“He was going to ditch them,” Trager said. “Bagchee was just going to let them get off the plane in Delhi and figure it out for themselves.”
“Maybe they just didn't get the word,” said Sundown
Trager looked out the grimy back window of the taxi at the following car with Harry and Leslie Macintosh, the last original members of Springtime in Kashmir. Trager wanted to think that their presence proved Vasant Bagchee had not really cancelled the trek. However, the couple had been travelling in Japan, and it was quite possible that the notice had never reached them.
Last night at Hotel Julay had not been a good time to explain the situation. The Macintoshes were tired and irritable. They had not seemed particularly interested in news of the accident, or even the change in leadership. As soon as Trager had arranged for them to take over his own unneeded room, they had gone up to bed in a flurry of porters and baggage. Trager had the sense that as far as they were concerned, he and Freya were as interchangeable as bellhops.
Pratima was waiting at the airport front apron when the taxis pulled up. With her was a short, slightly plump woman in a sari and dark glasses.
“Mother, this is our travel guide, Mr. Trager,” Pratima said. “Mr. Trager, this is my mother “
“Kamala Busco,” the woman said, offering her hand. She had a high, clear voice. Pratima had inherited that and her height from her mother. Sundown had contributed her angular face and thin frame.
Trager took Kamala’s hand. “You probably want to know something about the company and the trip.”
“Yes,” said Kamala. “How did your client die in Ladakh?" Trager couldn't tell what the woman's expression was behind her dark glasses, but there was nothing remotely sympathetic in her voice.
“You heard about that,” he said. “I was told got lost and drowned in a stream.”
“You were not there?”
“No,” said Trager. “The leader of that trip was supposed to lead this one, but after the accident, she had to stay in Ladakh to sort things out. It’s the first time anything like this has happened. And I promise you I won't let anyone get lost on this trip.”
“I do hope not. It is all my fault, and it would kill me.”
“Excuse me?” said Trager.
“Mother, we have to make the plane,” Pratima said. “Good bye.”
She gave Kamala a quick embrace. As they separated, she glanced at her father.
“Go ahead,” Sundown said. “I’ll be there in a minute.”
“I’ll introduce you to the others,” Trager said.
“What others?” Pratima asked. “I thought they cancelled.”
“So did I,” said Trager. “But one couple showed up anyway.”
“So my father is paying for them, too?”
“No,” said Trager. “They paid up months ago. This just means the company can use their money instead of giving it back." That was the way it should work out in the long run, Trager thought. In the short run, Sundown's money would have no cover for everyone. Trager hefted his pack and led the way back to the Macintosh’s parked taxi. Harry and Leslie had already acquired two porters of their own. Leslie watched them critically as they piled the bags on a cart, while Harry photographed the operation
“Namaste,” Harry said when Trager introduced Pratima. “I'm afraid that’s all the Indian I know.”
“Hindi,” said Pratima. “It's more than I knew when I got here.”
Leslie looked the girl up and down, taking in her dainty sandals and loose sari. “Is that your trekking outfit?” she asked.
“We're taking care of her gear,” Trager said. “Why don't we get in line?”
“What about Sunshine and his Indian princess?” Leslie asked. She nodded at Sundown and Kamala looking at each other in silence across a space of several feet.
“It's Sundown,” Trager said. “And that's Pratima's mom.”
Harry swung one of his cameras up to his face. “East meets west,” he said. “Fantastic.”
Pratima walked ahead of them into the terminal. Trager hurried to catch her before the Macintoshes caught up. “They're really tired,” he said. “They got in late, and then they had to wake up early for this flight.”
“They’re still creeps.”
“Just remember you're visiting with your dad, not Harry and Leslie.”
“I'm mad at him too.” She looked ahead. “I think this woman wants to talk to you.”
A clerk at the check-in counter peered over the heads of several other passengers. “Hello? You are the Synerglndia party?”
“Right.” Trager said, and urged the porters forward with the bags.
“What's all this?” Leslie asked.
“5undown's company has an in with the airline,” Trager said. “Until we're safe in Kashmir, we're all Synergism computer experts.”-
“I don't think that company has any experts,” Harry said. “Our office bought one of their gizmos last year, and we still can't get the damn thing to work.”
“That doesn't mean the problem is with the machine,” Pratima said.
