Cut off from government support, the Project has gone private as the Harker Group, specializing in high order security. Business has been slow, but when a wealthy British explorer wants to hire her services, Director Elizabeth Harker isn't sure she wants the job.
Sir Jeffrey Livingston has an ancient map leading to the lost city of Paititi, where a legendary treasure of gold was hidden during the Spanish conquest of the Inca Empire. The ruins of the city are somewhere deep in the unexplored Amazon jungle. Livingston is mounting an expedition to go after the gold. He wants the Project team to provide security.
Simple enough, except word of the map and expedition has leaked. Communist rebels want to get their hands on the gold and use it to fan the flames of revolution. That can't be allowed to happen. Harker agrees to take Livingston on as a client.
The team heads to Peru and sets off into the Amazon. Soon they are far from civilization, where there's no backup if something goes wrong. Enemies are tracking them. There's a traitor in their midst. The deadly creatures of the rain forest are everywhere, death only a careless step away. Even if they manage to find the lost city, they'll need all their skills to get out alive.
The Project team has been in some tough spots before, but nothing has prepared them for this...
No one could have imagined what was about to happen.
It was a sunny Saturday afternoon in Lima, a time for getting out and enjoying the perfect weather. Christmas was only a few days away, and the capitol city of Peru was alive with holiday spirit. The cafés were crowded. Many headed for the Gamarra Market, where there was always something interesting to look at or do.
Gamarra was one of the great textile centers of the world, the Peruvian equivalent of New York's Seventh Avenue, famous for the colorful weavings distinctive to the country. Peruvians came here to shop for cheap clothes, tourists to find the perfect gift. To visit Gamarra was to experience the heartbeat of the city's vibrant life.
The streets around the market were packed with people shopping for the holidays. Tall buildings rose on every side of the intersection where the market was located. Each building featured floor upon floor of large display windows overlooking the street, filled with manikins showing off the latest fashions. The result was an endless display of colorful fashions, a kaleidoscope of style and form, a shopaholic's dream.
No one paid any attention to a short man wearing a backpack making his way through the crowd. He paused under a large sign advertising a children's theme park and a world bank, then sat down on a concrete bench. He shrugged off the pack and set it down by his feet.
Not far from where he sat, a band wearing the traditional folk dress of the high mountains played music for the passing crowd. The man with the backpack listened to the sound of an instrument that resembled a European pan pipe. The name for it in his native language was sicu. He allowed himself a brief smile, enjoying the music. The Spanish conquerors had changed the name of the flute to zampona, but they hadn't been able to change the sound.
The music reminded him of the village in the Andes where he'd been born, where music like this had been played during the fiestas. His village had been gone now for many years, burned to the ground by government forces. The soldiers had come looking for a leader of the Revolutionary Movement.
Most of the man's family had died that day. It had been a long time since the soldiers had come, but it was never too late for vengeance.
Across the street, a brass band dressed in purple uniforms was getting ready to perform. Their instruments gleamed under the sun. A group of people had gathered nearby, waiting for the music to begin. Countless others passed by the place where the man sat. The sound of many voices talking at once echoed from the walls of the buildings.
With an indifferent movement, the man nudged the backpack under the bench with his foot. He glanced around to be sure no one was watching, then got up and walked away. When he was sure he'd gone far enough, he took out a cell phone and dialed.
The explosion blew across the broad intersection, slicing through the mass of shoppers like a sharp scythe through wheat. The musicians playing the music of their Inca ancestors vanished in a red mist. High above the crowd, twenty stories of display windows on half a dozen buildings shattered, sending jagged shards of plate glass falling like knives onto the people below.
A dark cloud of smoke rolled over broken bodies and glittering fragments of glass. As the echoes of the explosion died away, a stunned silence descended on the dead and dying.
Then the screaming began.
Elizabeth Harker was a small woman with a deceptively elfin look, accentuated by her emerald green eyes, heart-shaped face and close cropped hair. She was dressed in her usual outfit, a black pantsuit and white blouse. A gold and emerald brooch was pinned over her left breast. She wore gold earrings, each set with a small emerald.
