Iceberg, p.24

Iceberg, page 24

 

Iceberg
 


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  Through the cobwebs of his mind, Pitt began to wonder at the sheer coincidence, the miracle, which indeed it was, that led to 80

  his discovery.

  No more than one easy stride over the small summit lay a road; he had fallen within spitting distance of a small dirt road that paralleled a tumbling glacial river of white froth, rushing swiftly through a narrow gorge of black lava rock. Yet the sound Pitts ears had detected came not from the roar of the falling water, but from the exhaust of an engine belonging to a battered, dustcovered British-made jeep.

  Like a child placing a doll in a highchair, the old Icelander set Pitt in the front passenger seat of the jeep.

  Then he climbed behind the wheel and steered the rugged little vehicle over the winding road, stopping every so often to open a closed cattle gate, an operation that became routine as they entered a section of rolling hills divided by lush green meadows bursting with plovers that clouded the sky at the approach of the jeep. They stopped in front of a small farmhouse with white sideboards and a red roof. Pitt shrugged off the supporting hands and staggered into the living room of the comfortable little house. "A telephone, quickly. I need a telephone.

  The blue eyes narrowed. "You are English?" the Icelander asked slowly in a heavy Nordic accent.

  "American," Pitt answered impatiently. "There are two dozen seriously injured people out there who will die if we don't get help to them soon."

  "There are others on the plateau?" there was no concealing the astonishment.

  "Yes, yes!" Pitt nodded his head violently. God, man, the phone. Where do you keep it?"

  The Icelander shrugged helplessly. "The nearest telephone lines are forty kilometers away."

  A great tidal wave of despair swept over Pitt only to ebb and vanish at the stranger's next words.

  "However, I have a radio transmitter." He motioned to a side room. "Please, this way."

  Pitt followed him into a small, well-lit, but Spartan room, the three primary pieces of furniture being a chair, a cabinet and an ancient hand-carved table holding a gleaming transmitter, not more than a few months from manufacture; Pitt could only marvel at the latest equipment being used in an isolated farmhouse. The Icelander crossed hurriedly to the transmitter, sat down and began twisting the array of dials and knobs. He switched the radio to SEND, selected the frequency and picked up the microphone.

  He spoke a few words rapidly in Icelandic and waited. Nothing came back over the speaker. He shifted the transmitting frequency fractionally and spoke again.

  This time a voice answered almost immediately. The pressure of the race against death made Pitt as tense as a guy wire in a hurricane gale, and in total indifference to his pain and fatigue he paced the floor while his benefactor conversed with the -

  Reykjavik authorities. After ten minutes of explanation and translation, Pitt requested and received a call from the American Embassy.

  "Where in the goddamned hell have you been?"

  Sandecker's voice exploded over the speaker so loudly that it might have come from the doorway.

  "Waiting for a streetcar, walking in the park," Pitt snapped back.

  "It makes no difference. How soon before a team of medics can be assembled and in the air?"

  There was a tense silence before the admiral answered. There was, he knew, a tone of urgent insistence in Pitts voice, a tone Sandecker had seldom heard from Pitts lips. "I can have a team of Air Force paramedics ready to load in thirty minutes," he said slowly. "Would you mind telling me the reason behind your request for a medical unit?"

  Pitt didn't answer immediately. His thoughts were barely able to focus. He nodded thankfully as the Icelander offered him the chair.

  "Every minute we waste with explanations, someone may die. For God's sake, Admiral," Pitt implored, "contact the Air Force and get their paramedics loaded on helicopters and supplied to aid victims of an air disaster. Then while there's time, I can fill you in on the details."

  "Understood," Sandecker said without wasting a word. "Stand by."

  Pitt nodded again, this time to himself, and slumped dejectedly in the chair. It won't be long now, he thought, if only they're in time. He felt a hand on his shoulder, half turned and managed a crooked smile up at the warm-eyed Icelander.

