My very last consultation last Friday was “Ahmed.” That’s what he calls himself, and since he invariably pays cash, I couldn’t care less what his real name is. Historically, he’s been a very, very good customer – no matter how much I charge, he always pays up. And every time he calls to book an appointment, I always quote him a higher hourly rate than before. This time, actually, he was paying five times my usual rate, which, when they read this, will probably make quite a few of my regular clients gasp in disbelief, since they consistently gripe about how astronomical my ordinary bills are. Not that it keeps them from coming back – they know you get what your pay for, after all. And besides, this office on the top floor of a building with a fashionable address in downtown Washington DC isn’t cheap, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as my business overhead goes.
And what’s more, there’s a very good reason for me charging “Ahmed” so much, as regular readers of this Web log know – his acquaintance with bathing is about as tenuous and sporadic as Donald Trump’s relationship to veracity. Every visit, in fact, entails considerable exceptional overhead in the form of new high-performance filters for my office ventilation system and several hours of overtime for Gretchen to install and replace them, not to mention the single-use disposable gas mask and hazmat suit ensemble she insists I provide every time she does it. And there’s absolutely no way anybody normal could occupy that office immediately after “Ahmed” leaves it – that’s why Gretchen always makes sure to book him for the last available slot on a Friday so the air purification system can run all weekend before she comes in at four in the morning on Monday to change the set of brand new high-performance filters she installed during the lunch hour immediately prior to his visit. All that labor and materials add up – plus the lost business involved in making sure there’s a hefty buffer zone of sixty minutes before “Ahmed’s” arrival so none of my other clients gets inadvertently exposed to his eye-watering reek. Seriously, the man’s odor is simply horrendous – the HVAC supply company normally picks up used filters to recycle the activated carbon, for which I usually receive compensation in the form of a lower price for the next set. But after their truck driver spent five hours projectile vomiting all over the George Washington University Hospital emergency room, they refused to take back any more of the ones “Ahmed” has contaminated. I had to arrange for a toxicology specialist firm to take them, and even then, Gretchen has to heat seal them in six-mil heavy duty plastic sleeves and if they aren’t out of the building by five-thirty AM, I can count on an angry call from the property management company responsible for the building where my office is located. So not only is a complete set of high-performance filters a dead loss every time “Ahmed” visits, I’m also stuck with the removal fee associated with transporting them in an hermetically sealed truck to an EPA certified Level IV waste incinerator located in North Carolina.
With all those expenses, the cost of some pathologist’s camphor and a righteously strong snack is nothing by comparison, of course, but still essential to sufficiently deaden the olfactory senses. So after eating a garlic bagel with four ounces of Limburger cheese and fresh ramps on it, washed down with a bottle of plain raw kombucha and three shots of red sorghum maotai baijiu with a nice ripe durian fruit for dessert, I made sure to smear a dab under each nostril, right before “Ahmed” showed up for his consultation. I buzzed him into the reception area, which Gretchen had, by mutual agreement with me, vacated fifteen minutes prior to his arrival so she could get a good running start out of the building toward home, and waited for him to enter my office.
I’m not going to pretend it was easy – I feel like I definitely earned my consultation fee for that appointment on Friday, as I damn near fell off my chair when “Ahmed” entered the room. To be sure, he had been corrosively, malignantly, shockingly and overpoweringly ripe before, but this – this was beyond even that previous fearsome pale. Despite all my precautions and preparations, I could still feel my heart pounding and my blood pressure soar as my frontal lobes engaged in a monumental struggle with the fright-and-flight signals blasting frantically out of my amygdala. I rose. I shook his hand. Then, he leaned over my desk, gave me huge hug and kissed me on both cheeks. Thank Christ Almighty, I did not faint.
“Tom, my good friend!” he exclaimed as he plopped his huge frame down on the leather couch in front of the picture window overlooking the White House. (I had, as always when hosting “Ahmed,” completely covered that couch with a thick impermeable fitted polyethylene cover, tightly secured in place with velcro straps during the hour prior to his visit.) “It is so good to see you again!” he bellowed at a volume commensurate with a bull being turned into an ox.
“Likewise,” I lied, resuming my seat behind my desk. “How can I help you this evening?”
“Oh, my good friend Tom,” he sighed, “Ahmed has been very busy doing good things, but now some of them are being misunderstood.”
“Really?” I carefully responded. “How so?”
My client pursed his lips, glanced momentarily at the ceiling while composing his thoughts, and then began. “In December, 2015, several members of the Qatari royal family went hunting in southern Iraq.”
