Chase Baker and the Golden Condor: (A Chase Baker Thriller Series No. 2)

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PRAISE FOR VINCENT ZANDRI

 

Scream Catcher

 

“Sensational . . . masterful . . . brilliant.”

—New York Post

 

“My fear level rose with this Zandri novel like it hasn't done before.
Wondering what the killer had in store for Jude and seeing the ending, well,
this is one book that will be with me for a long time to come!”

—Reviews by Molly

 

“I very highly recommend this book . . . It's a great crime
drama that is full of action and intense suspense, along with some great twists
. . . Vincent Zandri has become a huge name and just keeps pouring out one best
seller after another.”

—Life in Review

 

“A thriller that has depth and substance, wickedness and
compassion.”

—The Times-Union (Albany)

 

“I also sat on the edge of my seat reading about Jude trying to
stay alive when he was thrown into one of those games . . . Add to that having
to disarm a bomb for good measure!”

—Telly Says

 

Lost Grace

 

“Lost Grace is a gripping psychological thriller that will keep
you riveted on the edge of your seat as you turn the pages.”

—Jersey Girl Book Reviews

 

“This book is truly haunting and will stay with you long after
you have closed the covers.”

—Beth C., Amazon 5-star review

 

The Innocent

 

"The action never wanes."

--Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinal

 

"Gritty, fast-paced, lyrical and haunting."

--Harlan Coben, bestselling author of
Six Years

 

"Tough, stylish, heartbreaking."

--Don Winslow, bestselling author of
Savages

 

Chase Baker and the Golden Condor

 

(A Chase Baker Thriller #2)

 

Vincent Zandri

 

 

“The Ancient Astronauts
or ancient aliens’ theory
is a pseudo-scientific proposal that posits intelligent extraterrestrial beings
have visited Earth and made contact with humans in antiquity and prehistory.
Proponents suggest that this contact influenced the development of human
cultures, technologies, and religions.”

--Wikipedia

 

“The Amazon Rainforest is so large, in fact, that there are
still tribes of people untouched by modern civilization. The Amazon maintains
perhaps the most species rich tract of tropical rainforest on the planet. It is
beautiful to behold, but dangerous in traveling. Dense bush and a slew of
venomous creatures keep the common person from delving too deep.”

--
Smashing Lists
: Top 10 Least Explored Places in
the World

Prologue

 

 

Machu Picchu

Urubamba Valley

Amazon Basin (Amazonia), Peru

May 1939

 

Yanking back his goggles
and resting them on
the brim of his pilot’s cap, Peter C. Keogh reaches into his waist-length
leather pilot’s coat and pulls out his map. His thighs pressed together in
order to hold the stick steady, the forty-year-old freelance employee of
Standard Oil exhales.

A sea of green stretches for as far as the eyes can see.
A forest-covered jagged mountain landscape that is as unrelenting in its
thickness as it is in its sheer vastness. The retired US Army Colonel turned
explorer-for-hire pulls back on the throttle of his de Havilland DH 82 Tiger
Moth and begins to descend toward the tree-topped canopy of a valley split in
two by the white-capped waters of the fast-moving Urubamba River. Wiping away
some of the condensate from his goggle lenses with the tips of his leather-gloved
fingers, he leans his head out over the fuselage to get a better bird’s-eye
view of the territory below.

“You’ve got to be here somewhere, you snake,” he speaks
into the cool, humid wind that slaps his face as he searches for an elusive
break in a jungle that blankets the back half of Machu Picchu and beyond.

The unexplored half.

While his blue, eagle-like eyes search, his brain
pictures the five-thousand-dollar bonus waiting for him. The cash comes to him only
if he can locate a trail extension the famous cartographer and explorer Dr.
Hiram Bingham described in eloquent prose more than twenty years ago—a trail
that begins at the backside of Machu Picchu and ends at the mouth of the Amazon
River inside the Amazon basin at a place untouched by the modern world, a place
known only as Inferno.

He opens the map just enough so that it doesn’t blow away
in the gale force winds. Looking up quickly at the brown, barren,
boulder-strewn summit of Machu Picchu in the distance, he then looks back down
upon the map.

“The Machu Picchu summit is my benchmark which means you
must be directly below me. But where?”

