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The New York Post called him "just about the best storyteller in the business." Now, Clive Cussler, creator of the bestselling NUMA(r) and Dirk Pitt(r) series, presents his latest and most intriguing high-seas action hero: the enigmatic captain of the Oregon, Juan Cabrillo. Only Cabrillo could convert the interior of a nondescript lumber hauler into a state-of-the-art spy ship -- and only he could take the helm on the dangerous covert missions it carries out for whichever US agency pays the price. In this first feature-length adventure, Cabrillo and his crew of expert intelligence and naval men must put Tibet back in the hands of the Dalai Lama by striking a deal with the Russians and Chinese. His gambling chip is a Golden Buddha containing records of vast oil reserves in the disputed land. But first, he'll have to locate -- and steal -- the all-important artifact. And there are certain people who would do anything in their power to see him fail . . .
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Clive Cussler is the author of numerous New York Times bestsellers. He splits his time between Telluride, Colorado and Paradise Valley, Arizona.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
THE PRESENT DAY
EIGHT IN THE evening. From out of the south, like a dark insect crawling over a wrinkled blue tablecloth, a tired old cargo ship pushed her way through the Caribbean swells toward the entrance of Santiago Harbor on the isle of Cuba. The exhaust from her single funnel drifted in a blue haze under an easterly breeze as the sun settled below the western horizon and became a ponderous orange ball magnified by the earth's atmosphere.
She was one of the last tramp steamers, a cargo ship that traveled the sea anonymously to the exotic and far-flung ports of the world. There were few left in operation. They did not follow a regular shipping route. Their schedules depended on the demands of their cargo and its owners, so their destinations changed from port to port. They coasted in, unloaded their freight and sailed away like wraiths in the night.
Two miles from shore, a small boat slapped over the rolling sea, approached the ship and swung around on a parallel course. The pilot closed on the rust-streaked hull as a boarding ladder was thrown down from an open hatch.
The pilot, a man in his fifties with brown skin and thick gray hair, stared up at the ancient ship. Her black paint was faded and badly needed to be chipped away and repainted. Streams of rust flowed from every opening in the hull. The huge anchor, pulled tightly in its hawsehole, was completely covered by corrosion. The pilot read the letters, barely discernible on the upper bow. The weary old freighter was named Oregon.
Jesus Morales shook his head in amazement. It was a miracle the ship hadn't been scrapped twenty years ago, he mused. She looked more like a derelict than a cargo carrier still in service. He wondered if the party bureaucrats in the Ministry of Transportation had any idea of the condition of the ship they had contracted to bring in a cargo of chemical fertilizer for the sugar and tobacco fields. He could not believe the ship had passed maritime insurance inspection.
As the ship slowed almost to a dead stop, Morales stood at the railing and the pilot boat's bumpers squeezed against the freighter's hull. Timing the crest of a wave as it lifted the boat, Morales leaped agilely from the wet deck onto the boarding ladder and climbed to the hatch. It was a function he performed as often as ten times a day. A pair of crewmen were waiting beside the hatch and helped him up on the deck. The two were both burly-looking individuals, and they did not bother to smile in greeting. One simply pointed toward the ladder leading to the bridge. Then they turned and left Morales standing alone on the deck. Watching them walk away, Morales hoped that he'd never have to meet them in a dark alley.
He paused before climbing the ladder and took a few moments to study the upper works of the ship.
From his long experience and knowledge of ships, he judged her length at 560 feet, with a 75-foot beam. Probably a gross tonnage around 11,000. Five derricks, two behind the funnel and superstructure and three on the forward deck, stood waiting to unload her cargo. He counted six holds with twelve hatches. In her prime, she would have been classed as an express cargo liner. He guessed that she had been built and launched in the early 1960s. The flag on her stern was Iranian. Not a registry Morales had seen very often.
If the Oregon looked shabby from the waterline, she looked downright squalid from her main deck. Rust covered every piece of deck machinery from winches to chains, but the hardware at least appeared to be in usable condition. By comparison, the derricks looked as if they hadn't been operated in years.
To add further insult, battered drums, tools and what could only be described as junked equipment were scattered around the decks. In all his years as a harbor pilot, Morales had never seen a ship in such filthy condition.
He climbed the ladder steps leading to the bridge, past bulkheads with flaking paint and portholes whose lenses were cracked and yellowed. Then he paused before finally swinging the door open. The interior of the vessel was as bad, if not worse. The wheelhouse was dirty, with the scars of cigarette burns on the counters and on what had once been a polished teak deck. Dead flies littered the windowsills, the smell assaulted his nose. And then there was the captain.
