Oliver tipped the taxi driver and watched him drive off into the bright, sticky air of the Virginia afternoon. For once, Oliver didn’t mind the heat. After two weeks in Iceland, he was glad to be warm again. He lingered outside the automatic sliding doors for a moment, still wary of being followed, but none of the arriving shoppers appeared to pay him any mind as they dashed past into the cold air of the mall interior. Eventually he turned and took the twisting concrete and steel staircase up to the third floor of the parking garage, crossed the pedestrian bridge, and entered the mall by the heavy glass doors of the food court entrance.
Amber was waiting for him at a table near the entrance. She was dressed in her typical style: a purple retro-style flower dress with a tight bodice and a loose-hanging skirt. Her blonde hair was topped with a flapper cap that Oliver was fairly certain had been purchased from a handicrafts website.
Some girls Oliver knew had gone through dozens of fashions over the years, but with Amber there had been a neat line of demarcation between her pre-teen years of coveralls and tennis shoes, and the switch to a 1920s retro style. It had happened the same week that Oliver’s mother had informed Amber, in no uncertain terms, that she had to, “stop dressing like a lowborn little waif and start wearing skirts, or you’re never going out of the house again.” Amber had disappeared into her bedroom for nearly two days, then pulled Oliver out to his car on a Sunday afternoon and insisted that he drive her to a series of consignment shops. By the end of that weekend Amber had replaced her entire wardrobe with clothes that were certainly less revealing and tattered than her beloved coveralls, but nowhere near the modern fashions that Oliver’s mother had in mind when she issued her ultimatum.
Although Oliver was three years older than Amber, the two had been best friends since she had come to live with his family at the age of twelve. She might have come from the unstylish side of the Lucas clan, born to Oliver’s uncle Bernard and his wife and raised on their dig sites throughout South America, but she could hold her own against Oliver’s prep-school education and his parents’ efforts to civilize her. They had bonded over a mutual love of history, his born from books and documentaries, hers from being raised by archaeologist parents, and it hadn’t hurt that neither of them got on with Oliver’s parents or the children of their high society friends.
“Ollie!” she shouted, jumping up and throwing her arms around his neck as soon as she spotted him.
Oliver hugged her back, then bowed formally and kissed her hand.
“Amber, my dear. And how are you this fine afternoon?”
She swatted him on the shoulder with a set of white gloves pulled from the belt of her dress. “Don’t be an ass, Ollie. I’m an intentional anachronism from the Jazz Age, not a relic of the Gilded.”
He smiled crookedly and offered her his elbow. “Right. That’s why we’ll be listening to piano cabaret in your car on the way home. Or is it back to steampunk death metal this month? Honestly, Amber, I can’t think of the last time I heard you listen to jazz.”
Amber took his arm and they strode together across the food court, heading towards the long escalators in the middle of the expanse. “Neither. This month I’m sampling artists from the neo-new wave movement. Really quite exciting, though most of them are indies with real jobs and families, so I’m having a devil of a time scheduling interviews.”
“I’m sure it will all come together for you, it always does.”
Amber squeezed his arm. “Thanks, but what about you, my intrepid cousin? Here I am wiling away the hours blogging about music while you’re off galavanting across the globe. I saw your tweets, but I need more details.”
“You could be having adventures with me, you know. After all, I’m not the one who fell in love with a homebody,” Oliver teased, shooting a sideways glance at Amber.
She giggled the way he had known she would, then hit him with her gloves again. “Don’t try to change the subject. You know perfectly well that I’m happy with Tom. Besides, I’ve grown accustomed to the comforts of home in the States.”
Oliver nodded. When he had first started adventuring, as he liked to call it, he had invited Amber along. She had gone with him on his first expedition to the Amazon, where they had revisited the scene of her parents’ deaths and secured the relic that they had been searching for when they were murdered, supposedly by their native guide. Despite some near misses, everything had turned out well and they had returned to Virginia in time for Amber to learn that she had failed her first semester and Oliver’s college girlfriend had dumped him. Amber had no difficulty keeping up with Oliver on that expedition, but when he had invited her along on a journey to India to explore a long lost temple two years later, she had refused him. When he returned, he learned that she had met a web developer named Tom and was already planning their life together.
