Four Paris on Location Paris was going to be a movie director. That was the life plan, as of today. She slumped back in the canvas chair, and her fair hair flopped over her eyes. She flicked it away. She was fed up with it. If there'd been a good pair of scissors handy, she'd have chopped it there and then. There were lots of things she'd like to change right now. This place--this campsite--for a start. And the waiting. If this was a movie, she thought, she'd clap her hands now and say, "Cameras . . . Action," and something would start to roll. Sheesh, they had the scenery in place--all the Himalayan forest Uncle Franklin's friends in high places could fix. But nothing was happening. There was a general clatter of expedition business going on among the tents, but nobody seemed to be thinking about her. And Paris was bored. She could be a movie director if she wanted. Most girls her age wanted to be movie stars; not her. She was going to be the one who called the shots. The one who said "Action." Sure, there was the problem of finance, but her pop would probably stump up the odd million just to keep her out of his hair, and he'd write it off against expenses. The main thing was contacts. Uncle Franklin would know people in the business, of course, When she'd mentioned the plan to him, on the way to the airport, he hadn't answered straightaway. Pop would just have said, "Sure, sure," without meaning it. Franklin was different. He'd stopped, and looked at her a moment. "A one- person brat pack," he'd said, with his brief, dry smile. They'd hardly talked-- not really talked--since then. On the edge of the clearing, one leaf let go of its twig and slowly fell. What did Franklin think he was doing, Paris wondered, bringing them here at this time of year? There'd been rubbish movies on the long flight, so she'd read the trekkers' guide from end to end. It was full of the glories of the place in spring--huge rhododendron blossoms, Technicolor butterflies, and all the other stuff that wasn't there now, in October. It was getting cool, too, and they'd pitched camp out of the sun. Very carefully out of the sun, out of sight. So much for the famous views of snow-capped peaks--a glimpse, maybe, between these stupid trees, which weren't very different from the trees in any of the places she'd called home. Still, Paris was here. That was what mattered. All these years, she'd picked up hints, from things he said, about these "expeditions." Other people in the family smirked. "Franklin's Boy's Own adventures," Pop said. Fine, thought Paris. I'll be one of the boys. She'd started dropping hints to Franklin, and he hadn't said no. "In time," he'd said, "in time. . . ." And here she was. She was a member of a very special club indeed--just how special, she was starting to understand. She'd had a glimpse of the quiet phone calls to friends of a friend in this foreign ministry or that. In this language or that. Uncle Franklin could fix anything. So there'd been someone there to meet them on touchdown and to ghost them past the customs queue, on to where their sealed baggage would be waiting for them in the chartered jeep, untouched by prying hands. There'd been the police chief at the bottom of the valley, who had been expecting them, like a man who had his orders: point them on their way and then forget. And there was the local guide, Shikarri. He'd stepped out of the shadows in the final village, where the road ran out, like a man who'd been waiting, watching for them. He'd had no expression on his thin, sharp hunter's face, but when his eyes rested on her for a moment, Paris flinched. In the background was the team of porters, small silent men who sat in the shade and didn't mix with the villagers. They weren't local--Shikarri had brought them, and they waited for his orders. Five minutes later, they were unloading the jeeps, keeping their heads down, braced against the great unwieldy packs. They didn't look as if they were doing it for the fun of it, thought Paris, any more than the mules they piled high with the strange-shaped baggage. Then again, the members of the expedition didn't look like people on vacation, either. They'd arrived in the lounge of the Ashok Hotel, New Delhi, one by one: Donald from London, Renaud from Paris, Harriet by chartered plane out of somewhere unspeakable in central Africa, Gavin by local flight from the Karakoram . . . and none of them talked about their flights at all. They were people on business, and they knew why they were there. Not for relaxing in the five-star comforts of the Ashok, that was clear. They had greeted each other with nods and Paris with a shrewd look, weighing her up, before they spoke. They didn't look so much like old friends as conspirators. They'd raised a glass--hard liquor or fine wine, depending on their style--in a silent toast. They'd clinnnnnked; then they were on their way. Even now they weren't wasting much time on sightseeing, though as the trek got under way, they kept coming over rises to horizons crisp and sharp with snow peaks, a gift for the wide-angle lens. Shikarri kept the porters moving with his whip-crack tongue, and beside him, on a leash of thick, black plaited hair, came the dog. This was nobody's pet. It was a great gray brindled mastiff--bull-like shoulders, a wide head that hung with the weight of its square muzzle--and it would not be led or touched by anybody but its master. "What--what's it called?" Paris had said to Shikarri, just to break the silence. "Do khyi." Franklin had come up beside them. "Not so much a name," he'd said, "as what it is. It means 'the dog who is chained.'" Paris hadn't asked why. Franklin had caught her look and