“Pardon me,” I interrupted, “but right there, you have a recipe for trouble. Southern Iraq is a not only a war zone, it’s an ecological disaster area. What in the world could possibly posses anyone, much less members of the Qatari royal family, to go on a hunting trip there?”
“Ah yes,” he nodded, poising his fingers into a little tent, furrowing his brow and looking up and to his left at nothing in particular, “this is a very good point you make, my good friend Tom. But there is a bird there – how do you say, a water bird… some kind of duck…”
“Not the marbled teal?” I sputtered, aghast. “Surely nobody still believes that cock-and-bull story about its meat being an aphrodisiac?”
“In Qatar,” he replied, raising his eyebrows slightly and turning his gaze toward me, “they say it is true.”
“Their meat is a diuretic,” I remarked, “just like the houbara bustard. Nothing more. And what’s worse, the marbled teal is an endangered species.”
“You must understand, it was not just that bird,” he explained. “There was also this… how do you say… like a big animal with very fine fur…”
“The smooth-coated otter?” I asked.
“Yes,” he smiled, “that is the one. And also a large cat.”
“Damn it!” I snapped. “The Persian leopard? There are less than twelve hundred of them left! You know what, Ahmed, just off the top of my head, I’d say this whole hunting party you’re telling me about should have been arrested; not that there’s anyone in southern Iraq now, or in 2015 for that matter, with the authority or the guts for it! But hell, Ahmed, don’t Qatari royalty have anything better to do than murder the last remnants of the indigenous wildlife in a godforsaken country that’s already neck deep in human blood?”
“They say,” he related with a shrug, “that if there is no more animal with such fine fur, and you have a coat made with it, then that coat is very special and so are you. And they say about the cat, if there are none of them left in the world, and you have a trophy of one in your palace, how special that is, because no one else anywhere can say they have shot one of those anymore, only you.”
“My good friend Ahmed,” I told him, “please understand that my sympathies for persons with such depraved values are extremely limited.”
“I know, I know, my good friend Tom,” he acknowledged with a jaded chuckle, “you are an American and do not think the same way as a Qatari emir.”
“No,” I corrected, “I’m a civilized human being who doesn’t think the same way as a spoiled, idle, filthy rich monster. Being a Qatari or an emir has nothing to do with it. We have plenty of idiots like that here in the United States, actually – the President’s sons, for example.”
“Ah, well, perhaps Ahmed thinks it might be,” my guest mused with a sly smile, “that the next part of the story will make my good friend Tom very happy, because on December 16, 2015, this hunting party was kidnapped while shooting houbara bustards.”
“Well,” I allowed, “I can’t say that anyone being kidnapped makes me happy, but as stories about trigger-happy fools on safari go, it certainly sounds like they got what they deserved. Who did it?”
“Ahmed” shrugged again with an air of indifference. “Just some Shi’ite bandits. They have scouts in the south; these scouts told them the hunters had gone outside the safe area the Iraqi government ordered the hunters to stay in. So the bandits put together about one hundred… how you say… Jeeps and Hummers, yes? It was easy – there were only a few security guards.”
Turning away momentarily to dab some additional pathologist’s camphor under my left nostril, I continued. “Was there a ransom, then?”
“Yes,” he confirmed, his voice betraying a note of greedy enthusiasm, “a very big one. When Ahmed’s many friends find out who has been kidnapped, they put money together and buy the hunters from the bandits, then start talking to Qatar about what you call… um… serious bucks, yes?”
“And which of Ahmed’s friends,” I inquired as I turned back to face him, “might those have been?”
“Oh, many, many friends,” Ahmed confided with a sly wink. “Hezbollah-Lebanon, Kata’ib Hezbollah, Iraqi Shi’ites, Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard, Tahrir al-Sham, Ahrar al-Sham, Turkish officials, al-Nusra, al-Qaida, Islamic State, Iraqi sheiks, Iranian imams, Alawite militia, Bashar al-Assad, Zayed bin Saeed al-Khayareen, Haidar al-Abadi – everybody want, what is it you say… piece of the action, slice of the pie, get beak wet, yes? Everybody knows Qatar is very rich, and nobody likes Qatar; so everybody wants in on ransom – Ahmed very busy, talking much in many places with many, many friends.”
“Quite a few of those people are customarily enemies,” I observed. “What the hell was going on?”
“There is a saying in what you Americans call ‘the Middle East,’” he explained. “It says, ‘The enemy of my enemy’s kidnapped enemy is my friend in sharing the ransom.’”
