Freya’s room at Kawapatri looked down on the greens, where grass was now emerging in patches from under the melting snow. Several men with clubs were already poking around the tees at the end of the driving range.
Freya had allowed Trager to shower and shave in her guest house rather than washing from a bucket of hot water provided by the chowkidar at his bungalow. For his trip to the city he had selected a dry turtleneck and jeans, saving his one collared shirt for meeting the clients. Freya’s rucksack sat next to his on the floor. The red nylon was sun-bleached and frayed, decorated on the straps with bouquets of baggage stubs. Her name was scrawled on the top flap in felt marker. The bag had the dingy efficiency of any other climber’s pack, something that Trager found reassuring.
On their walk back from the Nanga Parbat, they had shared accounts of routes they had in common. Freya could describe the climbs in sufficient detail that Trager was confident he was working for someone near his own level of skill. At the same time, he was surprised she was not more in the mainstream of the sport. Female climbers had racked up notable ascents in the last few years, and Trager tried dropping the names of women he assumed Freya would recognize. Carla Firey? Sibylle Hechtel? Catherine Freer? Shari Kearney? She did not even know who they were. It was as if climbing for Freya was not so much a sport as an individual personality trait.
At the moment, he was not thinking about Freya’s resume. He was considering her crude flirtation in his bungalow. The hip nudging and hand grasping had been totally unnecessary. Trager had already decided that salvaging his trip was reason enough to take Freya’s clients; even to go to Delhi. But now that he had agreed, he wondered if the seduction would continue.
Two months ago, Trager had been genuinely surprised to find his duffels and pack lying in the snow outside a Cascade condominium. Usually his relationships lasted an entire ski season. This woman had begun talking in November about moving back to Seattle together in the spring, and Trager should have expected trouble. He was more disappointed than he expected to be afterwards, but once out in the cold, he made no effort to go back.
His attention was already focused on India—that had been the main reason his belongings ended up in the street. He studied for India, worked for India, skied to stay in shape for India. Now that he was in India, travelling by himself, he was as lonely as he had ever been in his life. Not, he noted, particularly horny. He knew from other long celibate trips that libido increased with practice and faded with disuse. But Freya’s warm hand had definitely touched a nerve.
He stood up as he heard her key turn in the lock. But instead of Freya Martens, a short, thick- limbed, Mongolian-featured man opened the door. He wore new running shoes, jeans, and a striped ski sweater. Trager thought he must be a Japanese tourist in the wrong room.
“Lakpa Tsering, sahib,” the small man said. “HOTS sirdar. Freya says, come to jeep. Max is ready for going to Srinagar.” He noticed the two packs on the floor, hefted one on each arm, and walked out the door.
Trager quickly laced his boots and caught up to Lakpa in the hall.
“I can carry that.”
“My job,” the sirdar said, and tipped his head in the oblique movement that Trager had discovered in India meant something like, that’s the way it is. “Good rucksack, sahib. Like we have on Everest. Maybe better.”
“You were on Everest?” Trager asked. He was still disappointed about not having Freya come to the room, but invoking the name of the mountain helped.
“Yes, sahib.” Lakpa said. “With Indian Army.”
“I read about that,” Trager said. “Did you make the top?”
“South Col, sahib. Nepali Sherpas take Army men to top.”
“Were you disappointed?”
Lakpa tipped his head. “Indian mountains are better. Not so high. Better weather.”
Ragged patches of blue appeared overhead as they emerged into the driveway. A sunbeam meandered across the green. Under the edges of the clouds to the northeast, Trager thought he could see the flat white of snow fields or glaciers.
“Lakpa, how do you pronounce the name of the mountains? Himalaya, or Himalaya?”
“Himalaya, Himalaya, Himalaya, all okay. All people know.”
Max and Freya were waiting by a blue Willys jeep with a canvas cover. “Christ, it’s about time!” Max said. “If you and Freya hadn’t diddled each other so long at the Nanga Parbat, we'd be in Srinagar by now.”
“If I hadn't gotten you out of that bar,” said Freya, “we'd be leaving you in Kawapatri.”
