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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:00

Fire burned on the water in a wide circle around the wreckage. So massive was the blast that six other ships were burning, three from the English fleet and three from the French. The din of battle halted as crewmen with pumps and buckets tried desperately to prevent their own fiery destruction.

“The fire must have reached her magazine,” the voice of a saddened French sailor whispered.

Deep in the hold of each warship were hundreds of barrels of gunpowder. The slightest spark was dangerous.

Tears stained the sailor’s face as he spoke, and though D’Campion was sick to his stomach, he was too exhausted for any real emotion to surface.

More than a thousand men had been on L’Orient when it arrived at Aboukir. D’Campion had traveled aboard it himself, dining with Admiral Brueys. Almost every man he’d come to know on this journey had been on that ship, even the children, sons of the officers as young as eleven. Staring at the devastation, D’Campion could not imagine a single one of them had survived.

Gone too—aside from the trunks Villeneuve had now taken possession of—were the efforts of his month in Egypt and the opportunity of a lifetime.

D’Campion slumped to the deck. “The Egyptians warned me,” he said.

“Warned you?” the sailor repeated.

“Against taking stones from the City of the Dead. A curse would follow, they insisted. A curse . . . I laughed at them and their foolish superstitions. But now . . .”

He tried to stand but collapsed to the deck. The sailor came to his aid and helped him to get belowdecks. There, he waited for the inevitable English onslaught to finish them.

It arrived at dawn, as the British regrouped and moved to attack what remained of the French fleet. But instead of man-made thunder and the sickening crack of timbers rendered by iron cannonballs, D’Campion heard only the wind as the Guillaume Tell began to move.

He went up on deck to find they were traveling northeast under full sail. The British were following but rapidly falling behind. Occasional puffs of smoke marked their futile efforts to hit the Guillaume Tell from so far off. And soon even their sails were nearly invisible on the horizon.

For the rest of his days, Emile D’Campion would question Villeneuve’s courage, but he would never malign the man’s cunning and would insist to any who listened that he owed his life to it.

By midmorning the Guillaume Tell and three other ships under Villeneuve’s command had left Nelson and his merciless Band of Brothers far behind. They made their way to Malta, where D’Campion would spend the remainder of his life, working, studying and even conversing by letter with Napoleon and Villeneuve, all the time wondering about the lost treasures he’d taken from Egypt.

M.V. Torino, seventy miles west of Malta

The M.V. Torino was a three-hundred-foot steel-hulled freighter built in 1973. With her advancing age, small size and slow speed, she was nothing more than a “coaster” now, traveling short routes across the Mediterranean, hitting various small islands, on a circuit that took in Libya, Sicily, Malta and Greece.

In the hour before dawn, she was sailing west, seventy miles from her last port of call in Malta and heading for the small Italian-controlled island of Lampedusa.

Despite the early hour, several men crowded the bridge.

Each of them nervous—and with good reason. For the past hour an unmarked vessel running without lights had been shadowing them.

“Are they still closing in on us?”

The question came as a shout from the ship’s master, Constantine Bracko, a stocky man with pile-driver arms, salt-and-pepper hair and stubble on his face like coarse sandpaper.

With his hand on the wheel, he waited for an answer. “Well?”

“The ship is still there,” the first mate shouted. “Matching our turn. And still gaining.”

“Shut off all our lights,” Bracko ordered. Another crewman closed a series of master switches and the Torino went dark. With the ship blacked out, Bracko changed course yet again.

“This won’t do us much good if they have radar or night vision goggles,” the first mate said.

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“It’ll buy us some time,” Bracko replied.

“Maybe it’s the customs service?” another crewman asked. “Or the Italian Coast Guard?”

Bracko shook his head. “We should be so lucky.”