Valhalla rising, p.18

Valhalla Rising, page 18

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "Is she making toward the channel?"

  The security guard examined the heading of the twin bows as the yacht sped closer. "She looks to be going past."

  "Stay on the air and report any suspicious movement. If she turns into the channel, you know what you have to do."

  The guard glanced at one of the missile launchers. "A pity to destroy such a handsome boat." He swung in his chair and gazed at the boat through the glasses again, somewhat pleased at seeing it continue on a course past the channel. He watched until it became a tiny speck in the distance. Then he called over the radio again. "This is Pirate. The yacht is gone. It appears as if she dropped anchor in the open lagoon on the south end of Macaulay Island."

  "Then she's harmless," said a rough voice.

  "It would seem so."

  "Watch her lights after dark and make sure she stays put."

  "I suspect she settled in for the night. Her passengers and crew are probably going to barbecue steaks on the beach. They just look like yachtsmen on a South Pacific cruise."

  "I'll fly a reconnaissance in the helicopter and see if you're right."

  Misty and Giordino were not naked in the hot tub. They were wearing swimsuits provided by Cussler. They were, however, sipping rum collinses as the boat cruised under the steep palisades of Raoul Island. Cussler and Pitt were not as lucky. The old man sat at the helm station with a chart in his lap, eyeing the depth sounder and examining the bottom coral reefs that could have sliced the Periwinkle's twin hulls like razor blades through cardboard. Pitt had the worst job of all. He lay sweating under a pile of pillows and towels on the lower lounge deck, videotaping the guardhouse at the top of the cliffs overlooking the channel entrance.

  Once the yacht was anchored, they all settled into the main salon and gazed at the monitor while Pitt played the tape on the VCR. The telephoto lens on the camera, combined with the video enhancement, revealed the guard through the windows of the guardhouse in slightly fuzzy detail but clear enough to distinguish him peering at them through a pair of huge binoculars. Added to the video was the soundtrack of the conversation between the guard and the coarse voice of his colleague somewhere in the Raoul Island lagoon, as traced and recorded by Cussler's high-tech communications systems.

  "We fooled them," said Misty, unhesitating.

  "Lucky we didn't attempt to run up the channel with all flags flying," Giordino said, pressing a bottle of cold beer against his forehead.

  "They didn't give the impression they take kindly to strangers," Pitt agreed.

  As if to affirm his statement, the thump of rotors and roar of engine exhaust sounded throughout the cabin as a helicopter flew over the yacht.

  "The man said he was going to reconnoiter us," said Pitt. "What say we go out and wave to them?"

  A red-and-yellow-painted helicopter, with its registration number and ownership lettering on its fuselage hidden under duct tape, hovered no more than a hundred feet in the air and slightly off the stern of the Periwinkle. Two men wearing flowered shirts peered down at the yacht.

  Pitt lay sprawled on a couch on the lounge deck while Giordino stood partially under the deck overhang videotaping the aircraft with the camera hidden under his shirt and armpit. Misty and Cussler stood beside the Jacuzzi and waved to the men above. Pitt held up a glass and motioned for the pilots to join them. Seeing a woman and an older man with gray hair and beard must have dismissed their suspicions. The pilot of the helicopter waved back and Banked the aircraft around the yacht and headed back to Raoul Island, satisfied that the tourists were no menace.

  As soon as the craft was a speck in the blue sky, they all headed back into the saloon. Giordino pulled a videotape from the camera under his shirt and slid it into the VCR. The zoom focus clearly showed a sandy-haired man with a grizzled beard at the controls and a black man flying as copilot.

  "Now we have faces to go with the plot," mused Giordino.

  Cussler clicked off the remote. "What happens now?"

  "As soon as it's dark, we build a small raft and attach lights on it so it looks like a boat lit up from a distance. Then we sail back under cover of the cliffs near the channel just out of sight of the guard above the cliffs. The boat won't be detected because the video shows no indication of radar equipment. Then Al and I will go in the water and take a swim up the channel to the lagoon, a little fishing expedition to have a look around. If we're right, and the Deep Encounter is hidden under camouflage netting, we sneak aboard, overpower the hijackers, free our friends and sail off into the blue."

  "That's the plan?" asked Giordino, his eyes squinting as if seeing a mirage in the desert.

  "That's the plan," Pitt echoed.

  Misty looked dumbstruck. "You can't be serious? The two of you going up against fifty or more armed hijackers? That's the craziest scheme I've ever heard."

  Pitt shrugged. "I admit I may have oversimplified things just a shade. But I really don't see any other way of handling the job."

  "We could call up the Aussies and have them send a special force," suggested Cussler. "They can be here in twenty-four hours."

  "We may not have the time," said Pitt. "If the hijackers haven't sunk the Deep Encounter and everybody on it by now, chances are they'll do it tonight after dark. Twenty-four hours from now may be too late."

  "It's madness to throw your lives away," Misty persisted.

  "We have no choice," Pitt said firmly. "Time is not on our side."

  "What about weapons?" asked Giordino, as casually as if he were asking the price of an ice-cream cone.

