Valhalla rising, p.17

Valhalla Rising, page 17

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  Pitt reset the beacon on the submersible, then closed and secured the hatch before climbing onto the catamaran. For a few moments, they stood there alone. No crew or passengers greeted them. The boat moved forward as the helmsman steered the vessel clear of the submersible. After traveling two hundred yards, the boat slowed and drifted. They watched as a figure stepped down from the wheel-house.

  He was a large man, the same height as Pitt but fifteen pounds heavier. He was also thirty years older. His gray hair and beard gave him the appearance of an old waterfront wharf rat. His blue-green eyes had a glint to them, and he readily smiled as he examined his catch.

  "Three of you," he said in amazement. "I thought there was only one in that little life raft."

  "Not a life raft," said Pitt. "A deep ocean submersible."

  The old man started to say something, discarded his thoughts and simply said, "If you say so."

  "We're investigating the wreck of a sunken cruise ship," explained Misty.

  "Yes, the Emerald Dolphin. I'm aware of it. A terrible tragedy. A miracle so many people survived."

  Pitt didn't elaborate on their role in the rescue, but simply offered their rescuer a brief summary of how they came to be lost at sea.

  "Your ship was not there when you surfaced?" the old man inquired skeptically.

  "It had vanished," Giordino assured him.

  "It is imperative that we call our headquarters in Washington and advise the director of NUMA that we've been found and picked up."

  The old man nodded. "Of course. Come on up to the wheelhouse. You can use the ship-to-shore radio or the satellite telephone. You can even send e-mail if you wish. The Periwinkle has the finest communications systems of any yacht on the water."

  Pitt studied the old man. "We've met before."

  "Yes, I suspect we have."

  "My name is Dirk Pitt." He turned to the others. "My shipmates, Misty Graham and Al Giordino."

  The old man warmly shook hands with all. Then he turned and grinned at Pitt.

  "I'm Clive Cussler."

  17

  Pitt looked at the old man curiously. "You get around." "We were certainly lucky you happened past," said Misty, enormously happy to be off the cramped submersible.

  "I'm on a round-the-world cruise," Cussler elaborated. "My last port was Hobart in Tasmania. I'm bound for Papeete, Tahiti, but I guess I'd better make a detour and set you folks on the nearest island with an airport."

  "And where would that be?" asked Giordino.

  "Rarotonga."

  Pitt looked around the luxurious catamaran. "I see no crew."

  "I'm sailing alone," answered Cussler.

  "On a motor yacht this large?"

  Cussler smiled. "The Periwinkle isn't your average yacht. Between her automated systems and computers, she can sail herself, and usually does."

  "May I take you up on your offer to use the boat's satellite phone?" Pitt inquired.

  "Most certainly."

  Cussler led the way up a stairway to the wheelhouse. None of the NUMA people had ever seen anything like it. The tinted windows ran in a 360-degree circle, providing vision on every horizon. There was nothing traditional about the layout. There were no conventional instruments or gauges, no wheel for a helm or throttle levers. A large overstaffed executive chair sat in front of seven LCD, liquid crystal display, screens. The chair's right arm held a computer trackball while the left armrest was fitted with a joystick. The screens were all encased in burled walnut cabinets. The helm station was more elegant than the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

  Cussler motioned for Pitt to sit in the helm chair. "The Globalstar phone is mounted in the panel to your right. Just press the blue button and you can all speak and listen to your party on the other end."

  Pitt thanked him and dialed up Sandecker's private line at NUMA headquarters. The admiral, as always, answered on the first ring. "Sandecker."

  "Admiral, this is Dirk."

  There was a pregnant pause. Then the voice came slowly. "You're alive and well?"

  "Hungry for solid food and a bit dehydrated, but otherwise healthy."

  "And Al?"

  "He and Misty Graham from the Deep Encounter are standing beside me."

  Pitt could hear the admiral's sigh of pleasure through the earpiece. "I've got Rudi here in my office. I'll switch to the speaker."

  "Dirk!" boomed Rudi Gunn's voice. "You don't know how happy I am to hear you're still with us. We've had every rescue unit from Australia and New Zealand out searching for you and the ship."

  "We got lucky and were picked up by a passing yacht."

  "You're not on Deep Encounter?" Sandecker asked sharply.

  "After we spent several hours on the sea bottom investigating the wreck of the Emerald Dolphin, we ascended to the surface and found that the ship and everyone on it had vanished."

  "Then you couldn't know?"

  "Know what?"

  "We can't be absolutely certain, but it's beginning to look like the Deep Encounter was hijacked."

  "What gave you that idea?"

  "It wasn't until this time yesterday that our security systems detected a difference in the speech pattern of Captain Burch's voice during his status reports to NUMA headquarters. Until then the reports were accepted as genuine. We had no cause for suspicion."

  "When we left the ship, all was normal."

