- Published: 15 September 2020
- ISBN: 9781405936859
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $22.99
The Titanic Secret
New York City
The sky over Manhattan was the color of old pewter. The clouds were so low that the tops of some of the tallest buildings vanished into the mist. The air had a biting edge, while the Hudson Hawk, the famed wind that blew along its namesake river, was in full flight. The spring- like weather from a week earlier was but a memory to the city dwellers.
An armored Chevy Suburban with government plates eased up to the midblock curb in a downtown neighborhood. A late-twenties man in a trench coat holding a furled black umbrella and obviously waiting for the vehicle pushed himself from the flower box he’d been leaning against and approached the big SUV as its passenger’s-side window whispered down.
The driver, a thirty-year veteran in providing security for government officials, said nothing.
“Greetings,” the pedestrian stammered. He peered into the backseat and his mouth flattened into a line when he saw it was unoccupied. “I’m Thomas Gwynn. I’m supposed to meet with the NUMA Director. The National Underwater and Marine Agency. Dirk Pitt.”
Back at the beginning of his career, the driver, Vin Blankenship, would have asked to see ID, but he’d checked the website of the law firm where Gwynn worked and recognized the younger man from his online bio. “Mr. Pitt texted me to say his meeting at the UN is running a little long. He asked that I pick you up before I get him, and then we head over to Queens.”
“Oh, sure. That’s no problem.” Gwynn let himself into the back of the big truck. He loosened the belt on his coat. “Nice and warm in here.”
Despite the extra weight of its armor and bulletproof glass, the Suburban pulled from the curb with remarkable agility and power. Its throaty V-8 was as heavily modified as her coachwork.
Blankenship soon had the big truck cruising north on the FDR. Had he wanted, he could have hit the sirens and lights, but he figured they had plenty of time.
“Did you drive Mr. Pitt here from Washington?” Gwynn asked, just for something to say.
“No. I’m from the New York office. I was assigned to him while he’s here for the UN conference. I picked him up at Penn two days ago, and I’ll be dropping him off there after the tour—or whatever it is he wanted to see today.”
“Does he need protection like that?”
“C’mon, this is New York. Everyone needs protection.” Blankenship laughed at his own joke.
Fifteen minutes later, he wheeled the Suburban onto the plaza in front of the five-hundred-and-five-foot glass monolith that is the United Nations headquarters. He had to present credentials to guards in black tac gear and slalom through concrete barriers to approach the building. He stopped and rolled down his window so he’d be recognized. His wasn’t the only government Suburban present.
There were dozens of people milling around on the plaza, huddled in little groups of three and four, all with name tags. Most wore smiles and were shaking hands in self-congratulatory ways. Most were dressed in suits, but there were a few Arabs in white dishdashas and some African women in dresses as colorful as tropical bird feathers. This had been a truly international affair. One solitary figure that did not look so pleased spied the idling SUV and its driver. He launched himself across the crowded esplanade with a single-mindedness usually reserved for master jewelers about to make a critical cut.
Dirk Pitt was tall, and rather more lanky than muscular, with a swirl of dark hair and bright green eyes. His mouth was usually held in such a way as to convey a sense that he found life to be pleasantly amusing. Not now, though. His eyes were dark, like the color of a squall at sea, and his mouth was pinched so that his jaw jutted out.
“You look even worse today than after yesterday’s meetings,” Blankenship said as Pitt neared the Suburban.
Pitt pulled himself up into the passenger’s seat next to the driver. This broke security protocol, but the NUMA Director had assured the Secret Service vet that if anything happened he would make sure blame would fall squarely on his own shoulders.
Pitt said, “I may not know how to stem the tide of so much plastic waste entering the world’s oceans, but I do know that spending days in a lecture hall with a bunch of overfed and overindulged bureaucrats who decide nothing other than the agenda for the next round of meetings isn’t going to solve anything.” He gave a little shudder and, just like that, the darkness enveloping him evaporated. He looked over his shoulder with a friendly grin and an outstretched hand. “Thomas Gwynn, I’m Dirk Pitt. Thanks for agreeing to meet in such an unorthodox way. My schedule’s tight, and my wife says I have to be back in Washington tonight for a birthday party for her chief of staff.”
“This is no problem at all,” Gwynn replied. He realized how soft his hand must have felt to Pitt’s callused grip. The man ran a massive government agency, but it was clear he was no overfed, overindulged bureaucrat. “Your wife is Congresswoman Loren Smith.”
“I’m a lucky man,” Pitt said with obvious love. “I will admit that you piqued my interest when you called my office. It was just good luck that I was coming to New York the next day. Most people are aware of the Titanic salvage, some may even remember that I headed the raising, but to the best of my knowledge the fact we were hoping to recover the byzanium ore from her holds remains classified. How do you know about that?” Pitt held up a finger to forestall the answer to ask the driver, “You know where we’re heading, right?”
