Valhalla Rising, page 38
"I couldn't agree with Mr. Zale more," said Pitt casually. "He will never stand trial."
"You have more intelligence than I gave you credit for," said Zale.
"No," Pitt continued, with the barest trace of a sardonic smile. "You will never be convicted of your crimes because you will most certainly die first. No man deserves to die more than you, Zale, along with every murdering scum in your Viper gang."
There was a coldness in Pitt's opaline green eyes that caused a hairline crack in Zale's composure. "As to that I'd take care, Mr. Pitt. You seem too well-informed yourself ever to become a senior citizen." The voice had the frigid edge of an iceberg.
"You may think you're immune to legal prosecution, but you're wide open to those who work outside the law. A group every bit as deadly as your Vipers has been assembled to put you out of business, Zale. Now it's your turn to look over your shoulder."
Zale had not expected that. He wondered if Pitt and Giordino could be more than ocean engineers with NUMA. His first thought was that Pitt was bluffing. If so, his facial expression showed no fear, but rather cold wrath. He decided to fight fire with fire.
"Now that I know where I stand, I shall leave you to your dessert. But my friends here will remain."
"What does he mean?" asked Kelly fearfully.
"He means that as soon as he is on his way down the highway, safe in his limousine, his flunkies intend to shoot us."
"Here, in front of all these people?" queried Giordino. "And without masks? Your flair for drama is pretty tawdry."
Caution was edging around Zale's blue-white eyes. Pitt's own eyes were inscrutable. Giordino sat demurely with his hands in his lap, called over the waiter and ordered a Remy Martin. Only the women appeared tense and nervous.
Zale had been thrown off keel. He was a man who never failed to command a situation, but these men were not reacting in the way he'd expected. These men were not afraid of death. His normally decisive mind was at a dead end, and it was not an experience he relished.
"Now that we've seen the face of the enemy," Pitt said, in a voice as eerie as a tomb, "I suggest you leave the inn while you can still walk and don't even think of harming Miss Egan, or anyone else at this table."
It was no blustery threat, merely a simple matter of fact.
Zale controlled his rising anger superbly. "Although I resent your interference, I respect you and Mr. Giordino as worthy adversaries. But now I can see that you are fools, far greater fools than I could have ever imagined."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Giordino muttered nastily, as he gazed at Zale over his brandy snifter.
There was a malignant look in Zale's eyes, like those of a reptile. He glanced around at the diners at the other tables, but none seemed interested in the conversation in the corner of the courtyard between the three standing men and the four people seated. Zale nodded at his two bodyguards and turned to leave.
"Good-bye, ladies and gentlemen. A pity your futures are so short."
"Before you run off," said Pitt, "it might be wise to take your pals with you or they'll follow in an ambulance."
Zale turned back and stared at Pitt, as his men stepped forward and reached inside their suit coats. As if rehearsed, Pitt and Giordino lifted their weapons from beneath the table where they had been resting in their laps under napkins.
"Good-bye, Mr. Zale," Giordino murmured, with a tight smile. "Next time . . ." And his voice trailed off.
The assassins glanced at each other uneasily. This was not the elementary kill they'd planned. It didn't take Mensa intelligence to know that they would be dead men before they could draw their own weapons.
"I apologize for calling you fools," said Zale, spreading his hands harmlessly. "It seems you came to dinner fully equipped."
"Al and I were Eagle Scouts," said Pitt. "We like to be prepared." He nonchalantly turned his back on Zale and dipped his fork into his key lime pie. "I hope that when we meet again you're strapped to a table receiving a lethal injection."
"You have been warned," said Zale, his facial expression under control but the skin flushed with rage. Then he turned and strode from the courtyard through the inside restaurant and into the parking lot, where he entered a black Mercedes limousine. His two hired guns walked past several cars before entering a Lincoln Navigator, where they sat and waited.
Loren reached over and touched Pitt's hand. "How can you be so calm? He made my skin crawl."
"That man is pure evil," whispered Kelly, fear in her eyes.
"Zale showed his hand when he didn't have to," said Pitt. "I can't help but wonder why."
Loren stared toward the courtyard entrance as if expecting to see Zale's men return. "Yes, why would a man in his corporate position stoop to meeting the peasant rabble-rousers?"
"Curiosity," suggested Giordino. "He had to see with his own eyes the faces of the people who were fouling up his plans."
"This key lime pie is excellent," Pitt proclaimed.
"I'm not hungry," murmured Kelly.
"Can't let a good dish go to waste," said Giordino, finishing Kelly's dessert.
After coffee and espresso, Pitt paid the check. Then Giordino stood on a chair and peered into the parking lot over the wall of the inn's courtyard, keeping the top of his head hidden in a clump of ivy. "Hekyll and Jekyll are sitting in a big SUV under a tree."