“Well, I shot a few thousand photos of the glaciers and about as many of nude bathers at a hot spring spa,” Oliver began. “About a week of touch-up work and I should have no trouble selling the best to my usual clients. I’ll toss the middling ones on stock photo sites and should have my expenses covered, no problem.”
Amber rolled her eyes and leaned heavily against him. “Right, Ollie. You only go traipsing across the world to take photos of retired Scandinavians in their mud baths. Oh, and did you hear, I’ve decided to throw out my wardrobe and start dressing in black turtlenecks and plaid shorts?”
“So, you didn’t want to hear about the legitimate reasons for my expedition? Well, then, as it happens I actually found… but oh, here we are.”
Oliver slipped quickly away from Amber before she could hit him again and darted into a nearby camera shop.
The man behind the counter looked up at the sound of his entry and smiled broadly. He was large and bald, his brown scalp polished to a shine. He wore round wire rim glasses over a thick black goatee and seemed to dress exclusively in tailored blue suits.
“Hey Oliver, welcome back. Iceland, huh?”
Oliver nodded and shook his friend’s hand enthusiastically. He leaned against the counter and shrugged. “You know me Hank. Always looking for exciting photo ops.”
“So you always say. And always sending your equipment back to my store after you have made a mess of it,” Hank said with feigned annoyance.
“Hey man, I just don’t want to risk all my expensive gear getting dumped on the steps of my apartment. Besides, it’s always nice to give the camera a good cleaning when I get back. Speaking of which…”
Hank nodded enthusiastically and held up a finger before disappearing into the back of the store. Oliver watched him go then he turned to smile at Amber, who had been examining a set of macro lenses displayed under the glass countertop.
“You ever think of switching to this sort of work, Ollie?” she asked. “Maybe building miniatures and photographing them to look like real ships and towns.”
Oliver grimaced. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“I don’t know. It might keep you out of trouble. If not miniatures, maybe get in on the wedding racket. Those guys make a steal for a day’s work.” She looked up at him and, while he was fairly certain she had been joking about the miniatures, Oliver thought he caught a note of concern in her eyes.
“Amber, are you worried about me?”
She gave a little shrug and broke eye contact.
“I’ll be fine. Look, I made it back again without a scratch.”
Amber slipped a little closer and gestured down at his hands. “Without a scratch, Ollie? What about your hands? Those cuts don’t look like frostbite. Matter of fact, they look a lot like what I had to patch up down in Brazil.”
Oliver sighed. He had almost forgotten his hands and, now that he looked at them, they were worse off than when he had patched them up on the airplane. Probably some extra damage picked up during his encounter in the airport bathroom.
He looked up at his cousin and put on his best reassuring smile. “One of us has to be adventurous. You found Tom, and he makes you happy. And you got some closure on your parents down in Brazil. I’m still looking for my prize… still looking for the answer.”
Amber held his gaze for a moment, seeming to look for something in his eyes. Then she smiled and let out a little laugh. “I get it. Just be careful. I enjoy hearing about your adventures and don’t want one to have a bad ending.”
Oliver chuckled. “Don’t worry. I’ll keep bringing you stories in person. This one is pretty good.”
“As touching as this little moment is,” Hank interrupted, “I’ve got your equipment right here.” He set a large black bag down on the counter and unzipped it to reveal an SLR camera, half a dozen lenses, and several zipper cases for memory cards, all nestled into padded compartments and secured with elastic straps. “Your special lens is still in there too, looks intact.”
Oliver zipped the bag shut and slung it over his shoulder. “Thanks, Hank. You put the cleaning on my tab?”
“Certainly. As much as it pains me to charge a friend, one must keep up appearances.” Hank winked at Oliver and pushed his spectacles higher on his nose. “Do I get to hear the story this time?”
Oliver nodded and took Amber’s arm, speaking as he turned away. “Sure thing Hank. Dinner down in Norfolk next weekend?”
“I’ll be there,” Hank called after them.