“I grew up ten minutes from that old site,” Blankenship replied. “I used to fish the East River just upstream.”
Pitt grinned. “I hope you didn’t eat anything you caught.”
The Secret Service man chuckled. “We couldn’t even identify half the things we caught.”
Turning his attention back to Thom Gwynn, Pitt asked again, “So, how do you know about the byzanium?”
“My law firm kept papers on behalf of the man who recovered it.”
Pitt nodded, and stated, “Joshua Hayes Brewster. A Colorado hardrock miner who first discovered the ore on Novaya Zemlya Island in the Russian Arctic and then returned in 1911 with a group of other men to wrest it from the mountain.”
He knew the story as surely as he knew his own.
“No, Mr. Pitt. I’m talking about Isaac Bell.”
A shadow of confusion passed over Pitt’s eyes. While he couldn’t recount the names of the other miners, he did remember none of them were named Bell. “You’ve lost me.”
“I’m not surprised. Are you familiar with the Van Dorn Detective Agency?”
“Yes. I know they were as big and famous as Pinkerton.”
“In an age when hotels had their own in-house detectives, and railways hired armies of guards, Joseph Van Dorn built a thriving business around the motto ‘We never give up! Never!’ Isaac Bell was the lead investigator. Perhaps the greatest detective of his—or any—generation.”
“Okay,” Pitt said cautiously. “I don’t doubt that, but you need to believe me when I say that he had nothing to do with mining the byzanium or working to smuggle it aboard the Titanic. I lived that project for what seemed like the better part of a year. There were no private investigators involved.”
“Mr. Bell kept his presence out of all records. He even rewrote Brewster’s notes so that his name was expunged.”
Pitt’s face still showed nothing but confusion.
“Let me explain it this way, Mr. Pitt.”
“Dirk,” he said absently. “Please.”
“Sure, Dirk. Okay. So, Isaac Bell, over the course of his long career, came into possession of a great many secrets. Things that could ruin family dynasties, destroy the credibility of companies and even nations, and reveal hidden motives and behind-the-scenes players of some of the most pivotal events of the first half of the twentieth century. He had all this information, but unlike J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s first director, Bell had no interest in furthering himself through blackmail or intimidation. He was just a man who knew a lot of secrets.
“When he retired, he decided to record secrets and stories. I must say, had he not been so good as a detective, he could have been a pulp fiction writer. Tales of his exploits read like adventure books. He also knew that while some of what he wrote about must never see the light of day—and those journals were likely burned upon his death—he felt that other stories could be made public at some future date when those most involved were long dead and the legacy had been relegated to the ‘dusty corner of history.’ Those are his exact words.
“These files he placed in trust with his attorney with detailed instructions as to when and with whom they could be shared. Much of it was straightforward, like ‘Thirty years after the death of so-and-so, please see that his surviving children are given this envelope. If they are deceased, please see that it is given to a grandchild.’ That sort of thing.”
“There were other files that he left up to the attorney’s discretion as to who to share the information with, although Bell did specify the year in which to make the disbursement, usually some benchmark important to the tale, although I’ve seen a few that just give a date with no explanation.
“So now, we spring ahead decades after Bell’s death, and his attorney built a practice into what is now Gitterman, Shankle, and Capps. My current employer and one of the city’s largest law firms. And to this day we continue to honor our commitment in seeing the last few Isaac Bell files find their proper home.”
“And you think that’s me?” Pitt still didn’t quite get the connection.
“Yes, well, when the date on this particular file came due, one of the senior partners had the honor of reading it first. He wasn’t sure what to do, but his secretary knew that I was something of a Titanic buff. My namesake uncle was part of the recovery operation. He once told me you were the man who raised the Titanic. He was a hoist operator on one of the support ships. The Modoc.”
“I’ll be damned,” Pitt said. “I thought your name rang a bell. Tommy Gwynn. You don’t look much like him, I have to say.”
“I know. Right? He was huge.”
Pitt caught the tense the lawyer used. “Was? What happened?”
“He left NUMA a short time after the Titanic operation and worked as a crane operator here in New York. There was an accident at a construction site. Uncle Tommy and two other men were killed. That was eight or nine years ago.” Councilor Gwynn paused for a moment, grief darkening his eyes before he thrust it aside. “Back to the story. The senior partners tapped me to find the right person to share this with and I immediately thought of you once I’d read it and did some digging into the lives of Brewster and the rest of his miners—”
“They called themselves the Coloradans,” Pitt interjected.
Gwynn nodded eagerly. “Bell mentioned that. There’s no family left for any of them, since all but one never married except—”
“Jake Hobart.” Now that he was thinking again about that long-ago mission, more and more details were flooding Pitt’s mind.
