Pete Chandler series—mystery and suspense in exotic locations.
This is the second book in the Pete Chandler series. When Pete gets a call for help from an old friend and colleague at the U.S. Export/Import Bank in South America, Pete drops everything to go. Before he can get there, the friend dies in a freak accident—he falls out of a tourist ride into a deep river gorge. Investigating the death in Ecuador, Pete discovers his friend has led a double life that’s pulled-in South American law enforcement and Chinese gangsters.
As Pete digs into the mystery, he becomes a target of forces who believe he was involved with the dead friend’s crimes. Now, Pete must fight for his own survival in a race that leads to the heights of the Andes Mountains, Machu Picchu, and the ancient secrets of the Incas.
The Inca Code
How odd to receive a paper letter in the digital age, Pete Chandler thought as he opened the envelope. There wasn’t any return address. A card fell out, heavy stock with a rough texture. Handwritten in loopy letters, it read:
I’m outside the wire down here and Ali Baba’s off the perimeter send reinforcements!! u helped last time
Pete’s stomach twitched, and the chair he sat in hardened against his back. The card was from an old friend that Pete hadn’t seen in years —Judd Crowe. Although they both worked for the US Export/Import Bank, Pete was posted in Minneapolis, and Judd had gone somewhere in South America years ago.
Leaving his cubicle office at the bank, Pete hurried to an open area. He looked out the sixth floor window. Below him the Nicollet Mall vegetable stands sprouted along the sidewalks. The sellers hid from the hot sun in the shadows of their tarps. Suffocating humidity still clung to the city—odd for this late in the summer. Customers on the street looked like hummingbirds darting from one stall to another before they hurried back to air-conditioned offices. Although Pete wore a cotton golf shirt, dampness still spread over his chest. He looked at the card. What really punched him in the gut were the words, “u helped last time.”
Judd had been Pete’s commanding officer in the Iraq war when they were assigned to the Army Criminal Investigation Command. More importantly, Judd had saved them from disastrous trouble—but at a steep price.
Pete thought of him: short but solid as concrete, fearless and crazy. About fifty years old by now, and probably still married to Deborah. Pete had been the best man at their wedding. If Judd needed Pete’s help, it would be something serious.
He headed back to his cubicle. Tan sheetrock walls at shoulder height gave him a little privacy. Pete had worked at the bank since leaving a disastrous investigative position in Washington, DC. Next to him the other investigator for the bank, Kendra Cooper, had a similar cubicle. Through the outside wall of his office, Pete heard people moving through the skyways that linked the buildings together with air-conditioned tubes of glass and steel. His boss, Martin Graves, had shoved the offices in a deserted corner of the floor. It was like an imaginary island in a sea of open space, and Pete liked it.
Kendra stepped around the edge of the wall and rested her arm on the top. She wore yellow glasses that contrasted with her dark skin. “How’s Ace Ventura, Pet Detective today?” she kidded him.
“Worried.” He told her about the card.
“Crowe?” She cocked her hip to the left. “I met him once at a conference in Miami. Wicked smart, I thought.”
Pete looked past her into open space. “Wonder what happened in South America?”
“Look him up. It’s on the GF-OP 2000 site.”
Pete leaned forward in his chair and stretched his arms. He was thin and in good shape, thanks to the tae kwon do training he practiced. “Great idea, but at my pay grade, I don’t have clearance.”
A smile crossed Kendra’s face. “You can’t do it, but maybe I can. I’ve got a contact at human resources in Washington. She owes me a favor.”
Pete laughed. “After all, you’re an investigator. I’d hate to be on the wrong side of you.”
“Talk to my ex-husband. I took him down for max child support. Isn’t hard if you know where to look for information—and dirt.” She straightened. Her lower half had filled out, but she always said her new man liked his women full figured. Checking her iPhone, Kendra said, “Still got time. I can catch her now. Be right back.” She turned and looped out of the cubicle.
In ten minutes, Kendra returned. “Here’s the info on the dude.” She set a tablet in front of Pete and pointed at the screen. Gold rings clustered between her knuckles, several on each finger. “I had my friend send it to my personal tablet so it would be harder to trace if anyone got nosy.”
“So much for tight government security. No wonder the Chinese can get access.” Pete read the data on the screen to Kendra. “He’s been posted to the Ex/Im Bank office in Quito, Ecuador, for eight years. Looks like he asked for the location specifically.”
“Well, the Ecuador/Peru office is only a tiny market for the bank. We’ve placed ten times more loans in Africa and India. Lot more action there.” Kendra hummed a song as she sat in the only chair that could fit into the cubicle space. “What was Judd’s assignment?”
Pete continued to read. “He worked in IT. Looks like he was in charge of everything. I remember he loved cyberspace better than he liked the real space he lived in. Which makes me even more suspicious. Why would a digital guy use something as ancient as a letter?”
“Especially if he’s in trouble. Why the slo-mo?”
“I remember he was desperate to get out of the Army and make some money. Big money.” Pete ran his hand over his head as if to flatten his already combed hair. Black and still thick, it had receded up his forehead a few inches.
“Not going to happen at the Export/Import Bank. Thank God for our pensions.” She leaned forward and pulled Judd’s card from behind Pete’s computer. “What’s this mean?”
“I was a lieutenant, but he always called me ‘Leftenant’ as a joke between us. ‘Ali Babas’ was a term over there for the bad guys.”
