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Excerpt

Excerpt

Devil's Gate: A Kurt Austin Adventure

 

PROLOGUE

Santa Maria Airport, Azores island chain, 1951

Hudson Wallace stood on the ramp just outside the terminal building on a cold, wet night. His leather jacket did little to keep out the chill as a mix of drizzle and fog shrouded the airport and the whole island around it.

Across from him, blue taxi lights glowed in stoic silence, doing little to warm the scene, while above a beam of white light swung through the fog followed moments later by a flash of green as the airport’s beacon spun slowly and repetitively.

Hudson doubted anyone was up there to see it, not with the clouds so thick and low, but God help him if he were. Mountains surrounded the airport on three sides, and the island itself was just a speck on the map in the middle of the dark Atlantic. Even in 1951 finding such a spot was no easy task. And if someone could fi nd Santa Maria though this soup, Hudson guessed he’d hit the peaks long before he saw the runway lights through the rain.

So getting to the island was one thing. Leaving was something else. Weather notwithstanding, Hudson wanted to go, couldn’t wait to get moving, in fact. For reasons he knew too well it had become unsafe to stay. Despite that fact, and despite being the pilot and owner of the Lockheed Constellation parked on the ramp, he didn’t have the final word.

With little to do but watch and wait, Hudson pulled a silver case from his coat pocket. He drew out a Dunhill cigarette and stuck it between his lips. Ignoring the “No Smoking” signs plastered every twenty feet, he cradled a Zippo lighter to his face and lit the Dunhill.

He was a hundred yards from the nearest plane or fuel line, and the whole airport was soaking wet. He figured the chances of causing a problem were just about nil. And the chances of anyone bothering to leave the warm, dry terminal building to come outside to complain? He figured they were even less than that.

After a deep, satisfying draw, Hudson exhaled.

The heather gray cloud of smoke faded as the door to the terminal opened behind him.

A man wearing ill-fitting clothing stepped out. His round face was partially hidden by a brown hat. His jacket and pants were made of coarse wool and looked like surplus leftovers from the Red Army winter catalog. Thin, fingerless gloves completed the appearance of a peasant traveler, but Hudson knew differently. This man, his passenger, would soon be wealthy. That is, if he could survive long enough to reach America.

“Is the weather going to clear?” the man said.

Another drag on the Dunhill. Another puff of smoke from Hudson before he answered.

“Nope,” he said dejectedly. “Not today. Maybe not for a week.”

Hudson’s passenger was a Russian named Tarasov. He was a refugee from the Soviet Union. His luggage consisted of two stainless steel trunks, heavy enough that they might have been filled with stones. Both of which sat locked and chained to the floor of Hudson’s aircraft.

Hudson hadn’t been told what was hidden in those trunks, but the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency was paying him a small fortune to get them and Tarasov into the U.S. He guessed they were paying the Russian a lot more than that to defect and bring the cases with him.

So far, so good. An American agent had managed to get Tarasov to Yugoslavia, another communist country, but under Tito there was no love of Stalin there. A hefty bribe had managed to get Hudson’s plane into Sarajevo and out before anyone began asking questions.

Since then they’d traveled west, but word was out and one attempt on the man’s life had left Tarasov limping with a bullet still in his leg.

Hudson’s orders were to get him to the U.S. as quickly as possible, and keep it quiet on the way, but they never specified a route. A good thing too, because Hudson wouldn’t have followed it.

So far, he’d avoided all European cities of note, traveling to the Azores instead, where he could refuel and then go nonstop to the States. It was a good plan, but he hadn’t counted on the weather, or on Tarasov’s fear of flying.

“They’ll find us here sooner or later,” Hudson said. He turned to his passenger. “They have agents everywhere, in every harbor and airport at least.”

“But you said this was out of the way.”

“Yeah,” Hudson said. “And when they don’t spot us at any place that’s ‘in the way,’ they’re gonna start looking elsewhere. Probably already have.”

Hudson took another drag on the cigarette. He wasn’t sure the Russians would check the Azores. But two Americans and a foreigner landing in what was essentially an international airliner —and then waiting around for three days without talking to anyone—was the kind of thing that might draw attention.

“At some point, you’re going to have to decide what you’re more afraid of,” he said, nodding toward the plane sitting alone in the drizzle. “A little turbulence or a knife in the gut.”

Tarasov looked up to the churning dark sky. He shrugged and held his hands out, palms up, like a man trying to show the world he had no money. “But we cannot fly like this,” he said.

“Land,” Hudson clarified. “We cannot land like this.” He made a motion with his hand like a plane descending and fl aring for landing.

