The monk nodded and waved to the idling helicopter. Its rotors still spun. "Dr. Sorenson has stocked us with everything we should need for the short term. We don't expect to impose upon your services for more than a day. The pilot has a satellite phone to relay your findings. Perhaps the matter has already been resolved, and we could return here as soon as midday."
A shadow passed over his features with this last statement. He didn't believe it. Worry threaded his words…that and perhaps a trace of fear.
She took a deep breath of the thin air. It barely filled her lungs. She had taken an oath. Besides, she had snapped enough photographs. She wanted to get back to real work.
The monk must have noted something in her face. "So you'll come."
"Lisa…" Josh warned.
"I'll be fine." She squeezed his arm. "You have a team to keep from mutinying on you."
Josh glanced back to Boston Bob and sighed.
"So hold the fort here until I get back."
He faced her again, not swayed, but he did not argue. His face remained tight. "Be careful out there."
"I have the very best of the Royal Nepalese Army to watch my back."
Josh stared at the lone soldier's oiled weapon. "That's what I'm worried about." He tried to lighten it with a snort, but it came out more bitter.
Lisa knew that was the best she'd manage out of him. She quickly gave him a hug gathered her medical backpack from her tent, and in moments, she was ducking under the razored threat of the spinning rotors and climbing into the backseat of the rescue helicopter. The pilot did not even acknowledge her. The soldier took the copilot seat. The monk, who introduced himself as Ang Gelu, joined her in the backseat.
She donned a set of sound-dampening headphones. Still, the engines roared as the blades spun faster. The craft bobbled on its treads as the rotors tried to grip the thin air. A whine ratcheted up into subsonic ranges. The craft finally lifted free of the rocky helipad and rose rapidly.
Lisa felt her stomach sink below her navel as the craft circled out over a neighboring gorge. She stared through the side window and down to the clutter of tents and yaks below. She spotted her brother. He had an arm lifted in farewell, or was it just raised against the sun's glare? Next to him stood Taski Sherpa, easily identifiable by his cowboy hat.
The Sherpa's earlier assessment followed her into the sky, icing through her thoughts and worries.
Death rides these winds.
Not a pleasant thought at the moment. Beside her, the monk's lips moved in silent prayer. He remained tense…whether from their mode of transport or in fear of what they might discover at the monastery.
Lisa leaned back, the Sherpa's words still echoing in her head.
A bad day indeed.
ELEVATION: 22,230 FEET
He moved along the chasm floor with easy strides, steel crampons gouging deep into snow and ice. To either side rose cliffs of bare stone, pictographed in brown lichen. The gorge angled upward.
Toward his goal.
He wore a one-piece goose-down suit, camouflaged in shades of white and black. His head was covered by a polar-fleece balaclava, his face hidden behind snow goggles. His climbing pack weighed twenty-one kilos, including the ice ax strapped to one side and a coil of poly rope on the other.He also carried a Heckler & Koch assault rifle, an extra twenty-round magazine, and a satchel holding nine incendiary grenades.
He had no need for additional oxygen, not even at this elevation. The mountains had been his home for the past forty-four years. He was as well habituated to these highlands as any Sherpa, but he didn't speak their language and a different heritage shone from his eyes: one eye a glacial blue, the other a pure white. The disparity marked him as surely as the tattoo on his shoulder. Even among the Sonnekonige, the Knights of the Sun.
The radio in his ear buzzed.
"Have you reached the monastery?"
He touched his throat. "Fourteen minutes."
"No word must escape of the accident."
"It will be handled." He kept his tone even, breathing through his nose. He heard as much fear as command in the other's voice. Such weakness. It was one of the reasons he seldom visited the Granitschloft, the Granite Castle, preferring to live on the fringes, as was his right.
No one asked him to move any closer.
They only asked for his expertise when it was most needed.
His earpiece crackled. "They will reach the monastery soon."
He didn't bother to answer. He heard a distant thump of rotors. He calculated in his head. No need to hurry. The mountains taught patience.
He steadied his breathing and continued down toward the cluster of stone buildings with red-tile roofs. Temp Och Monastery sat perched at the edge of a cliff, approachable only by a single path from below. The monks and students seldom had to worry about the rest of the world.
Until three days ago.
It was his job to clean it up.The bell-beat of the approaching helicopter grew louder, rising from below. He kept his pace steady. Plenty of time. It was important that those who approached enter the monastery.
It would be much easier to kill them all.
From the helicopter, the world below had frozen into a stark photographic negative. A study in contrasts. Blacks and whites. Snow and rock. Mist-shrouded peaks and shadowed gorges. The morning light reflected achingly off ice ridges and glacial cliffs, threatening snow blindness from the aerial glare.
Lisa blinked away the brightness. Who would live so far from everything? In such an unforgiving environment? Why did mankind always find such inhospitable places to claim when much easier lives were available to them?
Then again, her mother often posed the same riddle to Lisa. Why such extremes? Five years at sea on a research vessel, then another year training and conditioning for the rigors of mountain climbing, and now here in Nepal, preparing to assault Everest. Why such risks when an easier life was readily available?
Lisa's answer had always been a simple one: for the challenge of it. Hadn't George Ma I lory, mountaineering legend, answered similarly when asked why he climbed Everest? Because it was there. Of course, the true story behind that famous line was that Mallory had issued it in exasperation to a badgering journalist. Had Lisa's response to her mother's inquiries been any less a knee-jerk reaction? What was she doing up here? Everyday life offered enough challenges: making a living, saving for retirement, finding someone to love, surviving loss, raising children.
Lisa balked at these thoughts, recognizing a twinge of anxiety and realizing what it might imply. Could I be living a life on the edge to avoid living a real one? Is that perhaps why so many men have passed through my life without stopping?