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Valhalla rising, p.43
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       Valhalla Rising, p.43

           Clive Cussler
 

  "Gentlemen, as some of you are already aware, Ms. Morse is the CEO of the Yukon Oil Company. She will describe a grave threat to our national security and the citizens of our country that concerns us all." He turned to Sally. "The stage is yours."

  "Pardon me for interrupting, Admiral," said Rader, "but I'm at a loss as to why we're playing all these security games. Meeting in the locker room of a football stadium seems a bit overdone."

  "You'll have your question answered as soon as Ms. Morse makes her report." He nodded at Sally.

  "Please begin."

  For the next two hours, Sally gave a detailed narrative of Curtis Merlin Zale's grand scheme to create an oil monopoly and gain enormous wealth while dictating terms to the United States government.

  When she finished, there was a heavy cloud of incredulity in the room. Finally, Wes Rader spoke. "Are you certain what you've told us is true?"

  "Every word," Sally said resolutely.

  Rader turned to Sandecker. "This threat goes far beyond the people in this room. We've got to notify others immediately. The president, the leaders of Congress, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, my boss at the Justice Department-that's just for starters."

  "We can't," Sandecker said, and passed out copies containing the names of members of Congress, agency officials, people in the Justice Department and close aides to the president in the West Wing. "And this is why. This is the reason for the secrecy," he said to Rader. "The names of the people you see in your hand have all been bought and paid for by Cerberus and Curtis Merlin Zale."

  "Impossible," said Rader, scanning the names in utter disbelief. "There would have to be a vast paper trail."

  "The money was paid through overseas companies owned by other companies owned by Cerberus," answered Sally. "All funds and payoff monies are in offshore accounts that would take Justice Department investigators years to track down."

  "How is it possible one man corrupted the entire system?"

  Loren answered for Sally. "The members of Congress who could not resist Zale's bribes are those who are not rich men. They may not have given up their ideals and ethics for a million dollars, but ten or twenty million was too much for them to pass on. Those who fell into Zale's trap do not know the full extent of his web. Until now, with thanks to Sally, we are the only ones outside of the Cerberus circle who know of the rampant influence Zale has achieved within the government."

  "Do not forget the respected members of the news media," added Sally. "Those under Zale's thumb can bias the news in his favor. If they balk, he can threaten to expose them, and with their credibility gone, they'd be out of the newsroom and on the street within hours."

  Rader shook his head. "I still can't believe one man is responsible, no matter how wealthy he is."

  "He didn't act alone. Zale had the backing of the most powerful oil barons in the United States and Canada. Not all the money came out of Cerberus."

  "Yukon Oil, too?"

  "Yukon Oil, too," Sally replied solemnly. "I'm as guilty as the others of falling under Zale's spell."

  "You've more than atoned by coming to us," said Loren, squeezing Sally's hand.

  "Why me?" asked Rader. "I'm only the number-three man at the Justice Department."

  "As you've seen, your name is not on the list, and your direct superiors' are," answered Sandecker. "I've also known you and your wife for years. I know you to be an honorable man who can't be bought."

  "You must have been approached," said Loren.

  Rader looked up at the ceiling, trying to recall. Then he nodded. "Two years ago. I was walking my cocker spaniel near my house when a strange woman, yes, it was a woman, walked along beside me and struck up a conversation."

  Sally smiled. "Ash blond hair, blue eyes, about five foot nine, one hundred thirty pounds. An attractive woman with a direct approach?"

  "A faithful description."

  "Her name is Sandra Delage. She's Zale's chief administrator."

  "Did she make an outright offer of money?" Sandecker inquired.

  "Nothing so crude," Rader replied. "As I remember, she talked in vague terms. What would I do if I won the lottery? Was I happy with my job, and was I appreciated for my efforts? If I could live anyplace but Washington, where would it be? Apparently, I failed the examination. She left me at an intersection and climbed into a passing car that stopped for her. I never heard another word after that."

  "It is up to you to get the ball rolling. Zale and his cronies in the Cerberus cartel must be stopped in their tracks and brought to justice," said Sandecker. "We're looking at a national scandal of immense proportions."

  "Where do we begin?" asked Rader. "If Ms. Morse's list of bribed officials is correct, I can't simply walk into the attorney general's office and announce that I'm arresting him for taking bribes."

  "You do that," said Loren, "and Zale's team of Viper assassins would make sure your body was found in the Potomac River."

  Sandecker nodded at Hiram Yaeger, who opened two large cardboard boxes and began passing around a bound set of documents several inches thick. "Utilizing Ms. Morse's account and our own investigations into Zale's criminal empire through our NUMA computer facilities, we put together a complete indictment with more than enough solid, established evidence to convince honest officials of what must be done." He looked Rader in the eye. "Wes, you have to put together a team at Justice whose loyalty you can absolutely depend on to build an airtight case. People who are not afraid of threats, like the Untouchables who put away Al Capone. There can be no leaks. If Zale gets the slightest hint of your actions, he'll send out his hit squad."

  "I can't believe this could happen in America."

