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The evening air was brisk, an overture for the approaching cold of winter, when a yellow and green cab stopped at a security gate on the south end of Washington's National Airport. The guard studied the pass that was extended by a hand from the rear window, then handed it back and spoke in an official tone. "Stay on the road. You're in a restricted area."
The driver swung onto the narrow service road that ran parallel with the east-west taxi strip on the southern border of the airport. "You sure this is the right way?" he asked, seeing nothing but an empty field.
"I'm certain," answered the gray-haired man in the backseat. "I've been here before."
"May I ask what you're looking for?"
The man in the backseat ignored the question. "Pull up at that pole with the red light on the top. I'll get out there."
"But there's no sign of life."
"Can you return for me in about forty minutes?"
"You want to stand out here in the middle of nowhere on a cold night for forty minutes?" asked the uncomprehending driver.
"I enjoy solitude."
The cabbie shrugged his shoulders. "OK. I'll take a break for a cup of coffee and come back for you in forty minutes."
The man passed the driver a fifty-dollar bill and stepped from the cab. He stood in the middle of the road beside the pole until the red taillights of the cab faded in the distance. Then he stared at a ghostly building that seemed to materialize out of the night, its silhouette becoming defined against the lights of the nation's capital across the Potomac River. Slowly, the building became physical and recognizable as an old aircraft hangar with a rounded roof. At first glance it appeared deserted. The surrounding land was covered with weeds, and the corrugated sides of the building wore a heavy coat of rust. The windows were boarded over, and the huge doors that once rolled open to admit aircraft for maintenance were welded closed.
The man standing in the road was not alone, and the hangar was not abandoned. At least two dozen cars were neatly parked in rows among the weeds. As he watched, a Lincoln Town Car pulled up to the front entrance door of the hangar, and an elegantly dressed woman exited the car, her door held open by a valet parking attendant.
As the man approached, he could hear the sound of voices mingled with laughter and the music of a Dixieland jazz band blaring out "Waiting for the Robert E. Lee." Before he made his way to the entrance, the man with the mane of gray hair and matching beard paused for a moment, listening to the wave of conversation from inside. Finally, he stepped through the doorway and handed his overcoat to a girl who gave him his receipt. A doorman, dressed suavely in a tuxedo, came forward.
"May I have your invitation, sir?"
The gray-haired man looked at him and said with quiet authority, "I do not require one."
The doorman's face went blank for a moment, and then, as if realizing his mistake, he said, "My apologies, sir. Please enjoy the party."
Then the intruder passed into a scene that he had envisioned in his mind a hundred times and that could only be described in a novel.
Row upon row of beautifully restored classic cars were positioned across a vast white epoxy-sealed floor. Their gleaming mirrorlike paint seemed to fluoresce under the brilliant overhead lights mounted on the girders in the rounded roof. A German jet from World War II and an old 1930s Ford Trimotor passenger aircraft stood parked in the far corner of the hangar. Next to them sat an early-twentieth-century railroad Pullman car and what looked like a small sailboat put together by either a small child or a drunk. The man smiled as he examined a bathtub with an outboard motor that sat on a small platform.
Hanging from the girders and along the walls were antique metal signs advertising gasoline brands, car manufacturers, and soft drinks, many of them no longer in existence. Several red signs with white lettering hung in a row, one after the other, that read, HE HAD THE RING. HE HAD THE FLAT. BUT SHE FELT HIS CHIN. AND THAT WAS THAT. BURMA SHAVE.
In another corner of the cavernous hangar an ornate iron circular staircase wound up to an apartment above the main floor where the host lived. The intruder did not make his way up the stairs. Not just yet. There was no curiosity. He already knew every square inch of the apartment in his mind.
