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Valhalla rising, p.8
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       Valhalla Rising, p.8

           Clive Cussler
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  The storm roared toward the little ship and its mass of humanity. Another few minutes and it would enshroud them. The sun had long disappeared, taking any hint of blue sky. The crests of the waves swirled like dervishes and threw off billows of froth and spray. Warm green water sloshed over the work deck, drenching those who were unable to find room below. As many as humanly possible had been shoved through the hatches, jammed into the passageways like commuters on a rush-hour bus.

  Pulled close to the burning ship, those in the boats suffered more from the heat that radiated from the fire than from the wind and waves that tossed them about the stormy sea. Both Pitt and Burch kept a sharp eye on their condition, ready to haul them on board at the first sign of trouble.

  If help did not come quickly and the Deep Encounter sank, taking its precious cargo with her, there would be few survivors.

  "Do you know if anyone up there has a radio?" Pitt asked McFerrin.

  "All officers carry portable radios."

  "Their frequency?"

  "Twenty-two."

  Pitt held the radio close to his mouth and covered it with one side of his coat to cut down the sound of the wind that was building to a howl. "Emerald Dolphin, this is Deep Encounter. Is there an officer on board who can read me? Over." He repeated the request three times through heavy static before a voice came back.

  "I hear you, Deep Encounter," a woman's voice replied. "Not well, but enough to understand you."

  "I have a woman," said Pitt, looking at McFerrin.

  "It sounds like Amelia May, our chief purser."

  "The fire is causing interference. I can barely make her out."

  "Ask how many people are on the forepeak," ordered Burch.

  "Am I speaking to Amelia May?" Pitt inquired.

  "Yes, how do you know my name?"

  "Your second officer is standing beside me."

  "Charles McFerrin?" she exclaimed. "Praise God. I thought Charlie died in the fire."

  "Can you estimate the number of passengers and crew left on board?"

  "My best guess is four hundred and fifty crew, with about sixty passengers. When can we begin to abandon the ship?"

  Burch was looking up at the bow with an intense look of dismay. "No way we can take them aboard," he said again, with a sad shake of his head.

  "Either way you look at it," said Pitt, "it's a no-win situation. The wind and sea are rising at an alarming rate. Our boats can't pick them up, and it would be suicide for them to jump into the water and attempt to swim to our ship."

  Burch nodded in agreement. "Our only hope is for the British containership to get here in the next half hour. After that we're in God's hands."

  "Ms. May," called Pitt. "Please listen to me. Our ship is loaded far beyond capacity. We are also in danger of sinking, due to a crushed hull. You must hold out until the weather slackens or a rescue ship arrives. Do you understand?"

  "Yes, I understand," she echoed. "The wind is blowing the fire aft and the heat is not unbearable."

  "Not for long," Pitt warned her. "The Dolphin is swinging around and will begin drifting broadside against the wind and current. The fire and smoke will move closer and pour off to your starboard."

  There was a pause, then Amelia said resolutely, "I guess we'll have to break out the marshmallows."

  Pitt looked up to the bow, squinting against the spray thrown by the wind. "You're a very intrepid lady. I hope we can meet when this is over. Dinner is on me."

  "Maybe . . ." There was a hesitation. "You'll have to tell me your name first."

  "My name is Dirk Pitt."

  "A strong name. I like that. Over and out."

  McFerrin grinned wearily. "She's a gorgeous creature, Pitt. And quite independent when it comes to men."

  Pitt grinned back. "I wouldn't want it any other way."

  The rains came like a glistening solid wall, not gradually, but in a sudden deluge. And still the Emerald Dolphin burned. Her sides were glowing red as the rain struck the ferocious heat, quickly covering the flaming ship in a vast cloud of steam.

  "Bring her within two hundred feet of the hull slow and easy," Burch ordered the helmsman. He was troubled at the pitching and rolling of his ship as she was pounded by the rising waves. He became even more troubled when Chief Engineer House called the bridge.

  "The old girl is being hammered down here," he reported. "The leaks are getting worse. I can't guarantee how much longer the pumps can keep up, even with the auxiliaries adding to the discharge."

  "We've come under the hull of the cruise ship," replied Burch. "I'm hoping her bulk will protect us from the worst of the storm."

  "Every little bit helps."

  "Do the best you can."

  "It's not easy," grumbled House. "Not when you're climbing over bodies packed tighter than an anchovy jar."

  Burch turned to Pitt, who was peering into the wet gloom with the binoculars. "Any sign of the containership or the Aussie frigate?"

  "The heavy rain has cut visibility to a bare minimum, but radar has the containership closing within a thousand yards."

  Burch took out an old bandanna and wiped the moisture from his brow and neck. "I hope the captain is a good seaman, because he's going to need all the experience he's got."

