Read an Excerpt
Gibbins / PHARAOH
Off southern Spain, present day
Jack Howard eased forward in the confined space of the submersible, raising himself on his elbows so that he could see through the forward porthole into the azure shimmer of the Mediterranean. The thick cone of Perspex was designed to withstand the enor- mous pressures of abyssal depth, and distorted the view around the edge so that the research vessel Seaquest II some twenty meters above appeared as a strange play of white superstructure and dark hull. But the view in the center was undistorted, a tunnel of clarity that seemed to match the single-minded determination that had brought Jack this far. As he made out the slope of rock and sand on the seabed below, his heart began to pound with excitement. Somewhere out there lay one of the greatest lost treasures of antiquity. For a moment Jack saw the image he had seen in his dreams for days now: a black basalt sarcophagus rising starkly from the seabed like the toppled statue of a pharaoh half buried in the desert sand. Only this was not a dream. This was real.
“Jack. Shift over. I need space.” There was a grunt and a muttered curse in Greek, and a figure pushed himself forward on his back alongside him so he could see the tangle of wires that hung from the open control panel above them. Costas Kazantzakis moved with a deftness that seemed to belie his barrel chest and thick forearms, and his shorter frame was more suited than Jack’s to fit inside the submersible. Jack knew better than to break his concentration, and he watched as Costas moved his hands swiftly over the panel, pulling out and plugging in cables. In the distorted reflection of the Perspex, Jack saw his face superimposed on Costas’s, his thick dark hair appearing above the other man’s grizzled chin, and for a moment it seemed as if they were conjoined, two bodies become one. They had been doing this together for almost twenty years now, and it sometimes seemed like that. Jack pushed himself forward to give Costas more space, watching his eyes dart over the panel. Seeing Costas at work quickened Jack’s sense of excitement over the discovery that might lie ahead. Costas had been his main dive buddy from before he had founded the International Maritime University, and together they had logged thousands of dives on IMU projects around the world. This one promised to be up there with the best, providing Costas could work out a way of releasing the tethering line that held the submersible suspended below Seaquest II like a lure on a fishing line.
Costas turned to him. “You okay in here?”
Jack shifted again. “I’d be happier diving free outside. Six foot five is about a foot too long for this space.”
“Once I get this thing running, it’ll seem like an extension of your body. You’ll forget the cramped space, I promise.”
“How much longer?”
Costas gazed back up at the wiring. “I once stared at a control panel for eighteen hours. Then bingo, I got it.”
“I thought a PhD from MIT in submersibles engineering would have eased you through a glitch like this.”
Costas narrowed his eyes. “And I thought a PhD from Cambridge in archaeology would make you an instant expert in everything. I’m trying to remember the number of times I’ve watched my air gauge drop to zero while waiting for you to fathom some ancient inscription.”
Jack grinned. “Okay. Touché.”
“Have patience,” Costas muttered, staring up. “It’ll come to me.”
There was movement from the hatch to the rear compartment beyond Jack’s feet, and the third person in the submersible appeared, a short woman with dark curly hair and glasses and wearing an IMU jumpsuit. Sofia Fernandez, a former Spanish navy medic who was now an archaeologist with the local Cartagena museum, had come on board as the official representative of the Spanish antiquities authority. She had arrived on Seaquest II only an hour before; Jack had never met her previously, but both men had immediately liked her. At the moment, all that concerned Jack was that she was small enough not to reduce his comfort in the sphere below a tolerable level.
She pulled herself in and sat in the driver’s seat. “What gives?” she said.
“Apologies for the glitch,” Costas replied, looking at her ruefully. “This is a new submersible fresh out of the engineering department at IMU, and today is its first open-water test. I haven’t even given her a name yet. Seaquest II can be here for only a day or two, as she’s due back for a winter refit in England, and this was the only window I had to get this thing in the water to see how she behaves on a real operation.” He paused. “I’ve been meaning to ask. Where did you get that accent? The sassy attitude. And don’t get me wrong. I like it.”
Sofia smiled. “From dealing with men like you. I was brought up in Puerto Rico by my American mother.”
“But you ended up in the Spanish navy.”
“I was a Spanish citizen because of my father, and the navy offered to pay my way through medical school in Seville.”
“And now you’re an archaeologist.”