Tables arranged in the aisles between the cars were already filled with people conversing as they drank California estate reserve wine or French champagne
and dined on the gourmet delicacies from several buffet tables stationed in a circle around an enormous ice sculpture of a Mississippi steamboat that rose from a sea of blue ice with a mist swirling around its paddle wheels. The buffet table featured polished silver chafing dishes and iced platters kept filled with seafood of every variety by a small army of waiters and
The body of the man hovering around the serving lines was nothing less than colossal. He did not look happy. He was dabbing sweat from his brow and neck as he admonished the maître d' of Le Curcel, the Michelin three-star restaurant he had hired to cater the party. "These oysters you sent over are the size of peanuts. They simply won't do."
"I shall have them replaced within minutes," the maître d' promised before rushing away.
"You are St. Julien Perlmutter." It was a statement, not a question, from the gray-haired man.
"Yes, I am. May I be of service to you, sir?"
"Not really, but I've always been envious of your lifestyle. A gourmand, a true connoisseur of the finer things, the nation's leading maritime history expert. It can safely be said that you're not a common man."
Perlmutter patted his ample stomach. "There are, however, a few disadvantages to loving good food and drink."
"Speaking of food and drink, may I express my compliments on arranging such an elaborate party? The food and wine selection and table settings are beyond compare."
Perlmutter's face lit up. "I accept your gracious compliment, Mr...."
But the stranger did not answer. He had already turned and began wandering amid the party guests. Unnoticed and unrecognized, he made his way to the bar and waited in line behind a pair of lovely ladies who ordered two glasses of Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin Brut champagne. One was tall, very tall, with blond hair that was almost yellow. She stared from a strong face with high cheekbones and through deep blue eyes. The other woman was smaller, with radiant red hair and gray eyes. She had an exotic quality about her.
"I beg your pardon," he said, looking at the redhead, "but you must be Summer Moran." He shifted his head slightly. "And you are Maeve Fletcher."
arBoth women instinctively looked at each other and then at the stranger. "Do we know you?" Maeve inquired.
"Not in a physical sense, no."
"But you recognize us," said Summer.
"I guess you could say that I'm familiar with your existence."
Maeve stared at him and smiled thinly. "Then you must know that Summer and I are dead."
"Yes, I'm quite aware of that. You both died in the Pacific Ocean," he said slowly. "Ms. Moran in an underwater earthquake and Ms. Fletcher from the
eruption of twin volcanoes. I regret things couldn't have worked out differently."
"Could events have been altered for a happier ending?" asked Summer.
"They might have."
Maeve stared over her champagne glass at him. "This is eerie."
Summer gave the man a calculating look. "Do you think Maeve and I might ever be resurrected?"
"I rarely speculate on future events," answered the man. "But I'd have to say the prospects are dim."
"Then it's not likely we'll ever meet again."
"No, I'm afraid not."
He stood aside as the ladies excused themselves. He watched them move with a feline poise as they made their way through the crowded hangar and thought it was a great pity that he was seeing them for the last time. He stared at Summer and began to have second thoughts.
The bartender broke his reverie. "Your pleasure, sir?"
"What brand of tequila are you pouring?"
"Patron and Porfido."
"Your host has excellent taste," said the stranger. "However, I would like a double Don Julio anejo on the rocks with lime and a salted rim."
The bartender looked at him thoughtfully. "Don Julio is Mr. Pitt's personal favorite. It's also his private stock. Very little of it is exported from Mexico."
"He won't mind. You might say he drinks it because of me."
The bartender shrugged and poured the tequila from a bottle hidden beneath the bar. The intruder thanked him and stepped to a nearby table where several attractive women were seated engaged in girl talk.
"I guess we should consider ourselves lucky," said Eva Rojas, a pretty, vibrant woman with red-gold hair. "Unlike Summer and Maeve, we survived to the end of our adventures."
Jessie LeBaron, refined and lithe-bodied in her midfifties, patted her lips with a napkin. "True, but except for Heidi Milligan and Loren Smith, the rest of us never reappeared."
The exquisite Julia Lee, her Chinese features soft and delicate, recalled, "After Dirk and I returned from Mazatlan, Mexico, we both went back to our respective jobs, and I never saw him again."