“But we can sure as hell take off,” he continued, raising his hand again. “And then we can head due west. No mountains that way. Nothing but ocean . . . and freedom.”

Tarasov shook his head, but Hudson could see his resolve faltering.

“I checked the weather in New York,” he said, lying once again. He’d done no such thing, not wanting anyone to guess his destination. “It’s clear for the next forty-eight hours, but after that . . .”

Tarasov seemed to understand.

“We go now or we’re stuck here for a week.”

His passenger did not appear to like either choice. He looked at the ground and then out toward the big silver Constellation with its four massive piston engines and sleek triple tails. He stared into the

rain and the cloak of the night beyond.

“You can get us through?”

Hudson flicked the cigarette to the ground and crushed it out with his boot. He had him. “I can get us through,” he said.

Reluctantly, Tarasov nodded.

Hudson looked out toward the plane and made a winding motion with his hand. The sharp sound of the starter motor rang out and black smoke belched from the number 3 engine. The plugs fi red and the big radial engine came to life. In moments, the huge propeller was spinning at fifteen hundred rpms, blasting rain and spray out behind the aircraft. Seconds later the number 1 engine sprang to life.

Hudson had hoped he would be able to convince their passenger to fl y. He’d left Charlie Simpkins, his copilot, in the plane and told him to keep her primed to go.

“Come on,” Hudson said.

Tarasov took a deep breath and then stepped away from the door. He began walking toward the waiting plane. Halfway there, a shot rang out. It echoed across the wet tarmac, and Tarasov lurched forward, arching his back and twisting to the side.

“No!” Hudson yelled.

He sprang forward, grabbing Tarasov, keeping the man on his feet and hustling him toward the plane. Another shot rang out. This one missed, skipping off the concrete to the right.

Tarasov stumbled.

“Come on!” Hudson shouted, trying to get him up.

The next bullet hit Hudson, catching him in the shoulder, spinning him around. He fell to the ground and rolled. The shell had knocked him downward like someone hitting him from above. He guessed the shot had come from the terminal’s roof.

Wincing in pain, Hudson pulled a Colt .45 from his shoulder holster. He spun and aimed toward the roof of the building, fi ring blindly in what he guessed was the approximate direction of the sniper.

After blasting off four shots, Hudson thought he saw a shape duck behind the lip of the terminal’s roof. He fired another shot in that direction and then grabbed Tarasov once again, pulling him backward toward the plane, dragging him across the ground like a sled, until they reached the stairs near the front of the aircraft.

“Get up,” Hudson shouted, trying to haul him up.

“I . . . can’t,” Tarasov said.

“I’ll help you,” he said, lifting. “You just have to—”

As he pulled Tarasov to his feet another shot cracked, and the man sprawled to the ground face-fi rst.

Hudson ducked behind the stairs and shouted toward the aircraft’s open doors.

“Charlie!”

No response.

“Charlie! What’s the word?”

“We’re ready to go!” a voice yelled back.

Hudson heard the last of the engines winding up. He grabbed Tarasov and rolled him over. The man’s body was limp like a rag doll’s. The final shot had gone through his neck. His eyes stared lifelessly up and back.

“Damn,” Hudson said.

Half the mission was blown, but they still had the steel trunks and whatever was in them. Even though the CIA was a secret organization, they had offi ces and an address. If he had to, Hudson would go find them and bang on the front door until someone took him in and paid him.

He turned and fired toward the terminal again. And in that moment he noticed the lights from a pair of cars racing toward him from the far end of the ramp. He didn’t figure they were cavalry.

He dashed up the stairs and dove through the door as a bullet ricocheted off the Connie’s smooth skin.

“Go!” he shouted.

“What about our passenger?”

“Too late for him.”

As the copilot shoved the throttles forward Hudson slammed the door shut, wrenching the handle down just as the plane began to move. Over the droning sound of the engines he heard the crackle of glass breaking.

He turned to see Charlie Simpkins slumped over toward the center console, his seat belt holding him up.

“Charlie?”

The plane was on the move as Hudson ran forward. He dove into the cockpit as another shot hit and then another.

Staying on the floor, he reached up and slammed the throttles forward. As the engines roared he scrambled under the pilot’s seat and pushed hard on the right rudder. The big plane began to pick up momentum, moving ponderously but gathering speed and turning.

Another rifle shot hit the sheet metal behind him and then two more. Hudson guessed he had turned far enough that the aircraft was pointing away from the terminal now. He climbed up into his seat and turned the plane out onto the runway.