“After my pre-med year, the call came for medical personnel to join the Spanish contingent in Afghanistan, and I volunteered to go as a combat medic. After that, I decided I’d done my bit for medicine and it was time to move on. At med school I’d developed an interest in operation theater tools for remote surgery, so I did a masters in robotics engineering.”
“No way,” Costas exclaimed. “Right up my alley. We use the same basic technology for remote excavation from submersibles. We have got something to talk about during the long hours while I stare at this panel.”
“Not long hours,” Jack said firmly. “Short minutes.”
“Well, my other fascination was archaeology,” Sofia continued, “so I started over again and did a degree in anthropology and got the job at the Cartagena museum. My mother was a dive instructor in Puerto Rico and I’d dived almost before I could walk, so when I heard that you were planning to come to search for the wreck of the Beatrice off Cartagena, I couldn’t believe my luck.”
“Combat medic, robotics engineer, archaeologist, diver,” Costas said. “Sounds like a pretty good skill-set to me.”
“Anyway, speaking of accents, what’s a Greek from the Kazantzakis shipping family doing with a New York accent? And best friends with a Brit?”
“I went to school in Manhattan,” Costas said. “And Jack’s really a Brit only in his ancestry. He was brought up in New Zealand and Canada before going to boarding school in England. So we’re international, really. The International Maritime University. An international team of oddballs.”
“That reminds me: a strange guy with long lank hair and a lab coat collared me topside before I got into the submersible. I forgot to tell you.”
“Oh God,” Costas murmured, staring back at the panel. “Lanowski. What does he want?”
“He said that although Kazantzakis thinks he knows everything about submersibles, he’s really a concepts man and is pretty useless on computer systems and circuitry. He said that because you agreed to be his best man, it showed that you were his friend now and would have no problem acknowledging his superior mental agility. I think those were his exact words.”
Costas grimaced. “He’s got it in for me because when he and his glamour-model wife got married in our top-end submersible, the trim was wrong.”
“Correction,” Jack said. “You sabotaged the trim so that they would get married at the bottom of the Marianas Trench instead of just below the surface.”
“It was a great opportunity to test the new pressure hull,” Costas said defensively. “It was the only reason I agreed to be his best man.”
“This gets better,” Sofia said. “Lanowski has a glamour-model wife and they got married underwater. Let me guess, they met online and it was love at first sight?”
“You bet. Love of submersibles at first sight. She loves really big submarines.”
“Uh-huh. And don’t tell me, she has a PhD too?”
“Submersibles nanotechnology. Flying tiny drone submersibles into the abyss. Lanowski loves her for it.”
“I’m sure he does.”
Costas put out his hand resignedly. “Okay, what did he give you?”
Sofia passed over a crumpled piece of paper. “He said it’s a circuit diagram. He scribbled it down while I kitted up.”
Costas flattened the paper and stared at it. “Why oh why didn’t he show me this earlier?” he groaned.
“He said he was giving you the time to work it through yourself and realize you were never going to get there.”
Costas reached up, pulled out one cable, and plugged in another. A red light began to flash on the panel. “Okay. We’ve got maybe half an hour while the system reboots.” He leaned back against the Perspex dome and looked at Jack. “Which gives you just enough time to fill me in on exactly what we’re doing here. I missed your briefing topside because I was down here apparently failing to spot what Lanowski knew all along. So what do we know about our target?”
Jack did not relish the idea of a further half hour swaying in the submersible under Seaquest II, and he welcomed Costas’s request. He reached over and clicked on his laptop, then lifted it and turned the screen towards the other two. “It’s a fantastic story,” he said. “Of all the artifacts looted by European travellers to ancient lands, this one is probably the most extraordinary. In 1837, a British army officer named Richard Vyse and an engineer named John Perring used gunpowder to blow their way into the main burial chamber of the pyramid of Menkaure at Giza. Inside it they found a great basalt sarcophagus and a wooden coffin. After an incredible effort inching the sarcophagus along the entrance shaft, Vyse and his Egyptian workers managed to get it out of the pyramid and down to Alexandria, where it was loaded on to the Beatrice. She set sail, and was recorded leaving Malta on the thirteenth of October 1838. That was the last anyone ever heard of her.”
“Do we know what the sarcophagus looked like?”
