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A SAVAGE SHANGRI-LA

SURVIVAL: In the remote Karakoram, a crippled Tibetan monk is rescued from a blizzard by Pakistani troops. In Sydney, Australia, almost a year later, a Buddhist scholar is cruelly garrotted in a RITUAL KILLING. These two seemingly unconnected events are strands in a thread which plunge Jack Taylor back into the hostile, frozen world of deadly intrigue.

TRACKED ACROSS THE ROOF OF THE WORLD, Taylor, a female companion, Morgan Griffiths and a Tibetan monk, Dorje Zangpo, uncover the key to a political gambit begun eighteen years earlier. Then, CAPTURED by Chinese troops, Taylor is wounded in an ambush by Tibetan irregulars. Rescued by a band of nomads and pursued by a column of Tibetan Militia, Taylor and Morgan finally reach safety in India only to discover they have been REPORTED DEAD and that an Indian intelligence officer is determined the official record shall stand.

In Store Price: $AU32.95 
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ISBN: 978-1-921574-33-7
Format: Paperback
Number of pages: 375
Genre: Fiction

Cover: Clive Dalkins

 

Author: John Revill
Publisher: Zeus Publications
Date Published: 2009
Language: English

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About the Author 

John Revill was born in Stockport, England. He served with the British Army in the Far East before joining the Colonial Police where he was stationed in Northern Rhodesia (now Zambia). Employed by the Australian Government in Papua New Guinea, he became the first commander of the Special Operations Division, and was later appointed an MBE for his service in this role.

He has travelled widely, both for pleasure and in the course of researching internal security and counter-terrorism measures, and has visited the Indian Sub-continent on a number of occasions. Apart from travel his interests are history and writing.

John is an Australian citizen and has lived in Brisbane, Sydney and Perth. He currently lives with his wife, Barbara, in Mississippi, America.

A Savage Shangri-la is his first published novel.

READ A SAMPLE OF THE BOOK:

Prologue

The Bilafond Glacier – October 1976

 

 

A deep wound ran from an inch above the man’s left eye and continued down to the torn remains of his left ear. The wound was not a neat slice such as might have been caused by a sharp knife, but a ragged, indented furrow, the result of a bullet an inch off its mark. The wound had stopped bleeding and a crust of dark blood was beginning to freeze onto the side of his face.

Suddenly, his clubbed foot caught against a fold of ice and he staggered, fighting to maintain his footing, before sprawling full length into the snow.

He was dying, his mortal body freezing to death little by little. His mind though, was entirely ignorant of this threat and totally indifferent to the chilling reality of the snowbound wasteland seeking to claim his temporal being. If his rational nature had understood the certainty of his impending fate, he might never have struggled up onto his hands and knees, or found the strength to climb to his feet and continue his limping shuffle down the dingy, serrated surface of the glacier.

His eyes, which for years had burned with a fanatical zeal, were now dull and unseeing. But perhaps that was no bad thing, for if he had been conscious of his situation he may never have taken that next, laboured step.

He was desperately rifling through the pages of his memory, striving to recall who he was. The pages though were blank, as pristine and pure as the snow that clung to the shoulders and hem of his worn and faded choga. Occasionally, however, he would come across a tragic picture; a picture in stark black and white; a picture that stuttered into motion for a few seconds as if it was being projected into his head by some antique cinematograph. The vague, half-remembered images flickered behind his eyes: an unarmed mob charging against a tank, their mouths horribly agape with silent screams of rage; an old lama, dying, his chest ripped open by a blast of machine-gun fire and his life’s blood darkly staining the whiteness beneath his body; the headless corpse of a Chinese soldier plunging into a yawning crevasse; and finally, his own numbing Lethe.

He dipped his bare, shaven head, certain those events had some vital import for him and convinced they were in some way connected. Then he shook his head and the images vanished, leaving only the vacant pages once more.

The snow fell heavier but he was oblivious to the increasing fury of the storm as he continued his shambling way, and by incredible chance he did not fall prey to the many pitfalls scarring the surface of the huge river of ice.

 

]

 

Jehangir Malik blinked and then rubbed his eyes with his gloved hands. He had been staring into the swirling snow for half-an-hour and his eyes were beginning to play tricks. He was sure he had seen a shadowy figure moving through the opaque, grey blanket. He shook his head; he must have been mistaken.

