Valhalla rising, p.37

Valhalla Rising, page 37

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "Dirk!" he cried out. He crushed Pitt in a tight hug and stepped back. "Come in, come in. It seems I don't see enough of you anymore."

  "I have to admit I do miss your fantastic cooking."

  Pitt followed St. Julien Perlmutter through rooms and hallways stacked floor to high ceilings with books on ships and the sea. It was an immense library eagerly sought by universities and museums, but Perlmutter meant to keep every volume until the day he died. And only then would his last will and testament reveal the recipient of his collection. He led Pitt into a spacious kitchen with enough jars, cooking utensils and dinnerware to fill ten restaurants. He motioned Pitt to a chair beside a round hatch table with a compass binnacle standing in the center of it.

  "Sit down while I uncork my rare port. I've been saving it for a special occasion."

  "My presence hardly ranks as a special occasion," Pitt said, smiling.

  "Any occasion is special when I don't have to drink alone," Perlmutter chortled. He was a good-natured man who laughed easily and was rarely seen without a happy grin. He removed the cork and poured the deep red liquid into port glasses. He handed one to Pitt. "What do you think?"

  Pitt savored the port and swished it gently around his tongue before swallowing and voicing his approval. "Nectar fit for the gods."

  "One of life's finer joys." Perlmutter sipped his glass dry and poured another. "You said you had a research project for me."

  "Have you heard of Dr. Elmore Egan?"

  Perlmutter stared at Pitt intently for a moment. "I most certainly have. The man was a genius. His efficient and cost-practical magne-tohydrodynamic engines are a marvel of the technical age. A pity he had to be one of the many victims of the Emerald Dolphin on the eve of his triumph. Why do you ask?"

  Pitt relaxed in the chair, enjoyed a second glass of port and related the story as he knew it, beginning with the fire on board the Emerald Dolphin and ending with the fight in Egan's home above the Hudson River.

  "So where do I fit in?" asked Perlmutter.

  "Dr. Egan was a devotee of Jules Verne, especially his book Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. I thought that if anybody knew about Captain Nemo's submarine, the Nautilus, it had to be you."

  Perlmutter leaned back and stared at the ornate ceiling above his kitchen. "Because it's a work of fiction, I have not put it on the list of my research projects. It's been a few years since I reread the story. Verne was either way ahead of his time or he could see into the future, because the Nautilus was extremely technically advanced for 1866."

  "Could someone or some country have built a submarine that might have been half as efficient as the Nautilus?" asked Pitt.

  "The only one that I recall that was proven practical before the eighteen-nineties was the Confederate submarine H. L. Hunley."

  "I remember," said Pitt. "She sank a Union sloop-of-war called the Housatonic outside of Charleston, South Carolina, in 1864, and became the first submarine in history to sink a warship."

  Perlmutter nodded. "Yes, the feat didn't happen again until fifty years later, in August of 1914, when the U-21 sank the HMS Pathfinder in the North Sea. The Hunley sat on the bottom buried in silt for a hundred and thirty-six years before she was discovered, raised and placed in a conservation laboratory tank to preserve her for public display. When she was inspected at first hand and the silt and remains of her crew removed from inside, she was found to be far more modern in concept than was supposed. She was quite streamlined, and she had a rudimentary snorkel system with bellows to pump air, ballast tanks with pumps, diving planes and flush rivets to reduce water drag. That last thing, by the way, was a concept that nobody thought had been used before Howard Hughes flushed the rivets on an aircraft he designed in the mid-nineteen-thirties. The Hunley even experimented with electromagnetic engines, but that technology was not ready, so eight men sat inside the submarine and turned a crank that spun the propeller for propulsion. After that, submarine science lagged until John Holland and Simon Lake began experimenting with and building submarines that were accepted by several countries, including us and the Germans. Those early efforts would have looked crude beside Captain Nemo's Nautilus."

  Perlmutter ran out of steam and was about to reach for the port bottle again when a look of revelation swept over his face. "I just thought of something," he said, raising his great bulk out of his chair with ease. He disappeared down the hall for several minutes before reappearing with a book in one hand. "A copy of the board of inquiry minutes concerning the sinking of the U.S. Navy frigate Kearsarge."

  "The ship that sank the famous Confederate raider Alabama?"

  "The same," Perlmutter answered Pitt. "I'd forgotten the strange circumstances behind her grounding on Roncador Reef off Venezuela in 1894."

  "Strange?" asked Pitt.

  "Yes, according to her commander, Captain Leigh Hunt, he was attacked by a man-made underwater vessel that resembled a whale. The vessel was chased, then sank into the water before surfacing again and ramming the Kearsarge, putting a large hole in her hull. She barely made it to Roncador Reef before she grounded. The crew then made camp on the reef until they were rescued."

  "Sounds like the good captain was heavily into the rum locker," Pitt said, jokingly.

  "No, he was dead serious," replied Perlmutter, "and what's important is that his entire crew backed him up. Not one of them who witnessed the spectacle varied his story. Their testimony described a large steel monster that was impenetrable to a series of cannon shots the Kearsarge poured into it-they simply bounced off. They also mentioned some sort of pyramid-shaped tower on its back that appeared to have viewing ports. Captain Hunt swore that he saw a face staring back at him through one of the ports, a man with a beard."

