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The Silent Sea

Clive Cussler


  On December 7, 1941, five brothers exploring a shaft on a small island off the coast of Washington State make an extraordinary discovery, only to be interrupted by news of Pearl Harbor. In the present, Cabrillo, chasing the remnants of a crashed satellite in the Argentine jungle, stumbles upon a shocking revelation of his own. His search to untangle the mystery leads him, first, to that small island and its secret, and then much farther back, to an ancient Chinese expedition—and a curse that seems to have survived for more than five hundred years. If Cabrillo's team is successful in its quest, the reward could be incalculable. If not… the only reward is death.

  The Silent Sea

  Clive Cussler & Jack Du Brul

  The fair breeze blew, the white foam flew,

  The furrow followed free;

  We were the first that ever burst

  Into that SILENT SEA.

  —The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,



  DECEMBER 7, 1941



  A golden blur leapt over the small boat’s gunwale just as the bows met the rocky beach. It hit the water with a splash and plowed through the surf, its tail raised like a triumphant pennant. When the retriever reached land, it shook itself so that drops flew like diamond chips in the crisp air, and then it looked back at the skiff. The dog barked at a pair of gulls farther down the beach that took startled flight. Feeling its companions were coming much too slowly, the purebred tore off into a copse of nearby trees, her bark diminishing until it was swallowed by the forest that covered most of the mile-square island just an hour’s row off the mainland.

  “Amelia,” cried Jimmy Ronish, the youngest of the five brothers in the boat.

  “She’ll be fine,” Nick said, shipping his oars and taking the boat’s painter line in his hand. He was the eldest of the Ronish boys.

  He timed his leap perfectly, landing on the pebbled shore as a wave receded. Three long strides later he was above the tidal mark of flotsam and drying kelp, looping the rope around a sun- and salt-bleached limb of driftwood that was a crosshatch of carved initials. He hauled back on the line to firmly ground the fourteen-foot craft and tied it off.

  “Shake a leg,” Nick Ronish admonished his younger siblings. “Low tide’s in five hours, and we’ve got a lot to do.”

  While the air was reasonably comfortable this late in the year, the north Pacific was icy cold, forcing them to unload their gear between the lapping waves. One of the heaviest pieces of equipment was a three-hundred-foot coil of hemp line that Ron and Don, the twins, had to shoulder together to get it up the beach. Jimmy was given charge of the rucksack containing their lunch, and as he was nine years old it was a burden to his slender frame.

  The four older boys—Nick at nineteen, Ron and Don a year younger, and Kevin just eleven months their junior—could have passed for quintuplets, with their towheads of floppy blond hair and their pale blue eyes. They retained the buoyant energy of youth wrapped in bodies that were rapidly becoming those of men. On the other hand, Jimmy was small for his age, with darker hair and brown eyes. His brothers teased that he looked a lot like Mr. Greenfield, the town’s grocer, and while Jimmy wasn’t exactly sure what that implied, he knew he didn’t like it. He idolized his older brothers and hated anything that distinguished him from them.

  Their family owned the small island off the coast and had for as far back as their grandfather could remember, and it was a place every generation of boys—for the Ronishes hadn’t produced a girl since 1862—spent adventurous summers exploring. Not only was it easy to pretend they were all Huck Finns marooned on the Mississippi or Tom Sawyers exploring the island’s intricate cave systems, but Pine Island had an inherent sense of intrigue because of the pit.

  Mothers had been forbidding their boys from playing near the pit since Abe Ronish, great-uncle of the current Ronish brood, had fallen to his death in 1887. The directive was as inevitably ignored as it was given.

  The real lure of the place was that local legend told that a certain Pierre Devereaux, one of the most successful privateers to ever harass the Spanish Main, had buried part of his treasure on this far northern island to lighten his ship during the dogged pursuit by a squadron of frigates that had chased him around Cape Horn and up the length of the Americas. The legend was bolstered by the discovery of a small pyramid of cannon balls in one of the island’s caves, and the fact that the top forty feet of the square pit was braced with rough-hewn log balks.