Malik was nineteen years old and a soldier in the Pakistan Army. He was a native of Sanghar in the Sind Province and he had lived all of his few years on the western fringes of the Thar Desert. This was his first winter on the front line of the highest battleground in the world and it was beyond anything he had previously experienced, or imagined.

His companion, Yusuf Azam, crouched down in the lee of the emplacement, his arms wrapped around the breech of his rifle and his mitten covered hands tucked up under his armpits.

Malik blinked again. “Haram zadah!” he grunted. There was someone out there. He nudged Azam.

The snow covered, limping apparition was only twenty-five metres away and he appeared to be…

“Khudah!” Malik exclaimed. He saw the figure was dressed like a Buddhist monk and wondered what, in the name of Allah, would a Buddhist monk be doing there. He continued to stare at the hobbling phantom. Where had the man come from? There was nothing out there except for the glacier and the Saltoro Pass and beyond that, on the other side, the Siachen glacier. And that was almost thirty kilometres away.

Malik heard the distinctive metallic scrape of a rifle being cocked. “Hold it,” he growled at Azam. “We’re not under attack. I think he’s a Buddhist of some kind, and he’s alone.” The figure staggered closer. “It looks like he’s hurt. Better fetch the lieutenant.”

Azam shrugged. “Okay. But from the looks of him, I’d be doing him a big favour if I shot him,” he observed sombrely before tramping off in the direction of the platoon commander’s bunker.

Malik continued to stare at the oncoming figure; at the bloody cicatrix, vivid against the man’s ashen face. How could the man have survived? Where had he come from?

And if the man had been able to reply, he might have said, “I have come from the grave.”

Part I

A Ritual Murder – June 1977

 

 

Chapter One

Jack Taylor stood on the doorstep of the narrow terraced house and examined the cracked and peeling varnish. He wrinkled his nose and resisted the impulse to pick at the broken edges of the baked bubbles of the now useless protective coating. He shifted his weight to his left foot, concluded that someone ought to get going with sandpaper and varnish, and rapped on the door a second time.

“I’m coming, I’m coming. Don’t be so impatient,” a voice grumbled from somewhere behind the once proud portal.

Taylor waited patiently, but there were no further sounds from inside. He raised his right hand, preparing to knock for a third time when the door swung inwards and he found himself looking past his closed fist into a pair of mud-coloured eyes. He smiled wanly.

“Yes?” The face displayed no sign of expectancy and the door remained open only a few inches as the button-like eyes regarded him with suspicion.

“Professor Rassmussen?” Taylor enquired, examining the round pink face through the narrow gap and noting the duck’s wings of unruly white hair surrounding a large bald patch. “I’m Taylor.”

“Oh! Ah, yes. You telephoned. I recall now.” The professor pulled the door open with one hand and with the other produced from his trouser pocket a wristwatch with only half a strap. He peered at the face of the watch. “Goodness, is that the time already? I must have been preoccupied.” He opened the door wider and stepped to one side.

Taylor tightened his grip on the leather satchel in his left hand and stepped across the threshold.

The professor closed the door and led Taylor through a short, cramped vestibule. “My study is at the rear,” he threw over his shoulder.

Taylor walked past a shadowed front room-cum-parlour, along another short passage, past a flight of stairs that disappeared up to the right, and into a back room. He stopped in the doorway and smothered a laugh.

The study was Cimmerian, chilly and cluttered. There were books and papers scattered on every flat surface, including the floor: books open; books closed; books piled on books. Furthermore, the bookcases that lined three walls from floor to ceiling were overflowing, the contents shelved in no apparent order. This is absurd, Taylor thought, the archetypal absent-minded academic. It was almost too good to be real and he began to wonder if he had come to the right man, and if he would get any sort of realistic answer to his enquiry? The study was the exact opposite of his ordered layout. Maybe a military background had its benefits after all.

“Please, take a seat, Mr Taylor,” the professor said, indicating an ancient overstuffed armchair of uncertain colour to the right of a desk that was pushed up against the wall below a bay window.

The professor – Taylor found it difficult to think of him in any other terms – crossed, or more correctly, navigated his way to a second armchair. He removed a stack of files from the seat and plumped them onto the already overcrowded desk. Then he must have pressed a hidden switch because the centre of the room was abruptly bathed in a bright, white light from an angled wall lamp to the left of the bay window.