Morales was greeted by a great slob of a man with an immense stomach that sagged over his belt line. The face was scarred, and the nose so badly broken it slanted toward the left cheek. The thick black hair was plastered back with some kind of greasy cream and his beard was scruffy and stringy. The captain was a cacophony of colors. His eyes were red and his teeth yellow-brown, while his arms were covered with blue tattoos. A grimy yachtsman's cap sat perched on the back of his head and he wore dingy coveralls. The tropical heat and the humidity on the non-air-conditioned bridge made it obvious to Morales that the man had not bathed for at least a month. Any dog worth his salt would have tried to bury the man.
He extended a sweaty hand to Morales and spoke in English. “Glad to see you. I'm Captain Jed Smith.”
“Jesus Morales. Pilot for the Harbor Office of Santiago.” Morales felt uncomfortable. Smith spoke English with an American accent--not what he'd expected on a ship of Iranian registry.
Smith handed him a packet of papers. “Here's our registration and cargo manifest.”
Morales merely cast a brief glance at the documents. Officials on the docks would study them more closely. His only concern was that the ship had permission to enter the port. He handed back the packet and said, “Shall we proceed?”
Smith waved a hand toward a wooden helm that somehow seemed terribly old-fashioned for a ship built in the sixties. “She's all yours, Senor Morales. What dock do you want us to moor at?”
“There are no docks available until Thursday. You will have to anchor in the middle of the harbor until then.”
“That's four days from now. We have a schedule to meet. We can't sit around for four days waiting to unload our cargo.”
Morales shrugged. “I have no control over the harbormaster. Besides, the docks are full with ships unloading new farm machinery and automobiles, now that the embargo has been lifted. These have priority over your cargo.”
Smith threw up his hands. “All right. I guess it's not the first time we had to twiddle our thumbs waiting to unload.” He gave a broad, rotten-toothed grin. “I guess me and my crew will just have to come ashore and make friends with your Cuban women.”
The thought made Morales's skin crawl. Without further conversation, he stepped over to the helm as Smith called the engine room and ordered half speed. The pilot felt the engine's vibrations through the deck as the tired old ship began to make way again, and he aimed her bow toward the narrow entrance of Santiago Harbor, which was bordered by high bluffs that rose from the sea.
From offshore, the channel that led inside to the bellows-shaped harbor was invisible until a ship was nearly on top of it. Rising two hundred feet atop the cliffs on the right stood the old colonial fortress known as Morro Castle.
Morales noticed that Smith and the members of his mangy crew standing on the bridge seemed interested in the defenses that had been dug into the hillside when Fidel Castro had thought the United States was going to attack Cuba. They studied the gun and missile emplacements through expensive binoculars.
Morales smiled to himself. Let them look all they wanted most of the defenses were deserted. Only two small fortresses maintained a small company of soldiers to man the missile emplacements in the unlikely event an unwelcome vessel tried to enter the harbor.
Morales threaded his way through the buoys and steered the Oregon deftly around the twists and turns of the channel, which soon opened into the broad, ball-shaped harbor surrounded by the city of Santiago. The wheel felt strange to him, though. The odd feeling was barely perceptible, but there nonetheless. Whenever he turned the wheel, there seemed to be a short lag before the rudder responded. He made a quick but very slight turn to starboard before bringing the wheel back to port. It was definitely there, almost like an echo, a two-second delay. He did not sense sluggishness from the steering machinery, but rather a pause. It had to come from another origin. Yet when the response came, it was quick and firm. But why the hesitation?
“Your helm has an off feel to it.”
“Yeah,” Smith grunted. “It's been that way for a few days. Next port we enter with a shipyard, I'll have the spindles on the rudder looked at.”
It still made no sense to Morales, but the ship was entering the open part of the bay off the city now, and he pushed the mystery from his mind. He called the harbor officials over the ship's radio and kept them informed of his progress, and was given orders for the anchorage.
Morales pointed out the buoys to Smith that marked the mooring area and ordered the ship brought to slow speed. He then swung the stern around until the bow was facing the incoming tide before ordering all stop. The Oregon slowed to a halt in an open area between a Canadian container ship and a Libyan oil tanker.
“You may drop your anchor,” he said to Smith, who acknowledged with a nod as he held a loudspeaker in front of his face.
“Let go anchor!” he shouted at his crew. The command was answered a few seconds later by the rattling clatter of the chain links against the hawsehole, followed by a great splash as the anchor plunged into the water. The bow of the ship became hazy from the cloud of dust and rust that burst from the chain locker.
Morales released his grip on the worn spokes of the wheel and turned to Smith. “You will, of course, pay the pilot's fee when you turn over your documents to the harbor officials.”
“Why wait?” snorted Smith. He reached into a pocket of his coveralls and produced a wad of crinkled American hundred-dollar bills. He counted out fifteen bills, then hesitated, looked into Morales's shocked expression, and said, “Oh, what the heck, suppose we make it an even two thousand dollars.”