”Bullshit,” Max said, and to Trager’s horror, got behind the wheel.
“Hop in,” said Freya. “Put your pack on the end of the seat. It might keep you from falling out.” She and Trager climbed in back, while Lakpa took the seat next to Max.
The road twisted down from Kawapatri through a dense pine forest. Max accelerated on the straightaways, only to brake and skid on the slush in the shaded corners. Cautionary messages had been posted on wooden boards at each turn: Prudent Drivers Are Survivors; Life Is Short—Do Not Hasten; 0 Why Do You Drive So Rashly? Max did not seem to read them.
Trager felt Freya’s lips at his ear. ”Don't worry. He’s crazy, but he’s good.”
“So how'd you do it, Freya?” Max shouted over his shoulder. “Straight old wham, bam, thank-you-ma'am, or did you have to go with the blow job?”
“Oh, stop it,” Freya said. “Watch the road.”
“Turn, sahib,” Lakpa advised. A Tata sedan was parked on the shoulder with its hood up. Max did not change course, but missed it anyway.
“She promised to take me climbing in Ladakh if I worked this trek for you,” Trager said.
Max snorted. “I would have held out for the blow job—but hey, it’s your show now.”
“Ho, sahib!” Lakpa yelled. “Turn!”
A man was walking in the road. He was tall and long-haired, dressed in a shaggy wool jacket and baggy pants, carrying an embroidered bag over one shoulder. He had his back to them, but looked around at the sound of the car. He stepped back toward the drainage ditch to give Max room to steer past him.
But Max did not turn.
“God damn it, Max!” Freya yelled.
Trager had a glimpse of a sad, lined face as it vanished in a wave of slush thrown up by the tires. He was amazed to find the jeep still moving and on the road, with Max laughing at the wheel. Freya leaned over and shouted in Max’s ear, “I told you not to do that any more!”
Lakpa leaned out his door and looked back. “Hippie okay,” he reported.
Max snorted. “Should I go back and try again?”
“What did that guy do to you?” Trager asked.
Freya said, “Oh, God, here we go.”
“Listen, Trager,” Max said, “those freaks are dangerous. Fifteen years ago they swarmed over this country like flies on a turd. Lots of bullshit about experiencing India, but they were in outer space the whole time. Did you see what that guy was wearing back there? A jacket from Nepal, pajama pants from Delhi, and boots from I don't know where. Treats India like a costume party. The kind of punk from Paris or New York you find begging in villages. They'll show up in the middle of a food shortage and expect to live off the fat of the land. Gives us all a bad name. The locals can't always tell the difference between our clients and the bums.”
"Sometimes there isn't any," Freya said.
"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.
“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. Garishly painted trucks thundered past in both directions. A horn exploded behind the jeep. Max bounced one wheel onto the rutted shoulder as a Tata sedan passed on the right. The hitchhiker from the Kawapatri road waved out of the passenger’s window.
“Asshole,” Max muttered.
An Indian Airlines Airbus jet was already on the tarmac when Max pulled up at the terminal. The crowd of people waiting to board spilled out of the doors onto the gravel driveway. Trager scrambled from the back of the jeep, and took his rucksack from Freya.
“This too,” she said, and handed him the large manila envelope with the maps and brochures. “When you get to Delhi, go right to our office. The man you need to see is Vasant Bagchee. There’s a note for him in the envelope with the address. He’ll tell you what to do.”
“You better boogie,” Max said. “Looks like they’ve overbooked the son of a bitch again.”
“Good luck,” Freya said, and gave him a hug. Max gunned the engine, but Freya hung on. “Don't worry,” she said. “Lakpa will take good care of you.”
“Ladakh next month, right?” Trager said.
“That depends,” said Freya. “When you come out, I'll be there to meet you. Then you tell me.”
Freya waved until they turned the corner around the terminal’s security fence.
He picked up his pack and pressed into the crowd. Around him businessmen pried spaces for themselves with their briefcases. Indian families scooped up their children to keep them from being crushed. Tourists clutched rolled carpets in their arms and kicked their bags along the ground. But there was no forward motion to the mass, only a Brownian quiver.
