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Valhalla rising, p.19
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       Valhalla Rising, p.19

           Clive Cussler
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  "I'm not concerned," Pitt said airily. "I've seen what you can do with those big hams. You forget. We have the element of surprise. They won't be expecting visitors, especially disreputable characters like us, skulking through the back door."

  Pitt was in the act of climbing over the stern railing when Giordino's fingers dug into his arm. "What's wrong?" he muttered, rubbing his pulped forearm.

  "Someone's standing in the shadows by the aft deckhouse, smoking a cigarette," Giordino spoke softly in Pitt's ear.

  Pitt slowly raised his head until he could peek across the work deck. Giordino's remarkable night vision was on target. A barely seen figure was outlined in the darkness only by the movement of his puffing on a cigarette while he leaned over the railing, enjoying the tropical air. He did not appear alert, but as though he was lost in his thoughts.

  Quiet as a wraith, Giordino climbed over the stern railing, hoping the water dripping from his body couldn't be heard above a slight breeze rocking the fronds of the palm trees, padded silently across the deck and hooked those big hands around the man's neck, cutting off all air to the lungs. There was a brief struggle, and then the body went limp. With only a slight whisper of sound, he dragged the hijacker back to the stern and behind a large winch.

  Pitt searched through the man's clothing, discovering a large folding knife and a snub-nosed revolver. "We're in business," he proclaimed.

  "He's still breathing," said Giordino. "What do we do with him?"

  "Lay him on the diver's boarding platform out of sight."

  Giordino nodded and easily lifted the hijacker over the railing and dropped him in a heap on the boarding platform, where he came within inches of rolling into the sea and drowning. "Evil deed done."

  "Let's hope he stays in slumberland for the next hour."

  "Guaranteed." Giordino stared into the darkness, his eyes probing the open decks. "How many of them do you think there are?"

  "NUMA has two similar work boats of about the same size. They accommodate a crew of fifteen, but they can carry more than a hundred passengers."

  Pitt passed the knife to Giordino, who studied it morosely. "Why can't I have the gun?"

  "You're the one who always watches old Errol Flynn movies."

  "He used a sword, not a cheap switchblade."

  "Just pretend."

  Without another word of complaint from Giordino, they crossed the expansive cargo and work deck at a steady, unhurried pace to a hatch on the aft bulkhead. The hatch door was closed to take full advantage of the workboat's air-conditioning. This might have been a time to fear the unknown, but that was unacceptable. There was only the ice-cold dread that they had arrived too late to save the men and women of the Deep Encounter. Pitt's mind registered the worst, but he disregarded it, just as he disregarded any concern about being killed.

  They halted before coming to the gangplank between the two ships and sneaked a look inside one of the ports that had a light issuing through it. Pitt counted twenty-two of the hijackers sitting around in a large mess room playing cards, reading or watching satellite television. There were enough guns stacked around to start a revolution. None seemed the least bit wary of uninvited visitors, nor did they display any anxiety that their prisoners might escape. The mere sight made Pitt extremely uneasy. The hijackers appeared extremely lax, too lax to have fifty hostages on their hands.

  "Remind me not to hire any of these guys to guard my worldly goods," mumbled Giordino.

  "They're dressed more like professional mercenaries than backwater pirates," muttered Pitt.

  He shrugged off any inclination to seek revenge on the hijackers aboard their own vessel. One six-shot revolver and a knife against more than twenty armed men hardly offered desirable odds of success. Their primary objective was to see if anyone was still alive on the research ship, then save them if at all possible. He and Giordino flattened themselves against the port superstructure for a few moments, listening and peering into the darkness. Hearing and seeing nothing menacing, they moved soundlessly across the deck before Pitt suddenly stopped.

  Giordino froze alongside and whispered, "See something?"

  Pitt pointed to the wide patch of painted cardboard that was crudely taped on the side of the superstructure. "Let's see what they're hiding."

  Slowly, with infinite caution, he peeled off the duct tape that held the cardboard on the metal side. When he had removed most of it, he curled the end back and stared at the markings that were barely visible under the muted light falling through the ports.

  He could just discern the stylized image of a three-headed dog with a serpent for its tail. Directly beneath was the word CERBERUS. It meant nothing to him, so he pushed the cardboard cover back in place and retaped it.

  "See anything?" Giordino asked.

  "Enough."

  They continued to the narrow metal gangplank laid between the two ships and crossed warily, half expecting hijackers to step out of the shadows and blast away at them with automatic weapons.

  They stepped over the water onto the deck of the survey ship without encountering trouble, and paused in the shadows. Now Pitt was on home ground. He knew every inch of the Deep Encounter and could easily make his way along her decks blindfolded.

  Giordino cupped his hand and spoke softly into Pitt's ear. "Do you want to split up?"

  "No," Pitt whispered. "Better we stick together. Let's start in the pilothouse and work down."

