Valhalla rising, p.50

Valhalla Rising, page 50

 

Valhalla Rising
 



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  "Can't or won't?" Perlmutter asked. It bordered on an insult, but he offered a patronizing smile to go along with it.

  A hint of displeasure crossed Hereoux's face. "You're not the only one who has come here with such an outlandish proposal."

  "Ridiculous? Yes, but intriguing nonetheless."

  "How can I help you, old friend?"

  "Allow me to search through these archives."

  Hereoux relaxed as if he'd been dealt a straight flush. "Please, consider the library yours."

  "One more request. May I have my chauffeur assist me? I can't climb ladders anymore to reach books on the higher shelves."

  "Of course. I'm sure he can be trusted. But you must be responsible for any inconveniences."

  A nice way of saying damage or theft of the books and manuscripts, Perlmutter thought. "That goes without saying, Paul. I promise that we'll be very careful."

  "Then I will leave you to it. If you have any questions, I'll be in my office upstairs."

  "There is one question."

  "Yes?"

  "Who categorized the books on the shelves?"

  Hereoux smiled. "Why, Mr. Verne. Every book and manuscript and file was set exacdy where he left it when he died. Of course, many have come to research, such as you, and I instruct everyone that all material must be returned exactly as they found it."

  "Most interesting," said Perlmutter. "Everything in its place for .ninety-eight years. That's something to think about."

  As soon as Hereoux closed the library door, Mulholland looked at Perlmutter through thoughtful, circumspect eyes. "Did you notice the reaction when you insinuated that Nemo and the Nautilus actually existed?

  "Yes, Dr. Hereoux did seem put off balance. I can only wonder what, if anything, he's been hiding."

  Perlmutter's chauffeur, Hugo Mulholland, was a dour fellow, who gazed from sad eyes under a bald head. "Have you figured out yet where you wish to start?" he asked. "You've been sitting and staring at die books for the past hour without pulling any from the shelves."

  "Patience, Hugo," Perlmutter replied sofdy. "What we're searching for does not lie in an obvious spot, or other researchers would have discovered it long ago."

  "From what I've read about him, Verne was a complicated man."

  "Not complicated, or necessarily brilliant, but he had an imaginative mind. He was the founding father of the science-fiction story, you know. He invented it."

  "What about H. G. Wells?"

  "He didn't write The Time Machine until thirty years after Verne wrote Five Weeks in a Balloon." Perlmutter shifted on the couch and continued studying the bookshelves. For a man his age, he had an amazing ten/fifteen eyesight. Optometrists marveled at his vision. From the center of the room, he could read almost every book tide on its spine, unless it was too faded or set in tiny type. His gaze did not linger on the books or the unpublished manuscripts. His interest lay more in the wide range of notebooks.

  "So you think Verne had a concept on which to base Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea," said Mulholland, helping himself to a cup of coffee Hereoux had personally carried into the library earlier.

  "Verne loved the sea. He was raised in the seaport of Nantes, and ran away as a hand on a small sailing ship, but his father beat him to port on a steamer and took him home. His brother, Paul, was in the French Navy and Verne was an avid sailor. After he became successful, he owned several yachts and sailed all the seas around Europe. When he was young, he wrote about a voyage he took on the largest ocean liner of her time, the Great Eastern. I have a nagging feeling that something happened on that voyage that inspired Verne to write Twenty Thousand Leagues"

  "If a Nemo truly existed in the eighteen-sixties, where did he get the scientific knowledge to build a submarine a hundred years ahead of its time?"

  "That's what I want to find out. Somehow Dr. Elmore Egan knew the story. Where he got it is a mystery."

  "Is it known what happened to Captain Nemo?" queried Mulholland.

  "Verne wrote a book called The Mysterious Island six years after Twenty Thousand Leagues was published. In Mysterious Island, a group of castaways settle on a deserted island and are harassed by pirates. A mysterious unseen benefactor leaves food and supplies for the settlers. He also kills the crew of pirates who attack the settlement. Near the end, the settlers are led to a tunnel leading to a flooded cavern inside the heart of the island's volcano. They find the Nautilus and Captain Nemo, who is dying. He warns them the volcano is about to erupt. They escape in time, as the island destroys itself, burying Captain Nemo and his fabulous creation for eternity."

  "Strange that Verne took so long to write closure on the story."

  Perlmutter shrugged. "Who can say what was on his mind, unless he didn't receive news of the death of the real Nemo until years later."

  Hugo turned in a three-hundred-and-sixty-degree circle, gazing at the thousands of books. "So which needle in the haystack holds the key?"

  "We can eliminate the books. Anything that's been published has been open for everyone to see and read. And we can skip the manuscripts. They've undoubtedly already been gleaned by anyone who collects Verne lore. Which brings us to his notebooks. Again, they've all been studied and pored over by Verne researchers."

  "So where does that leave us?" asked Mulholland.

  "Where nobody else looked," Perlmutter said thoughtfully.

  "Which is ... ?"

