Messenger Chapter Eleven

Chapter Eleven.

Isolation

“Dennis Corbin, I’d like you to meet Mr. Conway, the man in charge here. This is Mrs. Bolton. [”Sunnie,“ she interjected pleasantly.] Mr. Barnard, our only fellow American.“

Procedures at Shangri‑la are nothing if not flexible. Mr. Conway, on hearing my fast sketch of Corbin’s background, attitude, and mission, had swiftly decided that the five of us should have lunch together—presumably on the theory that no surroundings are quite so disarming as an informal meal. So it was that, within half an hour of our receiving Mr. Meister’s seal of approval on Corbin’s health, I was escorting him to one of the library alcoves that doubled, according to the occasion, as den, living room tea‑room or—as now—dining room. And so he was introduced, with no greater ceremony, to three people who would be at the center of his life for the foreseeable future.

Corbin looked around at the alcove, at the bookshelves lining the walls, the sunlight flowing in through the windows (the thick white draperies pulled back to either side), the dark polished table, the elegantly simple chairs. We watched him glance out the window, watched his gaze be caught by the shining white presence of the mountain called Karakal—Blue Moon—on the far side of the chasm that is the valley. I had spent hours of my life doing that, except that I had done it in isolation, letting the mountain’s peace flow into my being.

In short order, Thubten brought what had been asked for: cheese and butter and loaves of bread and the various fruits and a pitcher of valley‑brewed beer from the prized kegs in our basement vaults. I could see Corbin conclude that Thubten was a servant. I wondered if this erroneous conclusion raised or lowered his opinion of the four of us. On the surface, four white Westerners being served by the humble native boy. But he’d have plenty of time to amend hasty conclusions.

I set about slicing the loaves while Mr. Barnard poured out the beer and Sunnie set the places. Corbin felt the heavy cloth of the napkins and was impressed despite himself. Or did he see it as more evidence of decadent luxury?

“You must pardon our informality, Mr. Corbin,” Mr. Conway said. “We proceed on the assumption that a good appetite is not only the best sauce, but the best place‑setting.”

“It looks pretty good to me,” Corbin said, and I remembered that he hadn’t eaten in more than a day.

“Lord, Conway,” Mr. Barnard said jocularly, “you don’t suppose he could have an appetite like George here? We may have to send out for more.”

Corbin, not yet being in on that particular inside joke, assumed a carefully neutral expression.

“Mr. Barnard’s jest is at Mr. Chiari’s expense,” Sunnie said quietly. “Please be assured that we are blessed with plenty.”

“Sure. It was just a joke. Those of us that can’t eat a thing without it going right to fat envy those that can, that’s all. Eat hearty.”

Interesting. Mr. Barnard cultivates his reputation as a character, and Sunnie is always very direct, but that little byplay sounded slightly rehearsed. At least, to my ears it did. Their way of putting Corbin at ease by seemingly showing Mr. Barnard as a crude buffoon? And if they had rehearsed that little miniature sketch, what else did they have planned? It was unusual to have beer with a meal: very unusual to have it with lunch. Hospitality? Liquid truth‑serum? I glanced at Mr. Conway speculatively. He read my mind, and his eyes twinkled. Approvingly, I thought.

As it happened, Mr. Barnard’s statement, however calculated, was also correct. Corbin ate and ate and ate. Slice after slice of bread and butter, mounds of figs, great slices of cheese, two melon halves, several glasses of beer—and he ate effortlessly, as only a boy in his twenties (or teens!) can eat. I still look like I’m 25 or so, and I out‑eat everyone here, but evidently my metabolism is slowing down a bit, as Corbin proved by providing comparison. I shared a little of Mr. Barnard’s frank envy of Corbin’s appetite and capacity.

As we ate, we learned something of Corbin’s personal history, thanks mostly to Sunnie. She has a way of listening that draws you out, leading you to say more than you intended, often more than you were aware you knew. I could testify to that!

It seems that Mr. Dennis Corbin was a hot‑shot combination electrical engineer/computer programmer/systems designer, whatever all that meant. (He did try to explain.) He was working for a certain company on the West Coast (he wouldn’t give the name), designing new computer‑controlled detection instruments (he wouldn’t go into detail, not that we could have understood any of it) that could be used to detect certain valuable resources (no details) from the air.

