“I don’t want to hear any excuses.” David turned his attention to the restrained investigator. By now Weintraub had regained full consciousness. David spotted the large lump behind his left ear. A dribble of blood marked where Rolfe had clubbed him. Weintraub stared at David, his eyes bright with hatred and anger.

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“What do we do with him?” Gregor asked. “Toss him overboard. Blame the storm?”

David continued to study his prey. He watched the man’s anger change to fear. “No. Drowning him will do us no good.”

A flicker of hope in the man’s eyes…and suspicion.

David reached over and pinched Weintraub’s nostrils closed. “Hold him down.” Rolfe pinned the man’s legs; Gregor held his shoulders.

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With his mouth sealed in duct tape, there was no air. Weintraub struggled, suffocating. David held tight, speaking to the others. “We’ll put his body to use. The weak spot in our plan was attempting to explain why tomorrow’s explosion would spontaneously happen. Why then? What set it off? It could raise suspicions.”

He nodded toward the struggling man. His color was now purplish, his eyes bulging in recognition of approaching death. David ignored his panic. “But here’s our scapegoat. The poor guy was tampering with the crate and accidentally set it off.”

“So we’ll blow it tonight?” Gregor asked.

“Just after midnight. Afterward, we’ll make sure the investigators discover the Chinese electronics. That’s all the proof Washington will need. They’ll come to believe the remainder of the jade sculpture had been similarly booby-trapped, that the Chinese stuffed the horse’s jade ass full of C-4.”

“I think he’s dead, sir,” Rolfe interrupted, still sitting on Weintraub’s knees.

David looked down and realized Rolfe was right. Weintraub stared unblinking at the ceiling, eyes empty. David released the dead man’s nose and wiped his gloved hand on his pant leg with disgust. “Free his bindings.”

His men obeyed while David ripped the duct tape from Weintraub’s purplish lips. Then he took the jade bust, balanced it atop the man’s chest, and placed the man’s hands near it. As David began to pull away, he had another idea. Fishing in a pocket, he pulled free a bit of electronic circuitry, of Chinese design, and placed it in the dead man’s fingers. He closed Weintraub’s hand over it. A bit of extra insurance.

Straightening, he surveyed his handiwork for a few seconds, then nodded curtly. “Let’s go. I’m famished.”

Gregor collected the cases. “What are we going to do with the extra C-4 and detonators?” he asked.

David smiled. “Don’t worry. I have another mission for you. After tonight, tomorrow’s gonna be a hectic day. Lots of chaos to conceal one more operation.”

“Sir?”

“I know someone who’ll appreciate that extra C-4.” David pictured Jack Kirkland, wearing his shit-eating grin as he stood with an arm around his sister’s shoulder. “A parting gift for an old friend.”

Midnight aboard the Deep Fathom

In the ship’s galley, Jack sat with Admiral Houston at a small table. Outside the narrow window, forked lightning streaked across the roiling skies. Due to the foul weather, the admiral had chosen to remain aboard the Fathom, but Jack suspected that his decision to stay was not all due to the storm.

As the ship heaved and rolled, the admiral chewed on the stubby end of his thick stogie, oblivious, and sighed out a long stretch of smoke. The old sailor was rapidly depleting Jack’s Cuban cigar stock. “You really should have told us sooner about this discovery,” Houston said.

Jack bowed his head. Earlier, he had played the secret recordings of the crystal spire and the strange hieroglyphics. After the close call with the giant squid, he knew he could no longer keep silent about his discoveries. “I know, but at first I didn’t think it was important to the investigation.”

“And you sought some way to snub your nose at the Navy.”

Jack grimaced. He never could put anything past the old man.

The admiral continued, “Your discovery may explain the magnetization of the wreckage’s parts. If the crystal was giving off some form of radiation, it may have affected the wreck. Weintraub will want to know about this.”

Jack nodded. He had been surprised to hear about the magnetization of the plane’s metal sections.

“Is there anything else you’ve been hiding?” Houston asked.

“No, not really.”

Houston’s look bore in on Jack. “Not really?”

“Just a few thoughts…nothing concrete.”

“Like what?”

“It’s not important.”

Houston drilled Jack with his steely eyes. Even after twelve years, it still made Jack cringe inside. “Let me decide what’s important and what isn’t.”

