The Golden Apple of Shangri-La

 

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Contents

Title Page

Copyright Notice

Begin Reading

Copyright

 

Men lie, considered Rowena Fanshawe. Men always lie. Whether deliberately or not, whether for personal gain or for the best of intentions, whether malicious or misguided, sooner or later men lie.

Even heroes.

Rowena curled as deep into her shearling jacket as she was able, drawing her jodhpur-clad knees up to her chest and blowing into her hands. The inside of the windshield of the
Skylady
was already coated with a thin web of ice. She had severe doubts about whether the dirigible would even get airborne again. Night had fallen and paper lanterns gave dull illumination to the stone streets of Tashi Lhunpo. Somewhere out there, in the vast monastery reputedly founded by the first Dalai Lama, where the huge statue of the golden Buddha presided over all, the Hero of the Empire conducted his business. Half an hour, he had said, before he came for her and brought her to the warmth, and some food.

That had been three hours ago.

They would no doubt be reading some version or other of the meeting in a future issue of the penny blood
World Marvels & Wonders
, back in the streets of London where greenery overflowed the steppes of the ziggurats in the Mayan style that had so entranced the capital recently, or in the shadow of the Lady of Liberty flood barrier that marked the triumph over the American rebels in 1775. Beneath the gothic spires of New York and across British America they'd be devouring the tale, in the hot Indian nights of the Raj territories they'd read as punka wallahs fanned the displaced Englishmen, even in the penal colonies of Australia they'd fight to the death for the latest adventure. Over half the known world, they couldn't get enough of the feats of Captain Lucian Trigger, Hero of the Empire.

And each story, as always, would be prefaced with:

“This adventure, as always, is utterly true, and faithfully retold by my good friend, Doctor John Reed” — Captain Lucian Trigger

Another lie. The biggest lie of them all. For it was Doctor John Reed who crept the alleys in the shadowed corners of the world, who flew above the clouds to places with forgotten names, whose name was whispered in places that didn't exist, or shouldn't. And it was Captain Lucian Trigger, frail and aged, who sat at home in Mayfair, awaiting his lover's return with pen poised at inkwell, ready to romanticise the adventures for a sensation-hungry public.

Rowena rubbed her hands together. How long was Reed going to be in there? She should have known things would not be straightforward when he informed her that his meeting in Lhasa with the Cossack officer and Russian spy Nicolas Notovitch had been satisfactorily concluded … but dash it, if it hadn't thrown up more surprises. As the mere pilot, engaged and handsomely paid, it had been Rowena's job simply to take Reed to Tibet and return him to London safely. She didn't know the reason for the assignation, nor did she care to. But, of course, her passenger being who he was, an opportunity for what he called "a small diversion" soon presented itself. Reed had found her in the local tavern, excitedly saying they must make haste for Tashi Lhunpo.

"Notovitch has seen two people known to both of us pass this way," he'd said. "Professor Reginald Halifax and … Pieter Von Karloff!"

Rowena had agreed that the pair were strange bedfellows, especially in this Godforsaken corner of the world. Halifax was a noted archaeological professor who had helped out Reed on previous occasions, and was a man who, he asserted, he could call friend. Pieter Von Karloff had never boasted—and would never deserve—the friendship of decent, honest men, declared Reed. A Prussian by birth he had no loyalty to any flag, save that which paid him the most. After the meeting with Notovich, Reed mused: “Von Karloff is a brilliant archaeologist, but one driven by greed and the lure of fortune. I cannot believe that Halifax has thrown his lot in with him. Rowena, do you suppose a short side-trip to Tashi Lhunpo might be in order…?”

Which was how Rowena found herself to be freezing in the cockpit of the
Skylady
while Dr John Reed had disappeared into the swirling blizzard to seek answers in the ramshackle huts and houses that clustered around the imposing shape of the lamasery. How much longer was he going to be in there? And what plans had he made for the rest of the night? Because with the best will in the world, the
Skylady
was going nowhere until morning, when Rowena could defrost the propellers and loosen up the workings of the gear-driven engine. Eventually she made out a shape in the gloom, waving at her frantically from the front of a stone-built house in the lee of the monastery. Reed, at last. Gathering her satchel—Rowena carried few luxuries on her travels, but liked to keep a pistol at hand—she ventured out into the raging snow storm.

*   *   *

As John Reed ushered her quickly into the shelter of the small, flat-roofed house, Rowena glanced at the hooded eyes of the shaven-headed monks who stood silently in the small shelter afforded by the ornate facade held up on four vast red columns that announced the grandeur of the lamasery. Inside the small dwelling, among the dancing shadows cast by a gratifyingly hot fire in the hearth, sat a stocky Tibetan with a long, thin beard, wrapped in animal furs and leather. He inclined his head at her and puffed on the long stem of a clay pipe.

“This is Jamyang,” said Reed, bidding her sit alongside the fire on a rickety stool. “He's something of a holy man, as far as I can gather.”