  The cannonballs had long since been lost and were now considered a myth, but there was no denying the reality of the timberworks ringing the mysterious hole in the rocky earth.

  “My shoes got wet,” Jimmy complained.

  Nick swiftly rounded on his youngest brother and said, “Damn it, Jimmy, I told you already if I heard one complaint outta you I’d make you stay with the boat.”

  “I wasn’t complaining,” the boy said, trying to keep from sniveling. “I was just saying is all.” He shook a few drops from his wet foot to show it wasn’t a problem. Nick shot him a stern look, his blue eyes glacial, and turned his attention back to the job at hand.

  Pine Island was shaped like a Valentine’s Day heart that rose out of the cold Pacific. The only beach lay where the two upper lobes come together. The rest of the islet was ringed with cliffs as insurmountable as castle walls or was protected by submerged rocks strung like beads that could tear out the bottom of even the sturdiest craft. Only a handful of animals called the island home, squirrels and mice, mostly, who had been marooned there during storms, and seabirds that used the tall pines to rest and search for prey amid the waves.

  A single road bisected the island, having been laboriously hacked twenty years before by another generation of Ronish men, who had made an assault on the island using gasoline-powered pumps to drain the pit, only to see their efforts fail. No matter how many pumps they ran or how much water they sucked from the depths, the pit would continuously refill. An exhaustive search for the subterranean passage connecting the pit to the sea turned up nothing. There was talk of building a coffer dam around the mouth of the bay closest to the pit, the thinking being that there was no other logical choice for the conduit, but the men decided the effort was too much and gave up.

  Now it was Nick and his brothers’ turn, and he had deduced something his uncles and father had not. At the time Pierre Devereaux had excavated the pit to hide his treasure, the only pump available to him would have been his ship’s hand-operated bilge pump. Because of its inefficiency, there was no way the pirates could have drained the pit with their equipment when three ten-horse pumps couldn’t.

  The answer to how the pit worked lay someplace else.

  Nick knew from the stories his uncles told that they had made their assault during the height of summer, and when he consulted an old almanac, he saw the men had been working during a period of particularly high low tides. He knew that to be successful he and his brothers would have to try to reach the bottom at the same time of year Devereaux had dug the pit—when the tides were at their very lowest—and this year that fell at a little past two o’clock on December the seventh.

  The older brothers had been planning their attempt at cracking the pit since early summer. By doing odd jobs for anyone who’d hire them, they’d scraped together money to buy equipment, notably a two-stroke gasoline-powered pump, the rope, and tin miner’s helmets with battery-powered lights. They’d practiced with the rope and a laden bucket so their arms and shoulders could work tirelessly for hours. They’d even devised goggles that would let them see underwater if necessary.

  Jimmy was only along because he had overhear
d them talking about it all and had threatened to tell their parents if he wasn’t included.

  There was a sudden commotion off to their right, an explosion of birds winging into the bright sky. Behind them, Amelia, their golden retriever, came bounding out of the tree line, barking wildly with her tail swinging like the devil’s own metronome. She chased after one gull that flew close to the ground and then halted, dumbfounded, when the bird shot into the air. Her tongue lolled, and a string of saliva drizzled from her black gums.

  “Amelia! Come!” Jimmy cried in his falsetto, and the dog dashed to his side, nearly bowling him over in her excitement.

  “Shrimp, take these,” Nick said, handing Jimmy the mining helmets and their satchels of heavy lead batteries.

  The pump was the heaviest piece of gear, and Nick had devised a sling with two carrying polls like he’d seen on Saturday-matinee serials when natives carried the movie’s hero back to their camp. The poles were lengths of timber taken from a construction site, and the four older boys hoisted them on their shoulders and lifted the engine from the rowboat. It swung and then steadied, and they started the first mile-long trek across the isle.

  It took forty-five minutes to haul all of their equipment across the island. The pit was located on a bluff above a shallow bay that was the only feature to mar its otherwise perfect heart shape. Waves smashed into the coast, but with the weather so fair only an occasional drop of white spume had the energy to climb the cliffs and land near the pit.