  "I've been a rude guest," he said quietly. "I haven't introduced myself or thanked you for saving my life."

  The old man offered a long, weathered hand.

  "Golfur Andursson," he said. "I am chief guide for the Rarfur River."

  Pitt grit)ped Andursson's hand and introduced himself and then asked, "A chief guide?"

  "Yes, a guide is also the river warden. We act as guides for fishermen and watch over the ecology of the river, much like a conservationist in your own country who protects the natural resoarces of your inland water grounds."

  81

  "It must be lonely work-" Pitts mouth stopped working and he gasped as a sharp pain in his chest nearly carried him into blackness. He clutched the table, fighting to remain conscious.

  "Come," Andursson said. "You must let me tend to your injuries."

  "No," Pitt answered firmly. "I must stay by the radio. I'm not leaving this chair."

  Andursson hesitated. Then he shook his head and said nothing. He disappeared from the room and returned in less than two minutes carrying a large first-aid case and a bottle.

  You are lucky," he said smiling. "One of your countrymen fished the river just last month and left this with me." He held up and proudly displayed a fifth of Seagram's V.O. Canadian Whiskey. Pitt noticed that the seal on the cap had not been broken.

  Pitt was on his fourth healthy swig and the old river warden had just finished binding his chest when the radio crackled and Sandecker's gravel voice broke into the room again.

  "Major Pitt, do you read me?"

  Pitt lifted the microphone and pressed the transmitting switch. "Pitt here. I read you, Admiral."

  "The paramedics are mustering at Keflavik and Iceland's civilian search and rescue units are standing by. I'll maintain radio contact and coordinate their efforts." There was a momentary silence. "You have a lot of worried people here. Keflavik has no report Of a missing plane, either military or commercial."

  Rondheim wasn't taking any chances, Pitt thought.

  The bastard. was taking his own sweet time about reporting his overdue and missing guests. Pitt breathed deeply and took another shot of the V.O. Then he replied: "Notification isn't scheduled yet."

  Total uncomprehension broke in Sandecker's voice.

  "Come again. Please repeat."

  "Trust me, Admiral. I can't even begin to answer a tenth of the questions that must be running through everyone's mind, especially over the radio repeatespecially over the radio."

  Somehow, Pitt thought, the names of the internationally known men back in the ravine had to be kept from the news services for at least the next thirty-six hours time enough to stop Kelly, Rondheim and Hermit Limited before they could be warned and go underground. He had to give the admiral credit. Sandecker caught Pitts implication of the need for secrecy almost immediately. "Your message is understood. Can you give me the location? Use your reverse coordination map."

  "Sorry, I know of no such-"

  "Dammit!" Sandecker shouted, turning the speaker into a thunderbolt of distorted static. "Do as you're ordered."

  Pitt sat and stared dumbly at the radio's speaker for nearly thirty seconds before Sandecker's hidden meaning began to register in his weary mind. The admiral was offering him a chance to answer questions withOut giving away valid information, by replying in the contrary. He mentally kicked himself for letting Sandecker outdo him in the verbal gymnastics.

  Pitt flicked off the mike switch and turned to Andursson. "How far is the nearest town and in what direction?"

  Andursson vaguely pointed out the window. "Sodafoss . . . we are exactly fifty kilometers south of its town square."

  Pitt quickly added to the Icelander's figure to allow for the distan
ce he had stumbled across the plateau .

  "back to the radio. The aircraft came down approximately eighty kilometers north of Sodafoss. I repeat, eighty kilometers north of Sodafoss."

  "Was the aircraft civilian or military?"

  "Military."

  "How many survivors?"

  "Can't say for certain. Two, maybe four."

  Pitt could only hope the admiral would grasp the total number of twenty-four. The feisty old oceanographer didn't fail him.

  "Let -us hope we can have them safe and sound by this time tomorrow." Sandecker's intimation of twenty-four hours quickly settled any doubt. He paused, and then his voice came through, low, quiet with a strong inflection of concern. "Is miss Royal with you?"