“Hey, man, what’s happening?” a deep voice said beside Trager.
It was the man from the road. His jacket and pants still bore traces of the Kawapatri road.
“I'm sorry about what happened back there,” Trager said. “The driver is a major jerk.”
“No problem, man. Hey, you're the one who climbed the hotel at Kawapatri, right? I just wanted to say I went down and looked at that wall. It was far out. I couldn't get off the ground.”
“You have to have the right shoes,” Trager said. He should have been happy to talk climbing, but here he was distracted. “I've got to get on this plane,” he muttered. “I could lose my job.”
“Oh, yeah? What do you do?”
It took him a moment. “I'm a . . . trek leader. At least I am if I get a seat.”
Trager began to move left, where he detected motion at the edge of the crowd. He was relieved when the other man went right. He did not want to be saddled with anyone slower than himself. At the margin of the driveway, a stream of people emerged from a bus and wound python-like around the mob. Trager saw the members of the group carried new rucksacks and wore jackets similar to his own. Trekkers. A grinning, nervous man hurried them on.
“Komm, komm, komm! Steig ab! Steig ab! Acht, neun, zehn, elf . . . .”
Trager edged closer to the line, hoping to be sucked along in its wake.
. . . zwanzig, einundzwanzig . . . .” The leader paused for only a fraction of a second as he regarded Trager, then called out, ”Zweiundzwanzig! Also, Flugkarten! Flugkarten, bitte! ”
He had not seen this coming. The tour group members were giving their tickets to the leader. Before he could come up with a new plan, the ticket was snatched out of this hand. A man next to him said something to him in German.
“Verzeihung,” Trager mumbled. “Können Sie mir sagen, wo das Kino ist?” It was all he could remember of a German dialogue he had memorized in high school. Something about the movies, he thought. Behind him, the crowd had sealed the entrance. Trager felt buried in the mob, but at least it would be impossible to remove him easily from the terminal once the mistake was discovered.
A hand fell on his shoulder. “Hello, sir? You will please come this way.”
Trager turned to face a mustached official. “I can't,” he said. “They've already taken my ticket.”
“Yes? You will please come this way.”
For the second time that day Trager was marched down a hall by a man in uniform. In a small office separated from the ticket counter by a glass wall, a guard pawed through his rucksack.
“I'm sorry,” Trager said. “They took my ticket by mistake.” No one was listening.
Beyond the glass, passengers’ arms, each with a ticket, waved like limbs of a dancing kali before the harried agents at the desk. The guard spindled the manila envelope in his hands, then began a body search. One of the counter agents came around to the door to hand in Trager’s ticket to the airline official. He left with Trager’s pack.
“You will please come this way,” the official said, handing Trager his ticket and the manila envelope. He opened a door in the wall opposite the counter, and Trager found himself standing alone on the tarmac, the plane parked before him. From the cabin door, the hitchhiker waved at him to come on.
“So how did you do it?” Trager asked. “How does a guy hitchhike into an airport in India and just walk onto an overbooked jet?”
The tall man nodded in rhythm with the rocking of the plane as it taxied. “I wasn't hitching,” he said. “I was taking a walk, waiting for my driver to get the car running.”
“That was your own car?”
“Company set it up. I sold some shit to the Indian Airlines guys in Srinagar last week. They said it'd be cool if you came on the plane with me.” Trager had been concerned about something being taken from his rucksack. Now he wondered if anything had been slipped into it.
“Thanks,” he said. “Ah . . . what kind of ‘shit’ are you selling?”
“Modems. The airline has an office up at Kawapatri, right? They want to communicate with the computers at the airport.”
“I was afraid you were pushing hash. I didn’t think you were a computer salesman.”
The man looked surprised. After a moment he said, “I guess that’s what I am now. I never thought of it like that. My name’s Sundown. Sundown Busco.”
Trager introduced himself as the engines wailed. Mountains, horse carts, gum trees, jet fighters, and saffron fields streamed past the window. The plane climbed through broken clouds, circling to the south above rice paddies. The Pir Panjal drifted under the wing, timbered ridges frosted with snow. Then the ground fell away into brown, brushy hills. Trager stretched to see out the windows to the northeast. The cloud tops rose in waves that broke on an angular horizon. At last, Trager thought. There they are. The mountains were almost indistinguishable from the clouds, but a climber could tell the difference.
