Valhalla rising, p.10

Valhalla Rising, page 10

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "What is it worth to read your thoughts?" asked Burch.

  Pitt looked at him blankly. "My thoughts?"

  "I'll bet my grandmother's rosary beads that curiosity is eating you alive."

  "I don't follow you."

  "The same question that's on all our minds," explained Burch. "What motive would a madman have for murdering twenty-five hundred helpless men, women and children?"

  "As soon as she's towed into Sydney Harbor, an army of marine fire insurance company investigators will sift through the ashes and find the answers."

  "They won't find much to sift."

  "Don't underestimate them," said Burch. "Those guys are good. If anyone can ferret out the cause, they can."

  Pitt turned and smiled at Burch. "I hope you're right, Skipper. I'm just glad it's not on my shoulders."

  By the end of the week, Pitt would be proved wrong. Never would he have predicted that he would be the one called upon to solve the mystery.

  8

  The first tug to reach the Emerald Dolphin was the Quest Marine Offshore Company's Audacious. At 190 feet in length, with a beam of 58 feet, she was one of the largest tugs in the world. Her twin Hunnewell diesel engines provided a total of 9,800 horsepower to drive her propulsion units. Since she'd had the advantage of being stationed in Wellington, the closest port, she had beat out two other big tugs from Brisbane.

  The Audacious' master had run her hard, like an overweight greyhound after the rabbit, homing in on the position updates provided by the Aussie missile cruiser. He'd kept radio silence during the race across the South Pacific, a routine ploy among tugboat captains racing toward the same wreck, because the winner received the Lloyds Open Form for salvage and 25 percent of the stricken vessel's value.

  Now that Captain Jock McDermott was in sight of the smoldering cruise liner and the Australian guided-missile cruiser, he opened contact with the Blue Seas Cruise Lines officials, who after half an hour of bargaining accepted the "no cure, no pay" contract, naming Quest Marine as the principal salvage contractor for what was left of the Emerald Dolphin.

  Closing on the liner that still glowed red, McDermott and his crew were stunned at the devastation. A pile of incinerated rubble floating on a restless turquoise sea was all that was left of the once-beautiful cruise liner. She looked like a photo of Hiroshima after the horrendous firestorm from the atomic bomb: blackened, misshapen and shriveled.

  "She ain't worth nothin' more than scrap," spat the Audacious's first officer, Herm Brown, a former professional rugby player who'd gone to sea when his knees gave out. He stood under a shaggy mane of blond hair, his beefy legs showing under his shorts and a hairy chest visible through the unbuttoned shirt pulled taut by his shoulders.

  McDermott pulled his spectacles down over his nose and peered over the lenses. A sandy-haired Scotsman with a narrow beaklike nose and hazy green eyes, he had spent twenty years in oceangoing tugs. But for the jutting jaw, and eyes that seemed to focus like light beams, he might have passed for Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's bookkeeper. "The directors of the company won't be happy with this job, that's for sure. I never thought a ship that big could burn itself into nothing more than a heap of soot."

  The ship's phone buzzed and McDermott picked up the receiver. "Captain of the tug, this is Captain Harlow of the cruiser off your port beam. Whom am I speaking to?"

  "Captain Jock McDermott of the Quest Marine tug Audacious."

  "Now that you've arrived, Captain McDermott, I can leave station and head for Wellington. I've got five hundred survivors on board who are anxious to set foot on land again."

  "You've had a busy time of it, Captain," McDermott replied. "I'm surprised you didn't depart two days ago."

  "We've been busy picking up the bodies of the cruise liner's victims who died in the water. I was also asked by the International Maritime Commission to remain nearby and report on the wreck's position after it became classed as a menace to navigation."

  "She no longer resembles a ship."

  "A pity," said Harlow. "She was one of the most beautiful vessels afloat." Then he added, "Is there anything we can do to help you get her under tow?"

  "No, thank you," answered McDermott. "We can manage."

  "She looks in a bad way. I hope she stays afloat until you reach safe harbor."

  "Without knowing how badly her hull was damaged by the heat, I won't bet the farm on it."

  "Burning her guts out considerably lightened her. Riding high out of the water should make her an easy tow."

  "No tow is easy, Captain. Be prepared for a welcoming committee and a horde of reporters when you reach Wellington."

  "I can't wait," Harlow responded dryly. "Good luck to you."

  McDermott turned to his first mate, Arle Brown. "Well, I guess we'd best get to work."

  "At least the sea is flat," said Brown, nodding through the windshield of the bridge.

  McDermott stared for several seconds at the wreck. "I have a feeling a flat sea may be all we have going for us."

  McDermott wasted no time. After circling the derelict and seeing that the rudder looked to be set in the flat zero-degree position, he brought the Audacious to within two hundred feet of the Emerald Dolphin's, bow. He could only hope the rudder was frozen in place. If it moved, the hulk would shear off to the side and become impossible to control.

