New York network television cameraman ANDY COOPER is dragooned from his cushy Sports Division berth to shoot a National Geographic special about the billion dollar treasures of El Dorado at a secret lake in the Andes but what he finds is life-threatening danger from wild animals,
savage pirates, backstabbing crew members and
treachery from his lover and museum curator, Celia who might be the biggest danger of all.
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Within these pages, every moment is a life-or-death struggle in an environment moldering with deadly diseases, man-eating natives and animals, cannibal ants, killer insects and reptiles, pitfall snare traps and curare-tipped tree branches, poisoned food, cut air hoses,sabotaged SCUBA tanks, runaway underwater vacuums, out of control high pressure underwater hoses, plus the deadly April 9th revolutionary movement determined to seize all the treasures to finance the revolution by slaying everyone involved in the El Dorado project.
It is, most importantly, the story of ANDY COOPER, a totally-dimensional yet highly-identifiable American journalist whose instinct for the story behind the story and imaginative strategies for survival not only help him uncover the centuries-old mysteries of El Dorado but reward him with the extraordinary personal and financial rewards to become the final winner-take-all.
“So, the gold we dig up...”
“Will be the gold that pays for the revolution.”
“Smart,” nodded Commanger. “We use our good old American technological know-how, U.S. Navy style, and the best brains in the business and a half million dollars worth of equipment and talent to excavate the treasure of the lake and then they hijack it.”
He suddenly turned to me. “If you know all of that, then you must be something you aren’t telling us. State Department? C.I.A.? April 9th sympathizer? What?”
“Card-carrying cameraman,” I answered smiling, “That only. Well, maybe a bit more. I am here to cover the underwater excavation as a special, yes, but I’m also here as a representative of the news department of the network. If there is a revolution I’m Andy-on-the-spot to cover it firsthand. By the way, Commander, one other advantage to having me along. During the years I’ve been shooting film I also learned a lot of other things. I learned hang-gliding when I covered that sport. I asked bowlers to help me when I was doing the championship alleys show and my average went up twenty pins a game. My tennis game improved after I shot Forest Hills. I‘m a semi-expert at Orienteering and Survival from shooting specials on those subjects. What I’m trying to say is that I’ve covered the National Rifle Championships three years in a row.”
“So you know how to shoot?”
“In case you need another trigger out there,” I motioned to the mountains.
“I think that’s a lot of flak, a lot of bull,” Commanger rebutted, “about the April 9th Movement, about the Indians.”
“But what if it isn’t, Commander? If you get robbed or hijacked of the treasure—if you find one—wouldn’t it be better if you could show the suspicious government minds actual film taken by an impartial observer, namely me, instead of having them think that you and your friends have made off with their gold?”
“I understand they have a seven second torture down here that cripples you for life. They do not play games here, my blue-and-gold friend. This is not the fair play fields of Annapolis. A quarter of a million dead people are testimony to that. What do you think they’d do to you if they thought you stole their treasure?”
“I’m an American naval officer.”
“Regrettably missing in the jungle…”
“He’s got a damn fine point, that boy does,” Waterston said.
“A couple of them,” Floyd agreed.
“So we have to take you along.”
“If you don’t want to shut down this junket, right here, right now.”
“Can we compromise?”
“Sure, You let me shoot what I want to, where I want to, including underwater, and I won’t walk.”
“You’ve dived before—but how deep?”
“Best shooting depth’s about twenty feet but I’ve gone fifty, fifty-five.”
“We’re going down to seventy, or eighty, just farther down enough for a man to get into trouble if he doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“That’s not far enough down for decompression problems,” I answered.
“You know that for sure? I don’t know that for sure and now it’s my business we’re talking about. We’re diving in the thinner air of that lake’s nine thousand foot altitude. There are no official dive tables for altitude, everything’s based on sea level. Only a few Swiss experiments have been done in the lakes there. We’re experimenting here and experimentation usually means trouble. Floyd here and Earl and I all served in Navy Underwater Demolition Teams and naval salvage. We know the problems and some of the answers. A beginner like you could get hurt or killed.” Super-smirk.
“It’s my ass.”
“You, of course, know that the area we’re going into is inhabited by a tribe of Indians who hunt white men with poisoned arrows...”
“It’s full of centipedes, scorpions, tarantulas, and a dozen other crawling things that can kill you faster than you can identify them...”
.“...water snakes and cannibal fish in the lake where we’re diving? Swarms of flies that sting like wasps...?”
“...ants that destroy everything in their way like a flamethrower......man-eating jaguars that hunt in packs...”
I continued nodding.
“...and because you will know where we are and what we’re doing and because you could tell the April 9th, you cannot leave the camp or contact anyone until we are finished with the excavation.”
I just looked at him.
“I haven’t scared you?”
“Frankly, Commander, yes you have.”
The doorbell buzzed. Waterston walked over and pulled it open.
There were two people standing there.
I couldn’t take my eyes off of the one to even notice the other.
