Finding the golden urn was supposed to be easy––nothing the skilled pair hadn't done before. But little did Alex and Sam know they would become the center of an international conspiracy. A conspiracy so entangled in a web of secrets and crime that it could cost them their lives.
Faced with danger and underground syndicates, they soon realized they couldn’t trust anyone. Nothing was as it seemed.
If you enjoy reading page-turning religious suspense fiction that grips you from the first page, then you will love this inspirational, fast-paced clean suspense thriller! Full of mystery, twists and turns to keep you guessing until the very end, this second-in-series will not disappoint!
Sam’s feet wedged beneath the two enormous boulders that lay perched on the edge of the cliff in front of him. He heaved back into the rope he had tied around his waist and then looped around the nearby tree. Sam pulled back hard. He repositioned his one foot as the uneven terrain threatened to throw him off balance. The squeaky sound coming from the rope rubbing against the rugged trunk had him worried. Beads of sweat trickled down his face. The Cambodian jungle was hot and humid, but the sweat on his face was evidence of something far more concerning.
He glanced at the rope chafing against the tree and watched as a single strand unraveled. Beneath his chest his heart thumped hard. He gripped the rope tighter around his hands preparing for the worst and groaned as the scruffy threads of the strained rope sliced into the flesh of his bare hands.
Five-hundred feet below the sheer cliff edge, at the other end of the rope, Alex searched the rock wall behind the cascade of water falling from above her head. Rappelling had never appealed to her, but she could hardly hold Sam’s weight over the steep thousand feet waterfall, so the duty lay on her to descend the steep cliff. The icy cold spray from the water had her drenched, and her feet slipped against the smooth, wet surface of the cliff side. Masses of water poured down from the waterfall’s edge above her head. What was she thinking? She hated heights, she doubted, reasoning that perhaps she shouldn’t have looked down into the frothy white water that smashed into the rocks below. Alex shut her eyes tight as she battled to control her breathing, frustrated over the fact that she thought her agoraphobia was under control, especially considering everything she had been through chasing after Rhapta. Recalling how far she’d come she finally opened her eyes again and looked straight ahead into the side of the cliff.
Conscious of her harness cutting into her groin as it carried her entire weight, she allowed her hands to glide against the stone wall in search of an opening. The century-old map handed to them by the police commissioner showed there was supposed to be ancient tunnels to a hidden temple in the rock face behind the waterfall.
“There’s nothing, Sam! Just solid rock surface and water!”
Lots, the thought echoed in her head.
Then, without warning, she suddenly plunged several feet before coming to a dead halt, bashing her shoulder hard against the wall.
“SAM!” she screamed upwards toward the top of the cliff.
Out of her eyesight Sam found himself lying face down in the dirt, his hands gripping the rope for dear life. His cheek was on fire where the cord had slapped him across his face when the last strand broke free from the tree behind him. Somehow, he had managed to catch the end of the rope just before it had a chance to disappear over the cliff and consequently plunging Alex into a watery death. It now took every bit of his physical and mental strength to hold on.
“Sam! Pull me up!” Alex shouted while she frantically searched the entirely smooth wall with her hands for something to grab onto. Strands of wet hair lay across her face, making it nearly impossible to see anything.
Why wasn’t he answering? she thought.
“S-A-M! What’s happening up there? Pull me up!”
“I - I’m try-ing.” He forced out a soft, barely audible shout under the immense strain of her pendulous weight.
Sam eventually released enough tension in the rope to allow his wrist around it twice and managed to do the same with his other hand. Having been in a standing position just about took all he had, but lying face down had him in an awkward position of having to rely on the strength of his arms alone, even with a firmer grip.
Alex faced certain death. He shut his eyes and tugged hard at the rope using its leverage to get on his knees and slowly back onto his feet. Once up, he twisted his body around the rope and once again found his footing against the boulders.
“Alex! You okay?” finally able to speak loud enough for her to hear.
“Sure! I’m admiring the view while you take your time pulling me up!” she said annoyed. She was oblivious to the dire circumstances that unraveled on the cliff’s edge high above her dangling body.
Sam ignored her sarcastic stab and remained focussed on the straining rope cutting into his flesh.
