Monday, June 2, 2014

A preview of my forthcoming historical thriller: Race to Tibet

I couldn't resist posting some pictures of my new novel Race to Tibet, a novel that explores the Victorian era's fascination with exploring the Roof of the World.

http://www.pinterest.com/sophieschiller/scenes-from-race-to-tibet-the-new-great-game-novel/

Let's start with some of the characters:

Nikolai Prejevalsky (1839-1888) was your classic Great Game heavyweight. He was the Tsar's go-to guy for bringing back vital intelligence about British activity along her Central Asian borders, exploring previously-unknown regions and mountain ranges, as well as bringing back zoological and ornithological samples. He even discovered a previously-unknown wild species of horse that was named after him.
His greatest dream was to reach Lhasa, but fate intervened and he came down with a whopping case of typhus and an unpaid hospital bill in the Russian military hospital in Karakol (in present-day Kyrgyzstan) where his body was laid to rest.

The death of Prejevalsky in 1888 opened up new doors for other explorers, namely Gabriel Bonvalot, a gutsy French explorer whose specialty was sneaking up on foreign countries unannounced, a sort of geographical party-crasher. Bonvalot had guns, muscles, and oodles of chutzpa, but not much money, so when the Duke of Chartres offered to finance his expedition to Tibet, he said, "Oui" and "Quand partons-nous?" (When do we leave?) The only caveat being that Bonvalot had to take along the Duke's wayward son, Prince Henri d'Orleans, an aristocratic poltroon with a penchant for gambling, drinking, and getting on everyone's nerves. Thankfully, nothing that a good fist fight couldn't fix. You can read all about their harrowing journey in my forthcoming thriller "Race to Tibet". 

For more pictures about their extraordinary journey to Tibet, please click on the Pinterest link. Please follow me on Pinterest for updates.

http://www.pinterest.com/sophieschiller/scenes-from-race-to-tibet-the-new-great-game-novel/

Thursday, May 8, 2014

The Evolution of a Book Cover

I started writing Transfer Day, an historical novel set in the Danish West Indies during WWI, in December of 2008 to fulfill a childhood promise to write a novel that would capture the unique history and beauty of St. Thomas, the island of my youth. Very few people know that for 300 years Denmark had a sugar colony in the West Indies, but no novels existed that were set in this unique location.

My novel centers on a 16-year old girl who becomes embroiled in a German spy's plot to invade and take over the islands after she rescues a deserter from a German U-boat. After years of writing and polishing several drafts, I was ready to start designing a book cover.

 In the Spring of 2011, I hired a professional designer and described my vision for the cover, which included blazing cannons, Danish soldiers and U-boat medallions. Here are the results:



I liked the covers, and I have no doubt I would have used one of them had it not been for a certain beta reader—a gentleman who owns a book store—who pointed out that the majority of book buyers are women, and for a book cover to work, it should reflect that fact.

This added a significant wrinkle to my situation. Since one of my main characters was a U-boat officer, I naturally thought that guys would be more interested in reading Transfer Day. I knew that to successfully market my book to women, I would have to change the girl's age, change several key scenes, and create a richer romantic subtext to the story.

I went back to the drawing board and hired a new book designer to create a new cover that reflected this new image. The new cover we conjured up was definitely designed to appeal more to females. Gone were the smoking cannons, the unfurled flags, the shiny medallions. Instead, we inserted a beautiful girl superimposed over an idyllic image of Charlotte Amalie. This is the result:

I launched "Transfer Day" in June of 2012, never realizing that my journey was just beginning. As a thank you for sharing his expertise, I sent a paperback copy of "Transfer Day" to my European military consultant (who is also an avid reader) who promptly declared upon completing it that the book was a spy thriller. A spy thriller? I could feel my brow wrinkling. "That's impossible!" I argued. "This book is historical fiction. Look at the historical setting, the island vignettes, the international cast of characters." "No, no," he answered firmly. "Transfer Day is a spy thriller."

I accepted his assertion, but if "Transfer Day" was a spy thriller, then it would need new title and a new cover to reflect its new genre. I pondered this dilemma for hours, but I remained stumped. I couldn't think of a new title. And then, right out of the blue, it hit me:  "Spy Island". Spy Island was the perfect title for my book. After more intensive research, I designed a new cover to reflect this new image:

I was pleased with the results. But two months later, I got a big surprise. I had entered "Spy Island" in a giveaway sponsored by a popular YA blog (since I was trying to break into the YA market) and to my dismay, the reaction was lukewarm. The new cover didn't seem to excite much interest. I was shocked because I thought the title and cover would appeal to lovers of historical fiction and action/adventure novels. But I was off the mark. Back to the drawing board.

