Authors: Jack Du Brul
During World War II, in a secret Nazi submarine base, boxes made from looted wartime gold were hidden away. These “Pandora’s boxes” contained an artifact so lethal that whoever possessed them held the power to unleash hell upon the Earth. And now they have been found by a man who will use them to hold the world hostage — unless Philip Mercer can stop him…
Published in the year of our wedding, this book is for Debbie, with all my love.
he entire length of the Air Force C-97 Stratofreighter shuddered as the port-side outboard engine began misfiring again. This time was much worse than before and rather than risk his plane becoming too unstable, Major Jack Delaney shut down the twenty-eight-cylinder Pratt and Whitney Wasp. He reduced the drag by feathering the prop so the blades cut the slipstream edgewise, but the plane still felt sluggish in his hands.
“We’re in a world of hurt, aren’t we, Major?” asked his copilot, Lieutenant Jerry Winger.
Delaney didn’t respond as he studied the gauges for the three working engines. Every instinct told him that they hadn’t seen the last of whatever had affected the power plant. The remaining engines were running hot, making him think that the problem wasn’t with the plane, but with the fuel they’d taken on in England. Most likely poorly maintained tanker trucks had contaminated the fuel. He looked out the windshield, known as the “greenhouse” throughout the Air Force because it was made up of nineteen individual panes of Plexiglas. It resembled the cockpit of the venerable B-29, on which the Stratofreighter was based.
Eighteen thousand feet below the Military Air Transport Service cargo plane, the desolate north Atlantic was as dark as the slag heaps in Delaney’s native West Virginia. The sky was thankfully clear. Only a few stringers of high cirrus clouds smeared the air high above the plane, but Delaney didn’t know how much longer his aircraft would remain aloft.
“Yeah, Jer, we might just be,” Delaney finally replied. Glancing at Winger, he saw his own concern reflected in the younger man’s eyes. Despite the heat blasting into the pressurized cabin, the major felt a chill race across his skin like sheet lightning. “Tom, where the hell are we?”
Tom Sanders, the navigator, was seated at his tiny desk behind the cockpit, a chart spread before him and a worried frown on his face. “Closer to Greenland than Iceland if that’s what you’re wondering.”
“That’s what I was afraid of,” the pilot grunted.
“I’d say we’re about forty miles from the Greenland coast.”
Delaney’s experience was that it took a series of small mishaps to lead to the catastrophe of a crash. Except, he thought darkly, during the war when flak or a Japanese Zero came out of nowhere. He’d had a few close scrapes during his command of a B-29, but Delaney had never lost a man. Now, however, his luck might have finally run out. This time fate was dealing him one problem after another, and there wasn’t much the major could do.
It had started an hour out of England when they were rocked by a sudden wind gust that shifted an improperly secured cargo pallet in the hold of the giant aircraft. It was not a mortal problem; it merely caused the C-97 to fly out of trim. Delaney was forced to keep firm pressure on the wheel so the plane maintained an even keel. He had reported the incident back to the controllers and had them inform the isolated Air Force base at Thule, Greenland, that their supply plane would be coming in late. He also said he wanted the head of whoever was responsible for tying down cargo when he returned. The crew then had several trouble-free hours until an electrical fault had sparked in the radios, shorting out the entire system. They were one hundred miles past Iceland, flying northwest, and suddenly the plane was without communications. Tom Sanders had tried to fix the set but got nothing for his troubles except some singed fingertips. Delaney had considered turning back, except problems at Dover Air Force Base, where normal cargo flights to Thule originated, had hampered three recent attempts to resupply the base above the Arctic Circle. He also knew the narrow weather window they were enjoying would close before another mission could take off. He now considered his decision to press on as another of the small mishaps befalling the crew of the Stratofreighter.
Then, just half an hour ago, Lieutenant Winger had noticed the engines were running hot. Delaney had opened the cowls around the four Pratt and Whitneys in an effort to cool them, adding more drag to the aircraft and slowing them further. The tactic had worked for a while but the temperatures began creeping inexorably back toward the red. That was when the number one engine began to misfire. It cleared itself for a few minutes and then started sputtering again, vibrating the airframe until her aluminum ribs creaked. Delaney had no choice but to shut it down.
“When the temp drops enough, we’ll try to restart the engine,” he told Winger. “Tom, are there any landing strips on this side of Greenland?”
“No, sir. Chart shows nothing except mountains and ice. There is a place called Camp Decade about a hundred and fifty miles south of where we’re going to cross the coast, but its strip’s designed for planes with skis.”
“Damn.” Delaney paused, his mind working out distances and odds. “All right. If the engine doesn’t refire smoothly, we’ll swing around and try for Iceland.”
“Major, that’s about two hundred and thirty miles behind us.” There was a tight edge in Sanders’s voice. He was too young to have seen combat during the war, and Delaney suspected that this was the first time the young officer had tasted true fear.
During the five minutes the pilot waited for the number one engine to cool, the flight deck was quiet, even when the towering ramparts and dark fjords that protected eastern Greenland came into view. Delaney had never seen such a forlorn place. The mountains were all snowcapped, and behind them, the relentless Greenland ice shelf pressed against their landward side so that great glaciers spilled between the valleys, tumbling to the ocean like frozen waterfalls. Delaney knew that, beyond the small strip of coast, there was a sea of ice about eight hundred and fifty thousand miles square and as thick as any ocean was deep.
