Base Camp, Mount Everest
They’d traveled the globe with very different intentions but tonight they shared an agenda. He’d joined the Mile High Club years ago and had renewed his membership on the flight here from Heathrow. Though his sights were set on conquering the tallest mountain on the planet, his focus, in the moment, was on this beauty. “You’ve got the face of an angel,” he told her.
She grinned, intrigued, telling him, “And you a devilish one.”
The beer and Jäeger at the party in the mess tent had washed away the numbing elevation headaches of 18,000 feet above sea level and helped ward off the cold as they headed to the intimacy of his faded yellow tent. After removing their gloves, bulky jackets, thin layers of hi-tech shirts and thermal underwear, he crawled into his sleeping bag and held it open inviting her to follow.
“Come on, luv, it’ll be much warmer in here once we get moving,” he said with that grin but quickly realized her focus had shifted from sex to something much different.
“This would be the most magnificent place in the world if it weren’t for the debris left from here to the summit,” she said with a subtle French accent.
“Come on,” he asked again.
She had zipped the tent’s entry closed but now slid her jacket back on and crawled over to it, dropping the zipper just enough to look toward the peaks that stood high into the night sky. The moon lit them beautifully as the peaks pointed to the blanket of stars above. She sat back onto her legs, zipped the opening closed again, and shook her head.
“You climbers just have to stop crapping on her,” she whispered and at his request said it again loudly as she turned toward him. They had already touched on this topic earlier in the evening when they first met while climbers who had made it to the summit celebrated among those who were preparing for the climb and those who were drowning their sorrows in beer and whiskey, licking their wounds after failing to make it to the top.
“I told you before, all the sherpas will clean this up before they leave, luv,” he said. “They always do.”
She looked at him and her attention began to shift back to what they’d been headed for when they left the gathering. It was getting late. The winds had died down as quickly as they had come. The sun would be rising soon and the sherpas would be unzipping the entry flap to deliver hot tea and prepare to proceed another 2,000 feet higher to Camp One.
“Listen, Eve, I promise you that I will not leave until every bit of trash and debris is cleaned up as far as we can see it, I swear,” he offered. “It’s cold, come on in and let’s at least cuddle.”
She was shivering now and his warmth in the sleeping bag, and whatever might come of it, seemed too inviting to pass up. The beer allowed her to slide her focus back from the debris to the condom he handed her as she slid into the orange bag. After they had finished, Eve lay there half asleep but watched as her British lover crawled from the warmth and unzipped the tent so he could get rid of the beer he’d had a few hours before. She heard him utter something but didn’t understand.
“What was that?”
His voice rose as he removed the used condom and threw it into the night air. He had gotten what he wanted. There was no need for good behavior or putting on a proper front anymore.
“I said, I’ll leave it to you to go find this one since you’re so worried about the damn debris!” As he turned towards her, the sleepy look on his face changed to one of pure terror. In an instant it was over.
Don’t worry; the sherpas will dispose of you, too. Adieux.
An hour later, the young man was in such a panic that he tripped and hit his head as he ran into the team’s command center. He had seen death before on the mountain but not like this.
“There’s a body. Someone has killed Mr. Bartlett!” he shouted hysterically as others in the tent helped him up.
Ross Thompson, owner and team leader of High Times & Climbs Expeditions from Christ Church, New Zealand, grabbed his satellite phone and headed out. It had been a beautiful morning on the mountain until now. No wind, the temperature hovering at a balmy 55 degrees. Peeling back the flap of the faded yellow tent, Thompson – a man of few words – said it simply, “Well, you don’t see that every day.”
The sight of frozen remains up on the mountain was always unsettling to climbers. Approximately 200 bodies had been left strewn across Everest, either within deep crevasses where they had fallen to their deaths and couldn’t be recovered, or lying where they had died against rocks and boulders or out in the open. Quite often, snow buried the remains for a time, but as temperatures rose, they became exposed again. Tradition demanded that if you died on the mountain while climbing, you remained there. A life taken by a tremendous fall or other climb-related trauma was mourned but accepted as part of the risk. A death like this one was altogether different, though. The mountain hadn’t claimed this man; another human being had struck him down.
