Pete Chandler series—mystery and suspense in exotic locations.
Myanmar, ruled by a corrupt military since 1962 finally opens its borders for limited business and tourism in 2011. The US Export/Import Bank, anxious to leverage trade agreements into democratic reforms, tasks an American finance expert to open doors there.
She vanished without a trace.
Investigator, Pete Chandler, dispatched by her panicked congressman father, is on a mission to find her and bring her home. Chandler travels up the Irrawaddy River and charges into the heart of darkness of corrupt government, dictatorial generals, criminal networks—and the fight of his life.
What others have said about Up Like Thunder: “Reading this book is like traveling to Myanmar. I could smell the flowers and feel the humidity in this suspense story.”
Up Like Thunder
The regional manager of the U S Export-Import Bank, Martin Graves, called Congressman Brian Holmes at five fifteen in the morning—an emergency. Graves, who was never at his desk this early, dreaded making the call. In the dead of winter the heat hadn’t been raised in the office building yet in order to save energy, so he felt the chill penetrate into his bones.
Graves needed a miracle. “Congressman, it’s Bridget. She’s missing.” Graves spoke quickly.
“What? She’s only been in Myanmar two months.”
“We haven’t had communication from her for three weeks. Something is wrong.” Graves paused to take a deep breath. The conditions in Myanmar were dicey enough that he had hesitated sending Bridget there. She’d insisted, but Graves required Bridget to maintain contact every day. Graves didn’t mention this to Holmes.
“Oh, my God. So where is my daughter?”
“I’m sorry, we don’t know. She’s always punctual with her reports.”
“I’m sure she is. The police?”
“Not reliable. The government—or however you want to characterize the generals’ dictatorship—is one of the most corrupt and brutal in the world. You know that.”
“She was conducting a due diligence investigation of Yangon International Timber Company before we agreed to extend credit to them. But her work didn’t threaten the generals. In fact, we had their approval to do the financials on the company.”
The Export-Import Bank (Ex-Im Bank) had been chartered in 1934 and tasked with providing loans and credit to developing world companies that the private banking industry considered too risky. The companies, in turn, provided a market for U S exports. Because of congressional concerns, the Ex-Im Bank had recently tightened their investigation of prospective loan clients to see if the companies were financially solid enough to warrant the loans.
Holmes’ voice took on a sharp edge. “So, you don’t think her work crossed their government the wrong way?”
“No. They want Western business. The generals came to us, and we followed all their procedures.” Graves keyed his computer to life. He scrolled past the government forms that related to the work of the bank. He’d uploaded every form available.
“Marty, it’s my child, for God’s sake.”
“We’ll do all we can, sir.” He leaned forward and pushed the cup of McDonald’s coffee to the side. He could still smell the Egg McMuffin on the greasy wrapping paper next to the cup. Graves searched for recent posts from Bridget. Her last report had been filed six weeks’ earlier. Graves scanned it and found nothing suspicious or out of the ordinary. She was an accountant whom the bank had hired at the insistence of her father, the congressman, to work in the new markets opening in Southeast Asia. Fortunately, she’d turned out to be very smart and more than competent.
Myanmar was located on the west side of Thailand in Southeast Asia. For over fifty years, the country of Burma had been ruled by the military and completely closed to the world. The Burmese people couldn’t leave nor could anyone from the outside get in. In the destructive aftermath of a hurricane in 2008, the Myanmar generals, who ruled the country, had even refused to allow Red Cross and United Nations relief missions with food and aid supplies to enter the country.
In 2011 the generals, for unknown reasons, had decided to open the country to a small degree for Western trade and tourism.
Graves talked quickly to the congressman. “I’m checking her notes. Her last wire post was from the embassy even though she was staying at the Chatrium Hotel. You know that the Internet is pretty much non-existent in the country.” He heard a rumble that meant the heat had kicked on, and he felt a warm draft surround him.
“Right. Even cell phones don’t work very well.”