"At least you enjoyed an exotic and romantic interlude with him," said Stacy Fox, brushing aside the blond strands of hair from her face. "In my case, he didn't even say good-bye."
Hali Kamil, a lovely woman with classic Egyptian features, laughed. "Isn't this where somebody says it is better to have loved and lost Dirk Pitt than never to have loved him at all?"
Lily Sharp, striking and svelte, and the captivating Dana Seagram sat quietly, not speaking, their minds far away, Lily remembering when she and Pitt found the treasures from the Alexandria Library in Texas, Dana when she worked with him raising the Titanic.
"It wouldn't be practical for Pitt to have married any of you," said the gray-haired man, breaking into the conversation.
"Why do you say that?" asked Julia Lee as the women all turned and stared openly at the stranger.
"Can you picture Al Giordino coming to your front door and asking if Pitt can come out and play? I'm afraid the scenario would not be acceptable."
Then he smiled and abruptly walked away.
"Who was that?" Dana Seagram asked no one in particular.
"Beats me," replied Lily Sharp. "Nobody I've ever met before."
The party crasher strolled over to a dark metallic blue 1936 Pierce-Arrow sedan that was attached to a matching trailer. A group of men sat next to the trailer. The stranger peered inside at the linoleum floor, the antique stove and icebox. He appeared to be studying the trailer's interior but was in fact listening to the table conversation with more than a passing interest.
A tall, distinguished-looking man who spoke with a German accent pointed across the table to a muscular bull of a man with a clean-shaven head. "Foss Gly here was surely the worst of us all," said Bruno von Till.
A wealthy-looking Chinese man shook his head in disagreement. "My vote goes to Min Koryo Bougainville. For a woman, she made the rest of us villains look like milksops."
Min Koryo, though frail and ancient, still had eyes that burned with evil. "Thank you, Qin Shang. But it cost me a horrible death. If you recall, I was sent hurtling down the elevator shaft of the World Trade Center from the hundredth floor."
Arthur Dorsett, as ugly as any man created, grinned through yellow teeth. "Consider yourself lucky. After Pitt crushed my throat, he left me to be consumed by molten lava."
Foss Gly spread his huge hands expansively. "After beating me with a baseball bat, he jammed his finger in my eye socket clear through to my brain."
Tupac Amaru, the Peruvian terrorist, scoffed. "At least he didn't shoot off your genitals before killing you in total darkness deep in an underwater cave."
Yves Massarde, immaculately dressed in a white dinner jacket with a yellow rose in the lapel, stared vacantly into the bubbles rising in his champagne glass and wondered aloud, "How could Pitt be even more brutal and vicious than the worst crew of villains ever created?"
The gray-haired stranger leaned between Gly and Qin Shang and said, "It was easy."
Before any of the men could say a word, he quickly resumed his course through the partygoers, moving toward the far wall where an old railroad Pullman car sat on a short section of track leading to nowhere. The gold lettering on the steel sides read MANHATTAN LIMITED. The lights inside had been wired into the main junction box, and the opulent interior was as brightly lit as when the car rolled over the tracks between New York and Quebec. Mannequins were artfully arranged in what was once called the parlor. At one table two men sat as if dining while a porter in a white uniform stood and served.
A distinguished, impeccably dressed man in his seventies sat in a Victorian velvet chair. Next to him on the couch was an attractive woman half his age with ash-blond hair. She wore the uniform of a naval officer, and despite the fact that she was sitting down, it was easy to imagine her standing at a height of six feet.
ard"I'm sitting in the very same chair where Pitt bounced a bullet off my head," said the elderly man with a British inflection.
"Does he still call you Brian Shaw?" asked Heidi Milligan.
"Yes, but I'm certain he saw right through me."
"He never stopped suspecting you of being James Bond," said Heidi.
The older man reached over, took Heidi's hand, and kissed it. "That will forever be our little secret."
The gray-haired intruder smiled to himself, then slipped away before being noticed.
