Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Murder on Everest - Prologue and Chapter One

I am so excited to offer this exclusive look at the prologue and first chapter of Murder on Everest!  I dare you to read this exciting sneak peek and not want to read the rest!  If you've already read Murder on Everest and loved it, please tell your friends!

The wind whipped my face. I wiped my goggles with my gloves and stared directly into the blizzard, searching for shadows or any sign of life.
We’d left Camp Five at midnight—more than seventeen hours earlier—and I was beyond exhaustion. My lungs were raw. Every breath I drew burned like cold fire. I fought a nagging cough that threatened to consume me. For two hours, I’d not climbed and my body temperature had fallen precipitously. Little feeling remained in my feet and hands and I was in danger of frostbite. I could sense my internal organs starting to shut down and a deadly lethargy engulfed me. I didn’t have long.
The snow was so thick that I could scarcely see more than two feet before me. The wind howled with a ferocity I’d never experienced. To stand erect, I had to lean into the gale. If the wind suddenly stopped, I’d have toppled over.
I reached across my right shoulder and turned the knob of my oxygen bottle. At 28,700 feet, I was breathing air with one-third the oxygen of sea level. The richer mix poured into my mask as I inhaled for a long minute, feeling better, stronger. 
After a luxurious few seconds, I forced myself to turn the flow off and pulled the mask aside since it seemed to suffocate me without the oxygen. I doubted that I had enough left to reach Camp Five, where the Sherpas had stored vital spare tanks. But if I had any chance of escaping the Death Zone, I had to preserve all of the oxygen that remained.
I glanced ahead, but could see nothing except the blinding white of the storm against the darkening backdrop of the dying day. I couldn’t be certain any of the climbers and Sherpas between here and the Summit had heard the distress call. My own radio was dead. 
No one was coming, I told myself. And if somehow they did, no one would see Derek and me there against the outcrop, some distance from the main route to the Hillary Step. I turned my back to the wind and trudged to the wall of stone and the forlorn figure lying there.
I knelt, leaned forward, and shouted into Derek’s ear. “I can’t see anyone!” I gasped, sucked three breaths of air, and shouted again. “Can you stand up?”
Derek Sodoc had sat down against the rock four hours earlier. His right hand and forearm were extended awkwardly to the side, frozen solid since he’d lost his glove even before I stumbled upon him. He hadn’t uttered a word in half an hour, but earlier had reported that he could neither feel nor move his legs.
I took the thin air into my lungs and coughed violently, my sides hurting so badly that I thought I’d broken a rib before regaining control. I shouted again. “Can you stand up? I can’t lift you!”
Derek said nothing. He sat, partially lying against the outcrop, as unmoving as the Sphinx. I gripped his jacket awkwardly with my gloved hands and tugged, but I was so weak myself—so near death—I had no chance of raising the man to his feet. I paused to breathe, drawing the thin air across my burning throat, feeling again as if I was suffocating. I leaned down and placed my face almost against Derek’s ear. “You must help me! No one is coming! There’s no time left. Stand up!”
The effort nearly did me in. Losing my balance, I tumbled to the snow and ice, the wind howling to a crescendo. I lay there drawing unsatisfying gulps of air. I closed my eyes. It felt good resting here. Just a few minutes. I began to drift.
But part of me knew better. This was one of the ways that you died on Everest. If you lay down in the Death Zone and stayed down, life drained from you until you ceased to exist. 
With every reserve of willpower and strength, I forced myself to my feet. I looked at my watch, turning it toward the fading light: 5:32. It would be dark in less than half an hour.
I faced the storm again and struggled across twenty feet. Again I stared into the blizzard, but could see nothing, just a furious white, and could hear nothing but the roaring wind. I knew that if I walked much farther, I’d go straight over a precipice or into a crevasse. More than one climber—brain depleted of oxygen, functioning with the intellectual capacity of a five-year-old child, exhausted, and numb—had simply walked over a cliff to their death.
I saw nothing. No shapes. No climbers. No one to help.
In the growing twilight, I was now seeing phantasms, dark dancing shapes in the blizzard. At first, I’d thought they were figures coming toward me out of the storm, but soon recognized them for what they were. I’d heard of the phenomenon, but had never previously experienced it. It was unsettling and just one more sign of how close I was to death.
I turned my back to the storm and slowly made my way to Derek. Bracing with my right hand on the rock, I leaned down, drawing five or six gasping breaths as I did. “I have to leave, Derek. I have to leave you.”
I could just barely make out my friend’s eyes through the ice that had formed like a death mask on his cheeks and eyelids. There was no movement. They were black, deep as a still well. I wondered if he was dead already. 