  "Many nefarious things go on behind the scenes of business and government that the public doesn't know about," said Loren.

  Rader stared apprehensively at the thick report on the table in front of him. "I hope I'm not biting off more than I can chew."

  "I'll give you every assistance from the congressional end," Loren promised him.

  "Our first priority," said Sandecker, pressing a series of buttons on a remote and lowering a monitor with a display of San Francisco Bay, "is to stop that oil tanker from wiping out half of San Francisco." He turned and looked at Dover, Garnet and Jacobs, who had remained quiet during the discussion. "This is where you gentlemen come into the picture."

  "The Coast Guard will stop the Pacific Chimera from entering the bay," Dover stated flatly.

  Sandecker nodded. "Sounds simple, Amos. You've stopped thousands of ships carrying everything from drugs to illegal immigrants to smuggled weapons. But stopping one of the world's largest super oil tankers will take more than firing a shot across its bow and a command through a bullhorn."

  Dover smiled at Garnet and Jacobs. "Is this why we have the Navy SEALs and Marine Recon at the table?"

  "You will, of course, be in command of the operation," said Sandecker. "But if the captain of the tanker ignores your commands to heave to and continues on his course into the bay, we don't have a whole lot of avenues open to us. The ship must be stopped outside the Golden Gate, but to fire on her and risk causing a monstrous oil spill is out of the question. As a last resort, a combat team will have to be air-dropped by helicopter onto the vessel itself and neutralize the crew."

  "Where is the Pacific Chimera now?" asked Dover.

  Sandecker pressed another button on the remote and the map enlarged to show the ocean to the west of the Golden Gate. The chart showed a small image of a ship heading toward the coast of California. "Approximately nine hundred miles out."

  "That gives us less than forty-eight hours."

  "We only received the devastating news from Ms. Morse and Congresswoman Smith in the early hours of the morning."

  "I'll have Coast Guard cutters waiting to intercept fifty miles out," said Dover solidly.

  "And I'll have a boarding team in the air as backup," Jacobs assured him.

  "My SEAL team will stand ready to board from the sea," Garnet added.
>
  Dover looked at Garnet dubiously. "Your men can board a supertanker from the water while it's under way?"

  "An exercise we've rehearsed many times," said Garnet, with an almost imperceptible grin.

  "That I'll have to see," said Dover.

  "Well, ladies and gentlemen," Sandecker said quietly, "this is as far as NUMA can go in this project. We'll help in any way we're asked, and will supply the evidence we've accumulated pertaining to the fire and cover-up sinking of the Emerald Dolphin and the near-tragedy of the Golden Marlin, but we are a scientific oceanographic agency and not authorized to act as an investigative agency. I leave it to Wes and Loren to assemble a trusted team of patriots to launch the first phase of an undercover investigation."

  "We have our work cut out for us," Loren said to Rader.

  "Yes," replied Rader quietly. "Some of the people on this list are my friends. I'll be a lonely man when this is over."

  "You won't be the only outcast," said Loren, with a dry smile. "I have friends on the list, too."

  Dover pushed back his chair and stood and looked down at Sandecker. "I'll keep you informed every hour on the status of the operation."

  "I appreciate that, Amos. Thank you."

  One by one, they filed out of the locker room. Pitt and Giordino, along with Rudi Gunn, were asked by Sandecker to remain. As he left, Yaeger put his hand on Pitt's shoulder and asked him to drop by NUMA headquarters after he left there and come to the computer floor.

  Sandecker relaxed in his chair and lit his big cigar. He stared at Giordino with an annoyed look, waiting for him to light up one of his special cigars, too, but Al merely stared back with a patronizing smile. "It looks as if you boys are sidelined for the rest of the game."

  "I'm sure you and Rudi won't let us sit on the bench for very long," said Pitt, as he stared from Sandecker to Gunn.

  Gunn adjusted his glasses. "We're sending an expedition to French Frigate Shoals northwest of the Hawaiian Islands to survey and examine the widespread death of the coral. We'd like Al to head up the investigation."

  "And me?" asked Pitt.

  "I hope you saved your cold-weather gear from the Atlantis Project," said Sandecker wryly. "You'll be returning to Antarctica in an attempt to penetrate the ice down to the vast lake scientists believe is under the ice cap."

  A shadow of dissent crossed Pitt's face. "I will, of course, follow your directives, Admiral, without argument. But I respectfully request five days for Al and me to clear up a mystery concerning Dr. Elmore Egan."

  "The search for his secret laboratory?"

  "You know?"

  "I have my sources."

  Kelly, Pitt thought. The old devil had played sympathetic uncle while protecting her from harm by Zale's henchmen. She must have told him about their search for the Norsemen and the puzzle behind the legend of the lost cave.

  "I strongly believe it is a matter of national security to find out what Dr. Egan was working on when he died, before Zale gets there first."

  Sandecker looked over at Gunn. "What do you think, Rudi? Should we give these two scoundrels five days to search for an illusion?"