Inside the old Ford Trimotor airplane, seated in an antique wicker basket chair, a man dressed in Levi's with long blond hair tied in a ponytail peered into the monitor of a laptop computer.
"Surfing the Internet while a party's in high gear?" said the intruder. "That's antisocial."
Hiram Yaeger looked up at the stranger standing in the fuselage entrance. One of the overhead lights was above and to the rear of his visitor, and he squinted while attempting to recognize the face of the man who spoke. The stranger was tall, nearly six feet, three inches, with a slight paunch brought about by age. His hair had grayed over the years, as had the beard covering only his chin. His skin was tanned from the sun. He was probably in his middle sixties, Yaeger estimated, but he looked younger. The stranger wore a faint grin on his lips, but it was his eyes that gripped Yaeger's attention. They were a mysterious blue-green with a light that twinkled from deep inside. The face was that of a man who might have been a ship's captain in a past life, or a prospector, maybe even an explorer.
"Dirk asked me to look up data on a lost ship," Yaeger finally explained. "I could wait until working hours, but I'm not much of a party animal, so thought I'd get a head start on the project."
"What ship?" the gray-haired man asked.
"Ah, yes, the passenger ship that vanished with nearly three hundred people off the west coast of South Africa in 1909."
Yaeger was impressed. "You know your ships."
"The Waratah was found by a NUMA South African team several years ago," stated the intruder matter-of-factly.
"No NUMA team headed by Dirk Pitt found the Waratah that I'm aware of," said Yaeger.
"Not Pitt's NUMA," said the intruder slowly. "My NUMA."
"Right," Yaeger said sarcastically. He refocused his attention on the monitor, intending to read the information on the mystery ship as he had documented it. But when he twisted around to correct the stranger, the man had disappeared.
Yaeger stood and glanced around outside the aircraft, but his visitor was nowhere to be found. "Nuttier than a fruitcake," he muttered under his breath. "Next he'll claim he found the Confederate submarine Hunley."
The stranger climbed the circular staircase to the apartment that rose far above the hangar floor. He entered and made his way unerringly through the unique nautical furnishings into the kitchen. A small man who peered from owlish eyes through horn-rim glasses was hunched over a large glass dish he was filling with homemade salsa spooned from a mixing bowl. A short man with curly black hair who was built like a beer keg stood over a stove, pan-frying a hamburger.
The intruder nodded at the well-done hamburger and said, "Does St. Julien know about this blasphemy?"
"My friend and I prefer something a little more gluttonous than those fancy tidbits from St. Julien's highfalutin chef," said Albert Giordino without turning from the stove.
Rudi Gunn offered a bag of tortilla chips and held out the bowl of salsa to the stranger. "Help yourself."
Between bites, his eyes watering from the abundance of chili peppers, the stranger said, "You two have known Dirk a long time."
"He and I go back to grammar school," said Albert Giordino, flipping the hamburger between two buns loaded with salsa.
"Al, Dirk and I were the first employees Admiral Sandecker hired when he became director of NUMA," Gunn said as he swished beer around in his mouth to reduce the heat. "We've been as close as bricks ever since."
"You've experienced many arduous adventures together."
"Tell me." Giordino grinned. "I've got the bruises and broken bones to prove it."
"You have enormous respect for him, don't you?"
"Dirk has carried us through some hairy times," said Gunn. "He never fails to deliver. He's a man who can be trusted by men and women alike."
"I'd follow him to hell," said Giordino. "Come to think of it, I already have."
"Your warm friendship is to be admired," said the gray-haired man.
Giordino stared into the stranger's eyes. "Don't I know you from somewhere?"
"Actually, you and I met twice."
"When and where?"
"No matter." The stranger waved a hand airily. "I wanted to stop up here and find you, Mr. Giordino, because I understand you fancy a fine cigar now and then."
"That I do."
Reaching into his breast pocket, the stranger produced a pair of large cigars and handed them to Giordino. Then, with a curt nod, he exited the kitchen and moved down the stairs.