In a nearby tent, a weathered yellow one much like the scene of the crime, another visitor to the mountain was dealing with a piercing headache of his own. Another sherpa delivered tea and the stunning news to the American who had come to Everest’s Base Camp on a whim. He’d paid handsomely to make a quick trek up, too fast of a journey it turned out, and was now paying a heavy price.
“What was I thinking?’ he kept asking himself. “I know better.”
He’d suffered through a long night dealing with elevation sickness caused by the extremely thin air, and the large quantity of beer and alcohol he’d ingested to kill the pain had left him in a fog with an excruciating headache, shortness of breath, and a desire for someone to induce a coma to put him out of his misery. But when Matt’s head had cleared enough to comprehend what the sherpa told him, he laced up his boots and headed out, tea in hand.
“Best not touch anything,” Thompson heard someone call out from the crowd of onlookers.
They were of all shapes and sizes and their choice of outerwear was equally as diverse. A variety of bright orange, yellow, or red jackets and vests, knit hats, baseball caps, wool scarves, jeans, shorts, hiking boots and the one guy with the STP t-shirt and flip flops made for an eclectic group, but Thompson saw a man holding up something gold and shiny and waved for him to come closer. As the man made his way toward him, he was visibly unsteady, dragging his feet in the rocks and almost falling once.
“Look at this clown,” Thompson said to the others with him, “he’s altitude sick, drunk, or just plain daft.”
“Matt Christopher, I’m with the FBI,” the man said, cringing in the bright sunlight as he handed over his gold shield and identity card. Despite his disheveled hair and clothes he was handsome, with chiseled features, late 30s, graying black hair, and week-old beard. Someone in the crowd remarked the man looked just like that actor George Clooney, only younger.
“You’re a long way from home,” Thompson stated, his face showing the wear and tear of years of intense sun and extreme cold and altitude that had taken him to the summit six times but had worn on him more than most.
“It appears I am,” was all Matt could muster. Thompson scrutinized the ID and then passed it to the other climb team leaders, Klaus Muehler, the German who wore his handlebar mustache so proudly, and Tony Agazzi, an Aussie who had been on the mountain more times than he could remember.
“You smell like a damn brewery mate,” Thompson charged the special agent. “Thanks for the offer, but I’m not sure you can be of any help to us in your condition.” Agazzi handed the credential back and the three leaders stood and watched as the man struggled to place it in his blue North Face jacket pocket and formulate a response.
“All I need is some coffee, IV fluids, and twenty minutes on oxygen and I’ll be good as new,” Matt stated as he shook his head to clear the cobwebs. Thompson looked to the others and then decided to give the American a much-needed hand. He directed one of his sherpas to help Matt to the medical tent and then, if he seemed better, bring him back to the crime scene.
“We’ll give it a go mate, this guy’s not going anywhere,” Thompson said. “The police are on their way up by chopper and should be here in a few hours. Go get some fluids, some gas, and maybe some food and we’ll see how it goes from there.” As the sherpa guided Matt from the scene, Thompson expressed his pessimism.
“That’ll be the last time we see that boy for sure,” he said in a disappointed tone.
“All right, let’s get to it,” Special Agent Christopher called out as he tried in vain to not spill his hot tea as he approached the scene of the crime. He still felt like hell but when he saw Thompson’s surprised expression Matt gave him a wink.
“If I didn’t tell you earlier, I work as part of an FBI International Investigative Team.” Typically, the FBI only responded to crimes outside of the States if an American interest was involved or a foreign government requested assistance in an investigation. But, unofficially, he might be of help since he had been here when the murder happened. “I was here on vacation,” he continued. “Until now.”
He didn’t disclose the truth, that he was actually no longer an FBI agent. It wasn’t relevant or necessary. Nobody needed to know that in recent years he had actually become a jack-of-all-trades as a contractor as part of a negotiated arrangement with the U.S. government. He was well trained and highly qualified to perform in any intelligence capacity his handler back in Washington called upon him to do – just as long as it wasn’t on U.S. soil. They’d given him a codename – The Export.
Matt’s eyes hadn’t stopped scanning the ground and the area surrounding the victim’s tent since he arrived.
“I know you,” one of the onlookers spoke out in an Australian accent, pointing at him. “I passed you just above the Namche Bazar on the trek up. I know you.”