I drew three more gasping breaths, leaned nearly against Derek’s ear, and shouted, “If you cannot stand, I have to leave you! Stand up, Derek! Stand up!” Again, I pulled at his jacket. Again there was no reply, no offer of help, nothing.
I slowly straightened. I looked at my watch. 5:41. If I didn’t leave now, I faced executing the Hillary Step back to Camp Five in the dark—and climbers attempting it alone, at night, died. That was where Bruce Herrod had been found in 1997, dangling from a rope after he’d attempted the descent in the dark.
I looked back at Derek, who was almost certainly dead. I leaned down, drew several burning breaths, hacked violently, and shouted over the howling wind. “I’m going! I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
As I began to straighten, something caught my forearm. I looked down. Derek had grabbed me, placing a hand across the top of my arm. His eyelids fluttered and his frozen lips moved. His eyes were bottomless, black as coal. I leaned down and pressed my ear to Derek’s mouth. I could barely make out the words.
“Don’t … leave … me.”

Chapter One

There is an air of excitement as you prepare to enter the great unknown, to lay your life on the line, for no other reason than you want to.
—Quentin Stern,

“Do you think it will fly?” Tom Bauman said, eyeing the aging helicopter.
I examined the enormous ramshackle Russian Mi-17 helicopter more closely. “I suppose.” Big as a school bus, it had clearly seen better times. Beneath the many dents and scratches, traces of the original camouflage paint showed through.
“We’re nearly a mile up here,” Tom said as he reexamined the craft. “The higher we go, the thinner the air. The thinner the air, the less the lift.” He sounded skeptical. Handsome, thirty-six years of age, of average height with a solid, fit frame, his hair was prematurely graying. We had only met the previous night in the hotel bar, but had formed an instant liking for one another.
Two short men in stained coveralls appeared from within the helicopter, removed a panel from its side, and peered at the innards of the helicopter.
“I suppose if they’ll fly it, we’re safe enough,” Tom added.
I laughed. “They’re Nepalese, and trust karma.” 
I sniffed the air, taking in the mélange of aviation fuel, urban pollution, and crop smoke commingled with the intermittent cool mountain breeze. Only here, I thought, only this place smells like this. I wondered once again why I’d returned. 
Kathmandu International Airport is the end of the line for most travelers. Certainly it was for me. It offers no international transfers, so this place was a point of egress or ingress. Despite its name, it was little more than a single long runway, not much larger than a county airport in the United States.
Nepal was the poorest nation in a region of poor countries. The facilities certainly made the point. The most conspicuous presence was two very large hangars reserved for the Nepalese military, its planes, and helicopters. Little of the equipment that required electricity actually worked. Anything that could be done by physical labor was. Toward the terminal, Nepalese workers, small and swarthy, swarmed over the small mountain of baggage.
An attractive couple emerged from the building wearing brightly colored parkas, each carrying a light bag. They might have been models for an outdoor magazine. The tall, very fit blond-haired man was Peer Borgen. His only slightly shorter companion was Tarja Sodoc. They were laughing.
“Have you met Peer?” I asked.
Tom shook his head. “I know Tarja, of course.”
The woman smiled broadly as she and Peer reached the helicopter. “Hello, Scott and Tom. Good to see you both again.” She extended her hand, European style.
Hers was a face that had graced a thousand tabloid pages. Her smile was warm and seemingly genuine, her white teeth as perfect as God or a skilled orthodontist could create, her skin finely textured with just a touch of red on the high cheeks, her long blonde hair like silk thread. She was the goddess of many men’s dreams. If she had a flaw, it was her pale blue eyes, which never varied in their calculation.
We shook her gloved hand. “You know Peer, of course,” Tarja said to me, “but I don’t believe you two have met.” She introduced Tom.
The noted Alpine climber and renowned mountaineer grinned like a child. He had a broad Scandinavian face, dark gray eyes set wide apart, fleshy lips prone to a smile, and sunglasses balanced atop his blond hair. He was instantly likeable. “Good to meet you, Tom—and to see you again, Scott.” He spoke English with only the slightest of accents. He glanced up toward the azure canopy overhead, tossing a shock of long blond hair back from his brow. “Who would have thought we’d be back so soon, eh, Scott?” 
He grinned as he turned his attention to the helicopter. The two men had closed the panel, but were arguing as they walked off. “Do you think that thing will get off the ground?” Peer said.