  "Jules Verne was not the kind of man to hide secrets in an obvious place. Like most good writers of fiction, he had a perverse and devious mind. Where would you hide something you didn't want people to find for a hundred years in a library, my old friend?"

  "Sounds to me like you've eliminated every piece of paper with the printed or written word on it."

  "Exactly!" Perlmutter boomed. "A hiding place that is not part of the books and bookshelves."

  "Like a secret compartment in the fireplace," said Mulholland, studying the stones around the mantel. "That would be more permanent."

  "You underestimate Verne. He had a superior imaginative mind. Secret fireplace niches were all the rage in mystery stories."

  "A piece of furniture or a picture on the wall?"

  "Furniture and pictures are not permanent. They can be moved or replaced. Think of something that remains constant."

  Mulholland thought a moment. Then his dour face brightened slightly and he looked down. "The floor!"

  "Pull up the rugs and throw them on the sofa," instructed Perlmutter. "Carefully examine the seams between the boards. Look for small notches on the ends where they have been pried up before."

  Mulholland was on his hands and knees for nearly half an hour, scrutinizing every board laid in the floor. Then suddenly he looked up, grinned and pulled a dime from his pocket. He slipped it between the ends of two boards and pried one up.

  "Eureka!" he exclaimed excitedly.

  Enthused enough to swivel his great body down on the floor, Perlmutter lay sideways and looked into the slot beneath the board. There was a leather pouch inside. He carefully took it between a thumb and forefinger and gently lifted it out. Then, with no small assistance by Mulholland, he rose to his feet and sank into the sofa again.

  Almost reverently, he untied a small velvet cord from around the pouch and opened it. He removed a notebook not much larger than a small stack of postcards but three inches thick. He blew the dust off the cover and read aloud, translating the French wording engraved on the leather jacket.

  "Investigation of the ingenious Captain Amherst."

  Very slowly Perlmutter began reading the words written in a precise handwriting less than an eighth of an inch high. A master of six languages, he had no problem in comprehending Verne's narrative about the adventures of a British scientific mastermind by the name of Captain Cameron Amherst.

  Though his eyes read the words, his mind conjured up the images of this extraordinary man whom Verne had known and whose life he chronicled. Two hours later, he closed the notebook, and leaned
heavily back in the sofa with the expression of a man who has just proposed to the woman he loved and been accepted.

  "Find anything of interest?" asked Mulholland, curious. "Something that no one else knows?"

  "Did you notice the ribbon around the pouch?"

  Mulholland nodded. "Couldn't be more than ten or twelve years old? If Verne was the last to handle the pouch, the ribbon would have rotted away long ago."

  "Which leads to the conclusion that Dr. Hereoux learned Verne's secret a long time ago."

  "What secret is that?"

  Perlmutter stared off into space for several seconds. "When he spoke, his voice was soft and faint, as if the words came from a distance. "Pitt was right."

  Then he closed his eyes, gave a long sigh and promptly dozed off.

  54

  Eight hours into the congressional committee hearing, Curtis Merlin Zale was staring frequently at his watch and fidgeting nervously in his chair. He was not the supremely confident man who had faced Congresswoman Smith and her committee members earlier. The smug grin on his face was also gone, replaced by lips tensed and pressed tightly together.

  Word from Omo Kanai and late-breaking reports of a disaster in New York should have reached the hearing room hours earlier.

  Congressman William August from Oklahoma was in the midst of questioning Zale about the rising prices charged by the oil company refineries when Sandra Delage, wearing a tailored business dress, approached Curtis from behind and laid a paper on his desk. He excused himself before answering August and scanned the paper's contents. His eyes suddenly widened and he looked up at Delage. Her face was as grim as a mortician's. He placed his hand over his microphone and asked several hushed questions, which she answered in a voice too low for anyone sitting nearby to hear. Then she turned and left the proceedings.

  Zale was not a man easily shaken by defeat, but at this moment he looked like Napoleon after Waterloo. "I'm sorry," he murmured to August. "Could you repeat the question?"

  Loren was tired. Late afternoon had become early evening, but she was not about to let Zale leave the committee hearings, not yet. Her aides had kept her informed on the operation to stop the Pacific Trojan and the fact that no demolition charges had been found. Not until two hours later was she alerted to the mission to stop the Mongol Invader. She had heard nothing from Pitt or Sandecker since two o'clock, and had fought a nagging fear during the following four hours.

  Her anxiety was made worse by a cold anger directed at Zale, who resolutely fired back calculated answers to their questions without hesitation or claims of faulty memory. To the reporters covering the hearings, it looked as if he was in perfect control and steering the proceedings to fit his own agenda.

  Loren knew Zale was tiring, too, and she forced patience on herself. She was waiting, like a lioness in ambush, for the right moment to strike with the damaging information given by Sally Morse. She pulled the papers containing the questions and accusations she had prepared from her briefcase and waited patiently until Congressman August had finished his line of questioning.