“I’ll get the embassy staff on the satellite now. They’re about twelve hours behind us and—“
“Not good enough,” Holmes barked. “I want feet on the ground right now.”
Graves pushed back from his desk. He swiveled to look over the Nicollet Mall covered with piles of snow that looked dirty in the predawn light. Soon pedestrians would be struggling to climb over them to find the sidewalks. The street stretched out below him and crossed the Mississippi River. Turbulent, muddy water twisted between ice jams and fell over the falls of St. Anthony on its way south. What could Graves do?
“Marty, I want her found. We could contact the military. There’s a detachment of Marines at the embassy.”
“I’d advise against it, sir. How do you think those generals will react to that? No, we’ve got to do this our own way.” He looked at the photo of his own family hanging from the tan sheetrock wall next to the door. What it if was his child?
The congressman breathed heavily into the phone. “Okay. I’ll call the FBI.”
“Uh, Mr. Holmes, they don’t have jurisdiction there. Besides, do you know what’s going on in that country?”
He paused. “I’m, uh, well aware of what’s going on there.”
“You know the generals are paranoid and fearful of everything. If we come in with a lot of muscle, it will make them nervous, and their reaction will be to shut down. They won’t cooperate at all, and we’ll never find her. No, we need something under the radar, but something effective.”
“I don’t know . . . ” The phone went silent for a long time. “Wait a minute. Is Chandler still with you guys?”
“Yeah—” Graves thought of their investigator, in his mid-forties, who’d also received his job through the congressman. Pete Chandler had been a CID investigator with the U S Army in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’d retired to work with the U S House Committee on Banking, which Congressman Holmes from Minnesota chaired. Chandler had been extraordinarily successful and had done all the dirty work behind the scenes for the committee over the years. Something had happened to Chandler, and he’d quit the committee abruptly. The congressman hustled Chandler out of Washington and got him the job as an investigator at the Ex-Im Bank—guaranteed to allow Chandler a quiet glide into obscurity. “Uh, he’s got international experience,” Graves said, “but I’m not sure he’s up to speed for something like this.”
Holmes interrupted, “He’s the best and he owes me everything.”
“Okay. But sir, he’s not done well here.” Holmes was obviously stuck on getting Chandler. How could Graves tell him the truth about the investigator? About how he was going to be bounced out of the bank soon?
“I don’t care. I know how good he is, and I want him.”
Graves sighed. He wanted to help in any way he could, but using Pete Chandler would be a disaster. Should he tell the congressman that Chandler was tired and disinterested? That he seemed so lost he didn’t even go out to lunch? He ate alone at his desk every day.
“Listen, Marty. I worked with this guy for years. He’s a fighter. And he’s tough. I think he can still do that Tae Kwon Do martial arts stuff, can’t he?”
“I don’t know.” Graves looked at the clock on his smart phone. “He usually comes in late, but when he gets here I’ll touch base with him.”
Holmes yelled, “Touch base with him? I want him on a fucking plane—yesterday!”
Graves wrestled with the decision to recruit Chandler. In spite of his drawbacks, there were some possible advantages to sending him. In the end, he was the only choice. “Yes, sir.” Martin Graves hung up. He added more sugar and cream to his coffee and stirred it.
His mind pictured Bridget Holmes. Twenty-nine years old, dark hair, and dark green eyes that gave her an exotic look—nothing like you’d imagine an accountant to look like. But she had a cunning side to her also.
Graves had always worried about sending her to Myanmar, but she’d demanded the assignment—with her father’s support. Bridget was one of the most ambitious people Graves knew. He lumped her into a younger generation who were handed everything and felt entitled to start at the top—just because they breathed. She had also gone with definite attitudes about the dictatorial regime. On the one hand, she despised their brutal activities, but she was also impressed by the potential fortune the bank and U S exporters could make in the country.
Graves called Pete Chandler and left him a terse message on his voice mail.