This time, I delved deeper into the study of YA book covers. Many book blogs contain in depth analyses about current trends in YA book covers, and I studied these blogs for hours on end, analyzing hundreds of covers, studying which images worked best to attract readers. After more research and investigation, this is the new image I came up with:

While the new cover captured the essence of my main character and the tropical setting of the novel, the historical aspect was missing. After subjecting the cover to a focus group, the conclusion I came up with was that most people felt the cover projected a contemporary romantic look, not the sweeping historical espionage thriller I had written. I heaved a sigh and went back to the drawing board.

Late one night after everyone had gone to bed, I was browsing through Shutterstock, looking for the right image. Then it hit me. I found a picture of a beautiful Croatian model with a turn-of-the-century hairdo that was just perfect. I knew I had found my Abby. But what about the background? After more consideration, I decided to go back to my original background, the one that accurately captures the look of the island that I had used for the original Transfer Day cover. My cover artist put the cover together and for the first time in years, I had a feeling of total satisfaction. After all those hours of work, I finally achieved the desired results. The cover is attractive and intriguing, and conveys the historical feel of the novel. My job was finally finished.

After two years of hard work, I learned that designing a book cover is a complex subject best left to professionals. But if a writer is compelled to do it, you should be prepared to make mistakes and learn from them, as it is only through those failures that you'll learn to grow, adapt and change. The hardest lesson of all was accepting that what pleased me was not necessarily what the market wanted. I had to let go of my preconceived notions about what entailed a successful book cover and embrace the market's needs. Now that I've reached this new plateau, I feel like I've passed a crucial test. But when I look back on the journey, I'm grateful for all the help I received along the way. Mostly I'm grateful that I listened to the messages I received, and that I had the flexibility to act on them.

Monday, April 14, 2014

The Writing Process Blog Hop

I've been tagged by my friend, the lovely and talented Lynne Hinkey, to blog about my writing process. Just scroll down to my entry of March 6th (My how time flies!) to read about my forthcoming historical novel, "Race to Tibet". If you would like to listen to an interview I gave to Etienne Gibbs in his show "In the Author's Corner", please scroll down to the very next post. Thank you in advance for reading/listening about my books. And as always, we serve a steaming mug of fresh coffee on this blog to all our readers!


Monday, April 7, 2014

In the Author's Corner with Etienne Gibbs on Blog Talk Radio

Join me on Blog Talk Radio where I discuss the writing and researching of Transfer Day (Spy Island):

http://www.blogtalkradio.com/intheauthorscornerwithetienne/2014/04/07/sophie-schillers-danish-transfer-1





Thank you again to Etienne Gibbs for a great interview. I really enjoyed it!

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Guest Post by Literary Agent Josh Getzler

Plot BIGNESS

Josh Getzler

Recently, my assistant, Danielle, and I were discussing a number of queries we had received where the setup and buildup were outstanding, the manuscript was rolling along, we were wondering “Hmm, I wonder how this will play out,” and then…
BANG—Conspiracy of Templars!
BANG—The evil bully is actually an alien!!
BANG—The GOVERNMENT is out to get the 12 year old!
(No, this is not about any specific query, but a type. If you think this is about YOUR query, read on, then revise!)
OK, so here’s the thing: If you are writing a big international thriller, a YA adventure with Save-the-world written all over it, or epic fantasy, then fine. Go ahead with the Uncle Who’s Really a Triple Agent from the 28th Century.
But the books we were reading where this was happening were smaller in scope; mysteries and domestic dramas and YA novels that were, in some fundamental ways, cozier than that. It’s not necessary for a kid to find enough nitroglycerin to destroy the world three times over in the neighbor’s garage; he can find a stash of stolen art or his father's old service revolver. The bad apple down the block could have issues smaller than being three light years from the planet Xenon.
My point is pretty basic. Most novels have a built-in scope, where the reader is nodding along and where the suspension of disbelief is reasonable. When a writer, for reasons of ambition or because it seems cool, or in order to work out a tricky plot point, goes beyond scope, it is jarring. Eyes roll. We ask “Why?” We don’t want to read further, or we ask the author to walk it back.
Sometimes the writer will make a reasonable point: “We always hear that books need to be BIG in order to ‘make an impact in the market,’ and that’s what I was trying to do.” OK, fair enough. But almost all the time, the issue is far less about the true Bigness of the story and more about trying to compensate for a plot deficit.
And also understand, I’m not saying don’t be ambitious. I don’t want only tidy dramas in small towns or, you know,Good Expectations. But when you are thinking “OK, what if the dog can fly?” PLEASE be sure that you set it up that the spaniel drank a whole mess of magical non-poisonous jet fuel for dinner. 


