By Stephen Alter

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‘Very old. Three hundred years.’ The Afghan tossed a rug on the terrazzo floor.

Knowing nothing of carpets, the diplomat pretended to inspect the texture, his fingers brushing the tasseled border, then feeling the weight of the knotted wool. The first few carpets were traditional Bokhara patterns, with medallions in red and black with hints of indigo. The diplomat had been warned about the wiles of Afghan carpet dealers, but this man came recommended by a Pakistani acquaintance who claimed to know the value of a carpet. He examined several prayer rugs with mihrab designs. They appeared to be well used, with spots where the knees and foreheads of the faithful had worn away the pile.
‘This one…beautiful. Two hundred knots per square inch,’ said the merchant.

‘How old is it?’

‘One hundred twenty years. It belonged to my grandfather. I carried it with me when I escaped from Mazar-e-Sharif.’

The cook arrived with cups of tea and remained silent. The American seemed to like this carpet. It had a floral pattern and more colors than the others, mustard and green, against a background of purples and reds, not a conventional Afghan motif.

‘What kind of flower is this?’ the diplomat asked.

The carpet-seller traced the pattern with his fingers. ‘Anaarkali,’ he said. ‘Pomegranate.’

‘How much?’

The Afghan slurped his tea before answering. ‘Three thousand.’


‘Dollars,’ the Afghan said with a dismissive laugh. ‘Only dollars.’


The next rug he threw out was the largest in his bundle, six feet wide by nine feet long. It was mostly rust and gold, with a diamond border of blue and red. In the center was the stylized shape of an animal, a large cat with a tail that curled up in a crooked ‘S’. The wool had been dyed a pale amber hue. Covering this were the leopard’s spots, an irregular pattern of rosettes, like five daubs of ink, or the smudged petals of a rose.

‘Tiger,’ said the cook with a grin.

‘Guldaar,’ the carpet seller corrected him, knowing that the diplomat would choose this one. Minutes later, the haggling began. When the Afghan demanded $4,000, the cook intervened, speaking in Urdu and trying to bring down the price by half. After twenty minutes of negotiation, during which the seller extolled the workmanship of the carpet and the rarity of its design, they settled on $2,400.

Telling the cook to bring another cup of tea to seal their transaction, the diplomat counted a wad of hundred dollar bills into the carpet seller’s hands. Both men remained silent as the money was handed over, along with a clear plastic case, the size of a thin matchbox, discreetly tucked in amongst the currency notes. After counting the dollars, the carpet seller stuffed them into the pocket of his vest, then examined the plastic case. A memory card lay inside, no bigger than a fingernail. The carpet-seller weighed the tiny object in his callused palm before slipping it into an inner pocket of his vest.
Neither man spoke, though their eyes met in the shared knowledge that this transaction was far more valuable than the sale of a carpet. Looking down at the leopard’s rampant profile, each of them considered the wild savagery of the beast knotted into the rough fabric of the rug, a cunning predator whose only enemy was man.

Just then, the cook emerged again carrying two cups of tea on a wooden tray. He offered it first to the carpet-seller who took his cup by the rim instead of the handle.

A moment later, when the cook turned away, he found an arm around his throat and one hand firmly wedged beneath his jaw. The teacups fell to the verandah floor with a sudden crash. Within seconds the cook’s neck had been snapped. The carpet-seller performed this fatal maneuver with ease, as if he had done it many times before. Loosening his grip, he let the body slump to the floor and fall across the just-sold carpet. There was no sound beyond a choked whisper and a swift grappling of arms followed by the decisive crack of vertebrae. Immediately, the diplomat reached for a SIG-Sauer P224 that he carried in a shoulder holster under his jacket.

The Afghan seemed unperturbed and looked down at the shattered cups of tea.

‘What the fuck is going on?’

‘Informer,’ the Afghan said in English, looking down at the crumpled figure on the floor.

‘How do you know?’ the diplomat asked, still holding the handgun ready.

The Afghan shrugged and leaned down to pick up an armful of carpets, before hoisting them onto his shoulder. He showed no fear, and the diplomat slowly lowered his gun.

‘Next time, you should be more careful who you hire,’ said the rug merchant.

‘ISI?’ the diplomat asked.

‘No, RAW,’ the Afghan replied. ‘Indian intelligence.’

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