“Okay, Major, temp is down in number one. In fact, it looks like all the horses are running in a row now.”
Delaney scanned the gauges and saw that the open cowlings had worked in cooling the engines again. He restarted number one and it began purring sedately, as though there had never been a problem. Working the prop controls, he felt the four blades bite into the air and the C-97 become more responsive.
“That’s a little better,” he breathed and Winger and Sanders exchanged grins. “Feet dry in about five minutes.”
The plane cleared the mountains at one hundred and eighty knots, well below her optimum cruising speed and much lower than her most efficient altitude. Beyond the strip of ice-carved mountains, Delaney and Winger were faced with an expanse of ice that stretched far beyond the horizon. Under the immense weight of new snow dropping in the interior, the billions of tons of ice were slowly moving toward the coast like an endless conveyor belt. As the ice moved, it scraped against the underlying rock so that any irregularities under the mile-thick mantle appeared on the surface as huge fractured ridges. The cap was so riven that to Delaney it looked like a hurricane sea had been flash frozen, every wave rendered in razor-sharp crests that sometimes reached a hundred feet into the air.
“Jesus,” he said under his breath.
Lieutenant Winger was just turning to say something to Delaney when engine number one exploded. The double banks of cylinders came apart like a bomb, shrapnel and oil and burning fuel blasting apart the nacelle like it had been hit by antiaircraft artillery. In seconds, the wing around the burning engine was blackened by flame, and soon it began to come apart as the wind ripped at the tears in the aluminum caused by red-hot debris.
The C-97 winged over as she lost lift on her left side. Delaney fought the plane, taking just an instant to see the altimeter spinning backward in a blur. He noted that Winger was already shutting off fuel to the wrecked power plant. Good man.
“Tom, what do you see?” the pilot shouted, his lips pulled back around his teeth from the exertion of keeping his crippled plane in the air.
The navigator looked out the tiny window next to his station. His training had taken over, and rather than give in to the fear that cramped his stomach, he spoke calmly. “The engine’s gone and the wing looks like it’s about to let go too. She’s still burning. Wait. She’s going out.”
“Fuel’s off,” Winger said as he straightened back to the controls and added his strength to Delaney’s on the wheel.
“Son of a bitch, we’ve lost most of the aileron on the port side. Jerry, feather the number four prop. We’ve got to level her out. She’s pulling too hard on the starboard side.”
Winger did as ordered, and since the crew halved the thrust on her one side, the Stratofreighter slowly began to straighten, but still she was losing altitude. In the thirty seconds since the explosion, they had dropped to ten thousand feet and continued to plummet. The two pilots held on grimly, teasing the weakened controls so the plane stayed level. There was nothing they could do about holding her in the sky. It was just a matter of how gently they could put her on the ice.
“Start looking for a smooth area we can set this crate.” Delaney had recovered from his initial terror and his voice was crisp and commanding once again.
“I’m looking, but the ice is just too broken up.” Winger glanced at the altimeter. “Five thousand feet.”
In the denser atmosphere, there was a little more lift under the wings and her descent became easier. Delaney tried to raise her nose slightly, hoping to regain some altitude, but the C-97 dipped to port again. For a panicked second he fought to level her. “What do you see out there?”
Before Winger could respond, the cockpit was suddenly filled with smoke, a noxious mixture of burning oil and hydraulic fluid that cut visibility down to zero. The thick pall made all three men gag as petrochemicals scoured their throats and burned into their eyes like acid. Sanders screamed that he had a fire right behind him. Groping blindly, Delaney reached forward to shut off the cabin pressure and vent the cockpit’s air. In an instant the smoke cleared, leaving the men choking to draw in the fresh, yet frigid, air.
“Get that fire out,” Delaney rasped. In the moments between the time the fire ignited and the time he’d cleared the cockpit, the plane had lost another thousand feet. It was now dipping in a dangerous, lazy spiral. “Talk to me, Jerry. What’s out there?”
“Nothing.” Winger coughed, one hand on his chest as if the gesture would extinguish the pain from his scalded lungs. “Hold on a second!” He studied an area of clear ice. It was under the shadow of a black granite mountain.
“I got it,” Delaney said at the same instant Winger pointed it out to him.
“Fire’s out, Major, but I can’t promise for how long.” Sanders had been hardest hit by the smoke and his voice sounded like he was drawing his last breath.
Banking the lumbering cargo plane as gently as he could, Major Delaney brought them around, lining up the C-97’s bulbous nose with the patch of smooth ice with as much care as he’d ever shown in his life. They were at two thousand feet, and the airspeed was down to one hundred and ten knots. He judged that his landing site was about four miles away and began to reduce their altitude. This was a one-shot attempt and his knuckles were white on the control wheel. He barely noticed that the cockpit temperature was thirty degrees below zero and ice was forming on the inside of the windows.
“She’s feeling a little more responsive,” Winger said as he helped turn the C-97 into the prevailing northward wind for her final approach. “Must be the thicker air.”