They strode out of the camera shop and made their way through the crowded mall to the parking garage, Amber filling Oliver in on all the happenings in her life since he had been away. He listened attentively, but couldn’t resist glancing at his camera bag every few seconds as they walked. Once in the garage, Amber broke away from him and led the way to a battered old hybrid Civic, fishing her keys out of her clutch bag as they walked. She unlocked the car and slid behind the wheel. Oliver tossed his backpack into the back, then dropped heavily into the passenger seat, setting his camera bag on the floor between his feet. They left the garage and pulled onto the busy streets.
“So when do I get to hear about your adventure?” Amber asked. “I only waited this long because I figured you wouldn’t want to tell me about it in public.”
“Just a minute. I need to check something first.”
Oliver reached down and rummaged through the equipment bag. He came up with a large black camera lens. He grasped the front and back of the lens gently and rotated, twisting the halves as if he were adjusting the zoom, but the barrel of the lens did not retract or extend. He continued twisting, first counter clockwise, then clockwise, then counterclockwise again. The lens grated as he turned it, as if there were grains of sand jammed in the gears. Then there was an audible clicking sound and the two halves of the lens split apart, revealing a chamber within.
Amber glanced away from the road to gawk at the device in Oliver’s hands. “What is that? Did Hank damage one of your lenses?”
Oliver grinned. “Nope. This is just something he cooked up for me a year or two ago. It looks like a normal medium range telephoto lens, but it’s actually a little combination lockbox.” He held up the two halves so she could peek into them. “It’d take a real thorough examination to tell that the barrel isn’t just jammed with grit. Even has a small pass-through fiber optic so you can see light through the scratched up glass, just in case someone holds it up to try and look through.”
“I suppose that’s where you keep all your treasures then,” Amber said.
Oliver nodded. “Yep. At least the ones small enough to send by mail, which this one happens to be.”
He upended the lockbox and dumped two clear plastic zipper bags out onto his lap.
The first bag contained what appeared to be a scrap of cloth covered in faded marks. Amber couldn’t tell if they were drawings or words, but the cloth was certainly ancient. The second bag contained a small piece of metal about the size of Oliver’s thumb.
Oliver picked up the metal piece and turned it slowly over and around between his fingers without removing it from the plastic bag. It was extraordinarily heavy for its size, crafted from some tarnished silvery metal that he had yet to identify, and so cold that it felt like a cube of ice between his fingers. The sides were decorated in an intricate scrollwork of engraved lines. Two sides were irregularly marked with protrusions and divots of different shapes and sizes. He squinted closely at it, trying to imagine how it might slot into the other pieces he had already collected and wondering, not for the first time, how many fragments might remain to be found. He had already collected five from various hiding places scattered across the globe. Of course, if the dark eyed man from the airplane was any indication, Oliver was not the only modern adventurer to discover this trail. For all he knew, one or more of the remaining fragments might have already been captured by a rival.
“Is that a part of the mechanism?” Amber asked. Her voice was suddenly serious, almost reverent. They had both learned of the device from her father’s research journals and it was on their shared adventure in Brazil that Oliver had collected his first fragment.
Oliver nodded. “Yes. It’s why I went to Iceland. I pieced together enough rumors and hints to find the cave where it was hidden. Had a hell of a time getting to it, but it was there.”
Amber let out a long breath. “Wow. Do you think you have enough to prove your theory yet?”
Oliver shook his head and slipped the metal piece back into the lockbox. He picked up the bag containing the scrap of cloth and briefly examined it, then returned it also. He put the two halves of the lockbox lens back together and gave the front a single counterclockwise twist before pushing the box, which once again appeared to be nothing more than a camera lens, back into his equipment bag.
“No. Maybe half of it,” he said. “But I’ve found enough that I’ve convinced myself that I’m not crazy.”
Amber nodded and fixed her gaze on the road ahead. They drove together in silence for a few minutes, both contemplating what Oliver had just shown her.
Ten years before, Oliver had been a promising young doctoral candidate making waves in the history department. He’d taken semesters abroad at Cambridge throughout his accelerated undergraduate career, had a strong reputation as a meticulous researcher during his graduate work, and even succeeded in gaining a reputation among the undergraduates as a passionate and entertaining lecturer during the first year of his doctoral research. Then, over the course of two semesters, it had all come crashing down.
