Chapter One A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. - chinese proverb - The present day La Jolla, California Sam Fargo checked the figures for the second time. No doubt about it. There were several discrepancies in the accounting of the money that the Fargo Foundation had sent to fund an archeological dig in Tunisia. "It doesn't look good." His wife, Remi, leaned toward the computer screen, her green eyes troubled as she scrutinized the numbers. She tucked a lock of auburn hair behind her ear, then suddenly rose, pacing the floor behind him. "How could this have happened? Renee LaBelle is one of my oldest friends. I can't just pick up the phone and start asking all these questions. It'll sound like I'm accusing her." Sam swiveled his desk chair around to face her. Remi and Dr. Renee LaBelle had been roommates at Boston College and friends ever since. "As long as you two have known each other? I doubt she'll take offense. But if we don't reconcile our figures with hers, we're all going to have issues at tax time." Remi stopped, looking at the monitor. "At least she backs up everything with ledgers. I remember her saying they had problems when they switched over to that new accounting program. That was right around the same time. Maybe there was a glitch. Something must have gotten entered wrong." A very big glitch. And several somethings, Sam thought. A year ago, when Remi had suggested that the Fargo Foundation fund Renee LaBelle's archeological dig at Bulla Regia, he'd been against it from the very beginning. Though he and Remi had started the charitable organization to take on worthy projects of this type, he knew from experience that good friendships didn't always survive the discovery of bad money management. He'd mentioned this at the time, but Remi had her heart set on helping her friend, and had assured him that Renee LaBelle's past archeological projects had been very successful. Unfortunately, that wasn't the case now. "We won't know anything until we sit down with her and go over the figures," he said. "Tell Renee our accountant is the one asking the questions. Like a tax thing. Which it is." Sam glanced at the clock. Just after ten in the morning. "What are they, eight hours ahead?" He picked up Remi's smartphone from the desk, handing it to her. She pulled up a chair next to Sam. "Phone call or video? Video," she said before he could answer. "That's a little more personal. Don't sit too close. If she sees you, she'll think we're ganging up on her." Sam leaned away from her as she made the call. Her friend's face filled the screen, her expression one of mild surprise. "Remi. Hold on. Let me step outside where it's a little quieter. I'm at dinner with the crew." "Finish eating. It can wait. I just wanted to ask you a few questions about the books. For taxes." "No. No. I've been meaning to call-" "Who is it, LaBelle?" came a male voice in the background. "Remi Fargo," she said. "Questions about the books." A man's face appeared on the screen next to Renee's. "I've been telling LaBelle she needs to call you to set up a meeting." Her friend nodded. "He has," she said, then seemed to realize that Remi had no idea who the man next to her was. "Sorry. This is Hank, our new site manager. Hank, Remi Fargo. She and her husband head up the Fargo Foundation. I'm sure Sam can't be too far away." "Right next to me," Remi said, turning the screen to show Sam. He nodded at them. Hank smiled. "So, what do you say? Set up a video call in a day or two? We know you must have questions." Had it been a minor issue, Sam would have agreed. There was too much money unaccounted for, in his opinion, to handle it with a video call. "Turns out," Sam said, "we have to be in Nigeria next Monday. No reason we couldn't fly in a day or two earlier and stop off in Tunisia on our way. Might be easier if we all sit down together." Renee LaBelle shook her head. "A slight logistics problem. We're in Kenya. Archeological conference. How long will you be in Nigeria? Maybe you could come by after?" "Hard to say," Sam replied. "A week, maybe more." He and Remi were driving out to the southern edge of Gashaka Gumti National Park, where two of their assistants, Wendy Corden and Pete Jeffcoat, had been living these past few months, overseeing the construction of a self-sustaining school for girls. Though nearly finished, they'd fallen behind schedule, and their goal was to have everything done before the rainy season started. "We're checking in on one of the Foundation's projects." Renee's face lit up. "Is that the school out in the bush? Do you actually have students yet?" "We do," Remi said. "Here's a thought," Renee said. "We could leave the conference a day early, meet you in Jalingo