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       Night Probe!, p.1

           Clive Cussler
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Night Probe!


  In gratitude to Jerry Brown, Teresa Burkert, Charlie Davis, Derek & Susan Goodwin, Clyde Jones, Don Mercier, Valerie Pallai-Petty, Bill Shea and Ed Wardwell, who kept me on the track.

  Prologue

  MAY 1914

  UPSTATE NEW YORK

  Streaks of lightning signaled a threatening thunderstorm as the Manhattan Limited hurtled over the ballasted rails piercing the New York countryside. Coal smoke burst from the locomotive's stack in a drumstick plume that dusted the stars stippling the night sky. Inside the cab, the engineer slipped a silver Waltham watch from the pocket of his coveralls, sprung the lid and studied the face in the glow from the firebox. It was not the approaching storm that worried him, but the relentless crawl of time that sought to rob him of his precious schedule.

  Gazing out the right side of the cab, he watched the creosote ties sweep under the eight huge driving wheels of the 2-8-0 Consolidation-type locomotive. Like the captain of a ship who lived with his command, he had been at the same throttle for three years. He was proud of 'Gallopin' Lena,' as he affectionately called the 236,000 pounds of iron and steel. Built by Alco's Schenectady Works in 1911, she was burnished in gloss black with a red stripe and her number 88 neatly hand-painted in gold.

  He listened to the steel wheels pounding out a moving rhythm against the rail joints, felt the momentum of the locomotive and the seven cars that followed.

  Then he pulled the throttle up another notch.

  In the seventy-foot private Pullman that brought up the rear, Richard Essex sat at a desk in the vestibuled library. Too tired to sleep and bored with the tedium of the trip, he composed a letter to his wife to pass the time.

  He described the ornate interior of the car, the elaborately carved Circassian walnut, the handsome brass electrical lamps, the red velvet revolving chairs and the potted palms. He even mentioned the beveled mirrors and ceramic tile floors in the lavatories of the four spacious sleeping compartments.

  Behind him in a richly paneled observation parlor, five army guards in civilian dress played cards, the smoke from their cigars drifting in a blue cloud toward the brocade ceiling, their rifles laid casually about the furniture. Occasionally a player would lean over one of the brass spittoons dotting the Persian carpet.

  It was perhaps the highest level of luxury any of them had ever enjoyed, Essex speculated. The palatial transportation must have cost the government nearly seventy-five dollars a day, and all for the movement of a scrap of paper.

  He sighed and finished his letter. Then he sealed it in an envelope, which he stuffed inside his breast pocket. Sleep still evaded him, so he sat and stared through the arched bay windows at the darkened landscape, listening for the wail of the engine's whistle just before a village depot or country crossing flashed past. Finally he stood up, stretched and walked to the elegant dining room, where he sat down at a mahogany table covered by a snowy cloth enhanced by crystal glasses and silver service. A glance at his watch told him it was a few minutes before two in the morning.

  "What is your pleasure, Mr. Essex?" A black waiter had appeared as if by magic.

  Essex looked up and smiled. "I know it's quite late, but I wonder if I might get a light snack."

  "Happy to oblige, sir. What would you like to order?"

  "Something that will help me close my eyes."

  The waiter flashed a toothy grin. "May I suggest a small bottle of Pommard burgundy and a nice hot bowl of clam bouillon."

  "That will be fine, thank you."

  Later, as he sipped his wine, Essex couldn't help wondering if Harvey Shields was also finding sleep so elusive.

  Harvey Shields was experiencing a nightmare.

  His mind refused to accept any other explanation. The shriek of steel and the cries of agony and terror beyond the darkness that smothered him were too hellish for reality. He struggled to retreat from the devilish scene and drift back into a peaceful sleep, but then the pain began gnawing at his senses and he realized it was no dream.

  Somewhere below he could hear the rush of water as though it was surging through a tunnel, followed by a gust of wind that squeezed the breath from his lungs. He tried to open his eyes, but the lids felt glued shut. He was not aware that his head and face were coated with blood. His body was gripped in an immovable fetal position against cold, un giving metal. An acrid electrical smell stung his nostrils and combined with the increasing pain to prod him onto a higher plateau of consciousness.

  He tried to move his arms and legs, but they refused to respond. A strange silence settled around him, broken only by the murmur of lapping water. He made another attempt at breaking clear of the unseen vise that clutched him. He took a great breath and then exerted every muscle in his limbs.

  Suddenly an arm tore free and he gasped as a jagged piece of metal sliced his forearm. The agony swept him to complete awareness. He wiped the congealing wetness from his eyes and gazed about what had once been his stateroom aboard the Canadian luxury liner bound for England.

  The large mahogany dresser was gone, as was the writing desk and the nightstand. Where the deck and starboard bulkhead should have been was a massive cavity, and across the twisted edge there was only the fog-shrouded darkness and the black water of the St. Lawrence River. It was as if he was looking into a bottomless void. Then his eyes caught and focused on a soft reflection of white and he knew he was not alone.