  “Kevin,” Nick said, a little out of breath after their second trip to the boat and back to the bluff, “you and Jimmy go get wood for a fire. And not driftwood either, it burns too fast.”

  Before his order could be carried out, natural curiosity made all five of the Ronish brothers edge closer to the pit for a quick look.

  The vertical shaft was approximately six feet to a side and perfectly square, and for as far down as they could see it was ringed with age-darkened timbers—oak, in fact, most likely cut on the mainland and brought to the island. Cold, clammy air climbed from the depths in an eerie caress that for a moment dampened their enthusiasm. It was almost as if the pit were breathing raspy, echoing exhalations, and it didn’t take much imagination to think it came from the ghosts of the men who had died trying to wrest secrets out of the bowels of the earth.

  A rusted metal grate had been laid over the mouth of the pit to prevent anyone from falling in. It was anchored with chains looped around metal pegs drilled into the rock. They had found the key to the padlock in their father’s desk drawer under the holstered broom-handled Mauser he had captured during the Great War. For a moment Nick feared it would break in the lock, but eventually it turned and the hasp clicked open.

  “Go on and get that firewood,” he ordered, and his youngest siblings took off with a raucous Amelia in tow.

  With the twins’ help, Nick dragged the heavy grate away from the opening and set it aside. Next up was the erection of a wooden frame over the pit so the rope would dangle directly into the hole from a tackle system that would allow two of the boys to easily hoist a third. This was done with the wooden carrying poles and some metal pins fitted into predrilled holes. The butt ends of the lengths of lumber were nailed directly into the oaken balks ringing the shaft. Despite its age, the old timber was more than strong enough to bend a few nails.

  Nick took charge of tying the knots that would literally make the difference between life and death while Don, the most mechanically inclined, tinkered with the pump until it was purring sweetly.

  By the time everything was ready, Kevin and Jimmy had a nice-sized fire going ten yards from the pit and enough extra wood to keep it going for a couple of hours. They all sat around it, eating sandwiches they had packed earlier and drinking canteens filled with sweetened iced tea.

  “The trick’s gonna be timing the tide just right,” Nick said around a mouthful of baloney sandwich. “Ten minutes before and after it’s lowest is about all we’ve got before the pit floods faster than our pump can keep up. When they tried back in ’twenty-one, they never got it cleared below two hundred feet, but they knew from when they plumbed it that the pit bottoms out at two-forty. Because we’re on a bluff, I figure the bottom will be maybe twenty feet below the low-tide mark. We should be able to plug wherever the water’s coming in, and the pump’ll do the rest.”

  “I bet there’s a big ol’ chest just bursting with gold,” Jimmy said, wide-eyed at the prospect.

  “Don’t forget,” Don replied, “the pit’s been dragged a hundred times with grappling hooks, and no one ever brought up anything.”

  “Loose gold doubloons, then,” Jimmy persisted, “in bags that rotted away.”

  Nick got to his feet, wiping crumbs from his lap. “We’ll know in a half hour.”

  He put on thigh-high rubber boots and slung the battery pack for his miner’s helmet over his shoulder before zipping into an oilskin jacket, feeding the power cord out his collar. He slung a second satchel of equipment over his other shoulder.

  Ron lowered a cork bob down the pit on a string marked off at ten-foot increments. “One-ninety,” he announced when the line went slack.

  Nick donned a web harness and clipped it to the loop at the end of their thick rope. “Lower the hose for the pump but don’t fire it up yet. I’m going down.”

  He tugged the rope sharply to test the tackle block’s brake, and it held perfectly. “Okay, you guys, we’ve been practicing for this all summer. No more screwing around, right?”

  “We’re ready,” Ron Ronish told him, and his twin nodded.

  “Jimmy, I don’t want you coming within ten feet of the pit, you hear? Once I’m down there, there won’t be nothing to see.”

  “I won’t. I promise.”

