CITY OF DUST, Nev. – He walked out of a large tent in a white-out dust storm on a dried prehistoric lakebed in northern Nevada, wearing a blue velvet tailcoat and khaki trousers, introducing himself as The Oracle. He took a sip of his iced tea and walked off to deal with some drama from a reporter who was writing a news feature article about his business and travels.
“One thing I really love about China and the old Soviet Union,” he said scowling toward a building haboob, tying a silk scarf and bracing for the oncoming storm, “the press know not to ask too many questions and they sick to the approved script.”
As he disappeared into the howling dust, my mind turned toward where the reporter failed, and if he would ever be found. The stories about The Oracle – the type of information that comes at a high price and low chance of namable source – peg him as a man who does business under an assumed name, dealing with artifacts – real and counterfeit – from the former and current empires of the world, assuaging the curiosities of the untraveled and comforting the weak minded. The Oracle isn’t a violent man, but terrible things happen to people who get in his way or impede his business.
The Oracle told me the only thing that kept me alive was that I had the decency to lie about who I was. He sold a few crates of Delft china to my acquaintance Ram from New York. The Oracle has seven of Mickey Mantle’s first signed baseball, a shipping container full of Han Dynasty foot soldier and prancing-horse figurines, made of plastic and painted with lead-based paint.
“So what, they’re still made in China.” He scolded. “Who gives a shit? No one ever questions a bargain.”
While The Oracle’s import business is difficult to confirm (the nature of the trading is cash and necessary lies, first names only), it’s widely known in certain circles that The Oracle’s Caravan of Curiosities has several permanent locations and a flexible number of temporary locations. One is a permanent stall in the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul (the original agreement is written in Ottoman Turkish and thought to be signed by Mehmed the Conqueror) under a Byzantine edifice.
Another location is thought to be aboard the Trans-Siberian Railway, by means of a 14-year-old street urchin named Pustoj, who has dead eyes and learned the hard way not to ask questions. He keeps his lifeless gaze toward the floor.
Ram, an Indian-Kashmiri dealer of arms, rare books and opium said he speaks highly of The Oracle and his ability to processes gullibility and hope into wild profit. In a Bedouin tent during a sandstorm in an area of Yemen not marked on any modern map, Ram told me all about The Oracle while we sipped Bedouin tea.
“Storytellers and dealers of violence and escape like he and I have to live in an isolated and forever-mobile world,” Ram said between scowling and answering friendly insults in Arabic and Pashto. “We’re a dying breed – perhaps for good. This is a lonely life, with the only advantage being we know it doesn’t last long. I never met an old arms dealer.”
He stood up, slapped an unidentified man who sat near us staring at me menacingly (I don’t speak any Arabic or Pashto, which didn’t go over well here. This wasn’t a tourist Bedouin camp, these guys didn’t tend sheep and Swiss tourists), and walked out into the scouring wind and sand, fixing his keffiyeh (a personal gift from Yasser Arafat, he said) as he disappeared beyond the violence of whipping tent flaps and flying debris.
Later, when telling me about negotiating a shipment of rare Gutenberg Bibles to a megachurch in Texas, The Oracle’s business talk faded into a sad story of his old friend from Lakshadweep, an Indian island of the country’s south western coast.
The Oracle said he last heard from our mutual when he called from a strange underground office in New York City, telling The Oracle about a trip “somewhere in the Middle East” to negotiate with Peshmerga and Kurds on the Yemeni island of Soqotra. The details were shaky at best, but he was able to say his friend’s name was – or what his name probably was – Ram.
I think I was in Ram’s office when he called The Oracle. This is getting weird.