WHEN WESLEY first arrived, they were on him like leopards on a gazelle. The instant he set foot off the ferry onto the continent at Tangier. First the customs agents then the people hanging around the pier. He must have looked like some stupid white foreign sack of cash to them. He forced his way into a taxi and the mob followed him all the way to the train station. They actually followed running on foot. The crowd slapped at the windows like a scene from some Frontline documentary. Then it was twice halfway fighting, pushing past them into the train station. When close enough, the Moroccans smelled of sweat and foreign spices.
My God I am actually being pursued by a mob, he thought. Orwell and his elephant.
In the cobblestone lobby of the train station, breathing hard, he realized his choice: Turn tail and re-cross the Med or buy a ticket south and dive into the deep end of the pool.
Why not? Fuck it, he thought. Africa. Here at last. Free at last.
He thought, Everybody has to die of something.
A man broke through the sprawling lines waiting for train tickets to approach him. He wore a threadbare suit, which must have been agonizing in the heat, some relic of a bygone decade, maybe some plainclothed security officer? Glowering.
I want to share with you a good rule, the man beganÖ
Later it took a long while watching from the window of the overnight train to Marrakesh for Wesley to understand. To understand what the man in the lobby had meant. Listening to the rhythmic clacking of the rail. Seeing the moonlit savannah rolling past, the occasional swarm of orange animal eyes reflecting in the nothingness, Wesley remembered the conversation. He remembered thinking, This man is actually saying this to me in a train station built from natural stones moved by hand?
The man in the suit had said, Better one mosquito than twenty.
Wesley thought it sounded like some clichť everybody else knew but he had never heard before.
He did not know it then but would come to realize it was the secret rule of not just Morocco.
This was all years and many trips agoÖ
TO THE north, the Martian wasteland breaks into a jagged rift teeming with lush green vegetation, an oasis. Before are the whitewashed sandstone buildings of Marrakesh. The surrounding scrubland ends and the city spreads with a boxlike symmetry of flat roofs broken only by the intermittent upward thrust of a mosque. If you follow the rail in from the north, first you pass through the New CityĖ feeling the unease produced by seeing several city blocks of modern buildings being constructed all at once, some vast government undertaking; a sight that bespeaks wars, refugees, alliances shifting. Then gliding in a taxi on the winding road circling, sweeping among the antique cars and mopeds, into the Old City. The Old City, some last remnant of something once vast and urbane, now all desert grit and fallen to ruin.
Past the outer stone fortifications then the lower awnings of the suk districts, crossing the central open plane of the medina then into the casbah facing it, up onto the second floor veranda. Here now Wesley was glad the electricity was back on to power the ceiling fans. The city was fine in December but the ceiling fans helped in the post-afternoon heat.
The waiter set the tall glass on the small cafť table carefully. Wesley looked at the glass, watched the sunlight work through the resin-colored tea broken by the layered mint leaves. He took a sip. It tasted like one thousand years of sunshine. The far edge of his table was too close to another customer. They were really cramming in here now, filling the air with their jabbering. Wesley took a second drink. The ceiling fans had made this the most popular casbah in the city.
Wesley watched the crowd circulate in the medina below. He watched the mopeds dart. He watched the women shuffling bundled in head-to-toe dark jalabas like Star Wars Jawas. Wesley occasionally saw staggering from the crowd one of the horribly birth-defected beggars. Bizarre fleshy growths from forearms and shoulders, branching. He had never quite figured those out. Something that had never been mentioned in any book heíd ever read. Sometimes it was a crippled war veteran instead. The medina was a flat of coppery dirt, a nucleus from which all the snakelike paths spiderwebbed into the market districts with all their rugs and beautiful wares.
Time slowed in Morocco. When the breeze blew across the veranda, it smelled of sunshine baking the clay bricks, and the human odors of the others around him, and their hot mint teas, and hashish.
Better one mosquito than twenty. That was how heíd come to meet Ahmed years ago. One introduction led to another led to another.
He checked his Suunto watch. Ahmed was ten minutes late.
That had never happened before.
Finally the crowd parted and the tall, windblasted Arab appeared. Sunken eyes in deep sockets, rims darkened as if permanently bruised. Pupils flicking, observing, taking everything in, an intelligence that didnít have to be ostentatious. Flattened ears. Wiry growths of uneven facial hair that some different man in a different part of the world might have given up on long ago. Plus a sort of default smugness even when he was going for a different expression.
Ah, Wesley, he said, as if tardiness no longer mattered.
Ahmed was dressed better than before. Western clothes now. Here we are, he said in Arabic.
He sat in the opposite chair.
Wesley looked at him and thought, How do these Moslem guys age? Ahmed must be thirty by now. Yet he looks forty even with the new clothes. Of course there must have been a lot of tough moments for him behind the scenes. I donít know how his end of the operation runs. He looks changed, Wesley thought.
The two of them considered each other.
The waiter returned and snapped a tea down in front of Ahmed without being asked.
Yes things have changed around here, Wesley realized. When I first met him he was halfway homeless. In those days, the waiters had eyed him as if trying to decide whether to toss him out. Now look how they fetch for him. Yes our man has changed. All in the course ofÖ how many trips has it been now? It has been four years. It was bad for a long time but these last few months have been good. I should not fault Ahmed, he has every right to benefit from this arrangement like I have. He must be considered a very ambitious man in his circle.
Wesley, the Arab said, your trip was comfortable?
You took the train again?
Yes. All the way through Spain this time.
Oh? How did you come down?
I spent Sunday night in Barcelona then had breakfast in Babadilla.
No problems with the ferry? Ahmed inquired.
You know how that is.