smiled. "I wouldn't want to meet it, not without Shikarri--would you?" They had trekked on in silence, hours and hours, until Shikarri called a halt. It was nowhere in particular that Paris could see, but the guide had been definite. Here, he'd said, we make a base camp. Now most of the porters had been paid off and gone, all but a few, the ones Shikarri had picked for their loyalty and silence. They camped a little way off and sat quiet, waiting to be sent for, passing whole days playing vague, unfathomable games of chance. There were a lot of men about, thought Paris. A Boy's Own adventure? There was Harriet, of course, but she hardly seemed like a woman. Harriet kept pace with Gavin on the whisky and with Donald on the slim cigars. Paris kind of admired that, yes, but Harriet, with that famous war-worn face, was kind of scary, too. Paris found herself scanning the opposite sex--you know, the way you do. Not that she was crazy over them, like most of her classmates were. Creamy-faced kids from boy bands left her cold. When she let her mind wander, she remembered the black guy she'd seen break dancing once in the subway. He was lean--no muscle man--but graceful, all alive, and deep in his dance. She wanted him to look up when she dropped some money in his hat, but afterward she was kind of pleased he hadn't. No fake grin and "Thank you, ma'am." . . . He just went on with his dance. Boys of her age bored her, and she wasn't sorry that there weren't any here. Still, let's be honest, she'd expected something from the expedition. From what she'd heard, it was Gavin who might just be promising, but when she'd seen him at the airport, she'd revised her plans. He was the commando type--beefy, leathery-tanned, and crop-headed--and he wasn't going to like her, she knew at a glance. He didn't see the use of her, and he'd said as much to Franklin, in that rough, dry Scottish way. Then he'd held out his hand. Paris flinched. There were the stump ends of his three long fingers, missing at the tips. He'd seen her staring, and he pushed the hand toward her--Go on, shake it--with a private smile. After that there was Donald. No thanks. And there was Renaud, whom she'd scarcely seen. There were the porters, of course. Sometimes they worked naked to the waist, manhandling the tent poles upright. The question of fancying didn't arise. She was taller than most of them, for one thing. But they were very much there. It was a bit unsettling. Meanwhile, Shikarri was everywhere. Talking to Franklin, getting his instructions. Pointing to distances, poring over maps with Gavin. And when the first of the rifles came out of its packing, he was there to weigh it in his hands, squint down the sights, and nod approval. Shikarri looked straight through Paris, and she didn't feel inclined to find out more. She'd seen the way he cut through obstacles like fallen branches on the trail, with one hack of the glinting kukri--half knife, half machete--he wore at his belt. Most of the day the mastiff sat tethered. Now and then it would leap up, straining at something it had heard or smelt, and the weight of it shuddered its stake. Then its mantrap jaws would open and rake at the air . . . but no sound came out. "Debarked," Franklin had said, casually, and Paris tried not to think what that meant. Shikarri was a hunter, he said, of a rather special kind, and in his profession stealth was of the essence. By night, Shikarri would pace out the edge of the camp, and the dog would be loose. Paris would hear it scuffling, panting, just outside her tent. On the other hand, things could be worse. She could have been at school. Uncle Franklin had fixed that, too. This was going to be a real education, being part of Franklin's world. Other kids had cool uncles. Paris knew that. But hers wasn't just cool--he was life on ice. Everything that was gross about her parents--the personalized license plates on Pop's limo, or Mom's drama-queen scenes and fads and silly causes--all of that was so not Franklin. He was Franklin, always--never Frank. Not like her pop, who'd gone from Woodrow to Woody by the time he was six weeks old. Uncle Franklin had that white hair he'd had since his thirties--stylish, startling with his unlined face. Pop was into hair dye and, recently, hairpieces. No, her uncle was the real thing. Paris wanted to be the real thing, too. And amazingly--lucky or what-- he was the one with time for Paris. He'd liked her, from the start. Or maybe "like" wasn't quite the word for it. "Recognized," maybe . . . She knew how he'd watch her sometimes, coolly--in the same way that Shikarri held the rifle, with the same little nod at the end. He didn't try to buy her things, the way Pop did, or try to be all- pals-together, like Pop's latest little wife. He didn't tell her what she thought, as Mom did on their visits. No, Uncle Franklin would just be around--take her out to some Japanese restaurant he'd discovered, where there was so much bowing and scraping, so much business with the slivers of raw fish and white radish, that she didn't have to talk at all. So when Uncle Franklin told Pop that she needed a change of air and a bit of a challenge, her heart leaped inside . . . and when Pop looked vague and said, "Sure, sure, why not?" Paris could have punched the air. But didn't. Uncle Franklin never punched the air, even when he got what he wanted. And getting what he wanted was the thing he usually did. Paris heard the footsteps coming up behind her, but she didn't turn straightaway. There was only one person, really, it could be. Not Franklin, who'd have come with firm steps, quickly, and not Gavin, who made a point of moving like a panther even when he