I have captured on film, and once in a lucky while in my apartment, Misses America, World, Universe, Automobile Show, and Orange Bowl Parade. I have covered fashion shows, bathing beauty competitions, pep rallies, casting sessions, chorus lines, nude beaches and burlesque shows. But I had never seen a woman as beautiful as the one who stood looking Earl Waterston almost level in the eye.
She was part everything: Incan, Spanish, Norteamericano. Her shoulder-length brown hair was parted in the middle and swept back across her ears, pulled painfully tight into a wavy ponytail. Her skin was the color of votive candlelight, a breathtaking frame to wide, deep-set eyes the color of old Meerschaum. Top lip, full. Bottom lip jutting out too much for a pout, not quite enough for malocclusion. She was wearing a blue and red plaid cotton skirt, navy blazer and blue and white polka-dotted blouse underneath her dripping, unbuttoned raincoat. From what I could see below the coat, those legs could give a run to anyone I had ever seen in any Miss Wonderful contest.
She smiled again at Waterston, showing at least ninety-three perfect white teeth.
Earl was transfixed. “Uh hello, Doctor Garcia,” he stammered to the other person. The angel extended her hand.
“Señor Waterston?” the man he had called Doctor Garcia said, “may I introduce my niece Señorita Celia Ascunsulo, who is also my tunjo collections assistant at the museum, She has graciously agreed to accompany us on this excavation and to assist in authenticating the treasure of the Gilded Man.”
I wasn’t listening, just staring.
But despite taking in every glorious bit of her I could, the oversized raincoat blocked me from seeing the .38 automatic clip-holstered in the small of her back.
I was still groggy with sleep, staring through half-opened eyes at the mud ruts we were following through the shiny wet jungle. It was 8:30 and I felt like that old jet lag demon had occupied my body even though Bogota is in the same time zone as New York. I had slept restlessly and it seemed that 7:00 a.m. had come earlier than usual. We had all met at the four-wheel drive vehicles in the hotel garage at 7:30 so it had been a half hour dress, pack, lock, and dash track and field event for me.
We hit a pothole and banged downward about a foot, the rear springs on this aging Jeep Wagoneer clanging upwards against the floor. I wondered how my camera gear was getting along strapped to the top of the old hardtop Army surplus Jeep leading the column. It was all packed in a specially-outfitted, foam-rubber lined foot locker-sized crate the network prop department had built for me. They had done a good job. That case had been dropped into the sea while I was covering the America’s Cup Races, pranged by a runaway race car at Indianapolis, and tumbled by an avalanche at the Winter Olympics, and the equipment was still in the pieces the manufacturers had turned out.
Inside, I had an Arriflex 16 millimeter camera, an extra body, high speed and regular film, four 400 foot magazines, tripod, light meters, lenses, filters, a film loading bag, a constant speed motor and a high speed motor, portable power supply, a troubleshooting kit, and a complete palm-sized Minox “spy camera” kit with lenses that could shoot anything from serial photography to atomic energy schematics. One-quarter of the crate was filled with the Plexiglas underwater housing I had designed. It was lighter, smaller, and less expensive than the commercially available ones and I had a little side business making and selling copies of it to other television and motion picture cameramen. Paramount had even bought one last year for some movie.
The trees made a heavy green tunnel, a hundred feet high, wind-arched and matted together at the top by thousands of braided branches. Vines and creepers and brush heavy enough to break a machete formed giant green nets closing in on us. Purple and red and yellow birds punctured the damp gloom, flying from tree to tree, their shrill calls slicing through the drumming rain. The Land Rover in front of us was pawing up chains of thick black mud as it slewed and scrambled for a hold. The mud slapped and spattered against the windshield and hood of our bouncing vehicle. In front of the column, the old Army Jeep bobbled along, its exhaust steaming in the chilled mountain air.
I looked around at my co-passengers. Floyd Butler, the old diver, was driving, his flinty shoulders and hawkish face hunched together over the steering wheel, his right hand working the gear lever convulsively as the Wagoneer slowed, spun rubber, lurched forward, slowed again.
In the back seat, directly behind him, Doctor Garcia was thumbing through a loose-leaf binder and marking a folded paper map with a thick red pen. The book contained charts, rows of numbers, maps, and dozens of pages of heavy single-spaced text. He was intently consulting it, occasionally closing his eyes and turning his head upward to let the information trickle into his body.
Celia Ascunsulo was behind me which meant a badly sprained neck if I was to continue looking over the seat at her which I had been doing since we left Bogota, or unbuckling my seat belt and taking a chance that my head would create an instant sunroof the next time this motorized mule dropped into a hole. I settled for turning sideways in the seat as far as the belt would allow. That way, I could see her but appear to be talking to Floyd or Garcia.
She certainly did not look like an academician this morning. Her tidy blue and white outfit had been packed away somewhere. It had been replaced with, alas, baggy khaki fatigue pants, a blue denim shirt, a heavy brown sweater, and a red ruana, those thick woolen ponchos they wear down here. Her pumps had given way to oiled engineer boots. Her lustrous brown hair was tied off in two thick braids. She looked about 17 years old and about twice as fetching as she did in her go-to-party clothes. This look was what the casting folks call “cheerleader cute” instead of the more official Lady Executive appearance I had first seen.