“We’ll soon see.” The speaker was Calvin Seavers, the expedition’s physician. He’d just walked from around the other side of the helicopter. “Did you know one of its tires is nearly flat?”
“I’m sure they’ll fix it,” Tom said.
Calvin glanced at a nearby ground crew. “You have more confidence than I do.” Just under six feet tall with a robust physique, his hair was thinning. He wore wire-framed glasses and spoke with the cadence and mannerisms of a man with New England roots.
“Have you all read the book?” Peer asked like a naughty child.
Two months earlier, a book entitled Abandoned on Everest had been released, giving a highly sensational account of the previous year’s tragedy. Many on the expedition had not fared well in the telling. 
No one answered at first.
“You didn’t talk to that weasel Stern, did you?” Tarja said to me. Calvin had been her husband’s good friend, while Tom had not been there. 
“No,” I answered. 
Tarja eyed me. “Well, someone did. I intend to find out just who.”
Peer grinned. “What do you care? I thought you liked press?”
Tarja glared at him. “Not when they tell lies that make me look bad, I don’t.”
“Well, I read the thing on the way over,” Peer said lightly. “A worthless piece of fiction. The author is clearly not a climber.”
Tarja glared at him as she said, “You can afford to be magnanimous. He never said you had herpes.”
A stiff wind from the mountains gusted and I turned to catch it with my back. It was early in the season and winter was in an erratic and slow retreat. 
Calvin glanced about as he zipped his parka. “Has anyone else noticed that it’s an armed camp?” he said, gesturing toward the nervous guards near the terminal. 
“The military controls the airport now,” I said. “There’s a line of infantry on the other side of the field; each soldier is holding an AK-47 at port arms.”
Kathmandu, Nepal’s capital, was a city of 700,000, a significant number of whom lived in abject poverty. In the span of two decades, it had grown from an exotic city firmly rooted in the medieval ages to the most modern in Nepal—and little pleasant remained about the place. Sitting within a high mountain valley, smoldering cremation pyre platforms along the Bagmati River cast a perpetual pall of smoke mixed with dust across the city. From the distance, it resembled nothing so much as a brownish dome. The mingled smells were sweet and sharp, acrid and distasteful: cooking oil, dung, human excrement and urine, kerosene and diesel fuel.
The city itself existed in a form of controlled chaos. Driving rules meant little. Sacred cows wandered freely, adding to the disorder. I had noted a cattle grid across the entrance ramp to keep them off the runway, so we at least had that going for us. The intersections were choked with cars, two-cycle rickshaws, and motorbikes. Just beyond the city limits, fields were burned between crops, adding still more smoke to the mix. The high, dry air also meant routine bush fires. Lung problems had become a serious issue with the local population and no climber wished to expose himself—or herself—to a single day here more than was essential. Breathing on Everest was enough of a chore without the crap from Kathmandu in your lungs.
“Do you think there’s any truth to the rumor about an imminent Maoist offensive?” Tarja asked. 
“Who can say?” Tom answered. “Some guy at the bar last night told me they erupt without warning.”
“I thought the Maoists were the largest party and part of the government now?” Peer said.
“Not all of them came down from the mountains,” I answered.
“The sooner we are out of this place, the better,” Peer said, slipping dark glasses across his eyes. “All these guns make me uneasy. Only that makes this tolerable.”
“That” was the distant Himalayan mountain range. Glorious against the clear sky, its magnitude was diminished only by its distance from us. But Everest, the reason we had come, was lost over the horizon.
“Look down, it is dirt and filth,” Peer said. “Look up, and it is divine.”
“Why Peer, you’re a romantic,” Tarja said without a smile.
He glanced at her. “I climb mountains. Of course I’m a romantic. Let’s get this over with. The worst risk any of us will face these next weeks is riding in that thing,” he said, gesturing toward the helicopter. He reached down, picked up his bag, and strode toward the open door. Tarja followed.
Once the couple was beyond hearing range Tom said, “Was it true?” 
We knew what he meant.
“What do you think?” Calvin said.
Tom pursed his lips. “She doesn’t seem the grieving widow to me, I have to admit.”
I watched the couple climb athletically into the helicopter. 
The year before, I’d been part of the much-publicized Sodoc Foundation Everest expedition that had ended so tragically. Derek was dead, his frozen body up on the shelf above the Hillary Step, along with that of the expedition leader, Reggie Maul, and three Sherpa guides. Just over a dozen other climbers from various expeditions had perished on or near the summit that season, making it the deadliest since the deaths of George Mallory and Sandy Irvine in 1924. 
I glanced at Calvin, who’d been there with me, then at Tom, who had not, and wondered if any of us would join the count this year. I’d certainly never expected to be back.
