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Valhalla rising, p.9
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       Valhalla Rising, p.9

           Clive Cussler
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  "Yes," he said, in a voice that was hard and indifferent. "Scream all you wish. No one can hear you above the storm outside. I like it when a woman screams. I find it exhilarating."

  He lifted her off the floor as if she weighed no more than a mannequin stuffed with foam. Then he pinned her against a bulkhead and his hands began to move over her body, crudely, roughly, bruising her skin. Numb with terror, Kelly went limp and cried the age-old woman's cry.

  "Please, you're hurting me."

  His huge hands moved up to her throat and locked around it. "I promise," he said, with the emotion of a block of ice. "Death will come quick and painless."

  He began to squeeze, and a black cloud fell over Kelly 's eyes. "No, please," she pleaded, her voice becoming little more than a rasping whisper.

  "Sweet dreams, dear heart."

  Then a voice behind him said, "Your technique for romancing women leaves a lot to be desired."

  The red-haired killer released Kelly's throat and spun around in a movement as quick as a cat's. A shadowy figure was standing in the doorway, one outstretched hand casually resting on the door latch, his face dark and silhouetted by the light behind him in the passageway. Quickly, the killer whipped into a martial-arts position, his hands poised in the air, and launched his foot at the intruder.

  Unknown to the killer and Kelly, Pitt had heard the screams and silently opened the door, then stood there for a few brief seconds, appraising the situation and devising contingency tactics. There was no time to go for help. The girl would be dead before anyone arrived to back him up. He immediately sensed this was a dangerous man who was no stranger to killing. Men such as this had to have a concrete reason for coldly murdering a defenseless woman. He braced himself for the attack he knew would come.

  In a violent corkscrew motion, he twisted out of the doorway into the passageway as the killer's leg and foot sliced through the air. The intended blow missed Pitt's head by an inch and impacted on the frame of the door. The ankle bone broke cleanly with an audible crack.

  Any other man would have writhed in agony. Not this one, not this hunk thick with muscle and trained to ignore pain. The killer glanced up and down the passageway to make sure Pitt was alone and had no help, and then he came forward, arms and hands moving rhythmically in martial-arts motions. Then he leaped toward his prey, hands chopping the air like axes.

  Pitt stood as if frozen, feigning fear, until the last microsecond. Then he dropped to the deck and rolled toward his assailant, whose momentum caught him off balance and carried him over and beyond Pitt, tripping on his body and crashing in a heap to the deck. Pitt was on the red-haired killer like lightning. Using every pound of his body, he pinned the man to the deck, digging one knee into an unprotected back and clapping his hands violently against the ears.

  The man's eardrums burst as though an icepick had been jabbed from one side of his head to the other. The killer uttered a ghastly howl and convulsively wrenched to one side, hurling Pitt against a closed door. Pitt was stunned at the brutal strength of the man and his seeming immunity to pain. Half on his back, he lashed out with both feet, not into the killer's groin, but smashing down on the broken ankle.

  No outcry this time, only a snarl and a hissing through clenched teeth. The face twisted into a hideous grimace, the eyes glinting with ferocity. He was hurt now, truly hurt. But he was still the aggressor, and he continued his advance toward Pitt, dragging his mangled foot behind him. Altering his strategy, he gathered himself for the next assault on Pitt.

  It didn't take a wizard's gray matter for Pitt to realize that he was no match for a highly trained killer with a body like a demolition ball on a crane. Pitt backed away, knowing his only advantage was faster footwork, now that his adversary could only perform on one leg, eliminating any possibility of a vicious kick to the head.

  Pitt had never taken a martial-arts course in his life. He had boxed during his years at the Air Force Academy, but his wins usually equaled his losses. He had learned the tactics of free-for-all fighting after having survived a number of barroom brawls. Lesson one, which he'd learned early on, was never fight close-in with your fists. Fight with your brain and any object that you can throw, shove or swing at your attacker-a bottle, chair or whatever. The survival rate without injuries was much higher among those who fought from the outside in.

