Valhalla rising, p.33

Valhalla Rising, page 33

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  Only a very few knew of the role Pitt and Giordino had played in saving the ship and all its passengers and crew. By the time the news media learned that the man who'd helped save over two thousand people from the Emerald Dolphin was also instrumental in the raising of the Golden Marlin, he and Giordino were gone, having been picked by a NUMA helicopter from the pad on the stern of the Alfred Aultman.

  Any attempts by reporters to track Pitt down for interviews failed. It was as though he had fallen in a hole and covered it up.

  Part Three

  THOUSAND-YEAR

  TRAIL

  33

  JULY 31, 2003 TOHONO LAKE, NEW JERSEY

  Tohono Lake was off the beaten track as far as lakes went in New Jersey. There were no lakeside homes. It was on private land owned by the Cerberus Corporation for the use of its top management. Employees were provided with another resort lake thirty miles away for their pleasure. Because the lake was isolated, there were no fences around it. The only security was a locked gate five miles away on a road that wound through the low hills and heavily forested land before reaching a comfortable three-story lodge built of logs; the lodge faced the lake and came with a dock with a boat-house protecting canoes and rowboats. No motorized boats were allowed on the lake.

  Fred Ames was not a director of Cerberus. He wasn't even a lower-level employee, but one of several local people who paid no attention to the No Trespassing signs and hiked into the lake to fish. He set up a small camp behind the trees surrounding the lakefront. The lake was stocked with largemouth bass and rarely fished, so it didn't take an old pro long to catch several five-to-ten-pound bass before noon. He was about to step into the water wearing his waders and begin casting when he noticed a large black limousine pull up and stop at the boat ramp. Two men got out with their fishing gear, while the chauffeur pulled one of the several boats sitting beside the ramp down to the water.

  For big-time corporate executives, Ames thought it unusual for them not to use an outboard motor. Instead, one of them rowed the boat out to the middle of the lake, where he let it drift while both men tied on their bass plugs and began casting. Ames melted back into the forest and decided to warm a pot of coffee on his Coleman stove and read a paperback book until the corporate fishermen left.

  The man who sat in the center of the boat and rowed was slightly under six feet and reasonably trim for a man of sixty. He had reddish-brown hair with no gray, topping a tanned face. Everything about him seemed exactingly sculptured in marble by an ancient Greek. His head, jaw, nose, ears, arms, legs, feet and hands seemed in perfect scale. The eyes were almost as blue-white as those on a husky, but not piercing. Their soft look was often misread as warm and friendly, when they were actually dissecting everyone in range. His movements-rowing, tying his bass plug and then casting-were precisely measured without wasted motion.

  Curtis Merlin Zale was a perfectionist. There was nothing left of the boy who used to hike across cornfields to complete his chores. After his father died, he'd dropped out of school at twelve to run the family farm, and had educated himself. By the time he was twenty, he had accumulated the largest farm in the county and hired a manager to run it for his mother and three sisters.

  Demonstrating a cunning mind and a shrewd tenacity, he'd forged school records to get himself admitted to New England's most prestigious business school. Despite his lack of education, Zale was blessed with a brilliant mind and photographic memory. He'd graduated with honors and gone on to receive a Ph.D. in economics.

  From then on, his life followed a pattern: he'd launch companies, build them until they were extremely successful and then sell them. By the time he was thirty-eight, he was America's ninth-richest man, with a net worth in the billions. He then bought an oil company low in profits but high in leases around the country, including Alaska. Ten years later, he combined it with an old, solid chemical company. Eventually, he merged his holdings into one giant conglomerate called Cerberus.

  No one really knew Curtis Merlin Zale. He made no friends, never attended parties or social functions, never married nor sired children. His love was power. He bought and sold politicians as if they were pedigreed dogs. He was ruthless, tough and as cold as the Ice Age. No opponents in his business transactions ever met with success. Most ended up defeated and broken, the victims of dirty, treacherous fights that went far beyond ethical business procedures.

  Because he was extremely shrewd and cautious, there was never the slightest suspicion that Curtis Merlin Zale had risen to success through blackmail and murder. Strangely, not one of his business associates, the news media or his enemies, ever had cause to wonder about the deaths of the people who crossed swords with him. Many who stood in his way died from what seemed to be natural causes- heart attacks, cancer and other common diseases. A number died of accidents-cars, guns or drowning. A few simply disappeared. No trail ever led to Zale's door.

  Curtis Merlin Zale was a cold-blooded sociopath without a shred of conscience. He could kill a child as easily as he would step on an ant.

  He fixed his blue-white eyes on his chief security officer, who was clumsily trying to untangle the line on his reel. "I find it most peculiar that three vital projects planned with such meticulous forethought and computerized analysis should have failed."

  Unlike the stereotyped Asian, James Wong had never acquired an inscrutable look. Big for his culture, he was a former major with the Special Forces, highly disciplined and as swift and deadly as a black mamba and puff adder entwined. He was the chief of Zale's dirty tricks and enforcement organization, the Vipers.

