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Jack Howard eased himself down on the floor of the inflatable boat, his back resting on one pontoon and his legs leaning against the outboard engine. It was hot, almost too hot to move, and the sweat had begun to trickle down his face. The sun had burned through the morning haze and was bearing down relentlessly, reflecting blindingly off the cliff face in front of him, the limestone scarred and worn like the tombs and temples on the rocky headland beyond. Jack felt as if he were in a painting by Seurat, as if the air had fragmented into a myriad pixels that immobilized all thought and action into this one moment. He pushed his hands through his thick hair, feeling the heat on his scalp, and stretched out his long arms to either side. He shut his eyes and took a deep breath, took in the utter stillness, the smell of wetsuits, the outboard engine, the taste of salt. It was everything he loved, distilled to its essence. It felt good.
He opened his eyes and peered over the side, checking the orange buoy he had released a few minutes before. The sea was glassy smooth, with only a slight swell rippling the edge where it lapped against the rock face. He reached out and put his hand on the surface, letting it float for a moment until the swell enveloped it. The water below was limpid, as clear as a swimming pool, and he could see far down the anchor line into the depths, to the shimmer of exhaust bubbles rising from the divers below. It was hard to believe this had once been a place of unimaginable fury, of nature at her cruelest, of untold human tragedy. The most famous shipwreck in history. Jack hardly dared think of it. For twenty years he had wanted to come back to this place, a yearning which had nagged at him and become a gnawing obsession, ever since his first doubt, since he had first begun to reassemble the pieces. His intuition rarely failed him, tried and tested as it was over years of exploration and discovery around the world. It was an intuition based on hard science, on an accumulation of facts that had begun to point unswervingly in one direction.
He had been sitting here, off Capo Murro di Porco in Sicily in the heart of the Mediterranean, when he had first dreamed up the International Maritime University. Twenty years ago he had been on a shoestring budget, leading a group of students driven by their passion for diving and archaeology, with equipment cobbled together and jerry-built on the spot. Now he had a multimillion-dollar budget, a sprawling seafront campus on his former family estate in southern England, the place where Howards had lived for generations before Jack's father turned over the house and grounds to the fledgling institution. There were museums around the world, state-of-the-art research vessels, an extraordinary team at IMU who took the logistics out of his hands. But in some ways little had changed. No end of money could buy the clues that led to the greatest discoveries, the extraordinary treasures that made it all worthwhile. Twenty years ago they had been following a tantalizing account left by Captain Cousteau's divers, intrepid explorers at the dawn of shipwreck archaeology, and here he was again, floating above the same site with the same battered old diary in his hands. The key ingredients were still the same, the hunches, the gut feeling, the thrill of discovery, that moment when all the elements suddenly came together, the adrenaline rush like no other.
Jack shifted, pushing his diving suit farther down around his waist, and checked his watch. He was itching to get wet. He glanced overboard. There was a slight commotion as Pete and Andy, the divers who had been sent down to anchor the shotline, pulled the buoy underwater, and Jack could see it now, refracted five meters below, deep enough to avoid the props of passing boats but shallow enough for a free diver to retrieve a weighted line that hung from it as a mooring point. Jack had already dared to look ahead, had begun to eye the site like a field commander planning an assault. Their research vessel Seaquest II could anchor in a sheltered bay around the cape to the west. On the headland itself the rocky seashore dropped in a series of stepped shelves, good for a shore camp. He rehearsed all the ingredients of a successful underwater excavation, knowing that each site produced its fresh crop of challenges. Any finds they made would have to go to the archaeological museum in Syracuse, but he was sure the Sicilian authorities would make a good show of it. IMU would establish a permanent liason with their own museum at Carthage in nearby Tunisia, perhaps even an air shuttle as a package trip for tourists. They could hardly go wrong.
