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Valhalla rising, p.12
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       Valhalla Rising, p.12

           Clive Cussler
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  Captain Nevins sailed his ship into Wellington six hours ahead of Deep Encounter and met with a joyous, yet solemn, welcome. Thousands of people lined the waterfront, staring silently and talking softly as the containership slowly eased into a berth. New Zealand's heart went out to those who had miraculously survived the worst ship fire in maritime history.

  A spontaneous outpouring of sympathy for the living and the dead swept the country. Homes were thrown open to the survivors. Food and clothing were passed out in abundance. Customs officials cleared them through with only a few questions, since almost all had lost their passports in the fire. Airlines put on extra aircraft to fly them to their home cities. High-ranking New Zealand government leaders and the United States ambassador formed a greeting committee. Members of the news media descended in swarms and besieged the survivors, who were eager to get ashore and notify friends and relatives of their rescue. It was the largest news event in the country's recent history, and the lead story was the heroic rescue by the crew and scientists of the Deep Encounter.

  Already, an investigation was launched. Most of the passengers volunteered to answer questions and give statements regarding the crew's actions during the fire. The surviving crew members, required to remain silent by the cruise company attorneys, were provided with quarters for an indefinite stay until their examination and subsequent testimony could be heard and recorded during an inquiry.

  If the arrival of the Earl of Wattlesfield was a melancholy affair, the welcome awaiting the Deep Encounter took on the atmosphere of a wild and crazy party. As the survey ship came through Cook Strait and headed for Wellington, it was met by a small fleet of private yachts that swelled to hundreds of vessels of every description by the time her bow nosed into the harbor. Fireboats escorted the ship to a dock, their hoses spraying a curtain of water high in the air that formed rainbows under the bright sun.

  The crowds could easily see the scraped turquoise paint and mangled plates of the hull where she had beaten herself against the cruiseship during the incredible rescue of nearly two thousand people.

  Captain Burch had to use a bullhorn to shout his orders for the docking procedure because of the noise from all the shouting and cheers, backed by the blare of a thousand car horns, the ringing of church bells and the shriek of sirens, while a storm of streamers and confetti showered the decks of the ship.

  The crew and scientists had no idea they had become instant international celebrities and acclaimed heroes. They stood amazed at the resounding reception, unable to believe that it was for them. They no longer looked like tired, bedraggled scientists and crew members. At seeing the welcoming armada, everyone had quickly prettied up and changed into their best clothes. Women wore dresses, the male scientists slacks and sport coats, the crew in NUMA uniforms. They all stood on the work deck, devoid of all oceanographic equipment except the two submersibles, and waved back.

  Kelly perched next to Pitt on the bridge wing, elated yet saddened at the sight and wishing her father was with her to see it. She turned and looked into Pitt's eyes. "I guess this is good-bye."

  "You'll be flying to the States?"

  "Just as soon as I can make reservations on the first available flight home."

  "Where do you call home?" he asked her.

  "New York," she replied, catching a paper streamer that drifted down from above. "I have a brownstone on the Upper West Side."

  "You live alone?"

  "No." She smiled. "I have a tabby cat called Zippy and a basset hound that answers to Shagnasty."

  "I don't get to the city often, but next time I'm in town, I'll call you for dinner."

  "I'd like that." She scribbled her phone number on a scrap of paper and gave it to him.

  "I'll miss you, Kelly Egan."

  She looked into those incredible eyes and saw that he was serious. The blood suddenly rushed to Kelly's face and she felt her knees weaken. She clutched the railing, wondering what was coming over her. Stunned at losing control, she stood on her toes, abruptly circled her arms around Pitt's head, pulled him down and kissed his lips long and hard. Her eyes were closed, but his widened in pleasurable surprise.

  When she pulled back, she willed herself into a state of feminine composure. "Thank you, Dirk Pitt, for saving my life, and much, much more." She took a few steps and then turned. "My father's leather case."

  "Yes?" he answered, unsure of her meaning.

  "It's yours."

  With that, Kelly turned and stepped down the companionway to the work deck. As soon as the gangway was lowered onto the dock, she stepped ashore and was swallowed up by a crowd of reporters.

  Pitt left the glory to Burch and the others. While they were feted in the city at hastily thrown-together banquets, he remained aboard ship and gave a full report over his Globalstar satellite phone to Admiral Sandecker in the NUMA headquarters building in Washington.

  "The Encounter took quite a beating," he explained. "I've made arrangements with the shipyard to take her into dry dock in the morning. The shipyard foreman estimated that the damage will take three days to repair."

  "Newspapers and television have been running the rescue story all morning, noon and night," the Admiral replied. "The aircraft took fantastic photos of the burning cruise ship and the Encounter. NUMA phone lines have been jammed by calls congratulating us, and there's a hive of reporters swarming throughout the building. I owe you and everybody on board the Encounter a sincere vote of thanks on behalf of the agency."

