Titan is releasing four novels by Michael Crichton originally written under the pen name ‘John Lange’. Crichton wrote these between 1966 and 1972 while at Harvard Medical School and now they’re back in print for the first time in decades.
Today’s installment: Diver James McGregor is used to exploring sunken ships. But there’s something strange about the wreck of the Grave Descend. No one aboard tells quite the same story about what happened. Then there’s the mysterious cargo they were carrying… In one of the most beautiful places on Earth, a sinister plot is about to unfold. And if McGregor’s not careful, he may find himself in over his head.
Starting in the early dawn light, he had driven up into the mountains, leaving the flat sprawl of Kingston behind him. He had cut through the tiny mountain villages, the native huts perched precariously beside the road; then down through lush valleys of tropical vegetation, damp in the misty morning wetness; and finally up once more to the cold air of the peaks which sheltered the north coast.
Now it was eight o’clock in the morning, and he was coming down, hunched over his bike, doing a hundred, with the sound of the engine in his ears, and the wind in his hair. In the distance, he could see blue water, with waves breaking across the inner reefs, and hotels lining the beachfront. A momentary glimpse: then he plunged into the final twisting green decline which led him to Ocho Rios.
McGregor hated Ocho Rios. Once a beautiful and elegant strip of coastline, it was now a long succession of gaudy hotels, ratty nightclubs, stud services and steel-band discos, all patronized by hordes of vacuous tourists who were seeking something a little more expensive but no different from Miami Beach.
It was to serve such tourists that the Plantation Inn had been built, an enormous complex on twenty acres of lavish grounds, phony colonial buildings, restaurants and snack bars. It was shielded from the road by a high fence. There was a guard in khakis at the gate, a smooth-faced native who saluted each limousine of tourists as it arrived from the airport.
The guard did not salute McGregor, however. Instead, he held up one hand, and rested the other on the butt of his holstered gun.
“You have business here?”
McGregor stopped, idling the bike. “I’m seeing Mr. Wayne.”
The guard checked the guest register on a clipboard, made a mark against one name, and nodded. “Keep the noise down,” he said, as he stood aside to let McGregor pass. “The guests are sleeping.”
McGregor smiled, gunned his bike, and roared noisily into the compound. He passed manicured gardens, beds of bright flowers, carefully watered palms. At length he pulled up in front of the main hotel building, which was only three years old, but carefully constructed to resemble an old Jamaican plantation.
He parked the bike and went into the lobby. At the front desk, the clerk in a red jacket and tie stared at his greasy dungarees and dirty blue pullover. “May we help you, sir?” he asked, with an expression that was intended to be a smile, but was closer to a wince.
“Is he, uh, expecting you?”
“Yes, he is uh expecting me,” McGregor said.
The man winced a little more. “Your name, please?”
The clerk picked up the telephone, dialed, and spoke quietly for a moment before hanging up. He was clearly displeased, but managed to say, “Take the elevator to the right. Room four-two-three.”
McGregor nodded, and said nothing.
Despite the early hour, Arthur Wayne was up and dressed, sitting at a small table on which breakfast had been laid out. He was a lean man in his middle fifties, with a severe face and gray, cold eyes; despite the casual resort atmosphere, he wore a three-piece pinstripe suit.
“Sit down, McGregor,” he said, buttering his toast. “You made good time. Want some breakfast?”
“Just coffee,” McGregor said. He lit a cigarette and sat in a chair near the window. “How’d you know where to reach me?”
“You mean, at your …friend’s?” Wayne smiled, and poured a cup of coffee. “We have our ways. I didn’t really think you’d be here so fast, though.”
“I told you, eight thirty.”
“Yes, but we called at six, and it’s four hours from Kingston to Ocho—”
“Not the way I do it.”
“Clearly,” Wayne said. “Clearly.” He bit into the toast and glanced over at McGregor. A businessman’s glance, steady, appraising. “You’re older than I expected.”
“So are you.”
“How old are you, anyway?” He set down his toast, and started on the scrambled eggs. “Tell me a little about yourself.”
“There’s not much to tell,” McGregor said. “I’m a diver. I’m thirty-nine. I’ve lived in Kingston fourteen years. Before that I did salvage work out of New York and Miami. It didn’t pay, and I hated it, so I came down here.”
“And before New York?”
“I was in the Pacific, clearing beaches for the Marines.”
Wayne chewed his eggs. “What was that like?”