“So how did you do it?” Sundown asked. “How did you get a job climbing mountains?”
“You were there,” said Trager. “Those people in the jeep saw me climb the hotel wall. So they hired me to lead a trek for their travel company.”
“Just like that? No training or anything?”
“I've done a lot of climbing,” Trager said. He showed Sundown the catalog. “This is the trip they hired me for. It’s not really a climb, just a hike. I don't think I'll have a problem.” He sounded defensive, and knew it. His perceptions of himself and Sundown had reversed. Now Trager felt like the one just hanging out in India.
Sundown flipped to the inside cover of the brochure. “I know a guy who went on one of these trips with your people. And this is your lady in the picture.”
“More like my boss,” Trager said.
Sundown studied the photograph of Freya. “Could be worse,” he said.
“So how did your friend like his trek?” Trager asked.
“Wasn't a friend, just someone we did business with. I never even met the dude. Anyway, he died on the trip. Heard about it last week, just before I left.”
“What? They never told me anything about that. Do you know what happened?”
“Couldn't tell you. He was supposed to be a kind of spacey guy. I only heard about him because he went out leaving the projects he was working on in a mess. Sounds like he could have just walked off the edge of something. What kind of people are going on this trek of yours?”
“I'm about to find out,” Trager said. “They gave me some reading to do on the plane. Go ahead and keep that brochure. I've got more.”
Trager shuffled through the rest of the manila envelope. It contained his own handwritten resume that Freya had asked him to prepare. There was the map that they had looked at, equipment lists, and various company forms. He stopped at a typed itinerary labeled, “Reconnaissance Report.”
Stage 1 — 9 miles —The track from Kawapatri is steep but fit for ponies through forest, marg, and maidan. Camp at Gujar site 2 kos NNE of third nala.
Stage 2 — 11 miles — Cross Janavar Gali (13,262), descending to Sonjal at Lunwali, where provision is not available.
The report went on for a page and a half of fine print. Trager did not understand many of the terms, and those that he did told him little more. He found the client roster with Freya’s introduction note to Vasant Bagchee clipped to it. The message was on HOTS letterhead, with a Delhi address penciled underneath a Berkeley box number.
Ansel Trager is taking my place on the Kashmir trek.
$400 fee okay w/Max. Give Ansel all necessary information.
The roster included three couples, two younger parties from Washington, D.C., and a middle-aged husband and wife from Los Angeles. Trager tried to memorize their names, along with the list of camps and villages. When he looked up from his studies to take a cup of tea from the flight attendant, the hills had given way to the flat monotony of the Indian plains. Sundown had the catalog on his lap, still open to Springtime in Kashmir. His head was inclined against the window, but he was awake, studying the ground below.
Trager felt someone brush his shoulder, and when he looked up, the German tour leader was standing over him. The man still wore his delighted grin, like a mask that was attached. “So! You have come on. When they are taking your ticket from me, I am thinking, I have helped the wrong man, we are now all in trouble.”
“You knew I wasn't with your party? I thought you had just made a mistake.”
“No, no, no! I know of course who is my party. No, I do this only as one traveler to another.”
“Well, thanks. Maybe I'll get a chance to return the favor.”
The German laughed. “I think no. It is for a group easier to take one more than for one man to steal a group.”
“Sure. But I work in the same business. For Holz Overseas Trekking.”
“Yes, yes, yes.” The German’s grin stretched tighter. “You are very lucky.”
“To work for Holz?”
“To be on this airplane. When I know that you are with Max, I would make sure that you are not coming out of Srinagar.” He laughed, clapped Trager on the shoulder, and walked away without a backward glance.
The heat of Delhi poured in through the cabin doors. The passengers staggered across baking concrete under a pale yellow sky. In the close air of the terminal they rocked from foot to foot, glassy-eyed, waiting for the intermittent conveyor to surrender their luggage. Trager was relieved to find his pack had not been lost.