  Pitt could picture the admiral in his office, brimming with pride and loving every minute of the limelight. He could see the flaming red hair with all trace of gray tinted away, the matching Vandyke beard, trimmed to a sharp point, the blue eyes that had to be flashing like neon signs from heartfelt satisfaction. And, he could almost smell the acrid smoke of one of Sandecker's personalized cigars.

  "Does that mean we all get a raise?" asked Pitt sarcastically.

  "Don't let it go to your head," Sandecker snapped back. "Money can't buy glory."

  "A bonus might be a nice gesture on your part."

  "Don't push your luck. You're lucky I don't take the ship repairs out of your pay."

  Pitt wasn't fooled for a second by the gruff attitude. Sandecker had a reputation for generosity among the employees of NUMA. Pitt would have bet the admiral was already computing bonus checks, and he would have been right. Not that Sandecker didn't have a mercenary streak when it came to his beloved NUMA. Pitt didn't need a crystal ball to know that Sandecker was already planning on how he would milk the rescue and its resulting publicity to obtain an extra fifty million dollars out of Congress for his next year's budget.

  "That's not all you might want to deduct," said Pitt roguishly. "To stay afloat we had to jettison almost all our equipment into the sea."

  "The submersibles, too?" Sandecker's voice took on a serious tone.

  "We set them adrift but picked them up later."

  "Good, you're going to need them."

  "I don't follow you, Admiral. With half our underwater research gear lying on the seabed, there is no way we can carry out our original mission of mapping the Tonga Trench."

  "I don't expect you to map the trench," he said slowly. "I expect you to dive on the Emerald Dolphin. Your job now is to survey what's left of her for evidence relating to the fire and the cause of her unexplained rapid sinking." He paused. "You did know she inexplicably sank while under tow."

  "Yes, Captain Burch and I monitored communications between the tug and its home office."

  "The Deep Encounter is the only vessel within a thousand miles that can do the job."

  "Exploring a monstrous cruise ship from a submersible at twenty thousand or more feet is not the same as sifting through the ashes of a burned-out house. Besides, we had to deep-six the crane."

  "Buy or rent a new one. Do the best you can and try to come back with something. The cruise ship industry is going to suffer regardless of what you find, and the insurance companies are more than w
illing to compensate NUMA for our efforts."

  "I'm not a fire insurance investigator. Just what exactly am I supposed to look for?"

  "Don't worry," said Sandecker. "I'm sending someone who has experience in marine disasters. He's also an expert in deep submergence vehicles."

  "Anybody I know?" asked Pitt.

  "You should," said Sandecker cagily. "He's your assistant special projects director."

  "Al Giordino!" Pitt exclaimed happily. "I thought he was still working on the Atlantis Project in the Antarctic."

  "Not anymore. He's in the air now and should be landing in Wellington tomorrow morning."

  "You couldn't have sent a better man."

  Sandecker relished toying with Pitt. "Yes," he said slyly. "I thought you'd think so."

  11

  Albert Giordino trudged across the gangway leading from the top of the dry dock to the deck of the Deep Encounter, lugging an old-fashioned steamer trunk over a burly shoulder. The sides were covered with colorful labels advertising hotels and countries around the world. One hand was clutched to a strap of the metal trunk, with its varnished wooden bands running across the top and bottom, while the other hand clutched an equally antique leather satchel. He paused at the top of the gangway and dropped his load on the deck. He gazed around the empty work deck and up at the vacant bridge wing. Except for shipyard workers repairing the exterior hull, the ship looked deserted.

  Giordino's shoulders were almost as wide as his body was tall. At five feet four inches and a hundred and seventy-five pounds, he was all muscle. His Italian ancestry was apparent in his olive skin, black curly hair and walnut-colored eyes. Gregarious, sarcastic and jovial, his cutting humor often made those in his presence either laugh or cringe.

  Friends since childhood, Pitt and Giordino had played on the same football teams in high school and at the Air Force Academy.

  Wherever one went, the other was sure to follow. Giordino didn't think twice about joining Pitt at the National Underwater and Marine Agency. Their adventures together above and under the sea had become legend. Unlike Pitt and his aircraft hangar full of antique cars, Giordino lived in a condo with decor that would incite an interior decorator to suicide. For transportation, he drove an old Corvette. Besides his work, Al's passion was women. He saw nothing wrong with playing the role of a gigolo.

  "Ahoy the ship!" he shouted. He waited before shouting again, as a figure walked out onto the bridge from the pilothouse and a familiar face stared down at him.

  "Can you restrain yourself?" Pitt said in mock seriousness. "We don't take kindly to barbarians coming aboard an elegant vessel."

  "In that case, you're in luck," said Giordino, flashing a vast smile. "You could use a vulgar rowdy to liven up the place."

  "Stay put," Pitt said. "I'll come down."

  In a minute, they were unashamedly embracing like the old friends they were. Though Giordino was three times stronger, Pitt always delighted in lifting the shorter man off the ground.