Fifteen minutes later, Chandler responded. “What’s the problem? You know how early it is?”
“I need you in here right now.”
“I’m eating breakfast.”
“Forget it. Bridget Holmes is missing in Myanmar.”
Chandler stopped talking. After a few minutes, he said, “That’s serious.”
Graves knew that would get his attention. Chandler was a sensitive man and liked Bridget. “Her father asked specifically for you.”
Pete grunted, “I don’t know, Marty. I haven’t been overseas for years.”
“He wants you.”
“I wouldn’t know where to start in a country like that.”
“With what you’re facing here, Chandler, this might be a good break for you. We’ll talk when you get in. And that better be soon,” Martin demanded.
Chandler arrived in a half hour. He came directly to the regional manager’s office at the corner of the tall building. He wore a full-length brown winter coat and a tan scarf. He untied and tugged it from around his neck. Martin could smell the cold, fresh air that clung to Chandler’s clothing. He looked ten years younger than his age. He still had a trim body, not too muscular, but there was a hint of coiled energy inside of him. Pete’s eyes moved slowly and he talked in a languid manner while being careful to enunciate each word. Deliberate. “I’m worried about Bridget. Myanmar could be a dangerous place.”
“The congressman is shitting bricks. Not that I blame him. If it were my child—“
“Doesn’t sound good. That country is one mystery layered on top of another.” Pete shook his head. “Maybe you should give it to someone at the State Department.” His words trailed off like he was already tired of talking about it.
“I’d like to, but under the circumstances, we can’t. The old man wants you.” Graves stood and walked over to Pete.
Chandler’s eyes opened for a brief moment before settling back into narrow slits. “Well, he’s wrong.” He tossed his coat and scarf across the leather couch by the door. Particles of snow melted off the collar.
“He’s the reason you’ve still got a job. I wouldn’t forget that if I were you.”
Chandler’s forehead arched in crinkled lines. He didn’t respond.
“I’m not going to argue with you, Pete. Connie will get you booked on the first flight out of here. You’ll need to fill out a GD 2035 and, of course, form INT 989. But you’re going.”
“What the hell do I know about Myanmar? Isn’t that the old Burma?”
“Right. With your, uh, work here, you’ve barely used up our investigative budget. You’ll have lots of money and the support of the embassy.”
Chandler took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “Marty, I’m the wrong guy. Too rusty. I don’t have the energy this would require.”
“You don’t have to tell me that.”
“Well, there you go.”
Graves stood up from his chair and came around to the front of his desk. “I’ve had a few minutes to check on your file. You’re part Vietnamese, aren’t you?”
“Half. My mother was Vietnamese and my father an American.” He didn’t look Asian. In fact, the only hint was his straight black hair and the slightly darker tone of his skin. “I grew up here; I’m an American.” Pete leaned back. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“Maybe you’ll have better access with the Burmese.”
Pete snorted. “Ridiculous. I don’t know, or care, anything about my Asian background. I’m an American.”
Martin waved his hand between them. “I don’t know what your history is with the congressman, and I don’t give a damn what happened in Washington. You’re the only one that Holmes trusts for the job. And we don’t have time to stand here talking about it. Every minute we waste could mean her life.”
Pete cupped his hand and ran it over the shine of his hair. It had started to creep backward over his forehead but still remained thick. At the mention of Washington, Graves had seen a squint of pain in Chandler’s eyes. “Tell me what you know for sure,” Chandler finally said.
Graves led him to a beige table in the corner opposite from his desk. Since the congressman’s phone call, Martin had worked hard to assemble the details. Spread out on the table were print outs, some photos, and another open laptop. On the screen was a map of Myanmar.
Graves pointed to the map. “It’s located in Southeast Asia on the Bay of Bengal. About the size of Texas. Borders Bangladesh on the west and China to the north. Received its independence from Great Britain in 1948, only to fall into a long line of military dictatorships that closed the country to everything from the outside world. Consequently, we don’t know much about what goes on inside. The government and how it operates is a mystery.”