  They could have gone up the outside stairways to the pilothouse, but elected to stay out of sight of any of the hijackers who might step outside the mess room and spot them. Instead, they slipped through a hatch and moved up a companionway four decks to the pilothouse. They found it dark and empty. Pitt went into the communications room and closed the door, while Giordino stood guard outside. He picked up the Globalstar phone and dialed Sandecker's cell phone number. While the connection went through, he checked his orange-faced Doxa dive watch. The dial read two minutes past ten. He mentally adjusted the eight-hour difference with Washington time. It would be six in the morning there. The admiral would be out running his daily routine of five miles.

  Sandecker answered on his global phone. After running three miles he was still breathing normally. Time was too short for Pitt to say anything vague to throw off anyone homing in on the call. He gave a brief, concise report on finding the Deep Encounter and gave its exact location.

  "My crew and scientific team?" asked the admiral, as if they were members of his immediate family.

  "The issue is still in doubt," answered Pitt, repeating Major Deverieux's famous message just before the fall of Wake Island. "I will contact you when I have a positive answer." Then he closed the connection.

  He stepped from the communications room. "See or hear anything?"

  "Quiet as a grave."

  "I wish," he said moodily, "you wouldn't use the word grave."

  They left the pilothouse and dropped down to the next deck below. It was the same story. The staterooms and hospital were as silent as body trays in a morgue. Pitt entered his stateroom, fumbled in a drawer and was surprised to find his faithful old Colt automatic right where he'd left it. He shoved it under the waistband of his shorts and handed the revolver to Giordino, who took it without a word. Next, Pitt retrieved a small penlight, flicked it on and swung the beam around the room. Nothing had been touched. The only item not where he'd left it in the closet was Dr. Egan's leather case. It was sitting open on the bed.

  Giordino found the same scene in his stateroom. None of his belongings had been searched or moved about.

  "Nothing about these guys makes sense," said Giordino quietly. "I never heard of hijacking pirates who weren't interested in plunder."

  Pitt aimed the light into the passageway. "Let's move on."

  They continued down the companionway to the deck that contained eight more staterooms, the mess room, galley, conference room and lounge. Dishes with decaying food still sat on the mess table, magazines were strewn on tables and couche
s in the lounge as if recently cast off by their readers. Cigarettes that had burned to their filters lay in ashtrays in the conference room. Pots and pans still sat on the galley stove, their contents turning green. It was as though everyone on board the ship had vanished in a puff of smoke.

  How long Pitt and Giordino searched the area desperately hoping to find a trace of life they couldn't be sure. Maybe five minutes, maybe as long as ten. Maybe they were waiting to hear a voice or a sound, any sound-or maybe they were just fearful of not finding answers. Pitt removed the .45 from his waistband and held it at his side, leery of firing a shot even if attacked that would alert the horde of hijackers relaxing on their ship.

  As they dropped down to the engine and generating room, Pitt was beginning to believe his.worst fears were realized by the total lack of security guards. They should have been standing watch over their prisoners, if indeed there was still anyone on board to imprison. And then there was the absence of lights. Guards would not sit around in darkness. His despondency deepened until they passed the engineering-deck staterooms and found lights on in the chief engineer's office.

  "At last," muttered Giordino, "someone wants light to see by."

  At the end of the passageway was the door to the engine and generating room. They took up positions opposite each other along the bulkheads and approached the door. From ten feet away they could hear the faint murmur of voices. Their eyes met for a brief instant. For a few moments, Pitt put his ear to the steel door and listened. The voices seemed to be taunting and heavy with scorn. Occasionally came the sound of laughter.

  Pitt pushed the long metal door handle a fraction of an inch. It moved noiselessly. He made a mental note to thank Chief Engineer House for having the hatch door latches oiled periodically. He eased the handle downward with infinite slowness so it wouldn't be noticed on the other side. When the handle reached the end of its stop, he gently cracked open the door the way he'd have done it if he knew that inside were a dozen alien monsters who digested humans for nourishment.

  They clearly heard the voices now. There were four of them. Two came from strangers, but the other two were as familiar as his own. Pitt's heart leaped within his chest. The voices were not indulging in idle conversation. The two unknowns seemed to be taunting the others.

  "Won't be long now and the whole lot of you will see what it's like to drown."

  "Yeah, it's nothing like falling asleep in the Arctic," said his partner nastily. "Your head feels like it's being filled with exploding firecrackers. Your eyes pop from your head. Your ears burst like they were punctured with icepicks. Your throat feels like it's being torn out and your lungs feel like they're being swabbed with nitric acid. You'll have a blast."

  "You sick scum," spat Captain Burch.

  "Talking like that in front of women, it only proves that you're nothing but a bunch of degenerate animals," came the voice of Chief Engineer House.

  "Hey, Sam, did you know you were a degenerate?"

  "Not since last week."

  The last remark was followed by deep laughter.

  "You kill us," said Burch angrily, "and every investigative force in the world will surely track you down and hang your butts higher than a kite."