  "Did they comment on the monster's size?"

  "The crew agreed that it was cigar shaped, cylindrical with conical ends. As would be expected, they estimated the size anywhere from one to three hundred feet, with a beam of twenty to forty feet."

  "Probably somewhere in between," Pitt said thoughtfully. "Somewhere slightly more than two hundred feet in length with a twenty-five-foot beam. Not exactly an underwater craft to be taken lightly in 1894."

  "Come to think of it, the Kearsarge was not the only vessel reported sunk by an undersea monster."

  "The whaling ship Essex, out of Nantucket, was rammed and sunk by a whale," offered Pitt.

  "That," said Perlmutter sternly, "was a real whale. I'm talking about another U.S. Navy ship, the Abraham Lincoln, which reported an encounter with an undersea craft that rammed and shattered her rudder."

  "When did that occur?"

  "1866."

  "Twenty-eight years earlier."

  Perlmutter contemplated his bottle of port, which was now two-thirds empty. "Over that time, many ships disappeared under mysterious circumstances. Most of them were British warships."

  Pitt set his glass on the table but refused another when offered. "I can't believe a supernatural vessel decades ahead of its time 'was built by private individuals."

  "The Hunley was built by private individuals who funded the project," lectured Perlmutter. "Actually, she was the third boat built by Horace Hunley and his engineers. Each more advanced than the previous."

  "It seems a stretch to think that the mysterious monster wasn't designed and constructed by an industrial nation," said Pitt, still skeptical.

  "Who's to say?" said Perlmutter, with an indifferent shrug. "Perhaps Jules Verne heard of such a vessel and created Captain Nemo and his Nautilus around it."

  "It's odd that such a vessel, if it truly existed, could cruise the world for almost thirty years without its being seen more often, or one of its crew deserting ashore and telling the story. And if it sailed around ramming and sinking ships, how come there were not more survivors to report the incidents?"

  "I can't say," said Perlmutter slowly. "I only know what I find in recorded sea history. Which isn't to say there are not more reports, untapped by researchers, in archives scattere
d around the world."

  "What about Verne?" Pitt inquired. "There must be a museum, a home or relatives that collected all his papers, research records and letters."

  "There are. Verne scholars exist everywhere. But Dr. Paul Hereoux, president of the Society of Jules Verne in Amiens, France, which was Verne's home from 1872 until he died in 1905, is considered the most knowledgeable man on the author's life."

  "Can we contact him?"

  "Better yet," said Perlmutter, "in a few days, I plan to travel to Paris to dig through an archive for information on John Paul Jones's ship, the Bonhomme Richard. I'll run up to Amiens and talk with Dr. Hereoux."

  "I couldn't ask for more," said Pitt, rising from his chair. "I have to run along and clean up. I'm having dinner with Al, Loren and Dr. Egan's daughter, Kelly."

  "Tell them all I wish them a good life."

  Before Pitt stepped through the front door, Perlmutter was opening another bottle of old port.

  38

  After he returned to his apartment above the hangar floor, Pitt made a call to Admiral Sandecker. Then he took a shower, shaved and changed into casual slacks and a knit shirt. At the sound of the Packard's horn, he slipped on a light fabric sport coat and exited the hangar. He slid into the leather seat on the passenger's side and nodded a greeting at Giordino, who was wearing a similar outfit, except that his coat was slung over the seat due to the warm evening temperature and ninety-five percent Washington humidity.

  "All set?" Giordino asked.

  Pitt nodded. "The admiral has arranged a little party, should we have a problem."

  "You armed?"

  Pitt pulled aside his jacket to reveal his old Colt in a shoulder holster. "And you?"

  Giordino twisted in the seat to expose a Ruger double-action P94, 40-caliber automatic slung under one arm. "Let's hope we're being overcautious."

  Giordino said no more and depressed the clutch, shifted the long curved stick with its onyx knob into first gear and slowly released the clutch as he stepped on the accelerator pedal. The big Packard town car rolled smoothly onto the road toward the airport gate.

  A few minutes later, Giordino eased the car to a stop in front of Loren's town house in Alexandria. Pitt stepped up to the front door and rang the chimes. Two minutes later, the women arrived at the entrance. Loren, stunning in a cotton mock turtleneck with side slits and a straight-falling skirt that stopped just above the ankles, looked cool and radiant. Kelly wore an embroidered jacket dress of soft rayon georgette with ruffle trim that gave her a feminine edge.

  After they were all settled in the Packard, Kelly in the front with Giordino again, he turned to Pitt and asked, "Where to?"

  "Take Telegraph Road to the little town of Rose Hill. There is a restaurant there called the Knox Inn. They serve country-style, home-cooked dishes that send your taste buds to gourmet heaven."

  "After that buildup," said Loren, "it had better live up to its laurels."

  "Country style sounds good to me," Kelly said happily. "I'm famished."

