Chapter One from the author’s debut novel of the same name
Remember, I told myself only minutes before we discovered the body, this was supposed to be fun.
I had thought I would enjoy carrying a heavy pack up fifteen thousand vertical feet of uneven stony trail. Now I was too miserable to laugh at my own idiocy. Every upwards step prompted a jolt of pain from the infected blisters on both heels, and my brittle knees ached and popped like a sputtering motor. My pack straps had carved a pair of red furrows into my back, each one filigreed by an itchy fungal infection. I had a nagging headache, shortness of breath, and nausea, a textbook case of low-grade altitude sickness. But what really made the whole situation unbearable was my traveling companion’s attitude.
“Isn’t it fantastic?” Gavin said, as I trudged behind him. “It’s just extraordinary. I’ve been looking at it for three days now and I never get bored of it.”
The it in question was the Annapurna Range of the Himalaya, the glorious snow-capped mountains that surrounded us, and even in my irritable state I couldn’t argue with his superlatives. Every time I looked around I felt like I had stepped into a fairy tale. But I would have preferred to appreciate its grandeur from the window of our lodge, preferably while eating momos and drinking an entire pot of lemon tea, rather than following Gavin to inspect the abandoned village. He had browbeaten me into coming with him, knowing that I didn’t have the mental strength to argue. Probably thinking that I would thank him later.
I’ll thank him with a two-by-four, I thought. I’ll show him my gratitude with a ball-peen hammer. Even without my pack, which I had left back at the lodge, each motion felt like a sacrifice. Step, breathe, step, breathe, stop, breathe, repeat.
“Acute mountain sickness, my foot,” Gavin said. “I feel fantastic. I’ve never felt better in my life. I think I’m suffering from acute mountain wellness.”
“How nice for you,” I muttered.
“Paul! Is that snow?”
I looked up from my feet. Gavin pointed excitedly at the shadow cast by a tall boulder, where a thin layer of this morning’s frost had not yet thawed. He was from South Africa, and never in his well-traveled life had he seen snow up close. I was originally from Canada and found the idea of a snowless existence nearly incomprehensible.
“No,” I said. “Sorry. Just frost.”
We moved on. The abandoned village was located on a ridge that jutted out above the Marsyangdi river valley like a peninsula. A few dozen low, small buildings of dark rough-hewn stones welded together by frozen mud. It seemed insane to me that people had lived up here. It seemed insane that anyone had ever even considered living up here. Not even the yaks came this high. Nothing grew but lichen, a few particularly stubborn strands of grass, and a thin knee-high layer of vicious thorn bushes. The wind howled ceaselessly, numbing my exposed skin, and even with the sun at its midpoint I could still see my breath. And the effort required to quarry those hundred-pound stones, probably from the Marsyangdi riverbed far below, and bring them up to this godforsaken overlook — mad, I thought, absolutely barking, as the Brits on the truck used to say.
Gavin hemmed and hawed over one of the buildings, inspecting its joints and shining his Maglite flashlight inside, while I stood behind and tried to catch my breath. I had been trying all day, and I was beginning to fear that it had gone for good.
“Imagine being born here,” he said, and I tried but failed. Some cultural gaps are simply too wide to jump.
He led the way through the village. We must have gone right past the body without noticing it. For a little while we stood on the edge of the cliff, which dropped a hundred sheer feet before easing off a little and tumbling down to the dry riverbed a thousand feet below. By now we were accustomed to precipices. I had lost track of how many times during the previous week I had scrambled across steep drops on narrow and treacherous trails.
Eventually I grew bored of contemplating my own mortality and turned around, intending to return to our lodge. Then I saw him. A fellow backpacker, sitting with his back against one of the village buildings, facing us. Even from a hundred feet away and with the cold dusty wind in my eyes I could tell there was something badly wrong with his face.
“Whoa,” I said, and narrowly prevented myself from taking a fatal step backwards in surprise. “What the hell?”
Gavin turned to look and said “Fucking hell.”
We advanced without really thinking about it. About halfway there I realized that the man was dead. Not just dead. Killed. Unless he had thrust a pair of matching Swiss Army knives into his own eyes. The red handles protruded from his eyesockets like antennae.
The victim was tall, white, probably mid-twenties, typical backpacker, wearing a blue jacket over a thick green sweater, jeans, and battered hiking boots. There wasn’t much blood, but I could smell it in the air like iron. Most of it was pooled on top of his head, dark brown muck filling a dent so large and misshapen that his thick dark hair did not conceal it. The liquid congealed on his cheeks was pale, almost transparent.
Gavin muttered something astonished in Afrikaans. I looked around. Nobody here but the two of us and the cold wind and the mountains. We could see the trekking trail about half a mile away, and the two Gunsang lodges facing one another across it, but they seemed as deserted as this long-abandoned village.
I felt newly vibrant, energetic, ready for action. The sight of the dead man had cued adrenaline to wash through me like some kind of mythical cure-all. My aches and pains had vanished. My head was clear. I felt as if gauze had been lifted from all of my senses; I had never seen so clearly, so distinctly. The body’s instinctive fight-or-flight response can be a wonderful thing. I can understand how daredevils get addicted to it.
I crouched down a few inches away from the body, examining it carefully, conditioned not to touch anything by years of cop shows and detective novels. Another flush of energy coursed down my spine like electricity. Every hair on the back of my neck stood to attention, like an army under review. My skin actually crawled. Until that moment I had always thought that was just a melodramatic expression.