No, Ahmed said. You forget that you have traveled further than I have.
That was not true.
Ahmed, letís make this quick, Wesley said, realizing something was amiss. I want to go see the coast, maybe Essaouria, on this run. No complaints regarding the last shipment, so letís just do another of the same. Can we do that? How much time do you need?
Wesley, the Arab said. Wesley Wesley. My good friend Wesley, who has made me very wealthy, and yetÖ
Here we go, Wesley thought. The bastard is going to ask for another price increase.
Wesley, are you paying attention? I need your absolute attention.
Wesley sipped his tea then set it back on the table carefully. He kept his hand on the glass and looked at it and watched the surface curve away from his fingers. Finally he said, Alright.
Iím afraid weíve come to the end of our arrangement. You should leave. There are things happening in my country.
What? No delivery?
No delivery, Ahmed said.
Wesley looked at Ahmed intensely. Looked at his windburnt skin, the premature wrinkles, the once-mop of woolen hair now flattened with some hair product. I donít understand. Arenít we making some good money?
Oh course we are. Well, we were. Things have changed.
I donít understand.
People believe the king has been too lenient. They say we have strayed too far from the path. Ahmed opened his palms conciliatorily. I shouldnít be seen with you anymore. I am sorry. Believe me.
Itís not an issue of money?
No, Iím afraid not, Ahmed said. Wesley, you need to pay attention.
Itís an issue of personal safety.
Wesley paused. You make the trip to Spain then. We can meet there.
You donít understand what Iím telling you? You know I cannot do that.
One more shipment.
Iíd like to but I cannot. Like I said, they say the king has been too lenient. Wesley, you have to believe me. Iíd like to, but it cannot be done. There are new policies.
Of course Wesley had heard rumors. Half-informed snippets on Spanish news and the conversations of other European smugglers.
Things arenít going to work out very well for Saddam, Wesley said, realizing it as he was saying it. Then a long, tired exhale.
Ahmed took a pinch of tobacco from his pouch. He rolled a cigarette quickly, pulling slightly inward as his thumbs were the main force spinning it over. Then he pinned it to his paperthin lips. He lit it with one fluid snap of a lighter. He took a deep, pensive inhale then let it leak out. Something was wrong with his right hand.
These are quite the times we live in, he said sympathetically, then picked a speck of tobacco off his lip. He glanced around, maybe searching for an exit route.
Then Morocco is over for me, Wesley thought. Either itís over or I find a new supplier for as long as that lasts until the border becomes impossible. A new supplier, hell Iíll need a whole new chain all the way to port customs. Fat chance of that. So that means itís over. Finally. Over.
Wesley wondered how long his Barclays pounds sterling account would last. He could buy some time if he waited for a good rate to convert it back to dollars.
Wesley, I really think you should leave, Ahmed said, leaning forward. Then he added, The country, is what Iím telling you. There was a tone to his voice.
It was that same low tone as when Wesley first met him, years ago. Wesley had needed one of the street people from those available to be his mosquito, to be his guide and armor him against all the other hasslers. Ahmed had looked like the toughest one in the pack. More than tough, he had practically emitted black radiation, somebody who had been so close to life and death that he slightly stood over everything. So now it was the low tone like long before. Not the serene, gentlemanly everything-is-proceeding-as-it-should-according-to-suerte tone.
Is that right, Ahmed? Thatís what you think? Tell me truthfully.
Donít mock, Wesley. Ahmed shook the cigarette at him. No no. You donít have the right. I understand youíre upset, but-
You have something to tell me, some suggestion on how I should proceed, just go ahead and you speak your mind. You know youíre leaving me in a pinch.
Wesley, Ahmed said. He tapped the lighter lightly against the tabletop with his right hand and the fingernails of his index, middle, and ring fingers had been torn out. Scabbed indentations where they used to be. You no longer have my protection.
A sickening chill washed over Wesley. In the sunlight, he could see each particle of dust kicked up by the traffic below. He watched a speck float over the ledge of the veranda and hover like a gnat above their drinks on the table.
There are deals and there are good deals and this was a mostly fine deal, he thought. Shaking his head slightly at the horror of what he was beginning to understand. Then he considered many things.
Wesley had vowed never to return to Chicago until he was on his feet. Well he would still be on his feet for a little while at least. Yet he knew it wouldnít last.
Ahmed stood. He slipped the lighter into the chest pocket of his new collared shirt. He took a last sip of tea then replaced the glass carefully, deliberately on the small cafť table. Then Ahmed looked at the two glasses like he was deciding whether to pay for them. One good last gesture maybe. Then Ahmed looked at Wesley, then back at the glasses, then he pushed up his sleeves trying to decide. Then he disappeared into the crowd.
Cheap, unappreciative saheef ahmuk, Wesley thought. He opened his wallet and reached for some dirhams.
Wesley suddenly looked up and saw all the eyes in the casbah on him. All the eyes in their sandstone masks. Hold on, he thought. Take a drink and hold on. This is some paranoia. Ahmed doesnít have this many men. Of course not. Itís a trick of the brain. Itís telling you to move, he thought. One last sip for appearances, then move.
The hotel was across the medina.
Wesley thought, I need to move quickly. One mosquito is preferable to all the others you don't see.
And yet he vaguely understood, one mosquito status in particular was reversing notably.
The warmth of the setting sun on his face.
Again he remembered those first days on the continent. How the sun was always in your face. How it would be absent in the shadow of a building, then you would pass between buildings, and it would be there in your eyes somehow no matter which way you turned. The desert sun. A tunnel ending in nuclear pale, radiating flesh, champagne, blood, and all the colors of mortality.