Elizabeth looked across her desk and felt a deep sense of satisfaction. Considering the hazards of the work, the insanity of politics, the attacks they'd survived, and the enemies they had made, it was nothing short of a miracle that the people in this room were all still alive and still together.
A little more than ten years ago, she had been recruited by then President Rice to head up a covert counter terrorism unit called the Project. At the time, she'd been thinking of resigning from a dead-end job in the Department of Justice, where she'd been exiled as bureaucratic punishment for criticizing the department's refusal to look more deeply into the disaster of 9/11.
Rice had given her total freedom. She had reported only to the White House. Her black budget was almost unlimited. Rice had protected her from the incompetent politicians in Congress who considered their careers more important than America's security. If the public were ever to learn how close America had come to destruction at the hands of people her team had stopped, they would have nightmares for the rest of their lives. Under President Rice, the Project had been a sharp and hidden sword guarding the world's greatest democracy.
Then a new president moved into the White House. President Rice had been a man of strong beliefs and patriotic courage. President Hopkins was a different man entirely. He was a creature of his handlers and the dark money that had elected him. In a charged atmosphere of false transparency and moralistic pronouncements, the Project represented an unacceptable political risk. Covert operations against America's enemies were out of favor, dismissed as relics of misguided and unenlightened thinking.
Harker had many allies in Washington. It had taken a while, but as soon as he could get away with it, Hopkins had shut her down.
That didn't change the need for the unique skills her team could provide. She put the word out that she was forming a private security consulting service, then set up Harker Group headquarters in a restored federal mansion in Virginia. Since then, there had been a steady stream of clients.
When she'd formed the group, Elizabeth had hoped the risks of the past would be reduced by going private. It hadn't taken long to learn that fell under the heading of wishful thinking. Things usually started out in a calm and straightforward manner, but they seldom ended that way. Now there was a new client with a potential mission, which was why she'd called the team in. She needed to know what everyone thought before she took it on.
Elizabeth tapped her pen on her desk and contemplated her team, sitting across from her.
Selena Connor sat on the end of a brown leather couch in front of Elizabeth's desk. An enormous orange cat was draped across her lap, kneading her jeans and drooling with a pleased expression on its face. Valentina, Selena's Russian half-sister, sat on a chair to the left of the couch.
Valentina's mother had been a KGB agent, stationed in East Germany during the Cold War. She'd been assigned to seduce Selena's father, a CIA agent stationed in West Berlin. Life had a way of interfering with rules and ideologies, and the two spies had fallen in love. Valentina was the result.
There was a strong family resemblance between the sisters, although they were very different in temperament and personality. Both had striking looks, with high cheekbones that set off unusual eyes. Selena's eyes were sometimes deep blue, more often violet. Valentina's were a strange, brilliant green. Selena was a little taller, leaner, while Valentina was more voluptuous. Both women were fit, muscular in a way that only added to their obvious beauty. Both radiated a subtle energy that warned the initiated not to mess with them.
Selena had trained for many years with a Korean master in martial arts, and was nearly a master in her own right. Valentina was expert in Russian Systema, a brutal form of hand-to-hand combat similar to Israeli Krav Maga. She had been raised by the Soviet state and trained as an assassin. Her hair was a rich, dark brown, worn cropped and styled close to her head. Selena's hair was a crisp, reddish gold. It was still short, but she had started letting it grow long.
Nick Carter, Selena's husband and the leader of the team in the field, sat next to her. Elizabeth had recruited him from a hospital bed where he'd been recovering from wounds taken in Afghanistan. Nick had been a Recon Marine. He still had the hard body, the military look. His hair was cut short against his skull, starting to show gray.
Ronnie Peete, a former Gunnery Sergeant from Nick's unit and his oldest friend, sat on his left. Ronnie was Navajo. He had just returned from the reservation, where he was studying traditional healing and learning the old ceremonies. He'd chosen an outrageously bright Hawaiian shirt for the occasion of the team's reunion. The shirt featured Cadillac convertibles filled with happy people and surfboards driving across pristine sands, while the deep blue of the Pacific Ocean beckoned in the background.