“Do you have any footing?” he asked.
It wasn’t the answer he had hoped to hear. Sam’s eyes remained pinned on the three untangled strands of cord now eroding against the sharp edge of the cliff in front of him. He instantly regretted giving in to her. Not that he would have convinced her otherwise. Alex was relentless in pursuing a challenge, no matter the cost.
“You’re going to have to keep the rope steady on your side, okay? Try not to move too much and find something to grab onto!” Sam shouted.
His feet pushed down firmly on the ground as he heaved, prayer the rope would hold up. Another cord snapped, and he found himself wondering how many strings the rope had. Eight? Twelve? He pushed the threatening negative thoughts from his mind and continued gently working at pulling her up. What felt like an eternity, his eyes eventually caught sight of Alex’s hands as the tip of her fingers appeared over the edge of the rocky cliff.
The victory had been short-lived when another cord suddenly snapped just as he spotted the top of her head above the cliff’s edge. He swore under his strained breathing.
“Climb, Alex! I’m not sure the rope is going to hold!” he heaved.
As reality suddenly dawned on her, the anguished look in her eyes was enough to have Sam risk it all and give one final hard pull. The remaining threads in the rope instantly snapped and deposited Sam flat on his back in the dirt.
“Alex!” he scrambled to the cliff’s edge where Alex clung for dear life off the side of the rock face.
“Help me, Sam! I can’t hold on any longer.”
She was barely within Sam’s reach but managed to grab hold of a thin vine root about three feet down the side of the cliff. Closing her hand tighter onto the root that wasn’t long enough for her other hand to grab onto much less strong enough to hold her full weight, Alex fought to gain control of the situation.
“Look at me, Alex! I’ve got you. Give me your hand.”
“Yes, you can!”
Sam wasn’t all too sure he would ever forget the look of desperation in Alex’s eyes that had already pooled with tears.
“Alex, you’re going to have to give me your free hand. I’ll catch you, I promise.”
“I don’t know if I can. Please don’t let me fall,” she started a faint sob, her eyes pinned on his outstretched hand.
“Alex, look at me. I’m not going to let you fall. We have a relic to find, and an entire country is depending on you. You’re going to grab my hand when I count it down, and I’m going to pull you up, okay? You can do this. I’m not letting you die here today, you hear me?”
She barely nodded, her teary eyes remaining locked with his. Sam had curled his one foot around a watermelon-sized rock in the hope that it would sustain both their weights. He stretched both hands out toward Alex’s hand as far as his body would allow it. His fingertips just about touched her knuckles where she still gripped the root. There simply wasn’t any room for error, Sam reminded himself, concealing the fear and doubt in his eyes as he started the countdown.
Alex let go of the root and propelled her lean body upward as she stretched both her hands toward Sam’s. Her one hand firmly latched onto his but, failing to swing her body high enough for the other hand to fully grab hold of his, yielded Sam’s fingertips barely hooking underneath her own. Sam groaned under the strain of his outstretched body. It felt as if all the tendons in his arm were ripping from his shoulder bones.
“Sam, my fingers are slipping.” Her hands were still wet from the water spray. “I can’t hold on.”
“I’ve got you, Alex.” Sam’s words strained as he clung to her one hand with all he had. “You’re not dying here today, do you hear me? I’m going to hoist you up enough for you to grab onto my other arm, okay? I’ve got you.”
He wasn’t sure he had the strength to even pull her up another inch and he needed convincing himself as his arm burned under the immense strain. But he dared not show it. He bit down hard onto his teeth and somehow managed to lift her just enough so she could grab tightly onto his wrist. His foot stretched around the sharp rock cutting into his ankle. The stone was the only leverage he had. It had to hold up. Careful to not slide over the cliff, he drew back until he could sit up on his knees and pull her up by the waist of her pants. Paralyzed with fear, Alex threw her arms around his neck and clung to him like a small child would a parent on the first day of school.
Over the last couple of years they had grown quite close. There had been times it veered on perhaps too close in a working relationship, but right here, right now, they couldn’t care. She needed him as much as he needed her.