  Almost within touching distance a young girl from the next stateroom was buried in the debris with only her head and one pale shoulder protruding from the broken ceiling. Her hair was golden and rained in loose strands nearly three feet long. Her head was twisted at a grotesque angle and blood seeped from her lips, streaming down her face and slowly dyeing her cascading hair crimson.

  Shields' initial shock receded and a spreading sickness took its place. Until now the specter of death had not crossed his mind, but in the lifeless corpse of the girl he could read his own diminishing future. Then a sudden thought burst inside him.

  In despair his eyes vainly probed the debris for the hand case he had never let out of his sight. It was gone, swallowed up in the wreckage. Sweat erupted from his every pore as he fought to extricate his torso from its prison. The effort was fruitless, there was no feeling below his chest and he knew with fearful certainty that his back was crushed.

  Around him the great liner was in its death throes, rapidly listing and settling into the cold water that would forever be its grave. Passengers, some in evening dress, most in sleeping clothes, were milling about the slanting decks trying to climb into the few lifeboats that were launched or leaping into the cold river, clutching anything that would float. Only minutes remained before the ship would take her final plunge a scant two miles from shore.

  "Martha?"

  Shields stiffened and turned his head toward the faint cry that sounded from beyond the demolished partition separating him from the inside corridor. He listened intently, and then it came again.

  "Martha?"

  "In here," Shields shouted. "Please help me."

  There was no reply, but he heard sounds of movement through the pile of rubble. Soon a fallen piece of the ceiling was pushed aside and a face with a gray beard poked through.

  "My Martha, have you seen my Martha?"

  The intruder was in a state of shock and his words came hollow and without inflection. His forehead was badly lacerated and his eyes darted about frantically.

  "A young girl with long blond hair?"

  "Yes, yes, my daughter."

  Shields motioned toward the body of the girl. "I'm afraid she's gone.

  The bearded man feverishly forced a larger opening and crawled through. He approached the girl, his face numb with un comprehension and lifted the bloodstained head, smoothing back the hair. For several moments
he did not utter a sound.

  "She did not suffer," Shields offered gently.

  The stranger did not reply.

  "I'm sorry," Shields murmured. He could feel the ship listing sharply to starboard. The water was rising faster from below and there was little time left. He had to penetrate the father's grief and somehow persuade him to rescue the hand case.

  "Do you know what happened?" he began.

  "Collision," the answer came vagbely. "I was on deck. Another ship came out of the fog. Buried her bow in our side." The father paused, took out a handkerchief and dabbed the blood from the dead girl's face.

  "Martha begged me to take her to England. Her mother was reluctant, but I gave in. Oh God, if only I'd known . . ." His voice trailed off.

  "There is nothing you can do," Shields said. "You must save yourself."

  The father turned slowly and looked at him with unseeing eyes. "I killed her," he whispered hoarsely.

  Shields was not getting through. Anger smoldered within him and ignited in a flame of desperation.

  "Listen!" he cried. "Lost in the wreckage is a travel case with a document that must reach the Foreign Office in London!" He was shouting now. "Please find it!"

  The water swirled in small eddies a few feet away. The flood that would engulf them was only seconds away. The rising tide was stained with the slime of oil and coal dust while the night air outside was torn by the screams of a thousand dying souls.

  "Please listen to me while there is still time," Shields begged. "Your daughter is dead." He was beating at the restricting steel with clenched fists, uncaring of the pain as his skin shredded away. "Leave before it's too late. Find my travel case and take it with you. Give it to the captain, he'll know what to do."

  The father's mouth trembled open. "I cannot leave Martha alone . . . she fears the dark He muttered as though he were speaking at an altar.

  It was the deathblow. There was no moving the grief-stunned father as his mind entered delirium. He bent over his daughter and kissed her on the forehead. Then he dissolved into a fit of uncontrolled sobbing.

  Strangely, the fury of frustration fell away from Shields. With the acceptance of failure and death, fear and terror no longer held meaning. In the few short moments left he slipped beyond the boundaries of reality and saw things with abnormal clarity.

  There came an explosion deep in the bowels of the ship as her boilers burst. She rolled over on her starboard side and slid stern first onto the waiting riverbed. From the moment of the collision in the darkness of early morning until she vanished from view of the mass of humanity struggling to stay afloat in the icy water, less than fifteen minutes had elapsed.

  The time was 2:10 a.m.

  Shields did not try to fight it, to hold his breath staving off the inevitable for a few more seconds. He opened his mouth and gulped in the foul-tasting water, gagging as it poured down his throat. Into the airless tomb he sank. The choking and the suffering passed quickly, and his conscious mind blinked out.

  And then there was nothing, nothing at all.

  A night bred in hell, thought Sam Harding, ticket agent for the New York & Quebec Northern Railroad, as he stood on the platform of his station and, watched the poplar trees bordering the track lean horizontal under the battering gusts of a violent windstorm.

