Iceberg, p.17

Iceberg, page 17

 

Iceberg
 


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  "No way, they were tightlipped bastards. Talked about nothin, but the repair. Must have been on a local flight though. They didn't refuel. You ain't flyin' far in a Lorelei-not from Iceland anyhow-without full tanks."

  "The pilot must have signed a maintenance order."

  "Nope. He refused. Said He was behind schedule and would catch me next time. Paid me though. Twice what the job was worth." Cashman was silent for a moment. He tried to read something in the man standing before him, but Pitts face was as impenetrable as a granite statue. "What's behind these questions, Major?

  Mind lettin' me in on your secret?"

  "No secret," Pitt said slowly. "A Lorelei crashed a couple of days ago and nothing except a portion of the nose gear was left to identify. I'm trying to trace it, that's all."

  "Wasn't it reported as missin'?"

  "I wouldn't be here if it was."

  "Ah knew there was something fishy about them guys. That's why ah went ahead and filled out a maintenance report."

  Pitt leaned over, his eyes boring into Cashman's.

  "What good was a report if you couldn't identify the aircraft?"

  A shrewd smile split Cashman's lips. "Ah may be a country boy, but mah momma didn't drop me outta her bottom this mornin'." He stood up and tilted his head toward a side door. "Major, ahim gonna make your day."

  He led Pitt into a small dingy office furnished with only a battered desk that was decorated with at least fifty cigarette burn marks, two equally battered chairs and a huge metal filing cabinet. Cashman walked straight to the cabinet and pulled out a drawer, rummaged for a moment, found what he was looking for and handed Pitt a folder soiled with greasy fingerprints.

  "Ah wasn't kidding' ya, Major, when ah said it was too dark to make out any paint markin's. Near as ah could tell, the plane had never been touch by a brush or spraygun. The aluminum skin was -,Is shiny as the day it let the factory."

  Pitt opened the folder and scanned the maintenance report. Cashman's handwritin left much to be desired, but there was no mistaking the notation under AIRCRAFT IDENTIFICATION: Lorelei Mark V111-B1608.

  " How did you get it?" Pitt asked.

  "Compliments of a limey inspector at the Lorelei factory," Cashman answered, sitting on a corner of the desk. "After replacin' the seal on the nose gear, ah took a flashlight and checked out the main landin' gear for damage or leakage, and there it was, stuck away under the right strut as pretty as you please. A green tag sayin' that this here aircraft's landin' gear had been examined and okayed by master inspector Clarence Devonshire of Lorelei Aircraft Limited. The plane's serial number was typed on the tag."

  Pitt threw the folder on the desk. "Sergeant Cashman!" he snapped.

  Stunned at the brusque tone, Cashman jumped erect. "Sir?"

  "Your squadron!"

  "Eighty-seventh Air Transport Squadron, sir."

  "Good enough." Pitts cold expression slowly worked into a huge grin and he slapped Cashman on the shoulder. "You're absolutely right, Sam. You truly made my day."

  "Wish ah could say the same," Cashman sighed, visibly relieved, "but that's twice in the last ten minutes ya scared the crap outta me. Why'd ya want mah squadron?"

  "So I'd know where to send a case of Jack Daniel's. I take it you enjoy good whiskey?"

  A look of wonder suddenly came over Cashman's face. "By gawd, Major, you're sumthin' else. Ya know that?"

  "I try." Already Pitt was plotting how to explain a case of expensive whiskey on his expense account.

  What the hell, screw Sandecker, he thought; the tab was worth the consequences. Screw, the word bounded out of his mind 56

  and caused him to remember something. He reached inside his pocket.

  "By the way, have you ever seen this before?" He handed Cashman the screwdriver he'd found on the black Lorelei.

  "Well, waal, fancy that. Believe it or not, Major, this here screwtwister is mine. Bought it through the catalog of a tool specialty house in Chicago. It's the only one of its kind on the island. Where'd you come across it?"

  "In the wreck."

  "So that's where it went," he said angry. "Those dirty bastards stole it. Ah should a known they were up to sumthin' illegal.

