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Sunday, 17 December: Kathmandu, Nepal

An exotic circus of hippies, snake charmers, and sacred cows wandered the streets amongst a maze of temples and ancient buildings adorned with ornate carvings. Kathmandu, the iconic city of the Age of Aquarius, the final stop on the fabled Hippie Trail from London through Istanbul and on to India, bustled with activity.

A bedraggled, but still attractive, hippie girl dressed in ragged jeans and a worn sweater flashed a seductive smile as she paused to enter a shop. No choice but to resist temptation — duty called.

Past Durbar Square, I hung a right and ambled along with a casual air down Pie Alley, a narrow dirty little street. Unfamiliar sights and smells confronted my senses and redefined the ordinary. Kathmandu wasn't famous for cleanliness.

A menu posted in front of the Camp Hotel offered an excuse to pause and glance back up the street to see if anyone had a tail on me. No dead giveaways, no one seemed to be lurking about, moving when I moved, avoiding eye contact, making sudden turns, or halting when I did. No one seemed suspicious, but I couldn't afford to relax.

Counter surveillance, that's what Jack called it, to me it's just watching your back. Situational awareness and attention to details isn't obsessively paranoid, it's just a good way to stay alive. The events of the past few months proved that. I'm still alive.

Paused at the corner, waited a few seconds, moved on, swung a U-turn, and retraced my steps. Strolled back through the square, headed north towards the market, checked out the wares, made one purchase, and surveyed the area once more.

At the appointed time, I hurried down Kanti Path to meet my local contact. I had arrived only an hour before after a series of long flights from Washington, London, and New Delhi. My orders, report to the American embassy, ASAP. For my own reasons, I didn't share Colonel Wilson's sense of urgency about the mission.

*  *  *

The CIA station chief’s tired face betrayed the frustrations of a backwater posting. His breath revealed the fact I interrupted his Sunday afternoon happy hour, my presence an unwelcome intrusion into his weekend routine. Al Harris, in his mid-fifties with short graying hair, was more bourbon and branch water than shaken not stirred.

He examined the first page of my Canadian passport. "Five ten, one seventy-five, brown hair," he squinted at my eyes, "blue-green eyes, everything appears fine except you have sandy hair." He examined the picture and snorted. "This photo makes you look almost like Steve McQueen."

"Yeah, that's what the ladies tell me." The slight resemblance had proved socially useful a few times before I met Lisette.

He ignored my comeback. "You're travelling under the name Dan McDonald, so make sure you don't have anything on you that can connect you with your real identity."

"No problem, we made sure of that back in Washington." Nothing in my possession identified me as Ross Brannan, a contract employee of the National Security Agency assigned to the Special Signals Research Project.

He pitched the passport back across the desk and mumbled something under his breath. Couldn't tell from his sardonic expression, if Harris believed me or just didn't care. It made no difference either way.

Enough of this BS. — "When do I leave?"

"Day after tomorrow: late Tuesday morning. You’re set up to fly out of Kathmandu to the airstrip at Syangboche. That's up past Namche Bazaar. It's a regular flight, taking passengers to the Everest View Hotel." He pulled a pack of Camels out of his shirt pocket. "You’re booked in at the hotel. It's expensive as hell, but at least it don't come out of my budget." He tapped the pack, pulled out an unfiltered cigarette, and lit up with a battered Zippo.

Harris took a long drag, paused, blew out a stream of pungent smoke from the side of his mouth, and shoved a large envelope and a small sheet of paper across the desk. "There's the tickets and 350 dollars in Rupees. Just sign the receipt. Expect you'll return the change if… before you leave." His voice delivered a rough gravel quality, most likely the product of a near lifetime of unfiltered cigarettes and cheap booze.

I signed the receipt, wondering if his slip of the tongue was inadvertent, or just a jab. It was difficult to tell if he was smiling or scowling.

He placed the receipt in a folder, took another drag on the Camel, and asked, "You got any gear? Get's colder n' blazes up there. At least you got some boots for it. It ain't exactly no walk in the park."

"Trekked in Nepal several years ago, brought a pack and sleeping bag along. You think of anything else?"

He raised his eyebrows. "Good, so you at least know the ropes." His attitude seemed to change. "Better pick up some decent food to take along. It's pretty basic up there, unless you like chapattis and gritty rice. You do know what chapattis are, don't you?"

"Yeah, Indian tortillas." Born in New Mexico, I happened to like tortillas, but wasn't about to tell him.

"Be a good idea to stop at the pharmacy down the street and buy some codeine tabs." He blew a smoke ring and flicked an ash to the floor. "Most all the locals have some sort of respiratory problem. Sleeping in smoky rooms will get to you. You don't need no prescription. A pile of Rupees will get you just about anything."

"No problem. Sounds like nothing's changed." So far, he hadn't told me anything I didn't know. "How 'bout my contact up there?"

"I arranged for a local mountain guide, an experienced Sherpa who speaks good English. He's worked for me off and on for the last eighteen months and will meet you at the hotel after you land. You'll be in good hands."