“Like a bad dream.” McGregor puffed on the cigarette, and stared out of the window. He disliked this part: the early establishment of credentials with the client. You had to put on a good show. He hoped Wayne wouldn’t get onto the leg business.
“I heard you were injured in the war,” Wayne said.
“Yes. Nearly lost a leg. It took the medics three years afterward to get it back together.”
“Remarkable,” Wayne said, still chewing. “Remarkable. Well, I won’t beat around the bush, Mr. McGregor. You come highly recommended to us. We’re very eager to have you.”
McGregor smiled slightly. “Especially since I’m the only one on the island equipped to do the job?”
“We are more concerned,” Wayne said, “about finding the right man for the job.”
“But your alternative is flying in a team from Florida or Nassau, and that costs. It costs plenty—all that heavy equipment.”
“Are you telling me you’re raising your rates?” Wayne said.
“Just thinking about it.”
“I won’t beat around the bush,” Wayne said. “This is an important, very delicate job. We’ll pay you anything you ask, within reason.”
“Depends on the job.”
“Then let me tell you,” Wayne said, wiping his mouth with a napkin, “about the job.”
He pushed away from the table, and, coughing slightly, lit a cigarette. He reached for a large briefcase and opened it, taking out maps, charts, and marine blueprints, which he spread across the floor.
Then he picked up a glossy photograph of a sfhip, and handed it to McGregor.
“This is the problem,” he said. “The yacht Grave Descend. One hundred twenty-three feet at the waterline, luxury fittings, five staterooms, each with bath—”
McGregor said, “Tonnage?”
“Forty-four twenty, I think.”
Wayne checked his papers. “Yes …forty-four twenty.”
“Where did it go down?”
“Five miles east of here, and three-quarters of a mile offshore, give or take. According to the best estimates, it’s about here”—he gave McGregor a marine chart—“just outside the outer reefs. There’s two reefs here, an inner reef of about twenty feet, and an outer reef that falls off to—”
“I know about the reefs,” McGregor said. “When did it go down?”
McGregor paused. “Yesterday?”
Wayne sucked on his cigarette, and smiled. “You’re wondering why I am here so soon. Marine insurance companies aren’t usually so punctual in sending a representative—isn’t that what you are thinking?”
“I think you will understand as time goes on. The boat is insured for two million ten, so we are understandably concerned, but that is only part of the problem.”
McGregor frowned. He had never heard of a marine insurance rep calling a ship a boat before. And Wayne was remarkably disorganized. He looked again at the map. “How does she lie?”
“We’re not sure. We think the bow faces north, toward open water, and that the stern rests here. That would put the stern in about sixty-five feet, and the bow in about eighty. The drop-off is quite sharp here—”
“No. As far as we know, not. It is, we hope, intact.”
“But you don’t know.”
“No. We don’t.”
McGregor frowned. “Whose is she?”
“She belongs to an American industrialist who made his fortune in steel. He bought it from an Australian nine months ago, and kept it in the Mediterranean until a few weeks ago. He brought it across to Miami—West Palm, actually, to a marina there—for repairs, and then had it sailed here.”
“He wasn’t aboard?”
“No. He lives outside Pittsburgh, and was planning to fly down, and take her from Ocho down to Aruba.”
McGregor nodded. “And you want me to tell you if it can be raised?”
“Among other things,” Wayne said. “But we have an additional concern, of great importance to us, from the insurance standpoint.”
“We want to know why it went down in the first place,” Wayne said, and stubbed out his cigarette.
There was a short silence. McGregor waited for an explanation; when none came, he said, “I’m not sure I follow you.”
“I’m not sure I’m making much sense, myself,” Wayne said. “You see, something happened aboard that boat. There was an explosion—in the engine room, according to all accounts. The boat was outfitted with twin six-hundred-horsepower Caterpillar diesels—”
“Twin six-hundreds. She cruised very nicely at fourteen knots. Those diesels were thoroughly checked out at West Palm. They were in perfect running order. Yet there was an explosion. And the boat sank very swiftly. It was down in a matter of minutes.”
If there had been a death or serious injury, it would be out of McGregor’s hands. The Jamaican government would conduct its own inquiry, since the boat had sunk in Jamaican territorial waters.
“No,” Wayne said. “That’s the strange part of it. There were six crew members, including the skipper, Captain Loomis. And there was one passenger. They all made it off the boat safely, and were picked up by a native fishing boat.”
“I see. Where is Captain Loomis now?”
“Here in town. He’s staying at the Hotel Reserve.”