Matt smiled as he shook his head in frustration. “Yep, I was embarrassed at how quickly you and so many others passed me by. I thought I was in better shape. The thin air kicked my ass all the way up.”
Typically it takes seven to ten days to trek by foot to Base Camp, with overnight stops planned along the way so the human body can slowly acclimate to the thinning air. Humans can adapt to just about anything, perhaps except for breathing in water, but when pushed to its limits too fast or too far, the results can be deadly.
Matt felt he owed the group leaders an explanation and an apology. “I was in Qatar doing an investigation and didn’t know if I’d ever be this close to Everest again. Once we completed work, I flew to Kathmandu while the rest of the team headed back to D.C. Thought I had it all figured out – spent a day in a hyperbolic chamber to get the blood cells fully charged, and then chartered a chopper to Namche and then trekked up. I have to apologize for my sad state this morning but if you’re okay with it,” pointing at the tent in question, “let’s see what’s up.”
“While you were getting tuned up,” Thompson stated, “we got permission from the police to let you have a look, based on your badge.” Matt smiled but his mind was already fully engaged.
Watching where he stepped as he approached the tent’s blowing flap, Matt’s suspicions were confirmed. The crime scene had already been destroyed. If only someone had thought to cordon off the area when the body was first discovered. It wasn’t like there wasn’t any rope handy – there were miles of it at the camp. The first responders and the concerned, and then the gawkers, had all compromised the area. Fingerprints, footprints, DNA, valuables, clues of any sort, were probably already lost in the panic and the elements.
As he pulled back the flap, he whispered, “Well, that’s a new one.” There was a man, on his knees – sort of. He’d fallen straight back over them. The pointed side of a climber’s ice ax was embedded firmly in the dead man’s head. Matt looked at the tent’s floor and then stepped in. He looked closely at the body and saw no other signs of trauma. The victim’s eyes were nearly frozen wide open, the horror locked into his expression. From the angle the weapon had entered the forehead he knew the killer’s hand had never contacted the body, at least not as part of this effort. Taking a knee, Matt held his teacup under the ax handle and watched as the steam wet the red aluminum. No fingerprints. Matt scanned the area immediately around the body and then expanded his scrutiny wider and wider. The contents were much like those in his own tent and the dozens strewn about Base Camp. Cold weather clothing, energy bars, water, sports drinks, empty beer bottles, small space heater, toilet paper, toiletries, a half-full bottle of Jägermeister, and a stack of red party cups were arranged along the left wall of the tent.
“I’ve seen a lot in my time, but an ice ax to the noggin is a new one for me too,” the leader said with a nervous laugh as he watched Matt work. A few of the onlookers attempted to peer in. Others just stood in silence.
“Let me borrow that SAT phone,” Matt said as he extended his hand for it. “They’ll need to stop everyone trekking down from Base Camp,” he whispered.
On a typical morning during climbing season on Everest, a constant flow of trekkers, support personnel, media, and tourists came and went at Camp from the south. For every one of those who completed their work or were leaving, either victorious in their climbs or defeated in their quests, there were just as many new arrivals to the most famous campsite on the planet. Only emergency evacuations during climbing season or the deep pockets of the very wealthy could generate the use of a high-altitude helicopter. Everyone else trekked up or down with only the gear-laden oxen or the local Nepalese sherpas, showing little or no sign of the wear and tear Everest had on the mind and body.
Over the phone, Matt introduced himself to the lead detective in charge, Lieutenant Amir Baral of the CIB, Crime Investigation Unit, and described the crime scene to him in detail, expressing his frustration that the area hadn’t been better contained. Over the next few hours, Matt methodically went through his mental checklist and elicited the help of Thompson’s team.
First, better late than never, he directed the area around the victim’s tent be roped off and that a guard be posted to keep people outside the perimeter and away from the victim and any evidence or clues that might still be present.
Next, Matt interviewed the sherpa who had discovered the body, the man who shared a tent with the deceased, and finally any of the climbers or trekkers who had been in the tents adjacent to the victim’s. Before he went into action mode though, it was time for more oxygen and some food. The medics had wanted Matt to lie down and regain his strength gradually, suggesting he take on a bag of IV fluids, but he’d insisted on moving forward. By the time Baral and his team arrived, Matt was ready for them.