Thursday, March 6, 2014

Tagged!



I have been tagged by Australian writer Elizabeth Jane Corbett to share my writing process in the “Tagged” blog tour. When not writing, Elizabeth works as a Librarian, Welsh Teacher, and blogger. You can visit her blog at: http://elizabethjanecorbett.com/elizabeth-janes-story/

So, without further ado, let me introduce you to my new novel:

Race to Tibet

Tibet by Nicholas Roerich courtesty of the Nicholas Roerich Museum, Manhattan

What am I working on?

"Race to Tibet" is a historical novel that tells a thrilling tale of high-altitude adventure and survival set in the world's most forbidden country: Tibet. It is based on the true story of three courageous explorers who are determined to be the first living European to reach Lhasa during the age of Victorian Exploration. 
When these intrepid adventurers reach Tibet, they discover a land of mystery and intrigue, a land of danger that promises them only one thing: death. In the end, only one of these explorers will fulfill his lifelong dream of reaching Lhasa, but he will spend the rest of his life haunted by it.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have yet to find any substantial work based on the same theme. There is one book by the English writer, Mike Scholey, called "Beads of Water, Drops of Gold", but it tells the story of the 1904 Tibetan invasion from the point of view of Sir Francis Younghusband, whereas my story starts in 1889 and tells a much broader story about three distinct explorers, Francis Younghusband, Gabriel Bonvalot, and Bronislav Grombchevsky, who were all vying to be the first living European to reach Lhasa. I was inspired to write a novel set in the Himalayas after reading the novel "Paths of Glory" by Jeffrey Archer, but that's where any similarity ends. Archer's book is solely about George Mallory's attempts at conquering Mount Everest whereas my book narrates the adventures of three distinct explorers who set out on life-threatening expeditions between 1889-1890.
 

Gabriel Bonvalot, your average intrepid Victorian explorer

Why do I write what I write?

This story was a dream come true. I found it by chance, so, in a certain sense, I feel as if I was personally chosen to tell this tale. The amazing story of Gabriel Bonvalot was languishing in libraries around the world for over a hundred years and was dying to be retold in a novel. Had it not been for the geniuses of Google (specifically Larry Page), who came up with the brilliant idea of digitizing the worlds' books and making them searchable and accessible to all of mankind, Bonvalot's story might have stayed buried forever. So, in answer to the question, I'd have to say: when I find a story that captivates me that has never been told before, I immerse myself in that world and go to work bringing the story to life one scene at a time.

How does my writing process work?

I start with research, deep, intensive research. I download and purchase every book on the subject. Using legal-sized notepads, I write down everything relevant to the story or to the time period, such as eating habits, drinking habits, attitudes, unusual observations, medicines, bureaucratic dilemmas, folk remedies, speech habits, etc. Ditto with paper books. I highlight and underline everything I need to tell the story. This process can take a year to a year and a half. Then I sit down and start plotting the novel and creating scenes. I love to start by introducing the characters and building them up as interesting personalities. I keep the action moving forward and build suspense.

I hope you will enjoy "Race to Tibet" when it's released and I love to hear readers' comments and observations.
 

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Sneak Peak at "Race to Tibet" Coming in 2014

Race to Tibet

Race to Tibet is a thrilling tale of high-altitude adventure and survival set in the world's most forbidden country:  Tibet

Race to Tibet is based on the true story of three intrepid explorers, Gabriel Bonvalot, Francis Younghusband, and Bronislav Grombchevsky, who are competing to be the first living European to reach Lhasa. It is also the story of a woman who is determined to find her missing husband who disappeared inside Tibet—no matter the cost. What these explorers discover is a land of mystery and intrigue, a land of danger that promises them only one thing:  death.