  "Yes.

  Sandecker didn't reply immediately. Pitt could almost see the sudden paling, almost hear the sudden intake of breath. Then the admiral said, "Has she . . . has she given you any trouble?"

  Pitt thought a moment. trying to piece together the right words. "You know how women are, Admiral, always complaining.

  First it was an imaginary ache in her ankles, now she claims she's freezing to death. I'll be eternally grateful if you use all haste in taking this griping female off my hands."

  "Will do all possible at this end to grant your request." The gravel-like tone was back now. "Stand by."

  82

  Pitt hummed softly to himself. This was taking too much time, each minute was precious, each second irreplaceable. He looked at his watch. Exactly one o'clock-seven hours since he crawled out of the ravine. He felt a sudden chill and took another swallow from the bottle.

  The radio crackled again. "Major Pitt."

  "Come in, Admiral."

  "We have a problem here. Every helicopter on the island is grounded. The paramedics will have to be airdropped from a transport."

  "Do you understand? It is imperative that helicopters be used. The survivors must be airlifted out. And most important, Admiral. I must lead the search-repeat-I must lead the search. The crash site is invisible from the air. Your rescue party could search for days and never find it."

  Pitt could sense the gloom at the other end. Sandecker took a long time in answering. Then he spoke wearily, defeated, as if he were delivering the last rites, which indeed he very nearly was.

  "Negative to your request. There are seven copters on the island. Three belong to the Air Force, four to the Icelandic Search and Rescue Department. All are grounded due to maintenance problems." Sandecker paused, then went on slowly. "The possibility seems remote, but our people and the government authorities smell sabotage."

  "Oh, Christ!" Pitt murmured, and suddenly his blood ran cold. Every contingency. The term came back to haunt him again and again. Kelly's computers had built the wau ever higher against hope of rescue. Rondheim's coldly efficient gang of killers had carried out the mechanical commands to the letter.

  "Do you have enough flat ground for a light plane to land and pick you up?" Sandecker probed expectantly. "If affirmative, you could direct a rescue drop from the air."

  "A small plane might make it," Pitt said. "I have a level meadow here the length of a football field."

  Outside, unnoticed by Pitt, the sun, a perfect orange disk in the northern latitudes, was being rapidly overtaken by great rolling black clouds that soon surrounded and cut off its bright glow. A chilling breeze had sprung up and was bending the grass in the meadows and hills. Pitt became aware of Andursson's hand on his shoulder and the sudden dimming light in the room at the same time.

  "A storm from the north," Andursson said solemnly. "It will snow withiin the hour."

  Pitt threw back the chair and hurriedly crossed the room to a small double window. He stared through the glass, his eyes unbelieving, and he struck his fist against the wall in despair.

  "God, no!" he whispered. "It would be suicidal for the paramedics to parachute through a blinding snowstorm."

  "Nor could a light plane fly through the turbulence," Andursson said. "I have seen the coming of many northerns and have known their ferocity. This will be a bad one."

  Pitt weaved drunkenly back to the radio and collapsed in the chair. He held his cut and swollen face in his hands and muttered softly, "God save them. God save all of them now. Hopeless, hopeless."

  Sandecker came over the radio, but Pitt sat unhearing. "Your exact position, Major. Can you give me your exact position?"

  Andursson reached over Pitt and took the microphone. "One minute, Admiral Sandecker," he said firmly. "Please stand by."

  He took Pitts right hand and gripped it hard.

  "Major Pitt, you must control your mind." He looked down, his eyes bright with compassion. " 'The knot of death, though it be bound like stone, may be unravelled by he who knows the frail strand.' "

  Pitt slowly looked up into Andursson's eyes. "So, I have another poet on my hands."

  Andursson simply nodded his head shyly.