  "What kept you? Sandecker said to expect you yesterday morning."

  "You know the admiral. He was too cheap to let me borrow a NUMA jet, so I came commercial. As was expected, all flights were late and I missed my connection in San Francisco."

  Pitt slapped his friend on the back. "Good to see you, pal. I thought you were on the Atlantis Project in the Antarctic." Then he stood back and stared at Giordino with a questioning look. "The last I heard, you were engaged to be married?"

  Giordino held up his hands in a helpless gesture. "Sandecker took me off the project, and my lover took off without me."

  "What happened?"

  "Neither one of us was about to quit our job and move to a house in the suburbs. And, she was offered a job to decipher ancient writings in China, which would have taken two years. She didn't want to turn down the opportunity, so she flew off in the first plane to Beijing."

  "I'm happy to see you can cope with rejection."

  "Oh well, it beats being beaten with a whip, having your tongue nailed to a tree and thrown in the trunk of a 1951 Nash Rambler."

  Pitt picked up the satchel, but made no effort to hoist the steamer trunk. "Come along, I'll show you to your suite."

  "Suite? The last time I was aboard the Encounter, the cabins were the size of broom closets."

  "Only the sheets have been changed to protect the innocent."

  "The boat looks like a tomb," Giordino said, motioning around the deserted ship. "Where is everyone?"

  "Only Chief Engineer House and I are aboard. The rest are staying in the finest hotel in the city, pampered and glamorized, giving interviews and accepting awards."

  "From what I heard, you're the man of the hour."

  Pitt gave a modest shrug. "Not my style."

  Giordino gave him a look of genuine respect and admiration. "It figures. You always play Humble Herbert. That's what I like about you. You're the only guy I know who doesn't collect photos of himself standing next to celebrities and who hangs all his trophies and awards in his bathroom."

  "Who'd see them? I rarely throw parties. Besides, who cares?"

  Giordino gave a slight shake of his head. Pitt never changes, he thought. If the president of the United States wanted to present him with the nation's highest award, Pitt would send his regrets and claim he'd developed a case of typhoid.

  After Giordino had unpacked and settled in, he entered Pitt's cabin, to find his friend seated at a small desk studying deck plans of the Emerald Dolphin. He set a wooden box down on top of the plans.

  "Here, I brought you a present."

  "Is it Christmas already?" Pitt said, laughing. He opened the box and sighed. "You're a good man, Albert. A bottle of Don Julio Reserve blue agave anejo tequila."

  Giordino held up two sterling-silver cups. "Shall we test it and make sure it meets our qualifications?"

  "What would the admiral say? Are you dismissing his tenth commandment about no alcohol on board a NUMA vessel?"

  "If I don't get medicinal spirits in my system soon, I may well expire."

  Pitt pulled off the cork top and poured the light brown liquid into the silver cups. As they held them up and clicked the metal edges, Pitt toasted, "To a successful dive on the carcass of the Emerald Dolphin."

  "And a successful return to the sunlight." After savoring a swallow of the tequila, Giordino asked, "Where exactly did she go down?"

  "On the west slope of the Tonga Trench."

  Giordino's eyebrows lifted. "That's pretty deep."

  "My best guess is that she lies in about nineteen thousand feet."

  Giordino's eyes followed his brows. "What sub do you plan on using?"

  "The Abyss Navigator. She's built for the job."

  Giordino paused, and his face took on a dour expression. "You know, of course, that her specified depth is nineteen-five, and she has yet to be tested that deep."

  "There's no better opportunity to see if her designers knew their stuff," said Pitt offhandedly.

  Giordino passed his empty cup to Pitt. "I think you'd better pour me another drink. On second thought, I'd better have ten or twelve, or I won't sleep between here and the Tonga Trench while having nightmares about imploding submersibles."

  They sat there in Pitt's cabin until midnight, sipping the reserve tequila, telling old war stories and reliving their adventures together throughout the years. Pitt told of finding the Emerald Dolphin on fire and the rescue, the timely arrival of the Earl of Wattlesfield, the report of the sinking by the captain of the Audacious, his rescue of Kelly and the killing of the assassin.

  When he finished, Giordino rose to return to his cabin. "You've been a busy boy."

  "I wouldn't want to go through it again."

  "When does the shipyard expect to have the hull repaired?" he asked.

  "Captain Burch and I hope to get under way the day after tomorrow and be on site four days later."

  "Time enough for me to regain the tan I lost in the Antarctic." He noticed the leather bag sitting in
the corner of the cabin. "Is that the case you mentioned that belonged to Dr. Egan?"

  "The same."

  "You say that after all that, it was empty?"

  "As a bank vault after Butch Cassidy rode out of town."

  Giordino picked it up and ran his fingers over the leather. "Fine grain. Quite old. German made. Egan had good taste."

  "You want it? You can have it."

  Giordino sat back down again and set the leather case on his lap. "I have a thing about old luggage."

  "So I've noticed."

 
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