  "Events happened beyond our control," he said, maddened at the snarl in his fishing reel. "The Emerald Dolphin came apart when those NUMA scientists unexpectedly appeared and then managed to dive down and survey her. Then, when we hijacked the survey crew, they managed to escape. And now, according to my intelligence sources, NUMA personnel were instrumental in saving the Golden Marlin. It's as if they appear like the plague."

  "How do you explain it, Mr. Wong? They're an oceanographic agency-not a military, intelligence or investigative department of the government, but an agency devoted to sea research. How are they able to frustrate activities devised and carried out by the finest professional mercenaries money can buy?"

  Wong laid down his rod and reel. "I could not have predicted NUMA's tenacity. It was just bad luck."

  "I do not endure mistakes lightly," said Zale tonelessly. "Chance occurrences are due to poor planning, blunders to incompetence."

  "No one regrets failure more than I," said Wong.

  "I also find that foolish stunt by Ono Kanai in New York especially disturbing. I still can't understand why he cost us the loss of an expensive antique aircraft while attempting to shoot down a planeful of children. Who authorized the incident?"

  "He did it entirely on his own after running into Pitt. As your own directives state, those who present obstacles to our plans must be eliminated. And then, of course, there was the fact that Kelly Egan was on board."

  "Why kill her?"

  "She could recognize Kanai."

  "We are very lucky the police cannot trace Kanai to the Vipers and through you to Cerberus."

  "Nor will they," Wong promised. "We threw out enough red herrings to muddy the trail forever-the same as we have on a hundred other operations to secure our power base."

  "I would have handled it differently," Zale said, with an icy edge in his voice.

  "The results are what count," Wong argued. "Egan's engines will never be seriously considered as a means of propulsion, at least until the Emerald Dolphin and Golden Marlin investigations are over, which could take a year or more. And with him dead, his formula for Slick 66 will soon belong to you."

  "Providing you can lay it in my hands."

  "It's as good as done," said Wong boldly. "I've given the assignment to Kanai. He won't dare fail this time."

  "What about Josh Thomas? He'll never give it up."

  Wong laughed. "That old
drunk will give us the formula very, very soon. I promise."

  "You seem confident."

  Wong nodded. "Kanai has made up for his rash venture by abducting Kelly Egan from the Golden Marlin after he arranged its sinking. He is flying her to her father's house in New Jersey."

  "Where I suppose he intends to torture her in front of Thomas to prod him into producing the oil formula."

  "Not exactly an ingenious plan, but one that will produce a harvest of information."

  "What about the guards around the farm?"

  "We have found a way of penetrating their security without setting off alarms and alerting them."

  "It's lucky for Kanai that you'd ordered him back here before his men and ship were blown up in the Kermadec Islands."

  "I needed him back here for other reasons."

  Zale sat silent for a moment, then he said, "I want this matter settled for good. Our projects must be concluded without interruption by outside influences. There can be no more failures. Perhaps I should get someone who can direct Viper operations without complications."

  Before Wong could respond, Zale's rod suddenly bent into a U as a bass hit the plug. The fish broke water before splashing under again. He guessed the weight at close to seven pounds. Both men went silent as Zale slowly tired the fish and began reeling it toward the boat. When it was alongside, Wong scooped it up with a net, watching as it flopped between his feet.

  "Nice catch," he complimented Zale.

  The chief executive of Cerberus had a pleased look on his face as he removed the hooks on the red-and-white plug from the fish's mouth. "An old Bassarino, tried and true-they never fail." He did not cast again, but reached into his tackle box and made a show of fumbling for another bass plug. "The sun is getting higher. I think I'll try a Winnow."

  A warning light flashed in the back of Wong's mind and he looked into Zale's eyes, attempting to read the thoughts behind them. "You were suggesting that I am no longer useful as the chief of Viper?"

  "I think that others may be able to conduct future enterprises to more productive conclusions."

  "I have served you with loyalty for twelve years," said Wong in quiet anger. "Does that count for nothing?"

  "Believe me, I am grateful-" Suddenly, Zale pointed behind Wong at the water. "You have a bite."

  Wong turned and looked, realizing too late that his line was still tangled and he had no bait in the water. In a lightning move, Zale snatched a syringe from his tackle box, plunged the needle in Wong's neck and pushed the plunger.

  The poison acted almost instantly. Before he could resist, numbness set in followed quickly by death. He fell back in the boat, his eyes wide with shock as his body went limp.

  Zale calmly felt for a pulse, and finding none, he tied a rope around Wong's ankles that was attached to the boat's anchor, a large tin can filled with hardened concrete. Then he dropped the anchor over the side and pushed Wong's body after it. He watched indifferently until the bubbles stopped rising to the surface.