“There’s an illustration in Vyse’s book.” Jack clicked on the laptop and an image came up. “Basalt, two and a half meters long, almost a meter high and a meter wide. There were no hieroglyphs, but you can see it had carved decoration in the style of an ancient Egyptian palace facade. It’s one of the most important pieces of Old Kingdom sculpture.”
“So what do we know about the Beatrice?” Costas asked.
Jack clicked, and another image came up. “This is a facsimile page from Lloyd’s Register of 1838. The owner and captain was a man called Wichelo, and the ship was built in 1827 at Quebec in Lower Canada. You can see she’s described as a snow—a type of brig—and was bound from Liverpool for Alexandria in Egypt on the outward leg of her last ever voyage.”
He tapped the keyboard again. The image changed to an old painting of a ship anchored close to shore, its sails furled but the British Red Ensign flying from its stern.
“This is by Raffaello Corsini, a painter based in Ottoman Turkey, and shows Beatrice in 1832 in the Bay of Smyrna—modern Izmir in Turkey. At this point she’s a brig, meaning two square-rigged masts, fore and main, with a big fore-and-aft sail at the stern hanging from a boom stepped to the mainmast. Sometime between that date and 1838 she was converted to a snow, which meant that a small mast was stepped into the deck immediately abaft the mainmast as a more secure way of flying the fore-and-aft sail.”
“She must have been a pretty good runner to merit the upgrade,” Costas said.
Jack nodded. “Those were the days when merchant ships were designed to outrun pirates and privateers. People look at an image like this painting and are surprised to be told it wasn’t a warship.”
“Good question. You can see the single row of eight gun ports along the side. They could be painted on, of course, but I think they’re real.”
“Guns mean a greater chance of seeing the wreck on the seabed, right?” Sofia asked.
“Right,” agreed Jack. “In the Mediterranean, any exposed hull timbers would have been eaten by the Teredo navalis shipworm, and without big metal artifacts like guns we might not see anything.”
“What was her condition recorded in the 1838 Register?” Costas asked.
Jack reduced the image so they could see the Register again. “First grade, second condition. The little asterisk means that she’d undergone repairs, in this case replacement of the wooden knees holding up her deck timbers with iron girders.”
Costas pursed his lips. “Even large iron girders are unlikely to survive after almost two hundred years in seawater. Sofia’s right. We’re looking for guns.”
“Not forgetting eight tons of sarcophagus,” Jack said.
“What about the wrecking?” Sofia said. “How did you pin it down to this place?”
Jack paused. This was the revelation that had brought them here, that had preoccupied him for weeks now. He looked at Sofia keenly. “I said that the departure of Beatrice from Malta was the last anyone ever heard of her. Well, we now know that’s no longer quite true. There have always been rumors that the ship went down off Cartagena, but they’ve never been substantiated. Then a couple of months ago, IMU was contacted by a collector of antiquarian books on Egyptology who thought I might be interested in his copy of Vyse’s Operations Carried on at the Pyramids of Gizeh in 1837. Here’s what Vyse says about the loss of the sarcophagus: ‘It was embarked at Alexandria in the autumn of 1838, on board a merchant ship, which was supposed to have been lost off Cartagena, as she was never heard of after her departure from Leghorn on the twelfth of October that year, and as some parts of the wreck were picked up near the former port.’
“But that’s not all,” he continued. “And that’s not why the man contacted me. It was because in his copy, on the page where Vyse mentions the loss of the Beatrice, was an interleaved sheet containing handwritten latitude and longitude coordinates and a couple of transit bearings from precisely the position we’re at now. They were taken by someone who knew what they were doing, a trained seafarer, from a boat over the spot. The sheet was unsigned, but the giveaway was the ex libris plate at the front of the book, with the name Wichelo.”
“No kidding!” Costas exclaimed. “The ship’s master, the one named in the Lloyd’s Register? So he survived the wrecking?”
“So it seems. He must have come to this spot again to take transits, in a local boat. That’s perhaps where the rumors of the wreck originate. But there’s no record anywhere else of his survival. He seems to have disappeared from history.”
“Maybe he knew there’d be an insurance claim, and he’d be found liable,” Costas said.
“How can we know that?” Sofia asked.
“Well, let’s think of what we’ve got here. Beatrice was a cargo ship, but not a specialized stone carrier. Looking at the details in the Register, we see she’s got a fourteen-foot beam, fully laden. Where does the captain put the sarcophagus? On the deck, confident that those new iron knees will hold the weight.”
