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Dragon (Dirk Pitt Adventures)by Clive Cussler
The horrible stench and the shocking sight staggered Steen. It took him a full minute to recover. Then he pushed the chair with its hideous owner off to one side and leaned over the radio.
Fortunately the digital frequency dial was labeled in Arabic numerals. After a few minutes of trial and error, he found the correct switches and hailed Captain Korvold on the Narvik.
Korvold answered immediately. "Come in, Mr. Steen," he replied formally. "What have you discovered?"
"Something sinister has happened here, Captain. So far we've found a deserted ship with one body, that of the radio operator, who was burned beyond recognition."
"Is there fire on board?"
"No sign. The computerized automated control system shows only green lights on its fire warning systems."
"Any indication as to why the crew took to the boats?" asked Korvold.
"Nothing obvious. They seemed to have left in a panic after attempting to scuttle the ship."
Korvold's mouth tightened, his knuckles turned ivory as he squeezed the phone. "Say again."
"The sea cocks were turned and jammed open. Andersson is working to close them now."
"Why on earth would the crew scuttle a sound ship with thousands of new cars on board?" Korvold asked vaguely.
"The situation must be viewed with suspicion, sir. Something on board is abnormal. The body of the radio operator is ghastly. He looks like he was roasted on a spit."
"Do you wish the ship's doctor to come over?"
"Nothing the good doctor can do here except perform a post- mortem."
"Understood," replied Korvold. "I'll remain on station for another thirty minutes before I leave to search for the missing boats."
"Have you contacted the company, sir?"
"I've held off until you're certain none of the original crew is alive to challenge our salvage claim. Finish your investigation. As soon as you're satisfied the ship is deserted I'll transmit a message to our company director notifying him of our taking possession of the Divine Star."
"Engineer Andersson is already at work closing the sea cocks and pumping her dry. We have power and should be under way shortly."
"The sooner the better," said Korvold. "You're drifting toward a British oceanographic survey vessel that's holding a stationary position."
"Approximately twelve kilometers."
"They're safe enough."
Korvold could think of little else to say. At last he said simply, "Good luck, Oscar. Make port safely." And then he was gone.
Steen turned from the radio, his eyes avoiding the mutilated body in the chair. He felt a cold shudder grip him. He half expected to see the spectral captain of the Flying Dutchman pacing the bridge. There was nothing as morbid as a deserted ship, he thought grimly.
He ordered Sakagawa to hunt up and translate the ship's log. The two remaining seamen he sent to search the auto decks while he systematically went through the crew's quarters. He felt as though he was walking through a haunted house.
Except for a few bits of scattered clothing, it looked as if the crew might return at any minute. Unlike the mess on the bridge, everything seemed lived in and ordinary. In the captain's quarters there was a tray with two teacups that had miraculously failed to fall on the deck during the storm, a uniform laid out on the bed, and a pair of highly polished shoes side by side on the carpeted deck. A framed picture of a woman and three teenage sons had dropped flat on a neat and clean desk.
Steen was hesitant to pry into other men's secrets and their memories. He felt like an uninvited intruder.
His foot kicked something lying just under the desk. He leaned down and picked up the object. It was a nine-millimeter pistol. A double-action Austrian Steyr GB. He pushed it into the waistband of his pants.
The chiming of a wall-mounted chronometer startled him, and he swore he felt his hair rise. He finished his search and beat a quick path back to the bridge.
Sakagawa was sitting in the chart room, his feet perched on a small cabinet, studying the ship's log.
"You found it," said Steen.
"In one of the open briefcases." He turned back to the opening pages and began to read. " 'Divine Star, seven hundred feet, delivered March sixteenth, nineteen eighty-eight. Operated and owned by the Sushimo Steamship Company, Limited. Home port, Kobe.' On this voyage she's carrying seven thousand, two hundred and eighty-eight new Murmoto automobiles to Los Angeles."
"Any clues as to why the crew abandoned her?" Steen asked.
Sakagawa gave a puzzled shake of his head. "No mention of disaster, plague, or mutiny. No report of the typhoon. The last entry is a bit odd."