  "I have a pair of automatic rifles I carry for protection," offered Cussler. "But I can't say how well they and the ammo will perform after being dragged a mile under water."

  Pitt shook his head. "Thank you, but it's better we swim in unencumbered. As far as firepower, we'll worry about it when the time comes."

  "What about dive equipment? I have four filled air tanks and two regulators."

  "The less equipment the better. Dive equipment would only hinder us once we came ashore. We'll snorkel into the lagoon. Nobody could spot us in the dark from twenty feet away."

  "You'll have a long swim," said Cussler. "From where I'll moor the boat, the inside of the lagoon is over a mile."

  "We'll be lucky to get in by midnight," muttered Giordino.

  "I can cut your time by two hours."

  Pitt looked at Cussler. "How?"

  "I have a dive thruster that will pull you through the water. You can use it to propel you both in tandem."

  "That will be a great help, thank you."

  "Is there nothing I can say to talk you out of this senselessness?" Misty pleaded.

  "No," said Pitt, his lips spread slightly in a comforting smile. "This thing has to be done. There wouldn't be a security facility at the entrance to the channel if there wasn't something inside someone wanted to hide. We have to find out if it's the Deep Encounter."

  "And if you're wrong?"

  The smile was gone suddenly, and Pitt's face became tense. "If we're wrong, then our friends on board the ship will die because we failed to save them."

  Beginning just after sunset, it took the three men two hours to tie several palm tree trunks together into a raft and then construct a rough outline of the Periwinkle with framing scrounged from driftwood. For a finishing touch, a small battery was connected to a string of lights on the framework. Then the raft was anchored on the shore side of the yacht.

  "Not a bad facsimile if I do say so," Cussler assented. "It ain't pretty," said Giordino, "but it should fool the security guard sitting in his little hovel five miles away."

  Pitt splashed seawater on his face to wash away the sweat brought on by the humidity. "We'll turn on the lights of the raft at the same moment we turn off the lights of the yacht."

  Within minutes, Cussler engaged the Periwinkle's big engines and eased the yacht forward as he pressed the switch to the winch that raised the anchor. Then he shifted the lights to the raft and threw the yacht into
darkness. He ran the yacht out past the reef, keeping an eye on the depth sounder, gauging the depth of the coral that lurked below the surface like malicious killer teeth, waiting to send the yacht sinking into the depths beyond.

  He steered toward Raoul Island by radar, watching carefully to see if the boat was stirring up any phosphorescence in her wake. He kept the speed down to ten knots, and was thankful that the star-carpeted sky held no moon. Pitt joined him at the helm station with Misty, who had resigned herself to the operation and had prepared snacks in the galley. She passed them around and sat next to Al, who was wearing headphones, trying to mimic the gravelly voice recorded during the security guard's conversation.

  Cussler laid out the chart showing the water depths around the island and aimed the twin bows toward the tiny light high on the cliffs that came from the security guard's little house. "I'll bring us inside the outcropping of rocks just in front of the channel," he explained. "From there you'll have to rely on the thruster. Keep well clear of the surf pounding on the cliffs until you reach calm water."

  For the first time, Cussler was showing something approaching trepidation. He rarely threw a glimpse out the window into the pitch-black night. He reserved his attention for an occasional glance at the compass. He steered the yacht almost exclusively by depth sounder and radar, seated extravagantly, his hands resting on the joystick and computer trackball. He slid open a window and heard the unmistakable sound of surf crashing against solid rock.

  Pitt could hear it, too. They were behind the rock outcropping and out of the security guard's line of sight. The water beyond the surf line was incredibly calm. Cussler pressed a button on the joystick that was the throttle and decreased the speed to a slow crawl. Finally satisfied that he was as near to the rocks as he dared go, he set the engines in neutral and turned to Pitt, the expression in his eyes saying, "This is not a good idea," but voicing nothing.

  Studying the craggy bottom only fifteen feet below the Periwinkle's twin hulls on the depth sounder and staring thoughtfully at his drift readings, he let go of the anchor. As soon as the boat was safely moored with her bows dipping into the incoming tide, he nodded.

  "This is as far as I go."

  "How long can you stay?" asked Pitt.

  "I'd like to say until you return, but the tide turns in another thre hours and twenty minutes. Then I'll have to move farther off the shore or risk losing the boat and steer back around the island to stay out of the guard's view."

  "How will we find you in the dark?"

  "I have an underwater radio transmitter I use to study fish reactions to different sounds. In two hours, I'll begin playing a Meat Loaf recording."

  Misty looked at him. "You listen to Meat Loaf?"

  Cussler laughed. "Can't an old rooster like rock?"

  "Does he attract sharks?" asked Giordino warily.

  Cussler shook his head. "They prefer Tony Bennett."

  Pitt and Giordino pulled on borrowed fins and masks. Cussle lowered the stern ladder and stood back. He patted both of them on the shoulder. "Remember, stay clear of the rocks at the entrance of the channel and then wait for the swells to carry you inside. No sense draining the thruster's batteries unnecessarily." Then he paused al-most solemnly. "Good luck. I'll wait as long as I can."