CHAPTER 1


Paris, France
December, 1888

Strolling down the Boulevard des Italiens, Gabriel Bonvalot resembled any other well-dressed Parisian in his sack suit, top hat, and overcoat, but his mind was miles away. Worlds away to be exact. In his fertile imagination, drifts of snow became the snow-capped mountains of the Hindu Kush. The wind howling in his ears was the Pamir wolf, and the River Seine glistened like the turquoise lakes of Turkestan.
As France's most celebrated explorer, Gabriel Bonvalot was obsessed with traveling to the four corners of the globe. And when he wasn't out trekking on some windswept pass high up in the Himalayas, he was thinking of ingenious ways of getting there. Even sickness and ill health couldn't stop his mind from wandering to far-flung lands. When confined to his bed during a lengthy recuperation from rheumatic fever that he'd picked up while crossing the Pamir Mountains, Bonvalot's greatest pleasure was to leaf through his trusty Schrader Atlas and let his eyes wander over the mountains, rivers, valleys, and lakes. From the volume's dusty pages, mountain peaks would burst forth, joined by forests of pine and oak trees that sprang up like dandelions, bowing and swaying from a blast of cold Siberian wind, while shimmering blue rivers snaked down to fertile orchards of apple, almond, and apricot trees.
To Gabriel Bonvalot, a map was a living, breathing world. And when his eyelids grew too heavy, and sleep was about to overtake him, an imaginary snowfall would fall across his bed, prompting him to close the atlas, pull up the covers, and fall into a deep, restful slumber.
When pressed, Bonvalot would always insist that geography was more than the mere study of maps, surveys, and charts as found in countless volumes languishing in dusty libraries around the world. Geography was, in fact, an adventure waiting to be explored. A costly adventure, to be sure, but one that filled all his waking and all his sleeping hours.
But the world of exploration was not without its hazards. Bonvalot would always caution the prudent explorer to forever be on his guard and keep his Winchester close at hand. From roving bands of brigands, to hostile border guards, to mercenaries and pirates, travelers needed more than luck to reach their goal. They needed a quick trigger finger or an open purse. And then there were the unseen maladies that could stop even the hardiest explorer in his tracks, like cholera and dysentery as explained by great men of science like Pasteur and Koch in their medicinal doctrine of microbes. As demonstrated by the mighty Prejevalsky, these tiny devils could reduce even a Goliath of a man to his sick bed. But aside from the obvious perils, Bonvalot's greatest worry was money. The art of coaxing money out of fickle coffers was almost as difficult as extracting gold teeth from reluctant mouths. An expedition of any size was an expensive endeavor that could end in failure and bankruptcy. After his last journey across the Pamirs had almost cost him his life, the price of high-risk travel was greater than ever. Looking back on that fiasco, when his journey across the Roof of the World had left him frostbitten, starved, snow-blind, and locked up in a Chitral dungeon, Bonvalot knew he would need an extraordinary success to seal his name in the annals of geography.
This time he would go for the grand prize.
Bonvalot's dream was to be the first living European to reach Lhasa, the forbidden—and therefore enticing—capital of Tibet. But it would not be easy. Times were hard; money was scarce. Even the royal family had had their share of money woes. There were rumors that the young pretender to the French throne, Prince Henri d'Orléans, had amassed such a large gambling debt that his father, Robert, Duke of Chartres, was forced to drop to his knees and beg his patron, Baron Maurice de Hirsch, for the money to cover the young numskull's debts of honor. Bonvalot shuddered at the thought of having to beg for the privilege of doing what he loved best.
Down the street, a crowd had gathered at his favorite newsstand, with all eyes peeled to the latest edition of Le Figaro. Bonvalot hurried to join them, and when he spotted a familiar face on the front page, he froze. He snatched the newspaper off the stand and stared at the headline with a mixture of shock and incredulity, his hand gripping the paper so tight his arms shook with excitement:

