Jin opened the bolt of the gun, saw the hole where the magazine should have been then cursed again, in the tone of a crestfallen child. "A piece of junk, like everything else they give me," he groused. The gun, like his uniform and nearly everything else used by his small office in Shogo town, was a hand-me-down from the Public Security Bureau.
"Illegal transportation of a corpse might work," Shan suggested. "Even unlicensed disposal of the dead."
The constable brightened. "I arrest you for illegal transport of a corpse."
"But not this day," Shan continued in a fatigued voice. The mule nudged him, as if reminding him of their task. "Not this corpse."
Jin sighed, lowering the rifle. "Why not?"
Shan pulled a bottle of water from one of the packs, poured some into his cupped hand for the mule to drink. "Because this sherpa is from Nepal. Take us in and youll have to call Public Security, who will begin asking how a foreigner got across the border in your district without papers. A dead foreigner. Then theres a whole other set of paperwork for international shipment of bodies. Youll spend a week filling out papers, and you wont have me to help if I am behind bars."
"Then," Shan said, "youll spend the rest of the season dealing with all those who complain about how bad it is for business to suddenly have policemen flooding the Westerners climbing camps."
The constable worked his tongue in his cheek. "Better than chasing this damned nag up and down the mountains."
The mule gave Shan another impatient nudge. It seemed to be remembering, as Shan did, that they still had miles to go before turning the body over to villagers from Tumkot, where Tenzins kin waited for his body. "Then you wont do it," Shan said with a tinge of shame, "because if you hold me up any longer I will not return to work on time and in this county the man I work for is the senior Tibetan member of the Party."
The constable sagged. He extracted a crumpled pack of cigarettes, lit one as he settled onto a flat rock then studied Shan with a suspicious air. "Theres a name for people like you on the other side of the ranges," he observed as he exhaled a column of smoke. "Untouchables. Disposers of the dead and other garbage. The lowest caste of a low society. Youre Chinese. Youre educated. Why do you let them do this to you?"
"I prefer to think of it as a sacred trust." Shan extracted two apples from a pouch on the mules harness, offered one to the horse, the other to his mule. As he did so he studied the equipment hanging from Jins saddle, noting for the first time the heavy ammunition belt tied around rain gear at the back of the saddle, beside the portable radio Jin usually left switched off in the field. "What particular war did you come up here to fight, Constable?"
Jin frowned. "I left headquarters to check out a report of stolen climbing equipment. Ropes and harnesses taken from the base camp two days ago."
"I was stopped by a Public Security lieutenant with a truckload of troops. A security alert has been declared, he announced.
Minister Wu, head of tourism, is traveling up the road to the base camp today. So the lieutenant changed my orders."
"They didnt give you all that ammunition because of tourists."
Jin inhaled deeply on his cigarette, studying Shan, no doubt weighing how much he needed Shan to navigate the bureaucracy. He shrugged. "Since the road was going to be closed they decided to do a fidelity raid, at Sarma gompa, one of the little monasteries up the valley. Just one bus, with an escort of knobs," he explained, using the common slang for soldiers of the Public Security Bureau.
Shan fought a shudder. After destroying nearly every monastery in the region decades earlier, Beijing had allowed a few of the surviving gompas to operate under the close supervision of the Bureau of Religious Affairs. One of the many tools that Religious Affairs used to keep the Tibetan monks closely leashed was forcing them to sign loyalty oaths to Beijing. Individual monks who refused lost their robes. But when entire groups refused to sign, it was considered an act of organized resistance to the government. They would be given one final chance to sign, then rounded up for imprisonment in Tibets gulag. Shan closed his eyes a moment, fighting a flood of wrenching memories from his own years of imprisonment in one of those camps.
Excerpted from The Lord of Death by Eliot Pattison Copyright © 2009 by Eliot Pattison. Excerpted by permission of Soho Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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