  They dropped into the warm, ink black water with only a slight splash and swam a short distance from the boat, Giordino following in Pitt's wake. Pitt guessed the water temperature at close to eighty degrees. There was a slight offshore breeze and a mild chop came with the incoming tide. After stroking for several minutes, they paused and looked back. Once past one hundred feet, the Periwinkle became invisible. Pitt held up his wrist and studied the luminescent needle and degree markings on the compass lent to him by the old man. He tapped Giordino on the head and motioned into the distance. Giordino wrapped his arms around Pitt's legs and hung on as the thruster was switched on; the motor hummed and the jets began pulling them through the water at nearly three knots.

  Pitt could only navigate by the little compass and by the sound of the surf that beat against the rock cliffs with a low, sullen boom. The menacing rocks could have been a hundred yards away or two hundred. There was no way of telling in the darkness.

  Then his ears distinguished two separate booms, suggesting that the waves were striking on opposites sides of the channel. He twisted the thruster and let it pull them toward the island until the surf was heard thundering on his right and left, but not ahead. Then, as instructed by Cussler, he switched off the thruster and allowed the waves to carry them through the channel entrance. It was sound advice.

  There were no giant plunging breakers between the steep walls of the channel. Because of the deeper water in midchannel, and with no obstructions, the surf here merely rolled forward without building and curling under, sweeping them safely through the rocks as if they were corks.

  Pitt floated facedown, legs outspread, as relaxed as a turtle sleeping on the surface. His breathing was slow and steady through the snorkel. Thanks to the thruster, they were nowhere near the point of exhaustion. Giordino had released his grasp momentarily and was drifting alongside Pitt.

  Neither man rolled over and looked up to see if they had been spotted. They didn't have to bother. If they couldn't see a guard standing on the edge of the cliff, no guard could have seen them in the darkened waters far below. Belatedly, Pitt began to wonder if the hijackers had posted guards around the lagoon. He doubted they would be that security-conscious. It was next to impossible to scale the cliffs surrounding the island in the dark and then penetrate the thick jungle while hiking over jagged lava rock. He felt certain the only pair of eyes watching for intruders was that of the guard over the channel entrance.

  From the brief glimpse he'd had of the lagoon through the channel hours earlier when the Periwinkle had passed the entrance, he estimated that it stretched in a straight line approximately a third of a mile from the sea. Feeling the impetus of the waves slacken until they were little more than two feet high, he alerted Giordino to hang on as he engaged the thruster again.

  In less than fifteen minutes, the stars above opened and spread across the sky as they passed under the high cliffs into the open lagoon. Pitt angled the thruster off to the side of the beach and kept the power on until he could feel sand beneath his feet. Only then did he shut it down.

  There was no indication of inhabited structures on the beach, but the lagoon was far from deserted. Two vessels lay moored side by side in the middle of the lagoon. Their shapes and outlines were indistinguishable in the dark. As Pitt suspected, they were made even more formless by camouflage netting that was draped over both ships. But for a few dim lights emitting from their ports, they were unrecognizable. Without a closer look, it was impossible to identify the Deep Encounter in the black night.

  "Take off your face mask," Pitt whispered to Giordino. "The lights might reflect off our lenses."

  Leaving the thruster on the beach, they swam toward the larger of the two ships. She was anchored with her bow facing into the channel. The vessel had a graceful raked bow, the same as the research vessel, but they had to be positive. Without the slightest hesitation, Pitt pulled off his fins, handed them to Giordino and began climbing the anchor chain. It was damp but reasonably free of rust and slime. He pulled himself up until he was even with the hawse pipe and hung there for a full minute.

  From the light from an open port, he could just barely make out the name on the welded letters on the bow.

  They read, Deep Encounter.

  19

  The hawse pipe was a good ten feet below the top edge of the bow gunnels. Without a rope and a grappling hook, there was no way Pitt and Giordino could climb onto the foredeck. The rest of the hull held out little hope of boarding either. No protrusions beckoned as a means of climbing on board. Pitt cursed his lack of planning for such an elementary contingency.

  He lowered himself back down the anchor chain. "She's Deep Encounter," he informed Giordino quietly.
>
  Giordino gazed upward, and his expression in the dim light was one of puzzlement. "How do we get aboard without a gangplank or a ladder?"

  "We don't."

  "Naturally, you have an alternate plan," he said mechanically.

  "Of course."

  "Give me the bad news."

  Pitt's slight grin was lost in the darkness. "The hijacker's ship is smaller. We can probably go over the stern, then work our way on board Deep Encounter."

  Pitt felt comfortable, on an even keel again. He'd guessed right.

  The pirates' vessel was not a sailing ship bristling with muzzle-loading guns but a 135-foot utility work boat, whose stern was not only low enough for them to struggle aboard but showed them all the consideration in the world by providing a diver's boarding ladder and a small platform.

  Giordino murmured, "I hope we find a length of good old-fashioned pipe to dent heads with. I feel naked with only my bare hands."

 

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