Sinai Deceit

A DARK FAMILY SECRET. A BIZARRE CULT. A TALISMAN THAT CAN DESTROY ENTIRE CITIES. DARWIN MUST STOP THE SKELETONS IN HIS PAST... BEFORE THEY BURY OUR FUTURE.

Darwin Lacroix is a wreck. An ancient booby trap nearly kills his wife, Eyrún. A tunnel under their home hides an alchemy lab with strange crystals. And a tabloid reveals his forebear stole American gold, threatening his job as Vatican special director of antiquities. Then he’s slapped with a paternity suit.

Could his life get any worse?

Modern tests show the crystals are a scientific holy grail—an unlimited energy source—worth billions. But the sword has a double edge. The gems could make pocket-sized nuclear bombs. And thousands more are buried in Egypt. When North Korean agents hack the research, they rush to steal the secret for their glorious leader.

Can Darwin and Eyrún stop them from digging up a vile weapon?

SINAI DECEIT, the fifth archeological thriller novel in the Darwin Lacroix Adventure series by Dave Bartell.

Excerpt:

SINAI DECEIT
A Darwin Lacroix Adventure Novel
© 2022 Dave Bartell


CHAPTER ONE

Bocagno, Corsica, France

Eyrún Stephansdottir made tea in the kitchen of her house on the mountain above Ajaccio. While it steeped, she looked out the window at her husband, Darwin Lacroix, clearing the detritus from an overnight thunderstorm. She never tired of the view out the wall of glass doors onto the flagstone patio. Many nights they sat at its firepit that overlooked a vast gorge and stargazed in the warmth of a crackling pinewood fire.

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Eyrún binned the tea bag and carried her cup down the short steps to the living room to her own project—organizing the hodgepodge. Book and notes had piled up since their return from Pantelleria, Italy where they’d shut down an antiquities looting ring.

She gathered books, stacking them on the fireplace coffee table. She reached for another book on its lower shelf, a small, leather-bound volume that bore no title. Curious, she opened it and, seeing the handwriting, remembered it was the diary written by Darwin’s third great-grandmother. The cursive script flowed across the unlined pages; its blue ink thicker where the vintage pen nib had doubled back.

While lovely on the page, she could not read the Corsican calligraphy. Still, she sat on the floor, leaning against the sofa, and turned to the cover page. Using her mobile, she translated the text as:

A Lacroix family history and,

Resolution of the great vendetta

Letizia Lacroix nee Paoli

1921

The great vendetta? Darwin never mentioned this. She turned the page, and a note with a computer file name fell onto her lap. Knowing where Darwin kept family research, Eyrún retrieved her tablet and navigated to the file’s cloud location. She began reading. Most of the early pages listed family members’ births and deaths and who was related to whom.

Eyrún skimmed ahead until reaching pages on Pasquale Lacroix’s life, someone she knew from Darwin’s family stories. She’d been told Pasquale loved to boast, especially about a box of Roman scrolls he’d found in 1867 buried in Herculaneum. But his wife, Letizia, recorded a different view of the man Darwin revered. 

Pasquale loved to boast. He was a superb storyteller, but we all knew his tendency to exaggerate. Much of his gasconading, he appropriated from his grand-père Henri Lacroix, who, with the backing of the French crown, suppressed the last vestiges of Barbary pirates. Some of this history is documented. The rest I have gathered orally and recorded here.

That’s interesting. Eyrún remembered snippets of the Lacroix family history told by Darwin’s grandfather, Emelio. He lived in the family mansion in Ajaccio and loved pointing out family heirlooms that harkened back to when the family had entertained Napoleon Bonaparte and other society members of the French Republic. She was pretty sure Emelio had mentioned Henri once or twice.

Not eager to get back to cleaning, she went downstairs to the library and located the black leather-bound volumes of the Lacroix Shipping Company records. Beginning in 1617, the books lined two rows of shelves. She pulled out one covering 1850 to 1875, Pasquale’s younger years, but they were unreadable except for the numbers, which she figured related to cargo. She imagined her own relatives in Iceland during this same period, eking out a living in a harsh climate. Her family had kept spotty records, and she had never understood Darwin’s cavalier attitude toward his family history.

The old records rekindled another urge to explore something she’d seen in this room, but had always put off to another day. Why not now? On a whim, she went to the spot on an upper shelf and ran her fingers along it, feeling for a concealed latch. Two years ago, she’d seen Darwin open a secret wall to hide the box of Herculaneum scrolls from intruders. She’d not been inside the hidden room since.

Eyrún was about to give up when she found and unfastended the latch. The shelf rotated toward her into the library. Cool musty air poured from the opening. Eyrún flicked on her phone’s light and stepped inside the five-meter-wide space that went about fifteen meters deep. Pine furniture, layered in dust, made up a crude living area, with four beds lining one wall and a table and food-preparation area opposite. A door concealed a pit toilet. She wrinkled her nose despite it emitting no odor.

A massive armoire dominated the rear wall. She moved to it and tugged one door open. Plates, cups, and bowls were stacked with linen, unused for decades. As she lifted a blue and white porcelain bowl, the shelf support gave way. The heavy ceramic tipped the board and took down the lower shelves. The armoire’s top broke away as its contents cascaded down.

She dove backwards as the decrepit pine collapsed before her eyes—a dust cloud billowing. A coughing fit drove her out of the room. Oh, no! She sighed heavily at the destruction wrought by her curiosity. Then she got a larger light from the library and went back inside to survey the damage.

