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"What're you trying to do?" Max asked. "Screw this kid up?"

"Ansel's as likely as any of us to end up with a problem client."

"What's a problem client?" Trager asked.

"Anyone who needs . . . extra attention," Freya said. She looked away from Trager, as if searching for something in the flowing ditch beside the road.

They emerged from the forest onto a well-paved highway that curved gently down between terraced fields. Clusters of weathered wood buildings sprouted from the gravelly soil, surrounded by poplars just filling out with new leaves. Ponds and canals on the valley floor sparkled in sunbeams that now regularly broke through the clouds. At the Jhelum River, the road contracted to squeeze through a medieval village of tall, overhanging wooden houses. Men, chickens, and sheep scrambled out of the way as the jeep careened through the narrow alleys.

"Shit, this is going to be close," Max said, checking his watch.

Beyond the hamlet, they turned onto a concrete highway cutting north through level fields toward Srinagar. Immense, garishly painted trucks thundered past in both directions. A horn exploded behind the jeep. Max bounced one wheel onto the rutted shoulder as a Dodge sedan driven by a bearded Sikh passed on the right. The tall hitchhiker from the Kawapatri road waved out of the passenger's window.

"Fucking Indians never learn," Max muttered.

Springtime in Kashmir ©Talbot Bielefeldt 2020.

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