Rowena caught the man openly staring at her as she shrugged off the shearling jacket, her snow-wet white shirt clinging to her frame. She pulled off her leather flying hat, running a hand through her cropped auburn hair and smiled. “I suppose you don't get too many visitors up here.”

“Not many like you,” said Jamyang in gruff but clear English. “Not many young women flying airships. Most young women like you in Victoria's England attending parties and strolling through parks, hmm?”

“I'm not most young women in Victoria's England,” she said. And if there were times when Rowena Fanshawe, proprietor and sole employee of Fanshawe Aeronautical Endeavours, did sometimes crave a more normal life, those feelings were soon chased away by the sudden shiver she was getting now at the base of her spine, the one that signaled the start of adventure.

“Jamyang has stew on the go,” said Reed, shrugging off his own fur layers. His hair was more gray than brown now, his face lined and beaten from the extremes of weather his adventures carried him to. John Reed was handsome and striking, thought Rowena, yet managed to crisscross borders and inveigle his way into the most unlikely places at will. Perfect for his job. Reed sniffed at the aromas coming from the cooking pot. “Yak, I'm afraid, like everything else around here, including the candles, the rug, and the bed-clothes. Did I mention Jamyang has extended his hospitality and we'll be sleeping here tonight before moving on in the morning?”

“Back to London?” said Rowena, arching an eyebrow.

“Well, of course, eventually…” said Reed.

“Give you an inch and you take a fucking mile,” said Rowena.

Jamyang chuckled. “No, not many like you, Miss Fanshawe.” He pointed his pipe at Reed. “Plenty like him, though. And recently; a party several days ago passed through here, looking for—”

“Hold, Jamyang!” commanded Reed. “A dramatic pause, please! Rowena, our friend told me earlier that the blasted Prussian Von Karloff was indeed here, or at least a party matching his description, and that of Professor Halifax, too. Have you ever met Von Karloff? Of course, you have, what am I thinking! You'll recall the thugs and vagabonds he surrounds himself with: hard and often cruel men, well-suited for the hunt which Von Karloff devoted his life to—he must win at all costs, with no quarter given to his enemies and rivals.”

Rowena smiled mildly. “As Jamyang said, people like you.”

Reed cast a dark look at her. “You know yourself, Rowena, it is a strange and mysterious life we lead, on the fringes of society and more in the shadows than the sunlight. If my methods have, on occasion, proved … extreme, or outré, then they have been employed only in the furtherance of the British Empire!”

“Of course,” said Rowena, taking a wooden spoonful of stew from the bowl Jamyang had handed her.

“Anyway, Von Karloff and his gang had holed up in the local tavern. The locals at first thought they'd come to loot the place—there's a bloody monstrous Buddha in the temple, Rowena, all bedecked with gold leaf. I'll show you in the morning—but it soon transpired they had an even more outrageous mission in mind.”

Rowena turned to Jamyang. “What was Von Karloff's business here?”

“He searches for Shangri-La,” said Jamyang. “I am afraid he might find it.”

Rowena looked blankly at the Tibetan, then at Reed. “And what is Shangri-La?”

“That's what
I
asked,” nodded Reed. “Tell her what you told me, Jamyang.”

Jamyang told Rowena a tale, painting a perfect picture with words, of a lush valley that existed beyond the mountains in defiance of the howling Himalayan winds and sub-zero temperatures. Shangri-La was a holy place where time flowed differently—the inhabitants had lived for many generations of mortal folk. Von Karloff, he said, was hoping to steal the secrets of Shangri-La's eternal life.

“He must be stopped, Rowena,” said Reed.

“I was afraid you were going to say that.”

Jamyang nodded. “If it is your desire to stop this Prussian, I can help you. Your Von Karloff has commandeered a team of sherpa to take him over the mountains. I know of a quicker way, but it will still be dangerous and treacherous.”

“It would be,” nodded Rowena.

“Well?” said Reed.

“You will go, whatever I do, won't you? And I'd have to go back to Whitehall and tell them that I'd let you go off on some harebrained scheme on your own?” She could just imagine what Mr. Walsingham, the shadowy head of the British secret service, would say to that. “I don't suppose I have much choice.”

“There may be something that persuades you even more than my employer's ire. Jamyang, tell Rowena about those who live in this fabled Shangri-La.”

The Tibetan shrugged. “They are all women.”

“All of them?”

Reed nodded. “And you know Von Karloff's thugs. Imagine what they would do to this community of helpless females…”

Rowena yawned and stretched, suddenly dozy in the heat of the fire. “You mentioned a place to lie? I shall sleep on it, and you'll have my answer in the morning.”

The year before, Rowena had been approached by the National Union of Women's Suffrage Societies to give a talk at one of their meetings. She was considered something of a role model for young women. But while she sympathized, Rowena did not think that printing leaflets and writing to Members of Parliament would improve the lot of women, nor would preaching to the converted in a draughty church hall in Southwark.

Riding to the rescue of a community of women in a remote corner of the Himalayas, though? As Rowena pulled the pungent yak-hair blankets up to her chin on the hard bed in the tiny room in Jamyang's home, she reflected that John Reed possibly knew her better than she knew herself.

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