General Prejevalsky Dead

Bonvalot's pulse quickened. Can it be true? Is that Russian braggart really dead? He threw down a few centimes and grabbed the newspaper, certain that the news would send tremors throughout all the Geographical Societies of Europe. But undoubtedly it would also catch notice at the highest echelons of British Military Intelligence. Rumors had been circulating for years that General Prejevalsky had been involved in intelligence gathering activities under the guise of exploration and discovery. As it turned out, the various occupations were not mutually exclusive.
Dodging a cavalcade of horse carriages, Bonvalot dashed across the snow-covered boulevard to Café Tortoni, his home away from home, to read the article in peace.
When Bonvalot entered the café, the Maitre d'hôtel rushed over to greet him, removing the famed explorer's coat as if he were the Duke of Magenta himself.
"Monsieur Bonvalot, what an honor to see you," said the Maitre d'hôtel, beaming from ear to ear. "I've saved your favorite seat—the best in the house."
"Please don't fuss," said Bonvalot, unaccustomed to all the attention his fame brought him. "I'd prefer that quiet table over there."
"As you wish, Monsieur."
Bonvalot took a quiet table and spread the newspaper out over the linen tablecloth. Before he even looked up, the wine steward was at his side bearing the pride of the house: Chateau Lafite Rothschild 1883. He waited for Bonvalot's approval and then proceeded to pop the cork.
"Compliments of the house," said the steward, filling a sparkling glass to the brim. Then he bowed and disappeared in a whoosh.
"Merci," said Bonvalot, lifting the glass to inhale the wine's fragrant bouquet. After tasting the libation, he once again feasted his eyes on the article:

Major-General Prejevalsky, whose death was recently reported in the cablegrams was the most distinguished of all the Russian scientific explorers and one of the greatest modern authorities on Central Asia. He was a trusted officer of the Czar and had well-earned the reputation for being a bold, daring, determined, and enthusiastic pioneer of travel. He broke fresh ground in Turkestan some 15 years ago, traversing the Pamir, skirting the Chang Tang, Tibet's great Northern deserts, and penetrating the Lob-Nor. Although he succeeded in exploring portions of Northern Tibet, he was unable to make his way south into Lhasa. At the time of his death, he was about to embark on another attempt. The sudden death of Prejevalsky on the eve of another journey to Tibet, will send shock waves throughout the scientific world.