“Of course,” he said, we knew that there were space satellites that could do somewhat the same thing. (Of course we knew no such thing.) But this was a little different. (No details.) Since he was one of the chief designers, and since they needed a “beta test‑sight” anyway (whatever that may have been, and he may have said “beta sight test,” which still makes no sense), they’d asked him if he wanted to spend six weeks of his life riding around Tibet in an underfurnished airplane staring at dials all day. He’d jumped at the chance.

“The thing you have to understand, you see, is that there are only three of these babies in the world, and they were letting me play with one of them, and no forms to fill out. You know? One for me, two for the whole rest of the world. In‑freakin’‑credible. Except that now there’s only two and I don’t have either one.”

Mr. Barnard passed him the pitcher and he poured himself some more beer. “I’d kind of like to take a look at it, if you don’t mind. I mean, if you really did cut up the whole airplane— which, I still can’t believe you did that, but if you did, you must have pretty much butchered ARDA, and I’d just like to see how badly.”

ARDA, he informed us without much hesitation, stood for Airborne Resources Detection and Analysis, and damned few people even knew the acronym, and even fewer people knew what it stood for. Listening to him brought back my Air Force days. Words like ARDA conjured up Lackland, and Keesler, and the briefing room at Peshawar.

“It won’t be any problem, your getting to see it,” Mr. Barnard said after glancing at Mr. Conway. “You might even be able to put it all back together if you want to. Easier than putting your airplane back together.”

Corbin could smile at that. “Yeah, well, your runways don’t much look like they’re FAA approved, so I guess that doesn’t matter particularly.” He shook his head, drank some more beer. “I can’t believe you cut up the whole damned thing,” he laughed, “and put it in the cellar.”

Mr. Conway took that as his cue. “We wouldn’t go to all that trouble without reason, Mr. Corbin. I assure you our fears are not irrational. The present rulers of Tibet are our sworn enemies, hostile to everything we are, everything we represent. When they find us, we will die, or worse.”

“Worse?” Corbin smiled. “The old fate worse than death?”

Mr. Conway met his smile, but retained his seriousness. “Such fates do exist. Some would prefer an easy death to a long period of mental and physical torture. If it came to a forced choice, I would myself.”

“Torture? Who’s talking about torture?”

Sunnie entered the lists. “It appears that but few talk of it. It proceeds nonetheless. More than a million innocent inhabitants of this country have been murdered since the Chinese occupation began in 1950. Some died in battle, but most died of torture, imprisonment, starvation or general mistreatment. Hundreds of thousands have been punished for supporting their exiled Dalai Lama, or for clinging to their ancient religion, or even for refusing to desecrate shrines and insult monks and lamas. Surely you have heard of all this.”

Apparently Corbin had not heard of it. Later, comparing notes, we four agreed that his reaction was unfeigned. He smiled. “Come on! It can’t be all that bad!”

Mr. Barnard said, “Can’t it? In the last 10 years, the communists wrecked more than 6,000 Buddhist monasteries. They burned about two‑thirds of the country’s literature. Two‑thirds of everything that’s ever been written and still existed. There’s a quarter of a million political prisoners in concentration camps right this minute. And like Sunnie said, there’s a quarter of the population dead and the whole rest of the country turned into a big penitentiary. If that ain’t enough for you, how about the fact the communists been insisting the Tibetans plant rice and wheat instead of barley and millet? Then when the rice and wheat don’t come up, Tibet starves. And they been pouring in millions of Chinese colonists. Six million of ’em, the best guess we heard so far. They’re turning the Tibetans into a minority in their own country.”

Corbin wasn’t quite ready to back down, but he looked a little less certain. “Where’d you hear all that?”

Mr. Conway cut in lest Mr. Barnard say too much. “I’m afraid we must decline to tell you that, at the moment. But rest assured, we are not retailing rumors and gossip. These things happened, Mr. Corbin. They are happening yet.”

“And they didn’t happen in the dark,” Mr. Barnard put in. “It’s all been printed in the West.”

Corbin looked at him curiously. “Now how would you know that?”

“Short‑wave. BBC, if nothing else. Like I said, it ain’t any secret.”

“Which makes me wonder,” I said, “why the U.S. government’s letting your company play footsie with the communists.”

“Man, where have you been? It was seven years ago Nixon went to China. Times have changed.”

“Yeah,” Mr. Barnard said, a bit sourly. “I remember listening to bits and pieces of that. But that still don’t explain matters. Nixon and all had to know what the Great Cultural Revolution did to China. They had to know what the communists were doing to Tibet. Why get in bed with them? Or maybe nobody cares?”