  Ya just tell me when their trial is, and ah'fl be happier than a rejected hog at a packin' plant to testify against them."

  "Save your leave time for a wor-thwbhe escapade.

  Your friends won't be showing for a trial. They bought the farm."

  "Killed in the wreck?" It was more statement than question.

  Pitt nodded.

  "Ah suppose ah could go on about crime not payin', but why bother.

  If they had it coming', they had it coming'. That's all there is to it."

  "As a philosopher, you make a great hydraulic specialist, Sam." Pitt shook Cashman's hand once more.

  "Good-by and thank you. I'm grateful for your help."

  "Glad to do it, Major. Here, keep the screwdriver for a souvenir.

  Already ordered a new one, so won't be needin' it."

  "Thanks again." Pitt shoved the screwdriver back in his pocket, turned and left the office.

  Pitt relaxed in the cab and stuck a cigarette between his lips without lighting the end. Obtaining the mysterious black jet's serial number had been a shot in the dark that paid off in spades. He really hadn't expected to find out anything. Staring through the window at the passing green pastures, he saw nothing with his eyes, idly wondering if the plane could now be tied directly to Rondheim. This was still worrying over the possibility when b. the view impression that the countryside looked different than before. The fields were empty of cattle and ponies, the rolling hills flattened into a vast carpet of uneven tundra.

  He swung around and gazed out the other window; the sea was not where it should have been; instead, it lay to the rear of the cab, slowly disappearing over a long, low rise in the road. He leaned over the front seat.

  "Do you have a date with the farmer's daughter or are you taking the scenic route to run up the meter?"

  The driver applied pressure to the brake and slowed the cab, stopping at the side of the road. "Privacy is the word, Major.

  Merely a slight detour so we can have a little chat-" The driver's voice froze into nothingness, and for good reason. Pitt had jammed the tip of the screwdriver half an inch into the cavity of his ear'.

  "Keep your hands on the wheel and get this hack back on the road to Reykjavik," Pitt said quietly, "or your right ear will get screwed into your left."

  Pitt watched the driver's face closely in the rearview mirror, studying the blue eyes, knowing they would signal any sudden attempt at resistance. No shadow of an expression touched the boyish features, not even a flicker of fear. Then slowly, very slowly, the face in the mirror began to smile, the smile transforming into a gentle laugh.

  "Major Pitt, you are a very suspicious man."

  "If you had three attempts on your life in the last three days, you'd develop a suspicious nature too."

  The laugh stopped abruptly and the bush brows bunched together. "Three attempts? I'm aware of only two-" Pitt cut him off by pushing the screwdriver another eighth of an inch deeper into his ear, "You're a lucky man, friend. I could try and make you contribute a few choice items about your boss and' his operation, but Russian KGB-style interrogation is way out of my line.

  Instead of Reykjavik, suppose you drive nice and easy back to Keflavik, only this time to the United States Air Force side of the field where you can join a couple of your buddies and play charades with National Intelligence agents. You'll like them; they're experts at taking wanflower and turning him into a babbling life of the party.

  "That might prove embarrassing."

  "That's your problem."

  The smile was back in the rearview mirror. "Not entirely, Major.

  It would, indeed, be a moment worth remembering to see your face when you discover you brought in a N.I.A. agent for questioning."

  Pitts pressure on the screwdriver didn't re
lax.

  "Very second-rate," he said. "I'd expect a better story from a high school freshman caught smoking pot in the boy's room."

  "Admiral Sandecker said you wouldn't be an easy man to talk to."

  The door was open now and Pitt had the opportunity to slam it. "When did you talk to the admiral?"

  "In his office at NUMA headquarters, ten minutes after Commander Koski radioed that you and Dr. Hunnewell had landed safely, aboard the Catawaba, to be precise."

  57

  The door stayed open. The driver's answer tallied with what Pitt knew: the N.I.A. had not contacted Sandecker since he had arrived in Iceland. Pitt glanced around the car. There was no sign of life, no sign of an ambush by possible accomplices. He started to relax, caught himself, and then clenched the screwdriver until his fingers ached.