  Suddenly Kelly appeared in the doorway behind the killer. She was holding the leather case as though it were growing out of her chest. The red-haired executioner was so focused on Pitt that he didn't detect her presence.

  Pitt saw an opportunity. "Run!" he shouted to Kelly. "Run up the stairs and out onto the deck!"

  The killer hesitated, not certain whether Pitt was trying the age-old bluff. But he was a true professional, who studied his victims. He saw the tiny shift in Pitt's eyes and whirled around as Kelly ran toward the stairway leading up to the open work deck. Focusing on his main target, he took off after Kelly, half running, half hobbling, fighting the agony that erupted from his fractured ankle.

  It was the move Pitt had hoped for.

  Now it was his turn to attack. He sprinted forward and leaped on the back of the killer. It was a brutal football tackle, using the combined impetus of both their bodies to bring the runner down from behind, falling with all his weight on the other's body while ramming his face and head into the deck.

  Pitt heard his attacker's head hit the thinly carpeted steel deck with a sickening thump and a crack and felt the body go limp. If not a fracture, the skull must have suffered a concussion, he thought. For a moment, Pitt lay on top of the man, breathing heavily, waiting for his heart to slow. He blinked his eyes as he felt the sting of sweat trickling into them and rubbed the sleeve of his coat across his face.

  It was then he noticed the killer's head was twisted in an unnatural position and the eyes were open and unseeing.

  Pitt reached down and pressed his fingers against the jugular vein. There was no hint of a pulse. The killer was dead. He must have struck his head at an angle, forcing it sideways and breaking the neck, Pitt concluded. He sat back on the deck and leaned against the closed door to the compartment where batteries were stored, and assessed the situation. None of it made sense. All Pitt knew for certain was that he happened to walk onto the scene of an attempted murder of a woman he had rescued from drowning. Now he was sitting there staring at a total stranger he had accidentally murdered. He looked into the man's unseeing eyes and murmured to himself, "I'm as rotten as you are."

  Then he thought of the woman.

  Pitt came to his feet, stepped over the sprawled body of the dead man and hurried up the stairs to the outer deck. The work deck was crowded with survivors who were holding on to safety ropes strung by the Deep Encounter's, crew. They stood uncomplaining as the rain lashed their heads and shoulders while they moved in line and climbed into the Earl of Wattlesfield's rescue boats for the trip to the container ship.

  Pitt rushed through the line searching for the woman with the leather case, but she was not in the group that was being transported across the water. It was as if she had vanished. One look at the boats having unloaded and on their way back to the survey ship told him that she could not have left the Deep Encounter. She must still be on board.

  He had to find her. How else could he explain the dead body to Captain Burch? And how else would he ever find out what was going on?

  7

  Things were finally looking up for the Deep Encounter. By late afternoon, except for ten who were too injured to be moved, all but one hundred of the survivors from the Emerald Dolphin had been ferried over to the Earl of Wattlesfield. Without the horde of survivors on board, the battered survey ship rose five feet out of the water. The crew then went to work and shored up the badly damaged hull plates, which reduced the incoming flow and enabled the pumps to gain on the flooding.

  The Australian guided-missile frigate arrived and added their boats to the ferry operation, taking the survivors who'd dropped down the ropes from t
he bow and relieving the exhausted boat crews from Deep Encounter. Thankfully, the storm passed almost as suddenly as it arrived and the sea settled down to a mild chop.

  McFerrin was the last man off the survey vessel. Before he boarded the containership's boat, he personally thanked the entire crew and scientists. "Your rescue of so many souls will go down in the annals of sea history," he told them, to expressions of modest embarrassment.

  "I regret we couldn't have saved them all," Burch said quietly.