Sakagawa took a few moments to be sure his translation of Japanese characters into English was reasonably correct. "The best I can get out of it is: 'Weather deteriorating. Seas increasing. Crew suffering from unknown illness. Everyone sick including Captain. Food poisoning suspected. Our passenger, Mr. Yamada, a most important company director, demands we abandon and sink ship during hysterical outburst. Captain thinks Mr. Yamada has suffered nervous breakdown and has ordered him placed under restraint in his quarters.' "
Steen looked down at Sakagawa, his face expressionless.
"The final entry," said Sakagawa. "There is no more."
"What's the date?"
"That's two days ago."
Sakagawa nodded absently. "They must have fled the ship shortly after. Damned funny they didn't take the log with them."
Slowly, unhurriedly, Steen walked into the communications room, his mind trying to make sense out of the final log entry. Suddenly he stopped and reached out to support himself in the doorway. The room seemed to swim before his eyes and he felt nauseous. Bile rose in his throat, but he forced it down. Then, as quickly as the attack came, it passed.
He walked unevenly over to the radio and hailed the Narvik.
"This is First Officer Steen calling Captain Korvold, over."
"Yes, Oscar," answered Korvold. "Go ahead."
"Do not waste time on a search effort. The Divine Star's log suggests the crew left the ship before they were struck by the full force of the typhoon. They departed nearly two days ago. The winds would have swept them two hundred kilometers away by now."
"Providing they survived."
"An unlikely event."
"All right, Oscar. I agree, a search by the Narvik will be useless. We've done all that can be expected of us. I've alerted American sea rescue units at Midway and Hawaii and all vessels in the general area. Soon as you regain steerageway we'll resume course for San Francisco."
"Acknowledged," Steen replied. "I'm on my way to the engine room to check with Andersson now."
Just as Steen finished transmitting, the ship's phone buzzed.
"This is the bridge."
"Mr. Steen," said a weak voice.
"Yes, what is it?"
"Seaman Arne Midgaard, sir. Can you come down to C cargo deck right away? I think I've found something --"
Midgaard's voice stopped abruptly, and Steen could hear the sounds of retching.
"Midgaard, are you sick?"
"Please hurry, sir."
Then the line went dead.
Steen yelled at Sakagawa. "What button do I push for the engine room?"
There was no reply. Steen stepped back into the chart room. Sakagawa was sitting there pale as death, breathing rapidly. He looked up and spoke, gasping the words with every breath.
"The fourth button... rings the engine room,"
"What's wrong with you?" Steen asked anxiously.
"Don't know. I... I feel... awful... vomited twice."
"Hang on," snapped Steen. "I'll gather up the others. We're getting off this death ship." He snatched the phone and rang the engine room. There was no answer. Fear flooded his mind. Fear of an unknown that was striking them down. He imagined the smell of death pervading the whole ship.
Steen took a swift glance at a deck diagram that was mounted on a bulkhead, then leaped down the companionway six steps at a time. He tried to run toward the vast holds containing the autos, but a nausea cramped his stomach and he weaved through the passageway like a drunk through a back alley.
At last he stumbled through the doorway onto C cargo deck. A great sea of multicolored automobiles stretched a hundred meters fore and aft. Amazingly, despite the buffeting from the storm and the list of the ship, they were all firmly in place.
Steen shouted frantically for Midgaard, his voice echoing from the steel bulkheads. Silence was his only reply. Then he spotted it, the oddity that stood out like the only man in a crowd holding aloft a sign.
One of the cars had its hood up.
He staggered between the long rows, falling against doors and fenders, bruising his knees on the protruding bumpers. As he approached the car with the open hood, he shouted again. "Anyone here?"
This time he heard a faint moan. In ten paces he had reached the car and stared frozen at the sight of Midgaard lying beside One tire.
The young seaman's face was festered with running sores. Froth mixed with blood streamed from his mouth. His eyes stared unseeing. His arms were purple from bleeding beneath the skin. He seemed to be decaying before Steen's eyes.
Steen sagged against the car, stricken with horror. He clutched his head between his hands in helplessness and despair, not noticing the thicket of hair that came away when he dropped them to his sides.
"Why in God's name are we dying?" he whispered, seeing his own grisly death mirrored by Midgaard. "What is killing us?"
Copyright © 1990 by Clive Cussler Enterprises, Inc.
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