  Captain Malcolm Nevins, master of the Collins and West Shipping Lines containership Earl of Wattlesfield, sat in an elevated swivel chair with his feet propped on the bridge counter and contemplated the radar screen. Just ten minutes earlier, the burning ship was in visual contact, but then the storm closed in with phenomenal swiftness and the accompanying deluge had curtained off all view. With an air of practiced indifference, he eased a platinum cigarette case from his pants pocket, lifted out a Dunhill and placed it between his lips. Incongruously, he lit the expensive cigarette with an old scratched and dented Zippo lighter that he had carried since serving in the Royal Navy during the war of the Falklands.

  Nevins's ruddy features, usually humorous and pleated, were set in concentration; his limpid gray eyes squinting and uneasy. He wondered what kind of hell he was about to find. The radio reports from the American survey vessel were morbid with descriptions of over two thousand people trying to escape the blazing cruise ship. In all his thirty years at sea, he could not recall a disaster of such magnitude.

  "There," shouted his first officer, Arthur Thorndyke, pointing ahead off the starboard bow through the bridge windshield.

  The falling sheets of rain parted for a minute, as though they were drapes, revealing the blazing cruise ship enshrouded by smoke and steam. "Engines on SLOW," Nevins ordered.

  "Aye, sir."

  "Are the boat crews standing by?" asked Nevins, as the huge liner materialized out of the downpour.

  "Boat crews standing by and ready to lower away," answered Thorndyke. "I must say, I don't envy them floating on a sea with twelve-foot swells."

  "We'll lay to as close as we can to save them time and distance between ships." He picked up a pair of binoculars and peered at the water around the cruise ship. "I don't see anyone swimming, and there is no sign of lifeboats."

  Thorndyke nodded at the torched remains of the ship's lifeboats. "Nobody left the ship in those."

  Nevins stiffened, his mind picturing a blazing hulk carrying thousands of dead. "The loss of life must be horrendous," he said darkly.

  "I don't see the American survey vessel."

  Nevins read the situation instantly. "Come around the ship. The Americans must be on her sheltered side."

  The Earl of Wattlesfield lumbered steadily through the chaotic waters, as if disregarding all dire threats from the sea and daring the elements to throw their best at her. At 68,000 tons, she was more than a city block long and her decks were piled several stories high with boxed units filled with freight. For ten years she had sailed every ocean in the world through every kind of sea without losing one container or one life. She was considered a lucky ship, especially by her owners, who had profited millions of pounds from her reliable servic
e.

  After this day she would become as famous as the Carpathia, the ship that had rescued the Titanic survivors.

  The wind was approaching gale force and the waves became steeper, but they had little effect on the big containership. Nevins held little hope of rescuing any passengers or crew. Those who had escaped burning to death, he thought, had jumped overboard and had surely drowned in the turbulent waters by now. As the Earl of Wattlesfield slowly rounded the high, sloping bow, he stared up at the raised, green painted letters, Emerald Dolphin. He felt despondent as he remembered seeing the beautiful cruise ship as she'd left port in Sydney. Then, abruptly, he was staring disbelievingly at an entirely unexpected spectacle.

  The Deep Encounter was rolling heavily in waters reflecting the orange flames, her hull sunk almost to the gunnels, her decks overflowing with huddled figures. No more than twenty yards behind her stern, two launches bobbed up and down, their interiors also filled with human bodies. The ship looked as if she was about to plunge under the sea at any moment.

  "Good lord!" muttered Thorndyke. "She looks like she's sinking."

  The radio operator leaned from the radio room. "Sir, I have someone on the American ship."

  "Put them on the speaker."

  Within seconds, a voice boomed through the amplifiers. "To the captain and crew of the containership, are we ever glad to see you."

  "This is Captain Nevins. Am I speaking to the ship's captain?"

  "No, Captain Burch is down in the engine room examining the water flooding the ship."

  "Then who are you?"

  "Dirk Pitt, Special Projects Director for the National Underwater and Marine Agency."

  "What is your condition? You look like you are foundering."

  "We're close to it," Pitt answered candidly. "We knocked in our hull plates when we tied to the cruise ship's stern to rescue her crew and passengers. We're taking on water faster than the pumps can handle it."

  "How many survivors do you have on board?" asked Nevins, still astounded at the number of people struggling on the work deck to keep from being swept overboard.

  "Somewhere in the neighborhood of nineteen hundred, with another hundred still in the boats."

  "My word!" Nevin's voice was slow, stunned, almost a whisper. "Are you saying that you've rescued two thousand survivors?"

  "Give or take fifty here and there."

  "Where in the world have you put them?"

  "You'd have to come over and see for yourself," said Pitt.

  "No wonder you look like a goose who swallowed a barbell," Nevins muttered in wonderment.

  "There are still close to five hundred crew and passengers waiting to be rescued on the forepeak of the cruise ship. We simply could not take them all without endangering everyone's life."

  "Any chance they may be burned?"

  "We're in contact with their ship's officers and they report that they're in no immediate peril," explained Pitt. "I respectfully suggest, Captain, that our first priority be to transport as many people as possible from our ship to yours while we're still afloat. We'd be grateful if you took those in our rescue boats on board first. They're having the worst of it."