He made quick introductions and then led the homicide detective to the roped-off area. Baral looked in his late 50s, perhaps 5-foot-6 in height, a sleek 150 pounds, and walked as if he’d spent more time behind a desk than in the outdoors. Matt was surprised to see the investigator show up in a gray suit, blue tie, long black coat, and matching wool cap but smiled when he saw the man had the sense to change into hiking shoes for this adventure. The ice ax was left in place until the body could be flown back to Kathmandu, where forensic experts would deal with fingerprints, DNA, and other clues in a less hostile, more controlled environment.
“Not much to go on here, not even a passport,” Matt said as he stepped inside the tent, “but there is a condom wrapper under him,” he added, pointing to its torn edge.
“Must have been a bad lay,” he chuckled. While the detective and those close by didn’t understand the crack or chose to ignore it, Matt was onto something.
“We might get lucky. There might be a print, perhaps the killer’s print on the wrapper, and a condom also means DNA – his on the inside and perhaps the killer’s on the outside, so we need to find it. It’s not on him and not in sight though. We’ve looked.”
Matt watched as Baral looked about the tent and then directed his team to recover the body and load it on the chopper for immediate transfer back to the city.
“How ’bout we get something to drink inside the mess tent and I go over the rest of what I’ve found?” Matt suggested. Baral agreed and had a few questions of his own on the walk. A few stragglers remained at the crime scene to watch, while most others had long lost interest or were too disturbed by it to stay there any longer.
“Your manager Claire Dale in Washington spoke very highly of you, Agent Christopher,” he said, “although she did not appreciate my waking her up. When I said your name she asked, ‘what’s he done now?’” Matt laughed and continued walking. Once inside the tent Matt laid out what he had found, starting with a report obtained from Interpol in Lyon.
The victim was an Andy Bartlett from Liverpool, England. He’d traveled there with his mate Ken Husband, also from Liverpool, to climb the mountain. They’d both been partying in this very mess tent last evening. Husband had related that both he and Andy had been trying to score with some of the females at the party. Husband had also said he vaguely remembered the woman Bartlett had been talking with. He recalled her saying something about being an environmentalist there to do a story about the trash left on the mountain by the climbers. He said everyone was very drunk and the only other thing he remembered about the woman was that she was very attractive and had a sexy French accent. Apparently Husband was more focused on a date of his own and didn’t notice when Bartlett and the woman left. Husband spent the night in his date’s tent and walked up to find Bartlett dead after all the commotion around their tent had started.
“As for the woman, I’ve interviewed maybe six people who were at the party and nobody recalls much of anything, not even her name,” Matt added. “I have a knack for observational behavior, almost a sixth sense some people say, and despite my slightly diminished faculties this morning I don’t believe I detected a lie in any of them. My instincts tell me the killer’s one cool customer. These two hooked up, she got pissed off about something, slammed the ax into Bartlett’s head, and then went on her way without leaving a trace. I’m intrigued.”
Matt and Baral discussed the difficulties that such a harsh and transient environment posed to the investigation. The punishing high winds could come and go without warning and snow could start at any time. The population of the camp itself was one of climbers attempting to reach the 27,000- foot summit; some would succeed, some would turn around, and others would never make it back down. Sherpas, the locals who carried the supplies and ropes and assisted the climbers in their quest, as well as the support people that sustained the camp, could all be identified and accounted for. But so many trekkers came and went without any record made of their arrivals and departures that a suspect could be anywhere; up on the mountain, down on the trekking path, or sitting in another mess tent having tea.
“Taking that into consideration, I would suggest I ride back to Kathmandu with the body and your team tries to find and interview any hot blondes with French accents. I’d like to stick around, this one’s got a hook in me, but I’ve been asked to return to Qatar and stand by for my next assignment.”
As Matt got up to get rid of the enormous amount of fluid he had taken in recently, Baral stepped outside to make calls to his team.
“Yes, don’t worry about the men,” Baral directed. “Just stop any women trekking down from Base Camp, any blonde females with a French or Swiss passport. I will send this FBI agent back to HQ on the chopper with the body.” As the two reunited in the tent, one of Baral’s team members ran in. “We may have her!”