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Authors: Jack Du Brul

Havoc - v4

BOOK: Havoc - v4
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Synopsis

Jack Du Brul’s Havoc links an ancient weapon in the hands of modern terrorists, an agenda of greed couched in faith, a fabled tomb thought lost forever, and ultimately the enduring power of myth.

 

 

HAVOC
Jack Du Brul

 

The seventh book in the Philip Mercer series

 

Copyright © Jack Du Brul, 2005

 

To the miners:
upon whose backs
civilization was built

 

 

May 1937

 

Alone in his cabin for the past three days, the madman rocked gently on his narrow bunk, his eyes fixed on the dull sheen of his personal safe while fever sent alternating currents of heat and cold through his body. He was unaware of the great ship’s passage across the Atlantic, the rhythm of her four engines turning the large propellers, the spectacular service offered by the crew, or even the cycles of day and night. It took all his mental ability just to keep his focus on the small safe.

Since leaving Europe, he’d ventured from his cabin only late at night to use one of the communal washrooms. Even on these furtive forays he’d hurry back to his room if he heard other passengers stirring or crewmembers attending their duties. On the first night of the trip and during the following day, a steward would knock on his door, inquiring about his needs, asking if he wanted tea, a cocktail, or perhaps some soda crackers to settle his stomach if the ship’s motion was making him ill. The passenger had refused everything, struggling to maintain a patina of civility. But when the waiter returned to ask if the passenger wanted dinner brought to him on the second night, the man in cabin 8a flew into a rage, cursing the hapless steward in a mix of English, Greek, and an African dialect he’d picked up in the preceding months.

As the third day slid toward an overcast evening, what little control he’d had over his mind slipped further. He didn’t care. He was almost home. Hours now, not days or weeks. He’d beat them all. Him. Alone.

His was an inside cabin and lacked a window. A lamp was bolted above the tiny desk, and lights in decorative sconces shone down on the bunk beds. Everything was made of polished aluminum, with holes punched through the metal to give the space a futuristic appearance, as if he were on a rocket ship out of Verne or Wells. The safe had been manhandled into the cabin’s only empty corner by a steward who’d waited a beat too long for a tip the passenger couldn’t afford. While the ship was at only half capacity on its seasonal maiden trip, the tickets were some of the most expensive ever for a transatlantic voyage.

Had he not felt the press of time or been certain that those chasing him were closing in, he would have found a cheaper way back to the United States. But then maybe taking this ship had been the most brilliant coup of all. The people trying to catch him would never suspect he would use their own flagship on the last leg of his journey home.

He reached across to touch the safe, feel its cool outline under his shaking fingers, content in the knowledge that a life’s ambition was locked within. He shivered, from fever or exhilaration he neither knew nor cared. Bolted to the wall across the cabin was a small mirror. He looked at himself, avoiding his eyes, for he was not ready to face what lurked behind them. His hair was long and unkempt, shot with gray that had not been there two months ago. Clumps of it had fallen out in the past few weeks, and as he ran his hand across his scalp he could feel fine strands pull free and snag in the serrations at the end of his cracked fingernails. The skin on his face hung in folds as though it had been fitted for a larger skull. His beard had once been a thing of pride, a distinctive trademark of well-manicured whiskers. Now it resembled the down of a molting chick.

He bared his teeth at the mirror, more grimace than smile. His gums were raw and red. He assumed they bled because he hadn’t eaten a proper meal since leaving his New Jersey home.

His body too had paid a heavy price. While he had never been a robust man, he had lost so much weight he could feel the sharp ends of his bones poke against his skin every time he moved. His hands shook constantly and his head swayed as if it had become a burden to the atrophied muscles of his neck.

The excited voice of a young girl pierced the thin cabin door. “Hurry, Walter. We are approaching New York City. I want a good place on the observation deck.”

About time, the man thought. He checked his watch. It was three in the afternoon. They should have arrived nine hours ago.

Against his better judgment, he decided to venture from his cabin. He needed to confirm with his own eyes that he was almost home. Then he would return to his tiny cabin and wait for the ship to dock.

He staggered to the door. In the narrow hallway, a girl of maybe twelve waited for her brother to finish lacing his shoes. She gasped when she saw him, an involuntary gesture that filled her lungs and drained the blood from her face. Without turning her startled eyes from him, she reached for her brother’s shoulder and yanked him away. His protests died on his lips when he spotted the deranged passenger. They ran around the corner in the direction of the promenade deck, the girl’s skirt flaring above her coltish knees.

The innocent encounter made the passenger’s stomach give a wet lurch of protest. Acid scalded the back of his throat. He thrust his nausea aside and closed his cabin door to make his way down the starboard-side staircase. A few idle crewmen and a lone passenger were pressed against the observation window on B deck. Behind them was the crew’s toilet, and just as he reached the window a ship’s officer stepped from within followed by an unsettling stench. It smelled no worse, or perhaps even a bit better, than the passenger himself. He hadn’t washed his clothes or his body since before fleeing Cairo.

Placing his hands on the sill, he could feel the mild trembling of the engines through the metal. He pressed his face close to the glass and watched as Manhattan’s impressive skyline emerged from behind dark storm clouds.