Jack nodded. “So confident that he fails to calculate the instability of a ship of that size with an eight-ton stone sarcophagus laden so high above the keel.”
“She’s a good runner, but not as maneuverable against the wind as other ships,” Costas said thoughtfully. “She leaves Malta in mid-October, the beginning of the winter season, a time when storms and squalls become more common. That was the captain’s first mistake. Add to that the uncharted reefs of a shoreline like this one, and a ship blown northwest off its intended route towards the Strait of Gibraltar is heading for disaster.”
“Especially if she was so poorly laden,” Jack said, tapping a key again. “Lanowski’s done a simulation. Take a look at this. You can see the ship sailing west from Malta, and all is well. The prevailing wind is from the northeast, and the captain decides to sail with the wind on his starboard beam, west-northwest, in order to avoid being blown into the North African shore. He turns with the wind towards Gibraltar when the Spanish coast hoves into view, but he’s come too close to the shore and has forgotten how sluggish the cargo makes the ship. He realizes his mistake and tries to veer south back into the open sea with the wind now on his port aft quarter, but it’s too late. A sudden squall, a big inshore wave, and the sarcophagus slips, then the ship heels over and is gone, probably so fast that the crew would hardly have known what was happening.”
Costas nodded. “So she sinks close to shore but in deep water, here where the bottom shelves off rapidly to abyssal depth. If she’d been in shallow water, there would have been some attempt at salvage, and perhaps more survivors. But if she sank like a stone, at least we should have a fairly well-contained wreck site.”
“Trickier to find, though, without a wide debris field.”
“We’ve got the magnetic anomalies from Seaquest II’s run over the sector this morning,” Costas said. “One of them will come up trumps.”
“Fingers crossed,” Jack said.
“Lucky Jack,” Costas replied, smiling at Sofia. “Jack’s luck is better than any science.”
Jack closed the computer. “I keep thinking of the captain, Wichelo, perhaps the only survivor, a man afraid of creditors and claimants or overcome with shame, knowing he’d never be trusted again with a cargo, deciding to disappear and change his name and start a new life.”
“But not too ashamed to record the location and put it in this book, perhaps many years later when he could use his original name again,” Costas said. “Maybe an old man wanting to tie up loose ends, recording the location for someone to find.”
Sofia turned and eyed Jack shrewdly. “Let me get this right. The idea that the Beatrice was wrecked somewhere off Spain has been floating around for years, but nobody’s ever been allowed to search for it inside Spanish territorial waters. Even the Egyptian Antiquities Service with all its wealthy international backers fails to get permission. But then Jack Howard finds some clue to the whereabouts of the wreck, picks up the phone, and, hey, presto, green light.”
Jack shrugged. “Our record speaks for itself.”
“We’re archaeologists, not salvors,” Costas said, still eyeing the control panel. “Everything we find in territorial waters goes to a local museum, and everything in international waters to our museum at Carthage or to the IMU campus in England. We fund the entire process of conservation and display. Our commercial wing makes a healthy income from our films and from sales of equipment developed in our engineering facility, but we operate on an endowment, which means there’s no need to make a profit. We’ve got a hell of a benefactor.”
“I read about him on the website,” Sofia said. “Efram Jacobovich, the software tycoon.”
“He’s also why we’re test-driving this submersible,” Costas said. “One of his companies does deepwater min- eral extraction, small quantities of rare minerals around hot-air vents, and they use the same robotic manipulator arms that we’ve developed for excavation. Their success makes Efram richer and he increases our endow- ment. So you see, everything’s linked.” He stared again above him, a puzzled look on his face, his voice trailing off as he spoke. “A bit like the wiring in this control panel. All linked somehow. I wish I could work out how Lanowski got that right.”
Jack smiled at Sofia. “That clear it up for you?”
Costas coughed. “And in this case, there was the small matter of Jack’s girlfriend.”
Jack narrowed his eyes at Costas. “Not girlfriend. Colleague.”
“Right.” Costas grinned at Sofia. “Her name’s Dr. Maria de Montijo. She’s head of the Oxford Institute of Epigraphy and an adjunct professor of IMU. She’s been with us on a number of expeditions. Her mother also happens to be the Spanish minister of culture.”
“Of course,” Sofia said. “My boss. So, the old boys’ network.”