"We should call the police," said Loren.
Pitt grinned. "Plans have already been made." He pulled a cell phone from his coat pocket, punched a number, spoke no more than four words and turned it off. He smiled at Loren and Kelly. "You girls wait in the entrance while Al gets the car."
Loren snatched the keys of the Packard from Pitt's fingers. "Al might find himself in a touchy situation. Better I get the car. They won't shoot a helpless female."
"I wouldn't count on it, if I were you." Pitt was about to refuse, but knew deep down that she was right. Zale's men were killers, but they weren't village idiots. They wouldn't shoot a lone woman; they wanted all four in their sights. He nodded. "Okay, but keep low between the rows of cars. Our friends are on the opposite end of the lot from the Packard. If they start up their car and move before you turn the ignition key, Al and I will come running."
Loren and Pitt had often run together. She was fast. When they sprinted, he beat her by no more than two feet after 100 yards. She ducked and took off like a wraith in the night, reaching the Packard in less than a minute. No stranger to the car's controls, she had the key in the ignition in almost the same motion as she pushed the starter button. The big V-12 fired instantly. She shifted and hit the accelerator a bit hard, spinning the big tires in the gravel. Sliding to a stop in front of the restaurant, she glided over to the passenger side of the bench seat as Pitt, Giordino and Kelly piled inside.
Pitt floored the pedal and the big car surged quietly up the road, accelerating smoothly as Pitt revved the V-12 and shifted gears. She was no tire burner and would never have smoked a drag strip. She was built for elegance and silence and not for racing. It took Pitt nearly half a mile to push her up to eighty miles an hour.
The road was straight, and he took ample time for a long look in the rearview mirror at the big Navigator swinging out of the inn's parking lot, its black paint reflected under a streetlight. That was about all he could see as darkness closed over the country road. The Navigator was coming up fast with its headlights off.
"They're coming after us," he said, in the monotone of a bus driver telling his passengers to move back from the door.
The road was nearly deserted with only two cars passing in the opposite direction. The dense thicket and trees just off the shoulder looked black and uninviting. Nobody but a terror-crazed fool would stop and attempt to hide in there. Once or twice, he glanced at Loren. Her eyes were gleaming from the dashboard lights, and her lips were pulled back in a faint trace of a sensual smile. She was clearly enjoying the excitement and danger of the chase.
The Navigator was gaining rapidly on the old
"Everybody down on the floor," said Pitt. "They'll be coming alongside any minute."
The ladies did as they were told. Giordino only crouched and aimed his Ruger automatic out the rear window at the approaching Navigator. A curve was coming up, and Pitt pushed the old car for every bit of horsepower her stout old V-12 engine could give. The Navigator was coming up on the outside, the driver steering recklessly into the lane of oncoming traffic. Another thirty seconds and Pitt swung the Packard around the turn, her big tires protesting as they skidded sideways across the pavement.
The instant Pitt had the car on an even track heading up a straight section of the road, he peered into the mirror in time to see two big Chevy Avalanches charge out of the woods like ghosts directly in front of the speeding Navigator. The appearance of the Avalanches, with machine guns mounted and manned in their cargo box, was as totally unexpected as it was abrupt.
The driver of the Navigator was caught completely off guard and whipped the wheel to one side, sending the big SUV into an uncontrollable skid across the road and onto the grassy shoulder, where it lost traction and rolled over three times, disappearing into the thick underbrush in a cloud of dust and a spray of leaves and branches. Armed men in combat camouflage night gear burst from the Avalanches and quickly surrounded the upside-down Navigator.
Pitt eased off on the accelerator, slowing the Packard down to fifty miles an hour. "The chase is over," he said. "Everybody can relax and breathe normally again."
"What happened?" asked Loren, staring out the rear window at the headlights angled across the road and the settling cloud of dust.
"Admiral Sandecker called a few friends and arranged a little entertainment for Zale's hired guns."
"Not a moment too soon," said Giordino.
"We had to make it to a place where two country roads crossed so our rescuers could let us through before moving forward and blocking off our pursuers."
"I have to admit you had me scared for a minute," said Loren, sliding across the seat and clutching Pitt's arm in a proprietary fashion.
"It was closer than I would have liked."
"You dirty dogs," she said to Pitt and Giordino. "You didn't tell us that the Marines were waiting to rescue us."
"The night has suddenly become glorious," Kelly said, inhaling the air blowing over the windshield and through the open divider window between the front and back seats. "I should have known you had the war under control."
"I'll take everyone home," said Pitt, steering toward the lights of the city. "Tomorrow, we take our act on the road again."
"Where are you going?" asked Loren.
"While you're forming your committee to investigate Cerberus's criminal destruction of the cruise ships, Al, Kelly and I are heading for Minnesota to look at old rune stones."