Corbin—he made clear—didn’t care much about politics, and he wasn’t any fan of Presidents Nixon or Ford or Carter. But he supposed that re‑establishing relations with China was mostly a balance‑of‑power ploy, giving both China and the United States leverage against the Soviets. And he hadn’t heard about all the things we seemed to think were true. But after all, how much could the U.S. do for Tibet anyway? “Everybody has to look out for himself,” he said simply, as if that was the ultimate answer. “And,” he added, addressing himself to me, “I don’t know how long you’ve been gone, but if you went home, you’d be surprised how much things have changed, maybe. People aren’t that hot and bothered over anti‑communist crusades the way they used to be.”

Sunnie said, lightly, that we in our situation could not afford to be quite so tolerant.

“Why not?”

“Because we, like other inhabitants of Tibet, know our enemies.”

Corbin paused, considering his options. “It takes two to quarrel, I’m told,” he said mildly.

I was tempted to snap at this, something on the order of: “That sounds very reasonable, but try telling it to the concentration camp’s jailor.” But I hesitated—he was our guest—and the moment passed. And then Mr. Conway spoke.

.2.

 

He’d been awaiting the proper time, perhaps, and judged that it had arrived. We’d finished our meal, even Corbin, and were at that moment that leads either to a quiet ruminative digestion or to resumption of activity. “I think it is a bit unfair to our guest,” he said, glancing around at the three of us, “to allow this particular conversation to continue without first furnishing him its background.” Immediately he had Corbin’s full attention. Corbin knew he was about to hear something worth hearing, though he couldn’t have guessed what.

Mr. Conway warned him he was about to hear some pretty incredible things, and asked him to suspend judgment till the end of the story. He assured Corbin we’d all been told the same story, all had found it at first impossible to believe, and all had been led, with the passage of time, to accept it.

He sketched out Shangri‑la’s history, beginning not with Father Perrault’s arrival here but with his own. He told of how he and Mr. Barnard and two others had been hijacked (he said Shanghaied), had been graciously received here, and had waited for the arrival of porters to escort them home. He told of his conversations with the high lama: the promise of added life; the request that he care for the monastery until the day came when it would be needed to help renew a world exhausted by war.

“He intended us to serve as the Christian missionaries had served the wreck of the Roman Empire,” Mr. Conway said. “Civilizations always flow from small, protected pockets of grace, integrity and purpose.”

He had caught his audience by now. He told of his own doubt, his exhausted mental state, his abrupt departure with Mallinson. He passed quickly over his suffering in China and totally omitted (with good reason!) any description of his route of return. He told how he found, on his return, that the high lama, now dead, had left instructions for Conway to be given charge of the lamasery’s day‑to‑day operations. And he told how he and others had labored to make Shangri‑la ready for any contingency. Nodding to Mr. Barnard, he gave him credit for shutting down the supply pipeline before it could give away their secret. And he sketched in a few phrases their life of isolation after 1937.

“In those early years we were comparatively safe, and knew it. Yet for the first time we were faced with the threat of aerial surveillance. Flight greatly reduced the protection that geography had always afforded us.” He reminded Corbin—what I myself hadn’t known—that during the war more than one straying Allied bomber overflew Tibet, one over Lhasa itself. At least one flight crew, he said, had had to bail out in Tibetan territory, and were sent to Lhasa and then courteously forwarded on to India.

The point was that Shangri‑la could no longer afford to maintain contact with the outside world except second‑hand, through the radio sets Mr. Barnard had ordered, with their wood‑fired generating sets. Then, in 1950, the Chinese invasion made matters even more precarious, particularly when they began to built motor roads where roads had never been, in a vast semicircle along the plateau from the east, along the southern border, to the northwest. As early as 1954, a road had been built—uncomfortably close—from Gartok to Sinkiang province.

The communist invaders (he explained to Corbin, though it should have been obvious) were unpopular from the beginning. Their troops came in great numbers and required the native inhabitants to furnish their provisions, which brought first hunger and then actual starvation to the country. Worst of all, the atheist invaders regarded Tibet’s Buddhism (lamaism) and reverence for lamas as contemptible superstition. Preserving a facade of respect for the Dalai Lama, they moved to transform Tibet into a mirror of the communized provinces north and east of it.

“The predictable result apparently took them by surprise, not once but repeatedly. In 1959—20 years ago—the people of Lhasa became convinced the Chinese intended to kidnap the Dalai Lama. They rose up in rebellion. The rebellion was crushed, of course, but fortunately it did result in the flight of the Dalai Lama to safety in India.”