  The tug's motor launch was lowered into the water. Brown and four of the tug's crew motored toward the wreck until they were directly under the great overhanging bow. They had visitors. The waters around the hull were teeming with sharks. Through some primeval instinct, they knew that if the ship went down there might be some tasty edibles left floating on the surface.

  Climbing aboard the hulk wasn't going to be easy. She was still too hot to come aboard amidships, but the bow remained free from the worst of the fire. There were at least thirty ropes hanging from the railings above. Luckily, two of them were Jacob's boarding ladders with wooden rungs. As the boat's helmsman angled the launch under one of the ladders hanging from above, he kept the bow aimed into the waves to maintain better control.

  Brown went first. Keeping a wary eye on the sharks, he firmly planted his feet on the gunnels and balanced his body. He stretched out his arms, grabbed the ladder and pulled it toward him. As the launch rose on the crest of the wave, he stepped onto a rope rung and climbed steadily upward, covering the vertical height of nearly fifty feet in less than three minutes. At the top, he caught the railing and pulled himself over onto the forepeak. Next, he swung one of the lines the survivors had thrown off the bow until it was caught by one of the men in the boat. The line was then tied to the end of another line that the launch had towed from the tug.

  After three of his crew had ascended the Jacob's ladder to the forepeak, the line was pulled up and slipped around an enormous round towing bollard whose designers never expected it to be used this way. Then the end was passed back down to a man in the launch, who tied it off. Brown watched the launch as it returned to the tug, where the heaving line was passed up and secured to the end of a cable wound around a huge winch. Before Brown gave the signal to engage the winch, he watched as one of his crew smeared grease around the bollard.

  With no power on board the Emerald Dolphin, it was no small chore to lift aboard the tug's massive eight-inch-diameter tow cable that weighed one ton per hundred feet. By using the bollard as a pulley, the winch was engaged and began pulling the line running between the two ships around a small drum attached to the main winch. A two-inch cable that had been attached to one end of the line soon began winding itself around the bollard and back to the tug again. The other end of this cable was connected to the big eight-incher, which was then pulled up to the bow of the cruise ship and clamped with a series of U-bolts to the anchor chains because the big liner did not have a capstan on the foredeck. It was mounted below on a deck that was burned and unreachable.

  "Cable secured," Brown notified McDermott over his portable radio. "We're coming back aboard."
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  "Acknowledged."

  Ordinarily, a small crew would remain on board a derelict under tow, but without knowing to what extent the fire had ravaged the hull, there was too great a danger for the men to remain on board the Emerald Dolphin. If she should abruptly head for the sea floor, they might not have time to escape and would be sucked down with her.

  Brown and his men dropped down the ladder into the launch. As soon as the launch and its crew were taken aboard the tug, McDermott gave the order for dead slow ahead. Brown, who was operating the gigantic tow winch, paid out the cable until the cruise ship was a good quarter of a mile astern. Then he set the brake, the slack went out of the cable and the winch took up the strain as the Audacious began to inch forward.

  Every man on the tug held his breath to see how the Emerald Dolphin would act. Slowly, inch by inch, foot by foot, like an obedient elephant led by a mouse, her bow began to part the water. Nobody moved, still anxious, but the immense liner came arrow-straight into the tug's churning wake and stayed there. At seeing the still-burning hulk under way without shear, everyone on board the tug began to relax.

  Ten hours later, the Audacious' big engines were towing the enormous hulk at a respectable two knots. Most of the fire was out. Only a few flickers of flame could still be seen amid the twisted wreckage of the superstructure. There was no moon, and overcast clouds covered the sky. The night was so black it was impossible to tell where sea left off and the sky began.

  The tug's big searchlight was beamed on the Emerald Dolphin, illuminating her bow and gutted forward superstructure. The crew took turns on watch, making sure the big tow followed behind as planned. After midnight, the ship's cook took his turn. He settled in a folding deck chair he carried on board to enjoy the sun when he wasn't busy in the galley. It was too hot and humid for coffee, so he drank Diet Pepsi, the cans nestled in a small bucket of ice. With a soft drink in hand, he lit a cigarette and leaned back, gazing dutifully at the ponderous mass following astern.

  Two hours later, he was barely awake, fighting off drowsiness with his tenth cigarette and third Pepsi. The Emerald Dolphin was still where she was supposed to be. The cook sat up and tilted his head when he heard what sounded like a deep rumble come from within the hulk. It reminded him of thunder over the distant horizon, not one but a series of booms, as if they were timed a few seconds apart. He sat up and squinted his eyes. He was about to write it off to his imagination when he noticed that something had changed. It took a moment for him to realize that the ship was sitting lower in the water.

  The scorched cruise ship sheared her starboard slightly before wallowing back on a straight course. Under the searchlight, a huge billow of smoke issued from the wreckage forward of amidships before spi-raling into the darkness outside the searchlight's beam. Then the cook's face froze in horror.

  The Emerald Dolphin was foundering, and she looked to be going down fast.

