- Published: 16 November 2021
- ISBN: 9780241552360
- Imprint: Michael Joseph
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $37.00
Clive Cussler's The Devil's Sea
MARCH 18, 1959
The Pratt & Whitney radial engines rasped and hunted as they struggled to inhale the high-altitude air. A pair of the venerable Twin Wasp fourteen-cylinder aircraft motors, produced by the thousands during the war, powered the unmarked C-47 transport as it buffeted through a stormy night. Absent any cargo in the rear fuselage, the plane, known as the Skytrain, was particularly susceptible to the fickle air drafts it battled above the top of the world.
“Scraping twenty-two thousand feet in altitude,” Delbert Baker drawled from the copilot’s seat, a toothpick dangling from his lips. Disheveled and moon-faced, he had the droopy-eyed gaze of a man who would yawn if a space alien tapped him on the shoulder. “Engines ain’t too happy.”
“We’re well under our ceiling, even if the motors don’t seem to think so,” the pilot said crisply. The antithesis of his copilot, James Worthington sat upright in a clean, pressed flight suit, his grip tight on the plane’s yoke. Yet he was equally impervious to the bumps and creaks of the empty cargo plane as it was knocked around the violent sky. Though unseen mountaintops passed just beneath the plane’s belly, Worthington remained as calm as a man playing checkers.
Like Baker, Worthington had plenty of experience flying over the Himalayas in transports. Both had regularly f own the Hump during World War II, when the U.S. Army Air Force supplied arms and supplies to the Nationalist Chinese from bases in India. Now they flew for the CIA, but the dangers of crossing the towering mountain range in marginal weather had not lessened.
Worthington tapped a pair of red-knobbed handles protruding between their seats, assuring they were pulled fully back. The throttle quadrant controlled the engine fuel mixture. They were set to their leanest settings for the crossing of the world’s tallest mountain range.
Their headsets crackled with the voice of their navigator, seated in a compartment behind them. “About twenty minutes to Lhasa. Maintain current heading.”
The airplane suddenly bounced like a roller coaster flying off the rails. Baker glanced out his side window at a steady snowfall pelting the wings. “Hope our boys turn the lights on.”
Worthington nodded. “They’ll be hiking across the Himalayas on their own if they don’t.”
The plane soldiered on through the night, the pilots fighting sudden drafts that would send the craft hurtling upward. Less frequent, but more precarious, were the sharp downdrafts that struck without warning.
Soon they approached their target, and Worthington began descending, knowing the highest peaks were now behind them. Through the cold black night, a handful of lights appeared on the ground, glowing like distant candles.
“This must be the place,” Baker said.
The navigator provided a new heading, and Worthington adjusted their flight path, turning over the scattered lights of Lhasa. Tibet’s historic capital, it was a colorful but dusty city that stretched along the narrow Kyichu River Valley at an imposing elevation of twelve thousand feet. The country’s one and only official airport lay eighty miles to the northeast, but Worthington had no intention of making a formal arrival in the Chinese-occupied territory. Instead, he guided the C-47 toward an ad hoc landing strip created for the mission by friendly locals, who had secretly cleared rocks from an open plain on the town’s west side.
The snow diminished, then ceased altogether, as Worthington flew low over the city, both aviators scanning the ground through the broken cloud cover.
“There, ahead, to the right.” Baker pointed out the windscreen. The toothpick in his mouth suddenly twirled, the first indication of tension.
Worthington saw it, too. A pair of faint blue lights, lined up perfectly east to west, with a long black patch between them.
Baker squinted at the distance and lowered the landing gear. “Not sure they gave us the two thousand feet we asked for.”
Worthington shook his head. “Too late to argue now.” He aligned the nose of the Skytrain with the nearest light and reduced speed. A brisk headwind seemed to bring the plane to a standstill, while rocking the wings. Worthington waited until the blue light disappeared beneath the nose, then called to Baker. “Landing lights.”