“The old girls’ network.”
“Problem is, Maria always comes up with the goods, but Jack never commits in return. Too busy diving with his buddy Costas.”
“Speaking of which,” Jack said, “how are we coming along?”
Costas peered at Sofia. “Now that I know you’re an engineer too, can I ask you to help?”
“We’ve got to manually disengage the cable tethering us to Seaquest II. The lever’s the red one labelled ‘tether’ in the ceiling of the double-lock chamber. I need to be here with my hands on about four switches to allow it to unlock. You’ll need to shut the chamber door behind you to get at the lever. A red light will fire up beside it when I’m ready. It’ll be no more than a couple of minutes. Can you do it?”
“Sure. No problem.” She slid off the chair and disappeared back through the hatch, and they heard the clang of the chamber door shutting behind her. Costas quickly turned to Jack. “Okay. Spill it.”
Jack stared at him. “What do you mean?”
“Come on, Jack. I know that look. What’s going on?”
Jack cleared his throat. “We’re searching for one of the greatest archaeological treasures of all time. We’re doing our job.”
“That’s just it. Doing our job. It’s not enough, is it? Okay, an Egyptian stone sarcophagus, covered with carvings. And not just any old sarcophagus. The sarcophagus of a pharaoh, from one of the pyramids at Giza. That’s big-time. I mean, really big-time. But to get you this fired up, there just has to be more.”
“The sarcophagus would be one of the greatest Egyptian finds since King Tut’s tomb. Even including all of Maurice’s discoveries.”
“That’s it, isn’t it?” Costas exclaimed. “Maurice Hiebermeyer. He’s the missing link. Last year at Troy he found that Egyptian sculpture with the strange hieroglyphic inscriptions and the sculptor’s name he recognized. Before you could say golden mummy, he’d shot down to Akhenaten’s city at Amarna beside the Nile, digging around for something he’d seen before. And then quick as a flash he was in the Nubian Desert, and then back in Egypt up to his neck in a pyramid. It’s not like Hiebermeyer to flit around like that. Once he’s got his nose stuck in a site, he stays there until it’s done. And not just any old pyramid. The pyramid of Menkaure at Giza, precisely the place where Vyse found the sarcophagus. You’re on a trail, aren’t you, Jack? What we’re doing today, whatever we find, this isn’t just about that sarcophagus. There’s a bigger prize.”
Jack was silent for a moment, then he turned to Costas, his face an image of suppressed excitement. “Right at the moment it could all be a house of cards. We need one more crucial clue. And I don’t want to upset your plans for some R and R on the beach tomorrow at Cartagena.”
“I knew that was never going to happen,” Costas said resignedly. He shook his head, then jerked his thumb towards the porthole. “The clue you need. Is it out there? In the wreck?”
Jack gave him a steely look. “Maybe. Just maybe.”
Costas turned back to the panel and flipped the switches. A few seconds later there was a shudder and the submersible seemed to drop in the water, then it pitched and yawed like a boat bobbing in the waves. Costas quickly got up and sat in the pilot’s seat, one hand over the control stick and the other on the throttle. Sofia reemerged and slid down in front of the Perspex screen beside Jack. They heard the whine of the electric motor, and then felt the submersible steadying itself in the water. Jack stared again into the blue. There might be nothing down there but bare rock and sand, but Costas was right about one thing. He had always been lucky when it came to archaeology, and he felt it now. He just knew there was something there that would change history forever.
Costas followed Jack’s gaze through the porthole. “Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair,” he murmured.
Jack glanced at him. “I was just thinking that. About the ancient statue of a pharaoh broken and half buried, just like that sarcophagus somewhere down there.” He turned to Sofia. “It’s from Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias.’ ”
She was quiet for a moment, and then recited: “ ’Round the decay of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare, the lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Costas turned to her. “You read poetry?”
“Always been a passion.”
Costas looked back at the porthole. “Me too.”
“There’s a lot more to you than meets the eye, Costas Kazantzakis.”
Jack grinned, staring back at Costas’s dishevelled hair and unshaven face. “There’s a lot that meets the eye.”
There was a final jolt, and then they were as one with the sea. Jack could sense it as if he himself had been released into the depths where he belonged, free at last from the sense of confinement. Costas looked at him, his hands on the controls. “We’re good to go.”
Jack pointed into the abyss. “Go for it.”