“You must forgive the farrago, Mr Taylor,” Rassmussen apologised, turning his back on the desk. “I’m currently researching a project, and I like to have my sources close to hand.”

“Provided you can find them,” Taylor muttered under his breath and lowered himself gingerly into the armchair. It was just as well. The rigid end of what was obviously a broken spring jabbed into his right buttock. He eased himself to the left, stopping short of feeling around underneath his bottom. “No Mister, Taylor will do fine,” he said aloud.

The professor manoeuvred a second, and comparatively new, armchair until it was about a metre away and facing Taylor. He sat down and Taylor wondered briefly if he was aware of the dagger-like protuberance in the chair he had invited his guest to occupy. Probably not, and maybe there was many an offended student too anxious to protest. He smiled thinly.

“Despite the fact I’m a laggard on my undertaking, it’s pleasant to be able to take a break.” The professor lowered one eyelid in a conspiratorial manner. “I asked you to meet me here, at my home, Taylor, as I wish to keep our meeting discrete from the academic side of my labours.” He smiled.

Taylor held the professor’s gaze, thinking that somehow the Scandinavian name and fair complexion failed to match mud- coloured eyes. The eyes should be blue.

“Now,” the professor went on, “you mentioned on the telephone you have come by a prayer wheel and that you found some paper inside the cylinder. That’s not uncommon you realise, and the writing would have to be some sort of mantra, or prayer.” He paused and ran the pink tip of his tongue over his lips. “So, do you believe there is any special significance attached to this paper which brings you to consult me?” The pale eyebrows lifted fractionally.

Taylor didn’t respond directly. He had contrived a circumstance hoping to produce a reaction. He had placed one of the six papers he’d taken from a prayer wheel he’d dug out of a crevasse in Tibet, and slipped it into a prayer wheel he’d picked up in Leh. He had erased his pencil notation and was going to hand it to Rassmussen as if he had found it just so. All the same, he couldn’t appear too disinterested; otherwise why would he be here in the first place? He leaned forward.

“I’m researching a novel,” he started earnestly, “in which prayer wheels play a critical role in the plot. I came across the paper inside a prayer wheel I’d acquired as part of my research and I thought the idea of a translation might lend an added dimension to the story.”

“Another researcher. Is your place as messy as this?” The professor waved his right arm expansively and regarded Taylor shrewdly for a moment before answering his own question. “I’ll wager it’s not. You look like an organised person to me.” His eyes flicked to the satchel that Taylor had placed on the floor to one side of the armchair. “You’ve brought the prayer wheel with you?”

Taylor nodded and pulled the satchel around until it was between his feet. He opened it, reached inside, and produced the prayer wheel, which he’d wrapped in a strip of green baize. He hesitated momentarily and then handed it to the very attentive man sitting across from him. He had handled the prayer wheel with a certain amount of reverence as if it really had some possible significance. After all, how many persons knew what the original had looked like: himself; a Pakistani Army officer – possibly; and the man or men who had originally packaged it? Probably no more than say three or four. He watched the professor intently, still undecided if he was doing the right thing or if he had approached the right man.

He had debated with himself whether he should seek a translation of the paper from one of the better known Buddhist organisations or look within the halls of academia. He had chosen the latter because he had always found that, despite their protestations of unbiased benevolence, most of the high profile associations had their own agenda, and many would do, and say, anything, even commit the basest hypocrisy in the name of their faith. He needed the most objective appraisal possible. He had been lucky in that the University of New South Wales had been able to put him in touch with a man who had a special knowledge in the field, a man who had recently returned from a field trip with the Tibetan community in Sikkim –Professor Rassmussen.

The professor appeared to be a man of contradictions. His round, almost cherubic features had led Taylor to expect a frame of similar proportions – short and round. Not so. Rassmussen was tall and gaunt, only an inch or so under Taylor’s six foot three inches. The unruly hair and the general disorder of the room were also in total contrast to the neatness of the academic’s dress: a pale tan tattersall shirt open at the collar, tan gabardine slacks with a knife-edge crease, and highly polished dark brown wing-tips. By comparison, Taylor’s T-shirt, leather jacket, jeans and black and tan loafers made him feel as if he’d fronted up for a black-tie event dressed in shorts. Yet, he had a sense the contradictions didn’t all fit together, as they should. It was as if Rassmussen was playing a role but slipping up on a number of essential details of the part he had chosen.

