The sleepy Himalayan hill station of Mussoorie, near India's border with Tibet, is home to an eclectic mix of residents including Tibetan refugees and former guerrilla fighters, foreign missionaries, Indian military, tourists, and spies. Here, in a top secret facility facing the snow-clad Himalayas, India's legendary spymaster, Colonel Imtiaz Afridi, keeps a watchful eye on sensitive high-altitude borders. Having been a mountaineer in his youth, Afridi once climbed many of these peaks, including Rataban, a mountain with a treacherous history. When an American agent is shot dead in Mussoorie, both the CIA and India's Research and Analysis Wing (RAW), dispatch undercover agents to investigate. The American's death is quickly linked to the slayings of two Indo-Tibetan Border Police guards, suggesting possible Chinese infiltration. Working with Afridi is the brilliant junior analyst, Annapurna "Anna" Tagore, who helps him unravel these clues and other disturbing signs that something dangerous is brewing.
When more violent acts shatter Mussoorie's calm, the CIA and RAW have no choice but to team up. Soon Afridi and the young Indian and American agents are piecing together a bloody conspiracy of revenge and murder that could shake the very foundations of world peace.
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By Stephen Alter
Skyhorse PublishingCopyright © 2016 Stephen Alter
All rights reserved.
1969. Tibet. Behind them stood the high Himalayas, impenetrable barriers of rock and snow, buttressed with ice falls and glaciers. An avalanche broke loose on one of the snow peaks above the pass, a rumbling white cloud that poured down the vertical face of the mountain. To the north, in front of them, spread the Tibetan Plateau — arid, undulating steppes as far as the eye could see. Once the floor of a primordial ocean, the plateau now lay 14,000 feet above sea level. The wind felt brittle and raw, as if scarce molecules of oxygen had crystallized in the air, invisible particles that cut your lips and tongue before dissolving painfully in your lungs.
Jigme watched the quarreling cluster of men, huddled on a flat rock at the far edge of the pass. His face was stern and unemotional, though his eyes betrayed the fear and remorse that lingered in his mind. Six yaks were tethered nearby, standing so close to each other they looked like a single, large animal — a shaggy black beast with a dozen horns and restless hooves. On a slope below were the horses, heads lowered, searching for grass in the frozen soil. They would find no forage, nothing to graze on, until they descended two thousand feet below the pass.
The men were arguing, and their voices rose in anger. One of them lifted his hand in a threatening gesture as he was shoved aside. Another got to his feet, holding up a pair of leather climbing boots by the laces. Dressed in sheepskin coats draped across one shoulder and heavy woolen robes of several layers, all of the men were nomadic hunters from Western Tibet. As the rest of the party stood up, Jigme could just make out a corpse lying on the boulder. Stripped naked, the dead man was as white as the patches of snow amid the rocks. Each of the hunters had claimed his loot — a pocket knife, a compass, a pair of trousers torn at the knee. One carried a nylon parka stained with blood. Another had removed a watch from the dead man's wrist.
The pass was marked with several cairns of mani stones — inscriptions etched on granite, basalt, and schist. Om Mani Padme Hum ... and other invocations honoring the divine elements and highland spirits who guarded this desolate region. Some of the stones were embedded with fossils, prehistoric mollusks and fish that once swam in the Tethys Sea, eons ago, before the Himalayas were formed. Piled on the cairns were bleached skulls of yak and bharal, wild sheep, as well as ibex. Tattered prayer flags trembled in the breeze, but most had been snapped by savage gales that blew across the pass. Strings of pennants lay on the ground, printed verses and images of wind horses and snow lions fading off the gauzy fabric.