Giordino studied the cigars, and his eyes widened as his mouth dropped open. "My God!" he muttered.
"What is it?" asked Gunn. "You look like you've just seen the Virgin Mary."
"The cigars," Giordino said vaguely. "They bear the same label as Admiral Sandecker's private stock. How the hell did he get them?"
He rushed to the window and peered down onto the floor below. He just caught a glimpse of the grayhaired stranger as he reached the bottom of the staircase and melted into the crowd below.
A short, bantam-sized man with a flaming Van Dyke beard stood staring at a 1948 blue Talbot-Lago coupe with elegant bodywork by the French coachbuilder Saoutchik. He seemed lost in thought.
"Fabulous party," said the gray-haired man.
As if his mind were coming out of a fog, Admiral James Sandecker, the feisty chief director of the National Underwater and Marine Agency, slowly turned. "I'm sorry. What did you say?"
"A fabulous party."
"A reunion of sorts, I understand."
Sandecker nodded. "You could call it a twenty-year celebration of NUMA and the people who built it."
"You and Dirk have enjoyed a long and illustrious career."
"We've seen our share of disasters and tragedies."
"But you've achieved some remarkable accomplishments."
"Yes, I must admit the trail has had its enjoyable moments."
"I wish you many more successful achievements in the future."
"I'm not sure I can keep up with the young people any longer," Sandecker sighed.
"You will. You're in better physical condition than most men your age."
"I'm not getting any younger."
"Neither am I," said the stranger. "Neither am I."
"Forgive me," said Sandecker, studying the stranger for the first time. "But I can't seem to recall your name or where we met."
"We've never met," the gray-haired man said as he motioned to the bar. "I'm going to freshen my drink. Can I bring you back something?"
The admiral held up a half-full glass of tomato juice. "I'm fine, thank you." He watched as the stranger cut through the throng to the bar. How odd, he thought. The guy acted as if we had been pals for years, but for the life of me, he doesn't look the least bit familiar.
"Another touch of Don Julio anejo?" asked the bartender, remembering.
"Yes, if you please," replied the uninvited guest. He glanced to his side as Senator George Pitt stepped up to the bar. Dirk's father, the senior senator from California, and the gray-haired man were about the same age and could have almost passed as brothers.
"Enjoying the party?" asked Senator Pitt with a cordial smile.
"Especially the people. I feel as though I'm among old friends."
"Have you had a chance to sample the food? The quail pâté and ostrich tartare are excellent."
"I understand you're going to run for your seat in the Senate again, Senator."
George Pitt looked surprised. "That's news to me. I haven't made up my mind yet."
"You will," said the stranger.
"You sound as if you know me better than I know myself."
The man smiled. "I've known you for a very long time, as it turns out. I guess you could say we were both there when Dirk was created."
"My memory is slipping," said the senator, at a loss. "Were you my wife's obstetrician?"
"No, nothing like that." The stranger finished off his drink and set the glass on the bar. "I wish you the best of luck on having your programs passed by Congress."
"Please forgive me, sir, but I can't seem to recall your name."
"In your position you meet too many people to remember them all." The stranger paused to glance at his watch. "Nice talking to you, Senator, but I'm afraid I must move on."
There were two more guests the gray-haired man wished to meet. He found one of them sitting in the rear seat of a 1932 Stutz DV-32 town car. Of all the ladies, Congresswoman Loren Smith was the gray-haired man's favorite. He reveled in her incredible violet eyes and long cinnamon hair tastefully styled in a Grecian coiffure. Loren was exquisitely proportioned with broad shoulders and long legs. She possessed an air of breezy sophistication, yet one could sense a tomboyish daring behind her eyes.
The uninvited guest leaned in the open door. "Good evening, Loren. You look pensive."
She tilted her head, unconcerned that an apparent stranger had used her first name and not referred to her as Congresswoman. She flashed a disarming smile and stared at him.
She recognized me, he thought. She actually recognized me.