  "What you did was nothing short of miraculous." Then McFerrin turned and placed his bandaged hands on Pitt's shoulders. "Dirk, it has been a privilege. Your name will always be spoken with honor in the McFerrin home. I sincerely hope we meet again."

  "We must," said Pitt jovially. "I owe you a bottle of scotch." "Good-bye, ladies and gentlemen of NUMA. God bless you all." "Good-bye, Charles. They don't come better than you." McFerrin climbed down into the Earl of Wattksfield's boat and gave a final salute as it swung away. "Now what?" Pitt asked Burch.

  "First, we pick up the submersibles or Admiral Sandecker will behead us on the steps of the Capitol Building," he said, referring to the chief director of NUMA. "Then we set a course for Wellington, the nearest port with a shipyard and the dry-dock facilities to repair our damage."

  "It's no great loss if we can't find the Ancient Mariner-she's an old workhorse that has more than paid for herself-but the Abyss Navigator is state-of-the-art, fresh from the factory and cost twelve million dollars. We can't afford to lose her."

  "We'll find her. Her beacon signal is coming in loud and strong." He almost had to shout to be heard above the sounds coming from the sky. The air above the ships swarmed with aircraft flown from New Zealand, Tonga, Fiji and Samoa, most of them chartered by the international news media, covering what would become known as the most magnificent rescue operation in the history of the seas. The radios on all three ships were inundated with messages from governments, anxious relatives of the survivors, corporate officials of the Blue Seas Cruise Lines, and representatives of the underwriters who had insured the Emerald Dolphin. The radio traffic was so heavy that all communication among the three rescue ships was conducted by handheld portable radios or blinkers.

  Burch sighed as he relaxed in his elevated captain's chair and lit his pipe, then smiled faintly. "Do you think the admiral will turn the air blue when he hears what we did to his research ship?"

  "Under the circumstances, the old sea dog will milk the publicity to the last drop."

  "Have you thought of how you're going to explain that body lying below to the officials?" asked Burch.

  "I can only tell what I know."

  "Pity the girl can't act as a witness."

  "I can't believe I missed her during the evacuation."

  "Actually, your problem has been solved," Burch said, with a devious grin.

  Pitt looked at the captain for a long moment. "Solved?"

  "I like to run a tight, clean ship," explained Burch. "I personally threw your friend over the side. He's joined the other poor souls from the Emerald Dolphin who died during the tragedy. As far as I'm concerned, the matter is closed."

  "Skipper," Pitt said, with a twinkle in his eye, "you're okay. I don't care what they say about you."

  The harried radio operator came from the radio room. "Sir, a message from Captain Harlow of the Australian missile frigate. If you wish to leave station, he will stand by to pick up bodies and stay with the cruise liner until tugs arrive to tow her to port."

  "Acknowledge and express my deepest gratitude to the captain and his crew for their gallant assistance."

  A minute later, the operator returned. "Captain Harlow wishes you Godspeed and calm seas."

  "I imagine it has to be the first time in history a guided-missile frigate took on five hundred civilian passengers," said Pitt.

  "Yes," said Burch slowly, as he turned and gazed at the burned-out leviathan. The downpour of rain had done little to alleviate the fire. Flames still flickered and smoke spiraled into the sky. Except for a small space around the bow, the entire ship was blackened and scorched. The steel plates were buckled and her superstructure was little more than a labyrinth of charred, twisted and contorted frameworks. Nothing organic was left. Everything that could burn had been reduced to ugly piles of ashes. It had been a ship that its architects and builders swore could never burn. Fire-retardant materials had been used throughout. But they'd never counted on the dynamic heat that had fanned itself into a firestorm that could melt metal.

  "Another one of the great mysteries of the sea," Pitt said, his voice distant.

  "Ship fires occur with alarming frequency around the world every year." Burch spoke as if he were lecturing to a class. "But I've never heard of one more baffling than the blaze on board the Emerald Dolphin. No fire on a ship that large should have spread so fast."