  They chatted on the ride to the inn, mostly small talk. Nothing was mentioned of their past experiences, nor was Cerberus brought up. The women talked mostly of places they'd visited during their travels, while Pitt and Giordino sat in quiet contemplation as they carefully watched the passing cars and the road ahead, ready for any unforeseen complications.

  The summer sun set late in the evening, and passengers in other cars stared at the old Packard cruising down the highway like a dignified dowager on her way to a plantation ball. She wasn't nearly as fast as modern automobiles, but Pitt knew that it would take nothing less than a large truck to force the three-ton car off the road. She was also built like a tank. Her huge chassis and body offered her passengers solid protection in case of a collision.

  Giordino turned into the parking lot of the inn, and the women left the car under the watchful eye of the men. Pitt and Giordino gazed around the parking lot surrounding the inn, but saw no sign of suspicious activity. They stepped into the inn that had been a stagecoach stop as far back as 1772, and were immediately shown by the maitre d' to a nice table in the courtyard beneath a large oak tree.

  "For what we're about to order," said Pitt, "I recommend we skip cocktails or wine and order a premium ale they brew on the premises."

  Pitt and Giordino finally began to relax and the time went swiftly, as Giordino ran through his repertoire of crazy jokes that soon had the women clutching their sides in laughter. Pitt merely grinned politely, having heard them all at least fifty times. He scanned the walls of the courtyard and examined the other diners like a TV security camera swinging from side to side, but saw nothing that aroused his interest.

  They ordered an assortment of barbecued pork and chicken, grits with shrimp and crab, a southern coleslaw salad and corn on the cob. It was only after they'd finished dinner and were having key lime pie for dessert that Pitt tensed. A man with a tanned face and reddish-brown hair, flanked by two deadpan characters who might as well have worn signs that proclaimed them as armed killers, were approaching their table. The intruder was dressed in an expensive tailor-cut suit and his shoes were solidly made British, not light-crafted Italian. As he walked across the courtyard between the tables, his blue-white eyes locked on Pitt. He walked gracefully, but with an arrogance that suggested that he owned half the world.

  An alarm went off in Pitt's brain. He tapped Giordino's leg with his foot and made a gesture that the stocky Italian immediately recognized.

  The man came directly to their table and stopped. He looked from face to face as if filing them in his mind for future referral. His eyes lingered on Pitt. "We have never met, Mr. Pitt, but my name is Curtis Merlin Zale."

  No one at the table recognized Zale, but they were all well familiar with the name. Their reactions at seeing the legendary monster in the flesh varied. Kelly sucked in her breath, and her eyes widened. Loren explored him with amused curiosity, while Giordino's interest was focused on the two bodyguards. Pitt gazed at Zale with studied indifference despite a cold feeling in his guts. If anything, he was sickened at the sight of the man who seemingly enjoyed barbaric cruelty. He made no effort to rise to his feet.

  Zale gave a short, aristocratic bow as he addressed the ladies. "Miss Egan, Congresswoman Smith, it is a pleasure to finally meet you." Then he turned to Pitt and Giordino. "Gentlemen, you are uncommonly stubborn. Your meddling has caused my company a great deal of frustration."

  "Your reputation as a greed-driven sociopath precedes you," said Pitt acidly.

  The two bodyguards took a step forward, but Zale gestured them back. "I had hoped we might have a congenial conversation of benefit to us all," he said, without a sign of malice.

  This guy is smooth, Pitt thought to himself, smooth and slippery as a snake-oil con man. "I fail to see what we have in common. You murder men, women and children. Al and I are just your common, law-abiding, taxpaying citizens who became swept up in your crackpot scheme to create a domestic oil monopoly."

  "It will never happen," said Loren.

  If Zale was dismayed that Pitt and Loren were aware of his grand design, he didn't show it. "You realize, of course, that my resources far exceed yours. That should be apparent even to you by now."

  "You're delusional if you think you're bigger than the U.S. government," argued Loren. "Congress will stop you before any of your plans get off the ground. First thing in the morning, I'm calling for a full congressional investigation into your involvement with the Emerald Dolphin and Golden Marlin disasters."

  Zale gave her a patronizing smile. "Are you sure that's wise? No politician is immune from scandal... or accidents."

  Loren leaped to her feet so suddenly she knocked her chair over backwards. "Are you threatening me?" she hissed.

  Zale did not step back or alter his smile. "Why, no, Congress-woman Smith, simply pointing out the possibilities. If you are set on destroying Cerberus, then you should be prepared to suffer the consequences."

  Loren beca
me outraged. She could not believe that an elected government official was being menaced with false dishonor and possible death. She slowly sat down, after Pitt set her chair upright, and stared at Zale, hard. Pitt appeared relaxed and said nothing, almost as if enjoying the fight.

  "You're mad!" Loren spat at Zale.

  "Actually, I'm quite sane. I know exactly where I stand at all times. Believe me, Congresswoman, do not think you can depend on your fellow legislators for support. I have more friends in the Capitol than you."

  "No doubt bribed and blackmailed into submission," injected Pitt.

  Loren's eyes blazed. "Yes, and when it's revealed whom you paid off and how much, you and your cohorts will be indicted on more criminal charges than John Gotti."

  Zale gave an imperious nod of his head. "I do not think so."

 

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