"How is Mr. Periwinkle?" she asked.
"My burro? Last I saw him, he was running wild with a small herd in the Mojave Desert. I imagine he's a father several times by now."
"You sold the Box Car Café?"
"It retreated under the desert sands."
"This is the last place I expected to meet you again," she said, trying to read whatever was hidden in his eyes.
"I felt I had to be here, so I crashed the party."
"You didn't receive an invitation?"
"I must have been overlooked." He turned and scanned the crowd silently for a few moments before turning his attention back to Loren. "Have you seen Pitt?"
"I talked to him about twenty minutes ago. He must be mingling with the other guests."
"Perhaps I'll catch him on the way out."
"You're leaving so soon? The party is just beginning to get interesting."
He hated to tear himself away from those violet eyes. "I must go. Good to have seen you again, Loren."
"Give my regards to Mr. Periwinkle."
"If I see him, I shall."
She reached out and touched his arm. "Odd, but it feels as if I've known you most of my life."
He shook his head and smiled. "No, it is I who have known you. This will be my only chance to tell you that you have been the girl of my dreams."
He left her in the Stutz alone with her memories and an expression of nostalgia on her face as he merged with the guests and headed toward the door.
When he stopped to retrieve his overcoat, he paused and looked around the floor of the hangar once more, at the wondrous cars, the fascinating people, and wished he could stay longer. There were so many others in the hangar he had known over the past thirty years, whom he didn't have time to talk with. But he realized the illusion was fleeting and time was short. He was about to step out when Dirk Pitt walked in from outside.
"I thought I had missed you," said the stranger.
"One of my guests noticed one of his tires was flat when he arrived, so I changed it for him."
"Saint Dirk to the rescue."
"That's me," Pitt said jovially, "the salvation of lost animals and little old ladies who need to cross streets."
"You wouldn't be Dirk Pitt if you didn't betray a hint of compassion now and then."
Pitt looked at the older man steadily. "Why is it that when we meet I'm never supposed to remember who you are?"
"Because I plan it that way. It wouldn't do for us to become bosom buddies like you and Giordino. Better I make an occasional appearance to set you back on course before quietly exiting stage right."
"I'm not sure I appreciate all you put me through. I have more scars, physical and mental, than I care to count."
"Adventure takes its toll on heroes and villains," said the gray-haired man philosophically.
"That's easy for you to say. I hope I fare better in the next adventure."
"One only knows where the plot will take us."
"Will there be a next time? I hear talk of you retiring."
"The thought has crossed my mind. I'm finding it more difficult to be creative as the years pass."
"A lot of people are counting on us," Pitt said sincerely.
The gray-haired man's face had a sad look to it. It was almost as if he hated to leave. "Good-bye, Dirk Pitt. Until we meet again."
"Good-bye, Clive Cussler. Stay healthy, and never age."
Cussler laughed. "That's certainly something you'll never have to worry about. When we started out together, we were the same age. And now look at us."
They shook hands. Then Cussler closed his eyes. When he opened them again, he found himself standing on the empty road beneath the solitary light pole. The hangar, the people, the cars were all gone, vanished as though they had never existed.
Within five minutes the cabbie returned and picked him up. Pulling the door closed, Cussler settled back into the seat as his mind traveled back over the years to 1965, when he first sat down at a typewriter. He and his friends from the hangar had traveled every corner of the earth and weathered every adventure conceivable. The torment, action and joy they had experienced were legendary. The people they had all touched numbered in the millions. Perhaps it was time for a break, he thought. Maybe retirement was not such a bad idea after all.
"Where to?" asked the driver.
"The airport terminal. United Airlines. It's time for me to go home."
Shifting the cab into drive, the cabbie pulled onto the main road leading to the security gate. The harvest moon had risen, and as Cussler turned and looked back, he recreated the illusion of Pitt's hangar in his mind. No, he couldn't retire. Already the plot for the next Pitt adventure was forming in his mind.
Copyright © 1998 by Clive Cussler