Even my nausea had, ironically, faded away. I felt more fascination than revulsion as I examined the body. His arms hung loose by his side. A tan line revealed that his watch was missing. He hadn’t shaved in a few days. His mouth was slightly parted as if in contemplation. I avoided looking at the eyes.
“Christ almighty,” Gavin said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“The knives are a little unnecessary, aren’t they?” he asked, his accent much harsher than usual. “I mean, Jesus, they practically cracked his skull in two.”
“Yeah,” I repeated.
Nightmare, I told myself. Just another nightmare. You’ll wake up any moment now. What I was seeing wasn’t real, couldn’t be real. My subconscious had mixed the past and the present into this lethally horrible cocktail and was serving it up to me as I slept.
It would have been a comforting belief. But it wasn’t possible. Dreams often seem real, at least while they last, but sane people cannot mistake reality for a dream. No matter how much we might want to.
Gavin dropped to his knees next to me and touched the corpse’s arm experimentally.
“Don’t,” I said. It seemed like a violation.
I searched for a justification. “We should leave the scene alone.”
He gave me a don’t-be-stupid look. “For who? The Nepali police? Somehow I doubt they’ve got a crack homicide investigator in the district.”
Which was true. Fingerprinting, DNA testing, forensic analysis…there would be none of that here. Just a bunch of minimally-educated Third World policemen here to rescue stranded tourists and fend off Maoist insurgents, not to investigate murders.
Gavin touched the stone wall the corpse slumped against, then its arm again, then the wall. He looked worried.
“What are you doing?” I asked.
“He’s still warm,” Gavin said quietly.
“Warmer than the stone at any rate. Feel for yourself.”
I paused for a moment, and then I did just that. The arm felt ice-cold and clammy to my touch, but there was no denying that it was noticeably warmer than the ground or the wall. We looked at each other for a moment, then rose to our feet and looked around us uneasily.
“Let’s just make sure we’re alone here,” I said, very calmly.
“Good idea,” he agreed, equally calm.
We walked through the village again, senses on high alert. I dug into my pocket for my own Swiss Army knife but decided to leave it there. It was a small knife, though sharp as hell, but more to the point, walking around with a bared blade would have seemed like an admission that the world had gone terribly wrong, an admission I wasn’t yet ready to make. Far better to pretend this was just another travel encounter, another anecdote for the journal and boozy late-night retellings.
It didn’t take long to determine that there was no one else in the village. We returned to the body and stood there for what felt like a long time, staring at it and at each other, trying to work out what the things were that we should do.
“Do you recognize him?” Gavin asked.
I had just been searching my memory. If the man had died today then we had probably seen him before. Trekkers on the Annapurna Circuit moved in packs, all in the same direction at roughly the same speed; the scenery changed, but our neighbours remained the same. But this was high season, with more than two hundred people a day passing along the trail, and it is hard to recognize a frozen and mutilated face. I shook my head. We stood there a little longer.
“We should take pictures,” I said eventually. “For evidence. Before we disturb anything.”
Gavin nodded and dug into the camera pack he kept with him. He had a serious camera, big as a brick, with lenses and various attachments, and he assembled it into what I presumed was the ideal homicide-evidence configuration and shot a roll of film from various angles. I took a few snaps myself with my cheap point-and-click. I think we were both relieved to have something vaguely constructive to do.
When we were finished we looked at each other and without speaking approached the corpse again. I guess we had decided that we were the best investigators the murdered man was going to get up here. I tried to call fragments of fiction to mind, to remember what real detectives did. They looked for hairs, blood, anything that might give you a DNA sample of the killer. None of those were apparent. The victim’s fingernails were dirty but not bloody. He didn’t seem to have put up any resistance. Detectives looked for fingerprints, but that was going to be beyond us. The killer’s prints might be all over those Swiss Army knives or that blue waterproof jacket but I doubted they had fingerprint powder anywhere in Nepal this side of Kathmandu. Maybe not even there.
Looking at the jacket I saw a familiar red tab on it and shook my head in dismay.
“How can you tell?” Gavin asked.
I fingered the red tab. MEC, it read. “Mountain Equipment Co-Op. Canadian travel gear store.” Somehow this made it personally offensive, that the victim and I had bought our jackets at the same store.
“He doesn’t have a pack,” Gavin observed. “Maybe it’s back at one of the lodges here.”
“Maybe,” I agreed. “Let’s see if he’s got any ID…?”
I looked at him and he nodded. We reached clumsily around the dead man and dug through his pockets. Nothing there but a few Nepali rupees. The body was stiff as wood. We gingerly prodded under his shirt and his jeans to see if he was carrying a travel wallet. Around his waist was a beige Eagle Creek security pouch much like the one I wore. But it was empty.
“His watch is gone,” I pointed out.
“Right,” Gavin said. “Maybe it was just a theft. Probably a Nepali if so.”
“Maybe…” I said doubtfully.
“Ja,” he said. “I don’t think so either. Those knives…” He shook his head. “That’s just sick. I don’t think a Nepali would have done that. I work in the Cape Flats, you know, I’ve seen a fair few murdered men before, but I’ve never see one done like this.”
“I have,” I said, but so softly that he did not hear me.
Laura, I thought. It’s just like Laura. It’s just like Cameroon.