Iceberg, p.5

Iceberg, page 5

 

Iceberg
 



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  "A soft spot in the ice would be more appropriate."

  "I suppose," Hunnewell said, "you're suggesting a camouflaged cover over some sort of ice tunnel."

  "The thought had crossed my mind."

  The doctor peered over the top of his glasses at Pitt. "Let's get on with it then. If we stand around here theorizing much longer, my testicles will probably get an acute case of frostbite."

  It shouldn't have been all that difficult, not by a long shot, yet it didn't go as easily as Pitt had figured.

  The unpredictable occurred when Hunnewell lost his footing on the slope and slid helplessly toward a steep ledge that dropped into the icy sea. He fell forward, desperately clawing at the ice, his nails scratching and bending painfully backward through the hard surface.

  He slowed momentarily, but not enough. His fall happened so abruptly that his ankles were already scraping the edge of the thirty-foot drop before he thought of shouting for help.

  Pitt had been busily prying up a chunk of loose ice when he heard the cry. He swung around, took in Hunnewell's deteriorating plight, had a lightning impression of how impossible rescue would be once the doctor had fallen into the freezing water, and in one swift movement tore off his flight jacket and flung himself across the slop in a flying leap, feet first, legs lifted crazily in the air.

  To Hunnewell's panic-flooded brain, Pitts move looked like an act of pure madness. "Oh, God, no, no," he shouted. But there was nothing he could do but watch Pitt hurtle toward him like a bobsled. There might have been a chance, he thought, if Pitt had stayed on the berg. Now it seemed certain that both men would die in the freezing salt water together. Twenty-five minutes, Commander Koski's words flashed through his head, twenty-five minutes was all a man had to remain alive in forty-degree water-and with all the time in the world they never could have pulled themselves back onto the sheer sides of the iceberg.

  If he'd had precious moments to think about it, Pitt would have undoubtedly agreed with Hunnewell: he surely looked like a madman, skiding over the ice with his feet high above his head. Suddenly, with only a leg's length remaining before he collided with Hunnewell, Pitt brought his feet flashing down with a power and swiftness that, even in these desperate circumstances, made him grunt in pain as his heels crashed through the ice, dug in tenaciously and brought him to a musclejarring stop. Then, as if triggered by instinct, in the same motion he threw a sleeve of his jacket to Hunnewell.

  15

  The thoroughly frightened scientist needed no coaxing. He grasped the nylon fabric with a grip that no vise could have equaled and hung on, trembling for almost a minute, waiting for his middle-aged heart to slow down to a few beats above normal. Fearfully, he stole a glance sideways and saw what his numbed senses could not feel-the edge of the ice ledge cut across his waist at the navel.

  "When you're up to it," Pitt said, his voice calm but pierced with a noticeable trace of tenseness, try pulling yourself toward me."

  Hunnewell shook his head. "I can't," he murmured hoarsely. "It's all I can do to hold on."

  "Can you find a foothold?"

  Hunnewell didn't answer. He only shook his head again.

  Pitt bent over between his outstretched legs and tightened his grip on the jacket. "We're sitting here though the courtesy of two hard rubber heels, not steel cleats. It won't take much for the ice to crack around them." He flashed an encouraging grin at Hunnewell.

  "Make no sudden movement. I'm going to pull you clear of the ledge."

  This time Hunnewell nodded. He felt a sick ache in his stomach, the tips of his torn fingers throbbed, his sweatsoaked face reflected the terror and pain. One thing, and one thing only, reached through his blanket of fear: the determined look in Pitts eyes. Hunnewell stared at the calm face, and in that moment he knew that Pitt's inner strength and confidence were gaining a toehold in his own frightened mind.

  "Stop your blasted grinning," he said faintly, "and start pulling."

  Cautiously, an inch at a time, Pitt hauled Hunnewell slowly upward. It took him an agonizing sixty seconds before he had Hunnewell's head on a plane between his knees. Then Pitt, one hand at a time, let go of the jacket and grabbed Hunnewell under the armpits.

  "That was the easy part," Pitt said. "The next exercise is up to you."