“Let's just get on the plane,” said Trager. “Then you can take it up with the designer,”
The porters began to skillfully stack the packs and duffels on the baggage scale. When the last rucksack was balanced on top of the pile, they turned expectantly to Harry Macintosh.
“Oh, God, just like Nepal,” Leslie said. “Always hitting us up for whatever they can get.”-
“See him,” Harry said, pointing at Trager. “The company takes care of all this, right?”
“Uh, sure,” Trager said. “But wait a minute. Sundown's got all the cash.”
“Who is that guy?" Leslie asked. “Your banker?”
“Something like that,” Trager said.
“Tickets, please,” the clerk said.
“Christ, he's got my ticket, too,” Trager said. “I’ll go get him.”
“No,” Pratima said. “I will.”
Trager stood, useless, watched by the porters, the airline clerk, the Macintoshes, and a crowd of irritated passengers that pressed up to the single other open counter. When the Busco’s returned, Pratima nodded at the porters. “Give them one rupee per bag. And we need our tickets.”
Sundown handed over the money and tickets obediently. He seemed distracted. Through the baggage check and security screening, he didn't speak. In the departure lounge, he and Pratima stood to one side together. Trager went over to them. “Can I ask—what did Kamala mean when she said it was all her fault?”
“Nothing,” said Pratima. “That's just the way she talks.” The plane was called, and passengers began crowding toward the door. Trager cut in behind Harry, and followed the creases in his bush jacket. He was reminded of crossing an avalanche slope as a ski patrolman. He had taken all the precautions possible. Now all he could do was set out and hope things didn't collapse.
Another airplane door cracked open, another wave of air rushed into a cabin. But this time the air was cool, with a scent of wood smoke that cut through the smell of hot asphalt and jet fuel.
There was no one waiting in the terminal, no message at the airline counter. Trager's rucksack was one of the first bags unloaded. He grabbed it off the baggage slide and headed for the exit.
The parking lot was pandemonium. Trager was hemmed in by the drivers and houseboat agents who had been waiting to accost the arriving passengers. Hands grabbed at him, nearly tearing the rucksack off his back. An auto horn blared in counterpoint to the shouting.
“Hello! Hello! Hello, sahib! You wish taxi? Cheap accommodation? You wish to buy carpet? Woodcarving?”
He looked right and left for an escape, but the men took this as an expression of interest. They literally fell over themselves reaching for him. The car horn honked incessantly. Trager took a deep breath. He probably would need a houseboat, and a driver, and possibly even some woodcarving or carpets. He would need to do something with his clients. He looked squarely at the nearest eager, unshaven face and asked, "How much?”
Before the man could answer, Trager was pulled sharply to the side, out of the way of two honking jeeps that nosed through the crowd, a grinning Lakpa Tsering riding on the lead fender. “Ho, sahib, this way!” he called, and jumped down to take Trager's pack. As suddenly as they had attacked him, the crowd of men were gone, swarming around the next passengers emerging wide-eyed into the mob.
“You're here!” Trager felt such relief his knees almost buckled.
“Yes, sahib. My job.”
“I know, but . . . never mind. We’ve got to get the clients.”
They all came out together. The group of four attracted special attention from the vendors in the parking lot. Harry and Sundown shared some comment as the men approached, smiles fading as the mob encircled them. Leslie snarled. Pratima argued in Hindi. It made no difference. Only when Trager’s shout caught Sundown’s attention and the Kashmiris saw the party was taken did the crowd move on.
“Only four?” Lakpa asked.
“Four people cancelled, but I got two more. The tall guy is the man Max almost hit with his jeep the other day. The girl is his daughter.”
“Indian daughter,” Lakpa nodded. “Pretty.”
Leslie was upon them. “Where the hell did you go in there? You just left us.”
“Had to get the jeeps,” Trager said. “Let's load up.”
“You should have told us. How were we supposed to know where to go?”
“There wasn't time,” Trager said. “I knew with your travel experience you'd find the way out.”
“That's not what we're paying for!”
“I’ll make sure you get your money's worth.”
Lakpa acknowledged each client with a grin and quick tip of his head as Trager introduced him. Then they loaded the duffels and packs into the jeeps. The two drivers helped, as did a neatly dressed young man Trager had not noticed before.