“Good thing, too,” Mr. Barnard said, “or they would have had him in their hands when they started their goddamned cultural revolution. That’s when things in this country got a whole lot worse.”

“How worse?” These were Corbin’s first words in many moments.

Mr. Barnard said, “The sixties is when they got down in earnest to colonizing the place.”

“But that was after the revolt of the Khambas had begun,” Mr. Conway said, “not so many months before a Captain George Chiari, U.S.A.F., came flying overhead, intending to photograph Chinese troops invading India.” He looked at me. “Perhaps you never realized that what halted the Chinese invasion of India was less Indian resistance (not particularly effective, I fear) than Khamba resistance based in the province of Loka. The rebels operated widely in Chamdo, which sits squarely on supply lines to the south. Peking was wise to halt military operations and negotiate.”

Corbin was looking at me thoughtfully, and I knew what he was thinking. “I’m 43,” I said. “I was 26—just about your age—when I came here in 1962. So you can see the treatment Mr. Conway told you about works.” As an afterthought, I said, “Come to my cell later and I’ll fish out my ID and you can see for yourself.”

An inspired thought, that. I could see Corbin accept my age as already proved.

Mr. Conway saw it too. “Perhaps our interest in avoiding detection is more understandable now, Mr. Corbin. The communists would have three reasons to hate us: We are an institution at once Tibetan, religious, and linked to the West. They would destroy us without compunction.”

“You think they’d just murder you?”

Unexpectedly, Sunnie spoke, after a long time spent listening and observing. “Perhaps they would not intend to do, but that would be the inevitable effect. Our situation here offers unique advantages, but it has the defects of its qualities.” She smiled. “Far be it from a lady to tell her own age, but I see no objection to telling tales on others. Mr. Barnard is—how old are you now, Henry? Have you reached the century mark?”

“Not quite, my dear,” said this 55‑year‑old man across the table. “I’m 97 next week. August 12, 1882.”

She turned to Mr. Conway. “Hugh?”

Smiling at Corbin, rather than Sunnie, “June 6, 1894, Dennis. Do I look to be 85?” He looked, and acted, about 40, as he well knew.

“And I myself shall never again see 21,” Sunnie laughed. “But once outside this valley—”

“And you can count on it, the Reds would certainly move us.”

“ —aging would be only a matter of a few weeks at best.”

“It seems the body wasn’t designed to renew itself forever,” Mr. Conway said to Corbin. “Even in this favored spot, we cannot halt the aging process, we can only retard it.”

“Only! A hundred years! Two hundred years!”

Mr. Conway—all of us—smiled. “Spoken like a youngster,” Mr. Barnard said. “I assure you, no matter how many years you get, it’s always too few.”

“We haven’t a desire to make them fewer, certainly,” Sunnie said, looking at Corbin quite seriously. “If we are once discovered, we and this establishment are all at an end.”

All at once Corbin made the connection. I’d been through it myself, not so very long ago. I remembered the mental process. First you’re following the discussion, grasping it, but on an abstract level. Then suddenly—it’s always suddenly—you realize that there’s a reason why these people are telling you these things.

.3.

 

Everybody else sensed it at the same time I did. Corbin stiffened, almost imperceptibly, and his expression hardened. But he didn’t say anything. He waited.

Mr. Conway obliged him. “`But what does this have to do with me?’”

“Corbin nodded. ”Yeah. That’s about it.“

Mr. Barnard said, “You might not like it much.”

“I can’t get out of here, can I?”

“Not if Shangri‑la is to live,” Mr. Conway said.

Corbin looked quite calm. “You don’t trust me to keep your secret.”

“No, we don’t. But not for the reasons you assume.”

“Which are—?”

“Oh, that you have worked with the Chinese authorities. That your political sympathies might lie elsewhere. That you might prefer to sacrifice our existence to assure your security.” The winning Conway smile, the warmest I’ve known. “Did I miss anything significant?”

Corbin shook his head silently, a little mollified.

“Unfortunately, honorable men are not invulnerable to pressure. If you were to leave here, those pressures would immediately overwhelm you. I wonder: Do you understand your situation fully?”

“Tell me,” Corbin said tightly.

“How would you explain where you had been? For that matter, where would you go?”

“I’d go back to the airbase, if I could get there.”

I said, “You really think that’s such a great idea?”

“Sure. Why not? I’m on contract to them, and I’ve lived up to it. I don’t have anything to hide. The fact we crashed certainly isn’t my fault.”