  "Not without evidence of the crime," the hijacker called Sam said with a sneer.

  "You'll just be another one of the thousands of ships that sailed off and were lost with all hands."

  "Please?" came the voice of one of the female scientists. "We all have loved ones at home. You can't do this terrible thing."

  "Sorry, lady," said Sam coldly. "To the people who pay our wages, your lives aren't worth two cents."

  Sam's partner said, "Our crew should be coming aboard in another half hour." Then he paused and looked beyond Pitt's vision. "Two hours after that, you NUMA people will get to study all them denizens of the deep first hand."

  From his limited view through the crack in the hatch, Pitt could see that the hijackers were holding automatic weapons in the ready position. Pitt nodded at Giordino. Both men crouched forward and prepared for a fight, as they opened the door and walked in the engine room shoulder to shoulder.

  The two hijackers sensed the movement behind them, but they didn't bother to turn, thinking it was their friends showing up early for the execution. Sam said, "You guys are early. What's the rush?"

  "We've been ordered to set a course for Guam," said Giordino, in a reasonably good imitation of the hijacker with the gravelly voice.

  "That's it," said Sam, laughing. "You people better start praying. It's almost time to meet your maker-"

  That was as far as he got. Giordino picked him up off the deck by his head and smashed it against a bulkhead, as Pitt whipped his .45 in a sidearm swing against the other guard's jaw, sending him crumpling in a heap on the deck.

  Then it was fiesta time. Saturday night all over again. All that was missing were the balloons and champagne.

  They were all there. Sitting on the floor around the ship's generators with their legs chained together like galley slaves was the entire company of Deep Encounter. Their ankles were encased in steel bands attached to a long chain that was locked to the mounting of the main generator. Pitt made a quick count, while everyone sat there in shock at seeing the two men they'd thought were lost and gone forever. Burch, House, the crew and scientific team looked like they were in a dream. Then they began coming to their feet and were within a twinkling of launching into wild cheering when Pitt threw up his hands and hissed, "Quiet! For God's sake, remain silent or we'll have an army of armed guards rushing in here."

  "Where in Hades did you come from?" asked Burch.

  "From a very luxurious yacht," answered Giordino. "But that's another story." He looked at Chief Engineer House. "What have you got to cut the chain?"

  House pointed to a side compartment. "In the toolroom. You'll find a pair of cable cutters hanging on the bulkhead."

  "Release the crew first," Pitt said to Giordino. "We've got to get the ship under way before the hijackers come on board."

  Giordino returned in thirty seconds and began feverishly cutting the chain. In the meantime, Pitt had rushed up to the outer deck and made sure the rescue had gone undiscovered. The decks of the pirate ship were still empty. As far as he could determine, they were all still in the mess room licking their chops like hungry hyenas, he thought, in happy anticipation of sending the Deep Encounter and its people to a watery grave.

  When he returned, Chief House and his engine room crew were already manning the main control station in preparation for getting the survey ship under way. "This is where I leave you," he said to Burch.

  The captain looked blank. Even Giordino turned and stared at Pitt queerly.

  "There is a guard in a house on the cliffs above the entrance to the channel. I'm guessing that besides keeping a lookout for intruders, he has enough firepower to stop any ship leaving the lagoon."

  "What brought you to that conclusion?" asked Giordino.

  "If one didn't know better, you'd think the hijackers were guarding a flower garden against marauding deer. Two men guarding fifty, the rest sitting around like they were on vacation? Not likely. They have to be confident that this ship could never get through to the open sea if the crew somehow managed to regain control. The channel is a good four hundred feet deep in its center. Deep Encounter could easily be sent to the bottom and never be found, while the pirate ship would still have plenty of water under her keel to sail out of the lagoon."

  "It's a black night," said Burch. "We might be able to sneak out to sea without the guard spotting us."

  "No good," said Pitt. "The minute you get under way, the hijackers

  on board their ship will know about it and give chase. They're bound to get wise when the anchor comes up and the engines begin pounding. The first thing they'd do is alert the channel entrance guard. I've got to get there first and remove the threat."

  "I'll come with you," Giordino said firmly.

  Pitt shook his head. "You
're the best man to repel boarders before the ship slips away."

  "Horatio at the bridge - that's me."

  "You'll never get there in time," said House. "It's a good half mile uphill through the jungle."

  Pitt held up his small penlight. "This will light my way. Besides, the hijackers have to have a well-beaten path between here and the guardhouse."

  Giordino shook Pitt's hand. "Good luck, pal."

  "Same to you."

  And then Pitt was gone.

  20

  It was odd the way the crew hurried about their duties as calmly as if they were leaving the dock in San Francisco. There were no wasted words. It was equally odd that there was no discussion about the danger they were in. There was no apprehension, no foreboding. The scientists, bent on keeping out from underfoot, went to their staterooms and stayed there.

 
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