Valhalla Rising, page 11
"She shouldn't have done it," Brown growled absentmindedly.
"One minute she's floating high in the water, the next she's on her way to the bottom. She shouldn't have gone and sunk so fast. It ain't natural."
"I agree," McDermott said with a shrug. "But it's out of our hands."
"The insurance underwriters won't be happy, with nothing left to investigate."
McDermott nodded wearily. "Without evidence, it will always have to remain another one of the sea's great mysteries."
Then he walked over to the big searchlight and switched it off, casting the lost cruise liner's watery burial shroud into stygian blackness.
As soon as the Audacious reached Wellington, the man that McDermott had pulled from the sea after the Emerald Dolphin sank disappeared. The dockside immigration officials swore that he hadn't left the ship down the gangway or they would have detained him for the inquiry proceedings into the cruise ship's fire and loss. McDermott decided the only way for Sherman Nance to have left the ship was over the side when they pulled into harbor.
After McDermott gave his report to insurance investigators, he was told that no crewman or officer named Sherman Nance was listed as having served on board the Emerald Dolphin.
While the Earl of Wattlesfield stood by, the crew of the Deep Encounter homed in on the signal beacons of the drifting sub-mersibles and lifted them on board. Once they were secured, Captain Burch advised Captain Nevins, and the two ships resumed their course toward Wellington.
Dead tired after securing the submersibles, Pitt straightened up his cabin from the mess made by the forty people who had somehow managed to pack into the small enclosure during the cruise ship's evacuation. His muscles ached, a condition he noticed that was creeping up on him with age. He threw his clothes in a laundry bag and stepped into the small shower, turning on the hot water so it sprayed into one corner as he lay on his back on the floor with his long legs extending up to the soap dish. In that position, he promptly dozed off for twenty minutes. Coming awake fully refreshed, but still sore, he soaped and rinsed before toweling dry and stepping out of the shower and staring into the mirror above the brass sink.
The face and body on the other side were not what they were ten years ago. The hair had yet to show any indications of baldness. It was still thick, black and wavy, but gray was beginning to creep in along the temples. The piercing green eyes beneath dense eyebrows had yet to dim. They were eyes passed on by his mother, and they had a hypnotic quality about them that seemed to reach into the very soul of people who came into contact with him. Women were especially absorbed by his eyes. They sensed an aura about them, something that revealed him as a down-to-earth man who could be trusted.
The face, though, was beginning to show the unstoppable result of aging. Deepening mirth lines spread from the edges of his eyes. The skin did not have the elasticity of his younger years and was slowly achieving a weathered look to it. The craggy features around the cheeks and forehead seemed more pronounced. The nose still seemed reasonably straight and intact, considering that it had been broken on three different occasions. He was not Errol Flynn-hand-some, but he still possessed a presence that made people turn and stare in his direction when he entered a room.
Yes, he thought, his facial features came from his mother's side of the family, while his humorous oudook on life and his tall, lean body had definitely been passed down by his father and his father's ancestors.
He lightly ran the fingers of one hand over the several scars spread across his body, reminders of his many adventures during his two decades of service with the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Though he had attended the Air Force Academy and still held a commission as a major in the Air Force, he had jumped at the chance to serve under Admiral James Sandecker and the newly formed oceanographic and marine science agency. Never married, he had come close during a long-running relationship with Congresswoman Loren Smith, but their lives were too complicated. His job at NUMA and hers in Congress were just too demanding for marriage.
Two of his former loves had died under tragic circumstances, Summer Moran in a devastating underwater earthquake off Hawaii, and Maeve Fletcher, shot by her sister off the coast of Tasmania.
It was Summer who never ceased to haunt his dreams. He alwavs saw her swimming into the depths to find her father who was trapped in an underwater cavern, her lovely body and flowing red hair vanishing into the green water of the Pacific. When he'd reached the surface for air and found her gone, he'd tried to dive back, but the men in the boat that rescued him knew it was hopeless and physically restrained him from returning.
Since that time, he had lived only for his work on and under the water. The sea became his mistress. Except for his home in an old aircraft hangar on one corner of Washington's Ronald Reagan Airport, which contained his car and airplane collection, he was always happiest when on a research ship sailing the oceans of the world.
He sighed, put on a terry-cloth robe and lay down on his bed. He was about to drift off into a deserved sleep when he suddenly thought of something and sat up. The girl with her father's leather case jumped strangely into his mind. The more he thought about it, the less it made sense that she left in one of the containership's boats without his seeing her. Then it became obvious.
She hadn't left. She was still hiding somewhere on board the Deep Encounter.
Ignoring the allure of sleep, he came off the bed and quickly dressed. Five minutes later, he began his search at the stern end of the platform deck, peering into every nook and cranny in the generator room, winch room, propulsion motor room and scientific equipment storeroom. It was a slow process because there were so many places amid the stores and equipment where someone could hide.