Folding the map back up and stuffing it back into his
coat pocket, he reaches down to the floor with his free hand and grabs hold of
his 16mm Eyemo movie camera, the same make and model his young friend Bob Capa
used recently in and around the bombed out streets of civil war–plagued Spain.
Leaning the lens over the side, Keogh presses the trigger on the camera and starts
shooting footage regardless of the fact that the trail he’s being paid to
“rediscover” is nowhere to be seen.

“This is all because of you, Hiram, baby,” Keogh whispers
to himself, his words fading into the wind. “I don’t come back with proof of a
trail, I not only don’t get my bonus, the bastards will make me return my
entire advance. And now that I’m a dad, I need the dough. Just need to get a
little lower …”

Luckily, Keogh knows that movie cameras—even the
super-high-tech hand-held ones like the Eyemo—often pick up details that the
naked eye cannot see, and that’s what he’s banking on right at this moment.
That the camera lens will somehow break through the dense foliage and capture,
even if only for a fleeting second, a humble visual hint of trailhead made of
dirt or stone that will lead Standard Oil to believe they can guide a team of
drillers into the Amazon basin in order to mine its vast resources of black
gold. Fact is, Keogh is counting on it.

But what he’s not counting on is what can go wrong when
he takes his eyes off of the horizon for too long. An Army ground commander for
most of his adult life, Keogh didn’t take to the skies until after his
retirement at age thirty-five. Fearless in demeanor and often reckless in
flight, his sky instructors would often scold him for “not keeping your
goddamned eyes on the road.” “What road?” would be the likeable Keogh’s common
response. A response that would be accompanied by brilliant blue eyes and a
smile full of straight white teeth.

That recklessness would prove to be bad luck over the
jungle today, as the wheels on the dangerously low-flying Tiger Moth suddenly
clip the top of an ironwood tree, causing the nose of the biplane to dip just
enough for the propeller to catch a branch. The prop snaps in two. An alarmed
Keogh pulls the camera back into the cockpit, drops it onto the floor, and
shoves it under the seat. He grabs hold of the joystick, yanks it all the way
back in order to gain altitude. But with the prop broken, all he can manage is
to make the plane climb a dozen hopeless vertical feet before it stalls,
dropping nose first into the thick tree-covered jungle canopy.

 

 

When Keogh comes to hours later, he finds himself being
pulled out of the cockpit of a plane that’s snagged itself in the tree branches
like a wood and paper kite that’s snapped free of its string in a hard wind.
The plane’s wings have sheared off and the fuselage has capsized, so that if it
weren’t for the seat belt, Keogh would have surely plunged to the ground one
hundred feet below and broken his neck.

Reaching under the seat he grabs hold of the movie
camera, holds it tightly while trying his best to maintain consciousness as he
eyes the native men who are performing a rescue. Aside from dark leather thongs
and sparse ornamentation such as bracelets and necklaces of beads and bones,
the short, thickly black-haired, tattooed natives are naked and barefoot. But
they work in unison, chanting indiscernible words to unrecognizable tribal
tunes as they unbuckle the beat-up pilot from the cockpit seat, carry him down
from the trees and then across the jungle floor. Even in his semi-conscious
state, and with sharp pain coming from his legs, he senses that the natives
don’t mean him any harm. But he also knows that their sentiments could change
at any moment. The tribes of this jungle are renowned for their head-hunting
practices and cannibalism, and should they find his wavy blond-haired,
blue-eyed head an attractive sacrifice to the Gods, they won’t hesitate to
behead him and give over both his heart and entire blood supply to their
deities.

Pressing his left bicep against his rib cage, he feels
the hard cylinder on his shoulder-holstered Army issue Colt .38 and he feels a
sense of profound relief. These natives may indeed try to kill him, but should
that happen, he’s prepared to take a few of them with him.

As the journey proceeds into the heart of the jungle
darkness, Keogh feels the sharp pain in his legs and the sickening dizziness in
his head, and passes out again.