  Nick knew the value of his youngest brother’s word, so when he shot Kevin a knowing look, Kevin gave him a thumbs-up. He would make sure Jimmy stayed out of the way.

  “Two hundred feet,” Ron said, checking his bob once again.

  Nick grinned. “We’re already at the deepest anyone’s managed to get and we didn’t have to lift a finger.” He tapped the side of his head. “It’s all in the brains.”

  Without another word he stepped off the rim of the pit and dangled over the mouth of the precipice, his body twisting kinks out of the rope until coming to stop. If he felt any fear, it didn’t show on his face. It was a mask of concentration. He nodded to the twins, and they pulled a little on the line to release the brake and then fed rope through the tackle. Nick sank a few inches.

  “Okay, test it again.”

  The boys pulled again, and the brake reengaged.

  “Now, pull,” Nick ordered, and his brothers effortlessly raised him up those same few inches.

  “No problem, Nick,” Don said. “I told you this thing’s foolproof. Hell, I bet even Jimmy could haul you up from the bottom.”

  “Thanks but no thanks.” Nick took a couple deep breaths, and said, “All right. This time for real.”

  In smooth, controlled motions, the twins let gravity slowly draw Nick into the depths. He called up to them to halt when he was just ten feet into the pit. At this shallow depth, they could still converse. Later, when Nick approached the bottom, they had devised a series of coded tugs on the plumb bob.

  “What is it?” Don yelled down.

  “There are initials carved on the oak timber here. ALR.”

  “Uncle Albert, I bet,” Don said. “I think his middle name is Lewis.”

  “Next to it is Dad’s JGR, and it looks like TMD.”

  “That’ll be Mr. Davis. He worked with them when they tried to reach the bottom.”

  “Okay, lower away.”

  Nick turned on his miner’s lamp at forty feet where the wooden supports gave way to native rock. The stone looked natural, as if the shaft had been formed millions of years ago when the island was created, and was damp enough to support slimy green mold even though it was well above the tide line. He cast the beam past his dangling legs. I
t was swallowed by the abyss just a few yards beyond his feet. A steady breeze blew past Nick’s face, and a single uncontrollable shiver shook his body.

  Down he went, deeper into the earth, with nothing to support him but a rope and his faith in his brothers. When he looked up, the sky was just a tiny square dot high overhead. The walls weren’t exactly closing in on him, but he could feel their proximity. He tried not to think about it. Suddenly, below him, he could see a reflection, and as he sank lower he realized he’d reached the high-tide mark. The stone was still damp to the touch. By his calculations he was a hundred and seventy feet belowground. There was still no sign of any way water could reach the pit from the sea, but he didn’t expect to see it until the two-hundred-foot mark.

  Ten feet lower, he thought he heard something—the faintest trickle of water. He gave the plumb line two tugs to tell his brothers to slow his descent. They immediately responded, and his speed was halved. The sound of water entering the pit grew louder. Nick strained to see into the darkness while droplets dripped off the walls, pattering his helmet like rain. An occasional drop was an icy flick against his neck.


  He waited a few more seconds to be lowered another eighteen inches, then gave the plumb a sharp pull.

  He hung loose next to a fissure in the rock the size of a postcard. He couldn’t estimate how much water was coming through it—surely not enough to defeat all the pumps his father and uncles had brought—so he decided there was at least one more channel to the Pacific. He carefully pulled a handful of oakum fibers from his bag and shoved them into the crack as deep as he could, holding them in place against the icy flow. As seawater saturated the fibers, they swelled until the surge dwindled to a drip and then stopped altogether.

  The oakum plug wouldn’t hold for long once the tide came back in, which was why his time on the bottom would be so short.

  Nick tugged again and started down once more, passing clusters of mussels clinging to the rock. The smell was noxious. He plugged two more similar-sized clefts and when the third was dammed completely he could no longer hear water entering the pit. He pulled the plumb four times, and a moment later the flaccid hose attached to the surface pump puffed out as it started to suck the shaft dry.