At this point he had to go. There was nowhere safe back on that ramp. The plane was pointed in the right direction, and Hudson wasn’t waiting for any clearance. He pushed the throttles to the firewall, and the big plane began to accelerate.

For a second or two he heard bullets punching holes in the aircraft’s skin, but he soon was out of range, roaring down the runway and closing in on rotational velocity.

With the visibility as bad as it was and the shattered window on the left side, Hudson strained to see the red lights at the far end of the runway. They were coming up fast.

He popped the flaps down five degrees and waited until he was a hundred yards from the end of the asphalt before pulling back on the yoke. The Connie tilted its nose up, hesitated for a long, sickening second, and then leapt off the end of the runway, wheels whipping through the tall grass beyond the tarmac.

Climbing and turning to a westbound heading, Hudson raised the landing gear and then reached over to his copilot.

“Charlie?” he said, shaking him. “Charlie!”

Simpkins gave no reaction. Hudson checked for a pulse but didn’t fi nd one.

“Damn it,” Hudson said to himself.

Another casualty. During the war a half a decade back, Hudson had lost too many friends to count, but there was always a reason for it. Here, he wasn’t sure. Whatever was in those cases had better be worth the lives of two men.

He pushed Simpkins back up into his seat and concentrated on flying. The crosswind was bad, the turbulence worse, and gazing into a wall of dark gray mist as he climbed through the clouds was disorienting and dangerous.

With no horizon or anything thing else to judge the plane’s orientation visually, the body’s sensations could not be trusted. Many a pilot had flown his plane right into the ground in conditions like these. All the while thinking he was flying straight and level.

Many more had taken perfectly level planes and stalled and spun them because their bodies told them they were turning and falling. It was like being drunk and feeling the bed spin; you knew it wasn’t happening, but you couldn’t stop the sensation.

To avoid it, Hudson kept his eyes down, scanning the instruments and making sure the plane’s wings stayed level. He kept the climb to a safe five-degree angle.

At two thousand feet and three miles out, the weather got worse. Turbulence shook the plane, violent up- and downdrafts threatening to rip it apart. Rain lashed the windshield and metal around him. The hundred-fifty-mile-an-hour slipstream kept most of it from pouring in through the shattered corner window, but some of the moisture sprayed around the cockpit, and the constant noise was like a freight train passing at full speed.

With the bullet holes and the broken window, Hudson couldn’t pressurize the plane, but he could still climb to fourteen thousand feet or more without it becoming too cold to function. He reached behind his seat and touched a green bottle filled with pure oxygen; he would need that up higher.

Another wave of turbulence rocked the plane, but with the gear up and all four engines going Hudson figured he could power through the storm and out the other side.

The Constellation was one of the most advanced aircraft of the day. Designed by Lockheed with help from world-famous aviator Howard Hughes, it could cruise at 350 knots and travel three thousand miles without refueling. Had they picked Tarasov up a little farther west, Hudson would have gone for Newfoundland or Boston without stopping.

He turned to check his heading. He was crabbing to the north more than he intended. He went to correct the turn and felt a spell of dizziness. He leveled off, just as a warning light came on.

The generator in the number 1 engine was going, and the engine was running extremely rough. A moment later the number 2 engine began to cut out, and the main electrical warning light came on.

Hudson tried to concentrate. He felt light-headed and groggy as if he’d been drugged. He grabbed his shoulder where the bullet had hit him. The wound was painful, but he couldn’t tell how much blood he was losing.

On the instrument panel in front of him, the artificial horizon— an instrument pilots use to keep wings level when they can’t see outside—was tumbling. Beside it the directional gyro was tumbling.

Somehow the aircraft was failing simultaneously with Hudson’s own body.

Hudson looked up at the old compass, the ancient instrument that was the pilot’s last resort should everything mechanical go wrong. It showed him in a hard left turn. He tried to level off, but he banked too far in the other direction. The stall horn sounded because his airspeed had dropped, and an instant later the warning lights lit up all over his instrument panel. Just about everything that could fl ash was flashing. The stall horn blared in his ear. The gear warning sounded.

Lightning flared close enough to blind him, and he wondered if it had hit the plane.

He grabbed the radio, switched to a shortwave band the CIA had given him, and began to broadcast.

“Mayday, Mayday, Mayday,” he said. “This is—”

The plane jerked to the right and then the left. The lightning snapped again, a million-volt spark going off right in front of his eyes. He felt a shock through the radio and dropped the microphone like a hot potato. It swung beneath the panel on its cord.