  "This has certainly been my week for poets," Pitt sighed. Then he swore softly to himself. He had already spent far too much time in needless talk and useless pity, and time was running short. He needed a plan, a device, a gimmick to reach those who put their trust in him. Computers make mistakes, he told himself. Those cold electronic monsters can make an error-an error that may be infinitesimal, but none the less the possibility exists. There is no emotion built into their wiring, no sentiment, no room for nostalgia.

  "Nostalgia," Pitt said out loud, rolling the word on his tongue, savoring every syllable, repeating it at least three more times.

  Andursson stared at him strangely. "I do not understand."

  "You'll soon see," Pitt said. "I'm not waiting to find the frail strand in your poetic knot of death. I'ming to cut it with blades,"

  The old man looked more lost than ever.

  "Blades?"

  "Yes, propeller blades. Three of them, to be exact."

  Chapter 18

  83

  There are many wondrous sights to behold in this world, but to Pitt nothing, not even a thirty-story rocket blasting into outer space or a needle-nosed supersonic transport streaking across the sky at twice -the speed of sound could ever look half as incredibly beautiful as that old Ford trimotor, the famed Tin Goose, pitching and rolling awkwardly in the fitful wind, curtained by the black folds of giant menacing clouds. Braced against the increasing gale, he watched intently as the ancient aircraft, graceful in its ugliness, circled Andursson's farm once before the pilot eased back on the throttles, skimmed less than ten feet over a fence and set it down in the meadow where the wide-set landing wheels rolled to a complete stop in less than two hundred feet from touchdown.

  Pitt turned to Andursson. "Well, good-by, Golfur.

  Thank you for all you've done for me . . . for all of US.

  Golfur Andursson shook Pitts hand. "It is I who thank you, Major.

  For the honor and opportunity to help my fellow brother. God go with you."

  Pitt couldn't run, his cracked ribs wouldn't permit that, but he covered the distance to the trimotor in less than thirty seconds.

  Just as he reached the right side of the fuselage, the door flew open and a strong arm reached down and pulled him into the cramped, narrow cabin.

  "Are you Major Pitt?"

  Pitt looked into the face of a great bull of a man, tan-faced, with long blond sideburns. "Yes, I'm Pitt."

  "Welcome back to the roaring twenties, Major.

  This is a helluva idea, using this old flying fossil for a rescue mission." He held out his hand. "I'm Captain Ben Hull."

  Pitt took the massive paw and said, "Best we move out if we expect to beat the snow."

  "Right you are," Hull boomed briskly. "No sense in getting ticketed for overparking." If Hull was mildly shocked at Pitts damaged face or his strange-looking clothes, he concealed it well. "We ranthis trip without a copilot, a reserved seat in your name, Major. Figured you'd want front row balcony to lead us to the wreck."

  "Before I signed off, I asked Admiral Sand
ecker for a couple of items-"

  "Got news for you, Major. That old sea dog carries a big mean stick. Seems he pulled every plug to get them on board before we took off." He pulled a package from his parka and raised an inquiring eyebrow.

  "Beats the hell out of me why you'd want a bottle of Russian vodka and a box of cigars at a moment like

  "It's for a couple of friends," Pitt said, sniffing. He turned and made his way past ten men ranged in various relaxed positions along the floor of the cabin-large, quiet, purposeful-looking men dressed in arctic weather gear. They were men who were ed in scuba diving, parachute jumping, survival, and nearly every phase of emergency medicine except surgery. A wave of confidence surged through Pitt just from observing them.

  Ducking his head to clear the low cockpit door, Pitt moved into the cramped confines and eased his sore body into the worn and cracked leather bucket seat, sitting vacant on the copilot's side. As soon as he was safely strapped in, he turned and found himself staring into the grinning face of Sergeant Sam Cashman.

  "Howdy, Major." Cashman's eyes widened. "God Amighty, who stomped on your face?"

  "Tell you over a drink sometime." Pitt glanced at the instrument panel, quickly familiarizing himself with the old-fashioned gauges. "I'm a bit surprised to see-"

 
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