta tell Ahmed, man."
Without even pausing to roll a number, they began to throw things into bags. They relied on the 80/20 rule eighty-percent-successful packing would be plenty, thank you and in ten minutes had most of the gear stowed. There remained the question of where to go.
"Bamian?" suggested Blackie. "Those huge great Buddhas are supposed to be a groove."
"Mazar?" shrugged Whitey.
Mazar-i-Sharif was way the hell up by the northern border, where cartographers and politicians will have their little joke, as a glance at any map tells (see Chapter 21). It was almost in Uzbekistan, which at the time was theoretically part of the CCCP (a little Cyrillic thrown in there for free) and a source of reliable exoticism that was surely beyond the scope of a Cockney Mafioso. Mazar was legendary among traveling freaks because so many talked about going there and so few actually made it. Alexander the Great was one who did, hanging out near there for a couple of years; it was said therefore to be the crossroads of the ancient world.
"Bamian's kinda touristy, I guess," conceded Blackie, though it must be said that he was stretching a point even there. "Still there's a night bus. It's, what, a hundred miles?"
"More. And slow."
"True. Five hours?"
"Jesus. Two in the morning, two in the afternoon. Oh shit. But Mazar'd be a lot more."
"Yeah," Whitey had to admit, taking it in steps made more sense. Mazar wasn't much above two hundred miles as the vulture flies, but it was likely to be a two-day trip even if they got a through bus. The northern roads tended to be rudimentary. Bamian was a notable side trip but sort of on the way. It should be no big deal arranging transport from one to the other.
"Get to Bamian tomorrow, then just get a place to kip for the night, move right on, stay a step ahead of the bugger. He'll never go out of Kabul anyway."
"Right." Whitey hauled a bed out of the way and turned his attention to the third floorboard from the far wall. "You fix it with Yusufi, I'll get the shit."
As Whitey knelt to prise up the board that concealed various important and official documents, mostly authentic, as well as rather less legal items such as pharmaceuticals, he was feeling surprisingly good. They were working together well, Blackie had recovered from his wiseacre fear response got his arse in gear was how Whitey put it and it seemed like they would get away clean. Up in Mazar they could put together another plan.
There might be a little difficulty whenever they finally got back to Blighty but that would have to be more than a year away, and time would wound the old heel maybe. Still, that was later. Now was moving.
Moving made him feel good.