“Okay,” I relented, “that makes about as much sense as anything else I’ve ever heard coming out of the Middle East. How much money are we talking about?”
“Ahmed” glanced briefly up at the ceiling again and did a quick calculation in his head. “What is the word you Americans use for a thousand million? One… billion… dollars, yes? Many, many big suitcases full of money. And Ahmed made much baksheesh on many deals for this kidnapping; Ahmed very happy. Until this week. Now, not so happy.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Somebody was listening!” he roared, sitting upright indignantly. “Somebody catch all of everybody’s emails! Catch all of everybody’s cell phone talk and messages! Then give everything to Washington Post! Many, many nice quiet deals where Ahmed make much hard earned baksheesh now out in the street for whole world to see, like dancing girl prostitute in the souq!”
“And that bothers you?” I gently needled. “How come?”
“Because… because…” he stammered, “Ahmed worried friends he made deals with will… how you say… compare notes? See if things add up or not?”
“So,” I concluded, “you took a bit more baksheesh than they expected and now you’re concerned about what will happen if they find out?”
“Ahmed” leaned forward on the couch, jabbing his finger forward excitedly. “Yes, yes! This is it! Ahmed is worried that many friends will not understand – Lear jet plane is expensive, Ferrari is expensive, Maybach limousine is expensive, three Michelin star restaurant is expensive, Cristal champagne expensive, custom burnoose like this one very expensive, too! Ukrainian, Russian, American, French, German, Swedish blonde girlfriend very, very expensive to make Ahmed happy! Casino expensive! Nightclub expensive! Big condo in Doha expensive! Mansion in Dubai expensive! Villa on Riviera in Monte Carlo expensive! Hilton Hotel suite in New York, Paris, London, Rome, Tokyo, Singapore – all very expensive! Even advice from good friend Tom Collins expensive! What is Ahmed supposed to do? Ahmed need money because everything so expensive! But that is what money is for, yes? To spend?”
“I’m sure you did as much,” I assured him, “to earn the money you have as your friends did to earn theirs.”
“Good friend Tom is right,” he declared, sinking back down into the couch. “Ahmed work hard, take risks, make money like good entrepreneur; deserves profits. But Ahmed worry that not everybody will say Ahmed is nice, honest guy. So you tell now, good friend Tom, how Ahmed not get into bad trouble over baksheesh!”
“Well,” I said, “let’s look at the facts. Here we have a multiple kidnapping in what amounts to a war zone, over a year of negotiations, a plethora of parties involved and a billion dollars changing hands among them.”
“Yes, yes,” he anxiously affirmed, “many, how you say… balls in the air, irons in the fire; plenty of blame to go around?”
“Exactly,” I concurred. “Now tell me, what’s the most total baksheesh your friends might hold against you, should all the communications concerning this affair become public?”
“Ahmed” cast his eyes once more to the ceiling while performing a mental calculation. “Forty, maybe… sixty million.”
“Okay,” I pressed on, “and of that one billion dollars, what would you say the odds are that five percent of if was… counterfeit?”
A pregnant pause ensued as a broad smile spread across “Ahmed’s” face. “Bismillah!” he shouted at last, jumping up from the couch and leaping over to my desk to bestow yet another bear hug and set of double cheek kisses. “Oh, my good friend Tom! Ahmed is so glad he came to see you! Ahmed could never have thought of something so clever! But… but…” he hesitated, apprehensive. “What if Ahmed’s friends ask to see the counterfeit money?”
“Tell them it was burned in order to avoid causing even more problems,” I advised. “Then you notify the Qatari government you need X amount of dollars to replace the counterfeit bills and get them square with whoever it is thinks they should have received more money.”
“And when Ahmed tells his friends that the missing money was counterfeit, and was burned to avoid getting anyone into more big problems, where should Ahmed say the counterfeit money came from? No one will believe the Qatari government was handing out counterfeit money… how you say, on purpose… will they?”
“Oh, of course not,” I replied. “You should point the finger at anyone between you and your friends who got the ransom payoffs – all the middlemen are fair game as suspects.”
“But then,” he fretted, “Ahmed’s other friends will be mad at the ones Ahmed says may have done it.”
“Well,” I averred, “if you’re worried about that, just explain that they were probably duped by the Mossad – or the CIA or the GRU or MI-6. Pick one – there’s more than enough paranoia to go around in a situation like this.”
“Will that work?” he wondered aloud.
“Sure it will,” I vouched. “As we say here inside the Beltway, ‘The bagman of my enemy’s bagman carries my friend’s enemy’s counterfeit cash.’”