“Were they up to something?” Tom asked.
Calvin ignored him. I shrugged.
“And Peer was on top when Derek died, isn’t that true?” Tom said.
Calvin looked at me when he answered. “I was at Camp Four. I don’t know where he was for a fact.”
“Yes,” I said. “Peer was returning from the summit when the call for help went out. But the storm had hit by then and I never saw him. My radio went down, as did they all. We were blind and deaf up there.”
“What happened?” Tom said to me. “The story in that book can’t be true.”
“I’ve never read it. As for what happened, God knows. I certainly don’t. Just my little piece of it and even it’s a haze.”
A ruckus near the terminal drew our attention. Emerging with a train of baggage handlers were Crystal Hernandez and Rusty Landon. 
“Careful,” Calvin said. “The media has arrived.”
“Seriously,” Tom said, turning back to me. “I’d really like to know what took place. There have been so many different stories that I’d welcome talking to someone who knows.”
“Perhaps later.” I turned to the approaching newcomers. “Hello, Crissie, Rusty.”
Crystal was thirty-five years old with pleasant if earnest features. She had about her the cynical, clutching air of most reporters I’d known, suspecting everything, constantly looking for the angle. Her companion was the cameraman, Rusty. Tall, with a shock of bright red hair and freckles, he was all angles. I had known them both the previous year and thought I’d never see either of them again.
“Scott,” Crystal said. “Doc, good to see you. What brings you two on this quest?”
“I can’t speak for Scott,” Calvin said, “but I’m here to pay homage to Derek, to see that his body is recovered and that he gets a proper burial.”
Rusty set his camera bag down and snorted. “Even in death, the rich get it better.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Calvin said.
“There are more than two hundred bodies up there. Climbers stay where they fall. There’s a reason for that—and you know it. Why are you here, Scott?” Rusty asked. “I seem to recall you vowing you’d never set foot on that mountain again.”
“I’d say ‘vow’ is a pretty strong word—but yes, I never intended to return.”
“He should be here,” Calvin said defensively. “He and Derek were friends.”
“So was I, Doc, so was I,” Crystal said softly.
“Let me ask you a question, Calvin,” Rusty said. “How many people are going to die finding Derek’s body and getting it down to Base Camp? Two, three, half a dozen?”
“Perhaps none.”
Rusty snorted. “Right! All those dead climbers are still up there because you can’t bring them down. They’ve either fallen into a crevasse or they fell off a ridge, and you can’t get at them, or they just lay down and froze to death and are stuck in a block of ice. Those you can find. Hell, you can’t miss them. You can practically walk to the summit on bodies. Nobody has the energy in the Death Zone to haul anyone down. And what’s the point? Dead is dead.”
“Rusty, enough,” Crystal said.
“I mean it,” he continued. “Old man Sodoc’s got all the money in the world. He thinks he can buy his son’s body off that mountain. Hell, he’s the reason Derek’s dead to begin with! What does he care who else dies?”
“That’s enough,” Crystal said. “Load your gear.”
Rusty gave her a look and moved back to the porters, carrying most of their gear, shouting and waving his arms. I couldn’t hear the words, not that it mattered. The helicopter’s engine began the familiar whine of start up.
“So why are you going?” Calvin asked, all but shouting to be heard.
Crystal eyed him. “It’s my job. We’re recording this expedition.”
“You’re kidding.”
“Not at all. SNS is going to air this as a four-part series next fall. If it’s good enough, it will run during sweeps week.”
“I think I’m going to throw up,” Calvin said.
“That’s why the company sent us,” Crystal said with a softer voice. “But I’m here for Derek.” With that, she shouldered her bag and stepped off toward the door of the helicopter.
“Is this true?” Calvin asked.
I shrugged. “It’s the first I’ve heard of it, but it sounds about right.” Motion caught my eye. “What’s that over there?” 
Beside the tarmac, a holy man in orange robes, assisted by at least five others, was officiating over a bleating goat.
“I heard they’re slaughtering a goat to get this thing in the air.” Calvin laughed as if he’d seen everything and walked to the waiting helicopter. I glanced toward the goat and spotted a knife glinting in the sun. I turned my attention back to the tarmac. Approaching was a Sherpa, wearing a broad grin. We embraced.
“How are you, my friend?” Dawa asked. He was dressed in traditional Sherpa attire: a long inner shirt over a pant-like woolen garment, both of which were covered by a heavy, coarse, wraparound robe reaching just below his knees and fastened at the side. He wore a sash and high boots of wool with leather soles. From Base Camp on, he would be dressed as a Western climber.