  "We will indeed. I'll lower my boats and begin ferrying the survivors on your vessel to mine. We certainly have more room for them over here. Once your boats are unloaded, that will leave them free to take on those still on the cruise ship's bow, who can lower themselves down on ropes."

  "We have the routine down to a science by now."

  "Then we had best get to it."

  Then Pitt added, "Believe me, Captain Nevins, you'll never know what a blessing your timely arrival is."

  "I'm thankful we were in the neighborhood."

  Nevins turned to Thorndyke, his normally humorous expression incredulous.

  "It's a miracle they put all those people on such a small ship."

  "A miracle it is," murmured Thorndyke, equally astonished. "To paraphrase Churchill, Never have so many been saved by so few."

  6

  Kelly sat on the deck in one of the Deep Encounter's storerooms, her knees pulled up to her chin. She felt as if she had been transported to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Survivors were so crammed in the small compartment that only the women could sit, while the men stood. No one seemed to pay any attention as she laid her head in her hands and cried. She felt a wave of sorrow over her father's death. To have watched him lose his life within an arm's reach left her achingly helpless and grief-stricken.

  Why had it happened? Who was the red-haired man and why had he struggled with her father? And the black officer? Why hadn't he intervened instead of helping the attacker? They appeared to be attempting to snatch her father's case. She looked down at the leather case, stained with salt water, that she still held tightly against her breasts, wondering why its contents were so important that her father had died for them.

  She fought off exhaustion and forced herself to stay awake in case the red-haired man reappeared and made another attempt to take it from her. But the hot, humid closeness of so many bodies, and the struggling air-conditioning system that made as much difference as an ice cube in an oven, combined to make her drowsy, and she finally drifted off in a fitful sleep.

  She woke up suddenly, still sitting on the deck, her back against a locker, but remarkably the storeroom was now empty of people. A woman who'd introduced herself earlier as a marine biologist leaned down and gently brushed the damp hair from Kelly's eyes as if she were a child. The woman's face and eyes looked tired and drained, but she managed a sympathetic smile.

  "Time to move along," she said softly. "A British containership has arrived and we're transferring everyone over to her."

  "I'm so grateful to you and your crew, and especially the man who dove in the water and saved me from drowning."

  "I don't know who that was," said the woman, a pretty redhead with brown eyes.

  "Can't I stay aboard this ship?" asked Kelly.

  "I'm afraid not. We're taking on water and there is doubt whether we can stay afloat through the storm." She helped Kelly to her feet. "You'd better hurry or you'll miss your boat."

  The woman left the storeroom to herd other passengers topside so they could board the containership's boats. Alone, Kelly stiffly rose to her feet, her back aching from sitting on the hard deck. She was almost to the doorway when suddenly she was stopped by a large man. She hesitated, looked up and found herself staring into the icy features of the red-haired man who had struggled with her father on the cruise ship. He stepped inside the storeroom and slowly closed the door.

  "What do you want?" she whispered fearfully.

  "Your father's case," he answered in a deep, quiet voice. "You won't be hurt if you hand it over. Otherwise, I will have to kill you."

  Kelly could see resolve in the cold, dead, black eyes. And something else: The man was going to kill her whether she gave him the case or not.

  "My father's papers? What do you want with them?"

  He shrugged. "I'm only a hired man. My job is to deliver the case and its contents, that's all."

  "Deliver to whom . . . ?"

  "It doesn't matter," he said, his voice turning impatient.

  "Are you going to shoot me?" Kelly asked, desperately stalling for every second of life.

  "I don't use guns and I don't use knives." He held up his hands, huge and callused, and grinned. "These are all I need."

  She felt panic stab her, and started to back away from him. He moved toward her and she could see the white teeth beneath the red mustache as his lips widened in a malevolent grin. His eyes had the smug gleam of an animal who has his quarry trapped and helpless. Her panic turned to terror, her heart began to pound, her breath to come in gasps. Her legs felt weak and they tottered beneath her. Her long hair streaked across her eyes and face, and the tears involuntarily began to flow.

  His arms reached out, the hands like claws, and clutched her. She screamed, a high shrill cry that reverberated in the small storeroom with its
steel bulkheads. She tore out of his grasp and spun around. It was as if he deliberately let her go so he could play with her as a cat toys with a mouse before devouring it. Unable to resist, she began to feel faint, and crumpled to the deck, crouched in one corner of the storeroom, shuddering uncontrollably.

  She could only stare at him through huge, glazed blue eyes as he stepped slowly toward her. He bent over, took her under the arms and lifted her up in one effortless motion. The cold, murderous expression had been replaced by a leer of lust. As if in slow motion, he pressed his lips against hers. Her eyes flew wide and she tried to scream again, but all that came out were muffled sobs. Then he pulled back and grinned again.

 
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