  In shock, the cook ran up onto the bridge to shout, "She's sinking. Holy mother, she's going under!"

  McDermott heard the commotion and burst from his cabin. He asked no questions of the cook. One look was enough to tell him that if they didn't cut the tow cable, the sinking liner would take the Audacious and her crew down twenty thousand feet to the sea floor with her. He was joined by Brown, who also took in the situation with a glance. Together, they ran to the giant winch.

  Frantically, they struggled to release the brake, paying out the massive cable, watching it unreel into the abyss, rapidly falling from a near-horizontal angle to vertical as the cruise ship buried her bow in the water. The great cable that was wound around the winch's drum began to unreel ever faster until it became a blur. McDermott and Brown could only hope that when the cable finally unwound, its end would rip from its connectors. If not, the Audacious would be pulled under by the stern.

  The dead cruise ship was plunging deeper with uncanny speed. Already her bow was diving beneath the surface. She was sinking on a shallow fifteen-degree angle, but sinking fast. An awful groaning sound came from the battered hull as her fire-tortured bulkheads contorted and twisted apart from the strain. Her rudder and the great jet thrusters lifted out of the water into the night. The stern hung there for a few seconds, and then slowly it followed the bow into the black sea, faster and faster until the entire ship plummeted out of sight, leaving a great swelling of air bubbles.

  Only one row of cable remained wound around the reel, but suddenly it became taut and the stern of the tug dipped abruptly, jerking the bow out of the water. Every man on board stood stock-still, staring at the unwinding drum, seeing the jaws of death close. Then the drum spun for the last time as the cable's entire length was yanked sharply into the abyss. The drama had reached its climax.

  There came an earsplitting shriek, and then the end of the cable shot off the drum and whipped out of sight into the sea. Released from the strain, the tug's bow came down hard as she righted herself, rocking on her keel forward and aft before settling down. The crew stood in stunned silence at their narrow brush with death.

  Finally, Brown muttered, as the trauma of the last minutes slowly faded, "I never believed a ship could sink in the blink of an eye."

  "Nor I," McDermott agreed. "It's as though her entire bottom dropped out."

  "There goes a million pounds' worth of cable. The company directors aren't going to be too happy."

  "It was beyond our control. It all happened too fast." Then McDermott paused and held up a hand.

  "Listen!" he said sharply.

  Everyone gazed at the spot where the Emerald Dolphin had vanished. Out of the night, a voice was shouting, "Help me!"

  McDermott's first thought was that one of the crew had fallen overboard during the excitement, but a quick scan of the deck showed him they were all present. The shout came again, only this time it was weak and barely perceptible.

  "Somebody's out there," said the cook, pointing in the direction of the voice.

  Brown ran over to the searchlight, swung it around and played its beam on the water. The dark face of a man could barely be seen against the ebony of the sea less than a hundred feet off the stern. "Can you swim to the boat?" Brown yelled.

  There was no answer, but the man did not appear exhausted. He stroked strongly and evenly toward the tug.

  "Throw him a line," Brown ordered a crewman, "and haul him in before the sharks get him."

  A rope was heaved over the side. The man caught it, and two crewmen pulled him to the stern and heaved him aboard.

  "He's an aborigine," said Brown, a native Aussie.

  "Not with curly hair," observed McDermott. "More like African."

  "He's wearing a ship's officer's uniform."

  Hardly expecting to see a survivor this late in the game, McDermott looked at the man questioningly. "May I ask where you came from?"

  The stranger unleashed a wide-tooth smile. "I thought that was obvious. I am, or rather was, the Emerald Dolphin's passenger relations officer."

  "How come you remained on board after all the survivors were taken off?" asked Brown. He found it hard to believe the man was free of injuries, and except for his soaking-wet uniform he looked none the worse for his experience.

  "I fell and struck my head while helping passengers abandon ship onto the research vessel. Everyone must have thought I was dead and left me. When I woke up, you had the ship under tow."

  "You must have been unconscious for the better part of twenty-four hours," said McDermott skeptically.

  "I must have."

  "Seems incredible you weren't burned to death."

  "I was extremely lucky. I fell into a companionway that was spared by the fire."

  "You speak with an American accent."

  "I'm from California."

  "What's your name?" asked Brown.

  "Sherman Nance."

  "Well, Mr. Nance," said McDermott, "you'd better get out of that wet uniform. You're about the same size as Mr. Brown, my first officer. He can loan you dry clothes. Then go to t
he galley. You must be dehydrated and famished after your ordeal. I'll see that our cook gives you something to drink and fixes a hearty meal."

  "Yes, thank you, Captain . . ."

  "McDermott."

  "I am pretty thirsty."

  After Nance was escorted below by the cook, Brown peered at the captain. "Uncanny that he survived a fire of such magnitude without a singed eyebrow or a burned finger."

  McDermott rubbed his chin doubtfully. "Yes, uncanny." Then he sighed. "It's not our concern. I now have the distasteful duty of notifying the directors that we lost our tow and their expensive cable."

 
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