  The fish was still flopping in the bottom of the boat, but its struggles were rapidly diminishing. Zale tossed it over the side to join Wong.

  "Sorry, my friend," he said, staring into the green water, "but failure begets failure. When your senses dull, it is time you be replaced."

  Becoming impatient, Fred Ames walked cautiously toward the lake, staying hidden in the trees. When he reached the shoreline, he stared over the water at the lone fisherman rowing back toward the waiting limousine.

  "That's odd," he muttered to himself. "I could have sworn there were two of them in that boat."

  34

  Members of the reorganized Viper team, now led by Ono Kanai, had timed the change of the security guards on the Egan farm, tracking when the new shift drove in the gate and the earlier shift left for home. Then by using aerial video photography they'd been able to follow the guards to their hidden locations. The next step was to gain entry by dressing as sheriff's deputies and driving an auto painted like a county patrol car. After killing the unsuspecting camouflaged road guard, they'd entered the house, seized Josh Thomas and then called in the rest of the guards for a meeting ostensibly to talk about new security programs.

  Once the guards arrived at the house, they were unceremoniously shot and their bodies thrown in a storm cellar under the barn.

  When Ono Kanai arrived at the nearby airport in a private unmarked plane belonging to Cerberus, he threw a sedated Kelly into the trunk of his car and drove to her father's farm, now secured by his mercenary team. He carried Kelly through the front door and dumped her on the floor in front of Josh Thomas, who was bound and gagged in a desk chair.

  Thomas tried to struggle against his ropes and muttered incomprehensible curses through his gag, but only incurred the laughter of the five men in the room, who had cast aside the fake deputy's uniforms and changed into their standard black work outfits.

  "All went well?" asked Kanai.

  A mountain of a man, who towered six and a half feet tall and weighed nearly three hundred hard pounds, nodded. "Egan's guards were not very high caliber. They bought the phony sheriff's story hook, line and sinker."

  "Where are they?"

  "Disposed of."

  Kanai looked into the crooked grin of his efficient colleague and at the scarred face complete with broken nose, missing front teeth and cauliflower ear, and nodded in satisfaction. "You do nice work, Darfur."

  Dark evil eyes flashed from under a thick black mane. Kanai and Darfur had worked together for many years since they'd first met while eliminating a terrorist group working out of Iran. The big Arab gestured at Thomas.

  "Please observe. Not a mark on him, yet I believe he has been sufficiently softened up to tell you what you wish to know."

  Kanai studied Thomas and saw the twisted expression of pain that came from a beating to his body. He didn't doubt that Darfur had broken the scientist's ribs. He also noted anger in the scientist's eyes at seeing Kelly lying drugged and semiconscious on the floor. Kanai smiled at Thomas, before stepping over and viciously kicking Kelly in her stomach. An expression of torment flashed on her face, along with a pathetic wail, as her eyes flicked open.

  "Come awake, Miss Egan. It's time for you to persuade Mr. Thomas to reveal your father's oil formula."

  Kelly rolled into a ball and clutched her stomach, gasping for breath. The pain was unlike any she'd ever suffered in her life. Kanai was an expert at inserting his boot toe in exactly the right place to induce the most agony. After a minute, she struggled to raise herself on one elbow and gaze at Thomas. "Don't tell this scum, Josh-"

  She spoke no further. Her breath was cut off as Kanai shoved his boot against her neck and pressed her head against the carpet. "You are an obstinate young lady," he said coldly. "Do you enjoy pain? Because you will surely receive it."

  One of Kanai's men entered the room, holding a portable radio. "A car is reported approaching the front gate. Should we refuse it entry?"

  Kanai thought a moment. "Better to let them enter and see who it is than turn them away and arouse suspicion."

  Okay, mastermind," said Giordino, yawning, still tired after the hurried flight from Miami. "How do you plan to open the castle gate?"

  "I punch in the code," answered Pitt, sitting behind the wheel of an old Ford pickup truck they'd rented from a farm appliance dealer.

  "Do you know it?"

  "No."

  "You drag me up here less than an hour after I carry you off the Golden Marlin under the cockamamie notion that Kanai took Kelly to her father's laboratory, and you don't know the security code?"

  "What better place to force information out of her and Josh Thomas? The formula has to be hidden in the lab somewhere."

  "So what clever device do you use to gain entry?" asked Giordino, studying the massive gate and the high wall.

  Pitt didn't answer but leaned out the car's window and punched a series of buttons. "That will have to do. Actually, Kelly had a backup remote with a different
code."

  "And let's suppose Kanai and his flunkies have compromised the security system and overpowered the guards. What makes you think he's going to open the gate for us?"

  "Because I punched in the name Cerberus for the code."

  Giordino rolled his eyes. "If I had an ounce of common sense, this is where I'd get out."

  Pitt's green eyes looked grim. "If I'm wrong, the gate won't open and we wasted the trip and lost Kelly for good."

 

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