Ronnie owned over a hundred of the garments, some of them worth thousands of dollars.
Holding down the other end of the couch was a coffee-colored, whipcord lean man. A pink scar ran over his right eye and down the side of his nose. Lamont Cameron was a former Navy SEAL and the team's demolitions expert. When he and Ronnie got together, there wasn't much the two of them couldn't turn into a pile of rubble.
Stephanie Willets, Elizabeth's friend and deputy, sat at her console to the right of Elizabeth's desk. She was a large, friendly looking woman. Her smile hid the mind of a computer genius who had hacked into the Pentagon's most secure systems when she was seventeen years old.
It had been several months since the last time Elizabeth had called them all in. After their last mission, everyone had needed a break. For a while, she'd debated calling it a day and closing things down. Yet here she was, about to brief them on a new assignment. She couldn't let go of what the Project represented. Even though she'd lost the backing and protection of the White House, she couldn't quit. It just didn't feel right.
"I can't tell you how good it is to see you," Elizabeth said. "I wasn't sure you would all want to come, but here you are. I have to admit, I've missed you."
Lamont Cameron broke into a smile.
"Hell, Director, it was a no-brainer. Life down there in Florida was getting pretty boring before you called."
"Catching catfish is not exciting," Ronnie said. "What else did you expect?"
"It's exciting enough when a gator comes out of the water at you."
I do not understand the word gator, Lamont. Are you referring to the order Crocodilia, genus Alligator, of the family Alligatoridae?
The electronic voice belonged to a heavily modified Cray supercomputer named Freddie. Stephanie had programmed the computer with advanced artificial intelligence. Freddie was fully aware, capable of sophisticated interaction with humans. The others considered him part of the team.
"Um, I guess so, Freddie," Lamont said. "If you mean a nasty big reptile with a lot of sharp teeth that looks like a log in the water until it sneaks up and bites you, yeah, that's a gator."
Thank you, Lamont, I will add that information to my database.
Selena brushed a wisp of hair away from her forehead.
"Elizabeth, we're all curious. Why have you called us here?" she said. "I thought you were going to retire."
"I was. The last time we all talked, I was burned out. After what happened in Switzerland, what little protection we had disappeared. Clarence is gone as Director of the CIA. The president doesn't like us. I thought it was the best thing at the time."
Clarence Hood was more than just a friend to Elizabeth. For a while they had been lovers, although now the heat between them seemed to have cooled.
"So what changed?" Nick said.
"You know about the Gemarra Market bombing in Lima?"
"Everyone knows about that."
"The latest count is four hundred and ninety-two dead. Eighty-six of those were children. More than seven hundred people were badly injured."
"Damn," Lamont said.
"The bomb was twenty kilos of Semtex, laced with ball bearings and shrapnel. It was meant to do as much damage as possible."
"Do they know who's behind it?" Nick asked.
"No one has claimed responsibility yet. The Peruvians think it might be a Marxist terrorist group everyone thought had been neutralized years ago, called the Movimiento Revolucionario Túpac Amaru. MRTA for short."
"They named themselves after a rebel leader in the eighteenth century, who took the name of the last Inca emperor. They're nationalists with a Marxist ideology. They believe in violent revolution. They think that the indigenous peoples of Peru and South America should unite. They want to overthrow the government and set up a communist dictatorship. The MRTA prefer the Chinese model, as opposed to the Russian style of communism."
"How do we fit in?" Selena asked. "I thought we were out of the counterterrorism business."
"Officially, we are," Elizabeth said. "I brought up the bombing because there's a possible mission for us in Peru. If we decide to do it, there could be a confrontation with these terrorists."
"What kind of mission?" Nick asked.
"Steph, show them."