Rassmussen grunted once and looked up, and Taylor found himself under intense scrutiny from eyes that had lost their humorous light and which now resembled small, fire-darkened stones…the professor had removed the paper from the cylinder.

Taylor stared back at Rassmussen, endeavoring to remain calm and keep his gaze non-committal. But unseen, the adrenalin had started to rush.

“Where in the blazes did you obtain this?” Rassmussen pointed the cylinder end of the prayer wheel at Taylor and then, before Taylor could think about answering, fired off a second question. “Do you realise what you might have here?”

Despite being prepared, the vehemence of the questions startled Taylor. Indeed, they were not so much questions as demands, and couched in the bluntest of manners. He decided to reply in kind.

“Professor, I came here to ask you the questions and, hopefully, to get some answers. If you’re more interested in putting me through some kind of third degree, I can go elsewhere.” He started to lever himself up out of the armchair.

Hastily, Rassmussen held up a hand. “Please Mr Taylor, wait. Forgive my tone.” With an obvious effort the professor’s lips curled into a nominal resemblance of a smile. “I was surprised, no, shocked would be more appropriate, at the possibility of what you may have found.”

“And if I knew the answer to your second question, there would be no reason for me to be here now. Does it really matter where I got it from?” Taylor probed.

Rassmussen pursed his lips. “I suppose not,” he murmured, shaking his head.

But Taylor was certain it mattered a great deal. What might Rassmussen’s reaction be if he knew there were a total of twelve pieces of paper? And, as he had belatedly figured out only the day before – and which had led him to throw caution to the winds and seek a translation – there were possibly even more prayer wheels, and hence more papers still buried in the crevasse. He sank back into the armchair, careful to avoid the broken spring.

Rassmussen went on, “It’s just that in 1959, shortly after the Dalai Lama fled Lhasa, this particular piece of paper, together with several others, disappeared from the Potala Palace. And to put it bluntly, Taylor, I can’t imagine you having sneaked into the winter palace to purloin some of its more sought after treasures – not that there weren’t those who might have wished to do so. Wait...oh my goodness, yes. This may sound a trifle over dramatic – a bit Hollywood if you like – but have you ever heard of the lost caravan?”

This time, Taylor was prepared. He frowned. “What lost caravan is that?” he enquired without inflection.

“Surely, if you’ve visited Tibet, you must have come across the legend.”

“I’ve never been to Tibet,” Taylor stated carefully. “Visitors are not exactly welcome.” He was still not absolutely sure whether the crevasse had actually been in Ladakh, or in fact, just across the border in Tibet. But if his calculations at the time had been correct, it was almost certainly Tibet. He wasn’t about to admit it to the professor, however.

Rassmussen leaned over the side of the armchair and shuffled his fingers through a pile of loose papers lying on the floor, finally coming up with a large magnifying glass. “See what I mean, everything to hand.” He grinned in a belated attempt to restore the earlier mood.

A stillness settled over the room as Rassmussen examined the strip of rice paper, making occasional brief notes on a pad – also retrieved from the floor – with a gold Cross propelling pencil.

Taylor had in fact brought all the papers with him, including a set of water damaged ones, damaged when the protective oilskin containing the prayer wheel had been sliced open by a bullet seventeen years before. It had been his intention to request a translation of each of them. Now, he wasn’t quite so sure if that was a good idea. He still needed a translation but, at the same time, he was unwilling to give Rassmussen even the slightest inkling of the extent of his knowledge.

He glanced around the study again, but there wasn’t much more to see than he had noted on his initial, swift inspection. A substantial collection of Buddhist icons brought to mind the similar representations crowding the Chief Abbot’s small, dimly lit cell at Ringdom Gompa. On the nearside of the professor’s desk was a large framed photograph. Surreptitiously, he leaned on the arm of the chair to get a closer look. The photo, in colour, showed Rassmussen standing next to a smiling Dalai Lama and surrounded by a group of monks dressed in the crimson robes and padded cowls of monk proctors. The setting, obviously, was in front of the omnipresent Potala Palace. Indeed, Taylor reflected sardonically, what photo of Lhasa was complete unless it showed the Potala? Still, who could resist having their picture taken against such a magnificent backdrop? He frowned. Only...something was wrong with this photo, something was out of sync. He squinted and examined the detail. There was an inconsistency that he was unable to put his finger on, which, for someone who prided himself on his memory for detail, really pissed him off.