was only going for a pee. Not Harriet, who went everywhere as if she was pushing her way to the front of a crowd. And the thought of Shikarri coming up behind her made her shudder. No, this had to be Donald, shuffling slightly, as if he'd just got out of bed. He stood at her shoulder for a moment, waiting to be noticed. "It's awfully . . . green, is it not?" he said, after a while. Paris couldn't help smiling. He sounded as fed up with this place as she was. She considered, briefly, making friends . . . then turned round and remembered why it didn't seem a good idea. Donald might have been built to be the opposite of Paris. Where she was lean and rangy (people took her for a tennis player), he was short and smooth. Not fat but well fed on a daily, professional basis: Donald was a gourmet, not just as a hobby, but as a job. There was a buttery look to his skin, and he sort of slithered in the way he moved and spoke. He smiled too much. And most important, he was middle-aged--thirty-something, he said, early thirty-something, but he could have been saying that for years and years. What he was doing on a trek like this, Paris couldn't imagine. Donald had brought his own French chef with him. Geez, just how decadent was that? "Seen any more of the helicopter chappies?" Donald said. Paris shook her head. She'd heard it that morning--a distant throb of rotors--and she'd scrambled up the slope till she saw through the trees. It was just a glimpse, and far down-valley: an olive green helicopter, heading away. It was the nearest thing to something happening there'd been, but it hadn't come near, and even if it had, their camp was tucked into a deep cleft almost overhung by trees. That was a little bit exciting. Franklin had made it clear that they'd chosen the spot for cover. "A sensible precaution," he'd said, enigmatically. "Were they looking for us?" said Paris. "Oh, I think that's unlikely," said Donald. Paris looked at him again. Her question had been meant to be a joke. "Some local fracas," he went on. "Revolting peasants--you know, that kind of thing. None of our business." "So it's nothing to do with the guns?" said Paris slyly. Donald laughed. "My dear, someone should tell you the difference between a weapon and a hunting rifle. Just in case you're in a real combat situation one day. Hmm . . . ," he said. "I rather assumed you were a trainee great white hunter yourself." Another pause. Paris guessed he was wondering: Then what exactly is she doing here? "Me? No, I'm gonna make the movie of it." He narrowed his eyes for a moment. "Oh, I see," he said. "Very droll." The two of them gazed into the tangle of forest again. Then Donald shrugged. "The things one does for one's art," he said and turned away. "If you fancy a proper coffee at some point," he said, "Renaud is getting his kitchen set up. Not before time." And he ambled away. Then there was quietness, made of breaths of wind and forest whispers. There were loops of birdsong and the whirr of insects ticking over, but they all seemed slowed down, as if nature had started cooling and settling for the year. Paris let herself sink into it. A tiny sound-jacuzzi. She wasn't sleepy, but this place could put you in a kind of trance. Then there was a crack and a rustle. On the edge of the clearing, branches parted, and out came a boy. Whether he had seen her, or knew what was happening, Paris could not tell. He stepped out of the trees and straightaway he stumbled, as if he'd been leaning on them for support. He swayed. He was some kind of local, a kid, by the looks of it--bare to the waist and dragging what was left of a cloak behind him like a comfort blanket. Kids she'd seen in the villages they'd passed on the way had been snotty and grimy, but this one was different-- streaked with mud and scratches, bruised and grazed. He lifted his head and looked round blankly, and his face was hardly like a child's at all, because he had no hair. Then there was a pad and a thump, as the great gray mastiff hit him, and the boy went down. In hindsight, Paris thought, the guide must have been watching-- watching her, and her and Donald--all this time. Next moment, Shikarri had covered the ground from the tents to the edge of the glade, and was dragging the dog off, thrashing at it till it cowered. Then he had the boy by the scruff of the neck, hauling him upright, peering close, then spitting questions in one language, then another. Whatever the words were that the boy managed to stutter out, they weren't what he wanted to hear. Shikarri was yanking him around, to steer him back toward the forest. Not just pushing him away. No, he was marching him out of the clearing, out of sight of Paris and. . . . Shikarri's hand had dropped toward the kukri at his belt. "No!" Paris shouted. "Bring him here. He needs help." For a moment, the guide turned and glared at her--the first time he had really looked at her all week. "He's hurt. I'll shout for Uncle Franklin. He'll--" "All right, all right." Franklin was there behind her and, in the way he had, immediately in command. He said something to the guide, a few words in his language. The man's grip loosened on the boy, who crumpled to the ground again. "Well," Uncle Franklin said to Paris, without smiling. "What have we got here?" "Don't let him hurt him," Paris started. "Bring him inside," Franklin said. "We'll sort this out in private." He looked at Paris. "And you," he said, as she'd hoped he would. "Looks like you'd better come, too." (c) 2003 by Philip Gross. Reprinted by permission of Clarion Books / Houghton Mifflin Company Excerpted from The Lastling by Philip Gross All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.