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Serpent (NUMA Files)by Clive Cussler
June 10, 2000
Nina Kirov stood at the top of the ancient stairway, eyes sweeping the nearly stagnant green waters of the lagoon, thinking she had never seen a coast more barren than this isolated stretch of Moroccan shoreline. Nothing stirred in the oppressive, ovenlike heat. The only sign of human settlement was the cluster of putty-colored, barrel-roofed tombs that overlooked the lagoon like seaside condominiums for the departed. Centuries of sand drifting through the arched portals had mingled with the dust of the dead. Nina grinned with the delight of a child seeing presents under the Christmas tree. To a marine archaeologist, these bleak surroundings were more beautiful than the white sands and palm trees of a tropical paradise. The very awfulness of the mournful place would have protected it from her biggest fear: site contamination.
Nina vowed to thank Dr. Knox again for persuading her to join the expedition. She had refused the initial invitation, telling the caller from the University of Pennsylvania's respected anthropology department that it would be a waste of time. Every inch of Moroccan coastline must have been explored with a finetooth comb by now. Even if someone did discover an underwater site, it would have been buried under tons of concrete by the Romans, who invented waterfront renewal. As much as Nina admired their engineering skills, she considered the Romans Johnny-come-lately spoilers in the grand scheme of history.
She knew her refusal had more to do with sour grapes than archaeology. Nina was trying to dig herself out from under a mountain of paperwork generated by a shipwreck project off the coast of Cyprus in waters claimed by the Turks. Preliminary surveys suggested the wreck was of ancient Greek origin, triggering conflicting claims between these old enemies. With national honor at stake, the F-16s from Ankara and Athens were warming up their engines when Nina dove on the wreck and identified it as a Syrian merchantman. This brought the Syrians into the mess, but it defused the potential for a bloody encounter. As the owner, president, and sole employee of her marine archaeological consultancy firm, Mari-Time Research, all the paperwork ended up in Nina's lap.
A few minutes after she told the university she was too busy to accept the invitation, Stanton Knox called.
"My hearing must be going bad, Dr. Kirov," he said in the dry nasal tones she had heard a hundred times issuing from behind his lectern. "I actually thought I heard someone tell me you were not interested in our Moroccan expedition, and of course that can't be true."
Months had passed since she had talked to her old mentor. She smiled, picturing the snowy shock of hair, the near manic gleam behind the wire-rimmed spectacles, and the roué's mustache that curled up at the ends over a puckish mouth.
Nina tried to blunt the inevitable charm offensive she knew was coming.
"With all due respect, Professor Knox, I doubt if there's a stretch of the North African coast that hasn't been overbuilt by the Romans or discovered by somebody else."
"Brava! I'm glad to see that you recall the first three lessons of Archaeology 101, Dr. Kirov."
Nina chuckled at the ease with which Knox donned his professorial robe. She was in her thirties, owner of a successful consulting business, and held almost as many degrees as Knox did. Yet she still felt like a student within his aura. "How could I ever forget? Skepticism, skepticism, and more skepticism."
"Correct," he said with obvious joy. "The three snarling dogs of skepticism who will rip you to pieces unless you present them with a dinner of hard evidence. You'd be surprised at how often my preaching falls on deaf ears." He sighed theatrically, and his tone became more businesslike. "Well, I understand your concern, Dr. Kirov. Ordinarily I would agree with you about site contamination, but this location is on the Atlantic coast well beyond the Pillars of Melkarth, away from Roman influence."
Interesting. Knox used the Phoenician name for the western end of the Mediterranean where Gibraltar bends low to kiss Tangier. The Greeks and Romans called it the Pillars of Herakles. Nina knew from bitter classroom experience that when it came to names, Knox was as precise as a brain surgeon.
"Well, I'm terribly busy — "
"Dr. Kirov, I might as well admit it," Knox interjected. "I need your help. Badly. I'm up to my neck in land archaeologists who are so timid they wear galoshes in the bathtub. We really need to get somebody into the water. It's a small expedition, about a dozen people, and you'd be the only diver."
Knox's reputation as a skilled fly fisherman was not undeserved. He dangled the Phoenician connection under her nose, set the hook with his sympathetic appeal for help, then reeled her in with the suggestion that as the only diver she would get sole credit for any underwater finds.
Nina could practically see the professor's pink nose twitching with glee. She shuffled the folders on her desk. "I've got a ton of paperwork to finish..."
Knox cut her off at the pass. "I'm well aware of your Cyprus job," he said. "Congratulations, by the way, for averting a crisis between NATO partners. I've taken care of everything. I have two highly competent teaching fellows who would love to gain experience in dealing with the red tape that is such a substantial part of archaeology these days. This is a preliminary survey. We'll only be a week or ten days. And by then my trusted young Myrmidons will have dotted all the I's and crossed all the T's. You don't have to decide this minute. I'll fax you some material. Take a peek at it and get back to me."
"How long do you need, Dr. Knox?"
"An hour would do. Cheerio."
Nina put the phone down and laughed out loud. An hour.
Almost immediately, paper began to spew from the fax machine like lava from an erupting volcano. It was the project proposal Knox submitted with his funding request. He wanted money to survey an area for Greco-Roman or possibly other ruins. The standard Knox sales pitch, a tantalizing mix of facts and possibilities, designed to make his project stand out in bold relief from all the others competing for funds.
Nina breezed through the proposal with a practiced eye and shifted her attention to the map. The survey locus was between the mouth of the Draa River and the western Sahara on the Moroccan coastal plain that stretched from Tangier to Essaouria. Tapping her teeth with the tip of her ballpoint pen, she studied an enlarged section of the area. The coastal indentation looked as if the cartographer had hiccupped while drawing the shoreline. Noting the site's proximity to the Canary Islands, she leaned back in her chair and thought how she needed to get out into the field before she went insane. She picked up the telephone and dialed.
Knox answered in mid-ring. "We leave next week."
Now, as Nina surveyed the lagoon, the lines and squiggles on a map translated themselves into physical features. The basin was roughly circular, embraced by two pincers of blasted brick-red rock. Beyond the entrance were shallows that at low tide revealed rippling mud flats. Thousands of years ago the lagoon opened directly onto the ocean. Its naturally sheltered waters would have attracted ancient mariners who commonly anchored on either side of a headland to wait for good weather or daylight. Nearby was a dry riverbed, what the locals called a wadi. Another good sign. Settlements often grew near a river.
From the lagoon a narrow, sandy path led through the dunes and eventually terminated at the ruins of a small Greek temple. The harbor would have been too tight for Roman ships and their massive jetties. She guessed the Greeks used the
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