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The Pharaoh's Secret (NUMA Files 13) Clive Cussler 2022/7/22 13:55:17

“Both of them?” Joe asked, suspiciously. “How?”

“Emile of natural causes,” Etienne said. “It happened here on Malta. He passed away in his sleep. It’s believed he had a heart condition. Rear Admiral Villeneuve died in France a month later, though his death was not nearly as peaceful. He was stabbed in the chest seven times. It was ruled a suicide.”

“Suicide? With seven chest wounds?” Renata said. “I’ve heard of suspicious reports before, but that’s ridiculous.”

“Extremely hard to believe,” Etienne agreed. “Even back then it was mocked in the press. Especially in England.”

“Wasn’t Villeneuve going to meet Napoleon in the spring?” Kurt asked.

Etienne nodded. “Yes,” he said. “And most historians think Napoleon had something to do with the admiral’s death. Either because he distrusted Villeneuve or because he simply couldn’t forgive him for all his failures.”

Kurt could see either motive being the cause. But his primary concern was the translation of the Egyptian glyphs. “If Villeneuve had the translations at that point, what would have happened to them after he died? Do you know what happened to his effects?”

Etienne shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’m afraid there’s no Museum of Disgraced Admirals of the French Navy. And Villeneuve was basically penniless at the end. He was living in a boardinghouse in Rennes. Perhaps the landlord took whatever possessions he may have had left.”

“Maybe Villeneuve gave Napoleon the translation and was then killed anyway,” Renata suggested.

“Somehow, I doubt that,” Kurt said. “Villeneuve was nothing if not a survivor. At every turn, he showed himself to be shrewd and cautious.”

“Except when he sailed out to fight Nelson at Trafalgar,” Joe pointed out.

“Actually,” Kurt insisted, “even there his moves were calculated. As I recall, he’d received word that Napoleon was about to replace him and possibly have him arrested, jailed or even sent to the guillotine. Facing that reality, Villeneuve made the only play left to him: he went out to fight, knowing that if he gained the victory, he’d be a hero and become untouchable. And if he lost, he’d probably die or be captured by the British, in which case he’d be taken safely to England. Which he was.”

“One last swing for the fences,” Joe said. “All or nothing.”

“A brilliant gambit,” Renata said with a smile. “Too bad for him that the British ruined it by sending him back to France.”

“Can’t win them all,” Kurt said. “But considering how he thought things through, how cunning Villeneuve was at each step along the way, I doubt he’d meet up with Napoleon and simply hand over his one and only bargaining chip. More likely, he’d give them a taste and keep the details stashed somewhere else, since that was the only thing keeping him safe.”

“Then why did Napoleon kill him?” Renata asked.

“Who knows?” Kurt said. “Maybe he didn’t believe what Villeneuve was telling him. Maybe he was tired of the admiral’s act. Villeneuve had burned him so many times already, maybe the Emperor had simply had enough.”

Joe recapped. “So in his haste to get rid of Villeneuve, Napoleon killed him, never realizing—or believing—what Villeneuve was offering.

The translation and all mention of the Mist of Death and the Mist of Life vanished from the world, until now. Until this group we’re dealing with rediscovered the secret.”

“That’s my guess,” Kurt said.

Renata asked the next logical question: “So if Villeneuve never gave Napoleon the translation, where did it end up?”

“That’s what we have to find out,” Kurt said. He turned to Etienne. “Any idea where we could start looking?”

Etienne considered this for a moment and then said, “Rennes?”

It sounded more like a question than a statement, but it was also the only place that came to Kurt’s mind for starting the search. He nodded.

“We’re running out of time,” Kurt said. “We need to split up and go in different directions. South to Egypt in search of any clues suggesting what this Mist of Life is or what it could be made from and north to France in search of any trace Villeneuve might have left behind concerning Emile D’Campion’s hieroglyphic translation.”

“We could go to France,” Etienne said.

“Sorry,” Kurt replied. “I can’t put you two in any more danger. Renata, you’ll be better suited for that task.”

Renata was looking at her phone, scanning a message that had just come in. “Not a chance,” she said, looking up. “I know you’re just trying to get me out of harm’s way. But, more important, I have new information: AISE and Interpol have traced the identities of the dead men who took the cyanide. They came from a disbanded regiment of the Egyptian Special Forces. A regiment that was loyal to the old guard and the Mubarak regime and suspected of many crimes.”

“That makes Egypt sound like the main target,” Kurt noted.

“And we have a lead,” Renata added. “We’ve tracked down the signal of a satellite phone these men used when they were in Malta. Calls were made from right here. And from the harbor after your fight at the fort. That phone is now in Cairo. My orders are to go after whoever’s carrying it.”