"Any other assets for back-up?"

"Nope, you are pretty much on your own."

I ignored his smug expression. "How about weapons?"

He answered with pretend surprise, "You came unarmed?"

"That's right. Flew commercial and was hoping you could supply something." I wanted to bring my little Walther PPK, but the civilian travel arrangements ruled that out. "How about a forty-five and a couple extra magazines?"

The request caught him by surprise and he almost choked on a deep drag on the Camel. "No way. A firearm will get you in deep kimchi if you have to use it." He coughed. "Remember, you don't have diplomatic immunity, and travelling on a Canadian passport to boot."

I wanted to tell him it's easier to get out of jail than to get out of dead but held my tongue. He had a point, but it wasn't his butt on the line.

Harris drew in and expelled another puff. "My suggestion is to hightail it over to the bazaar and get yourself a kukri. Know what that is?"

"Sure, one of those wicked knives the Gurkhas carry."

"Yeah, you'll have to bargain. Don't pay more than thirty rupees."

"Will this do?" I pulled out a curved knife in a leather sheath and exposed the blade. "Only paid twenty rupees in the market, the poor kid seemed desperate for a sale."

Harris shook his head and snuffed out the cigarette. "They warned me you're sort of a wise-ass."

Now who would have said that? Had my suspicions.

He pointed at the knife. "If you plan on using that thing, get it sharpened up, everyone carries one here."

"Actually, I prefer a good switchblade for close-up work." I started to tell him I had killed five men this year, but let it go. Wasn’t proud of it and didn't want to seem to brag.

He leaned back in his chair and scrunched up his brow. "Thought you're just a technician."

"Learned to use a knife, working on my uncle's ranch back in New Mexico, a ranch hand taught me how to use a knife in a tight situation."

The CIA man winced as if in pain. "Oh brother, they sent me a real cowboy."

I let the comment slide. My mentor, an older Mescalero Apache named Joe, taught me over the course of five summers the art of street fighting, self-defense, and many other things about life. He always claimed the best way to avoid trouble was to avoid it. It took me a long time to figure out the real meaning of those words — too long in fact.

"Okay Cowboy, so you can handle a knife, but can you use it when the chips are down?" He made no attempt to hide the snide expression of condescension on his face.

Sat up straight, made eye contact, and enunciated with emphasis, "Yeah, no problem, don't worry about it."

He glared, not yet convinced. "You got military experience?"

"Army. Eleven years."

His eyes perked up. "Special Forces? Nam?"

Guess he thought if I knew how to use a knife, I must be a snake eater. "No. ASA. Saigon and Thailand."

He didn't even try to mask his disgust, muttered something inaudible, and cleared his throat. "An Army Security Agency weenie, so you don't have any actual field experience."

It was obvious he didn't have much confidence in my qualifications for the mission. Didn’t care and kept quiet. We stared at each other in an uneasy silence.

"This Hungarian woman I'm supposed to meet at the Everest base camp, how did she contact you?"

"Didn't contact us directly. She managed to pass a note to an American tourist in a restroom at her hotel."

"You mean you haven't talked to her?"

"No. But—"

 "Is that the only communication you had with her? I thought things were set up for—"

"No. That's all. I forwarded the note to Langley. They took it from there."

"You mean she doesn't know I'm coming."

"Thought you boys had that all worked out." He shook his head in disgust and held up the palms of his hands. "Don't blame this one on me. I'm just the messenger."

And I'm the sucker. Gotta stay calm and take this one step at a time. "This woman have a name?"

"Her name is Valentina Kayroli … and no, I don't got a photo of the dame."

"Okay. Supposing I make contact and she wants to leave, how am I supposed to get her out of the country?"

He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin, as if deep in thought. "If you can get her to the Kathmandu airport, we can get both of you on a flight to Patna in India." He looked me straight in the eyes, a penetrating glare. "But don't expect you to be able to get her out of the mountains alive."

His comment hung for a moment, another inkling of trouble. Had my doubts when Wilson said it would be a routine mission: all I had to do was go up to the Everest base camp, find out what she knew, and see if she wanted to defect. Wouldn't be the first time he was wrong.

"Why not?"

Harris pulled out the pack of Camels again. "Their security's pretty tight. Got a feeling they ain't just a scientific mission." He paused to light up.

"What ya think they're up to?" Had a good idea but wanted him to tell what he knew.

He inhaled and blew out another stream of smoke. "Not sure, but we do know the Russkies are keeping a close eye on ‘em. The Soviet embassy has a new guy. A Major Victor Andreyevich Suslov, almost certainly KGB. I sent a profile and picture of him to Langley and expect word back any day now. One thing for sure, he ain't here to study local agriculture."

He opened a folder on his desk. "Here's a photo one of my men took on the street." Suslov looked like a slick henchman in a James Bond movie.

My sixth sense told me something had gone wrong. It usually does. "Is he still here in Kathmandu?"

"Lost track of him last week, he might be anywhere by now." Harris paused to flick an ash. "You'll need to keep your eyes open for him."