  His hands free, Hunnewell wiped a sleeve across his sweaty brow. "I can't make any guarantees."

  "Your dividers, are they on you?"

  Hunnewell's expression went blank for a moment.

  Then he nodded. "Inside breast pocket."

  "Good," Pitt murmured. "Now climb over me and stretch out full length. When your feet are solidly on my shoulders, take out the dividers and jam them into the ice."

  "A piton!" Hunnewell exclaimed, suddenly aware.

  "Damned clever of you. Major."

  Hunnewell began hauling himself over Pitts prostrate form straining like a locomotive climbing the Rockies, but he made it.

  Then, with Pitts hands firmly clamped on his ankles, Hunnewell pulled out the steelpointed dividers that he normally used for plotting distances on charts and rammed them deeply into the ice.

  "Okay," Hunnewell grunted.

  "Now we'll repeat the process," Pitt said. "Can you hold on?"

  "Make it quick," Hunnewell answered. "My hands are nearly numb."

  Tentatively, one heel still imbedded in the ice as a safety measure, Pitt tested his weight on Hunnewell's legs. The dividers gripped firm. Working as swiftly and as smoothly as a cat, Pitt crept past Hunnewell, felt his hands grope over the edge of the slope where it leveled out, and wiggled up onto safe ground. He didn't waste an instant. Almost immediately, it seemed to Hunnewell, Pitt was throwing down a nylon line from the helicopter. Half a minute later, the pale and exhausted oceanographer sat on the ice at Pitts feet.

  Hunnewell gave a great sigh and gazed into Pitts relieved face. "Do you know what I'm going to do first thing when we set foot in civilization?"

  "Yes," Pitt said, smiling. "You're going to buy me the finest gourmet dinner in all Reykjavik, round up all the booze I can drink, and introduce me to a sensuous, buxom, Icelandic nymphomaniac."

  "The dinner and the booze are yours-I owe you that much. The nymphomaniac, I can't promise. So many years have passed by since I've negotiated for a woman's charms, I'm afraid I've lost the touch."

  Pitt laughed, clapped Hunnewell on the shoulder and helped him to his feet. "Don't sweat it, old friend.

  Girls are my department." He stopped abruptly and said sharply: "Your hands look like you held them against a grindstone."

  Hunnewell lifted his hands and stared indifferently at the bleeding fingers. "Not really as bad as they look.

  A bit of antiseptic and a manicure and they'll be as good as new."

  "Come on," Pitt said. "There's a first-aid kit in the copter. I'll fix them up for you."

  A few minutes later, as Pitt tied the last small bandage, Hunnewell asked, "Did you find any sign of a tunnel before I took my spill?"

  "It's a slick piece of work," Pitt replied. "The entire circumference of the entrance cover is beveled, a perfect match with the surrounding ice. If someone hadn't got careless and cut a small handgrip, I'd have walked right over it."

  Hunnewell's face suddenly grew dark. "This accursed iceberg," he said grimly. "I swear that it bears a personal enmity against us."

  16

  He flexed his fingers and solemnly studied the eight little bandages masking the tips. His eyes seemed strained and his face looked weary.

  Pitt walked over and raised a round slab of ice three feet in diameter by three inches thick, revealing a circular hole barely large enough for one man to crawl through.

  He turned his head away. The stench of burnt paint, fabric and fuel, mixed with torched metal, rose from the opening.

  "That should prove I can detect smells through an ice cube," Pitt said.

  "Yes, you've passed the nose test," Hunnewell said smilingly. "But you've failed miserably on your thermite cha
rge theory.

  "That's nothin' but a burned-out hulk down there." he paused to give Pitt a scholarly gaze over the tops of his spectacles. "We could have blasted until next summer without doing any damage to the derelict."

  Pitt shrugged. "Win a few, lose a few." He passed a spare flashlight to Hunnewell. "I'll go first. Give me five minutes before you follow."

  Hunnewell crouched at the edge of the ice tunnel as Pitt knelt to enter.

  "Two. I'll give you two minutes, no more. Then I'll be right behind you."