“Goodness God,” Rassmussen exclaimed and, for the first time, Taylor noticed the trace of an accent in the professor’s voice. “First the prayer wheel and...and now this.”

Taylor looked away from the photograph, irritated that he couldn’t spot what was wrong with it. Rassmussen had dropped the magnifying glass into his lap and he was staring at the ceiling, his eyes half-closed. After a minute or so, the silence started to become oppressive. It was as if he could sense a build-up of pressure behind Rassmussen’s outwardly composed posture. Finally, the tension became so positively tangible that he decided to break it.

“Professor, the photo on your desk? Professor!”

Rassmussen’s head dropped forward. “Yes?”

“The photo on your desk. That is the Dalai Lama, isn’t it?”

“The Rinpoche. Of course.”

“When was it...?” Taylor had only time to utter the three words before Rassmussen jerked bolt upright.

“Great Scot, Taylor!” he exclaimed. “How can you sit there so calmly? Whether you realise it or not, you may hold the key to a conundrum that has puzzled countless people for many years. You recall my mention of the lost caravan?” Taylor nodded, and Rassmussen went on. “That legendary caravan was by all accounts carrying some of the Potala’s most valuable treasures…only, after leaving Lhasa, it was never seen again. Allegedly, the entire caravan – men, beasts, and cargo – vanished without a trace. Trouble is, in the haste and confusion of that time no written record was kept of which articles were removed from the palace. Is there any truth in the tale, or is it purely apocryphal?” Rassmussen shrugged and answered the question directly. “My own view is that the caravan did in truth exist, and that the facts surrounding its fate are held, even today, a closely guarded secret.”

And having heard the story firsthand from the only survivor – the now deceased monk, Dorje Zangpo – Taylor concluded he probably knew more than anyone else alive about what had transpired. Except, that somewhere, there was another who knew the full magnitude of at least a part of that cargo: papers that had been concealed in some oilskin wrapped prayer wheels before being secreted away in an ordinary set of saddlebags. Again, he thought about his novel and of putting in the public domain information that was a closely guarded secret. He had better watch his tongue, and his temper, lest he give something away.

Taylor suddenly realised that Rassmussen had not stopped talking.

“...visit here this evening and what you have told me only tends to confirm my belief. And now there is this.” He held up the paper, one corner trapped between forefinger and thumb like someone else’s grubby handkerchief. “You really have no idea what it might be?” He raised an interrogatory eyebrow, but his dark, pebbly eyes were sharp and alert.

“Obviously not,” Taylor responded dryly. “Otherwise I wouldn’t be sitting here.” He curbed his irritation. While he might not have obtained his translation yet, Rassmussen’s questions revealed what Taylor had long suspected; there was some particular and dangerous significance attached to the papers.

“I must apologise for my probing,” Rassmussen offered, as if reading Taylor’s mind. “But you can’t begin to imagine my astonishment in suddenly finding myself in possession of something that has been at the core of a long, unsolved mystery. You may not be aware, Taylor, but in 1933, shortly before his death, Thupten Gyatso, the thirteenth Gyalwa Rinpoche, made a series of predictions relating to the future of his country and warning his people to prepare themselves against the evil—”

“Yes, yes,” Taylor broke in, “and every book ever written about the man has been at great pains to describe them in exhausting detail.”

Rassmussen looked faintly annoyed. “Of course, a piece of first-rate fortune telling always makes an excellent read, particularly if it’s accurate.” He paused, took a deep breath, and plunged on. “What is less well known, however, is the fact he also made a number of forecasts relative to events outside Tibet. At the time though, few in Tibet were concerned with what might occur in the world at large, and those predictions were put to one side. It wasn’t until the Chinese invasion in 1950 that anyone bothered to subject them to any kind of close scrutiny. One of the predictions – the one foretelling Indian independence, partition, and the subsequent savagery – had proved uncannily accurate.”

“But that’s old hat now,” Taylor put in skeptically.