Shock waves is an understatement, thought Bonvalot, finishing off his drink and pouring himself another. With Prejevalsky dead, his biggest competitor in the race to Lhasa was out of the picture. But he was sure there were others out there, ambitious British soldiers seeking fame and glory outside the regiment, and the more covert kind of explorer, those who entered the Forbidden Kingdom disguised as Buddhist pilgrims or traders. The British were always sending their pundits to map and explore Tibet using specially designed rosary beads with 100 instead of the usual 108 beads to count their paces, compasses hidden inside their prayer wheels, and thermometers for gauging altitude secreted inside a hollowed out stick. Many of the pundits suffered unimaginable cruelty at the hand of the Tibetan authorities when their disguises were uncovered. Some simply disappeared without a trace.
But there were other problems barring his way, money being at the forefront. Organizing an expedition costs a small fortune. Bonvalot needed a sponsor who was fabulously wealthy yet didn't make too many demands. In time, he was sure he would resolve that problem as well. And once the funds were safely deposited in his bank account, he would organize the expedition of a lifetime. He would hire the bravest, most reliable guides, the best caravaneers, the sturdiest horses and use the leftover money to bribe his way to Lhasa if the situation required. By the end of next year, Bonvalot could picture himself climbing the steps of the Potala Palace to meet the famed Dalai Lama himself. He would raise the Tricolor for the glory of France and secure his place in the annals of geographical exploration for all time. Success had never tasted so sweet.
Naturally, Bonvalot would return to France with trunks filled with Tibetan gold and gemstones, rare Buddhist manuscripts, priceless statues, and if the gods of exploration were really smiling on him, maybe even the Dalai Lama himself. Bonvalot closed his eyes and pictured himself standing in front of the annual meeting of the Société de Géographie in his black tie and tails, smiling as he pulls aside a curtain to reveal His Holiness together with a royal entourage of saffron-robed monks. It would be the talk of every geographical society for years. For decades. For the rest of his life. His bank account would never again be overdrawn. He would at last be able to live down his humiliating childhood.
Bonvalot sipped his wine and smiled. At the age of thirty-five, he had made a name for himself in the competitive world of geographical exploration. Two years ago he had received the coveted gold medal of the Société de Geographie for his remarkable journey across the Pamirs to India in the middle of winter, a journey that almost cost him his life. Tall, handsome, with light brown hair, a trimmed beard, warm blue eyes, and the confidence of a troop of Legionnaires, Bonvalot looked at home on the cover of every newspaper and magazine in the country. To meet the public's insatiable craving for adventure, Bonvalot had penned numerous best-sellers about his globe-trotting travels through Central Asia. Those books brought in enough royalty checks to ensure he would never have to stoop to accepting a salaried position, but he wasn't rich by anyone's estimation.
Still, the life of an explorer had its share of pitfalls. Expeditions were fraught with hardship and danger; Bonvalot had risked life and limb on numerous occasions, but until now death had been an abstraction, like the sun-bleached skeleton of an ibex nestled along the shores of a Siberian Lake. Prejevalsky's sudden death made him think hard about his own life. How long would his streak of good fortune last?
Bonvalot chuckled at the irony of it all. Prejevalsky the larger-than-life Russian Hercules was gone and he was still alive. It was almost impossible to believe. It was, in fact, a miracle.
As an explorer, Prejevalsky was in a class all by himself. Though short of stature, his massive chest and overbearing attitude projected the image of a human locomotive. He sported a head full of thick black hair that he would grease back like an Indian Maharajah, and together with his bold features, dark eyebrows, olive complexion, and suspicious nature, Prejevalsky resembled the natives of Central Asia among whom he travelled. But he had won the greater measure of their respect by his deadly accuracy with a rifle and his unflinching use of brute force. In a heated confrontation, Prejevalsky never lost the upper hand. If necessary, he would beat his rival with a whip to win his obedience and respect. As far as rivals go, Prejevalsky was unstoppable, and now he was dead.
Bonvalot stared at the frozen image of Prejevalsky in the newspaper. "So my friend, your dream of Lhasa is over. You failed miserably."
"What do you know about my dream of Lhasa?"
Shocked, Bonvalot looked up. Sitting across from him was a disheveled tramp who had appeared out of nowhere. His face was bloated and bruised, his skin an unnatural shade of purple and covered with festering sores. His clothes, if they could be called that, were in tatters—worse than a beggar's. His hair was a tangled, filthy mess more resembling fodder than human hair. And most troubling of all, the man smelled of the sewers, of death.
Bonvalot recoiled. "Must you sit here? Find yourself another table."
"Not so fast, Monsieur Bonvalot," said the beggar in a voice that grated like wheels over gravel. "I didn't come here to ask you to open your purse. I came here to offer you something. And when you hear what I have to offer, you'll be glad that I did."
"You are here to offer me something? Go away you filthy beggar!"
The stranger's face turned menacing. He grabbed Bonvalot's arm in a vise-like grip.
"I think you'd better sit back quietly, Monsieur Bonvalot, if you don't want to cause a scene."
Bonvalot pulled his arm out of the stranger's grasp and glanced around to make sure nobody was watching. The restaurant was full of diners laughing and joking, and waving their forks in animated conversation while drinking endless glasses of wine, while an elderly Gypsy meandered around the tables serenading the diners with soft violin music. To Bonvalot's relief, no one had noticed that a filthy street beggar had wormed his way into one of Paris's most famous restaurants and commandeered Bonvalot's private table. Even the maitre d'hôtel, who was not more than twenty feet away, seemed completely oblivious to the matter at hand. Bonvalot squirmed in his seat and tried to get a grip on his mounting anger.