  He was experiencing the end of a heat wave that had baked the New England states; the hottest May since 1880, proclaimed Wacketshire's weekly newspaper in red-letter Bodoni typeface. Lightning hurtled through the predawn sky in jagged patterns, accompanied by a twenty-four-degree drop in temperature in one hour. Harding caught himself shivering at the sudden change as the breeze whipped at his cotton shirt, dampened by sweat from the oppressive humidity.

  Down on the river he could see lights from a string of barges as they nosed their way against the downstream current. One by one their dim yellow glows blinked off and then on again as the barges passed under the foundation piers of the great bridge. Harding's station sat on the outer perimeter of the town, village really, where the tracks of the railroad bisected in a cross. The main trunk ran north to Albany while the branch line swung east over the DeauvilleHudson River bridge to Columbiaville before forking south to New York City.

  Though no drops had fallen, there was a definite smell of rain in the air. He walked over to his Model T

  Ford depot hack, untied a number of small cords under the edge of the roof and rolled down the leatherette side curtains over the oak side panels. Then he fixed them into place with the Murphy fasteners and reentered the station.

  Hiram Meechum, the Western Union night man, was hunched over a chessboard, engage ding his favorite pastime of playing another telegrapher down the line. The panes in the windows rattled from the wind, keeping cadence with the staccato of the telegraph key screwed to the table in front of Meechum.

  Harding picked up a coffeepot from a kerosene stove and poured himself a cup.

  "Who's winning?"

  Meechum looked up. "I drew Standish down in Germantown. He's a damn tough customer." The key danced and Meechum moved one of the chess pieces. "Queen to knight four," he grunted. "It don't exactly look encouraging."

  Harding pulled a watch from a vest pocket and studied the dial, knitting his eyebrows thoughtfully. "The Manhattan Limited is twelve minutes late."

  "Probably behind schedule because of the storm," Meechum said. He tapped out his next move, placed his feet on the table and leaned his chair back on two legs awaiting his opponent's response.

  Every clapboard on the station's walls creaked as a fire bolt scorched the sky and struck a tree in a nearby pasture. Harding sipped at the steaming coffee and unconsciously stared at the ceiling, wondering if the lightning rod atop the roof was in good order. A loud clang from the telephone bell above his rolltop desk broke his thoughts.

  "Your dispatcher with news on the Limited," Meechum predicted with unconcern.

  Harding bent the swinging arm of the telephone upward to his standing position and pressed the small, circular receiver to his ear. "Wacketshire," he answered.

  The dispatcher's voice from Albany was barely discernible through the storm-induced static on the circuit. "The bridge can you see the bridge?"

  Harding turned toward the east window. His vision carried no further than the end of the platform in the darkness. "Can't see. Have to wait for the next lightning flash."

  "Is it still standing?"

  "Why wouldn't it be standing?" Harding replied irritably.

  "A tugboat captain just called from Catskill and raised hell," the dispatcher's voice crackled back.

  "Claims a girder dropped off the bridge and damaged one of his barges. Everyone here is in a panic. The agent in Columbiaville says the Limited is overdue."

  "Tell them to relax. She hasn't reached Wacketshire yet."

  "You sure?"

  Harding shook his head in disbelief at the dispatcher's simpleminded question. "Dammit! Don't you think I'd know if a train passed my station?"

  "Thank heavens we're in time." The relief in the dispatcher's tone came over the line despite the interference. "The Limited has ninety passengers on board not counting the crew and a special government car carrying some big-shot official to Washington. Flag it down and inspect the bridge at first light."

  Harding acknowledged and hung up. He lifted a shuttered lantern with a red lens off a hook on the wall, shook it to see if the tank held kerosene and lit the wick. Meechum peered over his chess pieces questioningly.

  "You flagging the Limited?"

  Harding nodded. "Albany says a girder fell off the bridge. They want it checked before a train crosses over."

  "Want me to light the semaphore lantern for you?"

  A high-pitched whistle pierced the wind outside. Harding cocked an ear, measuring the sound. It came again only slightly louder.

  "No time. I'll flash it down with this-"

  Suddenly the door opened and a stranger stood on the threshold, his eyes ferreting the interior o
f the station. He was built like ajockey, rail-thin and short. A mustache was blond as was the hair that showed beneath the Panama straw hat cocked on his head. The clothes indicated a fastidious dresser; Weber and Heilbroner English-cut suit with silk stitching, the razor creased pants stopping evenly above a pair of two-tone brown suede and leather shoes. His most eye-catching feature, however, was a Mauser automatic pistol held in a slim, effeminate hand.

  "What in hell's going on?" Meechum mumbled in awe.

  "A holdup, gentlemen," the intruder said with the tiniest hint of a smile. "I thought it was obvious."

  "You're crazy," snapped Harding. "We've got nothing to rob."

  "Your station has a safe," said the stranger, nodding toward the steel box standing on high castors in one corner of Harding's office area. "And safes contain valuable commodities, like payrolls perhaps?"

  "Mister, robbing a railroad is a federal offense. Besides, Wacketshire is a farming community. There's no payroll shipments. Hell, we don't even have a bank."

  "I'm in no mood to debate the economics of Wacketshire." The long hammer on the Mauser was pulled back. "Open the safe.

 
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