“Good. And you and your family?”
“All well. I had not expected to see you so soon.”
“Things change.”
Dawa’s smile vanished. “You should not have come. No good can come from this.”
“Maybe we’ll have better luck than last year.”
The man shook his head. “Not luck. The holy men say it is a bad time for Sagarmatha. Many Sherpas don’t want to go. The gods oppose the climb, just like last year. We should not do this. We should pray instead and ask for forgiveness for our sins. Christians do that, don’t they, Scott?” 
I thought a moment. “Yes, but not often enough.”
* * *
The Sodoc Foundation Everest expedition the previous year had been the most publicized climbing event in history. Every resource of the senior Sodoc’s worldwide media conglomerate had been employed to cover it and no expense had been spared. Crystal and Rusty were two of the company’s most experienced crew—and avid amateur climbers themselves. With the latest in digital electronics, live reports were possible from elevations not previously known. The expedition had been as much a media event as a legitimate effort to summit Everest.
For more than a decade, Sodoc News System—or SNS—had recorded the exploits of its founder’s son, Derek. Handsome, affable, and fortunate, he’d had every benefit in life. But rather than follow in the extraordinarily successful steps of his father, Michael, the young Derek had chosen the life of an adventurer, where his father’s wealth and the fame of his name could not buy success.
When it was clear to his father that no amount of persuasion could convince his son to join the family corporate empire, Sodoc had elected to make his son a celebrity and capitalize on his fame. Every one of his climbs had been lavishly covered and became a television special, dating back more than five years. He appeared regularly on cable television, hosting his own show, High Adventure!
Last year’s expedition was to have been the culmination of Derek’s climbing career. Having summited each of the highest peaks on the six other continents, Everest was meant to be his crowning glory. SNS announced its intention to turn the climb into a major documentary. Instead, the climb and expedition had ended in disaster. Rather than glory, Derek had found his grave not far from the top of the world.
Now the same team was here to recover his body.
I didn’t like it. Rusty had a point. Why Derek and not others? Hell, fabled George Mallory was still up there. No one had seriously argued he be brought down once his body was located. If Everest was good enough for Mallory, why not for Derek Sodoc?
And Rusty was right about something else. It was dangerous in the Death Zone. People died routinely from slips, malfunctions, the altitude, unexpected weather, bad judgment, or bad luck. Especially bad luck. It was difficult enough asking climbers and Sherpas to attempt the rescue of the living stranded in a storm—rescue efforts that often resulted in their own deaths—but to risk lives because a rich man wanted to bury his son? 
No, Dawa was right. This was bad. Everest was sufficiently dangerous without adding media to it. You could try to do whatever you liked on the mountain. You could set out to make a movie or just climb the thing. You could collect a skilled team to get your son back if you had a mind to and the money. But mixing missions was a very bad idea. 
I could see no good coming from this.
A Nepalese in an orange jumpsuit standing beside the helicopter door caught my attention and gestured for me to climb aboard. I shouldered my bag and turned toward the helicopter just as I spotted a car stopping beside the tarmac. Whoever was in it had managed to evade the mob at the terminal entrance. Expecting an army general, I was stunned instead to see Diana Maurasi emerging from the rear door.
Spotting me, she grinned as she walked briskly over and gave me an embrace and a kiss. “Hi, stranger. Surprised?”
“Surprised” was putting it lightly. The last time I’d seen Diana had been on television at my home. Until recently, she’d been the anchor for the SNS Evening News, a spot she’d held for two years of modest ratings. She’d been elevated to the position with much fanfare, but the previous month had stepped down with the announcement that she’d soon be hosting her own morning show. Her stint as evening anchor might have been a failure, but it had done nothing to diminish her celebrity, a status I had as much to do with as any other event or individual.
“What are you doing here?” I asked. Dawa retreated from us and climbed into the helicopter.
“Covering the expedition. Let’s get on board before some reporter spots me. My presence is supposed to be a secret.” She tugged at my arm and we climbed into the loaded helicopter, an attendant slamming the door behind us. 
Peer looked up from his seat beside Tarja, registered surprise, and then approval. No question, Diana was one attractive woman. She took a seat toward the rear and gestured for me to sit beside her. We buckled up as the engines roared. 
The heavy machine seemed glued to the ground at first, then slowly we were rising and moving forward at the same time. The lumbering craft gathered speed as it crossed the runway, gaining altitude as it raced away from Kathmandu, and civilization, toward the distant Himalayan Range—and Everest.

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