  The tunnel, illuminated by the shattered rays of the sun through the ice crystals above, ran downward at a thirty-degree angle for twenty feet, stopping at the blackened steel plates, charred and bent, of the hull.

  The smell by this time was so strong that Pitt found it an effort just to breathe. He shook off the irritating odor and dragged himself to within a foot of the fire-scarred metal, discovering that the tunnel curved and parallelled the hull for another ten feet, ending finally at an open hatch. savagely twisted and distorted. He could only wonder at the wite-hot temperatures responsible.

  Crawling over the jagged edge of the hatchway, he stood up and swung the beam of his flashlight, surveying the heat-defaced walls. It was impossible to tell what purpose the compartment served. Every square inch was' gutted by the terrible intensity of the fire. Pitt suddenly felt a dread of the unknown. He stood dead-still for several minutes, forcing his mind to regain control of his emotions before he stepped across the debris toward the door leading to the alleyway and shone the light into the darkness beyond.

  The beam torched the whole black length as far as the stairway to a lower deck. 'The corridor was barren except for the charred ashes of a carpet. It was the silence that was eerie. No creaking of the plates, no throb of the engines, no lapping of water against a weedencrusted hull, nothing, only the complete soundlessness of a void.

  He hesitated in the doorway for a long minute, his first thought, conviction rather, was that something had gone terribly, terribly wrong with Admiral Sandecker's plans. This wasn't what they had been led to expect at all.

  Hunnewell came through the hatchway and joined him. He stood next to Pitt, staring at the blackened walls, the distorted and crystallized metal, and the melted hinges that once held a wooden door. Wearily he leaned the doorway, his eyes half closed, shaking his head as it coming out of a trance.

  "We'll find precious little that's of any use to us."

  "We'll find nothing," Pitt said firmly. "What the fire left, our unknown friends have undoubtedly picked clean." As if to emphasize his words, he played the beam on the deck, revealing several overlapping footprints in the soot traveling to and from the open hatchway. "Let's see what they've been up to."

  They went out into the alleyway, stepping through the ashes and debris on the deck, moved to the next compartment, and entered. It had been the radio room.

  Most of the ruins were scarcely recognizable. The bunk and furniture were skeletons of charred wood, the remains of the radio equipment one congealed mess of melted metal and hardened drippings of stained solder.

  Their senses by now had become accustomed to the overpowering stench and the grotesque carbonized surroundings, but they weren't the least bit prepared for the hideously misshapen form on the deck.

  "Oh, good God!" Hunnewell gasped. He dropped his flashlight and it rolled across the deck and came to rest against the shockingly disfigured remains of a head, illuminating the skull and teeth where they burst from the incinerated flesh.

  "I don't envy him his death," Pitt murmured.

  The ghastly sight was too much for Hunnewell. He staggered off into one corner and retched for several minutes. When he finally returned to Pitts side. he looked as if he'd recently returned from the grave "I'm sorry," he said sheepishly. "I've never seen a cremated corpse before. I didn't have the vaguest idea what one looked like-never gave it much thought really. It's not a pretty sight, is it?"

  "There's no such thing as a pretty corpse," Pitt said. He was beginning to feel a touch of sickness himself. "If that lump of ashes on the deck is any indication of things to come, we should find at least fourteen more just like it."

  17

  Hunnewell grimaced as he stooped and picked up his flashlight. Then he slipped a notebook from a pocket, held the light under his arm and flipped through several pages. "Yes, you're right. The ship sailed with six crewmen and nine passengers: fifteen in all." He fumbled a little before finding another page. "This poor devil must be the radio operator-Svendborg-Gustav Svendborg."

  "Maybe, maybe not. The only one who can tell for certain is his dentist." Pitt stared at what had once been a breathing, flesh-and-blood man, and he tried to imagine how the end had come. A furnacelike wall of red and orange flame, a brief unearthly scream, the searing shock of pain that drove the mind into instant insanity, and the limbs flailing in the contorted dance of death.

  To die by fire, he reflected, the last seconds of life spent in indescribable agony, was an extinction abhorred by every living man and beast.