"What do you hope to find?"
"The answer to an enigma," Pitt said slowly. "A key that may well open more than one door."
Marlys Kaiser stepped from her kitchen onto the porch as she heard the thumping sound of a helicopter approaching her farm outside Monticello, Minnesota. Her house was typical of most midwestern farm structures: a wooden frame and siding, a chimney that rose from the living room through the upstairs bedroom and a peaked roof with two gables. Across a broad grassy lawn stood a red barn in pristine condition. The property had once been a working dairy farm, but now the barn was her office and the three hundred acres of wheat, corn and sunflowers were sharecropped and sold on the market. Behind the farm, the land dropped down a sloping bank to the shoreline of Bertram Lake. The blue-green waters were surrounded by trees, and the shallow water around the edges was filled with lily pads. Bertram was popular with fishermen, who drove up from Minneapolis because it was stocked regularly with bluegill, sun-fish, pike and bass. It also had a large school of bullhead that began biting after sunset.
Marlys shielded her eyes from the early-morning sun in the east as a turquoise helicopter with the black letters NUMA painted on the sides dipped over the roof of the barn and hovered for a few moments above the yard, before settling its landing wheels into the grass. The whine of the twin turbines died away, and the rotor blades slowly drifted to a stop. A door opened and a ladder was dropped whose lower rung ended just above the ground.
Marlys stepped forward as a young woman with light brown hair that glimmered under the sun stepped from inside, followed by a short, stocky man with curly black hair who looked distinctly Italian. Then came a tall man with dark wavy hair and a craggy face etched with a broad smile. He walked across the yard in a direct manner that reminded her of her departed husband. As he came nearer, she found herself looking into the greenest eyes she had ever seen.
"Mrs. Kaiser?" he said softly. "My name is Dirk Pitt. I talked to you last night about flying from Washington and meeting with you."
"I didn't expect you so soon."
"We flew by jet to a NUMA research station on Lake Superior in Duluth late last night. Then we borrowed their helicopter and flew on toward Monticello."
"I see you had no problem finding the place."
"Your directions were right on the money." Pitt turned and introduced Al and Kelly.
Marlys gave Kelly a motherly hug. "Elmore Egan's daughter. This is a thrill. I'm so happy to meet you. Your father and I were great friends."
"I know," said Kelly, smiling. "He often talked about you."
She looked from one face to the other. "Have you had breakfast?"
"We haven't eaten since leaving Washington," Pitt answered truthfully.
"I'll have eggs, bacon and pancakes ready in twenty minutes," Marlys said warmly. "Why don't you folks take a stroll and check out the fields and lake?"
"Do you work the farm alone?" asked Kelly.
"Oh, my dear, no. I sharecrop with a neighbor. He pays me a percentage after the crops are sold at current market prices, which is all too low nowadays."
"Judging from the gate to the pasture across the road, the access door into the lower level of the barn and the hayloft above, you used to run a dairy herd."
"You're very observant, Mr. Pitt. My husband was a dairy farmer most of his life. You must have had a little experience yourself."
"I spent a summer on my uncle's farm in Iowa. I got so I could squeeze my fingers in sequence to squirt the milk in a pail, but I never got the hang of actually pulling it out."
Marlys laughed. "I'll give a shout when the coffee's on."
Pitt, Giordino and Kelly walked along the fields and then down to a boat dock, where they borrowed one of the boats Marlys rented to fishermen, and with Pitt manning the oars they rowed out on the lake. They were just returning when Marlys shouted from the porch.
As they gathered around the table in the quaint country kitchen, Kelly said, "This is very kind of you, Mrs. Kaiser."
"Marlys. Please think of me as an old family friend."
They engaged in small talk during the meal, discussing everything from the weather to lake fishing to the tough economy facing farmers across the country. Only after the dishes were cleared, with Giordino's able assistance in loading the dishwasher, did the talk turn to rune stones.
"Father never explained his interest in rune stone inscriptions," said Kelly. "Mother and I went along on his excursions to find them, but we were more interested in the fun of camping and hiking than searching for old rocks with writing on them."
"Dr. Egan's library was filled with books on Vikings but didn't have any of his notes and reports," added Pitt.
"Norsemen, Mr. Pitt," Marlys corrected him. "Viking is a term for sea-roving raiders, who were fearless and fierce in battle. Centuries later, they probably would have been called pirates or buccaneers. The Viking age was launched when they raided the Lindisfarne
"Any idea why so many Norse rune stones have been found around the Midwest?" inquired Giordino.
"Norse sagas, especially those from Iceland, tell of the seafaring people and inhabitants of Iceland and Greenland who tried to colonize the northeast coast of the United States between 1000 and 1015 A.D. We must assume they launched expeditions of exploration into our heartland."
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