“I can give you a lift,” Sundown said. “They sent me a driver.” A small, bony man in starched khaki led the way out of the terminal and across the small parking lot to a minivan marked, Synergism Pvt. Ltd. When they were seated inside, Trager tried to open the manila envelope to find Vasant Bagchee’s address. The humidity had already sealed the flap. Trager tore the paper open and fished out Freya’s note.
The driver glanced at the address, nodded, and launched. Horn blaring, he swung out of the airport gates and onto a racetrack of taxis and trucks. Trager gasped at the hot air that blasted in through the open windows. Blocks of apartments and low store fronts streamed past, broken by industrial plants and ancient brick ruins. As they entered a commercial district, a sudden swarm of bicycles and scooters forced the car onto the sidewalk within inches of street vendors crouched by their tarpaulin displays.
“Do these guys ever crash?” Trager asked.
“Beats the shit out of me,” said Sundown. “First time I’ve been here.”
The temperature fell a degree as the taxi turned into a landscaped residential colony. Jacaranda trees shaded the road, and bougainvillea nodded over high garden walls. The driver pulled up at an open gate with a small brass plaque that read HOTS/INDIA. Trager stepped out into air that was heavy with the smell of flowers.
“I really appreciate all this,” he told Sundown. He extended his hand. There was an awkward moment as the other man tried to take it in the inverted clasp Trager had seen used by old hippies and Vietnam veterans. After a moment of jockeying arms back and forth, they settled on a conventional handshake.
“No problem,” said Sundown. “Good luck with your trekking gig.”
The car cruised away through the shade, paused at the corner, and vanished into the light and motion of a boulevard.
A servant in a stained shirt left Trager standing in an airless hallway. A minute later a hatchet-faced man in a light blazer appeared through an inner door. He spoke in a high, clipped accent.
“Yes? I am Vasant Bagchee. What is it?” he asked.
“My name’s Ansel Trager. Max Holz hired me to replace Freya Martens on the Springtime in Kashmir trek.”
Bagchee’s eyes flicked up and down. “Did he? And exactly where is Miss Martens at this time?”
“Driving to Ladakh with Max. She gave me this for you.” He produced the note, along with the resume he had crafted in Kawapatri.
Bagchee took the papers, but did not look at them. “Max is here, in India? You are quite certain of this?”
“They dropped me off at the plane in Srinagar.”
Bagchee flapped the papers in his hand. “Achcha, and he is going to Ladakh, and Freya is going with him. This is most difficult. She was to come to Delhi.”
“That’s why she sent me,” Trager said. “Freya said you would tell me everything I need to know.”
Bagchee flapped the paper a few more times, and then read Freya’s note. He did not bother with the resume. He looked up carefully, as if really seeing Trager for the first time. “Achcha,” he said quietly. “Then you must know, the trek is cancelled.”
Trager thought: Of course. How stupid of me. Nothing works for me over here.
“You-understand, Freya did not know this.”
“I guess not,” said Trager. “But who cancelled the trek?”
“I did,” said Bagchee. “Perhaps you should come in.”
He called instructions to his servant, and led the way through a living room full of wicker furniture. From the domestic look of the place—bookshelves full of English paperbacks and a stack of what looked like folded laundry on a sideboard—Trager gathered that the office was actually Vasant Bagchee’s house. Beyond the living room they entered a small and shockingly cold air-conditioned study dominated by a large steel desk. Framed maps and photographs adorned the walls. Trager noticed a blow-up of the picture of Freya before the mountains. Bagchee indicated a small sofa to Trager, and took his own place behind the desk.
“So, please inform me as to precisely how you have come to meet Max and Freya,” he said.
Trager gave a short account of his rock climbing adventure and subsequent interviews.
“And so they hired you? Just like that?”
“I have experience,” Trager said. “And Max was impressed that I didn't have diarrhea.”
Vasant looked pained. “That would be Max. But tell me, why were he and Freya at Kawapatri?”
“They were meeting a friend of Max’s who was helping them. A Colonel Batt-, Batta- . . . “
“Battarchaya? Max is dealing with Battarchaya again? Achcha, no wonder he would not tell me he is in India. But did he say why he was going to Ladakh?”