Hudson reached for the microphone. He missed. He leaned farther forward and tried again, stretching, and then grasping it with his fingertips. He pulled it back ready to broadcast again.

And then he looked up just in time to see clouds vanish and the black waters of the Atlantic filling the horizon and rushing up toward him.

1

Geneva, Switzerland, January 19, 2011

Alexander Cochrane walked along the quiet streets of Geneva. It was well past midnight, on a dark winter evening. Snow drifted softly from above, adding to three inches that had fallen during the day, but there was no wind to speak of, and the night was hushed and peaceful.

Cochrane pulled his knit cap down, drew his heavy wool coat tighter around him, and thrust his hands deep into the coat’s pockets. Switzerland in January. It was supposed to snow and often did, usually taking Cochrane by surprise.

The reason for that was that Cochrane spent his days three hundred feet underground in the tunnels and control room of a massive particle accelerator known as the Large Hadron Collider, or LHC. The LHC was run by the European Council for Nuclear Research, though it went by the acronym CERN as the French spelling used those initials (Conseil Européen pour la Recherche Nucléaire).

The temperature in the LHC’s control room remained a perfect 68 degrees, the lighting was constant, and the background noise was an unchanging hum of generators and pulsing energy. A few hours spent down there felt no different than a few days, or a few weeks, as if time wasn’t passing.

But of course it was, and it often stunned Cochrane how different the world appeared upon his return to the surface. He’d entered the building this morning under blue skies and a crisp, if distant, sun. Now the clouds hung thick, heavy and low, illuminated from beneath in an orange glow by the lights of Geneva. All around lay a three-inch blanket of snow that had not been present twelve hours before.

Cochrane walked through the field of white headed for the train station. The big shots at CERN—the physicists and other scientists—came and went in CERN-provided cars with drivers and heated seats.

Cochrane was not a physicist or particle theorist or any other designation of that nature. He was an educated man to be sure. He had a master’s in electromagnetic theory, twenty years of experience in the energy-transfer business, and was well compensated. But the glory of CERN went to the physicists and the others looking for the building blocks of the universe. To them Cochrane was nothing more than a highly paid mechanic. They were bigger than him. Even the machine he worked on was bigger than him. In fact, it was bigger than anyone.

The Large Hadron Collider was the largest scientific instrument in the world. Its tunnels ran in a twenty-seven-kilometer circular track that extended outside the territory of Switzerland and into France. Cochrane had helped design and build the superconducting magnets that accelerated the particles inside the tunnels. And as an employee of CERN he kept them running.

When the LHC was powered up, it used an incredible amount of energy, most of that for Cochrane’s magnets. After being chilled to 271 degrees below zero, those magnets could accelerate protons to nearly the speed of light. The particles in the LHC traveled so fast that they zipped around the twenty-seven kilometers eleven thousand times in a single second.

The only problem for Cochrane was that one magnet failure shut down the whole thing for days or even weeks at a time. He’d been particularly irked a few months back when a subcontractor installed a second-rate circuit board, which had promptly blown. Even now it boggled Cochrane’s mind; a ten-billion-dollar machine done in because someone wanted to save a couple euros.

It had taken three weeks to repair the damage, every single day spent with higher-ups breathing down his neck. Somehow it was his fault. Then again, it was always his fault.

Even though things were going well now, the physicists and the CERN leadership seemed to regard the magnets as the weak link in the system. As a result, Cochrane was held on a short leash and seemed almost to live at the facility.

It made him angry for a moment, but then he shrugged. Soon enough it would be someone else’s problem.

Cochrane continued through the snow to the train station. To some extent the snow was a plus. It would leave tracks. And he wanted there to be tracks tonight.

He climbed up onto the platform and checked the time. Five minutes till the next train. He was right on schedule. The platform was empty. In five minutes or less he’d be on his way to a new life, one he felt certain would be infinitely more rewarding than his current one.

A voice called out to him. “Alex?”

He turned and gazed down the platform. A man had come up the far stairway and was striding toward him, passing beneath the halogen lamps.

“I thought it was you,” the man said, coming closer.

Cochrane recognized him as Philippe Revior, deputy head of security at the LHC. His throat tightened. He hoped nothing was wrong. Not tonight. Not this night.

Cochrane pulled out his phone to make sure he hadn’t been summoned back. No messages. No calls. What the hell was Revior doing here?

“Philippe,” Cochrane said as cheerfully as he could. “I thought you were prepping for tomorrow’s run.”

“We’ve done our work,” Revior said. “The night crew can handle the rest.”

