CLIVE CUSSLER & Graham Brown

Devil's Gate


Santa Maria Airport, Azores island chain, 1951

HUDSON WALLACE STOOD ON THE RAMP just outside the terminal building on a cold, wet night. His leather jacket did little to keep out the chill as a mix of drizzle and fog shrouded the airport and the whole island around it.

Across from him, blue taxi lights glowed in stoic silence, doing little to warm the scene, while above a beam of white light swung through the fog followed moments later by a flash of green as the airport’s beacon spun slowly and repetitively.

Hudson doubted anyone was up there to see it, not with the clouds so thick and low, but God help him if he were. Mountains surrounded the airport on three sides, and the island itself was just a speck on the map in the middle of the dark Atlantic. Even in 1951 finding such a spot was no easy task. And if someone could find Santa Maria though this soup, Hudson guessed he’d hit the peaks long before he saw the runway lights through the rain.

So getting to the island was one thing. Leaving was something else. Weather notwithstanding, Hudson wanted to go, couldn’t wait to get moving, in fact. For reasons he knew too well it had become unsafe to stay. Despite that fact, and despite being the pilot and owner of the Lockheed Constellation parked on the ramp, he didn’t have the final word.

With little to do but watch and wait, Hudson pulled a silver case from his coat pocket. He drew out a Dunhill cigarette and stuck it between his lips. Ignoring the “No Smoking” signs plastered every twenty feet, he cradled a Zippo lighter to his face and lit the Dunhill.

He was a hundred yards from the nearest plane or fuel line, and the whole airport was soaking wet. He figured the chances of causing a problem were just about nil. And the chances of anyone bothering to leave the warm, dry terminal building to come outside to complain? He figured they were even less than that.

After a deep, satisfying draw, Hudson exhaled.

The heather gray cloud of smoke faded as the door to the terminal opened behind him.

A man wearing ill-fitting clothing stepped out. His round face was partially hidden by a brown hat. His jacket and pants were made of coarse wool and looked like surplus leftovers from the Red Army winter catalog. Thin, fingerless gloves completed the appearance of a peasant traveler, but Hudson knew differently. This man, his passenger, would soon be wealthy. That is, if he could survive long enough to reach America.

“Is the weather going to clear?” the man said.

Another drag on the Dunhill. Another puff of smoke from Hudson before he answered.

“Nope,” he said dejectedly. “Not today. Maybe not for a week.”

Hudson’s passenger was a Russian named Tarasov. He was a refugee from the Soviet Union. His luggage consisted of two stainless steel trunks, heavy enough that they might have been filled with stones. Both of which sat locked and chained to the floor of Hudson’s aircraft.

Hudson hadn’t been told what was hidden in those trunks, but the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency was paying him a small fortune to get them and Tarasov into the U.S. He guessed they were paying the Russian a lot more than that to defect and bring the cases with him.

So far, so good. An American agent had managed to get Tarasov to Yugoslavia, another communist country, but under Tito there was no love of Stalin there. A hefty bribe had managed to get Hudson’s plane into Sarajevo and out before anyone began asking questions.

Since then they’d traveled west, but word was out and one attempt on the man’s life had left Tarasov limping with a bullet still in his leg.

Hudson’s orders were to get him to the U.S. as quickly as possible, and keep it quiet on the way, but they never specified a route. A good thing too, because Hudson wouldn’t have followed it.

So far, he’d avoided all European cities of note, traveling to the Azores instead, where he could refuel and then go nonstop to the States. It was a good plan, but he hadn’t counted on the weather, or on Tarasov’s fear of flying.

“They’ll find us here sooner or later,” Hudson said. He turned to his passenger. “They have agents everywhere, in every harbor and airport at least.”

“But you said this was out of the way.”

“Yeah,” Hudson said. “And when they don’t spot us at any place that’s ‘in the way,’ they’re gonna start looking elsewhere. Probably already have.”

Hudson took another drag on the cigarette. He wasn’t sure the Russians would check the Azores. But two Americans and a foreigner landing in what was essentially an international airliner — and then waiting around for three days without talking to anyone — was the kind of thing that might draw attention.

“At some point, you’re going to have to decide what you’re more afraid of,” he said, nodding toward the plane sitting alone in the drizzle. “A little turbulence or a knife in the gut.”

Tarasov looked up to the churning dark sky. He shrugged and held his hands out, palms up, like a man trying to show the world he had no money. “But we cannot fly like this,” he said.

“Land,” Hudson clarified. “We cannot land like this.” He made a motion with his hand like a plane descending and flaring for landing.

“But we can sure as hell take off,” he continued, raising his hand again. “And then we can head due west. No mountains that way. Nothing but ocean… and freedom.”

Tarasov shook his head, but Hudson could see his resolve faltering.

“I checked the weather in New York,” he said, lying once again. He’d done no such thing, not wanting anyone to guess his destination. “It’s clear for the next forty-eight hours, but after that…”

Tarasov seemed to understand.

“We go now or we’re stuck here for a week.”

His passenger did not appear to like either choice. He looked at the ground and then out toward the big silver Constellation with its four massive piston engines and sleek triple tails. He stared into the rain and the cloak of the night beyond.

“You can get us through?”

Hudson flicked the cigarette to the ground and crushed it out with his boot. He had him. “I can get us through,” he said.

Reluctantly, Tarasov nodded.

Hudson looked out toward the plane and made a winding motion with his hand. The sharp sound of the starter motor rang out and black smoke belched from the number 3 engine. The plugs fired and the big radial engine came to life. In moments, the huge propeller was spinning at fifteen hundred rpms, blasting rain and spray out behind the aircraft. Seconds later the number 1 engine sprang to life.

Hudson had hoped he would be able to convince their passenger to fly. He’d left Charlie Simpkins, his copilot, in the plane and told him to keep her primed to go.

“Come on,” Hudson said.

Tarasov took a deep breath and then stepped away from the door. He began walking toward the waiting plane. Halfway there, a shot rang out. It echoed across the wet tarmac, and Tarasov lurched forward, arching his back and twisting to the side.

“No!” Hudson yelled.

He sprang forward, grabbing Tarasov, keeping the man on his feet and hustling him toward the plane.

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