He checked out the repair parts storeroom and almost missed it, that little something seemingly out of place. He noticed several gallon cans of various lubricating oils, all neatly stacked on a workbench. Nothing that at first glance looked out of the ordinary. But he knew they should have been stored in a wooden storage crate. He walked whisper-quiet over to the crate and eased open the lid.
Kelly Egan was sleeping an exhausted sleep so sound she did not perceive Pitt's presence. The leather case was sitting propped against the side of the crate, and one of her arms hung over it. He smiled, removed a clipboard from a bulkhead hanger, tore off a page from the pad and wrote a note.
When you wake, please come to my cabin on deck level two, number eight.
As an afterthought to entice her, he added, Food and drink will be waiting.
He laid the note gently on her chest, softly closed the lid to the crate and quietly stepped from the parts room.
At slightly past seven in the evening, Kelly rapped lightly on Pitt's cabin door. He opened and found her, eyes lowered sheepishly, standing in the passageway, still clutching the handle of the leather case. He took her by the hand and led her inside. "You must be starved," he said, smiling to show he wasn't angry or annoyed.
"Are you Dirk Pitt?"
"Yes, and you're . . . ?"
"Kelly Egan. I'm so sorry to have caused you-"
"No trouble at all," he interrupted. He motioned to a desk with a tray of sandwiches and a pitcher of milk. "Not exactly a gourmet dinner, but about the best the cook could do with what's left of our food supply." He held up a woman's blouse and shorts. "One of our scientists guessed at your size and kindly loaned some clothes. Eat and then take a shower. I'll come back in half an hour. Then we'll talk."
When Pitt returned, Kelly had showered and already finished off a pile of ham-and-cheese sandwiches. The pitcher of milk was all but drained, too. He sat down in a chair opposite her. "Feeling like you belong to the human race again?"
She smiled and nodded, looking like a schoolgirl who had been caught at mischief. "You must be wondering why I didn't leave the ship?"
"The thought crossed my mind."
"Of what? The man who attacked you and your father? I'm happy to report that he joined the other victims of the ship who drowned."
"There was another one," she said hesitantly. "A ship's officer. He seemed to be an accomplice of the red-haired man who tried to kill me. Together, they attempted to steal my father's case, and I believe they meant to murder him. But something went wrong during the struggle, and all they succeeded in doing was push him over the railing into the water-"
"Taking the case with him," Pitt said, finishing the sentence.
"Yes." Tears came to Kelly's eyes as she relived her father's death. Pitt reached in a pocket and handed her a handkerchief. After wiping the tears, she stared at the cloth. "I didn't think men carried these anymore. I thought everyone used tissue."
"I come from the old school," he said quietly. "You never know when you may encounter a blue lady."
She gave him a very strange look and smiled faintly. "I haven't met anyone quite like you."
"My type has never developed a herd instinct." He returned to the subject at hand. "Can you describe this officer?"
"Yes, he was a tall black man, African-American I suppose, since the ship belonged to a domestic shipping line and most of the crew were from the United States."
"Odd that they waited until a ship's fire to make their move."
"It wasn't the first time Dad was harassed," she said angrily. "He told me of being threatened on several different occasions."
"So what is so important that your father had to die for it?" said Pitt, gesturing at the case sitting on the deck at her feet.
"My father is"-she paused-"was Dr. Elmore Egan, a brilliant man. He was both a mechanical and a chemical engineer."
"I'm aware of the name," said Pitt. "Dr. Egan was a widely respected inventor, wasn't he? The creator of several different types of water propulsion engines? As I recall, he also formulated a highly efficient diesel fuel that is widely used in the transportation industry."
"You know that?" she asked, impressed.
"I'm a marine engineer," he admitted. "I'd get an F on the test if I hadn't heard of your father."
"Dad's latest project was the development of magnetohydrody-namic engines."
"Like the propulsion units in the Emerald Dolphin."
She nodded silently.
"I must confess my ignorance about magnetohydrodynamic engines. What little I've read suggested the technology was still thirty years away. That's why I was surprised to read they had been installed in the Emerald Dolphin."
"Everybody was surprised. But Dad created a breakthrough, a revolutionary design. He compounded the electricity found in seawater before running it through a highly magnetic core tube kept at absolute zero by liquid helium. The electrical current that is produced then sets up an energy force that pumps the water through thrusters for propulsion."
Pitt was listening attentively, and her words caused him to stiffen. "Are you saying that his engine's only outside fuel source is seawater?"
"Saline has a very small electrical field. My father discovered a method of intensifying it to an incredible degree to produce energy."
"It's hard to envision a means of propulsion with an inexhaustible source of fuel."