“Not exactly. They said there were some problems on the last trek. Freya said she wanted to do some extra planning for the next one.”
Bagchee gave a barking laugh. “Ha! Extra planning! That is quite good. And they said nothing about Mr. Weston Ferndecker?”
“No. Is that someone I should meet?”
“Hardly. He is dead. That would seem to be the least of the ‘necessary information’ you should have. Mr. Ferndecker died some seven days ago in the Murghi Restricted Area of Ladakh on a trek led by Freya Martens.”
“And he worked in computers. And he walked off the edge of something. I sat next to a man who was talking about it on the plane.”
“Yes, it is already a source of gossip. Actually, I believe Mr. Ferndecker became separated from the party and fell into a nala, a stream. But that is not important. The fact is that because of his death, the Defence Ministry may revoke Max’s trekking permits. HOTS’ competence is in question, you see. And for the same reason, four of our clients have elected to forfeit their deposits and cancel. In any event, there is left only one couple from Los Angeles, and we cannot operate any trek with two clients only.”
The door bumped open, and the servant shouldered in with a tea tray. Trager was glad of the interruption to pull his thoughts together. “Why didn't Freya tell me all this?” he asked when the man had left.
“You sound more hurt than offended,” Bagchee said, and he smiled. “Did you perhaps have some special expectations of Miss Martens?”
“I thought she was being honest with me about the job.”
Bagchee looked at him curiously for a moment, then said, “It is nothing to hold against her. I myself have only just been notified of the cancellations. And it would have been awkward to discuss Max’s circumstances with him present—particularly as he does not acknowledge any problems himself. As for the accident, obviously she did not want to frighten you off the job. Freya must have been quite frantic at the idea that Max would go to Ladakh by himself to see the authorities.”
“Doesn't he know about the accident?”
“Of course he does. I imagine that is why he took it upon himself to actually visit the site of his business for the first time in six months. But you have talked with the man. Suppose you are administrator of the largest district in India, responsible for the security of one lakh—a hundred thousand—square kilometers. Not to mention borders disputed by both Pakistan and China. And now comes an American travel agent who tells you, ‘Bullshit! Fuck your Restricted Area!’ My only hope is that Freya will keep him from ruining us all.”
“What about Lakpa?” Trager asked. “He’s buying supplies in Srinagar right now.”
“Lakpa is doing nothing of the kind. He may be ordering all manner of things, but he is expecting me to send money with Freya—or you, now—to actually buy them. But you see, this money does not exist. Max has not forwarded a penny, a paisa of the deposits the clients presumably paid him. I have covered his debts from my own pocket in the past. And so has Freya—she has some source of money still in Canada, I think. But Springtime in Kashmir is deficient some twenty-seven thousand rupees. Twenty-seven thousand! Even if you offered your good services gratis, fed your clients on chapattis and tea and made them carry their own baggage, you still would lack the resources to operate this trip.”
“I know about lack of resources,” Trager said, “I was on my way home when Max and Freya found me, and I suppose I'm on my way home again.”
“Quite,” Bagchee said. “You have all your kit with you? You left nothing in Kashmir?”
“I carried it all on the plane. I don't let it out of my sight now.”
“And your reservation?”
“Just an open ticket to San Francisco.”
“Achcha, these planes are always full, but I will see to getting you confirmed out tomorrow evening. As for tonight, we shall give you Freya’s room at Hotel Julay. Will that be satisfactory?”
“Sure,” Trager said. “I mean, no, but I don't know what else to do. It’s like Kawapatri was some dream I woke up from too soon.”
Bagchee smiled. “I imagine you are not alone in this. Achcha, here we are all, lumbered with Max Holz, when along comes a young man of vigor and initiative, a not unattractive man, if I may say so, who is keen on the spur of the moment to throw in his lot with ours. I should not be surprised if Freya Martens is as disappointed as you.”
Bagchee drove his little sedan with precision and apparent enjoyment through the evening traffic. Cars wheeled like flocks of gulls around the crowded circles. Trager tasted ozone in the air, and lightning flashed out of purple clouds over the old part of the city. After they had been driving for several minutes, Bagchee said, “And so, Mr. Trager, how long have you been interested in this travel business?”