“And then they could decide if they wanted to send a bomber to wipe us out, or a company of infantry to take us over.”

“What makes you think they’d do either? How do you know they wouldn’t just settle for getting their airplane back?”

“Dennis, this is a religious community! Whether you believe in religion or not, do I have to remind you what every communist community on the face of the earth has done to every religious community it could get its hands on? In Tibet particularly?”

“All right, let’s not get off on a big discussion of communism and religion. Let’s say I don’t tell them about this place at all. Suppose I just tell them we crashed and I’m the only survivor. That’s certainly true enough!”

“How did you stay alive in the meantime? Who fed you, for instance? You sure didn’t forage for food all along the way.”

“I could make up a story. Maybe some remote village fed me.”

“`Fine. Bring us there.’”

Corbin bit his lip. “I see. That would be a problem.”

“`And where are the remains of your aircraft with our secret and valuable equipment, Mr. Corbin? Kindly lead us to it, so that we may salvage anything remaining.’”

“Maybe there’s nothing left of value? It blew up after I got myself free?”

“`We will judge for ourselves. Perhaps you are engaged in some trick?’”

Corbin’s face had lost much of its color. “Well, I got this bump on my head, and I can’t remember the crash. The first thing I knew, I was wandering around on the plateau.”

Mr. Conway: “And yet you made your way back, from an unknown starting point? Remarkable.”

“After a while I started to recognize landmarks.”

Mr. Barnard: “You weren’t ever here on foot. How’d you recognize anything?”

Mr. Conway: “`In any case, bring us as close as you can to where you were when you regained your memory. We will proceed from there.”

“Maybe I can’t retrace my steps. Maybe I got lucky. Or, say, why do I have to return to the same field? Why can’t I wander somewhere else?”

Mr. Barnard: “Anywhere you wander to, they’re going to draw a circle and say you pretty near had to be inside that circle, to get here in this many days. What do you do when they don’t find the airplane inside the circle?”

Corbin shrugged. “Is it my problem if they can’t find it? This is a big country.”

I said, “It’s your problem when they come back to you for more details. Dennis, it isn’t hard. If I’d come back to Peshawar in ’62 and said I’d come down in the mountains of Tibet, maybe they’d buy it and maybe they wouldn’t, but the most they could do would be send another plane looking for mine. But if your fancy prospecting gear is as special as you say, they’re not going to just kiss it off, are they? I’ll bet they call in ground troops, helicopters, light planes, jets, everything, until they’re convinced it’s gone without a trace.”

“I can be pretty stubborn,” Corbin said, stubbornly enough. “I just don’t know where we came down.”

“Yeah, but suppose they were tracking you when you came down and they know the general area. Then they bring you somewhere nearby and you’d better start recognizing things.”

I don’t think he’d considered this.

“Assume persistence on their part,” Mr. Conway said. “Assume diligent search and close questioning, resulting finally in a moment‑by‑moment chronology of everything you admit to remembering. The moment they notice the slightest evasion . . . .”

“The questions will get a lot rougher,” Mr. Barnard said. “`Guard! Escort Mr. Corbin to a cell and let him think about the consequences of lying to the people’s representatives.’”

Corbin sat unmoving, except for the fingers of his right hand, wearily massaging his eyes and cheeks. Finally he said, “Do you really think it would have to be like that?”

“Do you really think it could be any other way?”

I give him full credit. He didn’t like the logic, but when he couldn’t get around it, he didn’t pretend it didn’t exist. “God,” he said, more or less to himself. “It looks like I really did it this time, didn’t I?”

“Of course you might be tempted,” Sunnie said, “to spare yourself unpleasantness by telling them at once what had happened to you, for which you were in no way to blame.” Corbin started to object, but subsided as she continued. “However, I cannot see that this would much improve your situation among them.”

We saw it. Corbin didn’t, yet.

“Eyewitness,” Mr. Barnard said. “You’d know too much.”

This startled Corbin even more. “But I’m an American citizen! I know you don’t think much of communists, but you have to realize, they need good relations with the United States right now. If they started jailing American citizens—me particularly, considering the mission I was on—they’d be shooting themselves in the foot. My company would be mad, and my bosses would make sure the government got mad. If they had to, they could go to the press and make such a stink the Chinese would wish they’d never heard of me. They have to know that.”