  "The last report by the genuine Captain Burch said the Abyss Navigator was about to be lowered in the water. We know now the hijackers boarded while you were on the bottom."

  "Do you have any idea where the ship was taken?" asked Giordino.

  "No," Gunn said candidly.

  "It couldn't have evaporated," said Misty. "It wasn't swept into space by aliens."

  "Our worst fear," Sandecker said ominously, "is that she was intentionally sunk." He pulled back from suggesting that the entire crew might be lying under the sea.

  "But why?" questioned Giordino. "What earthly good is an oceanographic survey ship to pirates? There is no treasure on board. The ship can't be used for smuggling. It's too slow and too recognizable. Where's the motive?"

  "Motive . . ." Pitt let the word slide off his tongue and hang in the air. "The same people who torched the cruise ship and then sank her wanted to prevent us from discovering evidence of arson."

  "Were you able to survey the wreck?" asked Gunn.

  He nodded. "There's no doubt about it, the bottom was blown out of the Emerald Dolphin in at least six places, sending her to the bottom of the Tonga Trench."

  "From what I've heard," said Sandecker, "she came within a hair of taking the tugboat with her."

  Giordino said slowly, "Twenty thousand feet deep in the ocean makes for a pretty effective hiding place."

  Gunn said, "The murderous scum never figured on a NUMA survey ship working in the area, one with a pair of submersibles that could go down twenty thousand feet."

  Misty's eyes suddenly looked stricken. "Which brings us to the horrible possibility that everyone on the Deep Encounter has been killed in the cover-up."

  There was silence on the yacht and ten thousand miles away in Washington. They were all loath to consider the prospect. There was no doubt in their minds that anyone who lacked a conscience about burning alive or drowning everyone on board a cruise liner would have any hesitation about sending the survey ship and its crew to the bottom of the sea.

  Pitt's perspective began to focus. He considered every avenue and gambled that the pirates had not yet set their murderous plan in gear. "Rudi?"

  Gunn removed his glasses and began polishing the lenses. "Yes."

  "The pirates could have just as easily sunk the Deep Encounter after they captured it. But you say they faked voice transmissions of Burch giving his scheduled reports. Why would they have bothered to stall off any suspicion if the ship was already sunk?"

  "We don't know that it wasn't sunk," said Gunn.

  "Perhaps, but we saw no sign of an oil slick or debris after we broke
the surface. Nor did we hear the acoustic sounds of a ship breaking up under great pressure on its passage through the extreme pressures of the deep. My guess, my fervent hope, is that they took the ship and everyone on board and hid them as bargaining chips should their plans go wrong."

  "And when it begins to look like they're in the clear and not hunted," Gunn continued, "will they dispose of the proof of their crimes?"

  "We can't let that happen," said Misty, distressed. "If what Dirk suggests is accurate, we only have a little time to save our friends."

  "The problem is where to look," said Sandecker.

  "There is no trace of it anywhere?" asked Misty.

  "None."

  "Not even the hijacker's vessel?"

  "No," Sandecker replied helplessly.

  "I'll bet I know how to find both ships," said Pitt confidently.

  In Washington, Sandecker and Gunn stared at each other. "In what waters are you fishing?" the admiral inquired cautiously.

  "We expand our search grid," Pitt replied.

  "I don't follow," said Gunn.

  "Suppose the pirate ship and our survey vessel were out of the range of the satellite cameras that were focused on a narrow path."

  "I can safely say that's a given," Sandecker conceded.

  "I'm assuming you widened the path on the next orbit."

  "We did," Gunn admitted.

  "And found no sign of either ship."

  "Not a trace."

  "So we still don't know where the Deep Encounter is, but now we know where she's not."

  Sandecker pulled at his neatly trimmed beard. "I know where you're going, but your theory won't fly."

  "I must side with the admiral," said Gunn. "The top speed of Deep Encounter is no more than fifteen knots. There is no way she could have sailed out of the original satellite camera range."

  "Chief Engineer House got twenty knots out of her during our dash toward the burning cruise ship," Pitt informed him. "I admit it's a stretch, but if the hijackers had a fast ship, they might have taken our vessel in tow and increased her speed by another four to six knots."

  Sandecker's voice was skeptical. "Makes no difference. Once we increased the range and path of the satellite cameras, there was still no sign of Deep Encounter."

  Pitt played his wild card. "True, but you were looking on the water."

  "Where were we supposed to look?" asked Sandecker, becoming intrigued.

  "Dirk has a point," said Gunn thoughtfully. "We didn't consider focusing the cameras on land."

  "Forgive me for asking," Giordino spoke up, "but what land? The nearest landmass from where the cruise liner sank is the northern tip of New Zealand."

  "No," said Pitt quietly, for effect, "there are the Kermadec Islands no more than two hundred nautical miles to the south, an easy eight-hour sail at a speed of twenty-five knots." He turned and looked at Cussler.