“And that’s probably why it’s the only one that’s ever been referred to,” Rassmussen responded. “The others are supposed to cover a time frame well into the next millennium, and it was for that reason they were kept under strict security. Then, in 1959  – about the same time our legendary caravan vanished – Thupten Gyatso’s predictions also disappeared, or were lost, or so the story goes. Twelve predictions in all, each penned on a separate piece of paper and, if my data is correct,” he paused and flicked the strip of paper he had taken from the prayer wheel, “similar to this paper here.”

“What about the other eleven then?” Taylor raised his eyebrows. “I find it difficult to credit only this one has come to light so far.”

“That’s fact, Mr Taylor. You’ll just have to take my word for it.” The professor paused and regarded Taylor curiously. “And what is particularly intriguing is that you seem to have come up with one of the other eleven, penned, if I’m not mistaken, in Thupten Gyatso’s own hand, one of the originals, one of those that went missing…” Rassmussen allowed the final word to hang in the air.

All at once, the papers in Taylor’s inside pocket seemed to take on a weight and substance far beyond their nature and it required a conscious effort not to give way to instinct and pat the outside of the pocket. Then he snorted scornfully. “So, what’s new? A fellow by the name of Nostradamus also made some predictions, long before the thirteenth Dalai Lama appeared on the scene. And his forecasts have been turned into curiosities to be regurgitated on a regular basis, particularly by the TV people. I can’t see any value in tho...that piece of paper, except as yet another historical oddity. Thank you anyway, Professor Rassmussen.”

The meeting seemed to be going nowhere. Perhaps, if he forced the issue: he got to his feet and held out his hand for the paper.

Rassmussen remained seated, cocked his head, and regarded Taylor rather like a bird might – a vulture perhaps, Taylor thought.

“You don’t comprehend, Taylor, do you? Sit down again and let me explain.”

Reluctantly, Taylor lowered himself back into the armchair, but this time he remained seated on the edge.

“Just imagine, if you will,” Rassmussen began earnestly, “you are in business – and I’m not talking corner store stuff here, more like multi-national – what an advantage it would be to have a foreknowledge of certain consequential events. Investment decisions might be taken with more calculation than risk and, over a period of time, one might make a healthy profit. Money is power, Taylor, money is power. But the Buddhist religion does not necessarily seek in that direction, which is why the predictions were kept under lock and key.”

Taylor couldn’t help himself. “Bollocks!” he blurted. “I can’t go with that. I’ll grant you wealth is power, yes. And I don’t believe it was ever any different in Tibet, Buddhist or not. Nonetheless, I can’t picture the chief executive of a large corporation indulging in witchcraft to increase profits.”

“Oh,” Rassmussen broke in, with a self-satisfied smirk, “you’d be surprised the number of persons in high places, both in business and politics, who employ a resident soothsayer. Maybe they no longer examine the entrails of chickens, I’ll grant you that, but things haven’t altered much since the days of Julius Caesar. It was a practice then and still is. Superstition remains very much ad rem at all levels of society. Which brings me back to my unanswered question, how did the prayer wheel come into your possession? This piece of paper and the others like it – wherever they might be – are important religious and historical treasures. They were never intended for public disclosure, and you could say they are in fact the property of the current Gyalwa Rinpoche.” Rassmussen paused, took a breath, and continued in a seemingly insouciant manner. “Let me put it another way, Taylor. The place where you obtained the prayer wheel...you didn’t, for instance, notice any others, similar to this one?” Again he pointed the prayer wheel at Taylor. “Or anything else which may have looked interesting?”

Ah, the sixty-four thousand-dollar question, Taylor thought, delaying his response by rubbing the bridge of his nose between thumb and forefinger. Not including the water damaged ones; he had six sheets of paper, all similar – half of Thupten Gyatso’s predictions? And the water damaged ones, were they the remaining six? If that was the case, what the hell was in that packet he believed was still down the crevasse, nothing, or something altogether different and equally as important or…perhaps even more important? But the possible existence of further packets was something he intended to keep to himself for the time being.

“No,” he answered, lowering his arm back onto the armrest. “I picked it up at a place in Leh, and nothing else caught my eye. But there again, I wasn’t looking. Come to think of it I can’t even recall where the place was. Why, should there be more?”

“Nooo. Just a thought. If you found one thing there, there might have been others.”

And all at once Taylor had no inclination to tell the professor any more, not one damned thing. “And the paper in my prayer wheel, what does that predict?” he enquired.