Jack peered down, checked his watch again, then noted the time in the logbook. The two divers were at the decompression stop. Twenty minutes to go. He cupped his left hand in the sea and splashed it over his head, feeling the water trickle through his thick hair and down his neck. He leaned back, stretched his long legs down the boat, made himself relax and take in the perfect tranquillity of the scene for a moment longer. Only six weeks earlier he had stood by the edge of an underwater cavern in the Yucatan, drained but exhilarated at the end of another extraordinary trail of discovery. There had been losses, grievous losses, and Jack has spent much of the voyage home ruminating on those who had paid the ultimate price. His boyhood friend Peter Howe, missing in the Black Sea. And Father O'Connor, an ally for all too brief a time, whose appalling death had brought home the reality of what they were ranged against. Always it was the bigger stake that provided the solace, the innumerable lives that could have been lost had they not relentlessly pursued their goal. Jack had become used to the greatest archaeological prizes coming at a cost, gifts from the past that unleashed forces in the present few could imagine existed. But here, he felt sure of it, here it was different. Here it was archaeology pure and simple, a revelation that could only thrill and beguile any who came to know of it.
He peered into the glassy stillness of the sea, saw the rocky cliff face underwater disappear into the shimmering blue. His mind was racing, his heart pounding with excitement. Could this be it? Could this be the most famous shipwreck of all antiquity? The shipwreck of St. Paul?
Jack raised his foot and gently prodded the other form in the boat. It wobbled, then grunted. Costas Kazantzakis was about a foot shorter than Jack but built like an ox, the legacy of generations of Greek sailors and sponge-fishermen. Like Jack he was stripped to the waist, and his barrel chest was glistening with sweat. He seemed to have become molded to the boat, his legs extended on the pontoon in front of Jack and his head nestled in a mess of towels at the bow. His mouth was slightly open and he was wearing a pair of wraparound fluorescent sunglasses, a hilarious fashion accessory on such an unkempt figure. One hand was dangling in the water, holding the hoses that led down to the regulators at the decompression stop, and the other hand was draped over the valve of the oxygen cylinder that lay down the center of the boat. Jack grinned affectionately at his friend, who meant far more to him than his official role as IMU's chief engineer. Costas was always there to lend a hand, even when he was dead to the world. Jack kicked him again. "We've got fifteen minutes. I can see them at the safety stop."
Costas grunted again, and Jack passed over a water bottle. "Drink as much as you can. We don't want to get the bends."
"Good on you, mate." Costas had learned a few comically misplaced catchphrases in his years based at the IMU headquarters in England, but the delivery was still resolutely American, a result of years spent at school and university in the States. He reached over and took the water, then proceeded to down half the bottle noisily.
"Cool shades, by the way," Jack said.
"Jeremy gave them to me," Costas gasped. "A parting present when we got back from the Yucatan. I was truly moved."
"You're not serious."
"I'm not sure if he was. Anyway, they work." Costas pulled them down again, passed Jack the bottle then slumped back. "Been touching base with your past?"
"Only the good bits."
"Any decent engineers? I mean, on your team back then?"
"We're talking Cambridge University, remember. The brightest and the weirdest. One guy took a portable blackboard with him everywhere he went, and would patiently explain the Wankel rotary engine to any passing Sicilian. A real eccentric. But that was before you came along."
"With a dose of good old American know-how. At least at MIT they taught us about the real world." Costas leaned over, grabbed the bottle again and took another swig of water. "Anyway, this shipwreck of yours. The one you excavated here twenty years ago. Any special finds?"
"It was a typical Roman merchantman," Jack replied. "About two hundred cylindrical pottery amphoras filled with olive oil and fish sauce, on the edge of the African desert, in Tunisia due south of us. Plus there was a fascinating selection of ceramics from the ship's gallery. We were were able to date it all to about AD 200. And we did make one incredible find."
There was a silence, broken by a stentorian snore. Jack kicked again, and Costas reached out to stop himself from rolling overboard. He pushed his shades up his forehead and peered blearily at Jack. "Uh-huh?"
"I know you need your beauty sleep. But it's almost time."
Costas grunted again, then raised himself painfully on one elbow and rubbed his hand across his stubble. "I don't think beauty's an option." He heaved himself upright, then took off the sunglasses and rubbed his eyes.
