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Feeling as though someone was pulling a fast one on him, Lourds examined the writing more closely, thinking perhaps it had been inscribed recently upon an ancient bell – which would have been foolish under the circumstances because such an act would have destroyed the bell’s huge intrinsic value – to fool him. If it was a forgery, it was a masterpiece. The inscription felt smooth to the touch. In places it was even worn to the point that it was almost faded.
Yep. If it was a fake, it was a damned good one.
Operating by instinct, Lourds reached into his backpack, which was beside his chair, and took out a soft graphite pencil and a tablet containing sheets of onion skin tracing paper. Placing a sheet of paper on the bell, he rubbed the pencil against the surface, creating a negative image of the inscription.
“What are you doing?” Neil asked.
Lourds ignored the question, consumed by the puzzle that was before him. He took a small digital camera from his backpack and took pictures of the bell from all sides. The camera’s flash, especially when used on smooth ceramic, didn’t always allow the image to pick up shallow markings. That’s why he’d done the rubbings.
He was engrossed. He didn’t even notice when Leslie approached and stood on the other side of the desk.
“What’s going on?” Leslie asked.
“Where did you get this?” Lourds asked, turning the bell in his hands. The clapper pinged softly against the side.
“From a shop.”
“An antiquities shop. His father’s shop.” Leslie nodded toward the man standing against the wall. The man looked a little worried.
Lourds pinned the man with his gaze, not wishing to be trifled with. If that’s what this was, of course. He was halfway convinced that this wasn’t a joke. It felt far too elaborate. The bell felt real.
“Where did this come from?” Lourds asked in Arabic.
“From my father, sir,” the man said politely. “The young lady requested that we put something old in with the other items. To better test you, she said. My father and I told her we could not read what was written on the bell either, so we didn’t know what it said.” He hesitated. “The young woman said this was all right.”
“Where did your father get this bell?”
The man shook his head. “I don’t know. It’s been in his shop for years. He tells me that no one seems to be able to tell him what it is.”
Lourds switched back to English and looked at Leslie. “I want to talk to his father. See the shop where this bell came from.”
Leslie looked surprised. “All right. I’m sure we can arrange that. What’s wrong?”
“I can’t read this.” Lourds looked at the bell again, still not believing what he knew to be true.
“It’s okay,” Leslie told him. “I don’t think anyone’s really going to believe that you can read all those languages. You knew a lot of others. The people who watch our show will still be impressed. I’m impressed.”
Lourds told himself to be patient. Leslie truly didn’t understand the problem.
“I’m an authority in the languages spoken here,” he told her. “Civilization as we know it began not far from here. The languages used here, living and dead, are as familiar to me as my own hand. Given that, this writing should be in one of the Altaic languages. Turkic, Mongolic or Tungusic.”
“I’m afraid I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“It’s a family of languages,” Lourds explained, “that encompassed this area. It’s where all language here sprang from. Although the subject is hotly contested by linguists. Some linguists believe the Altaic language resulted from a genetically inherited language, words and ideas – and perhaps even symbols – that are written somewhere in our genetic code.”
“Genetics predisposes language?” Leslie arched a narrow eyebrow in surprise. “I’ve never heard of anything like that.”
“Nor should you. I don’t believe it’s true. There’s another, more simplistic reason why so many languages at the time shared common traits.” Lourds calmed himself. “All those people, with all their different languages, lived in close proximity. They traded with one another, all of them in pursuit of the same things. They had to have common words in order to do that.”
“Sort of like the computer explosion and the Internet,” Leslie said. “Most of the computer terms are in English since the United States developed much of the technology, and other countries simply used the English words because they had no words in their own language to describe the computer parts and terminology.”
Lourds smiled. “Exactly. A very good analogy, by the way.”
“That theory is called the Sprachbund.”
“What is the Sprachbund?”
“It’s the convergence area for a group of people who ultimately end up partially sharing a language. When the Crusades took place, during the battles between the Christians and the Muslims, language and ideas were traded back and forth as much as arrows and sword blows. Those wars were as much about expanding trade as they were about securing the Holy Land.”
“You’re telling me that they ended up speaking each others’ language.”
“The people that fought or traded, yes. Bits of it. We still carry the history of that conflict in words of modern English. Words like assassin, azimuth, cotton, even the words cipher and decipher. They come from the Arabic word sifi, which is the number zero. The symbol for zero was central to many codes. But this artifact shares nothing with the native languages of this area—or with any language I’ve ever heard or seen.” Lourds held up the bell. “In those early years, craftsmen – especially craftsmen who wrote and kept records – would be part of that Sprachbund. That’s a logical assumption. But this bell – ?” He shook his head. “It’s an anomaly. I don’t know where it came from. If it’s not a forgery, and it doesn’t feel like one, what we’re looking at is an artifact from some other place than the Middle East.”
“What other place?”
Lourds sighed. “That’s the problem. I don’t know. And I should know that as well.”
“You think we have a real find here, don’t you?” Excitement gleamed in Leslie’s eyes.
“A find,” Lourds agreed tentatively, “or an aberration.”
“What do you mean?”
“The inscription on that bell could be…humbug, for lack of a better term. Simply nonsense made up to decorate the bell.”
“Wouldn’t you know, if that were the case? Wouldn’t it be easy to spot?”
Lourds frowned. She had him there. Even an artificial language would require a basis in logic. As such, he should be able to spot that as well.
“Well?” she pressed.
“I should be able to tell. This looks authentic to me.”