  Pitt kneeled down and studied the body more closely. His eyes squinted and his mouth tightened. It must have been almost as he had visualized, but not quite. The scorched form was curled in the fetus position, the knees drawn up almost to the chin and the arms pulled tightly against the sides, contracted by the mt--nse heat upon the flesh. But there was something else that caught Pitts attention. He focused the flashlight on the deck beside the body, illuminating dimly the twisted steel legs of the radio operator's chair where they protruded from beneath his disfigured remains.

  Hunnewell, his face void of all color, asked: "What do you find so interesting in that grisly thing?"

  "Have a look," Pitt said. "It would seem that poor Gustav was sitting down when he died. His chair literally burned out from under him."

  Hunnewell said nothing, only eyed Pitt questioningly.

  "Doesn't it strike you strange," Pitt continued, "that a man would calmly burn to death without bothering to stand up or make an effort to escape?"

  "Nothing strange about it," Hunnewell said stonily. "The fire probably engulfed him while he was hunched over the transmitter sending out a Mayday."

  He began to choke with sickness again. "God, we're not doing him any good with our conjectures. Let's get out of here and search the rest of the ship while I'm still able to walk."

  Pitt nodded and turned and passed through the doorway. Together they made their way into the bowels of the derelict. The engine room, the galley, the salon, everywhere they went their eyes were laid on the same horrifying spectacle of death as in the radio room. By the time they discovered the thirteenth and fourteenth bodies in the wheelhouse, Hunnewell's stomach was slowly becoming immune. He consulted his notebook several more times, marking certain pages with a pencil until only one name between the padded covers remaimed that didn't have a neat line drawn through it.

  "That's about it," he said, snapping the book shut.

  "We've found them all except the man we came for."

  Pitt lit a cigarette and blew a long cloud of blue smoke and seemed to consider for a moment. "They were all charred so far beyond recognition, he could have been any one of them."

  "But he wasn't," Hunnewell said positively. "The body won't be too difficult to identify, at least not for me." He paused. "I knew our quarry rather well, you know."

  Pitts eyebrows raised. "No, I didn't know."

  "No secret really." Hunnewell puffed on the lenses of his glasses and polished them with a handkerchief.

  "The man we've lied, schemed and risked our lives to find-unfortunately, as it probably turns out, dead-attended one of my classes at the Oceanographic Institute six years ago. A brilliant fellow." He motioned toward the two cremated forms on the deck. "A pity if he ended like this."

  "How can you be certain you'll be able to tell him from the others?" Pitt asked.

  "By his rings. He had a thing about rings. Wore them on every finger except his thumbs."
<
br />   "Rings don't make a positive identification."

  Hunnewell smiled a little. "There is also a toe missing from the left foot. Will that do?"

  "It would," Pitt said thoughtfully. "But we haven't found a corpse that qualifies. We've already searched the entire ship."

  "Not quite." Hunnewell pulled a slip of paper from the notebook and unfolded it under the beam of his flashlight. "This is a rough diagram of the vessel. I traced a copy from the original in the maritime archives." He pointed at the creased paper. "See here, just beyond the chartroom. A narrow ladder drops to a compartment directly beneath a false funnel. It's the only entrance."

  Pitt studied the crude tracing. Then he turned and stepped outside the chartroom. "The opening is here all right. The ladder is burned all to hell, but enough of the rung bracing is left to support our weight."

  The isolated compartment-situated in the exact center of the hull without benefit of portholes-was savaged even worse than the others; the steel plating on the walls curved outward, buckled like crinkled sheets of wallpaper. It appeared. empty. No trace of anything that remotely resembled furnishings was left after the conflagration. Pitt was just kneeling down, poking the ashes, searching for a sign of a body, when Hunnewell shouted.

  "Here!" He fell to his knees. "Over here in the corner." Hunnewell focused the light on the sprawled outline of what had once been a man, now a barely discernible pile of charred bones. Only bits of the jawbone and pelvis were recognizable. Then he bent very low and carefully brushed away an area of the remains.

 

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