“That’s right. Hobart was married, but his wife is long dead, and they didn’t have children. Since no one remains from the time the mineral was mined and put aboard the Titanic, I figured why not give it to the guy who found it in the end? Bell’s journal doesn’t change the basic facts, but I thought you might be interested in the backstory of how the events unfolded more than a hundred years ago.”
From a deep pocket inside his trench coat, the young attorney withdrew a sheaf of yellowed papers in a sealed plastic bag. The first page just had a simple two-word title. The Coloradans. Pitt was about to open the bag when Blankenship interrupted.
“Just so you know, we’re only five minutes away.”
“Okay,” Pitt said, so engrossed in what Gwynn had to tell him, he hadn’t realized how swiftly they’d crossed the East River.
Thomas Gwynn said, “I told you I didn’t mind meeting on the fly like this, but what’s so important about some turtles at a riverside construction site in Queens?”
“Not some turtles,” Pitt corrected. “The Turtle. In the cargo space behind you is a leather overnight backpack and a waterproof dive bag. Could you hand me the bag?”
Gwynn leaned over the rear bench to recover the bag and handed it to Pitt. Pitt had already slipped off his leather shoes. He held one up so both driver and passenger could see it. “My wife got me these as an expensive practical joke, thinking I would never wear Italian loafers, but they’re more comfortable than sneakers.”
From the dive bag he removed a pair of shin-high rubber boots and an insulated high- vis windbreaker. He jammed his feet into the galoshes and contorted his way into the jacket while penned in by the Suburban’s confines.
“Here’s a story for you,” Pitt said when he clicked on his seat belt once again. “Following the battles of Lexington and Concord during our Revolutionary War against the British, an inventor living near New Haven named David Bushnell proposed building a submersible craft that could be used to affix mines to the underside of the English ships blockading New York Harbor. None other than George Washington himself liked the proposal and agreed to fund it.
“All that summer, and into the fall, Bushnell and several dedicated woodworkers, metalsmiths, and self-taught engineers built the submarine. About ten feet tall and barrel-shaped—or, as once described, resembling two turtle shells that had been fused together—it was made of iron-banded wood like the staves of a barrel and powered by a pair of hand-cranked screws. It also had an auger that was designed to bore into a ship’s hull so an explosive charge could be affixed. It had a foot- pedal bilge pump and windows in a metal . . . Well, I guess conning tower is the best way to describe it. All in all, it was ungainly, awkward, and utterly brilliant.
“And also, a total failure,” Pitt added. “In the summer of 1776, after a lot of sea trials and testing, one Sergeant Ezra Lee was selected to be the Turtle’s pilot. Finally, in September of that year, Lee launched the Turtle at the British flagship HMS Eagle, which was at anchor below Governors Island at the mouth of New York Harbor. It took Lee two hours to maneuver the submersible, but no matter how hard he tried, he couldn’t get the upward-facing drill to bite deep enough into the Eagle’s hull to set the explosives. In retrospect, it’s pretty easy to see that maintaining the Turtle’s stability while drilling in that exact location was practically impossible given the tides and currents.”
“Not to mention the poor guy must have been exhausted,” Blankenship said.
Pitt nodded. “The Turtle was thought to have only enough air for a half hour. He could replenish his supply by surfacing as he crossed the harbor, but by the end of his attempt at boring into the Eagle he would have been delirious from too much carbon dioxide.
“They tried attacking a different ship a month later with the same result. Not long afterward, the British sank the Turtle’s support ship on the Jersey side of the harbor. Bushnell claims he salvaged the little sub, but its fate was lost to history.”
“Until now?” Thomas Gwynn hazarded.
“Exactly. Interesting, it wouldn’t be until almost a hundred years later that a submarine was successful at sinking an enemy warship. That was the Confederate sub Hunley, which rammed a torpedo into the USS Housatonic during the Civil War.”
They were approaching a large construction zone in a commercial section of the city. The ground was mostly broken-up asphalt. The nearby buildings were brick or metal and windowless. Several old smokestacks were silhouetted against the skyline. Dumpsters and rusted equipment littered the alleys between buildings, and most vertical surfaces were desecrated with multiple layers of graffiti, none of which could be considered art. The fine mist that had hung in the air all day became heavier. Not yet a rain, it was a perfect gloomy pall for the forlorn district.
The Pratt & Whitney radial engines rasped and hunted as they struggled to inhale the high-altitude air.
Captain Omar Rahal tracked the small boat racing across the placid waters of the narrow strait.
Heat shimmered in waves across the Valley of the Kings as the merciless sun baked the desert sands into clay.
They gave him the gun in New York, he was pretty certain, and he thought some money too.
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings.
Through his periscope, Kapitän Hans Schultz watched the chaos aboard the schooner Carroll A. Deering and smiled.
Wails of grief drifted over the city like a black aria. The mud brick dwellings burst with anguish, as the sorrow swirled into the night desert.