instead of flying all the way back to Tunis. Go over the books, pop out to the school . . ." She gave an apologetic smile. "Look at me, inviting myself. Last thing you need is us traipsing around while you're busy working." Exactly what Sam was thinking. Hoping to avoid turning this into some sort of social visit, he nodded. "We'll definitely be busy." Apparently, Hank was of the same mind, saying, "That's a bit much to be asking when they're trying to get work done. Don't forget, we'll have the crew with us." He nodded behind him. Renee turned her phone so that the camera picked up a group of people seated around a table. "You've met Warren, of course." Her gray-haired site manager gave the slightest of nods, then went back to drinking his beer. "And one of my graduate students. Amal, say hi to the Fargos." A young woman in her early twenties, her long dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, lifted her hand, waved. "Actually," Remi said, "that's even better. Isn't it, Sam?" Clearly, he'd lost complete control of this conversation-assuming he'd ever had control of it to begin with. "How?" "Having not one but two women come talk to the girls. A professor and one of her students. It's a brilliant plan." Sam had no clue how his wife had landed on that idea. "Did you forget about the dorm we're supposed to be building?" He wasn't surprised to find that Dr. LaBelle's mind worked in similar fashion to his wife's. She gave a nod in her colleagues' direction, saying, "We could always bring Hank. He's excellent at construction work." "What about Warren?" Hank asked. "Me?" Warren seemed surprised that he'd been singled out. "Too old for any heavy lifting. And someone's got to hold down the fort." "Wait," Renee said. "It'll never work. The books are back in Tunisia." "No problem," Remi replied. "We'll pick you up in Tunisia and we'll all fly out together." "Wonderful idea. Don't you agree, Hank?" "What? Yes. But we're on a tight schedule ourselves. I'm not sure how we'll-" "Fortunately," Renee replied, "I'm the boss." She looked directly at the camera, smiling. "Get back to me with the details. We look forward to it." Remi ended the call, looking very pleased as she set her phone on the desk. "That went well." "Did I miss the part where we were supposed to be talking about the missing money?" "We'll look at the books in Tunisia before flying out to the school. I'm sure there's a logical explanation." He hoped she was right, because saying "I told you so" to your wife was never a good idea. Chapter Two Return to old watering holes for more than water; friends and dreams are there to meet you. - african proverb - Bulla Regia, Tunisia A light breeze swept in as Sam and Remi leaned against their rented Audi RS at the edge of the archeological park. Sam looked at his watch, a few minutes past eleven. "You're sure Dr. LaBelle said ten-thirty?" "Positive." Remi took out her phone and tried calling. "Voice mail. Do you think we should drive around and look for her? I'm sure this is where she said to meet." Sam put his arm around her shoulders. "We can wait. How often does a guy get to stand close to a beautiful girl beneath a gorgeous blue sky?" "Good point, Fargo," she said, leaning into him. About ten minutes later, a midsize blue SUV pulled up. Renee hopped out, waving to them. "Sorry. Warren normally takes over the supervision of our graduate students midmorning, but he never showed and I totally lost track of time." She quickly closed the distance, hugging Remi. "Rem-rem. So good to see you. I swear, you haven't aged a bit since the two of you got married." "Nay-nay," Remi said and smiled. "How long has it been since we've heard those names?" "Graduation," they said at the same time, then started laughing. Both women had emerged with a master's in anthropology and history, though Remi's focus had been on ancient trade routes and Renee's in archeology. And, other than the two being slim, they looked nothing alike. Remi, with green eyes and red hair, stood a half head taller than the petite blond-haired, blue-eyed Renee. Their first names, however, had caused quite a bit of confusion for their unfortunate professors-and most of their friends-quite simply because they were always together and the two names were so similar. When someone dubbed them Rem-rem and Nay-nay to avoid any confusion, the nicknames stuck up until Renee left Boston College to pursue her Ph.D. in archeology. Remi linked her arm through Renee's. "It's been far too long," she said, still feeling a bit sensitive over the real reason they were meeting. "No problems taking the time off? To come out to the school?" "The timing's perfect. No one's going to miss us for a few days." Renee smiled at