The stranger continued. "As I said before, I came here to make you an offer."
"I thought I told you to leave."
The beggar narrowed his eyes. "Would you like me to raise my voice and cause a scene?"
Bonvalot glared at the intruder. "Then get on with your little speech and get out."
"You said before that I failed," continued the beggar over the din of the café, "But in many ways I succeeded beyond all measure. During my third journey, I penetrated deeper into Tibet than any other European explorer in modern times. I came so close to reaching Lhasa, I was sure we would make it. At our southernmost point, I calculated our position to be no more than 160 miles away. This is a remarkable achievement given the odds we were facing. Even those celebrated Indian pundits the British sent into Tibet only managed to survey the southern and western portions of the country; they were never able to infiltrate the interior before disaster struck. But alas! Our camels held us back; those faltering beasts were completely useless at high altitudes. They grew sick and feeble, growled incessantly, and refused to get up no matter how hard I beat them. It was on account of these circumstances that I was forced to abandon the entire expedition or risk dying among those savages. But that was then. This time it can be different. I came here to offer you my services as guide on your expedition to Tibet. And if you're smart you'll accept it. I'm giving you the chance to use all my wisdom and experience. It's all up here." The beggar tapped his head. "Where I failed you can succeed. I guarantee it."
"Who the devil are you?" said Bonvalot, fighting to keep his voice contained.
The beggar smiled, showing teeth that were cracked and stained. "The greatest explorer in the world. The toast of Russia. The favorite of the Tsar. At least, I was all those things."
"Yes, and I'm Lillie Langtry, but that doesn't answer my question. Who are you and how do you know so much about Tibet?" said Bonvalot, his heart now racing.
The beggar smiled wryly. "I think you know."
Bonvalot dropped his spoon. He bent down to retrieve it and noticed the beggar was wearing boots that appeared to be made of yak fur and were caked with a strange yellow mud. He slid his pocket knife out of its sheath, cut a sample of the fur, and wrapped it in his handkerchief.
"I entered a region that was less known than the darkest Africa," continued the beggar. "Using only my iron will, I broke the backs of those damned Asiatics. But my men and I suffered terrible privations for our heroism. Many times we went hungry when there was no game. Dozens of horses and camels collapsed from sheer exhaustion. Some of them simply froze to death. The Hami desert that separates the Tian Shan from the Nan Shan was so hot at night you couldn't sleep on the ground. There were no animals, no plants, no civilized life, just salt clouds that formed into mirages that mocked us and tormented us. The wind knocked us off our feet and tore at our eyes. There was no fodder for the animals, no water to drink. And the inhabitants! They mirrored the cursed terrain with their games of treachery. They refused to sell us food, refused to provide us with guides, called us foreign devils behind our backs and sometimes right to our faces. They used every means of deceit to rob us blind. The only thing the Chinamen and the Mongol understand is the nagayka whip. Central Asia is a lawless, godless land, and only European rifles and Krupp guns can do any good there. Missionary preaching is like howling in the wilderness. The Asiatics are beyond saving."
Bonvalot's eyes grew wide. "Prejevalsky…?"
"The name is Nikolai Mikhaylovich Prejevalsky," said the beggar, bowing his head and twisting his lips in a gratuitous smile. "As you may have heard, I was never noted for my manners, never comfortable in polite society. I was only happy out there in the wilderness, far from wretched civilization. Far from the stench of humanity."
Bonvalot felt his neck grow hot with anger. "I've had enough of you. I don't know who the devil you are, but you're a despicable fraud. I'm not the least bit impressed with your little charade. Get out before I call the gendarmes. Scat!"
All at once, the beggar erupted into a violent fit of coughing that was so loud, it drowned out the clanking of pots from the kitchen, the animated conversation from the diners, and the Gypsy's hypnotic violin playing.
Bonvalot looked around, terrified the interloper would choke to death at his table and cause a hair-raising scene that would land him on the front page of Charivari—or worse. That the waiter failed to check on the situation only made him more agitated. It seemed, in fact, that no one else could hear the beggar's loud coughing, as if he wasn't really there. To mollify the situation, Bonvalot gave the filthy tramp a few half-hearted thumps on his stone cold back.
"Is that all you can do after I came here to help you?" cried the beggar, shoving Bonvalot's hand away as he spat a large clot of blood into his napkin. "You sorry French bastard! You didn't even offer me a drink! Is this what you Frenchies call good manners? I should shoot you with my revolver to teach you a lesson. Where is the damned thing?"
Bonvalot jumped out of his seat, heart pounding like a drum. The beggar rummaged through his tattered clothing for his gun with a fury that bordered on savagery. Lacking a weapon, Bonvalot searched in vain for help, but there was not a gendarme in sight. The other diners were eating and drinking to their heart's content. No one had heard the beggar's dire threat. No one knew his life was at stake.
The beggar gave up searching for his pistol and returned to his coughing spasm. Bonvalot breathed a sigh of relief, but felt his face grow hot at the humiliation of having a lowly street beggar encroach on his private table and lecture him about the rigors of Central Asian exploration. He called for the maitre d'hôtel, who came rushing over at once, corkscrew in hand.
"Oui, Monsieur Bonvalot?"
"Will you kindly escort this vagrant out of the café. He came in without permission, took over my table, and is now threatening to shoot me. He's stark raving mad and has no business being in this fine establishment."
"Certainly, Monsieur," said the maitre d'hôtel, who looked from Bonvalot to the table, then back at Bonvalot. "Excuse me," he said, looking around with a baffled expression on his face. "but which vagrant are you referring to?"

Stunned, Bonvalot stared at the chair that was now empty. Inexplicably, the stranger had vanished.