Pete grinned for a moment. “Came from college, I guess. Judd took so many drugs that his friends called him ‘Dow,’ like the Dow Chemical Company.” When Kendra frowned, Pete continued, “By the time I knew him, he was totally straight. After all, he got us out of, uh, a situation.” He dropped the grin.
Images of South America entered Pete’s mind. Mountains, people wrapped in colorful blankets instead of coats, horses and guitars. Women with red lipstick leaning over iron balconies. And the sun glittering across
the dusty domes of colonial churches. What could possibly have threatened Judd there?
“Gonna go?” Kendra’s voice interrupted his thoughts.
“The bank’s got some problems down there.”
“We’re in a battle with the Chinese. The Ecuadorian and Peruvian governments are allies to the US, but lately they’ve hedged their bets and have actively sought Chinese financing for new projects.”
“Maybe that’s why Judd needs my help.”
“Good luck, dude.” Kendra grunted as she stood. “Not that you’re asking, but if it were up to me, I’d go.”
“The boss is tight with the funds.”
“You could remind him you’re an investigator for possible problems at the bank—even problems in South America.” She left a faint whiff of her musky perfume behind her.
Pete decided to heat some water for the instant coffee he always drank. He pulled out a packet of Starbucks dried coffee and ripped it open. Drinking instant coffee was a habit he must have gotten from his father, who had drunk it all his life. Not that Pete wanted to be like him. In fact, he tried in most ways to be opposite. The relationship between them had been rocky, to say the least, until the day of the old man’s death.
Even more frustrating was that Pete had vowed to be a better parent than his father, but the relationship with Pete’s daughter, Karen, was also rocky. He was failing as a father just like his own parent had fallen short.
When the water boiled, Pete poured it into the cup. The water flushed black without hesitation. At least it smelled like real coffee.
Judd had never asked for Pete’s help since they’d been discharged from the Army. Why now? Pete decided to talk with the director of the office, Martin Graves.
On the tenth floor, Pete said hello to Graves’ secretary. Graves had sufficiently high rank in the bank to qualify for a human secretary, called an operational adjutant. Pete stepped past the oak door and into the office. Because of the air conditioning budget cuts from Washington, the office was warm and sticky.
Graves looked up and waved Pete toward the circular table in the corner. Graves had pink skin and an expanding middle. He owed his position as the director of the bank to his unique ability to memorize government procedures and negotiate the Byzantine hallways of Washington. “What’s wrong?”
“It shows, huh?” Pete sat at the table and crossed his arms over his chest.
“What is it?”
Although Pete trusted Graves, he was hesitant to tell him about the cryptic message in the letter. Graves didn’t like to spend money on trips outside the bank’s jurisdiction. “How are the kids?”
Graves sighed. “Soccer practice started up again. Well, it never really ended. And with this heat, it’s tough on the kids. Besides, you can’t believe the forms. They’ve got more than we do.”
“That’s bad. Too bad you can’t put gin and tonic into a SuperAmerica coffee cup and sneak it onto the sidelines.”
“Impossible. After months of games, we’ve become close to all the other families. They’d catch me.” Graves led Pete to the table and pushed aside a half-eaten Egg McMuffin nestled among wrinkled paper on the table as if he were trying to hide it. It smelled of warm cheese. Graves shifted in the chair, and the springs squeaked. “So, why are you really here?”
Pete watched the glow of sunlight streaming through the window. Outside, it rolled in from across the plains and heated the streets like a frying pan. Without looking at his boss, he asked, “Don’t you have oversight for the Latin American offices?”
“Some of them.” Graves nodded. “The western regions. Now that Colombia has stabilized, it’s coming on as a new market for our lending.”
“How about Ecuador and Peru?”
“Yes, those are also under my jurisdiction.”
“Do you know the personnel down there?”
“Oswald Lempke is the director. Good man, smart, spent some time in our office here years ago.”
Pete cleared his throat. From his back pocket, he removed the card from Judd Crowe and handed it to Graves. Pete said, “I want to go down there.”
“With your history, I can’t believe you’d ever want to go overseas again.”
“I know, but look at that.”
Graves read it. Pete interpreted the words for him. Graves remained motionless, shoulders hunched forward. His head bobbed up. “Wait a minute. I just got an e-mail from that office two days ago. Haven’t opened it yet.”
Graves squeezed out of his chair and walked behind his desk. He tapped on the keyboard of his laptop. Without moving his head, he lifted his eyes over the top of the screen to look at Pete. In a scratchy voice, he said, “You better read this.”
Pete hurried to Graves’ desk and peered over his shoulder at the screen. Pete fell back a step, and his chest tightened.
The e-mail from the office in Quito read:
Memo: U.S. Ex/Im Bank, Quito, Ecuador, Avenida Cristobal Colon
From: Director Oswald Lempke
To: All personnel in grades E-3 and above
Message: It is with great sorrow that I inform you of the accidental death of our esteemed colleague, Judd Crowe. Judd was tasked with our IT for years and was a genius at his work. He will be missed by his wife, Deborah, and by all of his friends and colleagues here in Ecuador. More details to follow.
The room was close and hot. Pete straightened from leaning over the monitor and headed for the door. He took the space in a few steps but paused before leaving. “Get me a flight down there.”
Graves called after him, “Don’t forget to fill out form INT 989 before you go. It’s my ass if you forget.”