Leslie smiled again and leaned toward the bell, regarding it with intensity. “If that’s truly written in a heretofore undiscovered language, then we’ve truly made an astonishing find.”
Before Lourds could respond, the door suddenly ripped from its hinges. Armed men burst into the room, aiming their weapons at the people inside.
“Everybody freeze!” a man yelled in accented English.
Lourds thought he recognized an Italian accent in the man’s words.
The four armed men pressed into the room. They used their fists and their weapons to drive the whole television crew to the floor. All of Leslie’s people cowered there and remained still.
One of the men, the one who had spoken, crossed the room in long strides and grabbed Leslie by the arm.
Lourds stood instinctively, not able to calmly sit by and watch the young woman get hurt. But he wasn’t trained for this kind of thing. Sure, he’d spent time in rough parts of the world. But he’d been lucky. The worst violence he’d ever experienced personally was a dust-up in soccer.
The man put the machine pistol’s barrel to Leslie’s head. “Sit back down, Professor Lourds, or this pretty young woman dies.”
Lourds sat, but the fact that the man knew his name unnerved him.
“Very good,” the man said. “Put your hands on your head.”
Lourds complied. His stomach turned sour. Even as wild as it had sometimes gotten while he’d been in unsettled lands studying languages, he’d never had a gun pointed at him.
“Down,” the man ordered, dragging Leslie to the ground. When she was down, the man looked at the items on the desk. Without hesitation, he took the bell.
And that’s when the man hade his first mistake. He and his men took their eyes off Leslie.
Before Lourds fully realized what was happening, she pushed herself to her feet and flung herself at one of the men. She knocked him over and took his gun, then dived beneath the heavy desk at the back of the set in a single fluid motion.
Her move took the thieves by surprise. Clearly they weren’t expecting a mere woman to put up much of a fight.
They had underestimated her, but they were clearly professional because it didn’t take long for them to catch up.
The sounds of gunfire filled the room as that desk took punishment it was never intended for. Bullets filled the air with wooden splinters.
Leslie fired back. Her shots were much louder than their attackers, and she clearly knew what she was doing. Bullet holes tracked the walls behind their attackers, coughing out puffs of plaster dust that looked surreal to Lourds.
Meanwhile, the crew scrambled for cover.
So did the thieves.
No! Lourds thought. No artifact is worth the deaths of all these people.
Then he heard the familiar ping of Leslie’s sat-phone.
He could call for help.
In the middle of the chaos, Lourds rolled across the floor and dived behind the desk with Leslie.
“I’ll talk. You shoot. Or we’ll both die.”
“Good point,” she said.
She handed over the phone, already keyed to an emergency number. More gunfire. And then a scream. Lourds hoped that it was one of the robbers, not one of the crew, who had been hit.
When a burst of startled Arabic came across the line of the phone in his hand, Lourds started talking.
Before he’d finished his second sentence, the sound of sirens outside intensified.
Help was on the way.
And the robbers could hear it, too.
They took off, one of them leaving a blood trail.
Leslie took off after them, holding her fire until she could get a clear shot.
Lourds followed, just in time to pull her out of the way as a final volley from the thieves splintered the office door.
On the floor, terrified but still whole, Lourds wrapped his arms around Leslie. He felt the sweet press of female flesh against his body and decided if he had to die in that instant that there were worse ways to go.
He held onto the woman, trapping her body under his.
“What do you think you were doing?” Lourds demanded of the woman. “Do you want to get killed?”
“They’re getting away!” Leslie tried to pull free from his grasp.
“Yes, and they should. They should get far away. They have automatic weapons, they outnumber us, and the police are coming — most of the force if the sound is any indication. You’ve already saved our necks. It’s enough. Put that gun down and let the professionals take over.”
Leslie relaxed in his arms. For a moment he thought this was the point she was going to remonstrate with him and call him a coward. He’d discovered in the heat of the moment that good sense was often confused with cowardice by those watching from the sidelines.
Two of the young men from the production crew poked their heads up from where they were hiding. When they weren’t shot on the spot, Lourds deemed it safe enough to stand. He did so, helping Leslie to her feet.
Walking out to the hall, Lourds stared at the bullet holes that marred the hallway’s end as well as the walls, ceiling, and floor. The bad guys hadn’t been sharpshooters, but they’d certainly sprayed enough bullets into the general vicinity to make a statement.
“Call the police,” Lourds told one of the young Arabic men. “Tell them that the thieves have gone, and the only ones left here are us. We want them aware of that when they get here, or things could get exciting again.”
One of the crew, already pale, turned white and dived for the phone.
Leslie pulled away from Lourds and ran to a window. She looked out over the city.
Lourds joined her, but he saw nothing.
“We lost the bell,” she said, “before we even knew what it was.”
“That’s not entirely true,” Lourds told her. “I took copies of the inscription on the rubbing as well as taking a full set of photos of the bell with the digital camera. We may have lost the bell itself, but not the secrets it contains. Whatever they are, they aren’t totally beyond our grasp.”
But he had to wonder if pursuing the puzzle wasn’t going to put them back in front of someone’s guns. Somebody had wanted that bell enough to kill him and the entire crew for it. Would they kill to squash research about it as well? That wasn’t what being a professor of linguistics was about.
Nor was talking to a hundred revved up Egyptian cops.
But, judging from the sounds of the footsteps in the hall, it looked like he was about to learn all sorts of new things today.
Excerpted from The Atlantis Code by Charles Brokaw.
Copyright © 2009 by Charles Brokaw.
Published in November 2009 by Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.