 

The next time he regains consciousness, Keogh finds himself
once more gaining altitude. But this time he’s not strapped into the cockpit of
his Tiger Moth. Instead, the natives are carrying him up a steep set of stairs
carved out of the bedrock that constitutes a giant cliff-face. He lies back on
a crude gurney made of thick tree branches, animal hide, and rope, and despite
the constant sharp pangs of pain, he marvels at his body’s ability to remain
stuck to it even while being tipped upright, booted feet first, at a severe
angle. He’s even more impressed with the engineering that had to be involved in
carving the staircase from out of this cliff. The team of scantily clad natives
might be primitive in appearance and means, but they possess some serious
construction skills.

As they climb higher and higher, Keogh begins to notice
that the pain coming from his legs is growing progressively worse. Looking down
at his lower extremities, he can see the familiar knee-high, lace-up boots, but
he also notices something else that stains his canvas trousers.

Blood.

It’s then he realizes that both his legs are not only
broken, but they are broken badly from compound fractures.

“Gangrene,” he whispers to himself. “You can’t be far
away from me now.”

Lying back on the gurney, he pulls a cigar from his coat
pocket, along with his lighter, and he fires it up.

Inhaling deeply of the smoke, he silently prays, “My dear
Lord, how will I ever get out of here now? I have no plane, no method of
communication with the outside world, no legs to walk on. As time goes on, and
I do not report in, my employers will assume the worst. That I am dead. They
will close the file on me and that will be that. No rescue parties. That was a
part of the agreement. The risks I took in taking on this mission were mine
alone to assume, and no one else’s. I was to either succeed at my mission or
fail. No middle ground. And dear God, have I ever failed. I know it’s been a
long time since my last confession. Decades, in fact, but please have mercy on
my soul. That is, if I’ve still got one.”

The gurney dips and bucks, sending intense shock waves of
electric pain up and down the length of the nerve bundles that service Keogh’s
damaged legs.

“Oh God,” he says aloud, “get me out of here.”

That’s when the young, smooth-skinned native man holding
the foot of the gurney to his right turns and shoots him a look.

“You must not talk,” he speaks in a low, quiet, but
somehow commanding voice. “You must save your energy.”

“You speak English,” Keogh comments through a cloud of
cigar smoke. “But how can that be?”

“Yes.” The man nods. “I was educated in Lima where I
drove a taxi and kept an apartment for a time. I am a rare individual living
inside this jungle. An educated man who deserted the concrete jungle to make
his return to true civilization. Now please, rest. Soon we arrive at the Mouth
of the Beast, and you will need all the strength you can muster.”

“The Mouth of the Beast,” Keogh repeats. “I’m not sure if
I should be happy or frightened about going there.”

Tossing what’s left of his cigar over the side of the
gurney into the leafy canopy far below, he lays his head back painfully into
the cot. Soon, exhaustion sets in, and he is fast asleep once more.

 

The third and final time the Colonel lifts his head up, he
is lying on the floor of a cave. The place is enormous. Cavernous. Dimly lit
with at least two hundred burning torches mounted to the walls by means of
heavy metal clamps. Something occupies the floor. Something big and
bird-shaped. Excepting the three black, vertical legs and feet which extend
down from its belly and beak, the object appears to be made of gold. The light
from the torches makes the giant bird’s golden skin glimmer brilliantly.
Raising his hands to his eyes, Col. Keogh rubs the sleep out of them and takes
a closer look. The object is not a bird, exactly, but something else.

“Well, I’ll be a sad son of a bitch,” he whispers. “It’s
a goddamned plane.”

How the hell did a plane that big get all the way out
here in the jungle where there’s no landing strips? How did it get up here in
this cave? And if it’s a plane, where are its propellers? He’s heard talk about
some experiments going on inside Nazi Germany with propellerless jet engines,
but that’s the stuff you find in the Buck Rogers Saturday afternoon movie
serials.

That’s when something else comes to him.

He’s not presently lying inside a naturally formed cave,
so much as a natural cave that’s been manually widened on both sides and
extended deep into the heart of the mountain. Also, the ceiling has been raised
while the floor has been smoothed out. The engineering he is witnessing is
simply too incredible for words, be it ancient engineering or as modern as the
day before yesterday.

Keogh is an experienced pilot and he knows an airplane
hangar when he sees it.

“An airplane hangar all the way out here in the jungle. A
hangar that houses a golden, bird-shaped plane with no propellers.”

Four natives approach him, including the smooth-faced one
who spoke English. They take their respective places and lift him up off the
floor.

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