As she stepped over the carnage strewn about the floor, she could see the whole upper part of the cabinet had fallen away, and its backing boards were angled precariously. They could reassemble the armoire, but the dishes were a total loss. She grasped one backing board and pulled it away.

What? She removed another board. Something’s behind this. Two minutes later, she had pulled ten boards free, exposing a wooden door set into the wall. Her heart raced. Over the next half-hour, she cleared the broken mess enough to access the hidden door. After pulling its iron ring several times, she put a foot against the wall and, grasping it with both hands, yanked multiple times until a body-width space opened.

She paused to catch her breath. God, I hope this isn’t some forgotten Lacroix crypt. The hair on her arms stood up as even colder air spilled from the blackness.

Steeling her resolve, Eyrún shone the light behind the door. Its beam revealed a rough-hewn tunnel. The frigid air carried a moldy odor of decay. She paused, closed her eyes, and sniffed. No human decay. Darwin had taught her to distinguish smells during their digs in Egypt and beneath French cathedrals.

But there’s something else. she thought while squeezing through the body-width opening. Her top snagged on a splinter and, working it free, she slid behind the thick oak door. She brushed a cobweb off one shoulder and peered deeper inside.

A bright light hit her face, and she immediately put a hand to her eyes. Something metallic and red loomed before her. She thrust a hand up in defense as she leaped backwards, thudding against the heavy door. Nothing moved.

She moved the beam toward the object and snorted at what had scared her. A menacing suit of armor stood in the corridor not three meters away. Two round mirrors mounted on its shoulders had reflected her light, and a vibrant red cross on the knight’s tunic had combined to startle her. Well, it worked, she mused, dusting herself off as she studied the tunnel’s entry and armor in her path.

An oil lamp mounted on the right side wall would have lit the corridor in ages past. Two swords and a lance hung on a wooden rack below the lamp and, looking down the tunnel, she noticed other lamps farther in. The knight’s arms held a cocked crossbow pointed at the doorway. That’s scary. She shone the light around the armor’s feet, looking for a stand, but saw nothing. Guess I just go around it. She took a step.

The knight lunged, firing the crossbow. The bolt flew at her face. She dove, screaming. The fletching scraped her neck as it slammed into the door. A dust cloud engulfed her as the armor shuddered to a stop an arm’s length away.

Violent coughing doubled her over, stars filling her vision as she felt her neck. It stung. A half minute later, the spasm passed, and she picked up the light and brought her fingertips into its beam. Blood! She felt again, probing the burning wound, but confirmed it was not deep. Then she turned to the door behind her. The iron tipped half-meter bolt stuck fast in the thick oak.

Oh God! I could have been killed. Her vision tunneled as she sucked in deep breaths, trying to overcome the shock. Dammit, who… but the wooziness continued to expand. A voice shouted her name. “Eyrún!”

She spun to see a light behind the knight, farther down the narrow stone corridor. Someone’s in here.

“Hey,” she yelled, shoving past the armor. Oblong, brass-framed mirrors lining the left wall cast the light’s stark white beam onto paintings on the right wall. She banged against one portrait and careened into the opposite side before steadying herself.

“Eyrún!”

I’m coming. She pushed off the wall and, a dozen steps later, she found another door. This one was covered in mirrors that gathered and expanded the rich colors in the paintings behind her. Beautiful, she thought. Her breaths quickened as she stepped toward the door, then froze. A woman, older than her, with long chestnut hair and wearing a simple white gown, appeared in the mirror. Her hand lowered to the doorknob.

“Come,” said the woman, her voice both soft and commanding. The door swung inward to a crypt.

The other voice echoed again, “Eyrún.” Like a muffled whisper, it came from all around her as she entered a dank chamber of less than two meters square. A small chapel stood against its rear wall and tombs were embedded in its side walls. The voice seemed to emanate from the wall on the right.

Eyrún turned and stared at the portrait of a young woman hanging over one tomb. I’ve seen you before. But where?

She set the light on the floor and grasped the tombstone, but could not grip its edge. Studying it for a moment, she pounded a fist on one side until the stone moved inward, causing the other side to pop out. She grabbed that edge and worked it back and forth until the stone came free. She laid it on the floor and shone the light inside the grave.

She leaned back, gagging as the fetid decay nearly overwhelmed her. It reminded her of a crypt she and Darwin had forced open in Sainte Lazare to recover a Knights Templar object. She came forward again, lured by the light glinting off a small box between the corpse’s finger bones.

“Eyrún,” came a distant, muffled voice. “Get out.”

What? Her head swam. But the voice was unmistakable. It wants me to find this box. To get it out. Her heart pounded as she gently removed the box and carried to the altar. Placing it atop the flat stone, she moved the light closer.

It’s a music box. She opened its gold lid and one by one, miniature cloisonné figures moved to the accompaniment of a delicate music. The bewitching melody morphed into the voice of a young girl, and Eyrún found herself drawn into a dream she could not escape. A vision of an older, pre-Christian world. The antediluvian world of the Old Ones, as ancient as the Earth itself. A place on the edge of oblivion where the boundaries between the living and the dead, matter and spirit, earth and sky, were porous, permeable and fluid.

It’s magical.

The crypt filled with translucent light. She felt herself fading into the dream.

“Eyrún.”

The voice called her name one last time before she lost consciousness.

COLLAPSE

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