“Isn’t that where the Nobel Prize winner lives? Aung San Suu Kyi?”
“Right. Her father was the president at independence but was assassinated two years later. She left the country and married a professor from Great Britain but was forced to leave him and her children in order to return to her country. She heads the National League for Democracy party.”
Pete laughed. “Democracy? She hasn’t been too successful yet.”
“No. The government normally kills any opponents, but since she’s the daughter of their ‘George Washington,’ the government spared her life. Instead, they’ve kept her under house arrest for years. She was finally released a short time ago and now holds a seat in their parliament.”
“So she’s got some power?”
“We think it’s only as much as the generals allow her to have. From the bank’s perspective, at least a door into the country has cracked open for investments.” He closed the laptop as if to signal the decision had been made. “The embassy says you can coordinate with the local police. They seem to be somewhat on the up-and-up—at least for that country.”
Chandler pivoted on his foot. He walked to the tall window that overlooked the Nicollet Mall. “I’m concerned about Bridget; I’ve got a daughter of my own. But it’s probably too late. Don’t tell the congressman that. I’d call in the cavalry— some special forces—and make a quick effort to grab her. I’ve seen this before in the Middle East. Doubt it’ll work, but it’s the only chance.”
Graves didn’t answer. Chandler’s work in the past had been exceptional. Lately, it was as if he’d given up. Nothing seemed to motivate him. It was part of the reason he was scheduled for an employment review next week. Graves hoped to force Chandler into an early buyout and get rid of him. He said to Chandler, “Maybe you could start there by interviewing a guy named Jeffrey Sumpter. He works for an environmental group called Free the Oxygen. Apparently, he was a close friend of Bridget’s.”
“And what do you think I could possibly do?”
“We don’t trust the government to do much to find Bridget. God dammit, you’re an investigator, right?” He stood next to Chandler and smelled the comforting odor of hash browns on him. Winter food. Outside, snow swirled on a stiff wind. Across the city, gray fog had settled to obscure the brown and black lumps of buildings.
“Any ransom notes? Things like that?”
Grave shook his head.
“Great. The more you tell me, the more attractive this sounds.” Pete sucked in a deep breath through his mouth. “I’d like to help, but I’m not up for it.”
Without saying it out loud, Graves didn’t blame Pete. It was one thing for Bridget to be invited to investigate the bookkeeping of a timber company; it was another thing to try and conduct a missing person investigation in a country like Myanmar. If the government disagreed in any way, Chandler could be toast in a moment and “disappear” himself. It could be very dangerous.
Martin turned to put a hand on Pete’s hard shoulder. “Think of the congressman, and think of Bridget.”
Concern flashed across Chandler’s eyes. “I liked her a lot. But I can’t help for all the money in China . . . er, Myanmar.”
“Don’t worry about money—they’re one of the poorest countries in the world. And, by the way, that’s tea. All the tea in China.”
“Your jokes stink.”
Graves, tired of Chandler’s resistance, yelled at him. “You’re the one always telling jokes. You should like mine.”
“Sure I do.” When Chandler smiled, his mouth opened wide to show bright, straight teeth, but he wasn’t laughing. “When I think back to Washington . . . I do owe Holmes; he saved me when I was at the lowest point in my life.” Pete changed the subject. “What’s the weather like?”
“Huh?” Martin backed away and put his hand on the window. It felt cold.
“Check it out.” Chandler motioned toward the computer.
Graves went to the table and scrolled through his Dell to find the weather site. “It’s still the dry season, and the temp is in the nineties. Monsoons will start in less than a month.” He thought of the snow removal crews from the city, who were down on the streets pushing gray snow blowers with spinning brushes. “It’s better than here.”
“I hate hot. Ever since Iraq, I don’t do hot.”
“God dammit, Chandler—“
“So I better find her quickly and get back here.”