Two of the hunters carried antique muskets with long barrels. The rest of the men were armed with modern weapons. Jigme was a Khampa, from Eastern Tibet. He stood apart from the group. These were not his people, and he barely understood their dialect. They had descended from warring clans of Shangshung, human predators as wild as their prey. For generations, their ancestors had been poachers and bandits, feared by travelers from Marco Polo to Sven Hedin. Even the Mongols had not subdued them, allowing these wandering brigands to pillage and plunder along the lower margins of the Silk Route. The hunters stuffed whatever clothes and other belongings they had stripped from the corpse into bundles loaded on their yaks.
The dead man was an American. He had fallen into a crevasse that morning while they were crossing a glacier. Jigme had been able to plunge his ice axe into the snow and anchor the rope, but when they'd pulled the American out of the crevasse, he knew the man would not survive. One leg was broken and there was a gash across his forehead where his skull had cracked. He was unconscious but breathing in shallow gasps. They had carried him this far, strapped to one of the yaks, knowing it was pointless. He had died an hour ago, as they were climbing up to the pass. Digging a grave in the frozen earth was impossible, and there was no fuel at this altitude, not even a juniper twig, with which to burn the body. Their only option was to consign the American's corpse to a sky burial, according to the practical and spiritual traditions of Tibet.
Glancing behind him, Jigme could see the second American standing fifty yards away, a solitary figure with a rifle slung across his shoulder. Like Jigme, he was dressed in a thick down parka, its fur-lined hood pulled over his head. He was facing away from the pass, scanning the distant horizon through a pair of binoculars. The American seemed untroubled by the loss of his companion and the scavenging of the hunters, who had joined them yesterday, after they crossed over the main bulwark of the Himalayas, leaving India behind. Jigme watched the lone figure with distrust. They had spent the last two months together, but the American had remained a stranger, aloof and secretive as a ghost.
The nomads began to whistle through their teeth, calling the horses as they untied their yaks. Four hours of daylight still remained, and they were eager to get down off the pass. As the American turned to join the others, hoisting a rucksack onto his back, Jigme saw two circling shapes in the sky. A pair of Himalayan griffons passed overhead, spiraling down on outstretched wings. They seemed to come from nowhere, out of the void of heaven. As the vultures soared past Jigme, he could hear the murmur of their feathers. Within a minute the huge raptors had landed on the corpse. By this time, the hunters were already a hundred yards down the trail, still whistling at their animals. The American stopped and glanced back for a second, as the griffons began to feed. Jigme winced and mumbled a prayer for the dead, incoherent words catching in his throat and making him cough. The wind echoed his chanting with a solemn dirge, as it scoured the lifeless terrain.
Another vulture swooped in low and settled on a nearby cairn before opening its wings and strutting across to the pale figure on the granite slab. Soon, many more of these giant birds would join in the carrion feast. The grim ceremonies of nature commenced, and, before darkness fell, the sky burial had been consummated. As the sun disappeared behind the mountains and the wind grew still, the American's bones were picked clean of flesh and scattered on the barren slopes below the pass. Then, like winged phantoms, the vultures returned to the sky, carrying with them the dead man's spirit and dispersing it in the clouds.CHAPTER 2
"Let goods and kindred go, this mortal life also; The body they may kill: God's truth abideth still, His kingdom is forever."
The closing verse of the final hymn, "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," rose in a disparate chorus of voices scattered around the church. The pastor in his white cassock and scarlet stole led the singing with both arms raised, as the congregation joined together in the closing lines. The organist, an elderly woman in a green chiffon sari, pumped the treadles with both feet as her diligent fingers picked at the keys. Behind the altar was a triptych of stained glass windows depicting the Crucifixion, Resurrection, and Ascension. Tall brass candelabra stood on either side, amber flames flickering in their grasp.
Dexter Fallows bowed his head as the pastor began the benediction. His folded hands fidgeted and his shoe tapped lightly on the marble floor. He was in his late sixties, a gaunt, agitated man with a youthful face, despite his age. He was clean shaven, though he had missed a patch of bristle under his chin this morning, as he'd hurried to get ready for church. His hair was white and thin, parted to the left. Fallows closed his eyes when the prayer began, but they blinked open almost immediately, a watery blue color that startled people when they met him first. He sat alone in one of the pews toward the back. Most of the congregation was Indian, members of the protestant community in Landour, though there were a number of foreigners in their midst.