  At that moment, she noticed the faces in the audience suddenly stare behind her. Whispers began circulating throughout the chamber. Then a hand touched her shoulder. She turned and found herself gazing up incredulously into the face of Dirk Pitt. He was dressed in dirty jeans and a wrinkled sweatshirt. He looked exhausted, as if he had just climbed a mountain. His hair was a tangled mess and his face sported a three-day growth of black stubble. A security guard was clutching his arm, trying to drag him from the chamber, but he pulled the guard along with him like a stubborn Saint Bernard.

  "Dirk!" she whispered. "What are you doing here?"

  He didn't look at her as he answered, but stared with a smug grin at Zale and spoke in a voice that carried across the room through her microphone. "We stopped the Liquid Natural Gas tanker from blowing up New York Harbor. The ship now rests on the bottom of the sea. Please inform Mr. Zale that his entire Viper team went down with the ship and it is now safe for Ms. Sally Morse, the CEO of Yukon Oil, to testify before your committee without fear of reprisal."

  Then Pitt, in what might have looked like an accidental motion, lightly brushed his hand against Loren's auburn hair and exited the chamber.

  A vast load was suddenly lifted from Loren's shoulders. She said, "Ladies and Gentlemen, it is getting late and if there is no objection, I would like to adjourn this hearing until nine o'clock tomorrow, when I will call an important witness to testify who will reveal the truth behind Mr. Zale's criminal activities-"

  "Rather strong words, don't you think?" interrupted Congressman Sturgis. "We have seen or heard nothing here that shows evidence of any criminal activity."

  "You will tomorrow," Loren said evenly, staring at Sturgis with a look of sheer triumph, "when Ms. Morse will supply the names of everyone in Washington and across the rest of the country who has accepted bribes from Mr. Guru's Merlin Zale. I promise you, the trail of graft and corruption, the depth of the money trail into offshore bank accounts, will stun the government to its core and shock the public as no scandal ever has in the past."

  "What has this Sally Morse got to do with Mr. Zale?" asked Sturgis, realizing too late he was skating on thin ice.

  "She was a former member of the Cerberus inner council. She kept a written record of meetings, payoffs and crimes. There are many names on the list you should find familiar."

  The ice cracked and parted, and Sturgis fell through. He abruptly rose and left the chamber without another word, as Loren banged her gavel and adjourned the proceedings until the following day.

  The gallery went mad. Reporters from the major news media surged around Zale and rushed after Loren, but Pitt was waiting at the door and hustled her through the noisy mob of newspeople who were shouting questions and trying to block their path. With his arm around her waist, he managed to steer her through the gauntlet and down the steps of the Capitol into a NUMA car waiting at the curb. Giordino stood by the car with the doors open.

  Curtis Merlin Zale sat at the table, inundated by a sea of journalists and flashing cameras, like a man lost in the abyss of a nightmare.

  Finally, he rose unsteadily to his feet and fought his way through the turmoil. With the help of Capitol police, he made it to the safety of his limousine. His chauffeur drove him to the mansion that housed the Washington headquarters of Cerberus and then watched as Zale walked like an elderly senior citizen through the lobby and entered the elevator to his luxurious office.

  No man was more isolated from reality. He had no close friends, no family still living. Omo Kanai, perhaps the only man to whom Zale could relate, was dead. Zale was alone in a world where his was a household name.

  As he sat there behind his desk and stared out the window into the courtyard below, he weighed his future and found it ominously dark. It was inevitable that he would end up in federal prison, regardless of how long he fought to stay free. When the members of the Cerberus cartel turned against him to save themselves, the finest, most expensive criminal trial lawyers in the country would be fighting a battle lost before it had even begun. Their testimony alone was enough to ensure his execution.

  His wealth would surely be taken away by an avalanche of lawsuits, federal as well as civil. His loyal team of Vipers was no more. They were lying deep in the silt of New York's outer bay. They no longer stood ready to eliminate those who would testify against him.

  He could never escape, never hide anywhere in the world. A man of his stature was too easy for investigators to track down, whether he fled to the Sahara Desert or to a lonely island in the middle of the ocean.

  The people who had died because of his greed came back to haunt him now, not as wraiths or hideous ghosts, but like a parade of ordinary people thrown on a screen by a projector. In the end, he had lost his great gamble. He saw no avenue leading to a refuge. The decision was not difficult.

  He rose from behind his desk, walked to a bar and poured himself a shot of expensive, fifty-
year-old-aged whiskey and sipped it as he returned to his desk and opened a side drawer. He picked up what looked like a small antique snuffbox. There were two pills inside that he had saved in the unlikely event he would be incapacitated from an accident or suffered from a debilitating disease. He took a final drink of the whiskey, placed the pills under his tongue and relaxed in the big leather executive chair.

  They found Curtis Merlin Zale dead the next morning, his desk clean of papers. There was no final note expressing shame or regret.

  55

  Giordino pulled the car to a stop in front of the NUMA building. Pitt stepped to the sidewalk, then turned and leaned in the window and said to Loren, "It won't take long for an army of reporters and television cameras to surround your town house in Alexandria. I think it best that Al takes you to the hangar, at least for tonight. You can bunk with the other ladies until your hearings continue tomorrow. By then, your staff can work out a security team for you."

 
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