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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:16

“I don’t understand,” Etienne said.

Kurt explained the events of Lampedusa, how the citizens of that island were in comas and drifting toward death. And how they’d encountered someone who seemed immune to whatever had poisoned the air.

“So they want this antidote?” Nicole asked.

“No,” Kurt said. “They already have it. They just don’t want anyone else to find it because it’ll render their weapon useless. Which is exactly what we have to do.”

Kurt glanced around at the damage to the estate. “Unless you two are far braver than I am—and better poker players too—I’m guessing the artifacts aren’t here.”

“Nothing from that ship is left here,” Etienne said. “We gave most of what was recovered to the museum. Those men took the rest. They also took Emile’s diary and anything they could find relating to Egypt, including all his drawings and notes.”

“And from the look of it, the Sophie C. has been picked clean,” Joe added.

“Quite right,” Etienne said. “But, then, I told them as much. That ship was searched from stem to stern when it was first discovered. Anything of value had already been pulled off of it.”

“What if all of the artifacts weren’t on the ship?” Kurt asked. “You said the record wasn’t clear. What did you mean by that?”

He explained. “The loading manifest suggested that the Sophie C. was loaded over capacity.”

“I would have thought that was obvious,” Etienne replied. “As soon as Villeneuve arrived back here, news of the disaster at Aboukir spread like wildfire. Any French person with valuables to protect—and good sense enough to protect them—was intent on getting out and getting back to France. Or at least sending their plunder on the way. I’m sure you can imagine the rush. Much of Malta’s wealth had been transferred into French hands during the brief occupation. Ships were loaded to the gills, every conceivable compartment filled. Items were left on the dockside or transferred at the last minute to any other vessel that might have room on board and a chance of escape.” Etienne continued. “In all the chaos, it’s possible the artifacts were loaded on the Sophie C. and not recorded. It’s also possible they were never put to sea at all. Or they may have been sent on another vessel. The harbormaster’s log recorded two other ships departing for France that day. One foundering in the same storm as the Sophie C., the other captured by the British.”

Joe looked over. “If the Brits found the artifacts, they’d be in a museum with the Rosetta stone and the Elgin Marbles.”

“And if they remained dockside,” Kurt said, “or hidden in Malta, they’d have resurfaced long ago. I think we can rule out those two possibilities. Which means the most likely prospect is they went as cargo on the doomed ships. But as you said, the Sophie C. has been picked clean.”

“We could look for the other ship,” Renata suggested.

Etienne shook his head. “I’ve searched,” he said. “For years.”

“Finding a wreck is easy enough,” Joe explained. “Finding the wreck is more difficult. The bottom of the Mediterranean is littered with them. People have been sailing this oversize lake for seven thousand years. In the month before Kurt and I found the trireme, we cataloged forty wrecks and twenty additional sites that were labeled possible.”

“We don’t have that kind of time,” Renata noted.

Kurt wasn’t really listening, his eyes were drawn back to the painting. Something was off, something they’d overlooked. “The Battle of Aboukir Bay was fought in 1799,” he said.

“Correct,” Etienne said.

“Seventeen ninety-nine . . .” he said. Suddenly, it dawned on him. He turned. “You said Emile’s translation referred to this Mist of Life, but the Rosetta stone and a basic understanding of Egyptian hieroglyphics didn’t happen for at least another fifteen years.”

Etienne paused. He seemed taken aback by the thought. “What are you suggesting? That Emile falsified his translation?”

“For our sake, let’s hope not,” Kurt said. “But if the artifacts went down on the Sophie C. years before the Rosetta stone was translated, how would anyone know what was written on them?”

Etienne looked as if he was about to speak but swallowed his words. “It’s . . . it’s not possible,” he said finally. “Except . . . I know it was done.”

The door to D’Campion’s study was already broken down when Etienne led the group inside. He ignored the damaged frame and the mess left over from the ransacking and went straight to a credenza that lay on its side.

“In here,” he said. “Something suddenly makes great sense to me. Something I’ve wondered about for years.”

Kurt and Joe helped him lift the heavy credenza upright and stood back as D’Campion began rifling through its contents.

“They left this alone, for the most part,” he said, pulling out carefully preserved papers, glancing at them briefly and then moving them aside and continuing the search. “All they wanted were the artifacts and Emile’s diary and notes from his time in Egypt. The rest they did not want. And why not?” he added, now animated. “They could not read French. Silly fools.”

Kurt and Joe looked at each other. Neither of them could read French, but they kept that to themselves.