The shipping line prided itself on their perfect safety record, and as he watched the city come into focus, he allowed a ghost of a smile to pull at the corners of his mouth. As promised, the voyage from Germany had been uneventful and soon the flagship of the
Deutsche Zeppelin Reederei
would float gently to her mooring mast in Lakehurst, New Jersey.

A hole in the overcast opened, allowing bright sunlight to form a corona around the giant airship
Hindenburg
. Her shadow spread like a stain across the artificial canyons of midtown, darkening all but the towering Empire State Building. The colossal zeppelin, larger than most ocean liners and four times as fast, had made the crossing in a little over three days, her four Mercedes diesels pushing the 804-foot behemoth through the sky at a surprisingly smooth eighty knots.

The passenger caught a glimpse of people atop the Empire State Building’s observation deck waving at the great airship, and for a giddy moment he felt the urge to wave back, an impulse that made him believe that perhaps he could once again connect with humanity after his ordeal.

Instead he turned on his heel and rushed back to his cabin, his breath coming in chopping gulps until he assured himself that the safe was still locked. His body was bathed in an oily sheen of sour sweat. He took his seat on the bunk and began to rock again.

He planned on remaining like that as the airship powered down Long Island Sound, as her captain, Max Pruss, sought a window in the stormy weather to bring his charge to the naval station at Lakehurst. Yet just before five someone knocked on his door. He didn’t recognize the knock. The stewards had been timid about interrupting him, respectful, if a little puzzled by his appearance and attitude. This was the knock of authority, a single hard rap that brought a fresh wave of sweat from his pores.

“What do you want?” His voice was hoarse from lack of use.

“Herr Bowie, my name is Gunther Bauer. I am a ship’s officer. May I have a word?”

Chester Bowie’s eyes darted around his tiny cabin. He knew he was cornered, but he could not help but search for a way out. He’d almost made it. A few more hours and he’d be safely on the ground and away from these Nazis, but somehow they’d learned his identity. Not that they wanted him. He was no longer of consequence. It was what was inside the safe that drove them.

He had come too far to see it end now. Only one course was open to him and he felt nothing but mild irritation at what he had to do.

“Of course,” Chester said. “One moment.”

“The officers and crew are worried that you might have a negative impression of our company,” Bauer said from the other side of the closed door, his English passable but stiff, his tone mild. Chester wasn’t fooled. “I have some gifts,” the German continued, “pens and stationery for you as souvenirs of your flight.”

“Just leave them,” Bowie said as he made ready, knowing the next words and the next few seconds were critical.

“I would prefer to give them to you personal—”

That was all he needed to hear. They wanted into his cabin to steal the safe. Even as the last word hung unfinished in the air, Chester Bowie used what little strength the fever had left him to wrench open the sliding door and grab the German by the lapels of his black uniform jacket. He ignored the flurry of papers that spilled from Bauer’s hands, and the sheaf of pens that fell to the deck, and yanked the officer into the cabin.

Bauer’s only attempt at defense was a startled grunt. Bowie smashed him into the little ladder that allowed access to the upper bunk bed. And as the officer began to fall Bowie leapt on his back. He jammed his knee into the hollow at the base of Bauer’s head. When they hit the deck their combined weight snapped the German’s fourth and fifth cervical vertebra hard enough to sever the spinal cord. Bauer went limp and his body settled, expelling his final breath.

Bowie closed the door. They would never let him off the zeppelin. Even though he’d lost them when he fled Africa, he should have known they’d somehow pick up his trail again. He’d been so clever by traveling right into the heart of the beast and taking their own ship home. No one could have foreseen him doing that. But somehow they had. They were unholy. Like all-seeing Gorgons who knew the routes of man.

The body took up nearly the entire floor. Chester had to step over it to grab a notebook he’d left on the writing desk. He picked up one of the pens Bauer had dropped. He had no idea how long it would be before the captain sent someone else to get the safe. No, Chester realized, next time there would be many of them, too many of them.

He wrote quickly, the pen racing across pages as if it knew what had to be written and only needed Bowie to hold nib to paper. He watched his hand flowing back and forth, not fully conscious of the words it was writing. In fifteen minutes he’d filled eight pages with tight script he could barely read. No one came, so he filled another ten, fleshing out his story as best he could remember it. He was sure this would be his last will and testament, all that remained of a life’s obsession—these words and the sample in the safe. But it was enough. He had tread in the footsteps of emperors. How many men could say they’d achieved that?

When he felt his hand had written enough, he dialed the safe’s combination and stuffed the pages inside, taking what he knew would be his last look at the sample he’d brought back from Africa. It resembled a cannonball, a perfectly round sphere he’d crafted with the help of a blacksmith in Khartoum. He closed the safe and wrote a name along with a cryptic message on the stiff cover of his notebook. He tore the remaining blank pages from the book’s spiral binding, and using the lace from his left boot he threaded the spiral and note to the safe’s handle. There was nothing else he could do but pray that whoever found the safe would deliver it to the addressee.

There was no need to write where the man lived. Everyone knew how to find him.

Chester Bowie rolled the corpse of Gunther Bauer under the bottom bunk, trying hard not to notice how the head flexed unnaturally on the broken stalk of his neck. Then he began to shove the safe from its corner, straining at first but seized with such desperation he quickly skidded it across the carpet. He opened the cabin door, peered up and down the hallway, and then shoved the hundred-pound safe toward the stairwell to B deck.

BOOK: Havoc - v4
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