Oliver stirred from his reverie and looked out the car window.
“Where are we going?” he asked. “I thought we were going back to your place for dinner with Tom and the details of my adventure.”
Amber grimaced. “We’ll go soon, but first I need to take you somewhere. To see someone.”
Oliver glared at his cousin. “Is this what I think it is?”
“Yes. And no. We are going to see him, but only because he has some business for you.”
Oliver groaned and slumped against the back of his seat, letting his head loll beside the headrest dramatically. “You know I don’t want to talk to him. It always ends in a fight.”
“That’s what you always say, but he really misses you. You haven’t even seen him for three years. Don’t you think it’s time to bury the hatchet and mend some bridges?”
“I’m pretty sure you’re mixing metaphors there, not to mention that a hatchet would probably be pretty useful when building a bridge.”
Amber flushed and reached over to whack Oliver’s knee with one hand while she kept the other steady on the steering wheel. “Don’t be petulant. It’s not my fault.”
“And you think it’s my fault? Come on, Amber. I tried to stay in academia but nobody would hire me. Not even the community colleges wanted anything to do with me once they called for references.”
“And why is that?” she interrupted.
“Because…” Oliver paused, trying to think of an excuse that didn’t sound hollow. “Because I was just following the truth where it led.”
Amber barked out a single laugh, then nearly choked trying to keep from laughing more. Oliver crossed his arms and sank lower in his seat, turning to look out the window at the landscape of rolling fields and oversized houses. He knew he was acting childish, but his fall from academic grace had been bad enough without his family refusing to support his decision.
A few minutes later Amber had herself under control. She glanced over at Oliver and said, “I’m not laughing at your theories, you big baby. That was one of the most ridiculous excuses I’ve heard from you yet. You weren’t a journalist tracking down government corruption who got too close to the source. You were a hotshot young academic who made a lot of enemies just by outshining them. Enemies who were more than happy to snuff you out when you started spouting crazy philosophies instead of focusing on your historical research.”
Oliver turned his head and glowered. “You just saw it Amber. How can you call what I’m looking for ‘crazy philosophies’ when you’ve seen part of it with your own eyes?”
“You’re being overly sensitive, darling. I only said that because it’s how everyone outside your small, and ever diminishing, club of supporters sees you.”
He sighed and nodded, but stayed slumped in the seat. “I know you’re right, Amber. Hell, I wondered if I was crazy for a while when all the kooky Internet people started glomming on to my work as evidence of their theories. But I’ve seen it! I know the mechanism is real and there must be some way of proving it to the world. And then…”
He trailed off. Partly because he had already said all of this to Amber before, and partly because he didn’t know what would come of his research. If Oliver was right about the relics he had been tracking down and assembling over the last decade, then he was also probably right about the global conspiracy that had disassembled the device and scattered it across the globe over three thousand years before. He hadn’t found any evidence that the Creed, as he called the cult that had scattered the device, still existed, but that didn’t mean he was safe from them. They might just be leaving him alone until it was more clear that he was a threat, and then… but he didn’t like to think of that. Down that path lay true paranoia.
“This might help,” Amber interrupted his thoughts.
“When your dad called last week, he said that he had been contacted by someone who needed help finding something special. Someone powerful enough that they might be able to help you find what you’re looking for.”
Oliver sneered. “Really? After all he’s said, he is willing to help me now?”
“He never said he wouldn’t. Just that you should back off making any public comments and refocus your research.”
“Refocus. Great word for throwing away the truth and caving to political pressure.”
Amber shook her head and didn’t reply.
Oliver returned to musing over the mechanism and his failed career as an academic. If only I never found uncle Bernard’s private research notes, or simply chose to not believe them.
A few minutes of silence passed between them until Oliver shook his head, sat upright in his seat, and sighed. “Alright. I’ll give him a chance.”
“That’s a good boy. Now stop pouting and tell me how you got that chunk of metal in Iceland.”
The Staff of Moses © 2022, Andrew Linke