Mr. Barnard toyed with the unfinished glass of beer in front of him on the table. “You got a lot of faith in a lot of things: your company, your government, the press. I don’t say you are definitely wrong, but that’s a lot more faith than I got. Course, my memories go back a ways, and maybe things have changed—though I notice people don’t change so much.” He looked up at Corbin. “Say you’re right and they’d all back you to the hilt. Here’s what bothers me. Right now, you are among the missing, am I right? And probably your bosses and your government have been told. Am I right? Well,” he said, slowly, chillingly, “is there any law says the Reds got to tell anybody the minute they find you? Any law says, if they don’t like the answers they get, or they decide it ain’t in their interests, they ever got to say you turned up?”

I examined the bottom of my empty glass. Mr. Barnard and Mr. Conway glanced at each other, then stared at the table. Only Sunnie kept her eyes on Corbin. “Perhaps you think it very unkind of us to require you to realize these facts so soon after your arrival,” she said compassionately. “I confess, it does seem rather a brutal procedure. I’m certain we all would much rather have put this off to another time.”

“But we couldn’t,” Mr. Conway said quietly. “You would have wanted access to a radio transmitter, and we should have had to lie to you or make feeble excuses. It seemed more straightforward to tell you at once.”

Corbin, it appeared, bounced back quickly. “Well, probably you’re right. I hadn’t had time to think about it yet, and maybe I never would have come to the same conclusions, but you’ve convinced me. I can’t go back to China. Make up a story or tell the truth, I’m dead either way. So how do I get back to the States?”

I didn’t say anything. I’d been there.

“Dennis, you got a problem there too,” Mr. Barnard said, slowly, reluctantly. “Don’t it occur to you?”

Corbin looked genuinely puzzled.

“Didn’t you tell us this machine of yours was one of only three in the whole world? And didn’t you say you were testing it for your company at the same time you were working it on a job here? And didn’t you say they were liable to be real upset when it turns up missing?”

“Yeah, they will.”

“Well,then?”

A blank look. “Well what?”

“Don’t you see we can’t send you back home either? You’re going to wind up with the same kind of questions. What happened to the airplane? Where did it come down? How did you get out? Why are you refusing to tell our customers information they got a right to know?”

“This isn’t going to do your career with your company any good, either,” I said. “They aren’t going to be anxious to jeopardize relationships—and future contracts—for the sake of one employee. Ex‑employee. And if your coming back alive gets in the way of better relations between the two countries, the government is going to blame you, even though none of it’s your fault.”

“So you can’t go home either,” Mr. Barnard said. “And where else can you go? You wouldn’t have papers, you couldn’t explain yourself, you’d be in trouble in 20 minutes. Sooner or later you’d get turned over to Uncle Sam—you sure couldn’t hide being a Yank—and then you’d have to try to talk your way out of why you’d been doing the hiding you’d been doing. I was on the run once, lad, back when I was already a whole lot older than you are, and more experienced. And I had money, too. I’m here to tell you, it gets on your nerves real fast.”

Corbin said nothing.

“It’s a losing game for you, Dennis, anywhere but here. Here, we know who you are and why you’re here and everything is fine. Anywhere else you go, you got to face questions you can’t answer, or you got to murder everybody here. It ain’t your fault, it ain’t anybody’s fault, but I can’t think of one place in the world outside of right here that’s safe for you. You got no other place to hide.”

No reply.

“Dennis, look at it this way. If that plane you were riding in had crashed on the other side of the mountain, what shape do you figure you’d be in by now?”

“Dead, I suppose,” Corbin said wearily.

Mr. Barnard nodded sharply “Damn well told, you’d be dead. Come down in the middle of the Kunluns somewhere and even if your Chinese friends send people right off, who’s going to find you in time? Am I right?”

Listlessly: “Right.”

“If you’d died in that plane, your life on the outside’d be over. And if we hadn’t been here to drag you out, you’d have died just the same. So maybe it will help you to accept the way things are. Your life outside is over. As far as the world is concerned, you died in a mysterious crash. It’s important the world don’t stop thinking that way.” He looked at him intently. “You see?”

Corbin frowned. I went back to fooling with my glass at the table. Nobody said anything for a long time. When Corbin did speak, it was in a voice so constricted that I looked up in surprise. Up to this point, Corbin had been a cucumber, Mr. Professional, in control.

“Is there somewhere I can take a walk for a few minutes? Would anybody mind that?”

From the sound of his voice—though not from the expressionless look of his face—he was close to tears. Mr. Conway suggested that I take him outdoors and show him the quarter‑mile stretch of rock ledge that we whimsically call our promenade, where we walk and walk, back and forth, back and forth till our legs ache, on days when we sicken of life led too much indoors.

 

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