“Well, that didn’t quite go down the way we planned,” he finally said in an attempt to relieve the awkwardness of their embrace. Alex’s tender weeping instantly became a subdued giggle in response. She pulled back and wiped her face with her t-shirt.
Walking to retrieve her backpack from under the tree, she found herself questioning if this was what she had signed up for. Since her father’s retirement, she had been on several expeditions in the role of head archaeologist at the uni, but nothing quite as death defeating as this.
“Tell me how we ended up in the middle of the Cambodian jungle again, please?” Sam dryly added as he got up and untied the broken rope that still dangled from his waist.
“We’re hired hands, Sam Quinn. I guess this is just another day in the lives of the world’s two top archaeologists,” she said in jest as she wiped the tears from her cheek and swept her hair back.
“Ah yes, hired hands. You never actually told me how much they’re paying us though. It had better be worth risking our lives for.”
“It will do just fine Sam. Not that it matters much at this stage. Thus far none of the clues are adding up, so there’s no payment until we prove the authenticity of the stolen golden urn. So if you’re done lying around, I suggest we head back and go over our intel again.”
Sam watched her put on a brave show but her pale face and trembling hands were a dead giveaway. “You’re still shaking, Alex. Let’s just rest for a moment,” rubbing his sore shoulder.
“It’s as good as it’s going to get, Sam. No point agonizing over it.”
Sam beamed with pride at her show-must-go-on answer. He had always appreciated her courage and determination. Alex Hunt was a woman who could pretty much get out of any sticky situation and tackled any challenge head-on. Unlike any of the other woman he had ever known. She possessed an inner strength coupled with immense courage. After Tanzania, she had become a changed person. A woman who would stop at nothing until the quest was complete.
Sam dusted off his hat and placed it back on his head only to see Alex had already disappeared into the shoulder high thorny shrubs behind him.
* * *
The equatorial sun beat down hard through the dense forest canopy. Alex glanced periodically at her satellite driven navigation device as they pushed through the thorn-studded shrubs back to their vehicle. The hour-long trek to the Toyota Cruiser felt like an eternity. Neither spoke while they digested the near fatal incident back at the waterfall. It was hot, and maneuvering through the thick leaves took immense effort.
“We had better hurry Quinn. The sun is sitting low already, and I don’t know about you, but I’d hate to spend the night here.”
“Right behind you Alex. These pestering red ants have a nasty bite,” whacking one that managed to get to his ankle under his pants.
The Cambodian jungle wasn’t a comfortable place to be in at all. The thorny shrubs ripped their arms and faces and navigating through the ankle high vines across the forest floor was exhausting.
“We should be close. Tomorrow we head back to the Commissioner-General’s office. There has to be something we missed.”
“I don’t see how we missed anything, Alex. We went through the map and all the details of the police report with a fine-toothed comb. Unless of course…“ Sam paused. “Unless what?” “Unless they purposefully left something off the report.”
“Why would they do that? They hired us to unearth the legend of an original urn in the first place. That’s why they flew us out here. That theory doesn’t make any sense, Sam.”
“Indeed, but what if the Buddhist followers are right and the stolen urn really is a fake? The government would try to cover it up, right? I mean, can you imagine the persecution if the people found out that the holy urn they’ve been worshipping all this time had been a fake? It would start a civil war!”
“Well, what if it wasn’t a fake? What if it was the real relic and you’re barking up the wrong tree here, Sam?”
Sam whacked another mosquito on the back of his neck.
“Hmm, might be but I recall reading the police report wondering how the perpetrators got past the guards outside the shrine in the first place. I might not be a detective, but I certainly picked up some discrepancies in that report.”
Alex stopped and checked the coordinates she wrote in her notebook.
“What’s wrong?” Sam asked
“We should be right on the spot where we left the Cruiser. I don’t understand.”
“Hundred percent, look. Here are the tracks, and the leaves are flattened where it was parked. There’s the road.”
Sam walked over to the clearing where they had parked the Cruiser earlier that morning. She was right. It was the right spot. The vehicle showed tracks coming in, fresh oil stains on the leaves where it stood and then new tracks up ahead.
“Tell me it’s not what I’m thinking.”
