This fifth instalment of the On Her Majesty's Crooked Service collection takes us right up to the front door of the adventure itself, a remote, forbidding region of the Himalayas. At the end of the story, we meet the last of the three Dare sisters: Charlie, the tomboyish mechanic.
I was quite pleased with this story. Of all of them, this one started as the blankest canvas, with just a line in the original game about 'Charlie Dare and her mountain rescue team'. I tried hard to create a likeable group of credible, skilled good guys going about the business, whilst at the same time giving a decent impression of conditions up in the high peaks, and tingeing it all with a nameless menace lurking in the snowfields.
If anyone wants to to know what takes up the most time when writing a story for me, it's coming up with believable but not stereotypical names for the international cast of characters. You wouldn't believe how long I spent going through names of Sherpas.
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Fabrizio cursed under his breath in his native Italian as he made his way slowly up the sheer mountain face. Below him were the rest of the hastily assembled rescue team, held together by lengths of rope which twisted distressingly in the high Himalayan winds. Tendzen’s rosy-cheeked face grinned up at him about twenty feet below his feet, with his brother Jangbu the same distance lower down. The others, Rikichi and Lorcas, were doll-sized figures even further below, slightly hidden by the outcropping rock. But he could feel the tension on the rope and knew he could trust them all. They were climbers, mountain men like himself. You had to rely on each other if were to survive the mountain. You just had to.
He repositioned his feet to get a better purchase and shifted his weight, probing with one hand for the next crevice. As he did so, Fabrizio could just see something above him. Something red and curved, quite out of place here in this land of grey and black and white.
“It is the tent. I see it!” he called down to the others. There were shouts of encouragement from below and reminders not to rush now that their objective was in sight. It was all too easy to forget yourself in the last few moments of any climb, to believe that all was well now. But the truth of the mountain was that you could never relax, never let yourself believe that nothing could possibly go wrong now, because that was when the mountain would remind you who was in charge.
He chuckled to himself at the superstitious, almost religious, way that he had come to think of life up here. But he knew he was not alone in that. They all had their little mental tricks or systems, things that they believed kept them safe from disaster. Rikichi had the polaroid of his girlfriend back in Osaka that he carried in his jacket pocket all times, fishing it out whenever they reached a summit, as if to show her the roof of the world. Lorcas would softly sing old Alpine folk songs to himself as he climbed, pretending he was still a boy, playing on the lower slopes of the Eiger. As for the two Sherpas, Tendzen and Jangbu often joked that their mother would kill them if anything were to happen to either of them. And having met their mother, Fabrizio knew that to be a threat even the mountain would have to respect.
Within the hour he had reached the tent. It clung to the side of the mountain like a barnacle, its brightly coloured man-made fabric bulging out and down from the weight of its contents. Fabrizio called out when he got closer, and was relieved to hear someone answering him from inside the tent, followed by a small but obvious shifting motion, like a baby in its mother’s womb.
The tent had been securely fastened to the rock wall at several points, but he could see that at least one of the pitons had worked loose, causing it to droop dangerously at one side. Surely the inhabitant was aware of the situation, but his reported injuries must have prevented him from reaching outside his flimsy shelter to secure the piton again.
Fabrizio positioned himself just to one side of the tent, forcing himself to look straight out from the rock wall at the cavernous nothingness that sometimes felt like a giant mouth about to inhale. He thought of Jonah and the whale, and of Pinocchio drawn into the great yawning maw of Il Terribile Pescecane. Then reminding himself that this was just another of the mountain’s mind games, he turned his head to one side, where Tendzen was making his way across the last few feet of rock to join him.
Together, they first secured the loose piton and then unzipped the tent’s flap carefully, all the while reassuring the man inside in a variety of languages. The emergency radio report they had received several days ago had been unclear as to his exact nationality, only that he was injured and in need of immediate rescue.
By a process of elimination, they determined that he was a Russian, part of a team attempting to claim the peak for the greater glory of the Soviet people. His injuries amounted to a broken leg, caused by a fall of some forty feet from a ledge above them, and a bloody gash across his shoulder, which looked more like someone had taken several knives to him than anything else. The man himself was cold, hungry and obviously in pain, but at least there seemed to be no hint of infection. Fabrizio and Tendzen both tended to his injuries as best they could, immobilising the leg and dressing the shoulder wound, then communicated to him that they were going to start lowering him down the rock wall to firmer ground, from where they would begin the long descent back to camp.
The man nodded, clearly eager to be moving, despite the inherent dangers in moving from his relatively safe position. He muttered something in Russian several times that neither he nor Tendzen understood, and then shook his head, as if dismissing a foolish notion. But he had spent days alone strapped to the side of a mountain, suspended above thin air, and Fabrizio knew full well how that might affect a man’s mind.