Stephanie entered a few strokes on her keyboard. A large monitor mounted on the wall behind Elizabeth's desk lit up. On screen was a picture of a weaving composed of multiple hanging strands of knotted string. It looked old. A few traces of color remained on some of the strands.
"Pretty ratty looking," Lamont said.
"Looks like a dream catcher," Ronnie said.
"It's not a dream catcher, that's Quipu," Selena said. "I haven't seen anything like that in quite a while."
"It's an Inca record, from Peru," Selena said. "The Incas didn't have a written language. They used a system called Quipu. The knots in the string carry the information being communicated. It's complicated and difficult to translate. No one fully understands it. Existing examples are mostly numerical notations, like measures of food."
"It always amazes me how much you know about ancient languages," Elizabeth said. "That's exactly what this is. It was discovered hidden in an antique chest from the sixteenth century. The chest belonged to a captain in the Spanish army. He was with the military expedition that defeated the last of the Inca emperors."
"What does it say, Selena?" Ronnie asked.
"I haven't a clue."
"That's a first," Nick said.
"Don't be a smartass."
"The man who owns it is Sir Jeffrey Livingston. He's something of a throwback to the time when wealthy Brits traveled around the globe, looking for archaeological treasure and funding digs."
"Like Howard Carter?" Selena said.
"Who's Howard Carter?" Lamont asked.
"He's the one who discovered the tomb of Tutankhamen."
"The one with the gold and the mummy?"
"That's him. It still the biggest find from ancient Egypt."
"I'm glad he found it."
"Why?" Elizabeth asked.
"Because if he hadn't, we wouldn't have all those mummy movies. I love those movies. You know, monster sandstorms, bugs that eat you, actors wrapped in rags. Lots of gold, pyramids, things creeping through your window."
"I never knew you were a mummy junkie," Ronnie said.
"Mummies are cool. You can't beat a mummy movie."
"What's the deal with the weaving?" he said to Elizabeth.
"It contains a clue to the lost city of Paititi."
"Okay, the lost city of Paititi. What's Paititi?" Nick said.
"It's where the Incas are supposed to have stored an enormous treasure."
"You're kidding," Selena said. "The City Of Gold?"
"That's right. Livingston wants to mount an expedition into Peru to search for it. People have been looking for it ever since the Spanish conquest. When the Incas realized the Spanish couldn't be trusted and wanted to enslave them, they started moving all their gold to a secret city hidden in the jungle east of the Andes. The natives called it Paititi. The first written mention of it is in a report from a Jesuit missionary that dates back to 1600."
Valentina had been quiet. Now she said, "Even in Russia we heard of this. The streets were paved with gold, no? That is nonsense. Why does Englishman think it exists?"
"That Quipu hanging on the screen is a numeric record of some of the treasure taken to Paititi."
"Why did Livingston contact you?" Nick asked.
"He wants to hire us as security for his expedition. The area is a hotbed of MRTA activity. That's where the Lima bombing comes in."
"Why does Livingston think he knows where the city is?" Ronnie asked.
"That Quipu weaving wasn't the only thing hidden in the chest. There was also an account written by the Spanish captain and a map. It talks about a secret place where the Incas hid a vast horde of gold and jade."
"Do we have a picture of the map?" Selena asked.
"No. We don't get to see that unless we sign on. All I know is that it's somewhere up the Urubamba River, in the Peruvian Amazon."
"If this Spanish captain had a map to the city, why didn't he get the gold for himself?" Nick asked.
"There's no way to know that," Elizabeth said.
"So now we're mercenaries?" Ronnie said.
"Not at all. Livingston has the backing of the British and Peruvian governments. It's legitimate. It means we would have some diplomatic protection. Enough to keep the Peruvian authorities on our side."
"Who told him about us?" Nick asked.
"Sir Jeffrey is friends with Clarence. He told Livingston that he needed us, mostly because he knows we can be relied upon when things go bad. Also because of Selena's expertise in languages."
"But I don't understand Quipu," Selena said.
"That isn't necessary. You speak Spanish fluently. How about Machiguenga and Quechua? Do you know anything about those?"