Jack felt backed into a corner. “I don’t know. Don’t you think it’s a strange coincidence that most of the wreckage just happened to land by the pillar?”

“Strange? No doubt. But who knows how many of these spikes may lie down there on the ocean floor? Only a small fraction of the deep seabed has been investigated.”

“Maybe.” Jack was not convinced.

Silence descended over the pair, except for the distant rumble of thunder. Finally, Houston stretched, stubbing out his cigar. “Well, if that’s all…It’s getting late. I should get myself to bed before I totally clean out your Cuban supply. Thanks for lending me your cabin.”

Jack took a deep breath. All afternoon he had been mulling over an idea he’d been afraid to verbalize. “Mark…”

The admiral glanced his way, eyebrows raised. It was the first time Jack had addressed him so informally. “What is it?”

“I know this is crazy, but what if…what if the crystal spire had something to do with bringing down Air Force One?”

“Jack, c’mon, now you’re really pushing the envelope.”

“Don’t you think I know that? But I was the only one down there.” Jack recalled when his sub’s titanium arm had touched the crystal’s surface. The sense of free falling, the glitches.

“What are you saying?”

Jack spoke earnestly, struggling to put what he felt into words: “I once shipped out on a nuclear sub. I bunked not far from the reactor. Though the power plant was shielded, I could still somehow sense the immense power behind the bulkhead. It was like my bones were picking up something that no machine could detect. It was like that down below. An immense power, humming along, idling.”

Houston stared silently, then spoke, slowly. “I trust your judgment, Jack. I don’t doubt you felt something. If the thing could magnetize the wreckage, then it is damn strong. But to bring down a jet flying at forty or fifty thousand feet…” The admiral’s voice died away.

“I know…I know what it sounds like. But I just wanted you to know what I discovered, what I felt down there. All I ask is that you keep your mind open.”

Houston nodded. “I appreciate your candor, Jack. But I always keep my options open.” The old man shook his head tiredly. “All I wish is that Washington would do the same. You know you’re not the only one with thoughts about the crash. The new administration seems to have already made up their minds.”

“What are they saying now?” Jack asked.

“Sabotage. Done by the Chinese.”

Jack’s brow crinkled. Over the past few days he had been too busy to follow the news. “But that’s ridiculous. President Bishop was one of the staunchest advocates for negotiating a long-term relationship with China. Why would they assassinate him?”

The admiral scowled. “It’s all politics. Posturing. But in response, the Chinese have already pulled their diplomats out of the U.S. and kicked ours out of their country. Just this morning I learned that the Chinese navy has been out on maneuvers. Just more posturing on their part, but it’s still a dangerous game Washington is playing.”

Jack suddenly felt foolish voicing his own wild conjecture. The admiral had enough on his plate. “Then I guess we need the real answer ASAP.”

“No doubt. At least we’ll have the Navy’s own sub to aid us tomorrow. With two submersibles diving, we should be able to accelerate the pace.”

Jack nodded. The sub was the newest prototype, a part of the Navy’s Deep Submergence Unit, rated to the depth of fifteen thousand feet and a speed of up to forty knots. “I’ve read about the Perseus. A real Ferrari of the fleet.”

“A Ferrari with teeth. It was just outfitted with an array of minitorpedoes.”

Jack’s eyes widened.

“It’s the latest modification to the Perseus. Still classified info.”

“Should you be telling me about it?”

Houston waved off his concern. “You would’ve found out tomorrow anyway. These little submarine busters should help discourage any hostile sea life from trying to eat you again.”

Jack grinned. “For once, I’m not going to object to the Navy guarding my back.”

Footsteps on the stairs interrupted their discussion. Both men turned. George Klein pushed up into the galley from the lower deck. “I thought I heard voices up here,” the historian said. “I was hoping you were still awake, Jack.”

Jack was surprised by the professor’s shabby appearance: dark circles shadowed his eyes, a scraggly gray beard covered his chin. It looked as if he had not slept in a couple days. Now that he thought about it, he hadn’t seen George all day. “What is it, Professor?”

The historian lifted a rolled map in his hand. “Something I wanted to run past you. I’ve been researching other disappearances in this region. I think you should see this.”

Jack knew George did not voice idle thoughts. The historian remained close-lipped until he was satisfied with his research. And from the condition of the man, Jack suspected he had been digging into something significant.

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