“I'm not, or wasn't,” said Trager. “I was just a climber until Battarchaya pulled me in.”
“Achcha, yes, that is just what Max said when he first came to India. ‘I am just a scientist.’ You did not know this? He conceals his education well, but he has a bloody doctorate in geology. Seven years ago he came to India on some university trek. And among his students was this lovely Canadian named Freya Martens. I was then the agent who arranged their transfer to Kashmir. And when Max returns to Delhi from looking at rocks, he comes to me and says, ‘We can do this better.’ And so another trekking company is born. They are formed in this manner every month. Whoever reigns in this business suffers pretenders to his throne on every trip.”
“Sounds crowded,” Trager said.
“It would be, but on the whole, creation and dissolution are in balance. Just enough fail that there is room for former clients and associates to take their places. You see, most of these adventurers totally misunderstand the nature of the business. Max is one such. He offers only these athletic mountaineering treks. How many people are truly interested in such ordeals, or even understand what they are getting into? Look at this tragedy in Ladakh. Freya is telling me the man who has died should never have been with the party.”
“A problem client,” Trager said.
“Exactly,” Bagchee said. “But what can one expect when the business itself is so problematic? These expeditions will always be too expensive and difficult to operate without complications. Max’s more successful competitors subsidize each of their mountain adventures with a good half-dozen parties of twenty or more to the Taj Mahal and the handicraft merchants of Srinagar. It is those trips that are truly worthwhile.” Bagchee had steered the conversation down an unexpected path, and Trager found himself left at the turn.
"Tell that to Freya," he said. "She's a mountaineer."
“Ha! You think that Freya has not led some tours to the Taj? You believe that buying a carpet from a Kashmiri is not an adventure? If this is not the same business as HOTS, it is because mountaineering is no business at all, taken apart from the truly important part of tourism. A diverse culture and civilization that have existed for millennia—that is what India has to offer that is unique. Not simply a wealth of hazardous terrain.”
Trager was liking Bagchee less and less. “That terrain is what matters to me,” he said.
“I am sure. And to a minute percentage of tourists. Achcha, you have seen the sled porters at Kawapatri? The ones who pull you about the golf course for a rupee?”
“Who pull some people. Not me.”
“No, of course not. That is just my point. Those chaps are offering a service that was appreciated in the days of the British Raj. The old nawabs and Englishmen are gone, and the western tourists who have replaced them find the sleds ridiculous. But the porters carry on, chasing Americans like you through the snow, wondering why it is so bloody hard to make a living. They have not grasped that this is Kali-yuga, the age of destruction. All things are in transition; all things must change. This is our karma.”
“You mean something like fate?”
“If you will. But I think of karma more as duty. Those who appreciate the nature of change have a duty to be part of it. The alternative is to be a sled porter out of work.”
Bagchee pulled into a circular driveway overhung with droopy pipal trees. He parked across from the entrance to a modern four-story building. Scavenger birds paced in front of the car, pecking listlessly at gutter scraps. They started at a flash of lightning, then settled back to the pavement. Bagchee waited for the roll of thunder to pass before he spoke. “This is Hotel Julay. It has an excellent pool. You may charge all your meals through tomorrow lunch. Do you have taxi fare to the airport? Good. Have a pleasant stay, and a good flight.”
Rain was beginning to hammer on the roof as Trager pulled his rucksack from the back seat. He was about to run for the hotel door when Bagchee waved the manila envelope he had left on the floor of the car.
“Please, keep this,” Bagchee called. “With your permission I shall retain your resume. If I am not mistaken, we may both yet need these things.”
There was another flash and thunderclap, and the rain arrived in earnest, flooding the street, driving the kites and ravens into the trees. The driveway disappeared into an ankle-deep puddle bouncing with raindrops. A doorman called, “This way! Come this way, sir!” But Trager was blinded by the downpour and could not make out the ford. Heaving his pack onto one shoulder, he shielded his face with the softening envelope and waded in.