McGregor nodded. He knew the Reserve, a cheap hotel back in the hills, where yacht-owners traditionally put up their crews.
“I’d like to talk to him.”
“Of course. I’ll arrange it for later in the day—”
“Don’t bother,” McGregor said. “I’ll do it myself.”
Wayne shrugged. “As you wish.”
“And the passenger? Who was he?”
“She, actually,” Wayne said. “Monica Grant. Captain Loomis did very well as far as that was concerned.”
“How do you mean?”
“I mean, publicity.” Wayne picked up the day’s copy of the Gleaner. “Not a word about the yacht and its sinking. Not a blessed word. Captain Loomis managed to keep everything quiet, and a good thing, too.”
McGregor said nothing.
“You see, the owner of the Grave Descend is quite a good friend of Miss Grant. And the owner’s wife . . .”
“Okay,” McGregor said. “Got you.”
“So there you have it,” Wayne said. “The ship went down, and we don’t know why. The owner is extremely eager to keep it quiet, and he doesn’t want Miss Grant’s name mentioned.”
“You can’t hope to conceal it forever,” McGregor said.
“No. No, we wouldn’t even try. What we intend is to announce the sinking as occurring this evening. That will allow us to safely remove Miss Grant from the scene of the action, away from the reporters and photographers. It is, after all, a very good story—bizarre sinking of a luxury yacht, with mysterious beautiful girl on board. A good enough story to make the Pittsburgh papers.”
“Miss Grant is beautiful, is she?”
Wayne shrugged, and walked onto the balcony. “Have a look for yourself.” He pointed down to the pool. “The blonde in the deck chair, reading the magazine.”
McGregor looked down at a girl in a small bikini, lounging at the poolside.
“Beautiful,” he nodded.
“She’s registered as a guest of the hotel now,” Wayne said. “She will have been registered for fully twenty-four hours before news of the sinking is released. No one will connect her to it.”
McGregor frowned. “You seem,” he said, “to be going to great lengths to protect the owner of this ship. Isn’t that a little beyond the call of duty for an insurance agent?”
“I suppose,” Wayne said, “but the circumstances are special.”
“The owner, Robert Wayne,” he said, “is my brother.”
He let that sink in. McGregor didn’t know exactly what to make of it, but he would decide later. Meantime, there were other problems.
“About money . . .”
Wayne said crisply: “We are prepared to offer you a hundred a day.”
“Plus expenses,” McGregor said.
“Yes. Plus expenses.”
“I’ll need a decent-size skiff, say thirty feet. Compressor, tanks, equipment—I have all that, but it goes on a per diem basis of a hundred dollars.”
Wayne nodded. “All right.”
“And my own rate is two hundred a day,” McGregor said.
At this, Wayne paused. “I was given to understand,” he said, “that you did not run quite so high—”
“I don’t usually,” McGregor said. He tapped the marine chart showing the position of the Grave Descend. “But this is powerhead country.”
“I beg your pardon?”
McGregor smiled slightly. “Powerhead country. It means you don’t go down there without a gas gun and a powerhead shaft. Especially outside the far reefs.”
“I’m afraid I still don’t—”
“Because,” McGregor said, “that stretch of coast is the furthest Atlantic tip of the island, the most unprotected water. It’s thick with hammerheads.”
Wayne looked confused.
“A kind of shark,” McGregor said. “One of the worst kinds.”
“Two hundred a day,” McGregor said.
Wayne nodded. “Two hundred it is.”
“I’ll take care of getting the skiff, and paying the man. I’ll have all my equipment over here by—by tomorrow morning.”
“We can begin then.”
“All right. You’ll want something to get you started,” Wayne said, and quickly wrote out a check for a thousand dollars, waved it dry, and handed it to McGregor. “Is that sufficient?”
“I think so.”
“And I was going to suggest that perhaps later in the day, you might want to fly over the site. We can charter an airplane quite easily from the Ocho airfield. Perhaps at two this afternoon?”
McGregor shook his head. “Sun’s too high,” he said. “You won’t see shadows at two. Better three thirty or four.”
“All right. Shall I arrange it?”
“Then we’ll meet at the airfield?” Wayne said.
“Fine,” McGregor said, and left, check in hand. He went down to the lobby, exchanged sneers with the desk clerk, and walked out to the pool to talk with Monica Grant.
Copyright © 1970 by Constant c Productions, Inc. (successor to Centesis Corporation); copyright renewed, 2005, by Constant c Productions, Inc.