  Gunn peered over the tops of his glasses at Pitt and Giordino like a fox eyeing a pair of coyotes. "I think we can be magnanimous, Admiral. It will take at least five days to finish equipping and supplying the survey ships I've scheduled for the projects, anyway."

  Sandecker exhaled a cloud of blue aromatic smoke. "That's it, then. Rudi will inform you where and when to report on board your survey ships." Then he dropped his gruff edge and said, "I wish you luck on your quest. I'm also curious as to what Egan was conjuring up."

  Yaeger was slouching in his chair, feet stretched out, in front of his keyboard conversing with Max, when Pitt arrived from the football stadium. "You wanted to see me, Hiram?"

  "I'll say." Yaeger straightened and pulled Egan's leather case from a nearby cabinet. "You're just in time for the next act."

  "Act?"

  "Three more minutes."

  "I don't follow."

  "Every forty-eight hours, at precisely one-fifteen in the afternoon, this case turns to magic."

  "It fills with oil," Pitt said hesitantly.

  "Exacdy." Yaeger opened the case, and waved his hand over the empty contents like a magician. Then he closed it and snapped the latches. He studied the sweep hand on his wristwatch, counting the seconds. Then he said, "To reverse the old cliche: Now, you don't see it- and now you do." He carefully unlatched and lifted the lid. The interior of the case was filled with oil less than an inch from the upper edge.

  "I know you're not performing black magic," said Pitt, "since the same thing happened to Al and me after Kelly Egan gave me the case on the Deep Encounter.'"

  "It has to be some sort of trick or illusion," said Yaeger, befuddled.

  "It's not an illusion," said Pitt. "It's real enough." He dipped his finger in the oil and rubbed it between his thumb. "Feels frictionless. My guess is that it's Dr. Egan's super oil."

  "The million-dollar question is: Where's it coming from?"

  "Does Max have a read on it?" Pitt asked, staring at the holograph figure on the other side of Yaeger's desk.

  "Sorry, Dirk. I'm as mystified as you," said Max. "I have a few ideas I'd like to pursue if Hiram doesn't shut me down when he leaves for home tonight."

  "Only if you promise not to enter confidential or private sites."

  "I will try to be a good girl." The words were there, but the delivery had a conniving tone to it.

  Yaeger did not think it was funny. Max had gotten him in trouble before, going where she was forbidden to go. But Pitt could not help laughing.

  "Have you ever regretted not making Max a male?"

  Yaeger looked like a man who'd fallen into a sewer wearing a tuxedo. "Consider yourself lucky," he said wearily. "You're single. Not only do I have to contend with Max, but I have a wife and two teenage daughters at home."

  "You don't know it, Hiram, but you're a man to be envied."

  "That's easy for you to say. You never let a woman into your life."

  "No," said Pitt wistfully. "That, I never did."

  44

  Unknown to Pitt, his days of lonely bachelorhood would be temporarily interrupted. He returned to his hangar and observed that wily old Sandecker had sent a security team to patrol the area around him at the deserted end of the airport. He didn't question the admiral's concern for his safety. He didn't feel it was necessary, despite Zale's threats, but he was grateful all the same. The real reason did not become apparent until he entered the hangar and climbed to his apartment above the main floor.

  The music coming out of his stereo system was on an easy-listening station instead of his preferred modern jazz. Then he smelled the aroma of coffee. He also detected the wisp of a fragrant feminine scent. He peered into the kitchen and found Sally Morse stirring the contents of an array of pots on the stove. She was in bare feet, wearing a sundress and little else.

  Who invited you? Who said you could invade my personal domain as if you owned it? Who let you in through the security systems? All these questions ripened in his mind, but, mild-mannered marine engineer that he was, Pitt simply said, "Hello, what's for dinner?"

  "Beef stroganoff," answered Sally, turning and smiling sweetly. "Do you like it?"

  "One of my favorites."

  She could tell by the adrift expression on his face that he hadn't expected her. "Congresswoman Smith thought I'd be safer staying here. Especially since Admiral Sandecker has placed a security ring around your hangar."

  Questions answered, Pitt opened the cabinet above his bar to pour a drink.

  "Loren told me you drink tequila, so I took the liberty of making margaritas. I hope you don't mind?"

  Though Pitt preferred his expensive tequila straight over ice with a touch of lime and light salt rimming the glass, he enjoyed a well-mixed margarita. They were better made with cheaper tequila, though. To his way of thinking, it was a crime to dilute the top-qu
ality brands with sweet mix. He looked forlornly at his half-empty bottle of good Juan Julio silver, 100 percent blue agave tequila. Just to be polite, he complimented Sally on the taste and went to his bedroom to take a shower and change into comfortable shorts and T-shirt.

  His bedroom looked as if a bomb had gone off in it. Shoes and various items of female apparel littered the polished wooden plank floor. Bottles of nail polish and other cosmetics were stacked on the dresser and the bed's end tables. Why do women always drop their clothes on the floor? he wondered. Men at least throw them over a chair. He couldn't believe only one female could have created such chaos until he heard a voice humming in his bathroom.

 
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