Surreptitiously, Fallows rotated his wrist so that he could see the face of his watch protruding from beneath his sleeve. 11:38.
The service had dragged on for more than an hour. Distracted by his own convoluted thoughts and worries, Fallows had not been able to pay attention to the sermon, as the pastor admonished his parishioners about forgiving their enemies. Leaning forward, he hunched his shoulders under the gray gabardine fabric of his suit. His whole body seemed to twitch as the pastor brought the service to a close with words of blessing and deliverance.
An old cantonment church, St. Paul's was consecrated in 1840, when Landour was first established as a convalescent retreat for colonial troops in North India. Landour was now part of the larger hill station of Mussoorie, though it remained a discreet area of the town, with scattered homes on a forested ridge, isolated from the main bazaar. Rows of notches were carved into the hard wooden pews at St. Paul's so that British "Tommies" could rest their rifles during worship. After 1857, when many of the British were slaughtered by rebellious sepoys, European soldiers in India were ordered to bear arms in church rather than stacking their weapons outside. Today, no Enfield rifles rested against the pews. Fallows reached up nervously and flipped open the wooden latch that once held a loaded firearm in place.
For more than fifty years, he had attended this church. There were other places of worship in Mussoorie, but Fallows preferred St. Paul's, which was walking distance from his house. He was at the end of his career as a missionary with the North India Bible Fellowship, administering several charities and Christian institutions funded by churches abroad, a paternalistic sinecure that gave him plenty of time for other pursuits. Fallows had grown up in Mussoorie, himself a child of missionaries. He had gone to school in Landour as a boy and returned here after college and seminary, to carry on his parents' calling but also because it was his home.
In another six months, Fallows would retire and go back to America. Though anxious and ambivalent about the move, he had already signed a lease on an apartment in Arlington, Virginia. His wife had died a decade ago, and she was buried in the cemetery on the north side of Landour. They had no children, and his only living relative was a half-brother in Milwaukee, but the long cold winters of Wisconsin held little appeal for someone who had spent all of his life in India. For a while, Fallows had considered staying on in Mussoorie, but this year he had decided it was time to move back, before he got any older and his health declined. As a life-long expatriate, Fallows still pledged allegiance to America, though he had lived outside its borders for so many years he hardly knew the country. From time to time, he had returned to the United States on short furloughs, but he had never lived there for more than three months at a stretch. Going back, he felt uneasy about becoming an exile in his own homeland.
Exhaling a grateful sigh, Fallows echoed the pastor's exclamation and quickly rose to his feet. Fastening the uppermost button of his suit, he stepped into the aisle and rushed outside. Earlier that morning the sky had been overcast, but now the sun was breaking through the clouds. In the churchyard, a bed of scruffy dahlias were still blooming. The clear October air was scented with resin from the tall deodar trees that grew on either side of the church, their massive columns surrounding the red roof, yellow walls, and bell tower. Here in Landour, the architecture of nature overshadowed the sanctuaries of man.
Fallows hurried across the lawn, reaching for the inside pocket of his coat. Eagerly, his fingers closed around a packet of unfiltered Charminar and a box of matches. As soon as he was behind the largest deodar tree, he shook out a cigarette and tucked it between his lips. Furtively, he struck a match and cupped its flame in his palm, as he lit the roasted flakes of tobacco. A bittersweet fragrance soothed his restless nerves. As Fallows inhaled, his anxious thoughts seemed to ease. The tension between his shoulder blades was gently unknotted as the nicotine entered his lungs and dispersed through his veins.
