“Well . . . maybe they forget the way to Italy?”
Carruthers chuckled. “I’m fairly certain they have maps, sir.”
“Okay,” Sandecker said. “Then why do you think the second-most-important person in America is cooling his heels on the taxiway when he’s supposed to be flying the friendly skies?”
“Well, I really wouldn’t know,” Carruthers stammered. “I’ve been back here with you the whole time.”
“Yes you have, haven’t you?”
There was a brief delay as Carruthers processed what Sandecker was getting at. “I’ll run up to the cockpit and find out.”
“It’s either that,” Sandecker said, “or I’m going to have a level-three conniption and put you in charge of a nationwide review of the country’s entire air traffic control system.”
Carruthers unlatched his seat belt and was off like a shot. Sandecker took another draw on the cigar and noticed the two Secret Service agents assigned to the cabin trying to suppress their laughter.
“That,” Sandecker said, “is what I call a grade A teaching moment.”
A short time later, the phone in the arm of Sandecker’s chair began to flash. He picked it up.
“I see,” Sandecker replied, serious once again. There was something in Carruthers’s voice that suggested more. “Any other details?”
“Only that the first news of this came from your old outfit, NUMA.”
Sandecker founded NUMA and guided the organization for most of its existence before accepting the offer to become Vice President. “NUMA?” he said. “Why would they be the first to know about this?”
“I’m not sure, Mr. Vice President.”
“Thanks, Terry,” Sandecker said. “You’d better come back and have a seat.”
Carruthers hung up and Sandecker immediately dialed the communications officer. “Get me in touch with NUMA headquarters.”
It took only seconds for the transfer to go through and in short order Sandecker was speaking with Rudi Gunn, who was NUMA’s Assistant Director.
“Rudi, this is Sandecker,” he said. “I understand we’re involved with an incident in the Mediterranean.”
“That’s correct,” Rudi said.
Dirk Pitt was now NUMA’s Director, but during Sandecker’s term as Director Pitt had been his number one asset. Even now, he spent more time in the field than the office.
“No,” Rudi said, “Dirk’s in South America on another project. It’s Austin and Zavala this time.”
“If it’s not one, it’s the other,” Sandecker lamented. “Give me the details as you know them.”
Rudi explained what they knew and what they didn’t and then indicated he’d already had a conversation with a ranking officer in the Italian Coast Guard and the director of one of the Italian intelligence agencies. Other than that, he had little to go on.
“I haven’t heard from Kurt or Joe either,” Rudi admitted. “The captain of the Sea Dragon said they went ashore hours ago. Nothing since then.”
Another man might have wondered why two men would be crazy enough to enter a toxic zone with only makeshift protective gear, but Sandecker had recruited Austin and Zavala precisely because that’s the kind of men they were. “If anyone knows how to take care of themselves, it’s those two,” he said.
“Agreed,” Rudi said. “I’ll keep you posted, if you’d like, Mr. Vice President.”
“I’d appreciate that,” Sandecker said as the engines started to wind up. “Looks like we’re moving here. When you speak to Kurt and Joe, tell them I’m heading that way, and if they don’t get themselves squared away double-quick, I may have to check in on them myself.”