Baker flicked on the plane’s lights as the craft descended. With the skilled hand of a surgeon, Worthington countered the angry winds and eased the plane lower.
The landing lights showed a flat, dusty field as the tires kissed the ground a yard past the blue light. The C-47 bounded over the uneven surface as it slowed under Worthington’s hard braking, its tail wheel licking the dust. The pilot guided the aircraft to a stop shy of the second blue light, then spun around and jostled it across the field to the first light. He turned the plane into the wind for takeoff and cut the engines.
Baker opened his side window and looked across the field. To the south were lights from several houses, but otherwise all was dark. There was no one waiting for them. “Either we’re early,” he said, “or our passengers are late.”
“Or not arriving at all,” Worthington said. “At least there was no welcoming committee waiting.” He cocked an ear, then slid open his own side window. He turned to Baker with a grimace and shook his head.
Over the murmur of the gusting winds came the unmistakable popping of gunfire in the distance.
Ramapurah Chodron listened to that same gunfire arising from the city’s center and cringed. If the mission had gone as planned, there’d have been no shooting. Just a quick extraction and a quiet flight out of town before the Chinese knew what happened. But the gunfire from the vicinity of Potala Palace said otherwise.
Ram, as his CIA trainers had called him, pressed his palm tight against a silenced Colt .38 and peered around a low stone wall. The Nechung Monastery a dozen yards beyond had the look of a morgue, dark and silent. But the distant shooting meant their cover had been blown and they no longer had the luxury of a patient entry.
He squinted through the darkness, but saw no movement around the structure. One of a dozen Tibetan guerrillas parachuted into a wide valley northwest of Lhasa two days earlier, Ram had been assigned to lead the easier of their missions. He guided a four-man squad to capture the Nechung Oracle, the Dalai Lama’s most important spiritual advisor, and whisk him to the airfield for a flight to safety.
The more difficult task lay in the center of town. There, the remaining eight men were to sneak into the Potala Palace and extract none other than the Dalai Lama himself.
While Chinese troops had occupied Tibet since 1950, things had heated up with the Lhasa Uprising. Emboldened insurgent attacks and rebellions around the country had culminated with demonstrations in Tibet’s capital for independence. Those actions had brought swift retribution. A large contingent of Chinese armed forces had filtered into Lhasa a few days earlier, heightening tensions.
Rumors were rampant that the Chinese were about to seize the Dalai Lama, remove him from Tibet, and throw him in prison. Exiled Tibetan government leaders in India responded by consulting with their primary source of support, the CIA.
For years, the Central Intelligence Agency had been supporting exiled Tibetan leaders and providing arms to guerrillas as a means of gathering information on China’s atomic bomb program. Now, with local resources hurried into action, the agency agreed that attempting to extract the Dalai Lama was worth the risk.
The Tibetans selected for the mission had a long history with the CIA. They had been flown across the globe to Colorado, where they trained in the Rocky Mountains and became paratroopers. Chodron was one of the earliest graduates, rising through the ranks due to his aptitude with field radios.
As he gripped his pistol tightly, Ram heard rumblings from an old yak wandering a field beside the monastery. It reminded him of the Hereford cattle he’d seen grazing in the mountain pastures of Colorado. He recalled with fondness his first taste of beefsteak, served at a roadside café near Vail.
He shook off that image as a fellow militant in dark camo crawled alongside and nudged his elbow.
“Looks clear in back,” the man whispered.
“Okay, let’s move in. Have Raj and Tagri hold position outside the entrance while we search inside.”
The guerrilla nodded and relayed the message to a pair of gunmen in the shadows behind them. He followed as Ram rose to a crouch and moved to the monastery entrance.
No one knew how long the site had been deemed sacred, but the current monastery had been standing there for close to four hundred years. It was a modest structure, built at the base of the city’s northern hills. Ram entered through open blood-red doors to find a large courtyard. Steps at the back led to chapels on either side, while an upper floor housed the resident monks.