Rassmussen laughed, and the twinkle returned to his eyes. “Oh Taylor, it’s really not that simple. The Sanskrit is arcane and transcribed as a riddle. It will take time and a study of the nuances to place it in a particular context.” He cocked his head. “You wouldn’t want to leave it with me, would you?” Taylor shook his head and Rassmussen sighed. “No, I thought not. But if I can make a quick copy of the script…?” Taylor nodded. “And the prayer wheel, may I have the loan of it for a little time?”

Taylor nodded again. Why not? He could call by and collect it at some later date. The prayer wheel had no true significance, albeit he was the only one who knew that. Now, it really was time he was on his way. He rose to his feet yet again and at the same time Rassmussen completed his copying of the paper and heaved his lanky frame up out of the chair.

“Thank you for allowing me some of your valuable time, professor,” Taylor said with a hint of dryness, accepting the return of the still untranslated paper, which he placed carefully in his wallet. “And I might as well leave the satchel with you. Save me carrying it away and then having to bring it back again.” He dropped the bag onto the vacated chair.

“I’ll see you out,” Rassmussen said.

Taylor nodded and took a last, swift look around the study. As his gaze swept across the desk, his eyes paused momentarily on the photograph he’d examined earlier. The nagging sense that something was wrong with it remained, but he was still at a loss to pick up on it. He frowned in exasperation and turned to the door. It was inconsistencies such as that which he was usually able to seize upon straight away.

Rassmussen was waiting by the entrance to the study. He raised his eyebrows. “Is everything alright, Taylor?”

“What? Oh yes, just an errant thought.” He had raised the question of the photo earlier and had received no satisfactory answer, so he was not prepared to press the issue at this late stage.

Rassmussen continued towards the front door. Then, with one hand on the latch, he stopped, and with the other hand grasped Taylor’s right elbow. “I know I’ve asked you once already,” he said urgently, looking directly into Taylor’s eyes. “But, are you positive you found nothing else in your prayer wheel or that you saw nothing further in that place where you purchased it?”

Taylor moved his arm out of the professor’s grip. “If there had been, clearly I would have brought it with me,” he replied, allowing a little histrionic impatience into his voice.

Rassmussen continued to hold Taylor’s eyes for a few seconds longer, then he opened the door and moved to one side.

Taylor stepped out into the night.

The rain that had threatened earlier had arrived, cutting through the phosphorescence from the street lamps like copious darts of quicksilver. Taylor pulled his leather jacket close and strode quickly across the pavement, conscious of Rasmussen’s eyes boring into his back. But by the time he had climbed into his car and glanced around, the door was closed, and all he could see was the cracked and peeling façade.

He switched on the engine, dropped his seat back a couple of notches and relaxed, waiting for the heater to warm the interior of the car and clear the condensation from the windscreen. The rain drummed on the roof and ran down the glass, adding to his sense of isolation and giving him the feeling he was trapped inside an aquarium, but with all the water on the outside.

He grunted. Better get his thoughts in order before he started. The rain could very well be snow by the time he reached Katoomba and he didn’t need any distractions, not in this weather. The visit with Rassmussen had created more questions than it had answered and he was left with a feeling of complete dissatisfaction. He had failed in his major aim – to obtain a translation. Was a translation truly as involved as Rassmussen had maintained? Bloody prophecies – even the so-called accurate ones – were all very well, but he had always regarded such fortune telling with a healthy dose of skepticism. He had been convinced the papers contained far more important information than a few flimsy auguries, possibly even something of a political nature. But his instincts continued to tell him the papers, prophecies or not, were extremely important to someone, or else why would people be prepared to kill to get their hands on them.

And what about that oilskin packet still buried in the ice, the one resting on the fur hat of a decapitated Chinese soldier? Had the most important item…or items, somehow been spilled from the bullet damaged saddlebags. He shook his head as if bothered by a persistent fly, his mind not yet set on what he should do about that situation.

Time was getting on and he still had a good two-hour drive in front of him – maybe more in this weather. He raised the seat, flicked on the headlights, pulled the gearshift into drive and eased out into the traffic, one more ubiquitous white Ford Falcon in a stream of vehicles which seemed to be just as numerous no matter what the time of day.

He was approaching the outskirts of Penrith at the foot of the Blue Mountains before he realised it had been almost twenty-four hours since he had thought about the avalanche and Gabrielle’s unmarked grave high in the Karakoram.

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