Valhalla rising, p.22

Valhalla Rising, page 22

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "Hello."

  "Hello, Kelly Egan."

  He could hear the intake of breath over the line. "Dirk! You're back."

  "Just got in and thought I'd call."

  "I'm so glad you did."

  "I'm due for a few days' vacation. How busy are you?"

  "Up to my ears in charity work," she answered. "I'm chairman for the local Handicapped Children's Organization. We're putting on our annual children's flying roundup, and I'm chairman of the event."

  "I hate to sound stupid, but what is a flying roundup?"

  Kelly laughed. "It's like an air show. People fly in old vintage airplanes and take the kids for rides in them."

  "You have your work cut out for you."

  "Tell me about it," she said, with a quaint laugh. "The man who owned a sixty-year-old Douglas DC-3 was scheduled to take the kids on flights over Manhattan, but he had a problem with the landing gear and can't make the show."

  "Where is the roundup?"

  "Just across the Hudson River in New Jersey, at a private field near a town called Englewood Cliffs. It's not far from Dad's farm and laboratory." The voice seemed to sadden.

  Pitt walked out onto the balcony of his apartment with the portable phone and gazed at the classics below. His eyes fell on the big three-engine transport plane from 1929. "I think I can help you out on your aerial sightseeing project."

  "You can?" Kelly asked, brightening up again. "You know where you can get an old transport plane?"

  "When is the roundup?"

  "Two days from now. But how can you arrange for one on such short notice?"

  Pitt smiled to himself. "I know somebody who is an easy touch for beautiful women and handicapped kids."

  22

  Pitt was up early the next morning, shaved and put on a dark business suit. Sandecker insisted his top-level directors dress the part. He ate a light breakfast and drove across the river to the NUMA headquarters. The traffic was heavy as usual, but he was in no great hurry and used the delays to collect his thoughts and plan his schedule for the day. He took the elevator from the underground parking area straight up to the fourth floor, which held his office. When the doors opened, he stepped out onto an ornate mosaic tile floor with scenes of ships at sea that stretched down the corridor. The entire floor was empty. At seven o'clock, he was the first to arrive.

  He stepped into his corner office, removed his coat and hung it on an old-fashioned coat rack. Pitt seldom spent more than six months out of the year at his desk. He preferred working in the field. Paperwork was not his favorite area. He spent the next two hours sorting through his mail and studying the logistics of future NUMA scientific expeditions around the world. As special projects director, he oversaw those projects that dealt with the engineering side of oceanography.

  At nine o'clock sharp, his secretary of many years, Zerri Pochinsky, entered the outer office. Seeing Pitt at his desk, she rushed in and gave him a kiss on the cheek. "Welcome back. I hear you're to be congratulated."

  "Don't you start in," Pitt grumbled, happy to see Zerri.

  Zerri was just twenty-five and single when she was hired as Pitt's secretary. Married to a Washington lobbyist now, she had no children of her own, but they had adopted five orphans. Extremely bright and intelligent, she worked just four days a week: an arrangement Pitt was happy to accommodate because of her mastery of the job, and the fact that she was always two steps ahead of him. She was the only secretary he knew who could still take shorthand.

  Vivacious, with an endearing smile and hazel eyes, her fawn-colored hair fell to her shoulders, a style she had never changed in all the years Pitt had known her. In the early years, they had often flirted with each other, but Pitt had an unbroken rule about fooling around in his own office. They'd remained close friends without romantic attachments.

  Zerri came around behind Pitt's desk chair, clasped her arms around his neck and shoulders and gave him a squeeze. "You'll never know how glad I am to see you in the flesh. I always anguish like a mother whenever I hear you're reported missing in action."

  "Bad pennies always turn up."

  She straightened up, smoothed her skirt and her tone became official. "Admiral Sandecker wants you in the conference room at eleven o'clock sharp."

  "Giordino, too?"

  "Giordino, too. Also, don't make plans for the afternoon. The admiral has set up interviews with the news media. They've gone crazy without any on-the-scene witnesses of the burning of the Emerald Dolphin to grill."

  "I told all I knew in New Zealand," muttered Pitt.

  "Not only are you in the United States, but in Washington. The news media considers you a local hero. You have to play along and answer their questions."

  "The admiral should make Al endure the blitz. He loves the attention."

  "Except that he works under you, which makes you the front man."

  For the next few hours, Pitt worked on his detailed report of the crazy events of the past two weeks, beginning with his sighting of the burning cruise liner to the battle and escape of the Deep Encounter from the hijackers. He left out the part dealing with the possible Cerberus Corporation connection, because at this point he didn't have the slightest notion where the giant company entered into the picture. He left it to Hiram Yaeger to continue tracing the thread.

  At eleven, Pitt entered the conference room and closed the door behind him. Sandecker and Rudi Gunn were already seated at the long conference table that had been constructed from planking salvaged from a schooner sunk in Lake Erie in 1882. The large room was paneled in teak, and enhanced by a turquoise carpet and a Victorian mantelpiece. Hanging on the walls were paintings of historical U.S. naval battles. Pitt's worst fears were realized when two other men rose from their chairs to greet him.