“I wish I could but it certainly looks like we were the victims of vehicle theft, Miss Hunt,” Sam commented with a snicker.
“You find this funny Sam? We’re at least six hours on foot from the nearest village, and in case you haven’t noticed, it will be dark soon.”
“Oh, I noticed. But I can hardly cry now, can I? Perhaps you and I should cozy up in a hollow somewhere. Reminds me of our first exploration in Tanzania, come to think of it.”
“Hardly,” throwing herself down on the flattened parking spot to drink water and study the roadmap.
“This jungle is full of dangerous animals, and they are far more densely populated than those in the African bush. Come on. We follow the tracks and hopefully we can catch up to whoever stole our vehicle. Something tells me we have some evildoers trying to sabotage our efforts. My gut tells me there’s more to finding this urn than what meets the eye.”
As quickly as she sat down, she got up again and walked off following the Cruiser’s tracks.
“Can I have a drink of water first, please? I know you dangled in the crisp waters of the waterfall, but I, on the other hand, haven’t quite recovered from that almost fatal ordeal.”
“Well, since you saved me, I can barely refuse,” clicking away on her Sat Nav.
“Hmm, that’s strange,” she let out after a couple of minutes of silence.
“The Sat Nav brought us here, but it’s not picking up any roads ahead. Both the tracks and the road run dead here.”
She switched the gadget off then on again and rechecked the map.
“Surely they would have had to drive off somewhere. It’s bizarre,” Alex commented feeling puzzled.
“We don’t have much time until it’s dark Alex. We need to get a move on. With any luck we’ll pick up fresh tracks.”
* * *
Night fell and, after hours in the treacherous jungle, there was still no sign of their vehicle, its tracks or any roads.
“That’s impossible,” Alex exclaims. “How could they have just disappeared into thin air?”
Sam giggled, as was now typical in his effort to diffuse her obvious annoyance with the situation.
“They didn’t Alex. The vegetation changed, so the tires didn’t leave any marks, that’s all.”
Alex looked around at the vines and small twigs that covered the ground. She contemplated if perhaps a professional tracker would have been able to trace them, but to her untrained eye it was nearly impossible to detect which direction the thieves had gone into.
“Yes well, now what? This doesn’t help us much, does it? We’re lost. I haven’t the foggiest where in this jungle we are.”
“You’re tired. Let’s take a break and try to make a camp for the night. It’s going to be dark soon and we won’t be able to see anything anyway.”
Sam knew her edginess was nothing personal. It was clear the waterfall incident came too close for comfort and that she needed to digest it properly. His years in the medical field taught him to look beyond what people’s exterior revealed.
Sam scratched the back of his head as he plotted how to build a shelter of some sorts while Alex continued pacing around the same tree.
“So I guess we’re in a bit of a fix here. The jungle is fraught with anything from venomous constrictors and panthers to tigers and even bears. We can’t be on the ground, and we can’t be in the trees either. Oh, and let’s not forget the wild elephants,” she said annoyed.
Sam started unpacking his backpack, ignoring her rant before calmly sayin, “Fire. We need a fire. Think you can put one together while I get a shelter going?”
It was the distraction she needed and within minutes Alex had a fire going while Sam’s apt survival skills slowly produced a floor of bamboo poles tied together with the leftover rope from the waterfall fiasco. Another three poles stood in a tripod shape over the spread floor, which he had covered with large leaves. He stood back, hands on his hips and admired his creation.
“That should do it. Not too shabby for a first timer in the jungle if I can say so myself. The machete certainly did the trick.”
“You’re right, not too bad at all. Perhaps the jungle brings out a bit of Tarzan in you,” she scoffed, now in a slightly better state of mind.
“Yes well, ahem, Jane, what’s for dinner?”
“Shh! What’s that?” Alex froze stiff at a huffing sound coming from behind Sam.
“What? I don’t hear anything,” Sam whispered back.
Moments later a fully grown black bear appeared out of nowhere and just about knocked Alex’s breath from her lungs.
“Don’t move Sam,” she managed to say in a subdued voice.
“Don’t move? Why? Tell me it’s not a giant tarantula on my back. I hate spiders.”