Sam. "You're sure you don't mind us tagging along, Sam?" "Looking forward to it." Renee laughed at the look he gave Remi. "Just not to the same degree, perhaps?" Sam winked at her. "Happy wife, happy life." "You married a smart man, Remi." She laughed again, then nodded toward the rolling hills and blue sky in the distance. "That's where we're headed. Before we drive out there, I thought you might want to see some of the older digs first. You have time, I hope?" "Nothing planned," Sam said. "Perfect. They've made a lot of progress restoring the mosaics since our college days." She grabbed her shoulder bag from her car, locked the car, and led them toward the entrance. Because an earthquake destroyed much of the city, little remained of the villas except for the occasional column, the crumbling walls, and the theater, where the bishop Augustine had once harangued the citizens of Bulla Regia for living in a sinkhole of iniquity. The ruins of what had been two-story Roman luxury villas were unprepossessing. The ground level had been occupied in the winter so residents were able to take advantage of the warmth from the sun. In the summer, they took refuge from the intense heat in the underground chambers, many of which survived the massive quake. Renee led them along the ancient paving stones, talking about the history of the site, then paused along the way to point out the striking detail of some of the mosaic work of the paths they were walking on. Renee led them along the ancient stones, talking about the history of the site, when Remi stopped, pointing to a group of people in the distance. "Could that be Warren and Amal?" Sam glanced up as the woman and three men disappeared behind some ruins. Renee shaded her eyes, looking that direction as well. "That certainly looked like Amal. She gives tours to earn extra money for school. I can't think why Warren would be there, though. Especially when he knew you were coming, and I needed him at the excavation site this morning." She gave one last look that direction, then led them toward a low rectangular parapet. "Careful," she said as they peered down some twenty feet below into a peristyle courtyard supported by six granite columns. Above the columns were large hexagonal windows, which let light into the subterranean corridors. "This is one of my favorites," she said as they descended the stairs into the heart of the villa. She stood off to one side, allowing them to see the splendor of the richly colored floor mosaics. Remi crouched down for a better look at the intricately detailed sea creatures and twin cherubs astride dolphins, one carrying a casket of jewels, the other a mirror, gifts for a haloed Venus borne in triumph by two centaurs. "Amazing." "That's what I think every time I come into work." Renee sighed as she looked around, then started up the steps. "Who'd have thought all those years ago that we'd be living our dream?" "We did," Remi said. Sam laughed, no doubt thinking about all the scrapes they'd gotten into and escaped from over the years. "Not quite how you'd planned, though. Eh, Mrs. Fargo?" She looked over at him, laughing as she took his hand. "Not even close." Renee was waiting for them at the top of the stairs. "What you two consider fun the rest of us consider extreme." She suddenly turned, her eyes going wide, as someone grabbed her shoulder bag, then pushed her down the stairs. Chapter Three A tree does not move unless there is wind. - nigerian proverb - Sam caught Renee as she tumbled down. Once he had her safely on her feet, he raced up the stairs. The man who had grabbed Renee's bag was now rummaging through it by the time Sam emerged. He looked up, then took off. Sam chased him along the paths and out to where their cars were parked as a dark SUV pulled up, tires kicking up dust as it skidded to a stop. Sam breached the gap between them as the driver reached over and threw open the passenger's door. The thief looked back, saw Sam, and threw the bag at him. Sam flung it aside, lunged, grasping the man's shirt but losing his grip as the man jumped in the SUV. The vehicle sped away. In the few seconds it took to see that there was no license plate on the back, the thief rolled down the window, tossing Renee's wallet out. Sam ran over, picked it up, and returned for the bag as Remi and Renee hurried toward him. He handed both to Renee. "You're not hurt, I hope?" "No. More humiliated than anything," she said, looking inside her wallet to see what was missing. "There's been an uptick in thefts around here, especially around our site. Had I been smart, I would've left my bag in the car." Excerpted from The Oracle by Clive Cussler, Robin Burcell All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.