  "Are you familiar with the Kermadec Islands?"

  "I've cruised around them," answered Cussler. "Not much to look at. Three small islands and L'Esperance Rock. Raoul Island is the largest, but it's only a pile of rock thirteen miles square with lava rock cliffs that rise steeply up to Mount Mumukai."

  "Any inhabitants or settlement?"

  "There's a small meteorological and communications station, but it's automated. Scientists only visit it every six months to check and repair the equipment. The only permanent residents are goats and rats."

  "Is there a harbor large enough to anchor a small ship?"

  "More like a lagoon," replied Cussler, "but it's a safe anchorage for two, maybe three small ships."

  "How about foliage for camouflage?"

  "Raoul is lush and heavily wooded. They could cover a pair of small ships well enough for someone who wasn't looking real carefully."

  Pitt said into the phone, "You heard?"

  "I heard," said Sandecker. "I'll ask that the next satellite that passes over that part of the Pacific aim its cameras on the Kermadecs. How do I contact you?"

  Pitt was about to ask Cussler for his communications code, but the old man had already written the numbers down and handed them to him on a slip of paper. Pitt informed Sandecker and punched off the connection.

  "Is there any possibility you could make a detour by the Kermadecs?" Pitt asked.

  The blue-green eyes glistened. "You have something devious in mind?"

  "You wouldn't happen to have a bottle of tequila on board?"

  Cussler nodded solemnly. "I do. A case of the best. A little touch of the blue agave now and then keeps me quick and nimble."

  After the glasses were filled with Porfirio tequila-Misty preferred a margarita-Pitt told the old man what he had in mind, but only as much as he thought was advisable under the circumstances. After all, he thought as he looked around the elegant yacht, no one in his right mind would risk destroying such a beautiful vessel in a desperate scheme.

  18

  The malachite green sea merged with the peridot green water flowing through the channel of the large lagoon that nestled between the volcanic lava cliffs of Raoul Island. Once inside the narrow channel, the lagoon widened into a small but respectable anchorage. Beyond was the tributary mouth of a stream that ran down the rugged slopes of Mount Mumukai and into the waters of the lagoon. The sandy, horseshoe-shaped beach was interspersed with sea-worn black lava rock and framed by a marching army of coco palms.

  From the sea, only a tiny section of the lagoon could be seen through the chasm whose cliffs rose on each side of the channel. It was like peering through a telescope into a distant narrow slit. High atop the west side of the entrance, more than three hundred feet above the surf crashing against the shore, a small shack built of palm fronds perched dangerously close to the edge. The native look was a facade. Beneath the palm fronds were walls built of concrete blocks. The interior was air-conditioned, and the windows were tinted. A security guard sat inside a comfortable little house, studying the vast expanse of ocean with a large pair of binoculars mounted on a stand for any sign of a ship. He sat in a soft executive chair before a computer, radio and a VCR with a monitor. A chain smoker, he had heaped an ashtray with dead butts. Across from him, neatly stacked in a rack against one wall, were four missile launchers and two automatic rifles. With this arsenal, he could have held off a small navy trying to force its way into the lagoon.

  Thirty years old, wiry and in good physical shape, he stared almost vacantly at the brilliant sea as he rubbed a hand over the stubble of new beard growth. He was blond and blue-eyed and a former Special Forces veteran, hired by the in-house security department of a vast corporate empire about which he knew little and cared even less. His assignments covered the world and occasionally included assassination, but he was paid and paid well. That's all that mattered.

  He yawned and changed the discs in his CD player. His taste was eclectic and ran from classical to soft rock. He had just pushed the play button when his eye caught a movement around the outcropping of rock that fell off just beyond his security shack. He swung the binoculars and focused on a bright blue-and-white object that was coming very fast over the water.

  It was a yacht, the strangest-looking yacht he had ever seen; not a sailboat but a twin-hulled catamaran power cruiser, and it was cutting through the sun-danced water at what he guessed as close to forty knots. He rubbed his eyes and stared through the big, powerful binoculars again.

  The boat was a good seventy feet, he estimated. He couldn't decide if he loved her design or hated it. The more he examined her lines, the more elegant and exotic she appeared. She reminded him of a pair of ice skates cut down and molded together with a circular wheelhouse on the top. On the upper open deck, two people, a man and woman, lounged in a Jacuzzi, drinking out of tall glasses and laughing. All the craft's windows were tinted, and he could not see any suggestion of other crewmembers or passengers.

  He turned to the radio, switched on the transmitter and began speaking. "This is Pirate. I have a private yacht approaching from the
northeast."

  "The northeast, you say," replied a voice like sandpaper.

  "Probably on a cruise from Tahiti to New Zealand."

  "Any sign of weapons or armed personnel?"

  "None."

  "She doesn't look threatening?" asked the rough voice.

  "Not unless you consider two naked people in a Jacuzzi threatening."

 
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