  Sandecker remained seated as he made the introductions. "Dirk, I believe you know these gentlemen."

  A tall blond man with a mustache and light blue eyes shook Pitt's hand. "Good to see you, Dirk. It's been, what, two years?"

  Pitt pressed the hand of Wilbur Hill, a director of the CIA. "Closer to three."

  Charles Davis, the special assistant to the director of the FBI, stepped forward. At six foot six, he was by far the tallest man in the room. He always reminded Pitt of a dog with sad, droopy eyes in search of his food dish. "We last met when we worked together on that Chinese immigration case."

  "I remember it well," Pitt replied cordially.

  While they chatted briefly about old times, Hiram Yaeger and Al Giordino walked into the room. "Well, it looks like we're all present," said Sandecker. "Shall we get to it?"

  Yaeger began by passing around folders with copies of photos the cameras had taken of the sunken Emerald Dolphin. "While you gentlemen study these, I'll run the VCR."

  A huge three-sided monitor dropped from a hidden recess in the ceiling. Yaeger pressed the buttons on a remote control and the images taken by the video cameras of the Sea Sleuth began to sweep in three dimensions across a stage in front of the screens. The wreck had a ghostly and pathetic look on the seabed. It was hard to believe that such a beautiful ship could have been reduced to such an incredible degree of devastation.

  Pitt gave a narration as the submersible moved along the hull of the sunken cruise liner. "The wreck lies nineteen thousand seven hundred and sixty feet deep on a smooth slope of the Tonga Trench. She's broken into three pieces. The wreckage and debris field cover a square mile. The stern, and a fragment of the midships section, lies a quarter of a mile from the main forward section. This is where we concentrated our search. At first we believed she shattered upon impact with the bottom, but if you study the way the gaps in the hull are torn outward, it appears obvious that a series of explosions blew out the hull beneath the waterline while the fire-destroyed derelict was under tow by the Quest Marine tugboat. We can safely assume her internal structure, weakened by a series of synchronized detonations, broke up during her plunge to the bottom."

  "Couldn't the hull have been blown apart wh
en smoldering fire reached the ship's fuel tanks and caused them to explode while the ship was being towed?" asked Davis.

  Wilbur Hill's eyes alternated between the photos and the images on the monitor. "I've had a fair amount of experience investigating terrorist bomb explosions, and I believe I'm on solid ground in saying Dirk is correct. The bottom of the Emerald Dolphin was not blown out by a concentrated explosion. As the photos and video show, the hull burst in several places, as demonstrated by the shattered hull plates extending outward. It also looks as if the explosive devices were spaced equidistant from one another. A sure sign the destruction was well planned and executed."

  "For what purpose?" asked Davis. "Why go to all that trouble to sink a burned-out hulk? Better yet, who could do it? No one alive was left aboard when it was taken in tow."

  "Not so," said Gunn. "The tug's captain"-he paused to scan a large notepad-"his name was Jock McDermott, reported pulling one of the cruise ship's officers from the sea immediately after the ship went down."

  Davis looked skeptical. "How could the man have survived the fire?"

  "Good question," Gunn said, tapping a pen on his notepad. "McDermott was at a loss to explain the miracle. He stated that the man acted as if he was in shock until the tug reached Wellington. Then he slipped ashore before he could be questioned and disappeared."

  "Did McDermott give a description?" Davis probed.

  "Only that he was a black man."

  Sandecker didn't ask for permission from the others seated in his presence to smoke. NUMA was his territory, and he lit up one of the legendary huge cigars that he highly treasured and almost never passed out, even to his closest friends. He exhaled a cloud of smoke toward the ceiling and spoke slowly. "The prime issue here is that the Emerald Dolphin was deliberately sunk to block any investigation by the insurance companies to find the cause of the fire. The sinking was a cover-up. At least that's how it looks to me."

  Davis stared at Sandecker. "If your theory is on target, Admiral, that leads to the terrible possibility that the fire was an act of arson. I can't conceive of any motive, even by terrorists, to destroy a cruise ship and twenty-five hundred crew and passengers. Certainly not without a terrorist group claiming responsibility, and none has come forward."

  "I agree the thought is incomprehensible," said Sandecker. "But if that's where the facts lead us, that's where we'll go."

  "What facts?" Davis persisted. "It would be impossible to find evidence the fire was caused by man and not by an accident or a fault of the ship's systems."

  "According to the accounts of the surviving ship's officers, every fire system on board ship failed to function," said Rudi Gunn. "They tell of their frustration at watching the fire rage out of control without any means of stopping it. We're talking twelve different main systems, including backups. What are the odds of their all failing?"

  "About the same as a man on a bicycle winning the Indianapolis 500," answered Giordino cynically.

  "I believe Dirk and Al have given us the evidence to prove the fire was deliberate," said Yaeger.