Kelly's face reflected pride in her father. "As he explained to me-"
"You don't work with him?" Pitt cut in.
"Hardly." She laughed for the first time. "He was terribly disappointed in me, I'm afraid. I can't think in abstract terms. I never had it in me to conquer algebra. Solving equations was a hopeless cause for me. I majored in business at Yale, where I received my master's. I work as a merchandise analyst for a firm of consultants-our clients are department stores and discount houses."
Pitt's lips spread slightly in a grin. "Not as exciting as creating new forms of energy."
"Perhaps not," she said, with a toss of the head that sent her light brown hair swirling in a cloud around her neck and shoulders, "but I make a good income."
"What breakthrough led your father to perfect the technology of magnetohydrodynamic engines?"
"Early in his research and development, he reached a roadblock when his experimental engine exceeded power and energy expectations but experienced extreme friction problems. The engines only had a life span of a few hours at high rpm before grinding to a halt. He and a close associate and family friend, Josh Thomas, a chemical engineer, then formulated a new oil that was a hundred times more efficient than any commercial oil available on the market today. Now Dad had a new power source that could run indefinitely without measurable wear for years."
"So the super oil was the element that advanced your father's magnetohydrodynamics engine from the drawing board to reality."
"True," she acknowledged. "After the pilot model's successful test program, the Blue Seas Cruise Lines directors approached Dad about constructing and installing his engines in the Emerald Dolphin, which was then under construction at the shipbuilders in Singapore. They were also building an underwater luxury submarine passenger liner, but I forget the name. They gave him an exclusive license to build the engines."
"Can't the oil formula be duplicated?"
"Formula, yes. Process, no. There is no way of repeating the exact production process."
"I assume he protected himself with patents."
Kelly nodded vigorously. "Oh, yes. He and Josh Thomas were awarded at least thirty-two patents on the engine design."
"What about the oil formula?"
She hesitated, then shook her head. "He preferred to keep that to himself. He didn't even trust the Patent Office."
"Dr. Egan could have become an enormously wealthy man by working out royalty agreements on his oil and engine."
Kelly shrugged. "Like you, Dad did not walk the same road as other men. He wanted the world to benefit from his discovery, and he was prepared to give it away. Besides, he was already busy on something else. He told me that he was working on an even greater project, something that would cause an unbelievable impact on the future."
"Did he ever tell you what it was?"
"No," she answered. "He was very secretive, and said it was better that I didn't know."
"A sobering thought," said Pitt. "He wanted to protect you from whoever was desperate to gain his secrets."
A sad, forlorn look came into Kelly's eyes. "Dad and I were never very close after Mom died. He was basically a good and caring father, but his work came first and he was always lost in it. I think he invited me along on the maiden voyage of the Emerald Dolphin as a way of bringing us closer together."
Pitt sat thoughtfully quiet for nearly a minute. Then he nodded toward the leather case. "Don't you think it's time you opened it?"
She held her hands over her face, hiding her confusion. "I want to," she said hesitantly, "but I'm afraid."
"Afraid of what?" he asked quietly.
She flushed, not from embarrassment, but more from an apprehension of what she might find inside. "I don't know."
"If you're afraid I'm an evildoer out to abscond with your father's precious papers, you can forget it. I'll sit comfortably across the room while you peek inside with the lid up so I won't see anything."
Suddenly, it all seemed so ludicrous to her. She held the leather case on her lap and giggled softly. "You know, I don't have the foggiest idea what's inside. For all I know, it's Dad's laundry or notepads of his undecipherable scribbles."
"Then it won't hurt to look."
She sat there hesitating for a long moment. Then very slowly, as if she were opening a canister holding one of those pop-up clowns, she clicked the latches and lifted the lid.
"Oh, good lord!" she gasped.
Pitt sat up. "What is it?"
As if in slow motion, she turned the case around and let it fall from her hands to the deck. "I don't understand," she whispered. "It's never been out of my hands."
Pitt leaned down and peered inside the leather case.
It was empty.
Two hundred miles out of Wellington, the meteorological instruments predicted calm seas and clear skies for the next four days. Now that Deep Encounter was no longer in any immediate danger of flooding and sinking, Captain Nevins ordered his containership to pass ahead and reach port as quickly as possible. The sooner the Earl of Wattlesfield reached Wellington, the better. With two thousand unexpected passengers on board, food supplies were critically low.
As the great ship surged past, the crew and passengers of the Emerald Dolphin waved good-bye. A voice began singing a Woody Guthrie song, and soon over a thousand voices picked it up and serenaded the men and women on board the little survey vessel with So long, it's been good to know yuh.
It was a moving moment as they sang the last line of the chorus ... An' I've got to be driftin' along. Before another hour passed by, the Earl of Wattlesfield was hull down over the horizon.
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