“Who's that?" Trager asked Lakpa.
“Food seller's man,” Lakpa said. “We pay him now. You are bring some money from Delhi?”
“Oh, yeah. Sundown!”
“Maybe you just better take this, man,” Sundown said. He reached into his shoulder hag and pulled out a canvas envelope stenciled with the name of Barclays bank. Trager peered in at thick multicolored packets of bills tied together with string.
“Thanks,” Trager said. He turned to Lakpa. “How much do you need?” Lakpa seemed hesitant to talk money in front of the clients. He backed off a few yards, and Trager followed, with the grocer's man keeping a discrete distance.
“Five thousand, six hundred, thirty-seven rupees,” he said. “This is food and also jeep taxis.”
Trager fingered the unfamiliar bills for a moment, then handed the sack to Lakpa. “Here, take it out." Lakpa looked into the bag, and glanced up in surprise.
“I hope we have enough,” Trager said. “It's the trek fees from Sundown and Pratima, less my airfare. About twenty-seven thousand rupees.”
Lakpa laughed out loud. “Bagchee is give you this?”-
“No. I've got to tell you some things. Bagchee wanted to cancel the trek.”
“Again?” Lakpa asked.
“He's done this before?”
“Oh, yes, sahib. Bagchee is always say, cancel treks, Max is spend too much money.”
“Well, this time he really did it. How come no one told me about the accident in Ladakh?”
Lakpa did not look surprised, only curious at Trager's response. “Not your job,” he said. “Only Freya's.”
“Maybe so, but because of Mr. Ferndecker, four of the clients quit. Bagchee wouldn’t give me any money to run the trek, and he said he was going to tell you to go back to Ladakh.”
“He is not telling me this.”
“I guess not, since you showed up. But all the money we've got is Sundown and Pratima’s trek fee. Do you think we can make it on that until we meet up with Max?”
Lakpa laughed again. “Max is not having this much money for us.”
He detached a blue and a pink bill from their bundles. The grocer’s man was effusive in his thanks, and Trager assumed Lakpa had tipped well. On the way back to the jeeps, Lakpa said, “This is good work, sahib. Next time, get change.”
Trager rode with the Macintoshes up to Kawapatri. On the highway. He said to Harry, “I saw you talking with Sundown. Did you ask him about your computer problem?”
“Sure did. He was real decent about it. Said he'd check it out when we get back. He's got a problem, though, with that company of his. From what I hear at the office, old Synergism is on its way down the tubes. Too bad. Seems like a hell of a nice guy. How'd he get that Indian girl of his?”
“It's called reproduction,” Leslie said. “I'll explain it to you one of these days.” Trager started to laugh, but stopped when he saw that neither of Macintoshes were smiling.
The jeeps climbed from the valley floor, up through the villages, past the terraced fields, into the switchback curves through the forest. All of this was reassuringly familiar to Trager. But when they emerged from the forest near the edge of the golf course, he gave an involuntary shout. There were no clouds. The hotel knoll, once the dominant feature of the socked-in landscape, was now barely noticeable beneath a backdrop of snow peaks.
As the party checked into the Kawapatri Golf Hotel, one of the clerks spoke to Lakpa and handed him a telegram across the desk.
“From Freya?” Trager asked.
Lakpa looked at the paper and grinned. “Bagchee. ‘Kashmir trek cancelled. Go Ladakh.’”
“What's he likely to do now?”
“Vas-ant!” Lakpa said, pronouncing the name as if it were an epithet. “He say, ‘I have no money,’ ‘Max is cheat me.’ ‘Trek leaders spend too much.’ But Trager-sahib is go Delhi, bring back thirty thousand rupees, two trekkers. So let Max talk to Bagchee. We go trekking.”
While the others were finding their rooms, Trager walked out of the building alone. The sled porters by the entrance now lounged on small wooden wagons. They gave Trager only a glance when they saw he had no luggage. He walked around the front of the structure and dropped down the steep side of the knoll. The ground was still sodden, and his running shoes skidded on the slick grass. When he reached the bottom of the stone retaining wall, he found a freshly painted sign bolted to a wooden post:
CLIMBING THE WALL EXPRESSLY FORBIDDEN
by order of
Col. R. Battarchaya, Commandant, KMTC