Just then, a rifle shot rang out, but Fallows didn't hear it. A single bullet punctured his skull, an inch behind his left ear, knocking him forward against the trunk of the tree. He was dead before his body slumped to the ground. The cigarette lay smoldering in the grass until it was extinguished by a spreading pool of blood.CHAPTER 3
Breathing hard and pumping his arms in a steady rhythm, Colonel Imtiaz Afridi propelled himself forward, keeping his eyes fixed on the corners ahead. His wheelchair was a racing model, made by a company in Switzerland that specialized in high-performance equipment for disabled athletes. Afridi's legs were folded under him in a mesh cradle, with a harness around his waist. The two rear wheels were positioned so that he got maximum thrust as he pushed himself forward with gloved hands. He looked like a swimmer doing the butterfly stroke, a repetitive crab-like motion. Never having been a man of caution, Afridi wore no helmet. As he came to a steep incline, his hands shifted to a steering mechanism connected to the single wheel in front. Leaning forward, he exhaled and let the wheelchair gather speed. The spokes whirred like propellers, and the breeze cooled the sweat on his face. At sixty-eight, Afridi was in better shape than most men half his age, though he'd lost the use of his legs in a mountaineering accident, nearly forty years ago.
The gradient lessened as Afridi took a sharp corner, almost colliding with a young couple holding hands. He had often thought of attaching a horn to his wheelchair so he could warn people of his silent approach. Hurtling down the road, his body was jarred by the rough surface, but he was used to physical punishment. The burning ache in his arms and shoulders made him feel he was fully alive. As he came around the next corner near St. Paul's Church, Afridi touched the brake just enough to slow his progress.
A curious crowd had gathered near the churchyard fence, watching a television crew interviewing two policemen at the scene of the crime. The cameraman was focusing on the ridge above, as if trying to locate the shooter. A group of journalists from the local papers were loitering nearby, cameras in hand. One of the police inspectors noticed Afridi and stiffened, giving him a sharp salute. Afridi acknowledged the policeman with a curt nod of his head but did not stop, his hands resuming their work as he gathered momentum again and passed the small market of Char Dukan beyond the church. Another kilometer and he would be home. Lowering his head, Afridi pumped the wheels like a steam engine, with the graceful symmetry of human locomotion. Two minutes later, he crossed an invisible line that marked the end of his workout. Throwing himself back in his chair, Afridi pressed the button on his stopwatch.
33:14. Good enough, though not his fastest time for three circuits of the Chukkar. As the wheelchair coasted up a ramp to Ivanhoe, his cottage, Afridi glanced over his shoulder with a defiant look at the Himalayan summits arranged against the northern horizon.
An aging Bhotia mastiff got to his feet and wagged his tail with a hoarse bark of greeting. Afridi reached out as the wheelchair came to a stop. He took the dog's head in his hands and stroked his ears affectionately.
"Arrey, mera Bhotu! Why are you barking?" The dog sniffed his hands and licked Afridi's sweating face.
Turning the chair around with a quick pirouette, Afridi entered the house in reverse. The ramp was positioned so that he could go straight into his gym, which was attached to the cottage. As he wheeled himself past a weight machine, Afridi paused beneath the climbing wall. The roof of the gym had been raised to accommodate thirty vertical feet of artificial rock with handholds at different heights.
Unbuckling his harness and grabbing two parallel rods bracketed to the wall, Afridi hoisted himself into a second wheelchair. Taking a towel from a rack, he wiped his arms and face. From the gym, he passed through double doors that opened into the rest of the cottage. His bedroom lay to one side, and ahead of him was the drawing room, a compact but comfortable home designed expressly for his needs. Afridi had always been a bachelor and proudly protected his independence and self-sufficiency.
Wheeling himself to the bar in one corner of the living room, he opened a small refrigerator and took out a bottle of water. Raising it to his lips, he drank slowly but steadily. As he drained the bottle, he heard a voice behind him.
Excerpted from Rataban Betrayal by Stephen Alter. Copyright © 2016 Stephen Alter. Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
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