  "Second Officer McFerrin suggested that it spread out of control because the fire-warning and control systems were inoperative."

  "An act of treachery, do you think?"

  Pitt nodded at the smoldering, gutted hulk. "It defies logic that it was a series of unfortunate circumstances."

  "Captain," the radio operator interrupted again, "Captain Nevins of the Earl of Wattlesfield would like a word with you."

  "Put him on the speaker."

  "Go ahead, sir."

  "Captain Burch here."

  "Captain Nevins here. I say, if you chaps are going to try for Wellington, I'll be most happy to shepherd you along the way, since that's the closest major port to disembark the survivors."

  "That's very kind of you, Captain," replied Burch. "I accept your offer. We've set a course for Wellington, too. I hope we don't slow you down too much."

  "Wouldn't do for the heroes and heroines of the hour to sink along the way."

  "Our pumps are keeping ahead of the flooding. Barring a major typhoon, we should make Wellington in good shape."

  "As soon as you get under way, we'll follow."

  "How are you managing with eighteen hundred people on your ship?" asked Pitt.

  "We have most of them in two of our empty cargo holds. The rest are scattered throughout, some in half-empty containers. We have enough food in the galley for one proper meal. After that, everyone, including my crew and I, will go on a rigid diet until we reach Wellington." Nevins paused for a moment. "And, oh yes, if you could pass between my ship and the Aussie frigate, we'd like to give you a send-off. Over and out."

  Burch looked bemused. "Send-off?"

  "Maybe they want to say aloha and throw streamers." Pitt laughed.

  Burch picked up the ship's phone. "Chief, are you ready and able to get under way?"

  "I'll let you have eight knots, no more," answered House. "Any more speed and she'll leak like a rusty bucket."

  "Eight knots it is."

  To the ship's crew and the NUMA scientists, haggard and dead-tired from twelve hours of nonstop physical and mental exertion, it was an ordeal just to stand on their two feet, but stand they did, straight and proud as Pitt lined them up on the work deck. The ship's crew was grouped on one end of the deck while the scientists, men and women intermingled, stood opposite. Everyone was there. Burch insisted that the entire engine room crew turn out. Chief Engineer House balked at leaving the pumps unattended, but the captain prevailed. Only the helmsman stood alone in the pilothouse, steering the survey vessel between the Earl of Wattlesfteld and the Australian guided-missile frigate that lay to no more than two hundred yards apart.

  The little survey ship seemed dwarfed between the two much larger ships. She sailed proudly, the NUMA flag flying on her radar mast and a huge stars-and-stripes streaming stiffly on the stern jack staff.

  Pitt and Burch, standing beside each other, stared up, startled to see the crew of the frigate turn out as if for a formal military review. Then suddenly, as the Deep Encounter entered the gap between the two ships, the silent tropical air was shattered by the whoops of the ships' air horns and the cheer
s of the more than two thousand survivors who lined the rails of the containership and frigate. Pandemonium broke out across the water. Men, women and children all waved wildly and shouted words that went unheard in the din. Shredded newspaper and magazines were thrown in the air like confetti. Only at that moment did everyone on board the Deep Encounter fully realize what their magnificent exploit had achieved.

  They had gone far beyond the rescue of over two thousand people; they had proven that they were willing to sacrifice their lives to save other humans. Tears flowed unashamedly from the eyes of everyone.

  Long afterward, the men and women of the survey ship could never describe it accurately. They were too moved to fully absorb the event. Even the tremendous rescue effort seemed like a nightmarish dream in a distant past. They might never forget it, but they could never do it justice with mere words.

  Then, almost as one, each head turned and gazed for the last time at the lamentable image that only twenty-four hours before had been one of the most beautiful ships ever to sail the seas. Pitt stared, too. No man of the sea likes to see a ship die dreadfully. He could not help but wonder who had been responsible for such a hideous act. What was the motive?

 
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