Cochrane felt suddenly nervous. Despite the cold, he began to sweat. He felt Revior’s arrival had to be more than coincidence. Had they found something? Did they know about him?

“Are you catching a train?” he asked.

“Of course,” the security chief said. “Who drives in this?”

Who drives in this? Three inches of snow was a normal winter day in Geneva. Everyone drove in it.

As Revior moved closer, Cochrane’s mind whirled. All he knew for sure was that he could not have the deputy head of security traveling with him. Not here, not now.

He thought of heading back to the LHC, claiming suddenly that he’d left something behind. He checked his watch. There was not enough time. He felt trapped.

“I’ll ride with you,” Revior said, producing a flask. “We can share a drink.”

Cochrane looked down the tracks. He could hear the sound of the train coming. In the far distance he saw the glow from its lights.

“I, um . . . I . . .” Cochrane began.

Before he could finish he heard footsteps from behind, someone coming up the stairs. He turned and saw two men. They wore dark overcoats, open to the elements.

For a second Cochrane assumed them to be Philippe’s men, members of security, or even the police, but the truth was laid bare in the look on Revior’s face. He studied them suspiciously, a lifetime of evaluating threats no doubt telling him what Cochrane already knew, that these men were trouble.

Cochrane tried to think, tried to come up with some solution to avoid what was about to happen, but his thoughts formed like molasses in the cold. Before he could speak the men drew weapons, short-barreled automatics. One pointed at Cochrane and one at Philippe Revior.

“Did you think we would trust you?” the leader of the two men said to Cochrane.

“What is this?” Revior said.

“Shut up,” the second man said, jabbing the gun toward Revior.

The leader of the two thugs grabbed Cochrane by the shoulder and yanked him closer. The situation was spiraling out of control.

“You’re coming with us,” the leader said. “We’ll make sure you get off at the right stop.”

As the second thug laughed and glanced toward Cochrane, Revior attacked, slamming a knee into the man’s groin and tackling him.

Cochrane wasn’t sure what to do, but when the leader turned to fi re, Cochrane grabbed his arm, shoving it upward. The gun went off, the shot echoing through the dark.

With little choice but to fight, Cochrane pushed forward, bowling the bigger man over and scuffling with him on the ground.

A backhand to the face stunned him. A sharp elbow to the ribs sent him tumbling to the side.

As he came up he saw Revior head butting the second thug. After putting him out of action Revior charged and tackled the leader, who’d just thrown Cochrane off him. They struggled for the gun, exchanging several vicious blows.

A thundering sound began to fill the background as the approaching train rounded the curve a quarter mile from the station. Cochrane could already hear the brakes screeching as the steel wheels approached.

“Alex!” Revior yelled.

The assailant had flipped Revior over and was now trying to get the gun aimed at Revior’s head. The old security specialist held the arm off with all he had, then pulled it close, a move that seemed to surprise the assailant.

He chomped down on the man’s hand with his teeth, and the thug whipped his arm backward instinctively. The gun flew out of his grip and landed in the snow beside Cochrane.

“Shoot him!” Revior shouted, holding the assailant and trying to immobilize him.

The sound of the train thundered in Cochrane’s ears. His heart pounded in his chest as he grabbed the gun.

“Shoot him!” Revior repeated.

Cochrane glanced down the track, he had only seconds. He had to choose. He targeted the assailant. And then he lowered his aim and fi red.

Philippe Revior’s head snapped backward, and a spray of blood whipped across the snow-covered platform.

Revior was dead, and the assailant in the gray coat wasted no time in dragging him back into the shadows, throwing him behind a bench, just as the approaching train passed a wall of trees at the end of the station.

Feeling as if he might throw up, Cochrane stuffed the gun into his waistband and covered it with his shirt.

“You should have backed off,” Cochrane said.

“We couldn’t,” his would-be attacker replied. “No contingency for that.”

The train was pulling into the platform, stirring up the snow and bringing a rush of wind all its own.

“This was supposed to look like a kidnapping,” Cochrane shouted over the noise.

“And so it will,” the man said. He swung a heavy right hand and struck Cochrane on the side of the head, knocking him to the ground, and then kicked him in the ribs.

The train stopped beside them as both assailants pulled Cochrane up and dragged him backward toward the stairs.

Cochrane felt dizzy as they hauled him off, disoriented and confused. He heard a pair of shots fired and a few shouts from passengers stepping off the almost empty train.

The next thing he knew, he was in the back of a sedan, staring out the window as they raced along the streets through the falling snow.

Devil's Gate: A Kurt Austin Adventure
by by Clive Cussler and Graham Brown