Jack peered with concern at his friend. "You look wasted. You need to take some time off. You've been working flat out since we returned from the Yucatan, and that was well over a month ago."
"You should stop buying me toys."
"What I bought you," Jack gently admonished him, "was an agreement from the Board of Directors for an increase in engineering personnel. Hire some more staff. Delegate."
"You should talk," Costas grumbled. "Name me one archaeological project run by IMU over the last decade where you haven't jumped on board."
"Yeah, yeah." Costas stretched, and gave a tired grin. "Okay, a week by my uncle's pool in Greece wouldn't go amiss. Anyway, sorry. Was I dreaming? You mentioned an incredible find?"
"Buried in a gully directly beneath us now, where Pete and Andy should have anchored the shot-line. The remains of an ancient wooden crate, packed with sealed tin boxes. Inside the boxes we found more than a hundred small wooden vials, filled with unguents and powders, including cinnamon and cumin. That was amazing enough, but then we found a large slab of dark resinous material, about two kilograms in weight. At first we thought it was ship's stores, spare resin for waterproofing timbers. But the lab analysis came up with an astonishing result."
"What the ancients called Lacrymae papaveris, tears of the poppy, Papaver somniferum. The sticky milky stuff that comes from the calyx of the black poppy. What we call opium."
"The Roman writer Pliny the Elder writes about it in his Natural History."
"The guy who died in the eruption of Vesuvius?"
"Right. When Pliny wasn't writing he was in charge of the Roman fleet at Misenum, the big naval base on the Bay of Naples. He knew all about the products of the east from his sailors, and from Egyptian and Syrian merchants who put in there. They knew that the best opium came from the distant land of Bactria, high in the mountains beyond the eastern fringe of the empire, beyond Persia. That's present-day Afghanistan."
"You're kidding me." Costas was fully alert now, and looked incredulous. "Opium. From Afghanistan. Did I hear you right? We're talking the first century AD here, not the twenty-first century, right?"
"You've got it."
"An ancient drug runner?"
Jack laughed. "Opium wasn't illegal back then. Some ancient authorities condemned it for making users go blind, but they hadn't refined it into heroin yet. It was probably mixed with alcohol to make a drink, similar to laudanum, the fashion drug of Europeans in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The seed was also pounded into tablets. Pliny tells us it could induce sleep, cure headaches, so they knew all about the painkilling properties of morphine. It was also used for euthanasia. Pliny gives us what may be the first-ever account of a deliberate Class A drug overdose, a guy called Publius Licinius Caecina, who was unbearably ill and died of opium poisoning."
"So what you found was really a medicine chest," Costas said.
"That's what we thought at the time. But a very odd find in the chest was a small bronze statue of Apollo."
Jack nodded. "I know. When you find medical equipment it's more commonly with a statue of Asclepius, the Greek god of healing. A few years later I visited the cave of the Sibyl at Cumae, on the edge of the active volcanic zone a few miles north of Misenum, within sight of Vesuvius. Apollo was the god of oracles. Sulfur and herbs were used to ward off evil spirits, and maybe opium was added to it. I began to wonder whether all those mystical rites were chemically assisted."
"It could have been smoked," Costas murmured. "Burned like incense. The fumes would have been quicker than a drink."
"People went to those places seeking cures, to the Sibyl and other prophets," Jack said. "Organized religion at the time didn't provide much personal comfort, often excluding the common people and fixating on cults and rituals that were pretty remote from daily concerns. The Sibyl and her kind provided some kind of emotional comfort, psychological relief. And the Sibyls must have known it, and played on it. All we hear about from ancient accounts is the message of the oracle, obscure verses written on leaves or issued as prophetic pronouncements, all sound and fury and signifying God knows what. But maybe there was more to it than that. Maybe some people really did find a cure of sorts, a palliative."
"And a highly addictive one. It could have kept the Sibyl in business. Cash offerings from grateful clients would have kept the supply rolling."