Without the least indecision, Morales took the bills and slipped them into his wallet.
“You are most generous, Captain Smith. I will notify the officials that the pilot's fee was paid in full.”
Smith signed the required affidavits and logged the mooring. He put a massive arm around the Cuban's shoulder. “Now about them girls. Where's a good place in Santiago to meet them?”
“The cabarets on the waterfront are where you'll find both cheap entertainment and drinks.”
“I'll tell my crew.”
“Good-bye, Captain.” Morales did not extend his hand. He already felt unclean just by being on board the ship; he could not bring himself to grip the greasy hand of the obnoxious captain. Morales's easygoing Cuban warmth had been cooled by the surroundings and he didn't want to waste another second on board the Oregon. Leaving the wheelhouse, he dropped down the ladder to the deck and descended to the waiting pilot boat, still stunned at experiencing the filthiest ship he had ever piloted into the harbor. Which is just what the owners of the Oregon wanted him to think.
If Morales had examined the ship more closely, he might have realized it was all a facade. The Oregon rode low in the water because of specially fitted ballast tanks, which when filled with water lowered the hull to make it look as though it were loaded with cargo. Even the engine tremors were mechanically staged. The ship's engines were whisper-silent and vibrationless.
And the coating of rust throughout the ship? It was artistically applied paint.
SATISFIED THAT THE pilot and his boat had pulled away from the Oregon, Captain Smith stepped over to a handrail mounted on the deck that did not seem to serve any particular purpose. He gripped it and pressed a button on the underside. The square section of the deck on which Smith was standing suddenly began descending until it stopped in a vast, brightly lit room filled with computers, automated controls and several large consoles containing communications and weapons-firing systems. The deck in the command center was richly carpeted, the walls were paneled in exotic woods and the furniture looked as if it had come straight from a designer's showroom. This room was the real heart of the Oregon.
The six people four men and two women neatly dressed in shorts, flowered shirts and white blouses were busy manning the various systems. One woman was scanning an array of TV monitors that covered every section of Santiago Bay, while a man zoomed a camera on the pilot boat as it turned and headed into the main channel. No one bothered to give the fat captain half a glance. Only a man dressed in khaki shorts and a green golf shirt approached him.
“All go well with the pilot?” asked Max Hanley, the ship's corporate president, who directed all operational systems, including the ship's engines.
“The pilot noticed the delay in the helm.”
Hanley grinned. “If only he'd known he was steering a dead wheel. We'll have to make some adjustments, though. You speak to him in Spanish?”
Smith smiled. “My best Yankee English. Why let him know I speak his language? That way, I could tell if he played any tricks over the radio with the harbor officials as we anchored.” Smith pulled back a sleeve of his grimy coveralls and checked a Timex watch with a badly scratched lens. “Thirty minutes until dark.”
“The equipment in the moon pool is all ready.”
“And the landing crew?”
“I just have time to get rid of these smelly clothes and get decent,” said Cabrillo, heading toward his cabin down a hallway hung with paintings by modern artists.
The crew cabins were concealed inside two of the cargo holds and were as plush as rooms in a five-star hotel. There was no separation between officers and crew on the Oregon. All were educated people, highly trained in their respective fields elite men and women who had served in the armed forces. The ship was owned by its staff, who were stockholders. There were no ranks. Cabrillo was chairman; Hanley, president; the others held various other titles. They were all mercenaries, here to make a profit though that did not necessarily rule out good works at the same time hired by countries or large companies to perform clandestine services around the world, very often at great risk.
THE MAN WHO left the cabin twenty minutes later did not look like the man who'd entered. The greasy hairpiece, scruffy beard and grimy coveralls were gone, as was the foul smell. So was the Timex, now replaced with a stainless-steel Concord chronograph. In addition, the man had dropped at least a hundred pounds.
Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo had transformed himself from the grimy sea dog Smith to his true self again. A tall man in his forties, ruggedly handsome, he stared through pixie-blue eyes. His blond hair was trimmed in a crew cut and a western cowboy-style mustache sprouted from his upper lip.
He hurried down the corridor to a far door and entered a control room perched high inside a vast cavern in the hull amidships. The three-deck-high moon pool, as it was called, was where all the Oregon’s underwater equipment was stored diving gear; submersibles, manned and unmanned; and an array of underwater electronic sensors. A pair of state-of-the-art contemporary underwater craft by U.S. Submarines a sixty-five-foot Nomad 1000 and a thirty-two-foot Discovery 1000 hung in cradles. The doors on the bottom of the hull slid open and water flooded in until it was level with the outer waterline.
The remarkable ship was not what she appeared from her exterior. The outer decks and hull were disguised to make her look like a rust bucket. The whee...
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