A fire glowed yellow next to the left chapel, and the aroma of incense wafted through the air. Ram hugged the side wall and made his way toward the back steps. He detected a rustling from within and froze. A figure emerged onto the steps, unsteady on his feet.
It was a Chinese soldier, carrying a bolt-action rifle, which he waved in Ram’s general direction. “Who’s there?” he called in slurred Mandarin.
It was too dark for Ram to see the soldier’s bloodshot eyes, but he was close enough to smell the alcohol on his breath. The .38 in his hand tilted upward, then spat two mu ed bursts. The soldier’s head snapped back, and he slumped to the ground, his rifle clattering onto the stone paving.
“Hide him,” Ram whispered to his partner, who had hurried to his side.
Ram stepped toward the chapel and approached the small fire burning in a makeshift ring to keep the soldier warm. Its flames cast dancing shadows on the far end of the chapel, where an elevated altar was decorated with candles. The room appeared empty. Then a sliver of light appeared from a side stall. Ram raised his pistol and slipped behind a stone pillar as a figure approached. Ram waited until the man passed him, then jumped from behind and pressed his pistol into the intruder’s back.
“Is there trouble?” the captive asked. He turned and faced Ram.
The light from his small candle revealed an elderly man with a shaved head, dressed in the red robe of a monk. Unusually broad-shouldered, he stared at Ram with calm, unblinking eyes.
Ram lowered his pistol and dropped his head in a slight bow of apology. “I seek the Nechung Oracle,” he said in the monk’s native Tibetan tongue.
“The Oracle is not here,” the monk replied. “He went to the Potala Palace two days ago to meet with the Dalai Lama. He has not returned.” The monk eyed the guerrilla’s dark uniform. “You are here to help him?”
Ram nodded. “It is believed the Chinese intend to imprison the Dalai Lama and his advisors. We are here to help them escape.”
The monk nodded. “The Oracle foretold of imminent danger.”
A walkie-talkie on Ram’s hip buzzed with a static-filled voice.
“Red Deer, this is Snow Leopard. The target has departed ahead of our arrival. We are under fire. Heading to the elevator. I repeat, heading to the elevator.”
“Red Deer reads affirmative,” Ram replied. “We will be on our way.”
Ram gritted his teeth. They were to have met up with an advance team that had parachuted in a day earlier, but they hadn’t appeared at the rendezvous point.
It made sense now. Something had gone wrong. Maybe the Chinese were tipped off. The advance team had either been captured or had already shuttled the Dalai Lama out of Lhasa on foot. Ram glanced at the smoldering fire and prayed it was the latter. Either way, their own mission was now for naught.
Ram replaced the walkie-talkie and looked at the monk. “Have the Dalai Lama and the Oracle already fled Lhasa?”
The monk nodded. “I believe that to be a possibility.”
“Who are you?”
“My name is Thupten Gungtsen. I am the khenpo for the monastery and assistant to the Oracle.”
As the monastery’s abbot and chief administrator, Gungtsen was a man at risk.
“You will not be safe once the Chinese discover the Dalai Lama has fled. You must come with us.”
The monk gave him a contemplative gaze. “I am not important, but the Nechung Idol is.”
He motioned over his shoulder to the altar. Positioned in a niche above it was a dark statue. Ram recognized it as Pehar, a Tibetan deity known also as Nechung and the namesake of the monastery. “The Oracle cannot properly perform his duties without it. The statue must be taken to him.”
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.
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.
Jun Chu stood on the deck of a three-masted junk given the auspicious name Silken Dragon.
The steep acropolis of Sardis loomed against the night sky, while far below at the city’s edge, flames consumed the reed-thatched buildings.
The winter moon lit the paving stones as Gelimer, King of the Vandals, and his brother, Tzazon, galloped their horses through the old triumphal arch, past the theater, past the forum, past the still-elegant sleeping town houses.