  Everyone at the table looked at him expectantly, waiting for him to continue, but Pitt spoke first. "Our lab identified the material we brought back so soon?"

  "They worked through the wee hours of the night and nailed it," Yaeger said triumphantly.

  "What are we talking about?" asked Hill.

  "A substance we found when we searched the wreck in a submersible," answered Giordino. "We spotted it in the chapel area, where reports claim the fire started, and brought back a sample."

  "I won't bore you with a lengthy lecture on how the elements were broken down," Yaeger continued. "But our NUMA scientists identified it as a highly incendiary material known as Pyrotorch 610. Once it has been ignited, it's almost impossible to extinguish. The stuff is so unstable that even the military won't touch it."

  Yaeger reveled in the mixture of expressions around the table. Pitt reached over and shook Giordino's hand. "Good work, partner."

  Giordino grinned proudly. "It seems our little trip in the Abyss Navigator paid off."

  "Too bad Misty isn't here to hear the news."

  "Misty?" inquired Davis.

  "Misty Graham," said Pitt. "A marine biologist on board the Deep Encounter. She accompanied Al and me on the dive in the submersible."

  Sandecker idly knocked the ashes of his cigar into a large brass ashtray. "It looks to me like what we'd thought was just a devastating tragedy has turned into a hideous crime-" He stopped as a blank look that turned to exasperation crossed his face.

  Giordino had pulled out a cigar from his breast pocket that was the exact mate to the admiral's, and slowly lit it.

  "You were saying," prompted Hill, not knowing the behind-the-scenes dance between Sandecker and Giordino and their cigars. The admiral was almost certain Al was stealing his cigars, but he could never prove it. None ever appeared to be missing. He never caught on that Giordino was secretly buying his cigars from the same source in Nicaragua.

  "I was saying," Sandecker spoke slowly, giving the evil eye to Giordino, "that we have a grievous crime on our hands." He paused to look across the table at Hill and Davis. "I hope you gentlemen and your agencies will launch an immediate in-depth investigation into the atrocity and bring the guilty parties to justice."

  "Now that we definitely know a crime was committed," said Davis, "I believe we can all work together to find the answers."

  "You can begin with the hijacking of the Deep Encounter," said Pitt. "I don't harbor the slightest doubt there is a connection."

  "I read a brief report on the incident," said Hill. "You and Al are very brave men for saving your vessel and defeating the pirates."

  "They were not pirates in the strict sense of the word. Hired mercenary killers are closer to the truth."

  Hill wasn't sold. "What possible grounds could they have had for stealing a NUMA ship?"

  "It was hardly a simple theft," Pitt said acidly. "They meant to sink the ship and kill every man and woman on board, all fifty of them. You want a grounds for a motive? They were out to stop us from making a deep-water survey of the wreck. They were afraid of what we might discover."

  Gunn's expression was thoughtful. "Who in God's name could be responsible for such evil?"

  "You might start with the Cerberus Corporation," said Yaeger, glancing at Pitt.

  "Nonsense," snorted Davis. "One of the nation's largest and most respected companies involved with murdering more than two thousand people on the other side of the world? Can you imagine General Motors, Exxon or Microsoft committing crimes of mass murder? I certainly can't."

  "I couldn't agree with you more," said Sandecker. "But Cerberus hardly has lily-white hands. They've been involved with some pretty shady business deals."

  "They've been investigated by congressional committees on several occasions," added Gunn.

  "None of which amounted to more than political woolgathering," retorted Davis.

  Sandecker grinned. "It's pretty tough for Congress to reprimand an outfit that gives both political parties enough funding every election to launch ten third-world countries."

  Davis shook his head. "I'd have to see hard proof before you sold me on investigating Cerberus."

  Pitt caught the glitter in Yaeger's eyes, as the computer wizard spoke. "Would it help if I told you that the scientists at Cerberus's chemical division created Pyrotorch 610?"

  "You can't be certain of that," said Davis, his tone filled with doubt.

  "No other company in the world has come close to duplicating its Pyrotorch 610's properties."

  Davis quickly came back. "The material was probably stolen. Anybody could have gotten hold of it."

  "At least the FBI has a place to start," said Sandecker to the FBI agent. He turned to Hill. "And what of the CIA?"

  "I think the first thing is to mount a salvage expedition on the remains of the pirate ship and see what turns up."

  "Can NUMA help you with that project?" asked
Pitt.

  "No, thank you," said Hill. "We have a private company we work with on underwater investigations."

  "So be it," Sandecker said, between puffs of his cigar. "If you need our services, you have but to call. NUMA will cooperate fully."

  "I would like your permission for my people to interrogate the crew of the Deep Encounter" said Davis.

  "Granted," Sandecker agreed without hesitation. "If there is nothing else?"

  "One other question," said Hill. "Who owned the Emerald Dolphin?"

  "She sailed under British registry," replied Gunn, "but she was owned by the Blue Seas Cruise Lines, a British-based company owned primarily by American stockholders."

 

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