  "Okay, be my guest," Pitt said casually. "But I strongly urge you to make your pitch without so much as a tic."

  "No sweat, Major. Just put your mind at ease and lift my cap."

  "Lift your cap?" Pitt repeated blankly. He hesitated a moment, then slowly, using his free left hand, removed The driver's cap.

  "Inside, taped to the underside of the top." The driver's voice was soft, yet commanding. "There is a twenty-five caliber Colt derringer. Take it and get that damned screwdriver out of my ear."

  Still using one hand, Pitt opened the breech of the derringer, rubbed his thumb over the primers of the two tiny cartridges to make sure the chambers were loaded, and then reclosed the breech and cocked the hammer.

  "So far, so good. Now ease out of the car and keep your hands where I can see them." He loosened his grip on the screwdriver and withdrew it from the driver's ear cavity.

  The driver slid from behind the wheel, walked to the front of the car and propped himself lazily against a fender. He lifted his right hand and massaged his ear, wincing. "A clever tactic, Major. It didn't come out of any book I know."

  "You should read more," Pitt said. "Ramming an icepick through the eardrum into the brain of an unsuspecting victim is an old trick used by paid killers in gang wars long before either you or I were born."

  "A rather painful lesson I'm not likely to forget."

  Pitt got out and pushed the front door of the car open to its stop and stood behind the interior panel, using it for a shield, the gun in his hand trained on the driver's heart. "You said you talked to Admiral Sandecker in Washington. Describe him. Size, hair, mannerisms, layout of his office-everything."

  The driver needed no further coaxing. He talked for several minutes and ended up by mentioning a few of Sandecker's pet slang terms, "Your memory is good-nearly letter-perfect."

  "I have a photographic memory, Major. My description of Admiral Sandecker could have easily come from a file. Take a rundown of yourself for example: Major Dirk Eric Pitt. Born exactly thirty-two years, four months and twelve days ago at the Hogg Hospital in Newport Beach, California. Mother's name Barbara, father George Pitt, senior United States Senator from your home state." The driver droned on as if he might have been repeating a memorized spiel, as indeed he was. "No sense in going on about your three rows of combat ribbons which you never wear or your formidable reputation If you like, I can give you a complete account't of your actions since you left Washington."

  Pitt waved the gun. "That will do. I'm impressed, of course, Mr.-ah-"

  "Lillie. Jerome P. Lillie the Fourth. I'm your contact."

  "Jerome P.-" Pitt made a good try but couldn't sul)press an incredulous laugh. "You've got to be kidding- " Lillie gestured helplessly. "Laugh if you will, Major, but the Lillie name has been highly esteemed in St. Louis for nearly a hundred years."

  Pitt thought for a moment. Then it came to him.

  "Lillie Beer. Of course, that's it. Lillie Beer. What's the slogan? Brewed for the gourmet's table."

  "Proof that it pays to advertise," Lillie said. "I take it you're another one of our satisfied customers?"

  "No. I prefer Budweiser."

  "I can see you're going to be a hard man to get along with," Lillie moaned.

  "Not really." Pitt released the derringer's hammer and threw the tiny gun to Lillie. "Be my guest. You couldn't possibly be one of the bad guys and come up with a story that wild."

  Lillie fielded the gun. "Your trust is warranted, Major. I told you the truth."

  "You're a long way from the brewery, or is that another story?"

  "Very dull and very time-consuming. Some other time, perhaps, I'll pour out my biography over a glass of Dad's product."

  He calmly retaped the gun to the inside of his cap as if it was an everyday occurrence. "Now then, you mentioned a third attempt on your life."

  "You offered to give me a detailed, hour-by-hour account of my actions since I left Washington. You tell me."

  "Nobody's perfect, Major. I lost you for two hours today."

  Pitt did some fast mental arithmetic. "Where were you around noon?"

  "On the southern shore of the island."

  "Doing what?"

  Lillie turned away and looked across the barren fields, his face empty of all expression. "At exactly ten minutes after twelve this afternoon I was pushing a knife into another man's throat."