"As a matter of fact, I do. They're both languages in Peru, particularly around Cuzco and in the rain forest east of the Andes. Quechua was the Inca language. It's still widely spoken."
"That's why you're perfect for this. The expedition leaves from Cuzco. Sir Jeffrey thinks your language skills are critical to success."
"Let me see if I've got this right," Nick said. "This guy wants to head off in search of a lost city that probably doesn't exist, a place people have been trying to find for hundreds of years without any luck. Right so far?"
"Plus the area is probably infested by terrorists who murder anyone who doesn't agree with them."
"That's why he wants us to protect him."
"Proves he's not stupid, whatever else he is," Lamont said.
"How did he get his knighthood?" Ronnie asked.
"The usual way, these days. By making a lot of money and stimulating the economy."
"What does he do?"
"He makes cakes and pastries."
"Frozen desserts. He's sold millions of them. They're hugely popular in the UK."
"That's why he's a knight?"
Ronnie shook his head.
"I wonder what King Arthur would think of that," he said.
Nick said, "What's it like where he wants us to go?"
"He was vague, except to say it's unexplored and nobody goes there. There are hostile tribes in the area who don't like strangers."
"This gets better by the minute," Ronnie said.
"Why should we do this?" Nick said. "It's not like we're archaeologists or anything like that. There are plenty of military contractors he could hire."
"There's more to this than finding the city," Elizabeth said. "Peru is the key to keeping South America stable. The new version of the MRTA is gaining strength. The Peruvian government, the Brits, even Washington are all worried about them. Sir Jeffrey isn't the only one who knows about the Spanish captain's chest."
"You mean the information has leaked?"
"It's possible. The governments are afraid the MRTA might get to the gold first. If they get their hands on wealth like that, all bets are off."
"If they can find it, and if it exists. Those are big ifs."
"I hate the jungle," Ronnie said. "It's always wet, and it's full of bugs and snakes."
"I should mention that Sir Jeffrey will pay quite well for our services."
"See? Mercenaries," Ronnie said.
Elizabeth looked annoyed.
"No, Ronnie. The only difference between this and what we were doing before is that the government isn't paying our salaries. We would be acting as private citizens, but we'd be doing it with the blessing of three governments. It might even earn us points with Hopkins."
"Now you're really making me nervous," Ronnie said.
"Nothing's going to get us any points with that asshole," Nick said.
"What do you think?" Elizabeth said. "Should we take it on?"
One of the reasons the project was successful was because of Elizabeth's willingness to include the team in whatever decisions needed to be made. Some things left no option for discussion, but for a mission like this it was essential that everyone was on board.
"If we do this, some things need to be clear," Nick said.
"What things?" Elizabeth asked.
"We have absolute final say in security arrangements once the expedition begins. No second guessing by Livingston or anyone else."
"I don't think that's a problem. What else?"
"Official permission to bring in the weapons and explosives we need. That means taking them from here to Peru and not having a problem once we get there."
"Because we might need them. If the terrorists decide to create a problem, we need to be heavily armed, or Sir Jeffrey's little treasure hunt won't end well."
"That can be arranged," Elizabeth said. "Anything else?"
"I'll let you know if I think of something."
"Assuming those conditions can be met, are all of you willing to take this on?"
"How long will this expedition take?" Selena asked. "I don't want to leave the twins for too long."
The twins, Jason and Katrina, had reached the terrible twos. Fortunately, they had a fierce protector in Anna Montalbano, a woman who had started out as a nanny and become a friend.
"Sir Jeffrey thinks he knows where Paititi is located. If everything goes well, he estimates no more than a month. The plan is to leave from Cuzco. He's in Cuzco right now, obtaining supplies. By the time you get down there, he'll be ready to go."
"I'm not going anywhere until after Christmas," Selena said.
"That's not a problem. He won't be ready before then. So, what do I tell him?"
"Assuming we get what we need, I don't have a problem with it," Nick said.
"Guess I'd better break out the bug spray," Lamont said.