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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:02

Joe nodded and kept the runabout on course toward the shore.

They were cruising past the breakwater into Lampedusa Harbor. Dozens of small boats dotted the scenic port, bobbing at anchor.

“Not a single hand on deck anywhere,” Joe said.

Kurt looked beyond the water to the roads and buildings lining the harbor. “Front Street looks deserted,” he said. “No traffic at all. Not even a pedestrian.”

Lampedusa had no more than five thousand inhabitants, but, in Kurt’s experience, half of them always seemed to be on the main road at the same time, especially whenever he needed to go somewhere. Scooters and small cars zoomed around in every direction, tiny delivery trucks darted and dodged through the fray, with that uniquely Italian style of daring that suggested half the population could qualify as Formula 1 drivers.

To see the island so quiet gave him a chill. “Cut to the right,” he said. “Go around that sailboat. We can take a shortcut to the operations shack.”

“There’s a private slip over there that’s a lot closer to our building than the main dock,” Kurt said. “I’ve been fishing off it a few times. It’ll save us a lot of walking.”

Joe changed course and they passed the sailboat on the port side. Two figures could be seen slumped on the deck. The first was a man, who seemed to have fallen and gotten one arm tangled in the sail lines. The second was a woman.

“Maybe we should . . .”

“Nothing we can do for them,” Kurt said. “Keep going.”

Joe didn’t reply, but he kept the boat on course and they were soon tying up at the small pier Kurt had mentioned.

“Guess we don’t have to worry about someone stealing our ride.”

They climbed out of the boat in their bulky suits and quickly reached the lane at the top of the pier. More bodies lay on the street, including a middle-aged couple with a small child and a dog on a leash. Dead birds littered the sidewalk beneath a pair of shade trees.

Kurt walked past the birds and knelt briefly to examine the couple. Except for bruises and scrapes where they’d hit the ground, there was no sign of bleeding or trauma. “It’s like they fell straight down. Taken without warning.”

“Whatever hit these people, it hit quickly,” Joe said.

Kurt looked up, got his bearings and pointed up the next street. “This way.”

He and Joe hiked for two blocks before they reached the small building that NUMA was using for their logistics center. The front was a small garage, now given over to equipment and littered with items recovered from the sunken Roman ship. Behind this lay four small rooms that were being used as offices and sleeping quarters.

“Locked,” Joe said, trying the handle.

Kurt stood back and then stepped forward, slamming his boot into the wooden door. The blow was heavy enough to splinter the wood and send the door swinging wide.

Joe ducked inside. “Larisa?” he shouted. “Cody?”

Kurt shouted as well, though he wondered how much noise actually escaped the helmet. Most of it seemed to reverberate in his ears.

“Let’s check the back rooms,” Kurt urged. “If anyone realized it was a chemical vapor, the best defense would be to seal off the innermost room and hide out.”

They lugged their way to the back of the building and Kurt entered one room to find it empty. Joe pushed open the office door across from him and found something else. “In here.”

Kurt stepped out of the empty room and came around to where Joe stood. Facedown on a table were four of the five team members. It looked as if they’d been studying a map when it hit them. In a chair nearby, slumped as if he’d simply fallen asleep there, was Cody Williams, the Roman antiquities expert who’d been heading up the research.

“Morning meeting,” Kurt said.

“Check them for signs of life.”

“Check them anyway,” Kurt replied sternly. “We have to be sure.”

Joe checked the group at the table while Kurt checked on Cody, easing him out of the chair and onto the floor. He was deadweight, a rag doll.