  "Then there were two of you keeping an eye on The Grimsi?"

  "The Grimsi? Ah, of course-the name of your old boat. Yes, I stumbled into the other guy quite by accident. After you and the admiral and Miss Royal took off toward the southeast, I had a hunch your anchor would drop in the area where you and Dr.

  Hunnewell crashed. I drove across the peninsula and arrived too late-that damned old scow was faster than I thought-you were 58

  already sketching up a storm while Admiral Sandecker was playing the role of Izaak Walton. The very picture of your contentment had me fooled completely."

  "But not your competitor. His binoculars were stronger."

  Lillie shook his head. "A telescope. One hundred and seventy-five power, mounted on a tripod, no less."

  "Then the glint I saw from the boat was from the reflecting mirror."

  "If the sun caught it right, a visible flash would be the obvious giveaway."

  Pitt was silent for a moment as he lit a cigarette.

  The click of the lighter seemed strangely loud in the open of the barren landscape. He exhaled and looked at Lillie.

  "You say you knifed him?"

  "Yes, it was unfortunate, but he left me no choice." Lillie leaned over the hood of the Volvo and rubbed a palm over his forehead, seemingly at ease with his inner self. "He-I don't know his name, as there was no identification-was bent over the telescope talking into a portable transmitter when I crept around an outcropping of rock and literally bumped into him. His attention and mine had been focused on your boat. He didn't expect me, and I didn't expect him. To his final re,ret, he acted first ,and without forethought. Pulled a switchblade knife from a sleeve-rather old-fashioned, really-and leaped." Lillie made a helpless shrug. "The poor guy tried to stab instead of slash-the sure sign of an amateur. I should have taken him alive for questioning, but I got carried away during the heat of the moment and turned his knife against him."

  "Too bad you didn't get to him five minutes sooner," Pitt said.

  "Why is that?"

  "He'd already radioed our position so his buddies could close in for the kill."

  Lillie stared at Pitt questioningly.

  "For what purpose? Merely to steal a few sketches or a bucket of trash?"

  "Something much more important. A jet aircraft."

  "I know. Your mysterious black jet. The thought had occurred that you might go looking for it when I guessed your destination, but your report failed to pinpoint the exact-" Pitt interrupted, his voice deceptively friendly. "I know for certain that Admiral Sandecker has had no contact with you or your agency since he left Washington. He and I are the only ones who know what's in that report . . ." Pitt paused, suddenly remembering. "Except-"

  "Except the secretary at the consulate who typed it," Lillie fini
shed, smiling. "My compliments, your commentary was well written." Lillie didn't bother to explain how the consulate secretary passed him a copy and Pitt didn't bother to ask him. "Tell me, Major, how do you go about dredging for a sunken aircraft with nothing but a sketch pad and a fishing pole?"

  "Your victim knew the answer. He detected my air bubbles through his telescope."

  Lillie's eyes narrowed. "You had diving equipment?" he asked flatly. "How? I watched you leave the dock and saw nothing.

  I studied you and the admiral from the shore and neither of you left the deck for more than three minutes. After that I lost visibility when the fog rolled in."

  "The N.I.A. doesn't have a monopoly on sneaky, underhanded plots," Pitt said, shooting Lillie down in flames. "Let's sit in the car and make ourselves comfortable and I'll tetl you about another ordinary garden variety day in the life of Dirk Pitt."

  So Pitt slouched in the rear seat with his feet propped on the backrest of the front and told Lillie what had happened from the time The Grimsi left the Fyrie dock until it had returned. He told what he knew for certain and what he didn't, everything, that is, except for one little indefinable thought that kept itching in his mind-a thought that concerned Kirsti Fyrie.

  Chapter 12

  "So you've selected Oskar Rondheim as your villain," Lillie murmured. "You haven't convinced me with any solid proof."

  "I agree, it's all circumstantial," Pitt said. "Rondheim has the most to gain. Therefore, Rondheim has the motive. He murdered to get his hands on the undersea probe and he's murdered to cover his tracks."

  "You'll have to do better than that."

 
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