“Okay, it’s not a tarantula, but it is infact a bear, and a large one at that. Just don’t run. Move toward me. Slowly! Whatever you do, DON’T RUN,” she added slowly with emphasis.
Alex’s eyes remained fixed on the bear who was about twenty feet behind Sam. Sam moved slowly toward Alex until he passed her and then cautiously turned around and faced the bear. Saliva dripped between his clenched jaw, his upper lip pulled upward to reveal his sharp teeth as he growled. It was obvious the animal was out in search of dinner.
“Now what?” Sam whispered nervously with his hands in the air as if he was held at gunpoint.
“Well, start by lowering your arms. He’s not holding a gun as far as I can see.”
“Right okay, of course.”
Sam lowering his arms somehow agitated the bear even further, and without warning, it stood up on its hind legs and towered over them with a loud hissing sound warning them that he meant business.
“Uhh, that’s not a good sign Alex.”
The surprise visit had them completely unprepared.
“We should shout and make ourselves look big,” Sam suggested.
“Aren’t we supposed to roll into a ball? I’m sure I read this somewhere,” Alex responded.
“I’ll shout, and you roll into a ball, best of both worlds. What do you think?”
“I think you’re stone crazy, Sam Quinn, but let’s give it a try. Don’t see any other way out.”
Like an arrow from a bow, Alex dropped to the ground and rolled herself into a fetal position while Sam shouted and flapped his arms above his head. The bear growled and hissed back. His massive paws stretched upward while he walked on his hind legs, moving closer and closer to his prey.
“I don’t think this is working, Alex! We should make a run for it.”
Sam had barely spoken his words when a single gunshot resounded through the air and they watched as the bear thud to the ground and landed flat on his back, paws outstretched.
“What the…?” Sam exclaimed hands in the air again.
“Crikey Mate. Did you think those moves of yours would scare him away? By the looks of it, the only one to run would be your Sheila here.”
The stranger’s voice flung both Alex and Sam around in one quick motion. Behind Sam stood the likes of someone who looked like he had been raised in the jungle. Tall and tanned from head to toe, dressed in khaki shorts and a broad-rimmed black hat decorated with animal fur and fangs. In his hands, he held the still smoking rifle he had just used to shoot the bear between the eyes.
“G’day Mate, Sheila,” tipping his hat at Alex.
“She’ll be right, no worries.”
Alex, who didn’t understand a word he said, glanced questioningly at Sam and the dumbstruck pair watched in silence as the odd man walked over to his kill, lifting the gigantic paws and dropping it to the ground.
“It’s a real shame, ain’t it, Mate? Such a beauty. You had Buckley’s chance against it though. Ten more seconds and he’d have ripped you apart. They don’t eat humans but you must have disturbed his nocturnal hunt or something. Will make a ripper stew tonight nonetheless. The name’s Ollie, Mate, short for Oliver,” wiping his hands on his pants as he walked over to Sam inviting a handshake.
“Quinn, Dr Sam Quinn and this is Alexandra Hunt.”
“Alex, actually. Only my parents call me by my full name,” Alex spoke.
“Well, pleased to meet your acquaintance. Now, unless you want to face another Asian bear or a panther, we best be moving on.”
Alex and Sam watched as the stranger untied the tripod structure and started fastening the bear’s paws to the pole.
Sam whispered to Alex as they stood back and allowed their rescuer to finish off. “Okay, don’t get me wrong. I’m elated this bloke saved us from sure death, but he’s weird.”
“I think he’s Australian,” Alex whispered back.
“Good on ya, Alexandra. G’d ol’ Down Under. Now stop your pissing about, Mate and help me carry our dinner.”
“Dinner! Oh no, I don’t eat bear meat. I’m quite fine, thank you very much. And it’s Alex, not Alexandra.”
“Yeah well, Alex, when you’ve lived here for as long as I have you make use of what the earth provides. And this old bear didn’t kick the bucket for nothing.”
The Aussie’s beady brown eyes were friendly and in perfect harmony to his upbeat, energetic personality.
“Well, I won’t say no. I’m famished,” Sam chimed in and started pulling alongside Ollie as they made their way through the lush green jungle.