It took more than an hour to rig up a makeshift stretcher from the man’s sleeping bag, fixing extra pitons and carabiners, and passing extra rope down to Jangbu and the others to stabilise the bag as they lowered the man down. He winced and swore more than once as Fabrizio and Tendzen took the strain and played the rope out, trying not to let the bag bounce into the rock wall too often.
At length, and with more than a few close calls, the wounded man reached the firmer ground some hundred and fifty feet below, where Lorcas and Rikichi set about making a more thorough inspection of his injuries, breaking out the morphine and oxygen. By the time the others had climbed back down themselves, the Russian was much revived, though still unable to walk, and in deep conversation with Rikichi, who spoke Russian almost as well as his own Japanese.
Lorcas came over to Fabrizio and the two brothers, a puzzled expression on his weathered face.
“It is strange. The Russian’s injuries, they look like slash wounds, not from rocks, but blades. Or maybe a great cat or bear.”
“But there’s nothing that large at this altitude. Are you sure, Lorcas?”
“Definitely, mio amico. Three parallel incisions, some two inches apart. Claws, perhaps.”
At those words, Tendzen’s and Jangbu’s faces darkened and they exchanged worried looks.
“We go now. It is not safe here.” They both looked around as they spoke, and quickly set to collecting their gear.
As the team slowly descended to the pass, Rikichi moved up to join Fabrizio at the front, both of them planting their feet carefully on the packed snow. He looked eager to talk.
“What is it, Riki? Has he got worse?”
“His injuries? No. He will survive if we get him to the camp in time. No, it is what he says. About the attack.”
“Attack?” Fabrizio wasn’t sure his friend had used the right word.
“He says he fell because something was chasing him, that night in the snow. He had wandered away from his companions for some air, and caught sight of something strange in the distance. Lights, flashing on and off, high up on one of the more remote peaks.”
“Did he say which one?” Fabrizio knew there were still plenty of parts of the Himalayas that remained unconquered. But perhaps some other team was even now attempting the ascent of an as-yet unclimbed mountain.
“Mount Nirvana.” Rikichi replied, his voice flat. That particular peak was something of a local mystery, considered bad luck among the mountaineering community. Those who left to ascend it rarely returned, and those that did often spoke of freak accidents, avalanches and members simply… disappearing in the night.
“But what was chasing him? Did he see it?” In his mind, Fabrizio thought of the legendary yeti, the wen-di-go of the Himalayas, said to haunt these high, lonely valleys.
“It was dark, he said, but whatever it was moved quickly and softly, hunting him across the snowfields until it caught him on the shoulder as you saw. He staggered back to his team’s camp where they did what little they could for him, without medical training.”
“So they hung him over the side and left? Dio mio.”
“He said they were scared Fabi, in fear of their lives. Whatever it was had come for them twice more in the night. With their own wounds, they could not hope to move fast with an injured man, so they put him where they thought he would not be easily reached, and made their own way down at first light and headed for the nearest village. Whatever attacked them, it’s still out there, somewhere in the snows.”
They both shivered, and not from the cold.
The team pressed on, making good time in spite of their wounded burden, Jangbu making jokes in broken English and Lorcas singing his Swiss tunes to raise their spirits. But still they all felt unsettled, as if unseen eyes were upon them, from somewhere up in the rocks. That night, they took the watch in pairs.
In the morning, the sun glinting off the icy peaks above, they continued their descent, negotiating treacherous narrow ledges and crevasse-strewn ice bridges, ever aware that they were not quite alone. Even Tendzen had stopped smiling, and had his knife out as if expecting an attack at any moment. They were all tense, hardly speaking except to point out natural hazards.
They felt it first as a vibration, a low rumbling, and all feared an avalanche. Then it became a noise, grinding, squeaking and clattering. It was Rikichi who spotted it first, lumbering up the whitened slopes to meet them, belching smoke and churning the snow beneath its great treads.
Fabrizio drew his pistol, unsure what to expect. A vehicle, up here? But there was no such rescue machine within five hundred miles. And who would be mad enough to drive up here anyway?
As it rumbled closer, the team could make out a figure inside the snow-machine’s cabin, wrenching the steering controls left and right with seeming abandon. Unseen attackers on the mountain, strange lights on the peaks, and now this? Perhaps altitude sickness had claimed them all.
The vehicle ground to a halt and disgorged its driver, a smallish figure bundled up in a curiously designed jumpsuit. Twirling a large spanner as another might idly flip a coin, the figure stomped through the snow toward them, a pony-tail visible beneath her woolly hat. Fabrizio could only stare in sheer disbelief. A girl..?
“Hello chaps, Charlie Dare. I was in the area and heard you might need a lift. Hop in and I’ll explain what you can do for me in return.”